Category Archives: Television

“Maid” is Compelling, Precise, and Inconsistent

“Maid” is a series I like, but that I feel I should love. Its strengths easily outnumber its weaknesses, but a few things hold it back. It’s anchored by Margaret Qualley as Alex, who takes her daughter Maddy and leaves her abusive boyfriend in the middle of the night. She has no plan or place to go. Since her boyfriend essentially controls her money, she has less than $20 to spend. It’s a desperate situation, handled at times with a realistic and horrifying tension.

Alex doesn’t have anyone to trust. All her friends knew her boyfriend first; he hasn’t let her lead her own life. Alex’s own mother has schizophrenia, struggles with untrustworthy boyfriends, and regularly forgets feeding and caring for Maddy when babysitting. Alex is alienated from her father, a cost sacrificed for him to make things work with his new family.

At its heart, “Maid” is a unique intersection of custody procedural, family drama, and what I like to call wallet horror. The first episode even keeps a running tab of the little money Alex has, subtracting bit by excruciating bit in the upper-right as she tries to find a job, feeds her daughter, and pays for gas a few dollars at a time. Anyone who’s ever lived in debt, close to zero balance, or paycheck to paycheck will recognize that awful running tally. The right-side of the screen it takes up may seem heavy-handed, but it is nothing compared to the amount of space it truly takes up in your head.

To its credit, “Maid” is careful to journey around the pitfalls of poverty porn. It avoids the exploitative eye that objectifies people in poverty simply to generate cheap catharsis for viewers. Qualley is given space to act, not as an icon or object of pity, but as a full, complex person.

“Maid” also treats emotional abuse seriously. While her boyfriend hasn’t hit her, he’s screamed at her, controlled her, and hit objects near her. It even takes Alex a few conversations to understand this is a form of domestic violence, even if the state she lives in doesn’t.

In its very best moments, “Maid” focuses on the horror of procedure. The systems in place to help domestic violence victims and people in poverty have been routinely gutted, sabotaged, and under-resourced. At a custody hearing, the dialogue between the commissioner and her boyfriend’s lawyer simply turns into the two saying “Legal legal legal” back and forth to each other. When a question Alex can recognize is asked of her, she’s already lost.

As she thumbs through a stack of documents she needs to fill out for that custody hearing, their official titles turn into “You’re a bad mom” and “Go fuck yourself”. There’s a stark truth to this experience, where so many fail without a chance just because they’ve missed a line on a form or didn’t get a signature. Alex takes the failures of the systems that are supposed to help and serve her, and internalizes them as her own failures.

She has to ready herself for a custody battle, apply for benefits, and work a job she has no car to drive to, sometimes all in the same hour. If she’s late to one, it’s held against her, despite those demands being physically impossible. She’s awash in catch-22s. She has to have a job to prove she needs the transitional housing that enables her to get a job. She has to spend more than she’ll make in a three-hour tryout for a job in order to stand a chance of getting it.

In its overwhelming horror of procedure and a host of metaphorical cutaways (she’s surrounded by a flurry of papers, she sees her daughter receding on a beach), “Maid” is powerful in both content and composition.

Let me be clear before I say this. For me, “Maid” is on the border between good and great. My criticisms aren’t about whether the series is good or bad. They’re about an element in “Maid” that’s noticeable and can be frustrating to some viewers:

What can sometimes unseat you from its rhythm are regular tonal inconsistencies. The first episode shovels a lot of happenstance onto the already-numbing horror Alex faces. It doesn’t really need it. The premise is already compelling, but then more happens. The series is based on a memoir by Stephanie Land. I have no clue whether extra events are added or not, or whether their time frame is condensed. Yet just like so many fictional stories can be made to feel natural, a real story can sometimes present details in a way that feels contrived.

There are so many tense moments in the first episode, “Dollar Store”. That wallet ticking down a few dollars at a time is a piece of existential dread. An impromptu job interview where Alex is essentially steamrolled is a beautiful example of the cost those in poverty can face to even get a few hours of work. A scene where Alex has to set foot in her boyfriend’s trailer again, his initially kind exterior slipping toward extracting guilt from her…there’s a sickening artistry in its unflinching precision.

This constant encroachment of tensions is where “Maid” excels. It evokes a sense of witnessing both physical and emotional realities, but in a hands-off way. Instead of telling you how to feel, it simply relies on your empathy to do the work as you watch.

This is all done superbly. Where’s the inconsistency come from? The problem is “Maid” also includes more dramatic moments and situational set-ups. Sitting right next to that deft storytelling that relies on your reaction are moments that feel like they visit from a much more dramatic adaptation.

All those building tensions are enough to send our mind reeling. By the time a car crash is added in, it doesn’t ratchet up the drama – it detracts from it. Maybe this is what really happened to Stephanie Land, in which case I’m not saying to change it. It’s not that the event doesn’t belong. The problem is that it’s handled in a way that redirects the slow and steady creep of becoming overwhelmed into something more recognizably cinematic and even melodramatic.

There are times when “Maid” presents a dramatic situation in a way that presses pause on its sense of subtlety, realism, and texture. It’s played more broadly and its sense of direction suddenly feels much more intentional. “Maid” handles the small moments like an understated character study, and some big moments like a 90s drama where characters enter and act to the nines.

Neither is done badly, and both approaches have their place. They’re just difficult to fuse together tonally. In these broader moments, there’s a loss of that very precise, nuanced, and intimately personal experience that “Maid” takes such care in building. It gets swept away, and because it’s a tone that is built scene upon scene, it can take some time to build back up to where we already were.

In those more personal spaces, we recognize how a little detail can break a person, how a frustration that might be ordinary on any other day presses on trauma because of what a person is going through. We’re witnesses of something in Alex she doesn’t let others see, that people in the world rarely let others see. You can’t just hop back into that sense right away; it does take time to build into again.

Nowhere is this more present than with Alex’s mother Paula. She’s played by Qualley’s own mother, Andie MacDowell. The relationship between the two is difficult, and one of the most intentionally frustrating elements of the show is how little Alex is heard by her mother. Her relationship to Paula is chiefly one of exchanges and leverage. Qualley and MacDowell’s ability to play off each other in a way that feels real and fraught is exceptional.

MacDowell has spoken about the role’s similarity to her relationship to her own mother, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and dealt with alcoholism. MacDowell does an incredible job, but at times it can feel like one that doesn’t sync up with the rest of “Maid”. She sweeps in from another genre, a 90s drama where everyone’s playing it big and MacDowell’s sure to be on an awards shortlist. This is no less true a portrayal; it’s just tailored to a different era of presentation.

Nor is this the only departure. Alex is required to go to a class where a man lectures women – many of whom are escaping domestic violence – about the stability of a two-parent home. It’s a searing point that’s an example of the systemic gaslighting of women, and this should easily hold on its own just like so many other points “Maid” makes straight-faced. Instead, he’s played like an “SNL” character. While this may add to our ability to laugh at him and it could be a moment of disempowering him in the face of a godawful act, it’s a gigantic tonal shift from everything else the series does.

I won’t get into it because it intersects with important plot points, but this sense of being thrust out of the show’s tone and reality holds most true for a subplot about stealing someone’s dog.

When these moments occur, they strain “Maid” in two different tonal directions. Sure, there are ways to use that strain in a metaphorical way, but “Maid” isn’t pursuing that kind of storytelling. It’s not some Charlie Kaufman directorial vehicle using genre dissonance-as-absurdism to step us out of the story itself. The strengths of “Maid” rely on precision within the story, a keen eye for detail, and translating criticism of systemic misogynist oppression into natural dialogue about lived experiences. “Maid” has a deep sense of its own earned knowledge and emotional realities, so when its tone suddenly shifts away from that reality into more traditional drama, it can require some conscious redirection and re-commitment on the part of the viewer.

This isn’t difficult, but it is noticeable. Moments like these don’t lack power. They don’t undermine “Maid”. They do feel consciously, intentionally situational on a series that’s fine-tuned for building tension, character, and emotional rhythm as one big flow state. When that flow state is interrupted, it’s not a big deal, but you do worry about whether you’ll sync back into it. It’s less a criticism of quality and more one of presence. “Maid” is exceptional and I absolutely recommend it. It just gets interrupted every once in a while. The interruptions are OK, but because the flow of what happened before was so precise, it’s difficult not to be especially conscious that those interruptions are there in the first place.

It’s the difference between a really good series and a great one. I’m not so sure that difference matters much, particularly when either assessment recognizes “Maid” is vitally important. Just be aware that viewers are going to fall on both sides of that good/great line, and a large part of that will be how well you take these tonal shifts in stride. This all makes “Maid” a strong choice if it’s on your radar, provided you’re in a safe and comfortable place to deal with its subject matter.

You can watch “Maid” on Netflix.

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You Really Should Be Watching “Nancy Drew”

Every time I saw an ad for the “Nancy Drew” TV series, I thought its aesthetic looked superb. The ongoing CW adaptation of the children’s mystery series takes the concept sideways into horror with an adult Nancy Drew. After the death of her mother, Drew’s put off going to college and works at a diner. One night, a socialite is murdered in the parking lot. This makes her and her coworkers suspects in what starts as a smart distillation of late 90s teen horror. More importantly, it sparks a series of hauntings in their town.

The idea that it couldn’t be very good got stuck in my head before I’d seen it, I’m not sure why. “Supernatural” was a lot of fun, but it rarely delivered on the horror promise of its pilot episode. “Riverdale” and Netflix’s closely related “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” can have some clever episodes, but the horror backdrop of these is regularly sabotaged in favor of unwieldy, badly paced, season-long arcs. I do like those shows, but they all have a certain navel-gazing element that can wear a viewer down quickly.

Still, I’m a sucker for an intriguing aesthetic. At long last, I started watching “Nancy Drew” and it’s delivering in all the ways those other shows failed.

Let’s back up a second – what exactly am I looking for out of a show like this? When I talk about “Supernatural”, “Riverdale”, or “Sabrina”, I’m not saying I dislike them. I’m saying they all promised horror, showed a capability for it, and then chased something else. “Supernatural” initially promised a focus on horror and solving mysteries, but it very quickly became a meta action-comedy centered on world-saving heroes who moonlighted as pest control for ghosts and whatnot. Horror trappings were still there, but more as homages and scenery to recognize along the way. It was always interesting and often funny, but being frightening was a rare exception.

“Riverdale” and “Sabrina” showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa has a rare talent for tapping into both the unsettling and reassuring elements within horror kitsch. He’s trailblazed a uniquely cinematic, unnervingly timeless style across both shows. There are standalone episodes in both series that belong among the best of the genre. Unfortunately, these are ultimately made to feel like diversions, trod under by larger plot arcs that feel uneven and unsupported. The superb world-building that establishes these universes is often undone by their larger arcs, where it turns out the hero knows everyone past and future already and the vast, mysterious, unpredictable world we were promised all turns out to be within walking distance.

I want one of these shows that plays with the kitsch and genre elements of horror to be frightening as well. I’d say “Evil” gets there, but as charming as the cast may be, it draws from a dire, harrowing, misanthropic side of horror that reflects a world decaying toward entropy. It’s an uncomfortable mirror that I highly recommend, but I’m not exactly going to describe it as a thrill ride.

That brings me back around to “Nancy Drew”, the show I’m disappointed “Supernatural” never became. There isn’t a shootout to be seen. Although both are filmed in British Columbia, gone is the Vancouver warehouse chic. Much like “Riverdale” and “Sabrina”, every location feels partly like an intentional set trapped in amber, but unlike those shows, they don’t feel like museum displays. It actually feels like people live here. There’s a distinct Stephen King vibe that’s appropriate for its coastal Maine setting, one that’s natural and precious, but also distinctly fragile.

“Nancy Drew” features very few murders for this type of show. Others are discovered along the way, but the first season of “Nancy Drew” focuses on the connection between only two murders. That’s even more focused of a season-long arc than any of the other shows I just criticized for their season-long arcs, but I don’t have a problem with that kind of storytelling. What I have a problem with is that kind of storytelling just being chucked into an A-plot/B-plot rotation. What I have a problem with is characters saying there’s no time to waste when the arc is an A-plot in one episode, and then wasting all their time when it’s a B-plot in the next. That rotation between standalone and arc cannot bleed into characters’ decision-making.

It’s a big part of why Kennedy McMann’s portrayal of Nancy Drew has become one of my favorite characters. If anything, the characters around her are regularly frustrated that she won’t let go of the plot arc. It needs to be solved, and she constantly excuses herself from life, work, expectations, and other cases in order to investigate. When a standalone element takes over, it’s because someone was kidnapped or there’s another impending murder to stop – delays that make sense.

One early sticking point is her boyfriend Nick wanting to prove a different murder case, but one that gets in the way of investigating the one she’s been after. There’s a right thing to do here, and she chooses wrongly. It’s intriguing and complex because there’s no easy out. Like any of these shows, the writing can occasionally deliver a revelation conveniently, but what’s unique to “Nancy Drew” is the interest in these no-win scenarios. It often becomes a show about not losing ground, mitigating damage, keeping an opportunity alive, or finding whatever the best trade-off is even if it isn’t fair. That can sound discouraging, but for all its affectations, that sense of getting through the moment so you can hit the ground running again feels very real and relevant.

It also clarifies Nancy’s laser focus not as a kind of exceptionalism, but rather as a survival mechanism. Her nose for mysteries led her to witnessing trauma as a child, she lost her mother, and she hasn’t trusted her father in a long time. Her character’s greatest strength as a tenacious investigator is never diminished or portrayed as a weakness, but there’s a surprising amount that underlies it and that the show seeks to understand.

The mystery writing here is also some of the best going. It’s difficult to stretch a mystery over the course of an entire season. Most shows end up forcing something to fit even if it’s obvious to an audience that it shouldn’t. Here, Nancy cycles through a different suspect each episode, gathering information until complications mount and the show can start unspooling more chaotic horror elements. There’s a sense of Nancy establishing a rhythm within the show that is repeatedly challenged and interrupted. As a storytelling pace, it serves as a perfect reflection of what her character is going through emotionally.

As the initially skeptical Nancy and her crew find out, hauntings usually arrive with a purpose. The ghost haunting Nancy is a murdered town parade queen from 20 years prior, Lucy Sable. The horror scenes often serve to isolate a moment when a clue is found or connected to another piece of information. This is a clever way to sear those clues into our heads and make us remember them as important, because these are the moments when we’re most attentive and our senses are heightened. That said, it would only work if the horror was done this well.

We’re not talking “The Ring” or “It Follows” level of feeling your blood suck into your core as if it’s trying to hide from your skin. Instead, it’s where I want this kind of series to land – an exciting chill of dread up your spine. Hitting that mark effectively and unexpectedly once or twice an episode and letting it sit there patiently is more than most horror shows seem to manage. Moreover, “Nancy Drew” isn’t about confronting these things aggressively; it’s about understanding why they’re there in the first place.

It’s great when you can shoot it and douse it in rock salt, but that makes ghosts about as scary as a henchman with sodium deficiency. What goes bump in the night is far more terrifying when you have to manage its escalation and risk your safety episode after episode, clawing your way slowly toward understanding why it’s acting out.

I mentioned Vancouver warehouse chic earlier and it wasn’t just a passing shot. I get it, TV in the 2000s had an unbridled passion for empty warehouses, but the reason I bring it up is because “Nancy Drew” doesn’t shift characters into “empty factory” or “abandoned hospital” or “the woods but with a blue filter” to represent other realms. Instead, it turns the sets we already know in on themselves, morphing a familiar house into a dream-horror web of stairs, or turning an apartment into a sinking ship. A lot of this is smoke and mirrors (sometimes literally), but there’s a real focus on ambitious and beautifully realized set design, practical effects, and those moments where a detail can speak volumes. Showrunner Melinda Hsu Taylor makes sure there’s nearly always something there for the actors to interact with in terms of being unsettled and displaced.

“Nancy Drew” also has some of the best staging and blocking in a series. It might seem inconsequential, but the most important hidden element in the direction of a show is good blocking. You could watch an entire episode on mute and still understand perfectly how the power dynamics between characters shift within each scene. Where characters stand in relation to each other, how they move through a scene, and how their relationship is visually depicted within a scene all feed into blocking. The shot choice in “Nancy Drew” feels built around how characters move through a space rather than that movement being built around the shot choice.

This lends a more organic feel for a show that balances layer upon layer of deceit and reveal, effective horror, a superbly written mystery, a character study, some well-implemented social commentary, and a healthy bit of kitsch and cheese. That’s too much to convey in a way that feels natural. The blocking and staging keeps the characters grounded in a way nothing else in the show does, and that gives each actor room to play off each other instead of just saying the lines on a mark.

This leads to characters moving a lot within scenes, which feels more cinematic and engaging, but also reflects the shifting power dynamics and the constant evolution of the mysteries themselves. Beyond that, every room and building seems to get an unnerving 12 hours a day of magic hour – seeing the characters move around as if they’re utterly familiar with these spaces makes them feel lived-in. That staves off the artificial, diorama effect certain other highly stylized shows in the same vein have suffered. This may all be happening in a small town with a lot of links, but it doesn’t feel as restrictive or suffocating to the viewer. Instead of worlds of possibility being limited to walking distance, the world of the small town they live in instead seems to constantly expand and encompass more possibility.

I won’t say it’s a perfect show – one or two brief ideas clunk – but it’s an intriguing, fun, and surprisingly complex one. “Nancy Drew” is the horror mystery I feel like I’ve been promised over and over again yet never turns up. It evokes that “just one more episode” feeling of needing to see what happens next and a love for how its characters react to it.

You can watch “Nancy Drew” on the CW app (which is free) or HBO Max.

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How “Leverage: Redemption” Dismantles the Original’s Leadership Mythology

“Leverage: Redemption” is a continuation of a 2008 series that followed a group of Robin Hood-esque criminals. Sick of causing harm, they band together in order to return what’s been stolen to the disempowered.

Both “Leverage: Redemption” and the original “Leverage” tell breezy heist stories that highlight real-world abuses and corruption. While they don’t go too in-depth into the mechanics of that corruption, they do often give a brief crash course on its impact. Usually this is done through a prior victim of that corruption seeking the Leverage team out.

If you’ve seen either iteration of “Leverage”, none of this is news. “Leverage: Redemption” picks up years after the original show with its cast mostly intact. Gina Bellman, Christian Kane, and Beth Riesgraf (having the time of her life) all return. So does Aldis Hodge as hacker Hardison, though he gives way to Aleyse Shannon playing his replacement Breanna. (Hodge’s film career has been taking off, most recently playing Jim Brown in “One Night in Miami”.) Noah Wyle joins as a new criminal-in-training, a lawyer who’s spent his lift protecting abusive corporations and people.

Not returning is Timothy Hutton, who played the former mastermind of the group – Hutton was accused in 2020 of raping a 14-year old in 1983. Hutton was 22 at the time. While the British Columbia Crown Counsel decided not to press charges last month, the initial report from BuzzFeed News included the statements of a woman who was with the victim that evening, and five people who confirmed the victim told them about the assault at that time. While there is no statute of limitations for this crime in Canada, the age of consent there at the time was 14. This means that statutory rape can’t legally apply. Instead, the case becomes about whether consent was given.

For one of the few series this deeply concerned with ethics and the abuses of power, Hutton had to be cast off. Frustratingly, Hutton’s last major project before this was reported was Julie Taymor’s biopic of journalist and feminist activist Gloria Steinem, “The Glorias”. His first major project afterward is ABC’s “Women of the Movement” centered on the activism of Mamie Till-Mobley, mother of Emmett Till. If only cancel culture really possessed the repercussions conservatives like to complain about.

“Leverage: Redemption” simply starts by acknowledging Hutton’s character Nathan Ford is no more. Since we last saw him, he died. Oh darn. His widow is Gina Bellman’s grifter Sophie. To shake her out of her funk, she’s offered the run of the Leverage team. Run a few cons, bring a few people to justice. What’s beautiful about “Leverage: Redemption” is that this is a world where it really is that simple, that straightforward. What’s apparent is that even in the “Leverage” world where it is that simple, it’s still getting worse and worse. Justice falls further and further behind.

“Leverage: Redemption” can’t cast off only Hutton’s Ford. It also has to cast off what Ford represented. The character was a genius, manipulating not just the corrupt people who were the team’s marks, but the members of his own team as well. He was often abusive, but this was excused because of his genius. The team wanted to impress him because they wanted his approval. That was a core part of the original “Leverage”.

You can’t simply replace him and act like that’s enough. The original “Leverage” concluded in 2012. The allegation against Hutton surfaced in 2020. There’s no way the cast and crew could have known about it while the original show was being made. Yet accountability isn’t just about intent. It’s also about impact. If “Leverage: Redemption” wants to be a show that genuinely embodies the ethic of the justice it pursues, it has to refute the meaning of Hutton’s place in “Leverage” as well. You have to refute that style of leadership entirely. So they do.

“Leverage” has always been about each member of the group presenting and combining ideas, but before it was under the direction of Hutton’s Nate Ford. It was a positive environment at times, but he would still quickly shut down someone’s idea. He would lie to his own team. He would play them off each other. He would keep everyone in losing positions in relation to him – he was the only one who knew the whole picture, often because he made it that way.

Now, Sophie is in charge of the cons. Wait a minute, though – at the end of “Leverage”, wasn’t Parker the one left in charge of the group? Didn’t they make a big deal in the last season about who would take over as the new mastermind? Well, Parker’s also still in charge here.

How does this work if both Sophie and Parker are in charge? Parker runs the Leverage organization, which now has teams doing this work around the world. She has final say on who’s in or out of the group, and what kind of chance they’ll have to prove themselves. Sophie is in charge of the team itself, running each con. These boundaries can obviously overlap in places, but Parker and Sophie check in with each other constantly.

Parker was one of the earliest positive representations of an autistic person in TV or film. She’s still one of the only ones. Rather than anyone trying to fix her, she’s not treated as broken in the first place. She’s supported and respected. She becomes the unquestioned leader of the team. It would’ve been horrible to retcon that. Instead, not only is her team successful, she’s grown the idea across the world and trained other teams.

This approach also avoids the only-one-woman-at-a-time trope. We have long approached women leaders, celebrities, politicians, and artists through a media lens of only one qualifying. If two women are successful in the same sphere, the media and critical industry often pit them against each other. If one is successful, the others measured against her must not be. Success can only be achieved by someone new once she topples an already successful woman.

This trope has been used to sustain a dangerous cultural norm. If there’s only one seat at the table for women, and they’re made to compete and drag each other down for it, then the only challenges taking place are for that seat. There are no challenges – and there is no focus – that there should be more seats at the table to start. It is clear here, especially coming off the original “Leverage”, that Parker and Sophie each have a seat and they each legitimize this for the other.

There’s a pretty famous corollary to this in the real world. Just look at The Squad. Largely, the group of congresspeople is most recognized as Reps. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayana Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib. Working together since 2019 has allowed them to each platform and legitimize the others’ voices. Pitting them against each other in media narratives hasn’t gained any traction because they constantly legitimize each others’ voices and positions. Even when they disagree, they argue for why each others’ positions are qualified and well-reasoned. (Reps. Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush joined The Squad this year as congresspeople who assumed office in 2021.)

Leadership in “Leverage: Redemption” follows intersectional feminist theories of leadership that prioritize collaboration, the sharing of decision-making, and the importance of understanding the perspectives of everyone involved. There’s no mastermind now; there are several qualified people who each bring strengths and weaknesses.

Far more than the original show, “Leverage: Redemption” asks team members to understand a place where they’re biased or making a risky decision. Other team members walk them through an aspect of what they aren’t seeing, and offer alternatives that rely less on the area where they’re biased or unqualified.

The original “Leverage” had those episodes where a team member was too close to a con, or identified too much with a victim – episodes where they lost perspective. Hell, significant arcs revolved around Ford’s own alcohol abuse and need for vengeance. Team members who weren’t Ford were expected to overcome their emotional involvement and get the job done. They were chastised for the occasional mistake, or frozen out as a punishment. In “Leverage: Redemption”, they’re expected to talk about it and listen to someone with different experiences. They’re expected to do the work of understanding how they came to their mistake in the first place.

When someone makes a mistake or fails, they’re not snapped at or made to feel disappointed in themselves. They’re told how others around them have failed in the past, asked to understand the nature of their mistake, and given an expectation not to repeat it. One is being scolded into fear of making a mistake, the other is a community giving you support by teaching you how to avoid it.

In the last episode of this first season of “Leverage: Redemption”, Ford’s leadership style is confronted. Don’t worry; Hutton is not brought back in any way. The way it’s done both respects the character’s place in series lore, while also making clear that his leadership could have a scarring effect. We already see a better, healthier alternative for it displayed by Parker and Sophie.

None of “Leverage” or “Leverage: Redemption” is particularly believable in terms of how a heist plays out. The show is built on cons that escalate into parallel action, wacky hijinks, and flashback reveals. “Leverage: Redemption” chooses to be fun above all else. A fun show can still make a point. A fun show still has responsibilities. There’s no magic of exceptionalism here, where one super genius can play his team like puppets when he wants. Instead, there are people who communicate, who share leadership, and who build a community.

The original “Leverage” was about a team against the world, just trying to do the right thing, but its form of leadership through exceptionalism mythology is such a large part of what feeds the world being so hijacked by corruption in the first place. Understanding this, both in our world and through Hutton’s involvement in the prior series, “Leverage: Redemption” does the work of understanding how it got here. It’s one of the only shows I’ve ever seen re-craft itself around accountability for something that – while out of its control – still had an impact.

“Leverage: Redemption” is about a team trying to change the world so that it does the right thing, which isn’t all that different…but its form of leadership offers a part of the solution that was never present in the original “Leverage”. It dismisses exceptionalism mythology and again and again offers examples of community – that lessons and expectations are built from storytelling, communicating and experience. It describes that leadership can’t truly be practiced from one perspective in the way “Leverage” was built around Ford. Leadership can only see from multiple perspectives when it’s shared and accountable. It recognizes that the very notion of a hero is itself an iconography that helps no one when anyone can make a difference, and that the primary way to empower a community is to reinforce and expand what enables it to be a community in the first place. Leaders are vessels for a community, not masterminds.

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The Sorcerer Detective We Need — “Trese”

As I started watching “Trese”, I immediately became worried. It paints its world broadly. The titular Trese tells us who she is a few times in a row in case we missed it. The animation obviously doesn’t have the largest budget. The supernatural “case a week” genre feels overdone by this point. Then Trese steps on the gas. Literally, at one point.

The minute the action happens it all starts to click. Disparate elements fall into place smoothly. Alexandra Trese cuts through monsters from the underworld at lightning pace, but not in a flashy, overstated way. She can take advantage of various magical powers and spells, but each of these is limited. It usually comes down to her and a knife that can harm monsters out of Filipino legend and myth.

Trese is a lakan for humanity, a leader and sorcerer tasked with maintaining peace between humans and a hidden underworld of mythological creatures. She alternates between investigating cases and kicking ass. She has a host of supernatural contacts, some explained and some not. One exchanges information for candy and, perhaps, simply because it’s fun. Others mix information with misinformation. Some respect an old balance between humans and underworld clans that Trese is solely empowered to maintain. Some seek to overthrow those agreements.

Neither is Trese a desperate vigilante. She follows a set of rules agreed upon between a council of underworld leaders. Some trust her, some fear her, some are simply betting for or against her. Many don’t like that she wields such power, or that she’s the one who’s upholding the balance after the death of her father.

She doesn’t protect humanity without question, though. A police friend often calls her in on supernatural cases, but corrupt officials and police are as much of an obstacle for her as any monster from the underworld.

Let’s go back to that action for a second. “Trese” takes advantage of its budget limitations. The whole thing feels animated on the off-beats, in other words at 12 frames-per-second in a style that values the intimation of movement over actual movement. It’s hard to get right. We’ve seen this recently in a big-budget animated film like “Into the Spider-Verse”, but the way “Trese” does it is reminiscent of one of the only animated projects even more hallowed: “Batman: The Animated Series”.

The more obvious comparison that every show like this gets might be “Supernatural”, but “Trese” is pretty far afield from that. Trese is a detective at work, hard-nosed and extremely serious, and the series leans far more into a noir-horror atmosphere. It’s also about the work of doing the job at hand; there’s almost no interpersonal drama. That Filipino myths haven’t really been featured in storytelling that’s made it to the U.S. also helps “Trese” feel unique to a viewer like me.

That’s about more than something simply coming from a foreign place. Horror often draws on myth that’s been built and retold for hundreds of years. American horror only has a few hundred years to draw on. During most of that time, it’s relied on racism, misogyny, ableism, and classism. As it’s forced to rely on those themes less and less, there’s really not much of a historical well left to draw from.

Horror from the U.S. goes a few different directions at this point. To do anything else, it needs to start inventing horror out of religious concerns, or more often co-opts horror from indigenous or exterior cultures in a way that often misunderstands it and strips it of the context that makes it frightening and meaningful. When horror from the U.S. is successful, it’s very often a meta commentary that corrects or critiques a past failure of American horror – think “You’re Next” and its inversion of the home invasion horror, or “It Follows” and how effectively it toys with sexual awakening horror.

It’s not just that Filipino folklore feels unique and different because we haven’t been exposed to it much here. It’s also that it feels different in “Trese” because it’s being told by Filipino creators and actors in a Filipino world that keeps the context of all that folklore intact. It hasn’t been adapted and stripped of what makes it unique. That is something we’re not very used to getting in the U.S.

I want to stress it’s not the style and content that remind me of “Batman: The Animated Series”. It’s the fights and pacing that do. “Trese” follows a solid pace of: she meets with her police contact, picks up the case, gathers evidence, follows a lead, talks to an informant, connects evidence to that information, tracks down where she needs to be, prepares for shit to go down, chaos ensues. That is, to a tee, the pace of any Batman-centered episode of “Batman: The Animated Series”.

That’s not really unique to those two series. A lot of series do this. What’s unique to them is that they both do it so well. It’s difficult to pull off because it’s a very streamlined approach. It requires the central character to be a complete and consistent anchor for a viewer’s trust. It also means that every interview with an informant or witness needs to be unexpected and tense. That requires an absolutely elite rogues gallery of unexpected characters and spaces in which to meet them. “Trese” has that in spades.

The setting needs to drip with so much atmosphere that you develop a sense for what you might see, hear, and feel off-screen. “Trese” can be a little inconsistent on this element at the beginning of some episodes, but the more she has to leave the mundane behind, it escalates into some superbly intriguing places.

The other part of this is that every time the chaos starts, there has to be something so strange and unexpected that it suspends your disbelief that the hero can handle it. Sometimes they don’t, and the solution is just as unexpected as the problem. Sometimes the hero is just a witness, the clean-up, a second too late in understanding something key. Someone gets away. A villain can only be warned, not stopped.

This adherence to story progression at a certain pace might seem strict, but it necessitates so much creativity within those strict spaces. You know the shape of the storytelling space every single time. What you don’t know is what’s going to be inside it. That carries its own intrigue and anticipation. You know how the story’s going to go, you probably know who’ll be standing at the end, but you don’t know everything you’ll see along the way, or what more you’ll understand about the world by that point.

“Trese” isn’t without flaws. The larger story arc to the season itself can slow down when an explanation is at hand, but it’s bolstered by a series of flashbacks strung as episode prologues through most of the season. This history builds Trese as a character for us, and into one of my favorite characters going in a series right now. Those flashbacks shape the larger arc, but they also shape our understanding of Trese, the accords she protects, the people around her, and the world we’re stepping into.

I mentioned at the beginning that the writing is often broad. Dialogue can feel generic in places. I think it works for the most part because we’re hearing those familiar phrases between characters such as a horselike god who disguises himself as a car and a sorcerer detective who kickboxes ghouls. The broadness of the dialogue is noticeable at times, but it also does a lot to ground us in the middle of so many other elements that are unfamiliar.

The more intimate fight scenes play best – a fight in a warehouse or restaurant, stalking through an abandoned studio. The larger a fight gets, the more it can get away from Trese as our anchor within it. This starts to involve powerful creatures and magic spells more, which is exciting but also feels more ordinary in a superhero-saturated market. It’s those more personal conflicts in tighter spaces that really escalate characters’ motives, talents, and tactics.

“Trese” is a good series. I don’t know if it’s a great series, but it’s great at all the things I want a series like this to do. Where it falters, it has enough built up around it to carry that moment through and still make it matter. I never felt my investment in these characters waning, and I was always engrossed in the world it depicts. In particular, Trese as a character quickly goes from a no-nonsense private eye archetype into being one of the more believably complex leads I’ve seen in an animation – not because she changes, but because the series catches us up with her complicated history.

One tip when you watch it: don’t skip the intro. The opening credits are genius. They house you within the show’s mood immediately. The visuals and music are fused perfectly. The opening carries both a sense of threat and enigmatic beauty that got me settled in the exact mindset I wanted to be in to enjoy each episode. I watched the opening credits every time, and I’m glad I did.

“Trese” is both ambitious and imperfect. It can take a minute to understand and sync into its pace and animation style. Once it gets going, though, it is beautifully unique and exciting.

Just as importantly, it fixes a problem in the genre. Many supernatural shows like this have worlds that are wishy-washy and fungible and chiefly exist to bring out the characters’ charm and wit, which in turn can make thin characters who feel less consistent over time.

“Trese” is a story that’s fully intact with its world, and grounded to Trese’s experiences. It’s not piecemeal, and for how structured it is, it doesn’t feel episodic. Instead, it feels like visits to a place, like uncovering a story as you read more, anticipating the next chapter. It asks us to learn about it as we go, which is what a supernatural show housed in mystery should do. Moments should be awe-inspiring, profound, intimidating, and Trese’s knowledge about these things should be impressive. The answers aren’t readily served to us, they’re caught up with – sometimes before we fully understand them. That’s the kind of exciting supernatural show I want, and that’s what “Trese” does best over its six half-hour episodes.

You can watch “Trese” on Netflix.

A Study in Distractions — “Yasuke”

“Yasuke” is based on an African man who came to Japan with Jesuit traders. His circumstances and position are unclear, and the show refers to him as a “servant” at this point. Once in Japan, he entered the service of legendary warlord Nobunaga, and became a samurai. That’s about where the anime’s historical accuracy ends.

This isn’t necessarily a problem – the series dives into a fantasy battle from the opening scene. Giant robots lay waste to soldiers as sorcerers conjure devastating attacks in response. It lets you know that “Yasuke” isn’t really going to be recounting history.

Most of “Yasuke” takes place after Yasuke himself has gone into hiding. It’s 20 years later and he’s known as the “Black boatman”. He takes people up and down the river and fishes along the way. Traumatized by his time in battle, he spends his free time drinking or sleeping. He’s charged with taking a girl upriver to see a doctor. Needless to say, things go haywire from there.

The problem with the show rests in its world-building. There’s an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to incorporating anime cliches. That’s fun at first, but becomes increasingly overwhelming and distracting. It’s a six episode series and outside of two fight scenes, Yasuke himself has nothing to do outside of drink or be tortured for the first three episodes.

For a show ostensibly created to celebrate a Black samurai, it feels frustrating. He certainly wasn’t the only Black person in Japan at the time, but he’s the only one we know of who broke through its considerable racism and achieved such high social status in a very hierarchical military culture. In those first three episodes, we get flashbacks where Yasuke trains, fights, and discusses honor and loyalty. Those flashbacks are great. The storyline that takes place in the present, however, mostly sees him drink and get tortured.

There may’ve been more for him to do, but the show is too intent on shoveling in trope after trope that don’t have to do with him. Like I said, it’s fun to recognize them at first. Yet none of them are contextualized or even very consistent. You see, the Mongols invaded Japan using giant robots, forcing Japan to adopt the tech as their own to defend themselves, except giant robots are sometimes magical constructs and sometimes technological ones, and sometimes mecha operated by a pilot and sometimes not, and who knows which and does any of it matter because I’m not sure even the show knows.

And then there’s a werewolf, and then there’s an African sorcerer, and then there’s a wise-cracking robot, and then there’s a woman with a scythe who’s maybe a mecha pilot one time in the fifth episode, and then they work for an agent of the Catholic Church who’s a mutant with biomass powers but he also has electric powers and oh! he can also can turn his mouth into that series of teeth that the worms from “Dune” have, and then the Daimyo is an evil psychic spider, and then there’s a Dark Samurai infused with powers that do something, but he glows purple real well, and then there’s astral projection, and then, and then, and then.

With each new “and then”, I got excited about how brimming the world was with the intersections of all these things, until I realized none really mattered. None were ever filled in. Their presence in the world isn’t given reason. They’re all present, for no particular reason. The voice cast does a good job with these characters, but the writing needed to have fewer of them or provide them more substance.

The series details Yasuke’s past in beautiful ways for three episodes, and LaKeith Stanfield does some great work as a young, idealistic Yasuke and a burnt out, traumatized older one. There are nuances of the character that carry through, but a worldview that’s been damaged. It’s a good thing Stanfield does this level of work, because the rest of the show doesn’t. It weaves his story in the present in such a way that sidelines Yasuke in exchange for world-building. That’s fine, but then that world-building doesn’t mean anything. Nothing is shaped out of it. It’s good for a few meta one-liners, but many of them fall flat and they aren’t central enough to build into something larger. We’ve traded Yasuke and his story for a pile-on of elements the show never treats as very important.

For the first three episodes, “Yasuke” relies on balancing his arc in the past against his arc in the present, without ever giving him an arc in the present beyond getting drunk and being tortured. It hardly feels like a celebration or recognition of him, but even if these aren’t what we’re looking for, what is given us feels needlessly counter-productive and cruel.

The last three episodes leave the flashbacks behind and progress the current story. Here, Yasuke has considerably more agency and the show capitalizes on those flashbacks in some resonant ways. I really wish the series had found a way to focus on the flashbacks from the first three episodes, and the present-tense storyline from the last three episodes, with all that wasted time in the first three episodes cut down.

But it’s an action anime, I’m taking it too seriously? Sure, but the lack of context and consistency saturates the action scenes. Let’s take the good first: the sword fights themselves are stylish and communicate in a way that makes following them feel easy. We can watch Yasuke fight, dodge, counter, and then follow the movement of his sword all the way through to someone’s head being chopped off, the camera spinning around the world in relation. There’s a groundedness and great sense of choreography – particularly for what anime enables our POV to follow in a cogent way.

Then comes the robot. The fight and chase scenes he’s involved in have very little geography. Characters fly around in ways that completely lose the viewer’s sense of direction and strategy. If we can’t follow what the pursued and pursuing are thinking and why they take a certain action, then it doesn’t matter how many energy blasts you’ve got, the scene lacks consequence. Of course, anime has a long history of abstracting fight scenes so that geography disappears altogether, and this can be really striking – but this doesn’t describe the approach here. Instead, these are grounded fights and chases – they just aren’t done well.

This also expands into the battle scenes, where landscape and geographical features are only included once they’re needed for a plot point. You’re ambushing from the forest? I guess there was a convenient forest on both sides of their army the whole time, OK. You’re blasting through a chunk of mountain to bring an army in? OK, so there was mountain there the whole time, I guess. The more elements a fight, chase, or battle includes, the more the sense of “and then, and then, and then” takes over.

Many may show up for the music, and it is by far the show’s standout strength. The electronic/hip hop artist Flying Lotus designs an expressive landscape of yearning synths and soft yet driving drum hits. There are moments that are reminiscent of Vangelis’s work in “Blade Runner”, but Flying Lotus also shifts easily into a unique blend of hauntology, hip hop, and Japanese instrumentation that often rises toward heroic darkwave themes for the fights. There are even clever synth callbacks to Ennio Morricone in moments of stand-off and rising tension. I don’t know how much I’d recommend the show, but the score has an argument as one of the best ever made for a series. It does so much heavy lifting that I think it kept the show’s emotion alive for me after the rest of it had already burned through my patience.

The animation is a mixed bag because it’s often sabotaged by editing decisions. Japanese studio MAPPA do some really detailed work, with early backgrounds of Yasuke’s village standing out as beautiful. The presentations of astral projection and sorcery are well done, with a sense of impact and consequence. There are some towering moments of otherworldly weirdness with the show’s big bad.

That brings us to the robots/constructs/mecha, which can be impressive when they’re actually shown in relation to characters, but are often isolated to their own shots that don’t relate to the battle, fight, or chase scene at hand. I don’t mean to double down on criticizing the robot element here – I was excited at its inclusion at first – but the show never defines any element of how they function or intersect in a fight, while relying on them in half the fights. Worse yet, it leans on cutting to them in isolation or in a completely different area. They’re not linked up to an element of the action scene where the viewer is already anchored, so whatever they do ends up being confusing until one of the characters notices, ‘oh hey, they just did xyz’ or you catch up and just figure it yourself. There’s a reason the trailers avoid showing most of the sci-fi elements: they just don’t work.

Character designs can feel like they come from different eras, which should be a strength but can also stress the sense of wanting more context and world-building from all the different elements crammed together. There are also a few times scenes feel missing, where a character just Hudson Hawks from one place in one scene into a completely different place in the next without the interstitial scripting that connects them.

Would I recommend “Yasuke”? I’m fifty-fifty. The symbolism’s strong in a lot of moments. Then it gets distracted by one-liners, many of which don’t work or are overly familiar. The flashback story of the first three episodes is strong, with a genuine sense of character and texture that made me want to see this element expanded. The last three episodes feel a bit rushed and could have supported more meat to this part of the story, but they’re overall good.

On the other hand, that sense of being rushed only makes me more frustrated with all the wasted time in the present-tense story of the first three episodes. Even as the show got more consistent in its final episodes, I felt like my patience had already been wasted. I wasn’t sure if I was finishing the show because I wanted to see what happened, or because I’d already invested an hour-and-a-half and figured I may as well finish the last hour-and-a-half. I’m glad I finished it, but its early misfires also made me bristle any time I felt the series was getting distracted or focusing on unexplained, throwaway characters again.

The everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach isn’t a bad one. I’ve enjoyed it in series and movies that are far worse than this, so why didn’t I enjoy it here? If I’ve defended “Vagrant Queen” or “Flash Gordon”, how can I possibly criticize something that is more artful and substantive like “Yasuke”? Those may be worse, but they didn’t lose the thread of their stories or characters. They didn’t sideline their stories and characters in ways that wasted viewers’ time.

“Yasuke” doesn’t ground the huge range of elements it wants to throw in, it just keeps throwing more in. Neither does it pursue something abstracted, surreal, or meta enough to use these elements as texture on which you can imprint larger meanings. There are a lot of anime series that handle such a wide range of elements in more directed ways than this. They may not always have the elements of social consciousness that “Yasuke” has, but even when “Yasuke” brings them up, it can’t focus on them very long when a robot needs to deliver a one-liner you’ve heard 20 times before. At the same time, it’s not like there are many anime series entrusted to Black creators like LeSean Thomas, and that representation gives the series an off-the-screen importance that other shows lack.

“Yasuke” has good characters, some good action, and phenomenal music, but with incredibly inconsistent and distracted storytelling. Countless elements are thrown in, a lot of them with writing that doesn’t hold up to the standard of the writing of the main characters. There’s no sense of consistency to the things that establish consequence. Some scenes arrive without context, powers are all over the place, and even the features and geography of a battle will change as the plot suddenly requires the landscape to be different for something new to happen. Moderate distances are too great to travel one minute, while great distances are then traversed in no time when the series realizes it only has 30 minutes to wrap things up.

None of this is enough to topple “Yasuke”, which is borderline shocking and speaks to how good certain elements like the music, acting, and much of the animation are. Yet the series never feels very steady either. There’s a story here that it wants to tell, and that’s fun to see, but there are so many distractions and excesses that it feels like Thomas is often more interested in these than in the core plot and hero…and that risks us following the storyteller’s lead and becoming less interested in the plot and hero, too. All that we’re left with is those distractions, which aren’t going to hold our attention. When the show finally does get more interested in Yasuke, his agency, and his story, I couldn’t feel comfortable putting that initial trust and emotional investment back into it all.

You can watch “Yasuke” on Netflix.

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“The Nevers”, Joss Whedon, and Who Controls Meaning

The biggest element of “The Nevers” you should know is that the show was developed and showrun by Joss Whedon. Given the multitude of disturbing allegations regarding racism, misogyny, and abuse that have surfaced about him, it will hopefully be his last. The creator of “Buffy: The Vampire Slayer” and “Firefly” stepped away from “The Nevers” late last year, citing exhaustion. Given the timing as these allegations started mounting, it’s likely his departure wasn’t by choice. He was replaced by writer-producer Philippa Goslett as showrunner for subsequent seasons, but it was after a large amount of work on the first season had already been completed.

HBO series “The Nevers” follows heroine Amalia True and inventor Penance Adair. They run an orphanage for those who have been “touched” – granted a range of superhuman abilities. True can see glimpses of the future, for instance, Adair can see ways that electricity might be manipulated in her inventions. One of the girls at their orphanage is a giant; another they rescue can speak multiple languages but can’t control when. It’s all a bit 1890s London X-Men, but focused on women’s equality.

It’s unfortunate then that Whedon is the one who developed the show. Joshua Rivera tackled this well over at Polygon, describing “The Nevers” as a retread of Joss Whedon obsessions. Laura Donnelly’s True is the best martial artist around but struggles with inner vulnerability and suicidal tendencies. Rivera mentions Buffy, Faith, River Tam, and Echo from “Buffy”, “Angel”, “Firefly”, and “Dollhouse” as comparisons. I’d also add what Whedon did to Black Widow in “Avengers: Age of Ultron”. But this is just the gateway to the full retinue of Whedon tropes “The Nevers” suffers.

I’ve already mentioned Ann Skelly’s Penance Adair – the awkard, genius, geeky confidant with a talent for research and coming up with deus ex machinas for tough scrapes. Think here of Willow from “Buffy”, Fred from “Angel”, Simon Tam from “Firefly”, or Claire Saunders from “Dollhouse”.

Don’t forget the stoic, fatherly, socially misplaced male figures who care for them and insist they should slow down and be less aggressive. That’s Rupert Giles, Wesley, Simon Tam doing double-duty, Shepherd Book, the “Dollhouse” parental-figure-of-the-week set-up. Welcome Zackary Momoh as Dr. Horatio Cousens.

The male romantic interest is a loose cannon whose history of sociopathic tendencies, shortness of empathy, and lack of reliability must be understood and dismissed in order for him to be tamed. That’s Angel, Riley, Spike, much as I love him Captain Mal. To a large extent, that’s Jayne as well – just without the romantic-interest side of things. “The Nevers” gives us James Norton as sex addict Lord Hugo Swan.

And yes, I understand that for vampires in the Buffy-verse, this archetype is usually a case of not having their soul while committing mass atrocities, but isn’t that what we hear time and again from men who’ve been exposed for bigotry, sexual assault, and abuse – “That’s not who I am”. Hell, isn’t “Dollhouse” about people who act as others – often violently – who then set it aside as a personality that isn’t their own? This might be the core Whedonism of them all, but learning that it’s core to Whedon himself can’t help but change our view of that trope.

Not to be forgotten, there’s also the awkward-but-lovable, largely innocuous male friend (Xander, Lorne, Wash, Simon Tam pulling triple-duty). Tom Riley is Augie in “The Nevers”. He’s Swan’s painfully shy best friend, whose abrupt insensitivity to the two women leads is presented as a feature of being too sensitive. What?

Oh, and if you can also squeeze a fetishized, make-believe interpretation of severe mental illness for a woman who’s clearly been victimized but who can’t communicate it to the outside world, you’ve got Whedon bingo. Think Drusilla, River Tam, Echo. This might be Whedon’s most insidious trope – the woman who has suffered trauma, and who most around her dismiss because she can’t communicate it. If anything else here can be understood as a potential projection of Whedon’s, this is the most frightening. For that matter, think of every leading woman on “Angel”, from Cordelia’s sudden death to the horrific possession and replacement of Fred by Illyria. Here, it’s Amy Manson’s Maladie.

If you want to think of the other half of what “Dollhouse” is about, this is it: people who are abused, over and over again, made to dismiss or forget what’s happened to them, powerless to communicate it, and trying to figure out how to do so in a coded way. In the wake of realizations about Joss Whedon, many of the tropes we call Whedonisms suddenly play out much differently. Few play out so terrifyingly.

The cast of “The Nevers” is charming, and that’s without mentioning Olivia Williams as True and Adair’s benefactor Lavinia. It goes without bringing up Pip Torrens’s blink-and-he’s-Hugh-Laurie turn as villain Lord Massen, Nick Frost’s double-crossing Beggar King, or Ben Chaplin’s growling Detective Mundi.

Yet the casts from all these shows have been charming. That shouldn’t make it easier to come to terms with “The Nevers”.

I still find a great deal to love in all these shows. I know where I took value from them, or where they did in fact challenge a pre-conception I had growing up in the 90s and becoming an adult in the 00s. Some of those shows did make progress. They did confront old problems, even if they brought up new ones. They did mean something, and that meaning wasn’t necessarily a lie. At the same time, I have a new awareness that contributes to my understanding of them, an awareness it would be irresponsible to view these shows without.

None of this is to say we should hate these characters. I love many of them. To me, it’s important to remember that Whedon didn’t realize them alone. Buffy is a creation of Sarah Michelle Gellar, Kristy Swanson before her, of countless writers and directors who contributed to the character, and yes – of Joss Whedon. He is one of the most primary voices in every character of these shows, but he is not the only primary voice creating them.

Do we reject these shows and characters outright? As fans, do we have the ability to transfer mass understanding of their ownership and creative control to, say, Sarah Michelle Gellar? Do we understand her as the person who tells us who Buffy is now? Is it more productive to reject the characters and meanings of those shows, or to seize them and decide their meaning ourselves? Is what’s productive the same as what’s right?

I don’t know the answers to this. We are grappling with these questions across the board. It’s not the first time this has happened either – Harry Potter fans grapple with the role the franchise had in their own youth, even as they pry their understanding of it away from author J.K. Rowling and her anti-trans bigotry. Maybe it’s possible to still value what Harry Potter contributed while rejecting Rowling herself.

On the other hand, what Bill Cosby did amounted to a complete cultural rejection of “The Cosby Show”. Some people will say “turn it up” when a Michael Jackson song comes on; others will say “turn it off”. And yes, there is a racial double-standard at play here – how many white musicians are never held accountable for this? Pick your decade – Elvis, Jimmy Page, Stephen Tyler, and Anthony Kiedis all committed statutory rape. Where is our rage against them?

It’s made more difficult when the creations we’re talking about are less the product of a single person. Can you still watch the original “X-Men” movies because Patrick Stewart has worked so hard on domestic violence causes and is himself a survivor of child abuse, and because Ian McKellen has for so long been an icon for LGBTQ representation? Or should we avoid them because director Bryan Singer has been accused multiple times of statutory rape?

How do we weight those different elements? I don’t think I can tell someone who watches because Stewart or McKellen mean so much to them that they shouldn’t. I certainly can’t tell someone who won’t watch because of Singer’s behavior that they should. What I do know is that the conversation around them is deeply necessary. Above all, if we choose to watch, we can’t do so in ignorance. We can’t cut out the problematic element from it and act like it’s not there when it’s still fundamental to what we’re watching.

You can judge any show on its own qualities. Yet when so many of those qualities are informed by the well-established tendencies and projections of an abusive creator, you cannot pretend those qualities are isolated from him instead of informed by him.

Despite a litany of problems in “The Nevers” that arise from both this and from technical quarters (the show often looks like a 90s TV mini-series, and not in a good way), I’m debating whether I’ll still watch in the hope that it will get better. I wouldn’t consider this if Whedon was still on the show. If he was coming back, no chance. Given that he’s been replaced, I may give “The Nevers” a shot in the hope – perhaps misplaced – that what’s most Whedonesque about it will wash off as it goes. Then again, maybe the point is that it can’t.

Whatever it may be, whether this, Harry Potter, X-Men, countless other projects…I think it sends us all through a messy loop of thoughts. Perhaps I’m just making an excuse for watching something I’d like to see improve. Perhaps it’s an attempt to take a kind of control back from what feels like a betrayal. Or maybe that’s just an easy way to justify the cognitive dissonance of watching a show Whedon developed. Am I even hoping for the show to become good, or is there some part of me that would be even more satisfied seeing Whedon’s last work become a full-blown disaster? Do I want the show to succeed without Whedon, or fail because of him? Doesn’t thinking that way assign it as his, and disempower the cast and crew that also made it? Is it useful for me as a critic to analyze Whedon’s tendencies through what is hopefully his last show? Can that inform us in a way that helps, or is it just angrily chasing down a rabbit hole? Is there part of me that’s hiding behind the excuse of being a critic because I want to watch it? I do hope I’ll get to see the show reject these elements over time, and grow away from Whedon’s influence. How satisfying would that be? But it’s just as likely the show doubles down on what are now industry tropes even under a new showrunner.

If I watch this, is it one last place where Whedon gets to control meaning in a harmful way, or is it one more place where we get to take control of that meaning so that he can’t have it? I really wish I knew which it was.

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A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Robots — “Pacific Rim: The Black”

The second article I ever wrote on this site was called “Giant Monsters Gently Pluck My Heartstrings”. It was about Guillermo Del Toro’s most misunderstood film: “Pacific Rim”. It’s just giant robots and monsters beating each other up, right? Pretty colors, fun explosions, Idris Elba monologues. It’s like a “Transformers” movie where you can actually see what’s happening and leave without a headache. That doesn’t mean it has any real depth, yeah?

“Pacific Rim” as a franchise isn’t about the robots or the monsters, though. They’re incidental – a very fun incidental – but they’re a means to an end. Every Guillermo Del Toro monster is a metaphor for something far more consequential, and every means to fight it or understand it speaks to us about human nature. Yet every time, without fail – the one film we forget this about is “Pacific Rim”.

At its very best moments, “Pacific Rim” is about the Drift: the process where two people share memories in order to pilot the giant robots known as jaegers. “Pacific Rim” is about one thing before all others: two people coping with trauma and loss who find themselves in a sudden relationship to each other where neither can hide. To function, to do all that battling, to rise up and help others, they need to find a way to understand and communicate their trauma to each other. And let me tell you, these days this franchise and that idea feel fresher than they did when the film came out in 2013.

In the original movie, this loss is even explored across cultures – how people from different cultures and with different expectations respond to that loss. An approach to coping might be seen as brave in one culture, but is viewed as unhealthy in another. When someone crosses a boundary to help someone who doesn’t want that help, it can be seen as standing up for someone in one culture, and as a gross violation of trust in another. That is the entire push-and-pull dynamic shaped between Rinko Kikuchi’s, Idris Elba’s, and Charlie Hunnam’s characters in that film.

When you get it down to Kikucho and Hunnam, this is what I wrote “Pacific Rim” was about in August 2013: “two people abandoned suddenly and violently, for reasons they can’t understand, who – because they chance to meet – finally surpass the paralyzing effect that loss has on their lives.”

I am awed by how wildly “Pacific Rim” is overlooked. The 2018 sequel “Pacific Rim: Uprising” didn’t help matters. It killed off a fan favorite for no reason, its plot was wild, and it made the mistake of thinking the franchise is about robots fighting monsters – not about the traumatized people fixing and breaking themselves all over again just to get to that fight in the first place. I still enjoy it for what it is, but “Pacific Rim” needed its heart back again.

Enter “Pacific Rim: The Black”. And good god, it understands. The Japanese-American animation has a seven-episode first season on Netflix, with a second already ordered. Using an anime style means it can make those jaeger vs. kaiju battles look beautiful, but understanding “Pacific Rim” means they know that not many of them are needed. This show is about character.

The war against the invading giant monsters known as kaiju is now lost. Australia has been abandoned. Hayley and Taylor are saved by their parents – pilots of a jaeger. They’re left to hide with survivors in a desert oasis near a now-buried jaeger base. Their parents promise they’ll come back with rescuers in a few weeks time. Five years pass.

The oasis community is doing well for themselves, until one day Hayley finds a way into that old base and discovers a dilapidated, weaponless jaeger. I won’t ruin what happens, but one of the throughlines of “Pacific Rim: The Black” is that joy is often paired with loss. The show does not give anyone an easy time. Don’t make assumptions about the sci-fi anime wrapping – it is easily the most mature entry in the franchise, and it doesn’t shy away from violence.

I ache for shows that put their characters into impossible corners, with no easy outs, where they have to make decisions where there’s no right answer. I yearn for shows that engage trauma to tackle that it can’t be waved away, that it doesn’t only crop up when doing so keys an interesting plot – that trauma is interruptive, that it is what takes your plot and shatters it so now your characters have to find their way around or through it. That is dealing with trauma as a responsible storyteller, and if there’s a franchise that needs that same approach, it is “Pacific Rim”. They get it beyond right.

The show incorporates some familiar anime tropes. To give a fairly spoiler-free example…a character they meet mid-series, Mei, is the prototypical hard-boiled survivor trained to be a killer since she was a girl. I wouldn’t call my knowledge of anime exceptionally deep, but I’ve seen the broad character type before. I’ve rarely seen it done this well, though. Her characterization is efficient, and her moral struggle in relation to Hayley and Taylor feels complex and earned.

It’s like this across the board – you’ll note plot elements you’ve seen before, but rarely done this well. Furthermore, if you’re a fan of the franchise as a whole, they use these elements to tie in the lore of the previous installments. “Pacific Rim: The Black” does the nearly impossible – it makes “Uprising” better. It takes elements from the sequel that felt unneeded or misguided, and it gives them reason, attaches emotion, illustrates consequence.

This isn’t some cash-in on a franchise that wasn’t being used. This is an absolutely felt and studied continuation on the themes and details of “Pacific Rim”. The Drift – that process where two pilots have to share memories in order to make a jaeger work? It’s explored far more heavily as a sci-fi and moral concept than before. It still offers characters perspectives on each others’ trauma, but we also see how it can be abused when the wrong person gets hold of it.

There are exceptional details shown in these memories, too. For instance, Hayley finding the body of a friend is shown three times. The first is reality. The second two are memories in the drift. Each time it takes place, her movements are staged differently, the body is revealed in a slightly different way. As she views herself worse and worse, certain details of her memory change to paint her actions in that moment as less human, the encounter more horrific, her connection more distant. It’s a detailed example of survivor’s guilt, and the show doesn’t spotlight it to show off what it’s doing. It’s just there, an emotional reality that becomes a fact of the character.

Taylor reads as maybe around 18 or 20, and Hayley’s still a kid, maybe around 14 or 15. They’ve both been thrown into leadership positions over the last few years without guidance. Over the course of the series, they encounter horrible situations. They don’t act like resolute heroes; they act like inexperienced kids in over their heads – they screw up, they need time to process emotions, they forgive quickly, they linger in a dangerous situation because it’s the only one that’s solidly defined for them. It’s a minor note only seen a few times, but as a former jaeger cadet who trained in his youth, Taylor has anxiety over making quick decisions. There are small moments where he projects this on someone who’s no longer around to defend themselves. He makes a quick judgment on someone else’s decision-making, assigning them fault because he’s so apprehensive about his own.

“Pacific Rim: The Black” speeds along and its writing is efficient, but it’s filled with these little nuances and details that breathe immense life into its characters.

The voice actors are phenomenal. I watched in English and you get the sense that everyone was reading their lines within context, with superb direction and a defined sense of how these characters are perceiving each other. The music is good, and it brings back those strong orchestral cues for jaegers, kaiju, and hero moments.

One great decision they’ve made is that the human characters are animated with fewer frames per second. It’s a similar effect (though vastly different style) to “Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse”, which animated at 12 frames per second instead of 24. This conveys motions as being a little faster or unexpected. It’s a more conscious style, but your eyes adapt quickly and it can often make movement feel more natural because it’s just that much less predictable.

By contrast, the jaeger vs. kaiju battles are always shown in much smoother animation, with higher frame rates. After your eyes have adjusted to 12 frames per second, where you’re filling in information between movements, this shift to a smoother, 24 fps rate can make things feel more deliberate. They aren’t happening more slowly, but your brain is translating the movement differently. It’s a brilliant choice that conveys the sheer scale and weight of the jaeger and kaiju. It mirrors that slower, deliberate fight choreography from the films and it takes advantage of how we perceive quality of movement in animation. It’s a mind-blowingly good decision.

If there’s a major issue, the character designs on Hayley and Mei should have been less sexualized. In a medium that’s seen Faye Valentine and Revy, you can often just be glad someone’s finally discovered the technology of buttoning their pants, but that becomes a low bar. The two characters are fully clothed the whole time, but some of their clothes are very form-fitting. (So are Taylor’s, but not in a way that sexualizes him.) This becomes more of an issue when we recognize that any read on Hayley still presents her as a child. Thankfully, they start throwing a loose jacket on her a few episodes in.

I don’t always know how far to criticize a series on decisions like this. We have countless shows that do far more to sexualize underage characters – the orgies in “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”, Darren Barnet’s character in “Never Have I Ever”, George Sear’s character in “Love, Victor”. The actors are adults, but the characters aren’t. That’s not a defense for “Pacific Rim: The Black” or an attempt at whataboutism. It points out a double-standard that we need to stop exercising when we excuse our own culture’s media for it.

Right now, as a critic, it would be normal for me to lay into this series for a form-fitting costume design, while nobody would blink twice if I said the orgies from “Sabrina” were sexy. “Pacific Rim: The Black” should be criticized for that costume design decision. How much should it be criticized for it? My point is that I don’t fully know, because I live in a culture where it’s normalized to give our own media a pass on worse. It bothers me, I know it’s a problematic element, I know to call it out and notify readers it’s there. Beyond that, I’m not sure how much that does or doesn’t set the series back. How much do we isolate it as a problematic element on its own, or weigh it against the show as a whole?

Aside from that major issue, I have very momentary complaints, but that’s ultimately what they are – a detail in a fight that could’ve been done differently or a musical cue that could’ve been a notch more subdued. The plot gets wild at later points, but…well, welcome to “Pacific Rim”.

It’s rare for a show to have an intense, complex, winding plot that isn’t taken over by a writer’s ego – where it really feels like the characters themselves are the ones making decisions and feeling their way through it all.

“Pacific Rim: The Black” is lovely, wrenching, shocking, endearing, ridiculous, tense. It is everything I wanted. It takes that initial metaphor about people learning to communicate about loss and trauma, and it runs with it to talk about how we learn our way through it, how we sit with those demons, the terror of someone knowing how to manipulate them when we haven’t figured them out. The plot points are sometimes out there, but the storytelling around them is brilliant.

You can watch “Pacific Rim: The Black” on Netflix.

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“Saved By the Bell” — The New Caste

The new “Saved by the Bell” is hilarious and…important? Wait, that can’t be right. They made a continuation of “Saved by the Bell” and gave it a meaningful purpose? That’s not respectful of the original at all!

Truth be told, it’s even a disappointment. I try my best not to go into a new show with preconceptions, but I really did think this would be a shambling corpse of walking nostalgia that only existed for the cash-in. I was looking forward to tearing it apart and writing jokes the whole time instead of ugh, doing analysis. When I watched it, a horrific realization dawned upon me: this is really good.

Despite what the name would have you believe, this isn’t a sequel to “Saved by the Bell”. This is the sequel to “Zack Morris is Trash”. If you don’t know “Zack Morris is Trash”, it’s a YouTube series produced by Funny or Die. It cuts together episodes of the original “Saved by the Bell” with a voiceover to highlight what an ableist, racist, misogynist sociopath Zack Morris is. It highlights just how weird it was that an entire generation looked up to him as an example of cultural cool, and it’s funny as hell to boot.

The Original Players

For a reason that still eludes me, the original “Saved by the Bell” holds a dear place in my heart. A lot of early Millennials feel that way. It’s deeply problematic, but its cheesiness was endearing and it was one of the cultural touchstones of just about any Millennial’s childhood. It featured one of the only positive Latino protagonists in 90s television, the complicated jock A.C. Slater. Yet the show was also incredibly problematic. Women were prizes to be competed over and Zack’s sociopathic manipulation was the core of the comedy. It was treated as admirable.

Sure, Zack would get his comeuppance once in a while, but the lessons learned by the end of the episode were half-hearted. Episodic TV being what it was in the 90s, those lessons never made Zack think twice about his next manipulative scheme in the next episode. Thankfully, the 2020 continuation is keenly aware of this.

The new series is a full-throated takedown of the original. It recognizes just how self-absorbed and wrong-headed it was, and it walks a pretty difficult comedic line of using this to talk about privilege and performative allyship. Let’s back up.

It starts with a Zack Morris narration of what’s happened since the 90s. He got a parking ticket one day and tried to get out of it with one of his overcomplicated plans that goes too far, and gets him elected governor of California. Sounds unbelievable until, you know…[gestures at the United States since 2016].

Zack clearly has no idea what he’s doing in the position, and immediately tanks the public education system. Desperately trying to recover, he ends up agreeing for students in low-income areas to attend schools in high-income areas. This is just the set-up, covered in the first three minutes of the first episode. The premise smashes together leads from an underfunded school with Bayside’s rich, privileged preppies – including Zack’s son Mac.

The original cast shows up to varying degrees, but is generally kept to the supporting players. Zack and Kelly, now married, exist around the fringes and only enter into the picture once everyone else is established. A.C. Slater and Jessie Spano are now staff at Bayside. Slater is the athletic director, though he spends most of his time bragging about – and sometimes trying to re-live – his glory days. Spano is somewhat more successful. She’s a published author with a PhD, and the school’s guidance counselor. Her own son goes to Bayside, though she coddles him tremendously.

Slater is exemplary of the show’s perspective on the original. It was nice and all, but looking back on it with rose-colored nostalgia is out-of-place and keeps him from being able to move forward. In one scene, he starts to give the Morris and Spano boys a lesson about toxic masculinity, only to turn it into an opportunity to brag about how he slept with both their moms in high school. Of course, this backfires when the boys both realize they wouldn’t exist if each woman hadn’t dumped Slater.

It’s difficult to both humanize and lampoon such self-absorbed characters – usually a show has to lean one way or another. “Saved by the Bell” does an incredibly good job of balancing that line, and that’s useful. It’s not interested in showing us the privilege that’s obvious. It goes further into picking apart the privilege that otherwise decent-ish people reinforce every day.

It’s also hypercritical of the nostalgia that is shown to the original, partly as a criticism of the problems nostalgia allows to continue in general. That’s a weird thing for a show that only exists because of that nostalgia, but give it a chance and it works.

Privilege and Performative Allyship

Every show needs a reason to exist, though, and that’s not enough of one. No, what this continuation makes its comedic bread and butter is something far more modern: performative allyship.

Due to redlining, most of the incoming students from the shuttered Douglas High School are Hispanic and Black. Bayside is largely white. One father worries that Douglas might introduce a wave of crime. The principal points out that this father was just indicted on financial fraud. But that’s different, he insists.

Neither is Bayside entirely close-minded; they’re just privileged as all hell. While some parents fear an influx of crime, others establish a group to help: Parents for the Integration of Teachers and Youth, or P.I.T.Y. They hand out extra supplies. The new students need access to the same technology as their wealthy peers. They need books. They need basic supplies, access to copiers and printers. P.I.T.Y. gives them toothbrushes and pregnancy tests.

When iPads go missing in an episode, it’s only the Douglas kids who are suspected of theft, and every Douglas student is treated as secretly knowing who must’ve done it. The Bayside kids distrust the Douglas kids because of this, yet they simultaneously admire that none of them will narc on each other – even if every layer of the situation is only based on the fantasy the Bayside students and staff have envisioned.

“Saved by the Bell” isn’t tackling direct, explicit racism. It’s tackling systemic racism and how privilege performs allyship while simultaneously reinforcing the structures that maintain racism. It’s a lot more than I would’ve ever expected a “Saved by the Bell” continuation to do.

That’s the why of “Saved by the Bell”, but what’s the how? Its comedy needs to be good. Jokes need to land while tackling complex subject matter. And here, they do. The writing is light years ahead of what the original ever did, and it creates a show that would feel completely different if not for the thread of absurdism that keeps the two tied together.

The flavor of Bayside is set early on. The lead is former Douglas student Daisy, played by Haskiri Velazquez. She arrives with that Zack Morris ability to freeze time and talk to the audience. The first thing she hears on entering Bayside is Mac and it-girl Lexi arguing about a parking space. Lexi got it because Mac showed up late one day. Mac’s excuse? “You drugged my toothpaste and I woke up at Six Flags”.

The comedy is surprisingly quick, with quips like this arriving lightning fast. The pace and quality of the dialogue is reminiscent of a modern classic like “Mean Girls”. There’s a joy in how smart some of its daftness is.

Absurdism as Double-Standard

The pranks and schemes of Zack’s time have now become the Bayside way, and it captures the double-standard at play perfectly. The rich, white students can break the law, steal, drug each other, skip class, not do work, and still progress. True to the absurdism of his father Zack’s original 90s pranks, Mac floods the gymnasium (again), attaches wheels to a student’s desk to literally drive him away from a girl they’re competing over, gets a book banned so he doesn’t have to write a report on it, and never gets punished.

Meanwhile, the Hispanic and Black students from Douglas can do everything right and still be suspected of any little thing that goes wrong. They’re regularly accused of things they never did, and if they step out of line by the slightest margin, white parents descend with demands of over-the-top disciplinarian action.

That those authorities are an ineffectual principal beholden to wealthy parents, and well-meaning but self-absorbed staff like Slater and Spano doesn’t help. These kids are often left to fight systems stacked against them while the people in charge of those systems bumble and act more powerless than they are. Even when Mac and Lexi attempt to help, half the time it’s a misguided performance at it and someone like Daisy has to explain to them how they’re making it about themselves rather than the student of color being persecuted.

The comedy is made more about these wrongheaded attempts at allyship and the broken systems themselves. It’s rarely at the expense of the Douglas students like Daisy, best friend Aisha, or the enigmatic Devante, except when they feel out of sorts and try to act white or act rich and see it backfire on them in ways that don’t happen to Mac or Lexi.

That Mac and Lexi are themselves essentially kids figuring things out, who want to help but have been taught the most privileged ways to publicly perform that help to an admiring audience…it humanizes them as well. They’re not necessarily sociopaths, they’re just doing what everyone around them celebrates and admires them for doing. The culture they’re trying to succeed within is what’s sociopathic.

The Bayside kids aren’t awful human beings. This is just the way they think the world works. They’re not conservative bigots (although some of their parents are). They’re progressive and liberal allies who are happy to traffic in allyship so long as it ultimately serves them, because how else would the world work?

It’s what they know, and there’s something of a generational divide between how they struggle with whether that’s right in their formative years vs. the original cast’s self-obsessed characters. It’s a series of fine lines to ride and, somehow, “Saved by the Bell” does it well.

There are a lot of progressive elements in place at Bayside. The Kelly role of the cheerleader everyone admires, wants attention from, and the whole school wants to date? That’s Lexi, who’s trans and played by trans actress Josie Totah. Her story isn’t defined by that alone, as it would be in many shows. In fact, it’s mentioned once and then not even brought up again for several episodes. She’s not the impressionable mark to Zack’s con-man that Kelly was, either. She’s Mac’s superior in schemes and plots. She’s a theater kid who looks out for the other theater kids. She’s full of herself (“Anne Hathaway once called me ‘a lot’”) and takes rejection hard.

Her friends accept her without question, but since her transition, she’s also happy. She feels more herself than ever before, except now she’s happy and that’s the one thing she’s learning how to be. Within all the absurdism of the show, it’s beautiful representation. She’s a full character. It’s of note that Totah only agreed to do the series if she got to produce and ensure that her character would be more than just token representation.

And frankly it’s a nice F.U. to the last four years that a resurrection of a sociopathic cultural touchstone of privilege directly criticizes that privilege, teaches about the damage of performative allyship, and is largely led by three Latines, a Black man, and a trans woman of Arab ancestry.

It’s still easy to appreciate the schemes and pranks just like in the original. We laugh at how absurd they are, and then we recognize the double-standard they traffic in. It’s not hypocritical, it’s how systemic racism works. Racism is (or at least should be) easily recognized in its most absurd and blatant forms. It’s when that racism is folded into a culture that well-meaning, full, complex people will still practice, benefit from, and propagate elements of it in subtle and indirect ways. “Saved by the Bell” features a bunch of likable but naive kids who are only just now confronted about their privilege because they’re only just now having daily conversations and interactions with peers of color.

There are Some Weaknesses

It’s a shockingly ambitious show on that front. That doesn’t mean it succeeds every second. I’d say it gets 90% of the way there, but that’s much further than most shows even think to try. Sure, a joke falls flat now and then, but the themes rarely do. “Saved by the Bell” might be the biggest surprise of the year for me. There are other coming-of-age shows this year I’d call better – “Never Have I Ever” shares some absurdist elements, tackles racism, and is a resoundingly emotional experience. “Teenage Bounty Hunters” might be the most successful comedy out-of-the-gate in years. But “Saved by the Bell” does a lot of work no one would have expected it to do. It mostly does it very well. It’s a rare combination that calls out the dangerous components of cultural nostalgia and performative allyship, while being consistently funny through extremely well-written dialogue and some absurd situations.

If there’s a weakness to the show, it’s that the visual feel can fluctuate. Sometimes the show is shot in a more cinematic, one-camera style, with the dialogue hitting quick in walk-and-talks. Sometimes it’s shot from a medium-visual range that’s suggestive of four-camera sitcom set-ups. It feels like these are most often used for the Gen X and older characters, so it may be a conscious choice – presenting the older generation with some of their generation’s shooting style, while Gen Z gets the more modern Steadicam treatment.

It may also be practical – the Gen X characters have blocks of unbroken dialogue, often in their offices. That lends itself to medium shots of different spaces and editing by dialogue. The Gen Z characters have much more dialogue, but they trade it back and forth more quickly – it makes sense to have two of them in a longer shot rather than edit back and forth every sentence. It does assist in making the adults feel more out-of-touch – even their cinematography is dated.

The visual shift is usually subtle and I think in general it’s an interesting choice that helps the comedy, but every once in a while it can shift tone too much from one space to the next. It introduces a touch too much sitcom flare to the visuals. These moments are brief but can be jarring. I like the idea a lot; the visual transition between shooting styles themselves just needs to feel smoother.

All in all, this is so much better than I thought it would (or ever could be). It’s exceedingly funny and the jokes come in barrages, so even when something falls flat there’s another right on its heels that works. Performances like Velazquez’s and Totah’s in particular carry the show, and it’s strongest when it mostly backseats the original cast and focuses on the kids.

There’s a stretch of episodes in the second half that give the adults the A-plots and…they just don’t feel as important. That’s the weird thing – the comedy works, but it’s the show’s relevance that makes it feel unique. “Saved by the Bell” is, for the first time in the franchise’s history, deserving of its importance. That might be the strangest sentence I’ve written in 2020.

You can watch the new “Saved by the Bell” on Peacock, which is available free with ads, and already included in many cable and satellite packages.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, consider subscribing to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

How Does This Work So Well? “Teenage Bounty Hunters”

“Teenage Bounty Hunters” sounds like the worst aspects of this insipid cultural moment boiled into one jaw-droppingly terrible reality show. It knows this, and often satirizes the very culture that would prize such a thing. Instead, the series is an ambitious and cleverly written hourlong comedy that has real love for its characters and the quickest wit outside of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”.

The pitch for “Teenage Bounty Hunters” is incredibly simple. It’s basically in the name. Twin sisters Sterling and Blair go to a strict, evangelical, private high school while moonlighting as bounty hunters. The show finds easy ways around the “Wait, what?” questions that follow.

How can teenagers be bounty hunters? Their bounty hunter mentor tells everyone else they’re older. How do their parents feel about this? Sterling and Blair keep it a secret from them. Are those parents completely oblivious? Yes, but for a reason. What’s that reason? That’s a secret they’re keeping from Sterling and Blair.

It takes some trust to buy into any show when you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop on a core secret, and all the characters on “Teenage Bounty Hunters” quickly assemble two or three shoes to drop throughout the show. It should be a mess with this many characters hiding secrets from everyone else. And yet, the series paces these out and foreshadows them across its 10-episode first season in ways that feel pretty natural.

Series that should be a mess yet somehow aren’t are my favorite kind of show. They have too many plot threads, they’re too stylized, they try to focus on too many characters, they try to tackle too many issues. OK, so that last is a bit of a problem from time to time (more on that in a minute). In terms of the storytelling, presentation, comedy, and dimension of its characters, though, “Teenage Bounty Hunters” is a resounding success.

Jokes on Jokes, and Pinpoint Timing

“Teenage Bounty Hunters” relies on quickfire dialogue that barely gives actors a chance to breathe. It would seem like a strength of this approach would be moving on quickly from a joke that doesn’t work. Slap enough at the wall and something will stick, right?

Yet if you look at the history of this kind of comedy on film, the opposite holds true. From Marx Brothers movies to “The West Wing”, “Gilmore Girls”, and the aforementioned “Maisel”, when you’re plastering joke after joke at the audience at record speeds, everything has to stick.

This kind of comedy is like an old string of holiday lights. If one of the bulbs is broken, all the bulbs after it won’t light up. If one joke lands flat, the string that follows won’t work. Every scene acts like a circuit that needs that electricity to keep running through every single joke, look, and pause for the rest to light up.

“Teenage Bounty Hunters” does this just as well as that vaunted group of shows two paragraphs up. Really. Across its writing, performances, and editing, it can go on episodes-long runs before a single joke falls flat. That it can keep its comedy rolling so quickly and effectively means that suspension of disbelief essentially becomes a given.

After some initial ramp-up, the show is nesting comedy beats inside comedy beats. It quickly feels like a top comedy that’s mid-stride in its third or fourth season, where everything lands because every actor is so in sync and the writers are still fresh with ideas.

There are some good reasons for this. If you look at the crew, it’s a combination of newer voices like showrunner Kathleen Jordan, and experienced producers and tech staff who’ve worked on an enormous range of the last few years’ best dramatic comedies. The “GLOW” and “Orange is the New Black” threads are particularly strong:

Executive producer Jenji Kohan was creator and showrunner on “Orange is the New Black”. Cinematographer Mike Berlucchi arrives straight out of “You’re the Worst” and “Mythic Quest”. Editor Amy Fleming has edited series running from “House” to “Orange is the New Black”.

Each episode is directed by someone different. I won’t list all the names, but the talent comes with resumes that include “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”, “Dollface”, “Girls”, “The Good Place”, “GLOW”, “One Day at a Time”, “PEN15”, “Orange is the New Black”, “Weeds”, and “You’re the Worst”.

The point is, comedies aren’t supposed to be this sure of themselves straight out of the gate. By the time anything falters, that’s about when you’re realizing this is a show that can also punch you right in the feels. It establishes itself as a much more straight-ahead comedy than some of the shows I’ve mentioned. It’s not a comedy-drama, it’s a comedy, period. That it can pick and choose moments to become emotionally galvanizing without going into drama territory is a testament to how good and emotionally thorough the comedy is here.

The show completely takes the piss out of hypocritical evangelical culture, but in a way where the people making fun of it also inhabit and adhere to it – or at least to portions of it. As teenagers and students, Sterling and Blair have to know how to thrive in it as well as question those hypocrisies. Their bounty hunter mentor, Bowser, is Black. He has to survive it while looking at it from the outside and understanding that it often threatens his safety.

Maddie Phillips Elevates the Whole Thing

The trio of bounty hunters plays incredibly well off each other. Sterling is played by Maddie Phillips. She’s the more responsible teen – or at least the one who follows the rules more often. Blair is played by Anjelica Bette Fellini – a rebel who struggles figuring out who she wants to be. They’re both fairly new names, but they do the heavy lifting on the vast majority of the show’s comedy. In particular, Phillips is giving a clinic on comedy performances.

If you’ll go with me on a quick tangent, I’m re-watching “Scrubs” right now and I remember when that show came around and Zach Braff was being compared to Tom Hanks. (Hanks first became a household name in a sitcom called “Bosom Buddies”.) Now, Braff is fine and all, but I can’t imagine what we were thinking trying to make that comparison. Allow me to make a better one: the performance Phillips is giving in “Teenage Bounty Hunters”? This is early Hanks territory. Whether it’s playing off of Fellini or taking over a conversation with dueling monologues of determination and self-doubt that keep interrupting each other, her performance is a damn announcement.

Most of the projects I’ve mentioned center on a legendary comedic performance surrounded by other strong performances. Even the Marx Brothers wouldn’t have been the Marx Brothers without Groucho. “The West Wing” was a drama first, but it also stands as a generational comedy because it had Bradley Whitford – as well as Martin Sheen and Allison Janney – to carry it just that little bit further on that front. “Gilmore Girls” had Lauren Graham running laps around what was a pretty strong supporting cast. “Maisel” has Rachel Brosnahan in a state of constant acceleration that makes CERN look antique.

Am I putting Maddie Phillips among that group? Right now the only thing separating them is doing it across multiple seasons. I realize that’s asking a lot from Netflix, which never saw a show it didn’t like canceling, but yes – she’s at that level. (EDIT: Yep, Netflix canceled it after one season. I still recommend the hell out of that one season, and I’d have still written 3,000 words telling you so.)

The supporting cast isn’t forgotten either. Fellini plays the comedy more aggressively, and that works for her character. Blair doesn’t get quite the complexity in character development that Sterling does, but where Sterling carries more of the series’ larger arc, Blair carries more of the bounty hunting plot that’s internal to each episode.

Kadeem Hardison plays Bowser. He’s an actor I’m familiar with, but who I haven’t seen in much. Hardison led “A Different World” in the 80s and early 90s. I was a kid then, but I know it was one of the most important comedies of that era. Neither is “Teenage Bounty Hunters” the first dip into this territory for him. He played the father to spy K.C. (Zendaya) in Disney’s “K.C. Undercover”. I can’t tell you how similar this is or isn’t to that role, however. All I have to assess is what he does on-screen. As a triple act with the twins where he plays the comedic straight man, he comes off as a big, gruff teddy bear. The series is wise to give him a complex backstory with his own history and problems so he can be a full character with his own arcs and secrets.

The rest of the cast appears to vary in quality more than it does. Wait, does that sentence even make sense? Let me explain. The twins’ parents are played particularly hokey at first. There’s a good reason for this beyond making comedy out of the moral cowardice of their evangelical hypocrisies, but it takes a while to get there. Where the parents at first come off as annoying and like they’re visiting from a different genre, they eventually become characters who are keenly aware of the concessions they’ve made and what they thought those concessions would protect.

Meanwhile, Sterling and Blair’s life at private school leans toward the clique-ish and political. “Clueless” and “Mean Girls” would be good comparisons, and like those two films, there’s an understanding here of how the meaninglessly superficial blends directly into the dangerously traumatizing.

She deserves more space here, but Devon Halas also stands out as Sterling’s rival April. One more mention – Method Man has some of the best lines of the show as a competing, egotistical, and endlessly friendly bounty hunter with more resources and his own reality show.

What makes “Teenage Bounty Hunters” particularly special is that our understanding of nearly every character will be turned on its head by the end of the 10-episode first season – this goes for many of the characters who only get a handful of lines here and there. That’s incredibly impressive storytelling. Despite how satirical “Teenage Bounty Hunters” is at points, that storytelling and care for even the minor characters of the show makes things feel lived-in and consequential.

Sounds Perfect, Right?

The show leans increasingly into some soap opera territory, and your mileage may vary on that aspect of it. If you’re buying into the comedy, emotional investment, and satire of the writing by then, it all feels part of the same fun package, and this factor lets those other elements shine. If you haven’t been pushed out by then, I really doubt this is what would do it.

Similarly, one or two of the situations presented veer a little more sitcom and don’t necessarily feel as natural to the show’s reality – they are satire, sure, but one moment shoehorns a very smart character into a bit that feels a little silly even for a series that takes its silly very meaningfully. The presentation and acting sell it, but I was still aware enough to be slightly taken out of the moment. That said, one or two of these moments across 10 episodes isn’t bad by any means.

The one major drawback to “Teenage Bounty Hunters” is that it thinks it’s more woke than it is. An early episode sees our three bounty hunters take a bounty who’s cutting the heads off Confederate statues. The episode uses its opportunities to satirize Confederacy-worshippers pretty well, but the most it’s really addressed directly is when Blair’s boyfriend Miles argues that the vandal herself is causing harm. It doesn’t analyze the moment more than this, and the moment isn’t about the issue itself. It’s about Blair and Miles having a disagreement on an issue where she’s presuming his viewpoint because he’s Black. Well that’s still showing something about Blair’s privilege, right? She assumes his perspective on an issue. Yes, except it’s really only ever addressed as Blair embarrassing herself and what it socially costs her. The depiction of the moment itself conveys a privileged perspective on the show’s part. It’s still about the repercussions for Blair, and not the issue or the Black voices that have something to say about it in the episode.

The most we get is the bounty hunters agreeing with their target’s actions before they proceed to arrest her anyway. “Teenage Bounty Hunters” identifies the root harm in calling out the hypocrisies within evangelical culture, but it uses that to center its story more on its protagonists than on any community impacted by that harm.

Another episode features Sterling competing in a forensic debate meet. The subject is reparations. That’s fine on its surface; it’s something high school forensics teams would debate. Yet the concept of reparations is then turned into a metaphor for Sterling’s mistreatment of a friend in the past – how one white woman has treated another and whether she owes her or not. This is an incredibly irresponsible co-optation of a serious topic, while shirking the topic and its meaning itself.

Neither of these makes “Teenage Bounty Hunters” as an entire series feel like it’s going in the wrong direction, but they are absolutely missteps for a show that clearly wants to be socially conscious. Misusing these real-world issues in these ways can diminish the legitimacy and foster misunderstanding about these serious topics.

Not every show is responsible for handling issues like these, but if you’re going to engage them while centering white characters, then…yes, “Teenage Bounty Hunters” has a responsibility to pay more attention and care more about the details of these topics.

In these two instances, “Teenage Bounty Hunters” treats issues of color as scenery, metaphor, or character development for white characters rather than as something that demands responsibility from the storytellers.

The show’s politics are squarely liberal/progressive, especially when it comes to LGBTQ issues. In fact, I’d say it’s an exceptionally good show on that front, and more willing to engage certain thorny LGBTQ youth issues than an idealistically presented show like “Love, Victor” (not that an ideal fantasy doesn’t also serve a meaningful purpose).

“Teenage Bounty Hunters” is definitely going in a good direction in general, but it doesn’t always go as far as it thinks it’s going when it brings up social issues that pertain to people of color. The few concerns about race that are brought up tend to center on personal impacts for Sterling and Blair, white characters. The show has the responsibility to follow through more than just that.

I still think this is one of the best comedies in years, and I will argue for it and urge people to watch it, but it makes some missteps and those are worth criticizing. It would make the politics a bit more consistent, and could make the show feel fuller and more inhabited, let alone more accountable. There are both ethical and storytelling arguments for artists doing this better.

One thing the show does handle well is something a lot of shows about teenagers completely fumble:

Let’s Talk About Sex

The advertising for “Teenage Bounty Hunters” seriously undersells the show, focusing chiefly on the girls’ pursuit of sex. And sure, this is one aspect of the show and comedy’s built from it, but it’s not nearly the focus that the marketing makes it out to be. Netflix needs to have a serious conversation with their marketing department lately about portraying projects this way.

Sterling and Blair talk about sex realistically, it’s a part of their lives, and it’s something they alternately pursue, postpone, and discuss. The opening scene skirts a line where you don’t really know whether the show will handle things responsibly. Ultimately, the act of sex at a private evangelical school meets a full range of responses by everyone involved, and not involved. It’s both disappointing and unsurprising just how many damn people think their participation and input are necessary in a teenage girl’s sex life.

It really does feel like “Teenage Bounty Hunters” puts time and care into portraying two girls who are considering these things in a healthy, realistic way. That they have each other to communicate with in a supportive, informative, and non-judgmental way is the difference in a culture that refuses to give any kind of support or education and so leaves teenagers reeling when it comes to this topic.

I think of a show like “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” in comparison – a show that I liked, but that did seem to treat high school students having sex as something entertaining and titillating for adults to watch. There’s a complicated conversation about how to handle that responsibly – one that the show gave to Sabrina herself, but threw to the wind the minute it could deliver high school-age characters (often of color) engaging in orgies.

I’m not saying it shouldn’t be portrayed in a show – it’s a topic that needs discussion. I’m saying that the way to do it should veer much more in the direction of “Teenage Bounty Hunters” than the direction “Sabrina” or some other shows take it. It’s not titillating in “Teenage Bounty Hunters”. It’s confusing, serious, impactful, eye-opening, healthy, potentially harmful, and worthy of discussion and support among peers.

Characters like this don’t just need to have agency within the story, they also need to have a kind of agency over their portrayal in the story. The topic does come with storytelling responsibilities so that characters have agency and treat it realistically, instead of them just being translated into objects for the audience. Yes, we’re watching adult actors who are in their 20s, but we’re seeing them portray teenagers, and that context matters.

“Teenage Bounty Hunters” initially seems to challenge that line like so many shows, before filling in the mountains of context and consideration these characters have about their own agency, their expectations and position in life, their mental health in relation to sex, their religious community’s attitude toward it, and their own communication with each other about it.

Ultimately, “Teenage Bounty Hunters” offers one of the more complex and layered depictions of teenage romance and sex. It engages complications and a full, healthy range of considerations that teenage romances don’t often explore in genuine depth. Amid the heightened comedy and satire of the show, this feels like real teenagers figuring their way through these things, and made me think to many of the conversations I had with peers at that stage in my life – while it was a different time, and those conversations happen very differently among boys than girls, this is one of the only shows that makes those conversations feel real and necessary instead of just the pretext of popcorn fodder for a thirsty audience.

This Review is Really Long

That I’ve written this much on a show called “Teenage Bounty Hunters” hopefully conveys how complex and well-done it is as a whole. Before anything else, it’s a top-notch, quick-witted comedy. Its dialogue is superb. Its pacing is about as perfect as an hourlong comedy can get. Maddie Phillips gives a stellar performance. The increasingly complex character arcs are often emotionally poignant and pay off as the show goes on. It ends up having a great LGBTQ arc that engages issues not every teen LGBTQ series is willing to engage. It depicts teenagers communicating and making decisions about sex in mentally healthy ways that are too often skipped over in shows with characters this age.

Once or twice, the situation it puts a character in doesn’t quite fly, but the dialogue and performances within the scene always manage it through just fine. It does need to improve on how it engages racism and who’s centered when it does so.

I highly recommend it, and more than a lot of shows, I highly recommend talking about it.

You can watch “Teenage Bounty Hunters” with a Netflix subscription.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, consider subscribing to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

What Separates “Home Game” is its Social Awareness

“Home Game” has something special going for it. The docu-series presents sports from around the globe. They’re each unique to a particular place and tradition. If you’re in the U.S. or Europe, you’ll have heard of a few of them: the Highland Games and Roller Derby are both profiled. A number of them may be unfamiliar. Take Kok Boru, for instance. It’s like rugby, but on horseback, and the ball is a dead goat.

As a docu-series, “Home Game” shines when it’s discussing why these sports have survived and how they’re evolving. In the U.S., any sport that becomes popular is quickly devoured by capitalism. We understand that any sport has the ability to create change and impact our social perspective, but we also understand that this will most often be dictated by money.

Colin Kaepernick kneeling through the national anthem at football games mattered the moment he did it, but the biggest step in its normalization in white society may have been Nike signing him to a marketing contract. That doesn’t take away from anything he did, or the pressure he and other players continue to apply to the National Football League and society at large – but the unfortunate truth is that normalization of social change in the U.S. through sports is deeply tied to marketing.

“Home Game” offers something very different, and often forgotten. Sports themselves – and not just the marketing – can be a way of standing up to colonizing forces, or of protecting elements of a culture so that they can’t be assimilated.

“Home Game” doesn’t always focus on this aspect, but it does so more often than not. Sports documentaries are hardly rare these days, but ones that focus on their subjects through a socially aware, inclusive lens – and that often come to their sports primarily through that lens – these aren’t as common.

Take one early episode. In “Freediving”, a competitor enters to spur pride in his indigenous community. The Sama are looked down on in the Philippines. They’re considered thieves, despite being the original inhabitants who’ve had their land – and nearly their way of life – stolen from them. Imam Eldio Gulisan enters the competition in order to remind his Sama community to feel pride, to legitimize his people in the eyes of others, and also to keep freediving alive in his culture.

While he lacks the years of more codified training other divers have, he maintains a tradition of spear hunting underwater. This demands deep dives and long periods of holding his breath – perfect for a freediving competition. His entering the competition is an act of trying to keep a key aspect of his culture alive, and pass it down as something viable to the next generation.

“Home Game” is most powerful when it introduces you to the competitors that episode has chosen to follow. Each episode focuses on a different sport – it translates the rules quickly, so it can get on to the more important job of translating the different motivations people have for participating. We see the everyday lives of these athletes, their day jobs, and what they sacrifice to take part in sports that are rarely professional or paid. They incur injuries and risk death…for what? Sometimes it’s personal pride, or the pride of their city. Sometimes it’s their means of escape from a life that hasn’t offered many opportunities. And sometimes it’s because that sport offers a conduit to keep a key aspect of their culture strong.

There are episodes about evolving a culture, too. “Roller Derby” and “Pehlwani” translate how sports can be a front in feminism. Pehlwani is a traditional Indian style of wrestling, and growing acceptance that women compete in it – often against men – is spearheading both cultural and religious reform.

The series finds a pretty good balance of discussing the change this inclusivity spurs without losing the ground-level view of what that means in athletes’ own words. Ultimately, the athletes know they’re making a difference, and they also just really want to compete. Sometimes they have to make that difference in order to compete in the first place. Sometimes they compete in order to make that difference.

“Home Game” leans into telling these stories through the perspective of each athlete, rather than trying a top-down approach. While not providing a full picture, it does supply an emotionally resonant one that squarely sides with the athletes and their fights for inclusion and equality.

The series is smart about following both experienced and newer competitors, to show steps along the way of expertise. Sometimes we forget how difficult it is to step into a sport. For instance, free diver Wei Zosa is going for a personal best of 37 meters. That doesn’t sound all that far, does it? That might be the distance of walking a couple houses down the street. Then the narrator reminds us that it’s the height of a 12-story building. Suddenly it seems immense.

This also shows us just how wide a world the idea of sports encompasses. The first episode, “Calcio Storico”, focuses on an Italian sport that mixes concepts of rugby and bareknuckle boxing. Adrenaline is key to facing down opponents and ignoring the pain of severe injuries. An athlete couldn’t last long in a competition without adrenaline powering them through.

In “Freediving”, the athletes remind you that any adrenaline will immediately sabotage you. To have a chance of competing, you need to stay absolutely calm. Adrenaline makes you use your oxygen up far too fast, undermining your dive and endangering your life. An athlete can’t free dive if they can’t control their calm and deny that adrenaline spike.

“Home Game” is wise to avoid choosing favorites. It profiles athletes on both sides of a match, usually before some form of championship or record-setting attempt. It gives a little background on each team or athlete, how they’ve done that season, and what the match means to them. As a docu-series, it’s much more invested in the athletes themselves than their teams. This works because it makes us want to see particular people do well in a final match. I often found myself rooting for athletes on both teams.

In each half-hour episode, there’s a good sense of rising tension and genuine excitement for the outcome. Many episodes mirror what a good sports movie will do in leading up to that final, meaningful match.

The series isn’t perfect. The strongest moments are in the show’s interviews, cut together with training and gameplay. Yet when home life is shown, some conversations are presented verite style – these can occasionally feel a bit staged. Even if they aren’t, athletes and their families may feel awkward around cameras and not behave as naturally as these scenes would ask.

You can see “Home Game” figure out its strengths as the 8 half-hour episodes progress, leaning further into the interviews so that athletes can describe their lives, priorities, and motivations in their own words. The verite bits become much more selective, or focus more on presenting training regimens later in the series.

Episodes have a pretty wide range in quality, but they’re all worth watching. The “Highland Games” episode comes off as the worst, but it’s not bad. It feels OK and pleasant, but it lacks the heart-in-mouth moments of the “Calcio Storico”, “Freediving”, or “Kok Boru” episodes.

The show is at times a beautiful and gracious celebration of cultures. There are very touching moments about the meaning of all these sports to their communities. While the sports here may be new to many viewers, that feeling of investment and belief is universal. Sharing it with others, and understanding how others feel it given what’s happening on the field in front of them, is remarkable.

I never thought I’d get wrapped up in water buffalo drag racing across flooded rice fields in “Makepung Lampit”, but the magic of “Home Game” is that by the end of a half hour, I’m right there with the fans in that rush of excitement. What makes “Home Game” special is that by the end of that episode, I don’t just see it as a sport – I see it as an expression of safeguarding cultural elements in the face of colonialism. I see it as a place where a woman can beat men while other men cheer for her. For all the resourcing, marketing, and media that we put into Western professional sports, we still can’t even manage that.

There’s a great deal to learn when looking at the sports other cultures value. “Home Game” approaches each with respect, and a desire to share the sport and what’s fascinating about it. It’s not a perfect series, but it is a unique and needed one. It’s a hell of a lot of fun to watch, and it reminds you that enjoying sports can feel different and mean more when all the marketing, fantasy leagues, and constant speculative coverage are stripped away.

You can watch “Home Game” on Netflix.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, consider subscribing to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.