Category Archives: Television

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.

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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.

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“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.

Beckinsale Elevates an Unsteady but Ambitious “Guilty Party”

“Guilty Party” stars Kate Beckinsale as a tenacious journalist trying to prove a Black woman innocent of murdering her husband. A year off winning Colorado’s most prestigious investigative journalist award, Beckinsale’s Beth Burgess is now discredited. She once worked for a major newspaper. Now she toils away in a clickbait factory.

The ideas that create tension in “Guilty Party” are good ones. When she was successful and admired, Beth could count on her husband as supportive. Now that the power dynamic has shifted in their relationship, he’s pressuring her to have children she doesn’t want. He also wants to move to Wyoming, which would essentially end her career – and that’s the point. If she had no career left, she’d have to do something else. Say…raise a family.

At the same time, Beth starts out doing a shoddy job at her one opportunity for redemption. When she meets with the imprisoned Toni, convicted years prior for the shooting murder of her husband, Beth hasn’t bothered to do her research. She leans instead on her privilege, something Toni immediately recognizes and calls out.

Most series do one or the other when it comes to privilege. They don’t try to take on the complexity of someone who has privilege in one way and lacks it in another. This is the appeal of “Guilty Party”. Beth is someone who gives the right answers when questioned about her intentions: she wants to help a Black woman prove her innocence in a justice system that’s railroaded her. Yet she primarily treats the opportunity as a path to return to the limelight. It’s not Toni’s redemption story; it’s her own. It’s not someone proving that Toni is innocent. Beth doesn’t even seem to care if she is. It’s about Beth specifically owning the story and proving that she’s still relevant.

It’s a shockingly good set-up to show how a person who lacks privilege in one area will feed on their privilege in another just to stay afloat. As a premise, it immediately demonstrates how patriarchal systems make those without power re-enact oppression against others. Nobody’s fighting for space against systems of white and male privilege when they’re fighting each other for what little space they’ve retained.

Does such a good idea make “Guilty Party” a good series?

The problem is that “Guilty Party” has to land this, and it’s difficult to tell if its focused enough to do so. The first two episodes are all over the map. Beth’s relationship to Toni is manipulative, and our trust in Beth as an audience is very conditional. We don’t have a consistent tone to rely on, and we have an intentionally inconsistent lead. New episodes drop weekly, so we just don’t know yet how the series intends to engage this conversation more fully.

Let’s approach that tone issue. “Guilty Party” is a black comedy first and foremost. Before COVID, Isla Fisher was cast to star in the series. You can see how well it’s designed for an actor like her, complete with zany departures and some physical comedy. Fisher withdrew due to the pandemic, and Kate Beckinsale replaced her. Does this work? Yes and no.

Beckinsale is clearly playing against type, but she’s always been a strong actress in her action and horror career. She tends to elevate material and make it more compelling than it would be otherwise. She’s also kept up in smaller, dramatic films.

Beckinsale brings a pathos and desperation to Beth that may’ve been played a little too much for comedy in Fisher’s hands. Beckinsale adds a heft to “Guilty Party” that it badly needs. She also inhabits the role in a way that sells the physical comedy better than you might expect.

The writing has its bright spots, including some incredibly quotable lines. The dialogue is clever, with a host of effective, observational one-liners.

That said, there are absolutely places where you can see a gap, and this is primarily the writing’s fault. In one scene, Beth confronts a gun-runner who’s stalking her and goes off on a justifiably angry monologue. Because it’s written to be a comedic moment, it’s where Fisher would have shined. She’d have jumped through the monologue with a lightness and rhythm that could’ve fused the angry to the comic.

Beckinsale powers through it, without letting that pathos up. There’s an extra gear of idiosyncrasy that she can’t shift into, the exact space that tends to be Fisher’s bread and butter. Beckinsale can elevate the central themes and stakes of the show in a way Fisher might not have, but she also bumps into situational premises that were expressly designed for an actor who specializes in comedy.

Ultimately, “Guilty Party” is a show that needs elevation from its lead on both fronts. It’s watchable, and more so if you like Beckinsale. With Fisher, it might’ve been funnier. With Beckinsale, it has added edge. I tend to think the latter is the better route for “Guilty Party” because of the themes it wants to engage. It’s funny enough either way, but Beth needs to be someone we both like and dislike, trust and distrust, in order to evoke how her privilege and lack of privilege intersect. Whether the show can do this successfully is still up in the air. Beckinsale gives it a withering perspective that provides initial space for us to trust the show and see where it goes.

My first reaction was that I wish they’d have been able to land an actor who could’ve tackled both. I can’t help think of Zoey Deutch’s performance in “Buffaloed”, but she’d also have to be 20 years older for this role. She also had the benefit of a great script, Tanya Wexler’s direction, and supporting actors like Judy Greer in that film.

That makes me realize my first reaction is absolutely wrong. Isla Fisher, Kate Beckinsale…either one is wildly successful casting for a series. That the show shifted its lead from one to the other provides an opportunity to highlight the series’ design and what works and doesn’t. That’s where the comparison should stop. Beckinsale isn’t failing here; she’s squarely lifting the show up.

While Beckinsale’s approach to the dialogue might mean a zany bit here or there doesn’t work as well as it could, her shaded irreverence deepens the themes and questions at the core of the show. There’s both an idealism and vindictiveness to Beth that stretch beyond comedy and into the drama that “Guilty Party” needs to fuse its disparate parts together.

That Beckinsale does this nine times out of 10 instead of all 10 is hardly a criticism of her. That she needs to do this so often to lift the show around her is the fault of the show around her. She’s being asked to make up too much ground. That she almost does is incredibly impressive.

The truth is that “Guilty Party” needs to be more focused and edited. There are more than a few scenes that are bad ideas. For instance, at one point Beth shows up to the women’s prison on a day when visitors aren’t allowed. There’s no time pressure involved, but she antagonizes the guards trying to see Toni, stages a short-lived protest where she refuses to leave, and then tries to bribe the gate guard.

I can buy her showing up on the wrong day. It’s something reporters know to check, but Beth is a year out-of-practice and it’s hardly the first mistake she makes out of desperation. Yet a reporter who’s supposed to be as exceptional and experienced as she is wouldn’t take those next actions without a directly achievable goal. She’d simply know they wouldn’t work, that they’d risk jeopardizing her ability to return at any point in the future, and she’d come back a day later. (I’ve worked as a reporter; this is pretty straightforward).

The scene exists because it’s an opportunity for a zany comedy sequence, but it doesn’t work in the more consequential world “Guilty Party” wants to inhabit. It’s not that it doesn’t make sense, it’s that it directly undercuts everything else we’ve been told about who Beth is. Trust her or not, in a space of privilege or not, the one thing we know about her is that she’s skilled and experienced. Here, she’s completely incompetent for the sake of a bit.

You can have a bit that makes no sense. “Guilty Party” makes other absurdist elements work. A wannabe Tiger King character named Wyatt who’s inches away from being a David Spade sketch helps create a sequence that’s both tense and funny. What you can’t do is stick a bit in that so thoroughly undercuts the most foundational piece of who Beth is, especially when that’s the only piece of an unreliable protagonist that anchors us to her. Beth’s attempted prison bribe is a situational premise that could have been pulled off by a Rebel Wilson or Will Ferrell in the kinds of comedies they’re best known for making. That doesn’t mean it fits here. “Guilty Party” wants to have a consistent, consequential world, so when it does something like the prison bribe scene, the comedy has zero chance of working because it doesn’t fit the world, the show, or the character.

I really do think Beckinsale saves the series, and gives a performance worth watching. That said, I have a hard time seeing “Guilty Party” work with most actors in the lead because of the show around it. The ensemble is fine – especially Jules Latimer’s imprisoned Toni, Madeleine Arthur’s editor Amber, Andre Hyland’s Wyatt, and coworkers played by Djouliet Amara and Tiya Sircar. It’s the writing that too often stumbles.

For the discussions about privilege it wants to have, it stretches too far into comedic scenes that undercut its foundation. There’s still a good comedy here without those scenes, and probably a much more pointed one. If you expand social criticism into the entire show, then the comedy needs to be a lot more precise than this is. “Guilty Party” has these themes embodied in its characters; it should trust this more and bring the comedy closer to them.

I plan to keep watching. There’s enough interesting possibility for where “Guilty Party” could go, and Beckinsale is doing a superb job of making the series work better than it should.

Enough of the dialogue and Beckinsale’s physical comedy works to still sell the comedic elements. Where Beckinsale really excels is by pinpointing the themes of the show and giving us a character who zig-zags around them so much that we won’t be surprised if she serves them or opposes them. This could be a redemptive tale about two women wronged by very different systems, a black comedy “House of Cards” about someone who plays the victim brilliantly, or half of each. Beth could be innocent and idealistic, or manipulative and egotistical. Or all of the above. This takes what would otherwise be a very watchable but unremarkable series and turns it into something genuinely intriguing.

Just like I don’t know what to think of Beth, I can’t tell whether “Guilty Party” is going to land where it wants. I won’t be surprised if it begins zeroing in on its social critiques much more effectively. I also won’t be surprised if it screws up the conversations it wants to have. I won’t be surprised if it gets more cohesive and gels around the irreverent, manipulative performance Beckinsale is giving. I won’t be surprised if it continues to undercut its themes and that performance trying to out-comedy the parts of it that are already pointed and funny.

I’m pretty sure “Guilty Party” knows what it wants to be thematically. Hiding what this is behind an unreliable protagonist doesn’t change that, but it does require some patience. That it’s so imprecise about what it wants to be tonally does give me some pause about how effective it will be about landing those thematic reveals.

I plan to keep watching, but consider it a light recommendation.

It’s a watch if that sounds intriguing, and you’re willing to let a series into your life that needs leeway before showing you what it is. It’s a watch if you’re a Beckinsale fan – it’s refreshing to see her flex her acting chops this way.

Alternately, it’s not a watch if you can’t place that kind of trust or time in a series before knowing if it’s worth it. If you couldn’t care less about Beckinsale, this is unlikely to change that.

You can watch “Guilty Party” on Paramount+. New episodes arrive every Thursday.

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

“Maid” is Compelling, Precise, and Inconsistent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can watch “Maid” on Netflix.

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

You Really Should Be Watching “Nancy Drew”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Sorcerer Detective We Need — “Trese”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can watch “Trese” on Netflix.

A Study in Distractions — “Yasuke”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can watch “Yasuke” on Netflix.

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