We are in a time of shock and the temptation is to normalize it. In the last week, Roe and the right to an abortion was overturned, the ability to enforce Miranda rights was severely limited, Native Americans lost jurisdiction over their land, employees proselytizing in public schools was given the green light, and the EPA was gutted of its regulatory ability (and by extension of the ruling, potentially many other federal agencies). We have a Supreme Court with a 6-3 Republican majority, that has decided to legislate from the bench.
They’ve agreed to hear a case next year that would give state legislatures the ability to override their state’s voting results – something that would have handed a second term in the presidency to Trump in 2020, and that may guarantee we never see a Democratic president again regardless of how large an electoral margin they win by.
The temptation is to think that norms will override this moment, that it can’t happen here, as if the last six years haven’t been a step-by-step guide for how it happens here. The temptation will be to view this fear as radical and unrealistic, the way people worried about Roe being overturned or federal agencies being eviscerated were a very short time ago viewed as radical and unrealistic. It will happen here. It’s about to happen here. We have one election remaining to stop it. We have one year remaining to stop it.
I am more anxious and angry than I was during Bush’s seizure of the 2000 election, or during 9/11, or during Trump’s election. There’s one step left they have to take before erasing any semblance of a democracy here. Please take action. Please get used to taking action every day. Please get others to take action alongside you. So many will suffer if we don’t.
There’s no segue. Art’s still important, maybe even moreso than ever.
The Bear (FX, Hulu) co-showrunner Joanna Calo
A chef with a fine dining background comes back home to Chicago. He’s attempting to save his family’s sandwich shop, but he may be in over his head. “The Bear” has already seized attention as one of the best series of the year.
Joanna Calo showruns with creator Christopher Storer. She’s written and produced on a diverse range of series including “Hacks”, “The Baby-Sitters Club” and “BoJack Horseman”.
You can watch “The Bear” on FX or Hulu. All 8 episodes are available.
A reporter reflects on her childhood, growing up in a Dominican family that immigrated to Miami in the 1980s.
Brigitte Munoz-Liebowitz showruns the series created by Claudia Forestieri. Munoz-Liebowitz has written for “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and wrote and produced on “One Day at a Time”. Forestieri wrote on “Good Trouble” and wrote and produced on “Selena: The Series”.
Words have consequences. That’s what happened when Gina Carano was fired from “The Mandalorian” in 2021. She had compared “hating someone for their political views” to the treatment of Jewish people that preceded the Holocaust. It’s part and parcel to the narrative that disagreeing with a Republican victimizes them so much that their suffering can only be compared to a genocide.
Before this, Carano had pushed election conspiracy theories and supported voter suppression efforts. Needless to say, Disney got tired of its hit series shouldering the criticism of a supporting actress who had appeared in fewer than half its episodes. Why cover for her and risk a serious hit to the reputation of a cornerstone franchise? Carano was fired in February 2021 and Disney stated that she wouldn’t appear in any future “Star Wars” projects.
Since then, Carano has been associated with film projects by The Daily Wire, Ben Shapiro’s media company, and “My Son Hunter”, a film based on Rudy Giuliani’s 2020 election conspiracy propaganda that centers on President Joe Biden’s son Hunter. It’s by the makers of “The ObamaGate Movie” starring Dean Cain. What, they couldn’t get Kevin Sorbo?
Carano more recently argued that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is nothing but a conspiracy to distract from the U.S. government “losing control of the covid narrative”. She’s also said that the COVID-19 vaccines are most similar to the AIDS epidemic. Not that the COVID-19 pandemic is similar to the AIDS epidemic, but that the vaccines are. She lamented being “stripped of everything” due to the firing. You know, aside from her $4 million net worth and contracts that came pouring in from Republican outlets.
Point is – and I meant to make it more briefly than this, but the examples really keep on coming – that Carano is exceptionally toxic and can’t return to the franchise. Yet why let her take a character with her? Marshall Cara Dune of “The Mandalorian” is a character others wrote, directed, choreographed, and even performed in certain moments. A character is always the creation of many, not just one person.
Recasting should always be a well-considered conversation. It can be easily abused to minimize actors’ creative input, or to keep them from revealing a toxic set. Here, however, it was Carano who was the toxic and hateful one. She was the one creating the problem. Franchises constantly update characters to toss out the elements that don’t work. If Carano’s the element that doesn’t work, problem solved.
Would recasting Cara Dune ruin our immersion? Did it ruin our immersion when War Machine was recast from Terrence Howard in “Iron Man” to Don Cheadle in “Iron Man 2”? Those two actors look nothing alike and act nothing alike – their portrayals of the character were completely different. We embraced Cheadle anyway.
Was our immersion ruined when “Batman Begins” recast love interest Rachel Dawes from a solid Katie Holmes performance over to an even better Maggie Gyllenhaal? No, it was the right move.
We’ve got a couple of Spider-Men and Batfolk and Commissioners Gordon bouncing around, no one’s making the argument that shifting back and forth between their actors ruins immersion.
“The Mandalorian” purposefully doesn’t cast dynamic supporting actors. It casts supporting roles with actors who play directly into type so that Pedro Pascal can stand out as exceptional even when he’s unable to show his face 95% of the time. If the supporting actors were our best character actors, Pascal would become lost. This isn’t a criticism of the show’s actors – type actors aren’t lesser than character actors, they just perform a different storytelling role. It’s how you can make the faceless role the most dynamic one among actors who all get to show their faces. You cast the ensemble for earnest portrayals, not complex ones, and it works beautifully.
I say this as someone who used to be a fan of Carano’s. When she was competing in MMA, she was my favorite fighter. She was a stand-up fighter who tried to win fights with a minimum of going to the ground. That reflected what I was taught in taekwondo and kickboxing growing up, and I appreciated that there was a fighter who made that philosophy work in a sport that tends to prioritize grappling. I tracked down a lot of her early films before streaming was as widespread because I wanted to see the fight choreography. Even then, I knew she wasn’t a good actress. Maybe she’d become one, but I watched her the way I watch some early Schwarzenegger movies – because I appreciated what they were doing on-screen even if the acting was questionable.
Carano is eminently replaceable as an actor. Even if she weren’t, she says a lot of harmful, dangerous shit. Anyone who’s pushing hatred and conspiracies shouldn’t be given a platform, and pushing hatred doesn’t give someone a magical right to someone else’s platform. I’m glad Carano’s fired, and I hope the conservative rumor mill that regularly insists she’ll be rehired remains nothing more than clickbait gossip.
Of course, the easiest way to not rehire her is to recast the role and move on. It also enables all those other people who helped create the character to keep on doing so.
If you keep Cara Dune, though, who plays her? Fan recasting efforts centered around Lucy Lawless, but I don’t know that she’d communicate the same character. She also has a habit of outshining her costars, which works in her projects – but is the exact opposite of what “The Mandalorian” needs from its supporting actors. Lawless is also an order of magnitude more expensive than what they were paying Carano. Even hit series have to keep to budget.
Why not just cast the woman who’s already played Cara Dune? No, not Carano. Amy Sturdivant has been Cara Dune’s stunt performer on the show. She was also Taskmaster’s stunt performer in “Black Widow”, and appeared as a stunt actor in “Obi-Wan Kenobi” and “Captain Marvel”. Here’s a short fight film of hers:
Despite how much they contribute to creating characters, down to how they move through a scene, stunt actors rarely have paths into acting in Western film. The film industries of many Asian countries regularly look for talent among stunt performers to promote into acting – Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Tony Jaa are some of the most famous.
As the American film industry has embraced more martial arts fight choreography, though, it’s lagged behind in creating this stunt-to-acting pipeline. This is one reason why American fight scenes still lack the complexity, scope, and length of Chinese, Hong Kong, Korean, Indonesian, Japanese, and Thai fight scenes.
The mold needs to be broken. We’ll stick singers, dancers, streamers, Instagram stars, and celebrities-of-the-moment all into our movies and series with no acting experience, and give them every resource to succeed, but stunt performers who have eaten and breathed their lives on set for their entire career still don’t have that pipeline. Stunt performers who’ve taken physical risks and suffered injuries portraying characters with barely any credit still don’t have that pipeline. Hell, Carano had no acting training before she shifted from MMA to Hollywood. Why should it stop a stunt performer who’s already been on sets for 10 years?
Amy Sturdivant has already performed Cara Dune in some of her most harrowing moments. I’m not making the argument she’s a great actor. She could be, who knows? I’ve watched some of her short films and choreography sessions in researching this article. She seems solid, and has enough charisma to deliver Cara Dune. More to the point, she’s already done the hardest, most taxing parts of portraying that character capably. I’m just saying let her do it 100% of the time. What do you have to lose? A side character in a few episodes who’s otherwise written out of the series?
But angry Republican fans will…do what? They’re already angry at you, they’ve already said the things they’re going to say, the few who’d stop watching have already done so.
The fans who are sticking with the series, the ones who wanted Carano to go, would be happy to see her recast with someone less toxic and hateful. A lot of people would be pleased to find out it’s someone who’s been involved with the character from the start.
What you have to gain is keeping intact a character who’s already established. What you have to gain is testing a stunt-to-actor pipeline that could give you returns for years in franchises that need actors who boast these kinds of skillsets. What you have to gain is a new source of potential actors, and a new actor in particular who could succeed in a popular role.
It’s the easiest recasting in the world in terms of finding your replacement – Sturdivant doesn’t just already work on the series, she already works on that character’s performance. Given the nature of “The Mandalorian”, Sturdivant’s already helped shape the Cara Dune we’ve seen. Why not let her keep on doing it in a way that’s more visible?
Hell of a day to be writing this. Look, women don’t need a dude to be telling them what to do in the wake of Roe v. Wade being struck down by the Supreme Court. But men? We need to fight like it’s our fight. Is it because gender is a complex concept and some men can get pregnant? Yeah, that’s part of it. Is it because we’re such good allies to women? That’d be good, but why is that the equation in the first place?
How about because it’s our damn fight. Not ours to lead or any of that bullshit, but because women’s rights are human rights. Oh no, I just quoted Hillary Clinton, I can feel some people I know fuming – get over it. Do you disagree? Do you disagree with the reality that women’s rights are human rights?
If you know women’s rights are human rights, then fight like it. Do the activist work that gets people elected who can change this shit, do the protest work that shifts norms and encourages growing numbers to raise their voices and vote. Shouldn’t matter if you’re a man or not, shouldn’t matter if you think this is a women’s rights issue or not. It should matter if you’re a human because you’re fighting for a human right.
As men, we’re taught to feel disconnected from whether people have the right to an abortion. We’re taught to think it’s some other person’s fight. If that right is a human right, why the hell don’t we as men – in the numbers we can bring in to support – why don’t we act like it’s a human right? I’m tired of the bullshit norms that excuse men from this work. I’m tired of the privileged concepts that teach us that armchair quarterbacking those who are doing the work equates to effort instead of self-important fantasy football for activism.
As men, we can help normalize and expand the right to an abortion. As men, we can provide the numbers that enable ongoing efforts to turn the tide. We like to pretend the choice to get involved isn’t a conscious one, that doing nothing or little is a promise of involvement later. How much later, because it’s pretty fucking late. Being involved or not, doing the work of activism or not, those are conscious choices. Failing to work for a human right isn’t a norm. It’s not a promise to get involved at some point when we feel like. Failing to do that work is a failure, and men are failing.
That’s not anti-man or any of that bullshit. If it’s a human right, and we don’t fight for it, then we are failing. As men, we all know that men will work harder to justify our failure to show up than we will on actually getting involved. We’ll put more work into criticizing those who are doing work than we will on actually getting involved. Human rights are not secondary to our comfort, and I’m sick of the expense our comfort extorts. We talk about masculinity as a sacrifice of body, as a worship of personal gain. We don’t talk about it as a sacrifice of time, effort, energy, alliance, empathy, presence. We talk about it in terms of showing off, not showing up. How is that worth a single fuck? How does that change anyone’s life but yours? What do you want others to call that but sociopathic?
As men, we fail again and again and again, and move the goalposts further back to legitimize that our continued failures to help are just norms that have always existed. We gaslight on a social scale so we don’t need to lift a finger. What a pathetic bunch. What a non-value we’ve become. What a worship of meaninglessness and nonexistence we’ve sold ourselves.
It’s not that hard to call officials, to march or lend support, to offer a skill that’s useful, to find out where an organization needs you and be there. As men, we have no impact or footprint beyond what we fail to do, beyond the responsibility we prolong, beyond those we call allies who never see us arrive in meaningful numbers. Our laziness makes the world a desolation, while we message back and forth a play-act about how others failed.
I’m done with men being a failure, but it doesn’t make a fucking difference if we as men aren’t done with it. I’m not sure we’ll get there, but can we at least god damn try? Can we try for a bit as if it’s our responsibility, too? Can we act like that on some level of scale?
We can say not all men, whatever, but not nearly the fuck enough, and we know it. Show up, get other men to show up, normalize why showing up is our responsibility and matters. Change what we are, because what we are…we know it doesn’t work. We know it doesn’t help. We know we can do more to support others and build community than we’ve done.
Call your representative. Call your senators. Call your governor. Search how to call your congresspeople in your state house and senate. Maybe they’ll listen, maybe they won’t, but we spend more time worrying about that than the time it takes to call, and calling Republicans in numbers still applies pressure and saps them of political capital. Volunteer with Planned Parenthood. Search for abortion rights marches in your area. Take an action. Let’s be men and help.
Let’s talk about conservatives, how we measure viewership, and “Ms. Marvel”…by talking about an extinct creature that once roamed the earth: the newspaper. For a long time, newspapers followed a rule. You needed regular features to keep your subscribers happy, and you needed fresh headlines to accumulate rack sales – people buying at newstands and in checkout lines. As print media has faded, you might say that this guideline no longer matters – and what could it possibly have to do with the MCU? Well, look around.
Do you read news online? You probably have a few regular sites you frequent, but you’ll still click on big headlines – sometimes even before checking the source. 24-hour news networks balance regular features and weekly programs with breaking news and specials. Even something like ESPN has their daily shows – usually all talking about the same few stories over and over again – balanced against unique documentaries and timely interviews that will speak to narrower bands of their audience.
That’s all legacy media, though. OK, the biggest streamers run regular, familiar content at the same time each week, but create and jump on other special events. Many devote time to playing one game they’re working through one day each week, and then leave other days up to new games and IRL content. YouTubers balance recurring features on a regular, predictable basis (usually weekly or monthly) with forays into new content to see what material hooks (and can eventually become the next regular weekly content).
Why should the MCU be any different? Reaction to “Ms. Marvel” has been both wonderful and horrible. Many viewers love it, and my Muslim friends have been speaking out about mainstream representation in a way they’ve rarely been able to discuss in the U.S. At the same time, reviews are being brigaded by racists pulling scores down and complaining about woke casting shoving diversity down their throats.
Let’s be real: Islam accounts for 25% of the world’s population. We’ve had 28 films and 18 series in the MCU. “Ms. Marvel” means that one of them has centered on a Muslim character. That’s about 2% of all MCU films and series. Two-percent to represent 25%, and this is somehow overrepresentation? It’s too much for you? Are you a Great Gatsby character – you need a fainting couch and some pearls to clutch? The only amount of representation that is less than one out of 46 is zero out of 46: complete erasure.
Let’s be clear what that argument really is. The complaint isn’t about overrepresentation, it’s about hate. It’s about being angry a group of people has been made barely visible. It’s about fearing that they are happy and feel represented, when before you could enjoy some small emulation of self-importance making them feel unseen. One out of 46 and your shit has been lost because some people feel seen.
If white replacement theory is scandalized by the notion that the quarter of the world that is Muslim is represented two-percent of the time, then I can’t imagine any way of thinking that’s smaller, more fragile, or more cowardly.
Ah, but the news about viewership proves them right, right? Full steam to the S.S. Fainting Couch, bowtied conservolads! “Ms. Marvel” is the least viewed MCU debut on Disney+. While Disney+ doesn’t release numbers itself, TV analytics companies assess a viewership range based on a lot of other data. According to SambaTV, “Ms. Marvel” only got 0.8 million viewers compared to the next least-watched of the Disney+ MCU shows: the 1.5 million of “Hawkeye”. Of course, those other shows are being produced at $25 million an episode – I’d be shocked if this were the case for a YA series like “Ms. Marvel”.
Oh look, I’m on the defensive already! I’m making excuses! You’ll steal my fainting couch for yourselves yet! So let’s talk about subscription vs. rack sales in terms of the MCU.
Chris Hemsworth is 38. Sebastian Stan is 39. Tom Hiddleston is 41. Chris Pratt is 42. Oscar Isaac is 43. Anthony Mackie is 43. Benedict Cumberbatch is 45. Paul Bettany is 51. Paul Rudd is 53 going on 30. Jeremy Renner is 51 going on 140. Hemsworth, Stan, and Hiddleston could be doing this another decade, but if Robert Downey Jr. was getting too old for this at 54 when most of his action scenes were being done through CGI, then how long are some of those actors going to be able to keep playing these roles?
And as much as we’d like to think that Brie Larson at 32, Elizabeth Olsen at 33, and Evangeline Lilly at 42 have plenty of time left, the franchise was willing to cut bait with Scarlett Johansson – the biggest star left in the franchise – when she was 36. It’d be great if the MCU sees women heroes return into their 50s the way it lets men, and it’s something we should insist on seeing, but what we’re fighting is a long precedent for major franchises retiring women a lot younger than they retire men.
The MCU needs more than Tom Holland, Simu Liu, and Hailee Steinfeld. It’s got the subscribers – Gen X and Millennials. We’re hooked in, by fandom or by sunk cost fallacy. If we’ve devoted this many hours of our lives to the MCU, I guess we’ve got to see what happens next. Sure, “Spider-people vs. Lokis” is just going to be 25 stunt-castings of each re-enacting the battle royale from “Anchorman”, but what else is a Millennial like me going to watch? A “Game of Thrones” spin-off? “Halo” season 2? I’m 20 movies and a dozen series deep into the MCU, I’ve got to see how Rob Schneider-man fights off Kevin Hart’s Loki #5.
The point is that the rack sales don’t make up the core of your audience. They won’t match the spending or numbers of your subscribers – but a subscriber base that never adds new subscribers will dwindle and fade. It can only be kept up so long. It’s those rack sales that convert new audience into subscribers. To convert them into subscribers, you’ve got to give them new reasons to show up.
The MCU isn’t going to get much more penetration into white America than it already has. It’s not going to get more Gen X and Millennial viewers, especially in terms of topping out its male viewership. It’s hit the point of diminishing returns on both.
SamboTV is saying “Ms. Marvel” doesn’t have the audience of the other Disney+ shows. So? The other thing they’re saying – that gets conveniently left out of The Fainting Couch Report – is that its audience is very different from those other Disney+ shows, with a much higher rate of Gen Z viewers and viewers of color. That’s new audience. That’s the group that’ll keep the MCU viable over the next decade-plus. That’s the audience you need to start showing up reliably in the way Gen X and Millennials have if you still want an MCU at this scale in a decade.
Some defenses rightly cite that there’s resistance by viewers who won’t watch a Muslim superhero. I’m sure that impacts the viewership numbers and needs to be talked about, but it’s not some proof that’s going to make a point to Disney. Disney isn’t sitting there saying, “Oh boy, our profit margin on ‘Ms. Marvel’ really depends on racists liking it!”
Others say that MCU shows on Disney+ weren’t released at the same time as a new Star Wars show, as “Ms. Marvel” is debuting opposite “Obi-Wan Kenobi”. I’m not sure that defense is accurate. Disney+ may see a spike in subscribers at this time, and the streaming service’s paid subscribers had already grown 33% year-over-year by early May – before either show debuted. More to the point, I’m not sure this defense is needed.
Here’s what I think is more relevant. Paul Rudd’s Ant Man has the 21st and 25th highest ranking movies in the MCU. Both films combined don’t reach the box office of 7th ranked “Captain Marvel”, but I don’t hear anyone arguing it’s proof Paul Rudd shouldn’t be part of the MCU.
Chris Hemsworth’s three Thor films rank 16th, 22nd, and 24th in the MCU. Why aren’t the review brigading fans insisting this is proof he shouldn’t be included?
Rudd and Hemsworth are by far the two worst-performing leads remaining in the MCU, unless you want to include mid-pandemic debuts. But they’re fan favorites. Odd how that works.
Rack sales convert into subscriptions, and you can’t make rack sales to an audience that’s already subscribed. You need new viewers. You need new types of viewers. You can’t produce either out of old viewers.
The MCU’s been going for 14 years, since “Iron Man” came out in 2008. I’m sure it wants to keep going for another 14. Are they going to trot out Benedict Cumberbatch at 59? Paul Rudd, vampirishly young as he stays, at 65? Are we going to be watching 55 year-old Tom Hiddleston re-unite with a 52-year old Chris Hemsworth? Some of them may still exist in the franchise, but I have my doubts most will be leading films or series. Are we going to stick with a 40 year-old Peter Parker? Will those actors even still want to play those roles at that age? And as great of a decision as it would be – as needed as it would be – if the MCU is groundbreaking enough to center movies on a woman superhero in her 50s, I will eat some kind of hat.
“Ms. Marvel” lead Iman Vellani is 19, making her the youngest superhero lead in the MCU by five years. A more diverse, younger audience is more important to the next 14 years of the MCU than a bunch of Millennials who’ll be in our 40s and 50s come 2036. The show has half the audience of “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier”, but I guarantee you that the MCU isn’t banking on Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, or their primary audience 14 years from now. It’s not even banking on Holland or Steinfeld at that point. It’s banking on actors like Vellani and a number of people we haven’t even heard of yet. It’s banking on characters they’ll need to build up before they judge the current ensemble has aged out. It’s banking on a broader range of viewers so that it doesn’t need to rely on pleasing a narrower range. The more aggressive and demanding that narrow range of viewers is, the more it just proves how quickly the MCU needs to diversify its viewership.
“Ms. Marvel” is good, too, by the way. I’m enjoying it a lot more than some of the MCU series and movies that’ve preceded it and that just keep on doing the same things. A “Where’s Waldo” of Spider-men may engage me now, but new perspectives, new voices, and new storytelling will contribute much more to keeping me interested over the next decade. The MCU is one of the few things that plan that far ahead, and that’s how its series and films should be measured. They’ve got countless projects to slow down current viewers from leaving – maybe too many. If you wonder why they’re making series like “Ms. Marvel” and the upcoming “Echo”, it’s because they need to start getting new audiences in quickly if they hope to convert them into diehard MCU fans a decade from now.
You can watch “Ms. Marvel” on Disney+. I highly recommend it.
The more content we have, the more our “to watch” lists rack up shows that we may never get to touch. That’s not a bad thing. It’s better to have more than we can find time to watch than too little, but it’s important to share those series and performances that move us. Sometimes we find these where we don’t expect.
I’m not a big TV comedy watcher, in part because I prefer shows that are willing to tread into the absurd. That hasn’t been the style the last decade. When we’ve standardized even the mockumentary format, we need to find new approaches before it’s tired out. Yet this year has shown a tendency to do just that, not just navigating into far more absurd and satirical waters, but also changing formats and genres on the fly without worrying about whether each half hour forms a complete thematic arc.
There are so many other performances this year that don’t make a list like this. When you highlight the individual, you can overlook the ensemble, and “Abbott Elementary” boasts one of the best ensembles of the year, led by Quinta Brunson and Tyler James Williams. (I know I just complained about standardized mockumentaries, but this one shines through the format.)
Similarly, “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” has no weak spot in the cast. Anson Mount may be trying to make himself my new favorite captain in the franchise, but as “Star Trek” often is, the show is a resounding group effort.
I didn’t really dive deep into voice acting, but I do have to highlight Rie Murakawa’s work as the gender-expansive Osana Najimi on “Komi Can’t Communicate”. Few convey the balance of care for others with the pure, willful chaos that she does.
There are also those performances that might not ask their actors to stretch too far because that’s not what the show needs from them in that moment. They’re examples of perfect casting nonetheless. I think of Hazal Kaya’s charismatic light mystery turn as Esra in the Turkish “Midnight at the Pera Palace”, Cassandra Freeman’s Vivian and Jordan L. Jones’s Jazz on “Bel-Air”, and Alan Ritchson’s Jack Reacher on “Reacher”.
There are several performances I want to highlight even more than these:
Emmy Rossum, “Angelyne“
You could dismiss Emmy Rossum’s performance in “Angelyne” as that of playing a ditz, but this would overlook an incredibly complex role. The story of an 80s celebrity famous for being famous is described through various conflicting recollections. These different perceptions, including Angelyne’s own, each change who she is and her path to celebrity.
There’s a scene where Angelyne sits down with Playboy owner Hugh Hefner. He’s surrounded by an entourage of women, and Angelyne counters with her own entourage of men – both retinues are only there for show. He wants her to pose nude, but it quickly becomes clear he’s outclassed. He’s part of an old-fashioned misogyny that trades fame for ownership and exploitation. She’s pioneered the trade of exploiting celebrity itself, without the need to answer to someone like him. It’s here that her ability for negotiation, cutthroat attitude, and business acumen all bite, where her airhead presentation gives way to a keen understanding of Hollywood and how to beat men at their own game.
Don’t get me wrong – Angelyne comes off in many other situations as a narcissist and manipulator, but not because she’s a sociopath. She ditches who she once was and embraces a celebrity persona as an escape from abuse, itself a re-enactment of generational trauma. Her performance serves as both a critique of New Age commercialism and the influencer culture that evolved from it, and an understanding of the desperation that drives people to chase it as a survival mechanism. That Rossum’s performance utilizes camp as well as drama lends a stunning flexibility to the series. Rather than portraying someone who’s conflicted, she portrays someone who conflicts us: she’s deserving of our horror and judgment as well as our empathy and admiration.
Jabari Banks, “Bel-Air”
The dramatic remake of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” is good, and it does the difficult, thought-out work of adaptation well. Do we need a second take on “Fresh Prince”? How could it not ruin what came before? Won’t it complicate my nostalgic understanding of the character to have a completely different actor play him? I lament this difficult question so much I can barely pay attention to movies containing anywhere between three and seven Spider-folk.
“Bel-Air” updates many things that wouldn’t be said on TV in the early 90s, advancing conversations about racism into today’s media and political climate. At the show’s heart is Jabari Banks’s performance of a young man who’s torn between versions of who he wants to be, who both admires and resents the wealth that suddenly surrounds him and is wary of the self-hate that social acceptance in white circles demands of him.
Banks captures so many of the tics and nuances in the actor Will Smith’s original performance, while still giving his interpretation of the character Will Smith. You can emulate someone else’s performance with nods to their movement, but Banks encodes it into his performance in a way that feels much more natural and internal than an acting nod. The characters don’t just act similarly, they think similarly. “Bel-Air” leans on a strong cast with a number of good performances, but Banks’s is a captivating interpretation that drives the show.
Barbara Liberek, “Cracow Monsters“
“Cracow Monsters” is a Polish horror series that’s more fantastique than fantasy. Based on Polish folklore, the series hearkens back to the moodiest and most atmospheric habits of 90s horror with quick and harrowing bursts of action. Barbara Liberek plays Alex, a medical student who fears the onset of schizophrenia and self-medicates with drugs and alcohol. She’s revealed to have a power that can help hunt otherworldly creatures, and grudgingly works with a group of similar students.
Alex’s curiosity, earnestness, and frustration are balanced against a tendency for self-destruction and isolation. She wants to survive, but is so afraid that she’s on the cusp of repeating her mother’s mental illness and suicide that she also wants to destroy herself in what time is left to still control her own fate.
Liberek realizes a character who’s dreaming yet terrified her dream is doomed, rushing against the clock to become a doctor before the onset of schizophrenia. She takes care of others, yet aggressively rejects anyone attempting to aid her, lest they get invested. She couldn’t care less about helping anyone hunt demons until her curiosity drives her enough to tolerate having to work with other people. Alex is the kind of standoffish, matter-of-fact, justifiably resentful noir character that women rarely get to play, but Liberek realizes her in both humanizing and iconic ways.
Claudia O’Doherty, “Killing It”
Claudia O’Doherty possesses that rare Madeline Kahn ability to exist in the show’s story so completely that she’s naive to it, while at the same time sitting outside of it and pointedly commenting on it. It’s one of the toughest demands in comedy because it asks the actor to simultaneously portray two extremes that each comment on the middle ground where all the other characters live.
O’Doherty achieves both the character and the meta extremes, whether it’s fulfilling a dead man’s last wish by eating his identifying information, or dragging a bag full of dead snakes through a convention hall where the wealthy con their worshippers. She delivers an outsized portion of the absurdism in “Killing It”, while existing inside of it as someone who’s completely normalized to it.
One of the midseason episodes, “The Task Rabbit” involves O’Doherty’s Jillian housesitting in a mansion, and coached by Zoom call to pretend she’s rich and cutthroat for a wealthy date. It’s an acidic take on “Cyrano de Bergerac” that becomes a half-hour of modern science-fiction as pointed as anything I’ve seen this year. It entirely relies on O’Doherty’s ability to comment on the story even as she suffers it.
You may also recognize O’Doherty as Stede Bonnett’s wife Mary in “Our Flag Means Death”.
Kheng Hua Tan, “Kung Fu”
“Kung Fu” is an important show, but not necessarily a great one. It’s the kind of CW fare where you can drop in on an episode and know everything that’s going on in the first three minutes, chiefly because all the characters repeat it over and over again. Nonetheless, I love it, in large part because its cast is so incredibly charming.
As their kids run around having adventures, it’s the parents played by veteran actors Kheng Hua Tan and Tzi Ma who anchor often-poignant B-plots. The main plot about artifact trails, all-too-convenient clues, and insta-hacking can get very silly, but they often serve as an opportunity to open up points about Chinese history in the U.S., racism, and fighting gentrification.
Preserving one’s culture in a society determined to assimilate and re-purpose it hides traumas both historical and personal. Where Tzi Ma’s emotionally open Jin abides and understands, Kheng Hua Tan’s Mei-Li is more intense and guarded. Those scenes when she opens up enough to speak about her own history provide some of the clearest and most resonant moments happening on TV.
Taika Waititi, “Our Flag Means Death“
“Our Flag Means Death” lets director and Oscar-winning writer Taika Waititi stretch his legs as an actor. His improv and comic timing are impeccable. On the surface, his character of Blackbeard is a man for whom nothing is a challenge anymore. He’s grown numb to life, and wants to retire and enjoy his wealth. Yet this numbness hides something else – a growing attraction to the incompetent gentleman-pirate Stede Bonnett.
Paired with Rhys Darby’s Bonnet, Waititi’s Blackbeard offers a lens on two ways that men are taught to deny their homosexuality. In Stede’s case, it’s trying to fit into a suffocating heterosexual lifestyle – acting the part in regards to wife, children, place in society.
In Blackbeard’s case, the metaphor is that of suppressing who he is through a psychological self-mutilation, an inwardly turned hate and cruelty that bubbles to the surface and has to find other targets beyond himself – thus reinforcing the expectations of who he should be and how he should act.
Stede is an escape from that, but both struggle to escape the cages of expectation they’ve lived in most of their lives. They’re each expected to act a certain way, and do massive harm to themselves and those around them just to keep up the facade. To find each other and accept who they are is a kindness for both of them and their communities. That this is presented so well in the storytelling of a satirical sitcom is remarkable. Waititi is surrounded by an excellent cast, but it’s his performance that gives the series its pace and rhythm.
Minha Kim & Youn Yuh-jung, “Pachinko“
Minha Kim and Youn Yuh-jung play young and elderly versions of Sunja, in a story that follows her family across half a century. “Pachinko” uses this family as an opportunity to look at the Korean diaspora, some of which fled Korea during a brutal occupation only to suffer more hate and racism in Japan and the U.S.
Kim and Youn (along with child actor Yuna) realize the same woman across half a century, keeping and evolving mannerisms, showing how physicality changes without losing what makes that physicality unique. The way each glances, considers a silence or speaks before thinking, the way each enters a space, looks out for someone else or forgets to…it’s all the same person. It’s all the same character in a way that goes beyond two actors finding something shared. There’s an essence on-screen, something that we talk about when we think of movie magic, that these two actresses evoke.
There’s no suspension of disbelief needed. They’re the same person. In the emotional, gut reaction we have as viewers, there’s an instinct in me that would sooner believe they’re the same person across decades than that this could possibly be a character played by different actresses. I don’t think I can say I’ve ever felt that before.
Alan Tudyk, “Resident Alien“
“Resident Alien” might be the best thing SyFy’s managed in years and years. The comedy about an alien who’s crash-landed and has to live among the humans he was sent to destroy had a strong first season last year. This year’s been a little more up and down, but Tudyk’s performance continues to be a comedic goldmine.
The evolved-octopus-out-of-water story asks Tudyk to be doing outlandish physical comedy constantly, and the man hasn’t hit a wrong note. The series is edited for a sense of irony, and this only helps. It’s the kind of show where it would be very easy to chase a joke that doesn’t work. Very occasionally, it will do that for some of the other characters. The series centers on Tudyk’s Harry first and foremost, though, and a live-action series anchoring itself to this much physical comedy is nearly unheard of today. That’s because it needs someone with Tudyk’s skill to pull it off.
Bridget Everett & Jeff Hiller, “Somebody Somewhere“
The way these two characters appreciate and speak to each others’ unique way of looking at the world – and their anxiety at not finding a place in it – helps them find a joy that’s otherwise blocked.
Stuck in small town Kansas, and struggling with a rural environment that often feels claustrophobic, Jeff Hiller’s Joel is the only person around who treats Bridget Everett’s Sam as if she’s somebody admirable and worthy of notice. It’s not a romance. Joel is gay and he has a boyfriend, though the rest of the town is so willfully blind to this fact that they all just assume it’s a “corrective” romance for both.
Their friendship opens up a level of acceptance and self-acceptance that both have trouble finding elsewhere. It enables them both to not just help each other up, but to foster the beginnings of community within a community where they’ve rarely fit.
Andrew Garfield, “Under the Banner of Heaven“
I opened my “Under the Banner of Heaven” review by calling Andrew Garfield a beautiful performer. The crime scene that opens the show is horrific – you just don’t ever see much of it. We see its corners and edges, but we never leave Garfield’s Detective Pyre. It’s his reaction, the plaintive eyes that he can’t disguise, the bodily shudder, the beginning of erosion in someone’s beliefs played out in his carriage…it tells me so much more about the effect of that crime scene than the goriest image ever could.
It shook me from the beginning. Pyre’s caring but insistent manner is ideal in a detective, and arises from his faith even as it readies to be ripped to shreds by the realizations he’ll make about the brutal, misogynist Mormon fundamentalism he investigates. Pyre’s a walking emotional and spiritual sacrifice, and there are points where even he knows this. Yet he’s played with a care and gentleness that’s more admirable and capable than the blunt, desensitized cops that are worshiped on so many other shows. (The only flaw I find in his performance is how much he looks like Jimmy Carr in this hairstyle.)
I’ve written about review brigading before and the MCU’s newest series “Ms. Marvel” is getting some of the worst in a while. Apparently eight films centered around white actors named Chris and four projects for the Tom H.s of the world isn’t enough to balance out one lone series that represents a quarter of the world’s population.
We’ve had 25 MCU films centered on white characters, three centered on non-white ones, 13 series centered on white characters, 5 on non-white ones (I’m treating “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” and “Cloak & Dagger” as half a count each).
Nearly 25% of the world’s population is Muslim, but making two-percent of your projects about someone who’s Muslim is too woke and pandering? Who do we think they’re pandering to if 78% of their output centers on a demographic that accounts for only 10-to-20 percent of the world’s population? Because that’s what they’ve done for their white audience. White viewers are overrepresented by a factor of four, while Muslim viewers are underrepresented by a factor of 12, yet this is somehow pandering to Muslims?
The only thing less would be erasure, but that’s the point when this kind of review brigading happens. You might say to ignore it, but a lot of people decide on whether to watch a series by checking the aggregated user scores on Metacritic or IMDB. Right now both have been deflated because some people are offended Muslim people aren’t staying invisible.
I don’t know about you, but when something like that happens, I watch the shit out of whatever they’re brigading. I watched the premiere – it’s a great start to a coming-of-age superhero series and the best premiere among the Disney+ series outside “Loki”.
But that’s not even the point. I mean, we kept the MCU going after extremely subpar films like “Thor: The Dark World” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron”. That we have to prove something like “Ms. Marvel” is exceptional when we don’t even have to prove projects like “Dark World” or “Ultron” are passable – that’s the point. What if it were average? Would that mean it shouldn’t exist? Cause I’ve seen a couple of average pieces come out of the MCU, and what I always hear about them are the arguments for the parts that are good, or how they tie into other projects we’re hopeful for.
It’s the film directed by Chloe Zhao or the series starring a Muslim woman that have to prove their exceptional nature in order to be granted legitimacy to a group that already lionizes the exceedingly average. The thing is, the parts of the MCU that are new, inclusive, that tackle new ground with characters who haven’t gotten their moment yet – that’s the part of the MCU that still excites me. The crap that worships the average and seeks to repeat it over and over again, that’s the part of the MCU that feels like a bunch of unrewarding homework. That’s the part that needs to prove it’s exceptional, because I’ve already seen 20 movies like that already – if you can’t do something different, include someone you haven’t before, then I’ve seen you already. I haven’t seen anything like “Ms. Marvel”, which gives me a reason to visit the MCU again.
Ms. Marvel (Disney+) showrunner Bisha K. Ali
While attending Avengercon, Kamala Khan discovers that she possesses her own superhero powers.
Creator and showrunner Bisha K. Ali was a data scientist and domestic violence support worker before she shifted into stand-up comedy. She moved into screenwriting on Mindy Kaling’s “Four Weddings and a Funeral”, and worked with the MCU previously as a story editor on “Loki”.
Four of the six episodes are directed by women, with two apiece from “For All Mankind” director Meera Menon and documentary producer Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy.
You can watch “Ms. Marvel” on Disney+. The premiere is available now with a new hourlong episode dropping every Wednesday for a total of 6.
Intimacy (Netflix) showrunners Veronica Fernandez, Laura Sarmiento Pallares
A revenge porn video threatens the career of an up-and-coming politician. This Spanish series follows four women who see their lives upended by similar attacks.
Veronica Fernandez and Laura Sarmiento Pallares are both experienced writers in Spanish film, with Fernandez winning a Goya for “El Bola” and each seeing Iris Award nominations for different series.
You can watch “Intimacy” on Netflix. All 8 hourlong episodes are out.
CW: brief imagery of mass shooting
Queer as Folk (Peacock) co-showrunner Jaclyn Moore
A new adaptation of the onetime BBC (and then Showtime) series, “Queer as Folk” follows a group of LGBTQ+ friends recovering after a mass shooting incident.
Jaclyn Moore showruns with Stephen Dunn. Moore previously wrote as co-showrunner on “Dear White People”. She famously left that show in opposition to Netflix’s support of Dave Chappelle’s transphobic remarks.
“Angelyne” tells the story of someone who’s famous for being famous. Yet she created that fame from nothing, by transforming herself into an icon. She drafted a community that she could relentlessly take advantage of, but one that argues it gets more back than it puts in. Telling its story according to a roster of unreliable narrators, the series is exciting because it confronts how one woman can repaint reality, and how those around her repaint it once more. Layer after layer of misrepresentation offers very few truths, but rather the shape of something we can begin to grasp.
Emmy Rossum plays Angelyne, a real-life figure who popped up on billboards in L.A. during the 80s and 90s. She had a small band, but they weren’t her path to fame. The mystery of who this person is, why she’s suddenly everywhere – that created the fame. It wasn’t an outside marketing push either; she convinced a billboard company to start posting her picture all over the city.
“Angelyne” tells her story – and the story of those around her – in a faux documentary format. I avoid the term mockumentary because it’s not as straightforward as that genre’s premise. Interviews shape each episode, shifting from one set of characters to another in order to introduce possible frameworks of truth. The bulk of each episode happens in those flashbacks, but there’s no solid omniscient or filmmaker’s perspective here.
The genius of Rossum’s performance isn’t that she’s playing a character well, it’s that she’s playing a character well who’s playing Angelyne – sometimes well, sometimes unevenly, sometimes learning how to play Angelyne better. Angelyne as a celebrity icon is as much a place to hide as anything else, a shield from engaging the world on its own, often unfair terms. Early on, Angelyne talks about living a “painless existence”. She sees her own story as malleable, her own past as unimportant. Details take the shine off the mystery. If who she is needs to be constantly mutable, then details are antithetical to Angelyne existing in the first place.
The best parts of “Angelyne” center on the clashing truths of its bevy of untrustworthy narrators. An early scene features Angelyne’s boyfriend Cory describing their breakup. She’s jealous that his single is getting radio play, that he has a billboard before she does, that he has some fame rather than acting as a stepping stone to her own. In the middle of her temper tantrum, she coldly stops to point out this isn’t how it went. She literally drags Cory onto another set, where he grudgingly takes his place in her version of the scene – in bed with another woman. Based on the performances and some logic, we can take away that her version of the scene is likely the real one, but it’s not always quite this clear.
Even our understanding of Angelyne – as narcissist, a manipulator of others, obsessed with her own fame, renegotiating others into corners – is founded upon a reaction to intergenerational trauma, loss, child abuse, Hollywood misogyny. There’s a complex well of truths to draw from, and no compass for how and where each is relevant.
Angelyne is a cultish narcissist who saps others of years of their lives, who redirects their dreams so hers can feed on them. Angelyne is a feminist reaction to the 1980s and the role women were expected to play, someone who only ever played the game exactly as the men in Hollywood do. Angelyne is a beautiful self-expression of someone realizing who they want to be; Angelyne is a survival mechanism that shelters someone who never had a chance to discover who she wanted to be. All of these things are true, especially the parts that don’t agree.
It sells the mystery of the show: who is Angelyne? That’s a feat when my initial thought would be why should I care about a forgotten 80s icon who was famous simply for being famous? But there’s something in the heart of Rossum’s portrayal that communicates a woman haunted by something, trying to erase her past while using those around her to Positive Think her way into a new reality where none of it matters. What that pain is, why it needs running away from, that’s what makes Angelyne matter.
If Angelyne is the shelter from it all that she lives inside, how does that speak to others who also face something they have to escape? Is that her appeal? Is she a safe space not just for herself, but for fans who recognize they need a similar shelter? And how does this interact with her manipulation and harm of those closest to her?
This is what makes Angelyne’s determination to control her narrative compelling, even if that means lying about the facts as that narrative is told. There are good and bad reasons, and every other unreliable narrator disagrees how the scale tips between them.
The series also takes its most dramatic moments and transforms them. Drama is uninteresting to “Angelyne” because it conveys trauma rather than escaping from it. Camp and kitsch are far more interesting, because these are visual expressions and celebrations of that escape. The moments where Angelyne escapes, or helps someone else feel like they’ve escaped their burdens, are sometimes literal flights of fancy. Camp gives us emotional answers while being uninterested in the precise, logical ones.
There’s one scene where a reporter talks about Angelyne showing him who she really is. They enter a mansion’s front hall – which also happens to be space featuring a surreal, kitschy dance number. It makes no sense whatsoever, and yet it’s an emotionally complete answer.
At times, “Angelyne” is genius. Yet as it gets more precise and reveals more about her past, the camp stops fitting as well. It’s hard to say if this is a shift from Lucy Tcherniak to Matt Spicer as director, or simply the script having to describe lawsuits and the harder details of Angelyne’s past. The show gets to an incredibly high plateau midway through, and finishes very solidly, but its strength rests in those moments where Angelyne fights over the narrative and reality.
As we’re told more single truths, instead of trying to figure out what truth is from a morass of elements, the show gets heavier and more dramatic. What could earlier be fused to camp underpinnings doesn’t fit cleanly anymore. Perhaps this is necessary and inevitable, but as a show there’s an alchemy it reaches that starts to fall a little out of balance. It’s not enough to ruin anything – the show’s still extremely good. There’s just some really heightened storytelling in this that I wish could have pushed through that last step.
It’s one of the best shows of the year, with one of the best performances of the year. Expect a biopic or drama and you’ll be disappointed. If you like metaphor through camp and kitsch, it offers a complex portrayal with some stunning moments.
There are very few villains that send a chill up my spine. “Star Trek” as a franchise has had three. Those original flavor Borg with their singular objective and minimalist score still thrill me every time I scroll past a rerun of “The Best of Both Worlds”. They may represent the hallmark moment of franchise villainy precisely because they can’t be circumvented through diplomacy or logic. Their single-minded objective is a straight line from “we need to assimilate you” to “you’re assimilated”. There’s no wiggle room for negotiation within that.
Of course, later iterations of the Borg would reveal hive structures, hierarchies, a queen – elements that may make them more interesting, but that also open them up to the power of negotiation and compromise. We all know if a Starfleet crew can negotiate with someone, they don’t have to beat them or survive them any longer, they just need to solve the mystery of getting to the same table together.
This was one of the most exciting ideas that premised “Star Trek: Discovery”. The Klingons recognized the negotiation table was inevitable, that Federation diplomacy was too influential to overcome, and the only way to stave it off was a state of ever-present war. But the Klingons aren’t really terrifying when their most famous character is the big, cuddly grumpikins that is Worf.
The second terrifying villain in “Star Trek” came from “Voyager”. This came in the form of the Vidiians, whose species were dying to a disease known as the Phage. The Vidiians themselves were tremendously empathetic, but what the Phage forced them to do meant that there was once again no room for a diplomatic or logical solution. The Vidiians use other species to replenish the degraded organs of their own, hunting living transplant candidates. Simply put, you can’t negotiate with a disease, and their single-minded desperation was something anyone could be driven to. This also gave us the greatest of the Janeway monologues:
Perhaps “Deep Space Nine” should count – not for the Dominion but for the more realistic, religiously manipulative, systemic villainy of Kai Winn and the casual, self-justifying embodiment of genocide in Gul Dukat. But DS9 dealt more in grasping its large concepts, in looking at what should be terrifying and understanding the banality of it, and in so doing knowing better how to recognize and resist it. Where the other shows in the franchise offer hope, DS9 engages the practical work that builds it (except for O’Brien, who is forever destined to get screwed). Where various iterations of the Enterprise would tell the alien of the week, “This is where the real work for your people begins” before flying off to the next adventure, DS9 just tucked into the work. It couldn’t really fly anywhere. There’s a place for both, but there’s a reason DS9 is heads above the other shows for me.
And there are villains who are just fun. Jeffrey Combs is 32 flavors and then some of Weyoun, Romulans drag the party down with that Cold War energy but have by far the coolest ships, Q borders right on that line between fun and annoying, and Ricardo Montalban’s Khan – perhaps the greatest Star Trek villain of all – is so successful a foil to Captain Kirk that he actually grounds William Shatner’s acting for a whole movie.
There are also one-off horror episodes, something “The Next Generation” was particularly good at with “Night Terrors”, “Schisms”, and “Identity Crisis”, but occasionally missed on with “Conspiracy” or the fun but ludicrous “Genesis”. Yet these didn’t offer villains who promised to return so much as mysteries that could be solved then and there. Certainly, there was no one who made a promise to return an undeniable threat that you couldn’t begin solving.
Enter “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds”. The series is wildly successful out of the gate, drawing from all eras of Star Trek and firmly planting its stake as one of the best series of the year. It retains the quickfire, in-the-moment nature of “Star Trek: Discovery” while framing standalone episodes along the lines of “The Next Generation” or “Voyager”. It returns the franchise’s sense of weekly moral quandaries with stellar casting that includes Anson Mount, Rebecca Romijn, Ethan Peck, Christina Chong, and Melissa Navia, just to name a few.
“Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” delivers the most chilling moment in the franchise since “The Best of Both Worlds” and that chilling Borg synth score. It comes from the most unlikely place, a species long known for its rubber suit and slow, memeable fighting in “The Original Series”. I hope you’re ready to log-in to YouTube so they can make sure you’re old enough to watch this mature, violent content:
But “Strange New Worlds” takes that single 60s villain (and its brief CGI entry in mirror-universe “Enterprise”) and turns the Gorn into a force of nature, an unseen pack hunter seeking live prey to transport to the planets where they raise their young, like a cat bringing a mouse back to its kittens so they can train for killing. “Memento Mori” immediately becomes the most thrillingly frightening Star Trek entry in nearly three decades, and it returns me to that place where I was a 90s kid enraptured by what I saw on screen.
Sure, the episode’s a ‘submarine’ episode, a franchise staple of ships hiding from each other in space since “Balance of Terror” in 1966. It doesn’t just emulate, though, it translates the concept into the remarkable pace and energy of “Strange New Worlds”. In a franchise that enjoys characters sitting down to problem solve, the Gorn’s single-minded relentlessness – much like the Borg’s – is what makes them most terrifying. You can’t problem-solve relentlessness, you just have to hope you can mitigate the damage of each new corner you’re pressed into as you try to outlast it.
In its first three episodes, the series has already shown us it can pull off first contact, space mystery, and medical emergency plotlines. Now it’s shown us it can land a space action/horror episode with cinematic elegance. Next we get a comedy episode.
Look, this article’s an excuse to geek out about Star Trek memories, sure – but really it’s a way of highlighting just how impressive “Strange New Worlds” is. I could go on and on, and might in the future. There’s so much to talk about in Captain Pike’s soft-spoken, inclusive, patient, and trusting style of leadership, an expression of healthy masculinity realized by Anson Mount that’s still rarely seen in film or TV. It speaks volumes in a franchise where Kirk would bite, Picard would go full rulebook, Saru’s still learning, and Archer would ask for suggestions as an excuse to dump his passive-aggression on whoever he could corner.
(Sisko and Janeway are cool, though. How best captain boils down to Picard and Kirk instead is beyond me. Maybe if you Tuvixed them into Pikirk or Kircard. That fanfic’s gotta be out there.)
Right, the point is that “Strange New Worlds” is a phenomenal show, and it’s the strongest, most polished “Star Trek” straight out of the gate. I say this as someone who loves the new and old shows. For instance, “Discovery” gets a lot of flak, but it takes some of the silliest legacy concepts in Star Trek and creates captivating, meaningful story arcs around two of the best leads the franchise has ever had (Sonequa Martin-Green’s Burnham and Doug Jones’s Saru). And of course, “Strange New Worlds” got a bit of a try-out across season 2 of “Discovery” itself.
“Strange New Worlds” builds on the divergent modern trio of “Discovery”, “Lower Decks” (more than you’d think), and “Picard” in some very smart ways, but it also takes big parts from what made the more strictly shaped 90s trio so successful. It reinterprets retro design and ideas from “TOS” and “Enterprise”, and mixes and matches special effects elements with CGI in a way that hasn’t been realized quite this thoroughly in the franchise before.
Four episodes in, and “Strange New Worlds” has announced that it’s eager to try anything and everything Star Trek, with the talent and development in place to succeed on every count. That it’s delivered terror in a way we haven’t had since original flavor Borg is just one way of saying it’s delivering Star Trek in a way we haven’t seen since the 90s – thankfully not the exact same way, and certainly with 30 years more social progress. In terms of result, it feels like the bridge between the 90s and today, episodically self-contained but with a faster, modern cinematic approach replacing the stagy elements of the 60s/90s/00s era. (If you forced me to choose the most similar entry, I’d go straight to the last of the 90s shows and the previous best bridge of the eras, “Voyager”.)
“Strange New Worlds” easily stands on its own, but if you like “Star Trek”, you’ll recognize a mountain of elements and influences drawn from across the franchise’s history. What’s more impressive is what you won’t recognize until you think about it later. “Strange New Worlds” does an incredible job of absorbing and learning from what’s come before in a way that feels seamless and incredibly natural as you’re watching.
I’m working on an article about the evolution of cyberpunk and I found myself thinking about William Gibson’s shift from cyber noir into postcyberpunk. It happened with a novel called “Pattern Recognition”, and I bring it up because the protagonist Cayce is allergic to brands. She gets sick when she sees a logo. Marketing firms hire her because she has an eye for good design – the few logos that she can physically tolerate. She feels debilitated around places like Times Square, where the number of brands overwhelms the senses. “Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers” would have seen her hunched over a garbage can.
Let’s get this out of the way first: most people like this movie. You might, too. My reaction to it appears to be clearly in the minority. If you like it, that’s awesome and I’m glad you do. I’m not going to super-focus on trashing it or anything. OK, maybe a line or two, but that’s it. I’ll go through what I don’t like, but for me, it opens up a far more interesting conversation about the increasing habit of brand packing such as in this or “Ready Player One”. I don’t take to it the way some do, and where that line of tolerance exists for different viewers is really interesting to me.
“Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers” was a series I loved as a kid. I was way too young to remember much when I watched it. My memory of it is really just brief impressions. I couldn’t name a specific scene if you asked, so I don’t have nostalgia for it as much as I have curiosity about what it can be.
The animated series followed chipmunks Chip and Dale, riffs on Indiana Jones and Magnum, P.I. They start a detective agency together and handle cases brought to them by other animals.
The new movie decides this is all a show the pair are cast in, and decades later the chipmunk actors who played those parts have gone their separate ways. It allows the film to tackle a world of human and animal actors – many of whom are 2D cartoons getting 3D surgery to appear in 3D-animated films. It’s very similar to “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” in terms of worldbuilding. Dale is still pursuing acting, so he’s gotten the 3D surgery, while Chip is content to work in insurance as the same old 2D version of himself.
They parted on bad terms, but the kidnapping of cartoon actors forces them to work together when their friend Monterey Jack (a mouse actor on “Rescue Rangers”) is kidnapped. The culprits are bootleggers, who redraw the kidnapped cartoon actors into similar but legally distinct characters they can then film in foreign knockoffs.
That’s clever, but “Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers” always seems to stop at clever. There are few punchlines, just a lot of smart set-up. One scene involves police investigating the crime and telling Chip and Dale they’re at a dead end. It combines 2D, 3D, stop-motion, puppetry, and live-action to some stunning effect. Some of these are emulated through CG rather than being the actual medium, but the scene is a successful meld of influences nonetheless. The problem is that nothing happens in it. The stop-motion detective in charge tells them several times over that he can’t do anything, and then a live-action officer just names the next plot point so they can get to it.
This highlights some big problems in the film. The script is repetitive and feels like a rough draft of concepts that need to be fleshed out with more specific dialogue later. Even a kids film (although this is a pretty adult take on it in places) needs dialogue that at least pretends it’s not the same conversation you’ve heard in a thousand movies before.
All the live-action actors come off as extremely wooden. Bob Hoskins, Christopher Lloyd, and Joanna Cassidy were anything but un-emotive in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”. A hybrid animation like this is a brilliant excuse to choose certain emotional ranges for live-action characters and play them up. Although it’s a little bit different as a hybrid medium, take a look at any Muppets movie for another example of this approach. That’s completely missing here.
As for the animated characters, Chip and Dale were once a charmingly optimistic and playful odd couple. They’re just downright annoying here. John Mulaney’s fine voice-acting Chip, but Andy Samberg’s Dale comes off as Andy Samberg. He’s a great ensemble player when he has a Chelsea Peretti, Terry Crews, or Cristin Milioti to do the heavy lifting of everything else going on, but I have trouble with him as the central focus. He highlights moments in comedy rather than carrying them the whole way. That’s not a criticism; very few people can do that. It just means that I don’t think he’s used right at all here.
The biggest issue by far is probably the most divisive one. “Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers” has received a ton of praise for how many character brands it packs into its world. This is what reminds me of Cayce from “Pattern Recognition”. It all starts to feel less like worldbuilding and comedy, and more like an infomercial for unused discount brands.
When Ugly Sonic gets an early monologue about his plight in life, I had mixed thoughts. The human-like CG hedgehog originally advertised in the 2020 “Sonic the Hedgehog” movie was replaced with a more cartoonish version after fan backlash. The original design was no longer in the film, but survived as a meme. Yet his inclusion in this film struck me less as a nod to fans, and more as “we spent a lot of money on that original CG, let’s see if we can make a brand out of him”.
It doesn’t help that the joke centers on his human-like teeth, a major online criticism that resulted in his redesign. Ugly Sonic doesn’t make any jokes or participate in the creation of any joke; the joke is simply “remember that criticism you had once”. The content is just a quick game of Recognize the Memory. There’s a market for that out there, but I guess I’m really not part of it. What I find interesting going forward as we get more and more brand-packed films like this is where that separation occurs.
The opening of the novel “Ready Player One” lists the 1980s obsessions of a billionaire tech celebrity. Exhaustively. It even has footnotes about additional 80s details the initial list doesn’t cover. It’s grueling. It operates off of the idea that rote nostalgia is content, to the point where I found it unreadable. The book was a major hit.
I know I’m not totally alone in this reaction, though. “Space Jam: A New Legacy” was widely criticized in 2021 for being a laundry list of Warner Bros. brands shoved into a movie in the hope LeBron James’s presence might reignite interest in one of them. The difference appears to be where that line is for different viewers.
I don’t think most would disagree that “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is one of the most successful approaches to folding disparate sources together into one story. Sure, Miles Morales, Peter B. Parker, and Gwen Stacy live in similar enough universes, but Nicolas Cage’s Spider-Man Noir? Kimiko Glen’s mech-operating anime Peni Parker? Spider-Ham? It shouldn’t have worked in a thousand years, but instead…it was funny, endearing, and surprisingly meaningful.
Maybe that dictates where the line gets drawn. An early joke in the “Rescue Rangers” movie is that onetime mouse co-star Gadget has married fly costar Zipper. The pair have had 42 babies, half-mouse, half-fly. I didn’t watch the entire film in one sitting, and this joke is just one example why I initially turned it off. It felt mean-spirited to take a character known primarily as an inventor – even if it’s a cartoon, cartoons can still shape us, and it was probably my first mainstream exposure as a child to the idea that women should be scientific leaders – it certainly made the argument more forcefully than what mainstream content for adults was pushing in the 90s. Yet here she’s reduced to a mother pumping out 42 half-fly babies. That’s the joke. Look at a meaningful message in a kids show about the idea women should lead in STEM, now she’s pumping out 42 babies. I guess it’s hilarious if you’re on the Supreme Court.
The characters feel like throwing a thousand brands at the wall to see which might stick and become profitable, and the jokes feel randomly applied because they’re funny to some in a vaccuum, regardless of the spirit behind them, the context, or whether they fit a character. I found it unwatchable. The movie is a major hit.
Maybe this is my get-off-my-lawn moment; I just didn’t expect it to hit in my 30s. Also, I guess I’d need to own a lawn to tell people to get off it and, you know: housing prices.
I don’t think I have answers for where each of us draws the line between finding something to be an inspired collection of sources vs. a compilation of nostalgia-bait masquerading as whole content. I’m not saying I’m right about where that line is – the whole point is it’s different for each of us. We each have different tolerances for it.
I’m not like Cayce, I’m not skipping dinner out of the nausea of it, but I’m so wary of the brand fire sale that many of these films become. I’m wary of the door that opens up into normalizing movies as dumping grounds for as many brand relaunches as can be packed in. We complain about well-thought out reboots or reinterpretations of a single source, and why doesn’t Hollywood come up with anything original, while we take an hour-and-a-half to invite 40 one-note jokes to compete for our relaunch love. The tension of the movie becomes less about anything on-screen, and more about which disused brand will find its viral moment. Maybe it’ll launch a new streaming Ugly Sonic series.
In a way, I feel like I’ve seen this movie before:
Flapper space wife is back. She says some sensible stuff that’s largely ignored, and totally won’t come back to bite her husband. This is the burden of Flapper Space Wife. But first!
I ended last week’s rundown by saying “Halo” had found its true voice, centering itself on Natascha McElhone’s brilliant portrayal of Natascha McElhone as she smirks vengeance at anyone who dares turn her monologue into a dialogue.
I even said: “What about Kwan Ha, Soren, and their rebellion against the Rhyming Dictator? The show may have realized it had no clue where its B-plot was going and cut it out. We see them fleetingly in episode 5 before they disappear completely in ep 6. Buuut, it’s “Halo”, so I’m sure the next episode will be entirely about them”.
Yeah sure, betting on horse racing is legal, but there’s no betting market for future “Halo” plotlines. That’s my calling. I coulda been someone. I could’ve gone on that midnight edition of Sportscenter that’s all about gambling and tolerated Scott Van Pelt long enough to explain the betting ins and outs of calling future “Halo” episodic arcs. But that’s too ridiculous! Let’s just stick to reasonable things, like betting on which horse can tolerate the largest amount of drugs the longest. And you wonder why I keep watching “Halo” instead.
We open with a flashback to when Kwan Ha was younger. It shows us that she was once angry at her dad for leading the rebellion that she now wants to lead. The only thing this makes us understand better is how “Halo” isn’t capable of portraying character development. It just gives you flashbacks where the characters were totally different in order to make you go, “Huh, I guess they must’ve learned and changed in a more interesting episode I didn’t get to see”.
Cut to Soren, Kwan Ha’s erstwhile chaperone. He’s having a party with his flapper space wife and their flapper space family. Naturally, this must be a flashback as well – the last we saw of him his double-cross of Kwan Ha was double-crossed and he was stranded unconscious in the desert without a ship. The show wouldn’t steal from us the tale of how he managed to escape a desert planet with no money or transport, would it yesitwould.
Soren’s just suddenly back home with no explanation for how he got there. But there is talk of how he came back without his ship, his valuable bounty, or his payment. What is that talk? Will it tell us how he made it back to his asteroid colony faster than it’s taking Kwan Ha to drive 100 miles? It’s not that sort of talk. It’s more like an amorphous, non-specific talk that fades into an incoherent mumbling, like the showrunners trying to explain where the fucking budget went, or a Bob Dylan lyric.
It’s enough talk to set up an incoming plot point, but not so much as to explain the several that just got skipped.
In front of Soren’s entire party, his business partner Squirrel is all like, “Have you heard the talk? It’s a-mumbling”. Why’s his name Squirrel? Who knows anymore.
Soren takes offense at this. He asks Squirrel if he thinks Soren’s lost a step. Squirrel is kind of frenetic in an anxious way – maybe that’s why he’s named Squirrel. Anyway, he backs off and Flapper Space Wife ™ collects Soren, but not before he lays this line down. Check it out, this is why you watch seven episodes deep: “Looks like Squirrel found his nuts”. Oh shit! That’s why he’s named Squirrel! For that line. So the writers could put that line in the dialogue! Emmys here we come!
Later, Soren regrets leaving Kwan Ha on Madrigal. Flapper Space Wife tells him she knows that Kwan Ha’s still alive cause Vinsher just tripled the bounty on her.
What about that rhyming dictator? Vinsher’s more into free verse now, OK? He rides around the desert in a black SUV spamming lines that want to be like Shakespeare at a driver who probably doesn’t get paid enough for this shit.
And folks? You haven’t lived until you’ve seen his trenchcoat made entirely from backpack mesh pockets. Oh, you think I’m kidding:
This guy’s awesome. Those pockets were on every backpack made in the 90s and 2000s. He must’ve hunted every single one of them down to have that coat made, Cruella de Vil style. Of course, he’s a dictator, so I’m sure it’s bulletproof, like every backpack made in the 2020s.
So he’s being driven around, wearing his backpack coat EVERYWHERE, and spitting free verse like the only way to save the old student center is to beat Anne Waldman one-on-one in a Poetry Battle at Bennington Parents Weekend, and he only just learned what poetry is from his drunk roommate last night.
Meanwhile, Kwan Ha’s located the desert witches who can prophesy her fate. It’s refreshing to see such an original plot point in sci-fi for once. Their religion seems to be based around wearing extremely fake white wigs. The head desert witch, Desiderata (I shit you not) is all like, “I don’t know, you’re too angry. The only way you can prove yourself is to drink this juice I just made from fire”.
PSA: This is an example of peer pressure. If someone ever makes you hand flame juice, don’t drink that shit. Kwan Ha does, and the vision she has is actually kind of cool. She has to fight Master Chief, who unmasks even in her dream, but of course she can’t even dent him. It’s only when she realizes she doesn’t have to fight Master Chief in her vision and they can just hold hands that he remembers his stage directions and Carlos Castanedas her over to her father.
Her dad tells her that their family are the protectors of a portal. To where? He won’t tell her, but I’m totes mega sure it won’t have anything to do with the Halo ringworld that Master Chief and Makee had a vision of last week. I’m sure it’s a portal to the nowhere else that’s been mentioned in the show so far instead.
Meanwhile meanwhile, Soren and Squirrel are stealing a super-engine from the UNSC that’s going to make their ships extremely fast and it’s…like smaller than a car engine. In the universe that’s made a point of still using AK-47s 500 years from now. Sure. Soren catches Squirrel in a trap that relies on Squirrel putting his foot under a loaded shipping pallet so Soren can drop it on his toes cause there’s no way anyone can foresee Day One fucking OSHA training. How bout those nuts, Squirrel? Almonds and acorns, and I like cashews, those are good, pecan pie’s my favorite, are macademias overrated, I don’t know where I’m going with this, I’m clearly not the writer these “Halo” guys are.
I want to take a moment to highlight that their pirate crew is dressed like they’re characters from “Unreal Tournament 2004”, i.e. Cliff Bleszinski’s BDSM-tinged vision of corporate space future that’s also arguably the best multiplayer FPS ever made.
Come to think of it, Flapper Space Wife is more like Ska Emo Space Wife in this one, like if Gwen Stefani had gone club goth instead of marrying Gavin Rossdale. That’s probably the good timeline.
Soren gets back to Madrigal in the time it takes Kwan Ha to drive to a place the Desert Witches can clearly fucking see from their camp. So that’s Soren out of Madrigal and back to it in the space of a scene when earlier in the series they made it abundantly clear what an incredible and expensive pain it was for him to get there. Maybe he used the new carburetor he stole from the UNSC; we’ll never know.
Soren joins Kwan Ha as Vinsher descends on her, and Vinsher’s troops – all wearing trench coats in the desert – wander straight into a deuterium fuel field. Needless to say, they’re surprised when they’re blown up, Vinsher’s caught in the blast, and I’m totally sure his backpack mesh pocket coat didn’t save him and he won’t be back in a future episode with the make-up team going overboard on scars and burn texture. Seriously, let me bet on this nonsense.
I know it doesn’t seem like it, but I do think this was one of the better episodes of “Halo”. It’s certainly the best of the Kwan Ha plot so far, because she’s actually written to do something now. It works. I’m not sure what show it works for, but it works.
What about Natascha McElhone, Master Chief, and Cortana? The show may have realized it had no clue where its A-plot was going and cut it out. But I wouldn’t bet on it. Because I can’t.
You can watch “Halo” on Paramount Plus, but only if you’ve finished your OSHA training.