Category Archives: Television

I Time-Traveled to 90’s Sci-Fi and All I Got was this “Halo” Premiere

Once every few years, a prophesied sci-fi property arrives to upend our expectations of what’s possible. Our understanding of linear criticism is challenged as the spectrum of good to bad is made meaningless. It’s more like a rhombic polyhedron anyway. “Halo” is based on the vaunted and lore-filled video game franchise, and watching the series premiere is like watching that episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” where all the timelines collapse and thousands of Rikers are left hungrily eyeing each other up.

But you’re not watching it, no. Instead, you’re the Rikers themselves. You’re the disheveled Riker and regular Riker, and probably that caveman Riker and the one with the fake sideburns, too. Tie that loose end up, DS9.

My point is you can love “Halo” while wondering aloud, “Someone spent money on this?” You can desperately think it’s the low point of science-fiction while eagerly anticipating the next episode. You can find its political themes evocative and wryly satirical while also identifying that they manage to be diametrically opposed with themselves in under an hour’s time. “Halo” is good. “Halo” is bad. It evokes a thousand parallel yous at once, each with a different opinion, angry at the next, upset because the Borg stole your razor yet giddy because someone’s finally making those in-universe TV shows from “Futurama” in our universe.

Behold: a bunch of rebels are talking about being rebels. They’re all like, “Oh yeah, those guys the show’s about are total badasses, I hope we don’t have to face any of them today.” This is what we in the business call foreshadowing.

But then! Aliens! Rebel kids are all like, “Let’s do drugs,” but then aliens are like, “We’re going to shoot your limbs off,” and I’m like that’s a dark goddamn turn. So the aliens plod at 3 mph because they’re really bad CGI and attack the somehow unsuspecting city on foot despite having a ship that could just vaporize them from the sky.

The rebels forget how to fight, so surprised they are by the aliens’ unique strategy of remaining almost stationary because their CGI is that bad. I suspect this is a metaphor for lag spiking in multiplayer, but either way the rebels are slaughtered. All is lost, but hark! What ship in yonder Unity-asset skybox breaks? It’s those guys wot we were talking about not moments before: the Spartans led by Master Chief!

Master Chief’s all like, “I know how to fight stationary targets” and his team does some awesome reverse side kicks and picks up the rebel’s chaingun. And I’m like, “Don’t do it, Master Chief, the rebels fired hundreds of rounds and couldn’t take down one alien,” but it’s clear I was wrong and the bullets just weren’t being fired by enough of a badass so now so he takes down three aliens with ease. I mean, shit Master Chief, I’ll be waiting for you above the saloon.

You could stick the best writers in a room together and still not come up with something like this because they’d be begging you to copywrite blogs about why Millennials don’t buy diamonds instead. There’s nothing like “Halo.” Maybe “Waterworld.” Other than “Waterworld” there’s nothing like “Halo.”

The best character in all this is Dr. Halsey, in large part because she’s being played by Natascha McElhone. She’s the only one who recognizes exactly what kind of highly produced B-material this is, where one neither takes themselves overly seriously nor chews the scenery wholesale, but rather nibbles at just enough of it for the audience to notice. You ask her, “Hey, is that scenery safe?” and she hints a smile back that suggests, “From becoming Starship Troopers? Not a chance.”

Master Chief is a member of the Spartans, who are supersoldiers at the beck and call of the UNSC. He’s the creation of Dr. Halsey, but why is the UNSC terrible? Because it enables people like Dr. Halsey to perform experiments and create supersoldiers willing to perform genocide. Luckily, people like Dr. Halsey and her supersoldiers pursue their own goals and undermine the UNSC, which is a big fuck you to the UNSC for allowing people like Dr. Halsey and her supersoldiers to pursue their own goals, which the UNSC is terrible for allowing but luckily is happening to them for allowing them to happen in the first place what even is this. The point is that I don’t fucking know, and you won’t either, but McElhone acts like she knows enough for the other people around her to go, “Hey, one of us knows, I guess that’s enough,” except some of those people are the showrunners.

Most series would look at their CGI budget and say, “Let’s film this in the evening so some shadow and color can distract from our lack of detail.” Most shows wouldn’t replace gun props in cutaway close-ups with an untextured CGI model. Most shows would study how practitioners of Parkour move or at least know how people jump or run or get up from a chair or put their heads in their hands and wonder what they’re doing with their lives before showing, like, any of the Spartan CGI. Most shows would study how people in armor fought before showing people in armor fighting. But like “Barbarella” before it, “Halo” explains this all away with the hand wave that none of it matters because it’s the future in sexy space, except “Halo” isn’t sexy and lacks any sense of irony.

Look no further than “The Mandalorian” for a show that creates consequential aliens and choreography built around how things like armor and gravity and limbs work without suddenly becoming strangely elastic. Yet “Halo” is clearly self-conscious about not being “The Mandalorian” because both shows’ characters wear helmets, which is like me being self-conscious about not being Henry Cavill cause we’re both known for playing The Witcher. I even played the DLC; he told reporters he hasn’t gotten around to it yet.

Master Chief is even unmasked in the first episode, something that’s never been done in the “Halo” games. They utterly land the shock of the moment when it’s revealed that it’s not Kevin Costner inside. It’s a good thing “Halo” strives so hard to differentiate itself from “The Mandalorian”. How else is the audience supposed to tell two helmets apart?

Sure, you could say its understanding of sci-fi is different, that its filmmaking is far more 90s network TV, an impressive choice considering the first game didn’t even come out until 2001. You could be upset its design aesthetic evokes “The Matrix” sequels without the cool leather daddy fashion sense. You could criticize its stop-and-start pace, the fact that everything feels too much like a set, its over-reliance on subpar CGI, and its inability to fuse close-ups and wide shots into cogent sequences, as well as its complete lack of humor, plus bad choreography.

You could rail about how every piece of character development needs to be spoken out loud by each character and acknowledged out loud by another. You could wonder what they were thinking by oscillating between 10% flashes of dismemberment of children and 90% totally bloodless PG action. You could compare its awkwardly inserted brief POV shots to “Doom” 2005 starring Karl Urban and wonder why this doesn’t star Karl Urban or have as good CGI as “Doom” 2005 which was made in 2005 with CGI from 2005. But if you didn’t make jokes while doing it, then you’d just be some jerk.

I like “Halo” because it’s clearly influenced by Paul Verhoeven’s visuals, ideas, and the themes behind them, evoking the anti-fascist concepts behind “Starship Troopers” and “RoboCop.” I also like it because it only half-knows how to communicate them before turning into a Paul W. S. Anderson movie like “Resident Evil” or “Resident Evil.”

The wider lore of “Halo” holds some exciting sci-fi possibilities that are hinted here, while the execution of the series keeps alive the enduring promise of making them super lame.

Do I like “Halo?” Damn straight. If forced to make a choice, would I rather we get a second season of “Earth 2?” Of course, but Clancy Brown hasn’t come knocking.

At the end of the day, “Halo” could be “Con Air” if it had the Nicolas Cage film’s capacity for abstraction, which is the first time anyone’s ever said that phrase. But it also could have dipped into being “Battlefield Earth,” and I’ve never seen anything before that veered so close to such disaster and yet pulled away so surely. It’s like watching a man almost fall into a volcano, but then defy the odds and clamber away safely. Maybe there’s nothing special about that man, but you can be sure as shit I’m gonna watch if he tries it again. In the immortal words of Thane, “Entropy wins. Entropy always wins.” But it also has a weekly audience.

You can watch “Halo” on Paramount+. New episodes arrive weekly and it’s already been renewed for a second season; I was worried there for a minute.

If you enjoy fever dream stream of consciousness brought back from the abyss of watching this brilliant mess, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write more like it, but you know, also the regular stuff, too.

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Creepy Fantasy Delight — “Cracow Monsters”

“Cracow Monsters” boasts that rare sense of pairing the macabre to the magical. As dreary, rainy, cold, and weirdly flaking as the Polish city of Cracow is in the series, it’s also a place where the colors are rich, the shadows inky deep, and the sense of mystery in the world still feels like a promise. It seems like a funny thing to say about a horror show when the genre’s become decidedly bleaker, but it’s that sense of a world that holds mysterious promise that makes this new Polish series such an involving watch.

Barbara Liberek plays Alex, a medical student who’s recruited by an inscrutable professor into a strange band of supernatural investigators. She’s their ninth, which holds a significance she doesn’t understand immediately. You could say they each have a very precise power, but in some cases ‘curse’ might be the more appropriate word. They research and autopsy creatures and demons out of Slavic folklore.

The list of horror projects “Cracow Monsters” evokes feels beautifully selected. The aesthetic richly calls back to “Jacob’s Ladder”, “The X-Files”, “Flatliners”, “Dark City”, “The Thing”, the “Silent Hill” series, and the Prague horror boom of the 2000s. That city was a favorite shooting location for Guillermo Del Toro, used in “Blade 2” and “Hellboy”, and Eli Roth, used in the “Hostel” series (meh). Like Prague, Cracow boasts an Old Town district with buildings, cobblestone streets, and fortifications that are hundreds of years old.

(A quick note: Cracow is the anglicization of Krakow, pronounced ‘krakuf’. The series translation uses “Cracow”, so I’m using the C-version to avoid confusion.)

It’s hard to envision that “Cracow Monsters” wasn’t informed at some level by Andrzej Sapkowski’s “The Witcher” novels (and of course the subsequent games and series). I’m sure there’s also a ton of foundation in other Polish fiction and folklore here that I don’t recognize.

“Cracow Monsters” takes its time delving into its horror aspects. It wants you to learn about Alex first. She’s a diagnosed schizophrenic who sees visions and self-medicates with drinking, drugs, and sex. She’s a student with good marks, but she’s also at the age where symptoms of schizophrenia like hallucinations become stronger. Of course, we’re clued in early that she may not be schizophrenic. What she sees as hallucinations may be visions.

The series’ action scenes don’t follow this slow-burn approach. They explode with sudden and undeniable strangeness. There’s a beautiful sense of motion to the cinematography throughout. Even quiet scenes feature the camera investigating multiple characters’ moods and faces so that we can draw our own inferences. It allows “Cracow Monsters” to subtly foreshadow details, and builds our curiosity for who everyone is.

Directors Kasia Adamik and Olga Chajdas also love to sneak in continuous takes that start on a precisely edited action. This fuses continuity to motion in ways that are superbly focused on character. When this sense of motion meets the staging of its action, “Cracow Monsters” sings. One desperate chase scene in a building made my jaw drop as I thought, this is what every zombie movie misses. The terror is the loping undead, sure, but even worse is figuring your way through the winding hallways of an unfamiliar building, hoping to avoid running yourself into a dead end. As Alex runs in a desperate circle of hallways in one continuous shot, it becomes apparent the only thing more frightening than being caught is screwing up and catching yourself.

One other choice I love in “Cracow Monsters” is its reliance on live special effects over CGI visual effects. There’s an abundance of heavily CGI monsters in horror right now. They come straight out of comic books, digital comics, manga, and other drawn sources, so they don’t always have to sync up with what looks real. As Karina Adelgaard points out on Heaven of Horror, it’s what allows a series like South Korea’s “Hellbound” to go over the top in its visuals. When series-budgeted CGI doesn’t have to look realistic, you can go for volume over fidelity.

That opens up a lot of new doors, but I don’t want the old ones closed. I tend to prefer live special effects, and “Cracow Monsters” does a lot with its creatures, makeup effects, and staging. The CGI it does use is rare and well utilized. If I have one complaint it’s that it can lack a little weight in its movement, but when used for a singular monster here or there, you’re not really comparing it to other things. The way it’s folded in is so creative, strange, and sudden that I’m already sold on what it wants to show me.

The acting here is solid, and aided by that sense of continuous motion in the filmmaking. A few scenes center on simultaneous conversations weaving in and out of each other. Alex’s group features eight others who are already used to living together, so this is natural. That can be difficult to track in a translation, but the filmmaking makes it easy to follow. It adds to Alex’s sense of being overwhelmed, and it provides a foundational layer of realism that a horror fantasy like this has to establish first.

On a cultural note, Alex is openly bi, and she’s seen kissing women as well as men. The cast of mostly young characters are perfectly comfortable with this, treat it as normal, and don’t assume anyone’s sexuality. An early shot shows Alex taking birth control. This is all meaningful to see given Poland’s governmental and religious situation, in which an increasingly theocratic Catholic government has established “LGBT-free zones” that occupy a third of the country. Their stated goal is banning public displays like marches and events. As if that’s not bad enough, the unstated yet understood goal is the enabling of harassment and violence against LGBTQ+ people. The Archbishop of Cracow himself has railed against what he calls a “plague” of LGBT ideology for years. This has served as just one example for recent hateful legislation pursued in the U.S. by evangelical state governments in Florida, Texas, and numerous other states. The series embracing LGBTQ+ representation and pro-choice stances is important both there and here.

“Cracow Monsters” isn’t perfect. I have a quibble or two. There’s a photosensitivity warning on the first episode because the opening scene absolutely needs it. That one scene is doused in an aggravating amount of flashing lights and while it’s well done, I do think artists in general need to think twice before using this visual approach. I don’t have photosensitivity triggers, and watching in a dark room, I had to consistently shield parts of the screen throughout the scene. I can’t remember doing that with anything else. You might need to watch the very first scene with the lights on, and if you do have photosensitivity triggers, be extremely cautious with it. After that first scene, the effect doesn’t return, and you can turn the lights off to enjoy the rest of the series.

A few scene transitions early on can feel unintentionally sudden, but once “Cracow Monsters” has set its different story branches into motion, it finds a good rhythm.

I do feel like some precision in the dialogue is lost in translation here or there. It’s nothing that’s distracting, but you may notice it once or twice. The series does an impressive job with its visual storytelling, especially when it doesn’t want you to immediately know what’s happening, so you never feel lost from the storyteller. I just wonder if some occasional connection in the dialogue or a more poetic turn of phrase may’ve been dropped here or there.

I don’t know that “Cracow Monsters” will appeal to everybody. It recalls 90s and early 00s psychological and supernatural horror, and those are genres that have a lot of misses and half-successes. The storytelling is defined through a sumptuously cinematic atmosphere, with tone becoming more important at times than the characters themselves. The editing shifts more traditionally between deep areas of focus that feature extravagant location shooting and set design, and close-up moments for the performance in dialogue scenes. This can feel stodgy or “of-an-era” in some projects, but the sheer quality of those locations and sets, the complexity of the staging, and the camera’s sense of movement elevates “Cracow Monsters” into finding that genuinely cinematic feel.

This all stands in stark contrast to more recent horror branches: art horror’s unnerving brightness and actor-centered focus; retrowave (or vaporwave) horror’s neon-and-shadow evocations of a style that never was; and pop horror’s preference for the bleak, washed out, and heavily foregrounded.

These are all different ways of presenting horror, and it’s awesome we have so many popular ways of conveying “why am I making myself watch this” right now. Some of these can miss that dark sense of promise, though – that horror can ultimately be an attempt at greater understanding, and that there’s beauty within this even if it scares us. This lends a vitality to the storytelling. It creates a connection to the storyteller and how the story’s being told that can even supersede the story itself. There’s a sense of sharing the excitement for a certain atmosphere and aesthetic rather than being told it or presented it.

For example: in a bleak horror backgrounded by shadows, I’m often terrified for the character because I can’t see what’s behind them. Here, there’s time to gaze more deeply into every scene. I can see where the paint is flaking, where the tile changes, what the light suggests, I can see everything behind them and be deeply excited to be in that moment alongside them. There is a trade-off – it’s scary instead of terrifying. You’re not going to find the most intense horror here, and that can make things feel a little too funhouse for some viewers. For others, that depth of texture becomes a sort of worldbuilding through tone that feels excitingly participatory in nature.

They’re different kinds of horror. Some like both, some only one or the other. Which kind you like will tell you whether you can get invested and excited for “Cracow Monsters” or if you want something less consciously cinematic in nature. “Cracow Monsters” won’t convince you to like a kind of horror aesthetic you don’t, but if this kind of horror fantasy is a style you’re already into, it’s a very strong entry.

You can watch “Cracow Monsters” on Netflix. All eight episodes are available immediately.

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

A Resonating, Meaningful Reboot — “Bel-Air”

“Bel-Air” is good. The dramatic remake of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” is one of the better reboots that’s been made. It’s challenging, and asks you to be more open to the meaning of the original than to its style or sense of nostalgic comfort. It establishes a strong story on the foundation of some superb performances, and it also holds a reverence for what came before that strengthens its argument for being made in the first place.

Like the original sitcom, “Bel-Air” follows Will, a 16 year old from West Philadelphia who offends a gang and is sent across the country for his safety. Under the care of his rich aunt and uncle, he now lives in a mansion in Bel-Air, trying to stay true to himself amid the privileges, luxuries, and expectations of the ultra-wealthy Banks family.

At first glance, “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” might seem like one of those franchises that has no business being remade. The original 90s sitcom was about as perfect as it could be – a hallmark of comedy on television, with an entire cast’s worth of memorable performances. Yet looking at “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” solely as comfort food that shouldn’t be changed or challenged risks overlooking some of its core messages about race, class, and privilege.

We tend to think something that’s good shouldn’t be remade, but the original premiered 32 years ago, and it was so good and had so much to say that a lot more got left on the table. We’ve got more than 400 years of Shakespeare remakes in every imaginable medium, and still get excited when a legendary actor decides to rethink his most recognizable plays. We’ve got 50 Batmans and forked out chunks of change mid-pandemic to go to theaters just to see a multiverse of Spider-Mans – I think “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” can stand being told two whole times. Let’s move away from the fainting couch on this one.

Remakes are like anything else – they can be good, bad, or average. A big part of what makes them successful is the same thing that makes an original story successful: does it have a reason for being? Does it justify having been made? In the case of remakes, does it understand and process the themes, tone, and spirit of the original in a way that demonstrates it’s effectively done the work of adaptation.

“Bel-Air” has done the work of adaptation. It clearly understands the Banks family’s motivations and conflicts. It escalates these in ways the sitcom didn’t because it was a 90s sitcom. Yet at its core, these are effective translations of the characters and story. It also accelerates characters to different plot points: we’re already at the point where Hilary is being forced out of the house, Vivian is thinking about restarting her art career, and Phillip is mid-campaign for district attorney.

It took time to get to all these moments in the original series, but that boasted 148 episodes. An hourlong streaming series today doesn’t have that longevity by design, so it makes sense to find these characters further along in their development than they were allowed in the sitcom.

“Bel-Air” leans hard on the initial conflict between Jabari Banks’s Will and his cousin Carlton, played by Olly Sholotan. Carlton is harder-edged here. He’s not a nerd joke anymore, but a young man who’s had way too many expectations placed on him, and has developed anxiety, a toxic guardedness, and an aggressive way of lashing out. Wary of Will taking up space in his family and gaining popularity at a school where Carlton is…perhaps more feared than admired…Carlton continuously rejects Will and treats him with hostility.

There’s a good reason for escalating this conflict so much. The original series examined Carlton’s desperation to fit in and to be read as white. Carlton had blind spots to racism even when it was directed at him, and so he sought the approval of systems and structures – a sort of guest whiteness that made him defensive of these systems even as they considered him lesser. “Bel-Air” takes that further, and makes Will’s presence a call-out for how much Carlton has traded for that approval. Early on, Will confronts a white student singing the N-word along with a song, and Carlton defends him. At every turn, Carlton is quick to use racist stereotypes to insult and demean Will. Carlton turns racism against Black people into his own weapon that he uses in an attempt to embarrass Will and corner him into a specific role at school.

I can see the criticism that some of this departs the original Will-Carlton dynamic, but to my mind, it investigates a core issue between them with far more depth than the original could as a 90s sitcom. This was a dynamic between them, but in playing it for laughs, it had to be selective about its moments to become more dramatic. As a straight-up drama, “Bel-Air” can just tackle it without having to shy away from its ugliness.

It is not the same thing, but as a Hispanic boy growing up, I did a lot of shoving my Mexican side down and trying to act white, be accepted as white. I practiced a sort of internal violence on myself that was routinely reinforced by racist bullying, white-dominated media, and very few outside my family who could speak to that kind of experience. There is a lot in the Will-Carlton dynamic that hits home, and Carlton’s desperation to be accepted as white and hostility at Will for having the gall to be Black echoes enough similarities to speak to that little kid who spent years hating half of who he is. The contexts of being Black or being Hispanic in the U.S. are very different for those who aren’t both, so I don’t mean to compare the two. Rather, the way that systemic racism teaches and reinforces internalized violence in marginalized groups shares some similarities that can be recognized from group to group. Call it overdramatic if you want, but the conflict between Will and Carlton here is one that exists, that is real, that often plays out with a brutal internal emotional violence, and that viewers still don’t get to see represented very often.

This conflict gives “Bel-Air” a clear and incisive window for critiquing how racist systems indoctrinate even those who are victimized by them. If people think it’s more important that Carlton is a 90s vision of a nerd joke than it is that Carlton is a look at internalized racism, then they won’t be happy with this adaptation. I just think the one is antiquated style; the other is relevant meaning.

Jabari Banks is an absolute find as Will. He embodies so much of the raw vulnerability that Will Smith originally showed in the role. There is absolutely no way to not feel for him in this performance, to not be on his side and want him to succeed. There’s less consistent bravado, but it’s there. In a drama, we see more of the character’s emotional state than a sitcom allows, so we’re more on the side of his vulnerability than on any type of comedic acting. If it keeps up, Jabari Banks’s role as Will ought to be remembered as one of the best performed of the year. The fusion of Smith’s emotion and mannerisms to a character who firmly exists on his own is an at times awe-inspiring performance.

Jazz is beautifully portrayed by Jordan L. Jones here. He meets Will in L.A. as his Uber driver from the airport, and the two quickly become friends. Jazz makes immediate sense as someone Will can be himself around without any of the pressures or conflicts present in his life with the Banks family. They have a shared outlook of the world, seeing L.A. as an alien landscape they have to survive within. His business card may include several different jobs including private investigator, but Jazz knows himself and is centered in the tumult of L.A. This creates trust between the two, as Will is anything but centered, and you can plainly see why they’re friends. It’s a simple but beautifully effective take on a character who was essentially a very good, but very one-note, joke in the original.

Cassandra Freeman’s Vivian Banks is stellar. She feels so incredibly close to Janet Hubert’s original portrayal of the role (before she was replaced by Daphne Reid), and is probably the closest to the original character in the cast. Vivian exemplifies the ability to adapt and code-switch through different crowds and situations that Will so sorely lacks. At the same time, her early conflict with oldest daughter Hilary demonstrates how she expects her children to choose a way of being that denies them access to that same freedom in adaptation. It’s a distillation of the original’s conflict between parents and children: Vivian has kept who she is and where she’s come from intact, but she projects her own form of internalized racism onto children who she expects to conform and negotiate core values away.

That brings us to Hilary, brilliantly realized by Coco Jones. Where she was a ditz joke in the original, Hilary reveals a lot more of the capability early on that she showed later in the sitcom. She’s a moderately successful influencer whose brand is centered on cooking, but who rejects the jobs that ask her to tone down her Blackness and traditional recipes. This comes into direct conflict with Vivian’s desire for Hilary to conform to be successful, even though this is something Vivian resents in herself.

Jimmy Akingbola’s take on Geoffrey is gorgeous in the limited scenes where we’ve seen him. The house manager for the Banks family is capable and observant. The 90s got a lot of mileage from snarky butlers, and Akingbola’s Geoffrey has his moments, but he’s less prim and proper and more of a smooth operator, noticing a bit of everything and living more of his own life.

Adrian Holmes plays Phillip well and April Parker Jones grounds the show even as it takes off running as Will’s mother Vy. We also see Simone Joy Jones as love interest Lisa, and Akira Akbar as youngest daughter Ashley Banks – though she hasn’t had a lot to do yet outside of getting in some quality digs at the breakfast table. Ashley is the youngest of the Banks children, and Will’s presence had a lot of influence in shaping her on the original series. This is something I hope the remake incorporates. It allowed us to see someone growing up and having someone in her life who gave her a better opportunity to consciously recognize and make decisions about the internalized racism that Carlton failed to dodge.

Make no mistake, the genre here is completely different from the original, but the sensibilities are much more similar than style would suggest. One of the things I resist in remakes is an obsession with nostalgia as recognition. A remake shouldn’t be a theme park tour; nostalgia should serve as an opportunity to compare this moment to that one. There are a number of early nods to the original, such as characters repeating a popular phrase, but these are quick bits here and there that never become the focus.

“Bel-Air” is absolutely centered around exactly what I want a remake like this to do: compare that moment to this one, to look at the distance traveled – or lack thereof, to use what we can use now that couldn’t be done then, to be direct in its examination of why a remake should even exist in the first place. “Bel-Air” is a bit over-the-top at times, but it earns it.

The pace is quick, with a mind toward music video editing. This pace gets misused on a lot of series, but that’s not the case here. The editing puts it all together in a way that heightens our sense of certain moments, and that capitalizes on the whirlwind of emotion that Will undergoes. It centers Will’s journey on a constant sense of displacement and it intensifies those moments when Will is othered.

That intensified reality also allows some beautifully symbolic moments, such as breathtaking visions of drowning on a throne underwater. This motif is a clear emotional reality for Will, and it calls us out as viewers for where we find ourselves today in relation to the original series’ throne imagery. It directly calls out one of the show’s core questions – whether success in a system built to hold you down can ever be a success, or simply success for a system that will always hold you down in the ways that are most meaningful. It also hearkens back to the displacement of Africans via the slave trade – communities in their own land, many of whom jumped off the slave ships to drown rather than live in slavery. This in turn reflects Will’s own displacement and trauma, a continuing fear of police brutality he’s already suffered, and the question of how much he’ll conform for approval in this new place at the expense of his own self-determination. “Bel-Air” doesn’t use these symbolic moments too often, but when it does it knows exactly what it’s evoking and why.

There are criticisms. The original Philadelphia gang Will upset is still looking for him, and I don’t know if this is an element of drama that’s needed. I trust the show enough to see where it wants to take this.

I hope that it doesn’t overfocus on the fight between Will and Carlton. It takes over the series early. I don’t want them to solve what they’ve established too early or too easily, and it is one of the series’ strengths. It’s more that I also want to have a window on Will’s relationships with his other cousins, Hilary and Ashley.

I’ve seen “Bel-Air” dismissed in a few corners as soap operatic, which I’m very wary of as coded racism. There’s no level of soap operatic drama here that isn’t far exceeded by “gritty” dramas like “Yellowstone” or the eminently produced navel-gazing of a “Downton Abbey”. Yes, “Bel-Air” is incredibly dramatic, but a displaced, brutalized, traumatized child has some damn right to drama. The difference is that “Bel-Air” is a deeply considered reflection on race and class that immediately recognizes and delves into questions of internalized racism and whether success within a racist system takes part in holding others down to achieve it.

I know “Bel-Air” swapped showrunners and I am cautious of the show failing to expand its range to more fully incorporate all the characters in Will’s immediate story, but…so far this is an incredible success as a reboot. It’s what reboots should do: search for the reason why a reboot might be valuable in the first place and then build on whatever answer resonates so intensely it cannot be denied. Cash-in or not, this isn’t something the artists involved are treating that way. This is a brilliant rethink – imperfect, but reaching so far and so determinedly that it finds moments most series are too timid to approach.

You can watch “Bel-Air” on Peacock, which is included on several other services. New episodes arrive Thursdays.

If you find articles like these important to you, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write articles like this one.

Nostalgia, Millennial Alienation, and “How I Met Your Father”

I have to admit that I went into “How I Met Your Father” with low expectations. The series it’s spun off from, “How I Met Your Mother”, veers between holding a special place in our collective heart and exemplifying a lot of what was wrong in 2000s comedy. It was arguably the last great gasp for the traditional, must-see, weekly sitcom. People still argue over whether its finale was any good because it subverted the expectations that risk-free finales from predecessors like “Friends” had offered.

I never watched the whole thing straight through, but I’ve seen the majority of episodes. It was exceedingly reliable. You always knew it would be funny enough, and comfortable enough, and you’d like everyone (except sometimes the main character) enough to get by. Its running jokes rewarded weekly viewers while its flashback-heavy style made sure intermittent viewers like myself weren’t excluded.

More than anything, the original’s cast was near-faultless: Alyson Hannigan, Neil Patrick Harris, and Jason Segel all came with fanbases and mountains of goodwill for their prior work, while Josh Radnor and Cobie Smulders hit the ground running.

Like the original, “How I Met Your Father” is about a lonely single navigating the ups and downs of dating while supported by a group of wacky friends. Its biggest challenge is its pedigree. It isn’t just trying to match a good multi-camera sitcom, it’s trying to match what might have been the last bastion of genuine comfort within a genre that finally seems to have antiquated. Less stagy, single-camera comedies in the style of “The Office”, “Reservation Dogs”, and “Black-ish” have become the norm.

Both the appeal and pitfall of “How I Met Your Father” can be found in its sense of comfortable nostalgia. It’s familiar, which can be reassuring and offers a chance for new twists, but it also runs the risk of being too predictable and repetitive, which can be a waste of time.

Here’s the reality: no one’s going to know whether “How I Met Your Father” can pull this off after two episodes. As a weekly series, it just needs to reach a base camp of sorts that lets us know it has the possibility to keep climbing. If it’s good, that’s a bonus. Most of what I’m looking for is whether it has the foundation to develop. The first two episodes that have aired are strong enough; they show promise. The writing is too generic, but it’s largely made up for by the cast, which is very good.

Sophie is telling this story from the future, just like Ted in the original. Kim Cattrall is good stunt casting as the older version of Hilary Duff, but she’s best bantering with scene partners. Someone like Christina Applegate, Jean Smart, or Olivia d’Abo might’ve been a better choice for something more oriented toward voice-over. Despite the similarity in appearance, Cattrall just doesn’t feel like the same person as Duff the way Bob Saget and Josh Radnor did in the original.

I also wish the future they presented was more than “she’s obviously well off”, but…more on that in a second. She tells the story of the sitcom to her son on a video call, hence “How I Met Your Father”. Unlike the original, we don’t actually see her child. At first I thought it’s because the show was being presumptuous and wanted the opportunity to re-cast in case it goes long enough for a child actor to grow out of the role.

Then I realized why. “How I Met Your Father” poses that we’ve already met the father. It’s one of the men we’ve met in the very first episode; we just don’t know who yet. And unlike its direct predecessor and so many spiritual predecessors, “How I Met Your Father” actually casts actors of color. It’s easy for “How I Met Your Mother” to show us a pair of white children because the entire main cast and nearly all the love interests were white. In a show where two of the possibilities are white, one’s Black, and one’s Indian, showing us Sophie’s son would make an immediate reveal of the show’s entire central mystery.

More importantly: look! A sitcom that acknowledges people of color exist in New York City! A sitcom with a white lead whose best friends are of Indian, Mexican, and Vietnamese descent! This must have just happened. Certainly, all these people of color couldn’t possibly have lived in New York during “Friends” or “How I Met Your Mother”. Those sitcoms clearly evidence the city was 95% white.

OK, I’m done. But seriously – it’s about time, and something like this in a multi-camera dating sitcom shouldn’t be so rare. Maybe there’s a reason the genre became antiquated that had more to do with its casting segregation than its technical format.

The shape of the ensemble largely follows “How I Met Your Mother” otherwise. Duff plays Sophie and while the casting can feel too on-the-nose, the blueprint for this franchise has always been that the lead is more of an anchor. They’re the least exciting one, which allows all the exciting people around them to pull them back and forth out of their comfort zone.

Sophie meets Daniel on a long-delayed Tinder date and hits it off with him the same night he’s set to leave the country. By mishap, she ends up tracking down her Uber driver Jesse, and crashing the proposal of his best friend Sid at the bar he owns. Her roommate Valentina, Valentina’s disowned British aristocrat boyfriend Charlie, and Jesse’s adoptive sister Ellen round out the cast.

There are two who immediately stand out. The first is Chris Lowell, who plays Jesse. Like me, you might recognize him without being able to place him. If you watched “GLOW”, he played Bash Howard, the impetuous, closeted heir who funds and announces the series’ women’s wrestling league. He brings a similar energy and charisma here, albeit as someone less impetuous and more world-weary. He looks the exact same, but conveys that similar energy very differently. He gets a few mini-monologues and emotionally grounds the series well.

The other standout is Tien Tran, who plays plays Ellen (his adoptive sister). She’s come to New York for a fresh start after divorcing her wife. She gets a lot of the best one-liners. Given her history in stand-up, she knows how to make everything from the awkward to the enthusiastic work quickly. She immediately has the best timing of the group.

Suraj Sharma’s Sid is strong and has pretty good banter with the rest of the cast. He evokes Jason Segel’s character from “How I Met Your Mother”: a good, consistent mix of stability and dorky comedy. This is even stressed when Sid and fiancee Ashley end up renting the very same apartment that the original’s Marshall and Lily once rented. That kind of reliable-but-goofy character takes time to build, but once you have, it pays off in spades, and Sharma’s definitely in the right place after two episodes.

There is a big problem, though. This is Charlie, the British aristocrat who’s been disowned for seeing Valentina, and who has no idea how anything in the real world works. There was an opportunity here for a more interesting character, but the caricature here seems like one ingredient too many – as if actor Tom Ainsley saw David Hyde Pierce’s portrayal of Niles Crane on “Frasier” and decided the mistake wasn’t playing everything as big as possible. Charlie desperately needs more nuance. Right now, he seems like a one-note character designed to last about three minutes in an “SNL” sketch. To be fair, it’s not Ainsley’s fault. There’s not a whole lot he can do with the writing they give him.

This also boxes in Francia Raisa’s Valentina. As Sophie’s roommate, she’s in a lot of scenes, but they aren’t her scenes. She’s either playing the eccentric, live wire to Sophie or the grounded, straight man to Charlie. I like Raisa’s performance, but there’s no consistency to her character’s writing because she’s being asked to inhabit two very opposite roles without any establishing context. It doesn’t matter how much heavy lifting Raisa can do reacting to others on the show if she’s not allowed to become a character in and of herself.

I have confidence in this cast, if the writing can get more clear-eyed on what it wants to do. There’s enough here to warrant watching the next few episodes, at least to see if some initial missteps are cleaned up and brought into line with a core cast that really does work. Pamela Fryman directs these first two episodes, and she helmed 196 of the original’s 208 episodes. Will the show have more ability to depart its familiar structure as it shifts to directors like Kelly Park, or will it lose its familiar strengths without establishing enough new ones? All I can say is that it hasn’t failed yet, which isn’t saying nothing. Plenty of series show you they’re not worth watching inside of two episodes. This one is at least positioned to improve if the writing can tailor itself to this cast much better.

One other element gives me some hope, and that’s showrunners Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker. I had similar qualms about “Love, Victor”, another standalone spinoff of a pre-existing property. It started out feeling awfully generic despite some of the best casting in the industry. Its second season improved massively, honing in on more serious conversations about its themes, writing characters with much more specificity, and giving its actors and directors much better, more consequential writing on both the dramatic and comedic fronts. They identified where its actors could succeed, and what kind of rhythm they wanted the show to have. The result is something that takes 80s teen movies and uses their tropes to expand understanding about sexuality and subvert social expectations with arguments for communication, self-care, mutual aid, and community.

The biggest failure in “How I Met Your Father” is that its story takes place in 2022 and it shows no resemblance to the 2022 we’re living in. Not every show needs to exist in the same universe as COVID, but one of the things that seems to stand out most when I think back on “How I Met Your Mother” is that the era it represented was something of a lie. The promise it conveyed is in some ways comfort now because it’s nice to be reminded of what we sought out to laugh at or be comforted by in those moments before reality peeled away. Even if its reassurances rested on a fault line and we see them differently now, they still hold a place in us that can feel safe for many. As something new, “How I Met Your Father” fails to acknowledge that this aspect of the world it walks into has changed. The original can be a memory we revisit. Something new can’t be a memory we revisit.

The future Sophie calls from looks pretty nice, as if everything’s OK. That’s not the comfort we need right now because it’s not a comfort. There needs to be some acknowledgment in the show that things are different now, because that is the reality of the lives of the generations it’s trying to represent. It looks like everything works out in the future and is even working out now, but that’s very much not what “How I Met Your Mother” conveyed – even when its primary concerns were romance and family.

Yes, it’s a sitcom. You can still acknowledge these realities in sitcoms. As much as it sold out in later seasons, let’s not forget many plots in the early seasons of “Friends” revolved around characters being broke and looking for jobs. “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” found hope in both humor and anger that directly tackled racism. The biggest fault in “How I Met Your Father” is that it hasn’t read the room. Granted, we’re only two episodes in. A lot could happen, but the point is that it does need to happen.

The real opportunity for a spin-off like this to be something special is that it can converse with what came before. Repeating is not conversing. Insofar as two episodes offer, this is repeating. Sure, some things are different. The casting is inclusive, and thank god, because I don’t think this show would bring me back without its exceptional casting. Yet Millennials – the ones who latched onto “How I Met Your Mother” and valued it most – are not interested in nostalgia trips for the sake of nostalgia trips. Lord knows we’re offered enough of those. We’re interested in how that nostalgia is used as a lens for comparing the different realities we were presented and then given. We were raised as children with one view of the world. It did not turn out. Nostalgia is interesting to us because it allows us to revisit, compare, and highlight why that is. You can’t just present nostalgia for the sake of it. You have to use it to evoke something about that nostalgia that was true or false.

Nostalgia for us is a personal archaeology for a past that went extinct and was replaced with something very different. Is that a tall order for a sitcom like this? Yes. Too bad. There are so many spin-offs out there recently that are precise and feel genuine about doing this (“Love, Victor”, the “Saved by the Bell” continuation, “Leverage: Redemption”, “One Day at a Time”). It is an expectation.

Nostalgia has a cost because ours did as we lived it. Spinning something off from that era without recognizing how that cost is still being paid in our lives rings false. You can’t speak to an audience that has paid so much for it without acknowledging that. Millennial humor requires nostalgia to be more than a rote recognition of familiar things. For Millennials, nostalgia is a series of holes in our lives. If you want to evoke it, it’s a recognition of what’s missing. It’s a legitimizing that we’re not alone in feeling that. It’s not about being comforted when we recognize thing X or Y; it’s about why we feel so alienated from what we recognize. The comfort doesn’t lie in the recognition itself. It’s found in realizing our alienation toward that recognition is shared. Spin off that era and this has to be a part of your storytelling and characterization in some way. If the characters don’t share that alienation at the nostalgic elements of your show, we’re going to have a much harder time identifying with them.

Every show needs a reason for being. And yes, I know: it’s money. But critically and as a viewer, every show needs a core reason why this story needs to be told now, and “How I Met Your Father” needs to find its reason and make it clear. As a weekly entry instead of one that drops a season’s worth of episodes at once, this is even more important. That reason hooks us. Without it, there are a lot of series right now that do have reasons and are happy to communicate them. I’m going to watch the next few episodes to see if they do this cast justice, but it’s a 50-50 proposition at this point.

You can watch “How I Met Your Father” on Hulu. New episodes arrive on Tuesdays.

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The Best Series of 2021

The most important thing to understand about lists like this is that they’ll always exclude something. No critic can watch everything out there that’s worth watching. The choices a critic makes in what they prioritize can help you understand how a list like this can be useful.

For instance, even though many of my friends have raved about it, I just can’t bring myself to watch “Succession”. Perhaps it belongs on this list. Satire though it may be, I just can’t bring myself to spend that much time invested in which billionaire gets to make more billions while others go home super sad about only possessing the billions they already have. I’m sure it’s good. I’m sure I’d also feel a deep pit in my stomach even touching it.

As viewers, the feelings we have like that are legitimate, and every good critic is ultimately a viewer who has a desire to connect with and share what they love with others. There are times when we push our comfort, for good and bad reasons, and there are times where we realize we can do more or better work in other places.

It was a priority for me to watch series from different countries. It’s great that South Korean series “Squid Game” is breaking through, and it’s on my list. Yet if we were really being inclusive in our viewing choices, South Korea’s television industry is so overbrimming it should be getting best-of entries every year.

When “Squid Game” is a breakthrough rather than part of a norm, it means that critics are following audiences rather than shining a light on what’s next. If “Squid Game” hadn’t set viewing records, would it have made so many critics’ year-end lists? Probably not, because there’s a well of other Korean series of equal quality in this year and years past.

Is “Squid Game” the only entry on a list from somewhere outside the U.S., Canada, and the U.K.? Then you know something about that critic’s scope. Don’t get me wrong – watching more international series means that I’ve sacrificed watching a few U.S. ones. My point isn’t that one is inherently better than the other; my point is that this information gives you a perspective on what different lists can tell you.

What other priorities inform this list? I tend to lean toward series that buck tradition and try something risky or ambitious. If there’s an element of absurdism, abstraction, or magical realism that’s pulled off well, I tend to like it even if it asks me to do that much more work as a viewer. I like empathy, not just on the part of a series, but also in being asked as a viewer to stretch and view perspectives I might not have sought out in the past.

I don’t mind if a series occasionally shortcuts a plot point with the mutual understanding viewers have seen it a thousand times before and can assume the A-to-B of it. I think world-building doesn’t matter that much for the world you’re creating; I need to see how it’s shaped the lives, understandings, and relationships of the characters who live in that world.

I don’t mind a little bit of melodrama. Where the U.S. tends to incorporate theatrical and even melodramatic performances told within a “gritty”, verite-heavy filmmaking approach, a lot of the rest of the world prefers more understated, verite performances told within a melodramatic filmmaking delivery. We all secretly like melodrama; the only difference is where we place it.

Oh, and some of the best series of recent years have been canceled prematurely. If you’re looking at committing to a series, it helps to know if it’s self-contained or will get to continue, rather than simply being canceled. I’ll mention on each whether it’s been renewed. On with the list:

10. What We Do in the Shadows

The series adaptation of the 2014 mockumentary follows a trio of vampires and their familiar living together on Staten Island. In season three, they’ve just been named leaders of their local vampiric council. It seems like a success, but it’s really the beginning of the group fracturing apart.

Past seasons have been funny, skewering horror movies, bureaucracy, and the “Office” style mockumentary format itself. This season turns into something else, though. Natasia Demetriou, Harvey Guillen, and Kayvan Novak all feel like they have rangier roles to play, while still allowing room for now-regular Kristen Schaal to hit the ground running. It’s Matt Berry, in all his skill at overblown bluster, who ultimately reveals the deep heart the show’s built upon.

Without losing its humor, “What We Do in the Shadows” turns into a moving consideration of how found family unites and bonds – and also drifts apart. Questions about feeling lost in the world and wanting meaning abound in ways that are simultaneously hilarious and loaded with ennui. It feels like “What We Do in the Shadows” has taken on a much larger mantle than it has before, one that feels more immediate, relevant, and invested in the humanity of its inhuman characters.

Platform: FX on Hulu, Fubo TV

Is “What We Do in the Shadows” renewed? Yes. A fourth season will premiere in 2022.

9. Squid Game

“Squid Game” exquisitely describes the world we live in. Gambling addict Gi-hun is roped into a get-rich quick scheme. Go play some children’s games for a few days, and make millions. Effectively estranged from his daughter, he sees it as his only chance at making amends. The others who show up to play are similarly hard up – they owe money to the government, loan sharks, gangs, you name it. Even when it becomes apparent the losers of the games are all killed, the realities of the world outside make it clear that they have about as much chance in the games as they do in the corrupt, abusive world of late-stage capitalism.

There are wrinkles that I won’t divulge. Like any large organization, the place isn’t exactly run terribly well. Players cheat, employees cheat, all to make an extra buck. There’s as much tension in whether the games will continue as in who wins them. At the point where we as an audience are anticipating the next game and hoping it goes on, what does that say about us?

Lee Jung-jae gives an incredible performance as Gi-hun. He creates one of the most complex characters of the year. He’s at once deeply charming and hopeful, someone at his best when helping others, yet he’s also manipulative and constantly seeking enablement. It’s a delicate balance to still make us like and hope for him.

Oh Yeong-su captured every viewer’s heart as the elderly Oh Il-nam. Lost in some of the conversation is Jung Hoyeon, playing a North Korean escapee who wants the money to help her family leave that country. She’s asked once whether the outside is better, as she weighs the value of her own life against someone else’s for money. She doesn’t answer.

Platform: Netflix

Is “Squid Game” renewed? It seems to be, but they’re going to take their time with it. If I had to bet, I’d guess we won’t see a Season 2 until 2023 at the earliest.

8. The Club

This Turkish drama is lavish, intricate, and deeply felt, with a melodramatic flourish that reflects the 1955 nightclub at its center. Matilda is freshly released from prison after serving time for murder. She has a nearly grown daughter, Rasel, but Matilda doesn’t want to see her. She simply plans to leave for Israel. This is derailed when Rasel steals from the club and Matilda agrees to work off a blank debt.

The drama of “The Club” rises from defining Turkish cultural conflicts. The East and West meld and clash. As Matilda is Jewish, the shadow of the Varlik Vergisi weighs heavily on her past. This was a 1942 tax on non-Muslims that resulted in a massive transfer of wealth based on religion and ethnicity, and the forced internment of those who couldn’t pay

Characters in “The Club” don’t serve as metaphors for these events and influences, but they have lived through them. These shape characters’ histories, biases, hopes, and fears. The cast is roundly superb. Gokce Bahadir stands out as Matilda, as does Salih Bademci’s visionary but self-sabotaging singer Selim Songur. Firat Tanis is exceptional as the club’s corrupt, abusive manger Celebi. He has a connection to Matilda’s past she hasn’t figured out.

If you can feel at ease with a few melodramatic fluorishes, such as a swelling music cue here or there, “The Club” has an underlying magic that’s difficult to define. It transports in the way the best period pieces do, and the characters feel a genuine part of that lived-in history. It has that sweeping, yearning sense that comes from depicting a place through both the details of its world, and the conflicting emotional realities of those who live within it.

Platform: Netflix

Is “The Club” renewed? Part 2’s already been filmed and premieres very soon, on January 6, 2022.

7. Only Murders in the Building

Selena Gomez, Steve Martin, and Martin Short star in a comedy mystery. A man’s been murdered in their New York apartment building, and they take it upon themselves to solve what the police have deemed a suicide. They’re bumbling at best, and on top of it all, decide to make a podcast about it. “Only Murders in the Building” speaks to our true crime media addiction, one that seems to prioritize narrative over truth. Luckily, these three veer wildly enough to occasionally dig up some morsel of a clue.

Martin and Short are 80s comedy legends, so it might surprise that it’s Gomez who most solidly anchors the story. Between this, “Spring Breakers”, and “The Dead Don’t Die”, she’s delivered three exceptional performances and should be thought of more seriously. The supporting cast includes Nathan Lane, Tina Fey, Amy Ryan, Aaron Dominguez, Jane Lynch, and Sting, toying relentlessly with the idea that the famous guest star must be guilty.

What “Only Murders in the Building” is really about is loneliness, though. Each of the three leads deals with loneliness, isolation, trauma, and regret in very different ways. Gomez’s Mabel is self-sufficient and deliberate in her actions, Martin’s Charles is locked in an unthinking, melancholic routine, and Short’s Oliver reaches out constantly to those he’s already disappointed or betrayed. That “Only Murders in the Building” works as a caring, empathetic examination of loneliness, and a wildly successful comedy is a uniquely disarming pairing.

Platform: Hulu

Is “Only Murders in the Building” renewed? Yes. The first season leaves a cliffhanger for a Season 2 that was picked up quickly and is currently filming. Expect it sometime in 2022.

6. My Name

You could pick any number of Korean series for this list and have a strong argument. “My Name” was the one that captured me the most. The premise of a woman joining the police to track down a killer within their ranks reflects a number of other undercover gangster projects: particularly “The Departed” and its inspiration “Infernal Affairs”.

“My Name” mixes together a number of familiar elements from John Woo action films to Park Chan-wook’s vengeance trilogy and Michael Mann projects like “Heat” and “Miami Vice”. I’d even say it does so better than its more well-known progenitors. It also avoids creating a false nobility for the gangs the way so many highly regarded U.S. projects have done in the past. What’s here is brief, brutal, and feels far more grounded than flights of golden era Mafia-worshiping.

“My Name” pitches to a fever intensity by the second episode that it refuses to let go until the series’ end. Han So-hee carries nearly every minute of the show. She delivers one of the top performances this year.

The action scenes feature creative fight choreography with a lot of moving pieces. There’s an evocative editing that reflects the single-minded drive of the show’s lead, while also pushing the emotions she can’t allow herself to feel. One interesting decision in the show is to lean heavily on a single song, repeating in different circumstances. It reflects how Ji-woo (undercover as police officer Hye-jin) has honed herself to just be one thing, to have a singular intent no matter the circumstance. In many ways the show is edited and scored to feel what its lead has compartmentalized away. “My Name” is one of the best revenge sagas of recent memory.

Platform: Netflix

Is “My Name” renewed? Like many Korean series, “My Name” is designed as a fully self-contained season. It’s not designed to be renewed, so it’s unlikely.

5. Evil

“Evil” follows a team that assesses mysteries for the Catholic Church. These range from suspected demonic possessions to investigating a potential sainthood. What makes the show work so well is that only one member of the team of three is Catholic – a priest in training named David. The psychologist Kristen and debunker Ben are both Atheist, though from different backgrounds. Kristen is a lapsed Catholic and Ben was raised Muslim.

The discussions they have in trying to figure out the mysteries are extremely well-written, and range from the personal to the philosophical. They add significant weight and meaning to the best horror show on TV right now.

Usually, I don’t go in for Catholic horror. It’s all so inconsistently codified it gets a bit silly to me. “Evil” doesn’t try to hide or explain away those inconsistencies, or avoid criticisms of the Catholic Church. Those inconsistencies and criticisms confuse and divide the characters, too. Katja Herbers, Mike Colter, Aasif Mandvi, Michael Emerson, and Christine Lahti make up my favorite ensemble of the year.

“Evil” reflects earlier unexplained investigation shows like “The X-Files” and “Fringe”, but it does a much better job than either of giving you multiple explanations. Some of its mysteries are debunked, others aren’t. When something is explained, is that simply the path something demonic took to achieve it? In some episodes, they don’t even know which religion’s demons are in question. Many situations are solved without being fully fixed, which feels realistic. By sometimes denying us the closure of consequence, “Evil” feels that much more consequential. The writing makes it reasonable that the believer still believes, that the Atheists don’t, and that they can all identify a common trust and productive purpose that pushes them forward as a team.

“Evil” also has a wicked, occasionally fourth-wall breaking sense of humor. Demons troll visions from God with meme gifs. A nearly dialogue-free episode at a silent monastery has way too much fun with subtitled inner thoughts. The pop-up book used to introduce episodes to the audience in the second season becomes real to the characters midway through.

Perhaps the biggest strength of “Evil” is one that it could be a little rough getting down in its first season: it incorporates elements of kitsch, camp, and meme culture in quiet, understated ways that subvert our expectations, unravel our explanations, and unnerve us with the very things that usually feel a refuge.

Platform: Paramount Plus

Is “Evil” renewed? Yes. A third season was announced halfway through season two, reflecting a strong showing. Expect it sometime in 2022.

4. Reservation Dogs

Four indigenous teens try to make sense of reservation life after losing their friend. They steal in order to save enough money to leave, some reconnecting with their families and some drifting further away. The series features all indigenous writers and directors, and a mostly indigenous cast. The amount of talent working here, that other studios and platforms have routinely overlooked, is staggering: Devery Jacobs, Paulina Alexis, D’Pharaoh Woon-a-Tai, Lane Factor, Sarah Podemski, Dallas Goldtooth, Gary Farmer, Lil Mike and Funny Bone, Elva Guerra, each of them could probably lead their own shows.

It shows in the final result, with even small scenes taking on emotional weight and stellar comic timing. “Reservation Dogs” hearkens back to 90s indie comedy, particularly in its small-scale, sometimes aimless tone. Yet 90s indie comedy could also spark of a lot of privilege; “Reservation Dogs” uses the form to critique and highlight life without it. It has a way of building that the genre never had, of revealing moments that are far more real and relevant.

One thing I really appreciate here is that the comedy isn’t directed at me. It’s created to make indigenous people laugh. As a viewer, there are expectations of me to broaden my understanding of comedy staples and the truths they can evoke. “Reservation Dogs” doesn’t come with every reference explained, but that can help me see what an episode is doing in a way I wouldn’t if the explanation was catered to me.

There are absolute gems of episodes here: “NDN Clinic” turns an aimless, meandering day into a perfect memory, “Come and Get Your Love” connects the importance of legend to who we become, “Hunting” is a stunning, haunting, and funny reflection on loss, and “California Dreamin’” is a chance for Jacobs to demonstrate just how phenomenal an actor she is.

Platform: FX on Hulu

Is “Reservation Dogs” renewed? Yes. A second season has been announced for 2022.

3. Sonny Boy

An entire high school shifts out of reality, into a dimension of nothingness. The adults are nowhere to be found. The students organize, trying to make the best of the situation. As they shift through more dimensions, they realize some students have powers. Imbalances develop. The group splits, looks for people to blame, re-organizes. The dimensions they investigate each have their own rules, often born of metaphor, as if designed.

Magical realism and metaphor can struggle to work together in balance. One or the other usually takes over as a story’s focus, regardless of the medium. That’s fine, but “Sonny Boy” takes a difficult path in balancing the two elegantly. The series is exceptionally abstract: complex, disjointed, full of time skips, dimensions that only half-explain themselves, powers that equip the students with magical tools that look like toys, rulesets within rulesets.

The result is a series that would become too confusing to grasp if it wasn’t so well-guided by meaning. We make sense of the meaning first, and then the logic comes around and fills in some gaps, often hitting in a Kafka-esque way that can hurt. “Sonny Boy” begins to feel like an impressionist landscape of relationships, joys, anxieties, dreams, regrets. Moments can feel like a gut punch, yet never because of something over-emotive. Instead, it’s because we make sense of why a meaning is shaped the way it is. Why is a world designed just so? Why does a character leave something unspoken? What disaffection in the powerful shapes a society? What part of ourselves do we leave behind in order to adapt? What loss means enough to still be guided by the one we lost, or to even repeat that loss?

“Sonny Boy” can feel like an expression of helplessness, or the determination to work against that lack of hope. It manages to be both sides at once, to show the dual natures within us that feel forlorn at trying to change the world, and that will do our best to try anyway. No other show this year captures what it is to grow up, to put our past selves away even as we keep parts of them alive, to pair the joyful with the bittersweet, to choose the difficult because it’s at least a choice, to do the thankless because it’s right. No other show this year is so deeply, relentlessly, and sometimes pitilessly human.

Platform: Hulu, Funimation

Is “Sonny Boy” renewed? “Sonny Boy” seems expressly designed as a single, self-contained season. It’s original, not based on a manga or other source material, so there’s no outside indication to think it would continue. Its ending is perfect in what it says, so in many ways I hope this season is it.

2. Made for Love

Hazel is trapped with everything she could ever want. She’s married to billionaire Byron Gogol, and lives in a holographic mansion with access to anything and anywhere. She’s desperate to either kill herself, or escape. She does the latter, only to discover he’s implanted a chip in her head that’s designed to fuse their minds together as one.

The high-concept premise works as both an extremely dark comedy, and as a cyberpunk allegory. Both center on our interconnected world, where who we are is whoever we portray, regardless of its reality, and where that portrayal itself becomes our source of fulfillment.

I’ve worked with people who’ve been stalked, and I’ve been stalked myself. Scenes of this in “Made for Love” are as close as I’ve seen to the horror of feeling like someone else controls where you can even feel safe, and what your choices are. Cristin Milioti is getting wildly overlooked for her role as Hazel.

The comedy here can range pretty far afield. Hazel’s refuge and ear for fundamentally feminist issues is her estranged father (Ray Romano), who turns out to now be in a relationship with a sex doll. Investigators on both sides are regularly distracted or incompetent. These things always come back to reflect on the core, though: the horror of who we are being controlled by who someone else wants us to be. When who we are and what we’re fulfilled by is a portrayal we project, and someone else gains control of it, then who the hell are we anymore?

Platform: HBO Max

Is “Made for Love” renewed? Yes. Season 2 is likely to drop in 2022.

1. Arcane

An overwhelmed technocrat stands before a warlord. It’s the technocrat’s city, but this doesn’t feel like his space. He is in uniform. She is naked in a bath, getting a massage. Between them in the frame stands the mural of an army. They face him, spears descending row by row until they come to point at him. He is out of his element. She is biding her time.

The rain in Caitlyn’s life always slides down surfaces in fits and starts. You can’t keep track of the lines it traces. It gives an impression of movement as she stays still, grasping to make a decision before others make it for her. She always meets the consequences head on, but she’s never able to track the cause and effect well enough to get ahead of them.

Two men stop each other on a ledge at different points in their lives. One meets the moment with closed eyes, the other open. They both offer support in ways they may not fully realize.

The voices of those lost are scratches on the film. The memories are drawn over like a child scratching out a word. She hides their expectations for her, their criticisms of her. Jinx destroys the reality of the story itself, even as we’ve seen it. She erases what we’ve witnessed so that she can rewrite her story as she pleases.

“Arcane” follows so much – twin cities that are breaking apart through inequality, an abusive police force, generations of characters whose accomplishments and mistakes echo in government, magic, and war for decades to follow. It follows young idealists who concede in order to realize ideals now poisoned. It follows a fight for freedom and self-determination. It follows a woman who’ll stop at nothing to save her abandoned sister, a…terrorist? A freedom fighter? It portrays the best romance of the year, a lesbian relationship that develops in fits and starts because of the overwhelming nature of the life-or-death decisions happening around them.

Crafted by French studio Fortiche, “Arcane” is one of the best pieces of fantasy put to screen. It’s an incredible leap forward in animation, fusing 3D and 2D approaches into something genuinely new. It’s the best piece of western animation since I was five. It’s the best piece of steampunk on film or TV. Its world-building is on par with something like “The Golden Compass”. It released as three acts, three episodes apiece, and if you wanted to call each act a film, then I’d call it the best film trilogy since “Lord of the Rings”. Forget the modifiers; it’s thus far one of the best shows ever made. Even when I write these things, it feels like I’m understating just how emotional, artistic, and impactful “Arcane” really is.

“Arcane” is the show I always dreamed about because I knew it could never be made. I’m not talking about the source material, with which I’m only vaguely familiar. I mean what it becomes as a series. There’s not an episode I didn’t shed tears at – sure, because some parts are so human and empathetic, and sure, because it’s unique and overwhelming in its beauty. Yet there’s something deeper, something more artistically fundamental at play. It’s because when you’re in the rhythm of a phrase, when the poet or the painter needs you to yearn or smile or break, there’s a giving up at play. There’s a loosing of control that’s utterly rare, that requires so high a trust be given over.

Maybe it happens for a moment, when a word pierces our guard, when the twist of an idea is pushed home. That’s the thing – you expect it to happen for a moment before your guard returns. You don’t expect it to be down for hours at a time. You don’t expect to trust that much. What an impossible space that would be. What a relief in a world that batters us so much.

This is what “Arcane” creates so well. It’s a harrowing story, complexly told, beautifully depicted, it’s an advanced course in French art history, but above all it manages that impossible thing – it delivers that magic of becoming a place so beautifully, it feels safe to relinquish your burdens while you’re there. You’re in a storyteller’s hands, and what they’ve made is crafted with such exceptional, seemingly unprecedented care, you can feel the whole thing without guard.

Platform: Netflix

Is “Arcane” renewed? Yes. The first season took six years to make, and while a second season certainly wouldn’t take that long, it’s unlikely to premiere before 2023.

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

A Devastation in Pink — “AlRawabi School for Girls”

“AlRawabi School for Girls” is a Jordanian series that follows a “Count of Monte Cristo” plot. Mariam is a bookish student who becomes the target of three popular girls. They beat her, leading to a school investigation. In what might be the most stomach-turning scene this year, the most popular girl convinces the entire student body that they saw something they didn’t, something which casts Mariam as the aggressor instead of their victim. On top of her injuries and trauma, this shatters Mariam’s home and school life, so she decides she’ll take them down one by one.

What “AlRawabi School for Girls” gets so right is its feeling of hideousness. There are acts of bullying here that other shows often treat as plot impetus, instead of focusing in on character. Here, it feels world-ending, which is exactly how it feels to children enduring it.

The scene where Mariam’s bully Layan convinces everyone to swap their roles is particularly stark. We tend to think this rewriting of reality is something complex. After people like Donald Trump and Steve Bannon, there’s a temptation to imagine it requires a vast power struggle at the highest levels to pull off. That’s a comforting thought in the face of their horror because it pretends things like this only happen beyond our ability to control or influence. Yet this single scene in “AlRawabi School for Girls” shows how ordinary it really is. It just takes a little bit of privilege to exert, which most of us can find somewhere in our lives. That means any of us is capable of it, and that we all have a responsibility against it.

“AlRawabi School for Girls” focuses on how girls are disempowered. Some of this is specific to Arab and Islamic culture. One episode revolves around trying to get an image of a girl without her hijab. Even though most of the girls don’t wear one, the fact that Roqayya does means that removing it to flirt is scandalous and would embarrass her family. It’s not difficult to see how this plays out in other cultures as well – such as how many evangelicals police the clothing of girls and persecute them based on double-standards.

The series also poses how this struggle for limited agency within the bounds of a private school – already dangerous and traumatizing – is dwarfed by the denial of the girls’ agency outside the school. One of the tensest scenes I saw this year was brief but overwhelming, when an old man tries to sexually assault one of the girls in a swimming pool.

“AlRawabi School for Girls” never shows too much – it doesn’t glorify these moments or turn them into set pieces as if they’re somehow an exception. By sitting us with the experience in a more realistic, everyday way, the idea’s commonality is what becomes horrific.

The point of this hideousness isn’t shock. It’s to make you understand how it’s licensed – how it’s made so normal. In every instance, the adults blame the wrong person. Every time, the one at fault is a girl without agency because this is how our societies have organized themselves to license and excuse predatory behavior. The show’s ultimately about girls taking out their lack of agency on each other. They desperately need to rebel against this lack of agency, but their only lesson in control and confidence is to emulate their abusers by harming those lower on the social ladder. Their only chance to exercise agency as girls is to take it away from the other girls.

The three students who first abuse and discredit Mariam are in turn pursued by Mariam so she can abuse and discredit them, in a cycle that ensures nothing in the patriarchal system that holds all of them down is challenged. In a difference from how we investigate this genre in the U.S., this isn’t a matter of complex mystery plots pulled off by teenagers. Mariam may have a conspiracy wall in her closet, but the reality is that her plot for vengeance boils down to pretty simple steps: get a certain picture, report a girl for sneaking out, that sort of thing.

It’s the consequences – the abusive control these girls’ families exert over them – that are escalated. Even the hacking in the show, while spiced up a little when we see it on a character’s laptop, is narrow and realistic in its capabilities and goals.

Andria Tayeh’s Mariam is well conveyed. There are long stretches where she’s alone in a sea of people, but she recruits two friends to help and it’s in these dialogue scenes where she shines. We see Mariam’s quest for justice morph into a control over her friends that starts to look a lot like Layan’s. These friends are Yara Mustafa’s Dina, a rich girl often lost in her own world, and Rakeen Saad’s Noaf, the aforementioned hacker who balances a desire for change against just wanting to keep her head down.

Noor Taher’s Layan, Salsabiela A’s Roqayya, and Joanna Arida’s Rania round out the cast as the three popular girls who make everyone’s life hell. This is absolutely an ensemble effort. The core cast is good, but some of the surrounding players can be a little hit or miss.

I do want to single out Arida’s Rania as a character who shifts from publicly carefree to privately aggressive at the drop of a hat. She balances that cycle from abused to abusive well, and the more we get to know her, the more we see how much of her attitude is a front.

Saad’s Noaf becomes a standout performance later in the show, as she’s given an overwhelming amount to react to and pinned as the character with the most complex moral and philosophical choices.

At times, “AlRawabi School for Girls” can feel too broad. Its portrayal of power dynamics, privilege, and agency are all pinpoint, but its slice-of-life elements can feel glossed over. Characters occasionally talk about everyday events in ways that relate more to the plot than to each other. There’s foreshadowing here that’s used beautifully, but there’s some initial suspension of disbelief that’s asked of the viewer in terms of who these people are. Everyone except Mariam starts off as an archetype.

This does get filled in, and there is a strength to this approach, too. We get to know the characters best as they’re radically changing who they are. This escalates our sense of consequence as the show progresses, and creates a lot of space where we’re genuinely unsure how a character will respond. Are they still the archetype we were introduced to, or the conflicted person we’ve gotten to know?

Showrunner, director, and co-writer Tima Shomali has a stunning expertise at handling scenes with large-scale crowds. There’s a bad habit in filming coming-of-age or school-based dramas where the leads are off on their own. This cuts on costs for supporting actors and extras. Here, though, characters are constantly coming in and out of rooms. Time outside isn’t just a few leads against the wall with ambient shouting in the background and a handful of cutaway shots. The school is populated; dozens of students exist in every space. This goes a long way to exacerbating that sense of social anxiety and trauma. There’s literally nowhere here you can escape. Even hiding in a bathroom stall out of shame turns into being cornered before long.

Shomali drives many of the bullying and revenge moments forward in these large-scale crowd scenes. That would already be impressive, but these scenes become some of the most personal in the whole show. She establishes a towering sense of apprehension for how things will play out both plotwise and for each character’s development. There’s a sense of the social experience inside that crowd. It’s remarkably easy as viewers to cheer on revenge that’s just another form of bullying, to become a part of that crowd one minute, and then sit as a viewer and feel empathy the next. It’s a rare balance.

Some aspects of the show may not play out the way we’re used to seeing. There’s a sense for how these girls are often awkward in their own skin. Take a moment where a character becomes excited and betrays how they otherwise want to present themselves. We’d tend to play that for laughs that tread into satire, schadenfreude, or manic pixie dream girl territory. Here, it’s just played as uncomfortable. That’s a lot more realistic, but because our series in the U.S. are made with character acting, banter, and big, anchoring moments in scenes, a more patient and subdued intent can read as less realistic for us. There’s a shift in sensibilities that a viewer has to make with this. It’s not particularly difficult, but it may be noticeable for some.

I mean – let’s be real. When we make coming-of-age shows about this premise in the U.S., it’s either a comedy or a conspiracy thriller. Both absolutely have their value, and some of them are among my favorite shows, but we also tend to provide abusers with redemptive story arcs that misrepresent the impact of their abuse and excuse their responsibility for it. And let’s not get into being adrift in shows about sexy murder high schools that we pretend aren’t a creepy trend in our storytelling culture that we should at least talk about more.

My point is that the shift into a series like “AlRawabi School for Girls” can feel clunky in places, but I think that has a lot to do with our training as viewers. Its dramatic moments exist more to communicate experience and empathy than to provide the direct catharsis, satire, or schadenfreude we expect from U.S. versions of this show.

What’s being told here is very universal. If you can make that shift and appreciate the show’s sensibilities, there’s a specific story about how Jordanian culture denies girls agency, and a broader portrayal that mirrors how all our cultures practice and reinforce this denial. We expect girls to take that disempowerment and objectification out on each other, to practice it and get good at moving within it, to fight each other for limited agency rather than challenging us for the power and control over their lives they should have in the first place. (And we certainly struggle as men to imagine we should give more than words to supporting such a challenge.)

Perhaps there’s no catharsis for that because there’s been none. There’s no satire for it because our real world is a satire of it. There’s no schadenfreude because laughing at it is propagating it. “AlRawabi School for Girls” leaves us with more questions than answers because none of its questions have been answered in the real world. When I say it captures hideousness, it’s not because of any moment where you have to turn away from the screen. It captures what we turn away from every day – the hideousness we all know but like to forget or put out of mind because its systemic, that we all like to pretend happens beyond our ability to control or influence. What’s hideous is that it’s ordinary, that we overwhelmingly pretend we can’t change it, and that we allow the aggressive punishment of the next generation until they get good at repeating it.

You can watch “AlRawabi School for Girls” on Netflix.

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

Big, Cozy Fantasy Blanket — “The Wheel of Time”

One of the hidden measures of quality in any fantasy show is how comfy its inn looks. Is there a cozy inn with attached tavern you can picture going back to day after day? If “The Wheel of Time” says yes, then we’re talking a fantasy show that knows where its priorities lie.

I’m only partly kidding. What I look for most in a fantasy show (or movie, or game) is whether it feels lived-in. Do the people inhabiting its towns and streets actually feel like they live and work there, as if they’ve known each other for years? World-building starts with the people who live in that world, and “The Wheel of Time” gets this right. It spends most of its first episode establishing a lovely mountain town of close-knit families and friends. I’m sure nothing bad will happen to it.

When you feel you could just watch a show entirely about this town of people living their everyday lives, that makes leaving it behind difficult not just for its characters, but its viewers, too. Yet when a powerful sorceress – called an Aes Sedai – shows up in town, trouble is soon to follow. She and her very able swordsman leave with four of the town’s youths who are being stalked by an army of Trollocs (beastfolk) and their shadowy special agents. Any one of them might be the reincarnation of the Dragon, a figure prophesied to either end the world or fix it.

If that sounds a bit formulaic, like a certain wizard, ranger, and four hobbits, understand that “The Wheel of Time” came in the middle of modern fantasy’s developmental timeline. Western fantasy was defined by the hero’s journey when the first book of Robert Jordan’s 14-novel series was published in 1990. Fantasy series from that time didn’t necessarily challenge that structural foundation, but where they did excel was in the world-building and social commentary that made each unique.

Here is where “The Wheel of Time” as a series succeeds. Its world reads as middle ages, but with echoes of a renaissance or early modern period that previously collapsed. You see, the last time the Dragon was kicking around, he nearly destroyed civilization. It remains fractured and internally warring.

One thing the show does is it offers a society that’s very diverse – they’ve had thousands of years since their early modern era, which is far more than we’ve had. That small mountain town with the nice inn has people of all races and ethnicities in it. It is deeply refreshing to see a fantasy series that takes place in a different world simply start with this as a given fact.

The Aes Sedai are all women – because the last Dragon was a man, the only people entrusted with magic in this world are women. That puts the Aes Sedai in a position of power, but the Aes Sedai are rarely seen by most. Women in the town, however, are treated with equality and have the same jobs and stature as men.

These aspects are relieving and energizing to see in a major fantasy series. You could argue that following what amounts to a D&D party is either too familiar or comfortably so, but the presentation of the world and who lives in it feels like a deep breath in the genre that we rarely get to take.

I’d also be on the side of arguing that the familiar half of “The Wheel of Time” is very well done. The writing is straightforward, but manages to pack an awful lot into each hourlong episode. I’d usually end up two-thirds through thinking it had to be over because each episode had already covered more than most hour-and-a-half movies manage, yet there’d still be more story to enjoy. The writing doesn’t call attention to itself, but it’s incredibly efficient – all the more remarkable for how patient and unrushed its dialogue scenes feel.

“The Wheel of Time” has the same nose for quiet conversation in the midst of turmoil that Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy possesses. I have to imagine these are mostly dialogue passages lifted from the book, but there’s some beautiful in-scene writing at times. Those quiet conversations are really the best moments in the show so far, which is a testament to the kind of lightning in a bottle that good casting, writing, performances, and editing can achieve.

The four who have to leave their town are all solidly cast. When I describe a D&D party structure, I’m not exaggerating. There’s Madeleine Madden’s potential magic user Egwene, Josha Stradowski’s ranger Rand, Barney Harris’s thief Mat, and Marcus Rutherford’s tanky blacksmith Perrin. There’s also their town Wisdom Nynaeve, played by Zoe Robins, and the Aes Sedai’s protector Lan played by Daniel Henney. There’s not a weak link among the actors, and they cover a range of personalities that’s interesting to see in both partnership and conflict.

The casting of Rosamund Pike as Moiraine, the Aes Sedai who kickstarts this whole journey, is a masterstroke. There’s a scene in the second episode where the party’s been through some rough shenanigans and is starting to bicker. One starts a song and the rest join in. It’s something their town sings, but they don’t know what the subject of the song is. It’s been lost to history, but it’s something that an Aes Sedai knows. Moiraine describes the bloody moment in their world’s history that’s being sung. She’s drained by now, injured and using her magic to keep the energy of her horses and companions up. Most shows wouldn’t have kept the monologue, or they’d have shortened it to a few lines and someone’s reaction shot. Here, Pike grabs us for a three minute monologue where no one else speaks and nothing else happens. She doesn’t let go, Moiraine’s speech gently slurring from exhaustion as she tells a tragic story with reverence.

I’ve never read any of the “The Wheel of Time” novels, but that moment, that feel – it’s exactly the kind of thing I want in a fantasy series. The battles and fights are compelling because there’s a weight of places left behind, a foundation of stories told, fragile connections made by relationships built or strained along the journey.

To feel as if we’re watching moments in a world’s history, we need to know the characters in ways they may not know each other, and we need to know the shape of that history. A lot of shows can manage one or the other, either the intimate or the epic. It’s rare when you get a fantasy entry that can do both with this much skill.

The choral-heavy musical score by Lorne Balfe is also exquisite, balancing a blend of song, celebratory medieval instruments and tense, driving electronic elements. There’s a fusion of traditional balladry with good new age that feels very aligned to this world without losing that larger, epic feel. Its sense of rising tension carries us through the sometimes sudden shifts in place that this kind of adaptation demands. The score stands as one of the best and most unexpected of the year.

It’s also nice to see something aside from orcs and goblins as the baddies. Trollocs seem to come in at least two flavors of beastfolk: 10-foot tall minotaurs, and smaller, four-legged hyena-satyr things. A lot is done with make-up, costuming, prosthetics, and special creature effects. This focus on a live-action base for the creatures is the right choice. They have a weight and presence that is immediately felt. Since they start bashing and slicing everything in sight when they show up, it’s also important that the choreography and editing sells them as terrifying. “The Wheel of Time” nails this, too. They’re presented with a brutality and suddenness that skips any kind of prologue or anticipation. They’re stronger than people, faster than people, and it shows. No one has time to describe them as terrible before they just show up and start hacking and feasting.

There are some negatives, and in large part they’re apparent because they’re surrounded by so many positives. While the make-up, costuming, and live special effects are all well done, the CGI visual effects can fail at points.

There’s an argument that magic is more successful in live-action when the visual focus is its consequence rather than the CGI moment of effect. For instance, focusing on the consequence more than the casting is the approach “The Witcher” takes very effectively.

By contrast, in “The Wheel of Time” you will see every fireball launched, every rock hurled, every bolt of lightning struck, every magical shield, um, shielded. People’s mileage varies with these kind of effects – to me, these moments do look cheesy. Sometimes I’d mind that, but here it doesn’t bother me too much. Part of my forgiveness is: hey, where else are you going to see Rosamund Pike hurl a building at a minotaur?

The other part is that there is a cost to these actions. Every Aes Sedai is accompanied by a Warder, a combination warrior/tracker/companion/sounding board. They have a magical connection that allows them to draw on each others’ strength.

There’s a neat logic between Aes Sedai and Warder, where Moiraine takes time charging her spells and is vulnerable. During these moments, her Warder Lan has to protect her, whirling around and ending anyone or anything that gets too close. If you’ve ever played a pen & paper role playing game like Dungeons & Dragons, or a CRPG like “Dragon Age” or “Baldur’s Gate”, the notion of protecting your spellcaster while they charge a spell up is a geeky kind of cool to see done on-screen this literally. They don’t cheat or edit past it, they just have Moiraine take set amounts of time charging high-level spells while Lan dances around her decapitating minotaurs. At that point, I don’t mind if the fireballs look cheesy or the boulders she hurls need more render passes. I just want to see minotaurs go flying.

Nonetheless, other moments of CGI effects don’t fare so well. It could be a taste thing and I just don’t like this particular aesthetic of CGI. I love the static elements – abandoned cities, ruins they pass, a besieged city in one prologue. It’s the moving elements I’m not completely sold on: water splashing as a trolloc runs through a river, the swirls of magic, the strangely Tron-like lattice effect of a magical barrier.

The show also travels at a pace, and it can seem a bit sudden when characters appear in a completely different biome. The geography and the passage of time could be communicated better. Where one character seems to be in the next morning, another pair have climbed a mountain. It’s not a big deal for a series like this where travel and distance are more of an impressionistic aspect of myth-telling, but these shifts could feel more cohesive. It does help that the locations they spend longer periods of time in are beautifully realized, and as I mentioned earlier the music does some heavy lifting to smooth these transitions.

I’m not going to say “The Wheel of Time” is the best piece of fantasy out right now when the audacious and jaw-dropping “Arcane” is less than a month old and season 2 of “The Witcher” is weeks away, but if you’re looking for a satisfying example of traditional fantasy that’s well written and acted, “The Wheel of Time” is a very cozy blanket to nestle into as the nights get longer.

You can watch “The Wheel of Time” on Amazon. The first four episodes are available now, with a new one dropping every Friday for a first season total of eight. It’s already renewed for a season 2. That’s half-filmed so the wait probably won’t be too long.

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

Stripped and Sold for Parts — “Cowboy Bebop”

Netflix’s live-action “Cowboy Bebop” proves that camp filmmaking isn’t easy. Why the contemplative, atmosphere-drenched sci-fi anime has been turned into a campy hodge-podge of kitsch is anyone’s guess. It’s not the adaptation I’d want to see, but I’m game for the concept. The problem is this: if you’re going to carve out the soul of a source material and transplant another one in, you’d better have a firm grasp on what you’re replacing it with and why.

“Cowboy Bebop” follows Spike, Jet, and Faye, bounty hunters in a post-Earth solar system. They’re constantly scraping by while jumping from planet to planet for their next target. These targets often embroil them in local politics and vendettas. They do their best to stay clear of these with varying degrees of success. Spike and Faye both hold secrets about their former lives, while Jet abides and gives them the benefit of the doubt even when they let him down.

John Cho’s Spike, Mustafa Shakir’s Jet, and Daniella Pineda’s Faye are the best thing about this show. There are changes from the anime, but the biggest ones have less to do with how the characters act, and more to do with their stories.

This is where I want to tackle “Cowboy Bebop” from two angles. I firmly believe that an adaptation doesn’t have to be too accurate when it comes to the details. Story changes are fine, so long as they maintain the broader intentions and themes of the original.

I have issues with “Cowboy Bebop” as its own entity, and as an adaptation. I want to split those two things apart. Let’s start with:

“COWBOY BEBOP” AS ITS OWN THING…

For some reason, “Cowboy Bebop” wants to be camp. The anime it’s based on wasn’t, but adaptations should feel free to change things like this. The problem is that showrunner Andre Nemec seems to think that camp is just one thing. The tone shifts from 60s fumetti adaptations (take “Barbarella” as an English example) to 70s exploitation films, into 90s Hercules/Xena modes, and through Robert Rodriguez territory. There are a lot of situations in which that breadth of campiness would be incredible. There’s no problem with doing all of the above, but there is a problem if you don’t understand the difference between these forms of camp and what each requires from its filmmakers.

Let’s take stilted line delivery as an example to show you what I mean: Fumetti adaptations were 60s and 70s adaptations of European comics, often in Italian and French. Their awkwardness and aggressive absurdity served as a contrast to the French New Wave movement they also drew from. Less studio-bound, raw filmmaking techniques that emulated the real world sat next to ridiculous situations, dialogue, and line readings to create a dissonant viewing experience. The quality of actors speaking in languages they didn’t know or being covered by underfunded dubbing only served to accentuate this dissonance.

By contrast, exploitation films ranged from blaxploitation to Troma and at their best encapsulated a subversive, insurgent activism. Isolated line readings served to call attention to those lines with sleek delivery within a relaxed editing rhythm, creating cinematic icons where they hadn’t existed. Exploitation could build on the outsider narratives of noir to then critique the voluntary helplessness to which noir – and its viewers – often succumb. These line readings were intentionally highlighted as a way of dismissing challenges from those that this new iconography made uncomfortable. These would in large part be bastardized into the one-liners of 80s movies.

“Hercules” and “Xena” in the 90s faced stiff budgetary constraints. By calling attention to their own shortcomings, they invited the audience to join in the play of it all, to feel like a partner alongside the actors in the same campy sandbox. These series also served as a hotbed for low-budget cinematography and technical experiments that laid foundation to the New Zealand filmmaking renaissance that would follow.

Robert Rodriguez makes his camp deliberate, both existing in and commenting on the genres it uses. He dials up stylistic elements in order to see how much he can squeeze out of a budget. Every line is an opportunity for a character to show off. Regardless of how well it serves the story, Rodriguez wants his performances to offer a high melodramatic return-on-investment. Get the most out of a line, worry about how well it fits later.

They’re all camp, but each approach does something completely different, and is built on a different shot selection and editing pace. The writing and filmmaking priorities for each is completely different. If you don’t know the difference between these, then you don’t know what each needs to be successful, and this is just talking about what one element of camp needs to work.

The first episode of “Cowboy Bebop” plays with the mistimed acting cues of fumetti that “Barbarella” made such successful comedy of, with the Dutch angles and intentional tableau of Rodriguez, with the inviting meta and budget-limited middle distance creativity of “Hercules” and “Xena”, with the isolated line as cool character moment, but none of them are housed within the styles or technical elements that give each of these things a foundation.

The isolated, cool line reading of exploitation cinema does not work within the mistimed cue of a fumetto adaptation. The wide range of exacting tableau Rodriguez delivers doesn’t work when every tableau is filmed as a middle distance two-shot. Dutch angles highlight the artificial nature of a shot in order to evoke something uncomfortable in pushing us away; they work directly against a moment of meta humor that invites us to feel alongside the actors.

The live-action “Cowboy Bebop” seems to believe camp is easy just because it’s silly, but this misses the very things that help camp create coherent alternate realities of storytelling that drive home its themes. Camp filmmaking here is understood as a quirky monolith, but just these four foundations of camp come from four different eras, four different places (Europe, the U.S., New Zealand, Mexico), and they speak to four different storytelling cultures – and these four are hardly the only anchor points in the history of camp filmmaking.

This might seem like: who cares, this is delving way too far into something that’s just silly. I could just say “Cowboy Bebop” is a muddled pastiche that can’t settle on a style and be done with it. The truth is, though, that “Cowboy Bebop” has settled on a style, and that style smacks of appropriating what came before without understanding any of it. It evokes someone showing up and acting like they know how to do something without having done the work to understand how and why it functioned time after time before they even got there.

Those line readings are just one example that describe so many more. This misapplication of camp permeates every element of the show. There has to be a knowledge of what kind of camp you’re aiming for, why that works for this scene, and what else has to be there to support it.

Camp is about irony. If you don’t know which approach to use because you treat them all the same, then you don’t know how you’re being ironic. Everyone can tell what you’re being ironic about, that’s the easy part. Congratulations, you just made “Family Guy”. But if you don’t know how you’re being ironic, then your audience sure as hell doesn’t either. It’s like cutting to the punchline of a joke without telling the setup. You told the most important part, sure, but that hardly means it works.

If comparing “Cowboy Bebop” to “Undercover Brother”, the 2000 “Charlie’s Angels”, “Hercules”, “Xena”, or “G vs E” finds it outclassed every time, something’s gone really wrong. Hell, last year’s “Vagrant Queen” didn’t do a lot right, but the things “Cowboy Bebop” does wrong are almost entirely what “Vagrant Queen” did get right.

None of this is the fault of the actors, and “Cowboy Bebop” is ultimately saved to some extent on the sheer charisma and talent of its three leads. Cho, Shakir, and Pineda do great work when the filmmakers get out of their way long enough for them to do it.

I’ve wanted to review “Cowboy Bebop” on its own facets before addressing how it does as an adaptation. The decision to make this camp is one that could have worked much better. What bothers me before even thinking about this as an adaptation is that this is a bad representation of camp, the points it can make, and the stories it can tell.

That sense of someone showing up and thinking they can do better with something they don’t understand only gets worse when you consider:

“COWBOY BEBOP” AS AN ADAPTATION…

Setting those problems aside, how is this as an adaptation of the anime “Cowboy Bebop”? Its success depends on what you want out of it.

The first episode of “Cowboy Bebop” is a disaster, trying to cram in so many nods and Easter Eggs from the show that it feels like one of those pages from “Ready Player One” that lists a bunch of popular items in the hope it can convince you bulk recognition is the same thing as nostalgia. The show does improve markedly after this, but it’s an uphill climb in the hope of getting back to sea level.

Let’s get into those three leads. The casting is perfect, but these aren’t 1-to-1 portrayals, either. Each takes their character and makes it their own. This means some changes in traits and tone; that’s going to come with any adaptation.

Their stories are often substantially rewritten, and many of these changes seem needless. I’m fine with an adaptation making changes like these so long as there’s a good reason and they don’t betray core meanings – I think it can be argued that Jet’s, Faye’s, and especially Julia’s stories are changed to the point of violating core meanings.

Is there a good reason for these changes? That’s very arguable. Do we need Jet to be an absentee father, chasing after a doll for half the season? Is “Cowboy Bebop” the most apt place to be retelling “Jingle All the Way”?

No, that’s just filler. The show is rife with writing that takes complex relationships of partial trust and different views on moral quandaries and reduces them to Odd Couple sitcom dynamics. This sitcom-style rewriting has its ups and downs, and sometimes it’s even well done. Cho, Shakir, and especially Pineda bring a ton of energy to it. What they’re doing in “Cowboy Bebop” I have no idea, but these sitcom elements are the most watchable part of the show, and writing that sentence makes me feel like I need to take a shower.

In other cases, the adaptation changes major character plotlines so that it can fill in its own explanations. The original anime was content to keep a lot in the dark, just as the characters were from each other. When you explain what’s mysterious, though, you lose the mystery. Yes, that might be the single most obvious sentence I’ve ever had to write, but it seems to be the philosophy behind this adaptation. And again, that’s fine if you’ve got something to replace it.

What made the original “Cowboy Bebop” so enticing was that mystique. We didn’t know these characters as well as we wanted, and we filled in what we didn’t know with hope for them that they may not have had for themselves. That was compelling, and it brought out what was human in the viewer. It made us catch our empathy in our throats. It brought out the stark divide of watching their universe even as ours grows to look more and more like it. The criminals Spike, Jet, and Faye brought in for bounties were often the only ones fighting the corporatism, corruption, and exploitation that had ruined each of their lives, that was ruining lives every place they went.

In researching their bounties and trying to understand who they hunted, the trio would often commiserate and identify with their quarry’s motives, even if their target had long ago lost the thread or become corrupt. The show was a scream from inside a broken system, a warning of what’s to come in a world with no future.

Its adaptation carries no such complexity. This “Cowboy Bebop” gives passing reference to these contemplations and hand waves them away in favor of kooky bounty hunting antics. Its plot explanations lose the existential, mistaking what was once anxious, absurd, and alienating for comedy quirk.

Even when a story is expanded with a good reason, such as Julia’s, it runs directly against the biggest throughline “Cowboy Bebop” had. Julia deserves her own agency and story, something the original never found the time to offer. This “Cowboy Bebop” focuses heavily on her story, but in so doing doesn’t find the same message as the anime. Instead, it seems to say that empowerment can be found within the same corporatist system that “Cowboy Bebop” was created to warn against. Julia should have an awesome expanded story. It shouldn’t be one that finds the empowerment everyone else lacks in the very system that first allowed her to be abused and threatened, and that removes power from everyone else.

So much of what made the anime great was this idea that Spike, Jet, and Faye were functioning as cogs within a corrupt system just to make it by, while resenting that system for taking away their lives and making everyone’s future bleak. How do they marry this idea of helping the system to continue while constantly running up against those who’ve decided to resist? It’s a concept that has only grown more and more relevant today. For the live-action adaptation to suggest a character’s escape from that system is simply to become the one running it and abusing others is a devastating betrayal of the original’s message. It’s a misunderstanding not just of the anime’s social value, but of how that fight exists in people’s lives today. Within the context of an adaptation, it’s at best a misunderstanding of empowerment and at worst a lie about it.

This adaptation is – in every way it can be – the epitome of someone walking in and thinking they can do better with something they haven’t even done the work to understand at its most basic level.

I went in with tempered expectations because the anime is a masterpiece. You can’t compare an adaptation to a masterpiece. Yet if the adaptation turns its back on the ethos of the source itself, that’s difficult to overcome or justify. The style, the ethos, the message, all of it is gone, replaced with a camp approach that could still work as its own thing but fails to understand how and why camp is used.

And maybe it’s not the worst of these issues, but the best way I have to sum up the adaptation is this: the stillness of the original is gone. The anime “Cowboy Bebop” was centered on jazz and blues. Every viewing was a syncopation, a calm before a chaos. Each character represented a moral viewpoint that had been transgressed, yet was desperately held to. Tension was created in which would win out: The transgression or the moral? The chaos or the calm? The hunter or the bounty? The system or the motive that resists it?

The anime was jazz, in the truest sense of the word. Here, the jazz is just the soundtrack to an asset strip.

You can watch “Cowboy Bebop” on Netflix.

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

“Arcane” is a Staggering Animation and Adaptation

We’ve waited for the first great adaptation of a video game. I mean the first honest-to-goodness, heart-in-throat kind of artistry that stands toe-to-toe with more traditional entries. The first three episodes of “Arcane” are out, and I think it’s safe to say that moment is finally here. We have an artistically stunning series adaptation of a video game that proves it can be done.

People who don’t play video games or who aren’t familiar with the source material might already be starting to zone out, so let me say this first. I’m not familiar with the lore of “League of Legends”, on which “Arcane” is based. It’s still a brilliant series. Have you ever seen a great movie without having read the book? It’s the same thing; it doesn’t matter if you’ve played the game or not. Great storytelling is great storytelling.

“Arcane” tells a tale of two sisters growing up in the neglected undercity of a shining steampunk metropolis. Vi and Powder lost their parents in an act of resistance years ago, and have taken up as thieves. “Arcane” shifts back and forth between the haves and the have-nots. The slightest provocation will send Piltover’s militarized police force flooding into the undercity; the slightest resistance is met with police brutality en masse.

Of course, the first job we see Vi and Powder pull off with their crew goes wrong, and sends Piltover combing through the undercity for them. “Arcane” is an action series, but it earns its action. The tension of watching police escalate a violent, occupying force is all too relevant today.

The storytelling here is phenomenal. Some elements in its universe will feel familiar, but the presentation feels genuinely new. How often do you get to say something feels new in a series? “Arcane” uses a gorgeously evocative presentation that feels like watching oil paintings move. More traditional elements of animation are used for the world itself, such as a sudden burst of dust, or drops of rain cascading down an umbrella at a lower frame rate.

The mixture of those familiar animated visual markers and that oil painting style gives “Arcane” a jaw-dropping range. Piltover is defined by its sun, pastels, and straight lines, while the undercity is a mass of neon colors, jumbled angles, and gradiated shadows. “Arcane” uses its quiet moments to staggering effect, relying on the atmosphere, blocking, and slowly developed visual metaphor to describe its characters’ internal lives.

Adaptations of video games into movies or series often fail because studios feel gamers want constant action. Yet gameplay is often defined by large moments of quiet that highlight those sudden moments where muscle memory kicks in and decisions have to be made instinctively. In MOBA games like “League of Legends”, a large amount of the gameplay relies on strategy, speculation, and team communication that can veer from orderly to panicked at a moment’s notice. Conflicts are chosen, and when they’re not, running away is often the wiser choice.

What makes games unique as a medium is the amount of player agency to explore spaces and gameplay loops however the player wants. The most memorable parts of even the most action-heavy FPS games tend to be quiet moments, the atmosphere that defines a game, or action where the player is forced to come up with a creative alternate plan after their first doesn’t work.

Some might pale at a player being proud when they rack up kills, but it’s no different from a chess player being proud when they amass material by knocking off the opposition’s pieces. The pride in either isn’t that of the bloodshed it represents. It’s pride at getting knowledgeable enough about a gameplay system that you understand it faster and translate that understanding into creative play.

Movie adaptations of video games often think they’re adapting the bloodshed or the violence. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of a player’s experience. What’s being adapted is the creative experience that results from the player agency that video games as a medium uniquely provide.

Adapting games to films and series needs to reflect these experiences. “Arcane” takes its time showing you a space, how it moves, and how its characters move through, see, and hear it – the same thing players directly connect with when they play a game. That echoes the agency to explore space. Its characters bicker about teammates’ capabilities and what role they can play, echoing the same MOBA element. Initial conflicts are told through sacrifice or running away, reflecting the strategic nature of engagement in a game like “League of Legends”.

When video games are adapted to films or series, they don’t need to be faster or more brutal or anything like that. They need to be like “Arcane”, focused on how characters each understand and move through a space, and by extension how different characters each come to understand the larger world that opens.

I don’t come to “League of Legends” with any knowledge of its lore. I do know it features more than 140 characters, each with their own backstories, each of which threads through the backstories of multiple other characters. That paints an intricate world full of conflicting motivations. The days of dismissing video games as narratively simple are over when many paint some of the most detailed worlds in any medium. You can feel “Arcane” take all these things seriously, as a real adaptation of a complex world told through various perspectives. There’s a genuine care in how this story is told, the kind of care we’re used to seeing when a cherished novel is adapted.

We’ve seen enough bad adaptations of video games to know by now that the same care, effort, and precision that makes any other kind of adaptation good is also needed here. In the first three episodes of “Arcane” that are now available, we finally get to see what that approach delivers, and it’s staggeringly beautiful.

The first three hourlong episodes of “Arcane” are available on Netflix. The second three will arrive on Saturday, November 13, and the final three on Saturday, November 20.

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

Comedy Care — “Only Murders in the Building”

“Only Murders in the Building” is a love letter to New York that translates even to people who loathe New York. It’s a multi-faceted comedy that features two greats from the 80s who have evolved with the times: Steve Martin and Martin Short. It anchors Selena Gomez as an exceptional actor. It features one of the best ensembles in recent memory. It’s a mystery that’s more successful and intriguing than most of what passes for a mystery.

Steve Martin plays Charles, the former TV star of a terrible detective show. Martin Short is Oliver, a has-been Broadway producer who’s heavily in debt. Selena Gomez is Mabel, a woman who’s recently moved into the same expensive apartment complex. The three exist in separate worlds until one day they enter the same elevator as a man who’s minutes away from being murdered.

Their sudden discovery of loving the same true crime podcast (“All is Not OK in Oklahoma”) sends them barreling down the road of producing their own. After all, they have a murder in their building. One of them’s a producer, one an actor, and Mabel turns out to be a natural investigator. They can be first on the scene for any developments. The police suspect it’s a suicide, but three random New Yorkers with nothing else to do know better, right?

The show starts out with each episode considering a different suspect, but quickly gets more complex. The supporting cast is ridiculous: Nathan Lane, Tina Fey, Amy Ryan, Aaron Dominguez, Jane Lynch. Even Sting makes an appearance. It plays with the idea that it’s usually the famous guest star who’s guilty on a show. If half the supporting cast is famous, that assumption’s out the window.

“Only Murders in the Building” remembers the art of the red herring, the false clue that leads our investigators down the wrong path. The episodes sometimes mirror their podcast’s episodes, toying cleverly with ideas of filler and overdramatization.

What really makes “Only Murders in the Building” special is its understanding of being surrounded by people and yet being lonely. Charles, Oliver, and Mabel are each painfully lonely in unique ways, and each of them responds differently.

Charles follows daily routines that anesthetize him to the world. Their structure creates a space where he can’t get hurt, or feel much of anything. He’d rather perform an emotion than let someone witness a real one. What we can forget about Steve Martin’s comedy is how melancholic it can be, how aching he can make a moment, how he can share shame and embarrassment in a way that’s universal.

Oliver keeps on reaching out, garrulous, friendly, charming in an often desperate way. His isolation isn’t a finely-tuned discipline like Charles’s, but rather chaotic and uncontrolled. Too many productions of his flopped. Too many people have loaned him money. No one trusts him anymore, and the minute they let him back into their lives, he’s asking for something. Martin Short walks the fine line of someone who’s honest but doesn’t know when to stop, who’s sure the next idea will be the one to save him instead of dig him deeper.

Mabel is determined. Her loneliness is created out of trauma and loss, though it takes us time to understand it. She’s still figuring out who she wants to be. Her concern is keeping people at a distance for their own safety. If everyone around her suffers tragedy, why would she keep anyone around her? Charles and Oliver are in many ways safe because they’re set in their ways. She may hide things from them, but she doesn’t imagine she can influence their decisions.

Selena Gomez is the standout here. That shouldn’t be a surprise by now, even when paired with generational actors. It might be easy to dismiss her as a pop star, but she’s had a few awards-worthy performances over the past decade. She’s the dramatic core, and matches Steve Martin’s acerbic wit while often carrying the show.

So everyone’s lonely and tragic. Sounds like a hoot, right? Yet “Only Murders in the Building” is one of the funniest shows of the year. It humanizes these things rather than exploiting them. It finds the identifiable and empathetic in them. That’s where the comedy comes out. These three people can understand each others’ loneliness. Because they understand it, they can poke fun at it as a way of drawing closer and building trust. They can communicate out of it. It’s a private grammar they understand and the rest of the world doesn’t. The situational and physical comedy, the mystery and true crime parodies – these all work because of our fundamental empathy for these characters. They speak to parts of us on a level not many things do.

I love a parody that can poke fun at its genre, but when it houses itself in that genre, believes in it, and understands how that genre captures us, even manipulates us – then it can exist both inside that genre and as a comment on it, it can create its own world with its own comedic logic that we’re willing to follow because its humanity feels more transparent and honest. When it gets abstract or shifts into performance art, or has a celebrity play themselves, there’s a trust that’s been earned that many other shows couldn’t even imagine is a possibility.

“Only Murders in the Building” is about a murder mystery, the true crime industry, dry wit and pratfalls, sure. What it really speaks to is our desperate need to build community around whatever we can get our hands on in a world that evokes more loneliness by the day. Making a joke of that has to be done a certain way – to disarm it rather than exacerbate it. “Only Murders in the Building” helps us feel in on that joke, helps us feel seen, gives us moments where we can have power over that lonely part of ourselves, even if only for 10 episodes.

You can watch “Only Murders in the Building” on Hulu. It has been renewed for a second season.

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