Tag Archives: TV

Fall 2018 Creativity Roundup – 3 TV Dramas You Need To Watch!

These are some of my favorite posts to do, and at this point in my blog’s history they’re at least semi-regular. I’m always consuming media, and doing a roundup of the latest things I find inspiring has proven to be a great way for me to engage with my readers. It’s my contention that over the past decade or so, TV drama has entered a golden age. I think the overall production value, quality of acting talent, and the complexity of the writing are as good now as they have ever been. The last point is the most important one, in my opinion, as our dramas now are afforded the creative freedom to explore darker, more nuanced themes.

Here are three of my favorite shows that I’ve watched recently:


3. The Affair

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It’s hard to pick one TV series that I can definitively call my favorite of all time. Game of Thrones and The Sopranos are both good candidates, but when asked the question, the answer I most often give is The Affair.

In short, the show details a passionate, illicit affair between a struggling New York novelist and a small town waitress with a traumatic past. The setting is Montauk- a cozy resort town situated on the far tip of Long Island. For me, the show is as close to a superlative rating as anything else out there, especially the peerless first three seasons.

It brushes up on my personal criterion for perfection because it’s intriguing in layers; dysfunctional families, dark secrets, sexual awakenings, and even a murder mystery to name a few. But perhaps the thing that makes this story so unique is the way it’s told. The narrative shifts between alternating points of view that not only overlap with, but sometimes contradict, one another. This style captures the way two people remember the same events differently, so that we’re given an incomplete truth. The actual truth, as is often the case in life, remains out of reach.

 

2. The Man in the High Castle

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For me, this is a show that’s criminally underrated. I’m putting it above The Affair on this list because I was left disappointed by the latter’s most recent season. The Man in the High Castle, conversely, is a show that’s very much in the ascendency. I just finished watching season 3 and I can’t stop thinking about it. This show gets better and better with every episode, and no one seems to be talking about it.

Based on the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name (from which it deviates significantly, I understand), The Man in the High Castle is an alternate history in which the Axis Powers won World War Two. It’s the 1960s and the North American continent is divided between the German Reich in the east and the Japanese Empire in the west. This new world is one of the most fascinating aspects of the show, and the subtle societal changes that each half of America undergoes are explored in multiple story threads. There are the rebels in conflict with their respective oppressive regimes, there are the two oppressive regimes in conflict with each other, and there are also conflicts within each regime. What I’m trying to say is, we experience this new world through various points of view, with heroes and villains in each faction. Just because the system is evil, that doesn’t mean that everyone living in it becomes evil too. It’s fascinating because it’s a reality in which systemic evil becomes the norm, and being twenty years after WW2, many have simply accepted it. This is something that’s addressed in the show itself, with many resistance characters stressing how weird and shocking this reality is. One of the things that make this show so compelling is the fact that it takes a morally-complex approach to the conflict while still being a nightmarish dystopia. The resistance fighters aren’t flawless or morally-pure, and the fascists aren’t “monsterized”. Instead, there are just people and their choices. There are idealists trying to fight for a better world, and there are those that accept the new world order so as to remain safe, which is what happens in real life.

This is a show unlike any other on TV at the moment. It’s also very much a science fiction drama, with the German-Japanese Cold War serving as a backdrop to a mystery that every faction is trying to solve- the repeated appearances of film reels depicting a parallel universe in which the Allies won the war.

 

1. Sharp Objects

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Now I enjoyed Gone Girl as much as the next guy- but this is on another level. Sharp Objects is based on Gillian Flynn’s somewhat lesser-known debut novel of the same name. It takes the top spot in my list of TV dramas I’ve found creatively inspiring in the latter half of 2018 because it’s simply the most interestingly and effectually put together.

This dark miniseries features an alcoholic, self-harming journalist who returns to her hometown in rural Missouri to try and solve the disappearance of two missing girls. I won’t say any more than that because you should just watch it. It’s fucking brutal but also understated- which might sound like a strange thing to say, but if you’ve seen it you understand. And this brings me back to what I said above about it being the series that for me puts its pieces together in the most compelling way.

Jean-Marc Vallée’s direction reminds me a lot of Lynne Ramsey’s subtle approach to storytelling (particularly in her recent movie You Were Never Really Here). It’s a show that punishes the lazy viewer. You can’t give it anything less than your full attention, because one look down at the peach and eggplant emojis your Tinder match is sending you will leave you wondering what the hell is going on when you try and reengage with the narrative later. Vallée gives you the pieces in fleeting images and unspoken inferences. Nothing is spelled out or summarized for you- it’s a lot like reading the fiction of Raymond Carver. The characters aren’t mouthpieces for exposition; the story is told in a very visual way that requires an enthusiastic, active viewer. The cinematography is beautiful, and so important to how this story is told. I want to read the novel, but I also want to give myself a few years to try and forget the plot details as best I can, because there are some shocking revelations to enjoy here.

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Spring 2018 Recap

Today I’d like to do a springtime recap! These posts are always super-fun to write, and they let y’all know what I’ve been up to when I’m not writing or scrapping metal. Don’t worry; there are no spoilers for anything I review here.

 


TV: Westworld & Evil Genius

 

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These are the two shows I’ve really been obsessed with this year so far. I’m actually enjoying Westworld’s second season more than its first. I won’t spoil anything for those of y’all still catching up, but I love the direction they’re taking the show in and the themes that come with that narrative avenue. The crux of Westworld is its exploration of the consequences of theme park robots remembering what happens to them before they’re destroyed, repaired, and reset, and I think that the concept of these “dreams” and “reveries” being the catalyst for self-awareness is such a fascinating, clever idea. It’s probably the most layered TV drama that I watch. It’s a show that I think about when I’m not watching it. I love going online after the episode finishes and watching video breakdowns of all the hidden meanings and revelations.

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Evil Genius, on the other hand, is a Netflix crime documentary, pitched to me by my kid brother as being to 2018 what Making a Murderer was to 2016 and The Keepers was to 2017, respectively. I loved both shows, and Evil Genius definitely scratches that particular, chillingly-macabre itch. It’s just as addictive, and like them, it’s a documentary that proved as engaging as a thriller flick. But where Making a Murderer raised questions about the U.S criminal justice system, and The Keepers was poignant and unsettling, Evil Genius is just plain weird. It’s a case of reality conjuring up something stranger than fiction. Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong is about as frightening as a Cormac McCarthy antagonist, and her associates tantamount to a Who’s Who of Erie’s most despicable white trash assholes.

 


Cinema: I, Tonya

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This might be my favorite movie of the year so far! When I think back on all the media I’ve consumed in the past few months, I, Tonya stands out as something that was both an enjoyable and a creative experience. Margot Robbie gave a career-defining performance as redneck figure skater Tonya Harding. A complete performance. One that utilized every aspect of her talent in order to create a Tonya that was in equal parts flawed and sympathetic. Given the nature of the film as being both comedic and heart-wrenching, it had to have demanded a lot of her, and she just kind of gets it right. It works, and the performance made the movie. I love how creative she is an actress and how invested she is in her recent roles; it seems like she is selecting parts that she’s really passionate about and working as both an auteur and a performer. She reminds me a lot of a young Robert De Niro.

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I was very impressed with the choreography and cinematography of the ice skating scenes, which are the most exciting moments in the film. Watching them was like watching the car chase in The French Connection or the bank heist in Heat. They’re treated like action scenes and the way the movie pulls them off is simply breathtaking. It honestly looked like Margot Robbie was executing that triple axel.

 


Theatre: A Streetcar Named Desire & A View from the Bridge

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The Tobacco Factory and the Old Vic in Bristol have had some awesome plays on this year. In my last “creative roundup” post I wrote about going to see Macbeth. And recently I’ve been to see two more tragedies: A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams and A View from the Bridge by Arthur Miller. I was already very familiar with the former, having seen the Marlon Brando film version several times. But it’s a story that’s so damn good that it never gets old, and I jumped at the chance to see it on stage. Even though I write fiction and poetry, I’d say my two favorite storytellers of all time are Shakespeare and Williams. As far as narratives go, they’re my absolute idols. I love the themes that Williams works with, and the modern adaptations of his plays have the freedom to be more explicit and visceral. In the Brando film version, the darker elements of the plot are hinted at but never seen. So much has to be inferred when watching it (or indeed any other adaptation of Williams’ work from that period). But watch one of his plays nowadays and it is absolutely brutal. Everything Williams wanted to write about but had to dance around in the 1950s is unleashed in all its bleak and depressing glory. I thought that Kelly Gough in particular did a fantastic job as Blanche Dubois, in a performance that made me think about just what a tragic character she is.

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A View from the Bridge, on the other hand, was a play I knew literally nothing about. I’ve seen both The Crucible and Death of a Salesman on stage, and I know that Miller is an O.G. I went to see this one with my father and my nan, and it was only on the drive to the theatre that I learned the play was about Italian-Americans in the New York docks, which made me think: I’m gonna like this. The play turned out to be one of the best I’ve ever been to- not just this year, but ever. At the interval we all looked at each other, blown away by how good it was.

“This is absolutely brilliant,” my nan said, and the woman behind us was like “It’s amazing, isn’t it?”

There were a lot of young people in the audience, who were no doubt studying the play for their Lit exams, and when the play ended everyone was on their feet whistling and hooting. It was probably the loudest applause I’ve ever heard at the Tobacco Factory. If you ever get the chance to see this play then DO IT. It’s a classic tale of incest and revenge…

 

 

Why Ball in the Family is my Guilty Pleasure

Lately I’ve been tuning in every Sunday to watch the latest episode of the Facebook reality web series Ball in the Family. It provides a nice little break from the writing. I’ll open up Facebook Watch on my laptop, sit back, a tall glass of milk and a chocolate orange on standby, and start the episode, looking down every now and then to mess with Gardenscapes. It’s my guilty pleasure. But why is it a guilty one?

Maybe it’s because the term “reality television” conjures up a lot of the worst aspects of the entertainment industry; namely the celebration of materialism and vulgar behavior. Maybe it’s because a lot of these shows are deceptive, claiming to be a representation of real life when in fact a lot of the scenes are staged. Or maybe it’s because of a nagging fear that enjoying it makes me less of a “true” sports fan?

2017 has seen the Ball family rise from small-town eccentricity to nationwide- hell, global– fame. A lot of sports fans take issue with Lavar Ball’s loudmouth antics and the idea that he might be exploiting his children for fame and fortune. Scroll through any comment section on Bleacher Report or Sportscenter and you’ll see a high tally of Likes in support of calls for them to stop reporting on the Ball family and get back to covering “real sports”. I suppose it’s the rhetoric of such fans that made me hesitant to start watching the show; the idea that to do so would be to abandon my status as a hardcore sports fan, that I would be crossing over to the realm of “showbiz”.

Is it the case that the media outlets are trying to force us to jump aboard the Big Baller hype train, or are they merely catering toward our growing interest? The phrase “just stick to sports” sounds familiar, doesn’t it? You’ll find such angry comments under articles that cover athletes fighting against racial inequality, athletes getting married, or- off the top of my head- yesterday’s announcement that the Orlando Magic hired Becky Bonner as director of player development, thereby paving the way for the NBA’s first female GM. Truthfully, the world of sports has always been about more than just what happens on the court. It’s always been a reflection of society at large. And I’m not necessarily saying that the journey of the Ball brothers compares to such events as Muhammed Ali protesting social injustice, or Magic Johnson’s advocacy for HIV prevention. But the reality is that Lonzo Ball is interesting and relevant.

Before he even entered the NBA, Lonzo was more famous than most of the league’s active players. Who can recall a rookie under such a spotlight? Ball in the Family is interesting because it’s covering the day-to-day life of the Lakers point guard in his debut season. We don’t know yet what his legacy will be. The show documents events as they’re happening. It gives us an inside look at the life of Lonzo in between the games we watch on TV. And it has value because- whether intentionally or not- it does give us an intimate portrait of a family thrust into stardom. I can’t help but like the Ball family because they are going all-out; they’re reaching for the stars and not even entertaining the idea of failure. At the end of the day, can we fault them for chasing their dreams?

The show covers everything from Gelo’s arrest in China to Melo’s homeschooling. It also chronicles their mother Tina’s battle against the aftereffects of her stroke, and as we see Lavar helping her regain her speech, helping her walk again, we realize that the show is indeed more nuanced than we thought. There’s an emotional depth to it. I like it in the same way I like vlogs- I’m fascinated by the human experience, about family life, and the juxtaposition of the stardom with these more emotive, mundane moments is what elevates it above the trash we usually associate with the term “reality television”. I guess what I’m saying is: there is substance to it; it’s not just glitz and glamor. I’ve always been interested in what kind of lives basketball players live, and the seeing the more mundane aspects of their time is somehow comforting. It strips away all the crap we attach to celebrities and we see that underneath all the fast cars and swimming pools, these superstars have a lot of the same concerns and social dynamics that we do. And who are the Ball family? They’re a family just like any other.

I first discovered Lonzo Ball in 2016 when he was the subject of a video by popular basketball Youtuber Mike Korzemba. I’m not a Laker fan, but I enjoyed watching him play at UCLA and I’m rooting for him now in Los Angeles. Does he have what it takes to become the talisman for the storied franchise in the post-Kobe era? We’ll have to wait and see. It’s a helluva ambitious task- but that’s what makes it worth watching. At the end of the day, it’s the narratives we look for in sports that makes it so damn entertaining. Be it Lebron’s “The Kid From Akron” storyline as he chases the ghost that played in Chicago, or Jimmy Buckets’ rags-to-riches tale of grit and determination- sports has always been about entertainment. The Ball family is trying to create a dynasty- it’s a tale of three brothers from Chino Hills, all of whom possess an exciting and unconventional playing style. I, for one, can’t wait to see how it ends!

The Top 5 New Shows You Need To Watch!

2017 has been a great year for both new and returning TV shows. I don’t see the value in writing a post about how Stranger Things continues to be good- if you haven’t figured that one out yet then I can’t help ya. Instead I want to highlight five new TV shows that you need to check out to fill in that giant Game of Thrones-shaped hole in your lives.

 

#5 The Sinner

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Premise: A normal, suburban mom kills a stranger for no apparent reason while at the beach with her family. The event shocks the small, Upstate New York town and a local detective becomes obsessed with the case. It’s not so much a Whodunnit as it is a Why’dYaDoIt– and it’s absolutely addictive.

Biggest Strength: Jessica Biel is mesmerizing as troubled lead Cora Tannetti. It’s a super-challenging role because the character of Cora is so nuanced. Her journey is like no other character on TV and the combination of Biel’s intense, raw performance and the dark scriptwriting serve as the foundation for what makes this show so unique and so engrossing.

Where To Watch It: Netflix.

Trivia: This close-ended series is an adaptation of German novelist Petra Hammesfahr’s 1999 book of the same name. Apparently, in addition to moving the setting from Germany to Upstate New York, the show also toned down on the darkness of the source material- which naturally makes me curious to see just how disturbing and messed-up the novel is!

 

#4 The Vietnam War

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Premise: The best documentary-maker in the business brings us the most comprehensive and complete overview of the controversial and endlessly fascinating story of the USA’s involvement in Vietnam.

Biggest Strength: Ken Burns. The sympathetic and intellectually-curious style of the auteur that brought us The American Civil War (my favorite documentary of all time) makes this 17-hour series as engaging as any thriller or fictional drama out there. We hear directly from veterans from all sides of the conflict, all of whom provide such articulate and introspective insights into a bloody saga that changed so many lives from so many facets of society. Check any assumptions about documentaries you have at the door, because you will find this as engaging and addictive as anything else out there.

Where To Watch It: PBS.

Trivia: The 1035-minute documentary features interviews with 79 witnesses from the American military, the Viet Cong and the ARVN. Burns deliberately avoided interviewing “experts” and controversial, big-name figures such as Henry Kissinger, John McCain and Jane Fonda, preferring the perspective that best gave an impression of what things were like on the ground.

 

#3 Godless

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Premise: An outlaw on the run from his former gang finds his fate entwined with that of a mining town populated almost exclusively by women.

Biggest Strength: For me, what makes this close-ended drama stand out is the way in which it plays with the established tropes of a conventional Western. Women- too often relegated to the sidelines of what has been a historically macho genre- are at the forefront, but what really makes this show special is that it’s able to both subvert convention while retaining all of the essential elements of what makes the Wild West so intriguing. It’s a show that somehow feels both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. The story and its characters are excellent and it’s a show that will keep you thoroughly entertained from start to finish.

Where To Watch It: Netflix.

Trivia: The horse that Jeff Daniels rides is the same one that Jeff Bridges rode in the 2010 film True Grit.

 

#2 The Deuce

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Premise: A sprawling, multi-faceted story of interweaving narratives that explores the rise of the porn industry in 1970s in Times Square, New York.

Biggest Strength: I would argue that the biggest strength of this gritty drama is the writing. It’s created by David Simon, so if you are familiar with The Wire, it’s a lot like that. It’s a show that really illustrates the excellence of HBO, with a slow-burning narrative that manages to touch on every aspect of the time period in such a vivid and authentic way. It’s not fast-paced and it’s not a thriller- and yet it is still so damn engaging. The characters are sympathetic figures with many voices, and we see the world of Times Square through the eyes of hookers, Mafiosi, single mothers, college students, gamblers, pimps, bartenders, drug addicts, porn directors and cops alike.

Where To Watch It: HBO.

Trivia: The series is inspired by stories told to the creators from a man who served as a mob front for the Mafia at various bars and massage parlors in the 1970s.

 

#1 Mindhunter

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Premise: Two FBI agents in the 1970s- a young hotshot and grizzled cynic- team up to conduct a range of interviews with serial killers to learn how they think.

Biggest Strength: What makes this show earn the top spot on my list is how masterfully it presents the conflict of its central character- Holden Ford. His need to get inside the head of these deranged killers (all of them portrayals of real serial killers by the way) becomes an all-consuming obsession that threatens to completely destabilize his life. The idea of “thinking like a serial killer” for academic purposes sounds simple enough, but at what point does Holden stay inside their head for so long that he loses himself on the way?

Where To Watch It: Netflix.

Trivia: The series is based on a book of the same name, which is co-authored by former FBI agent John Douglas, who pioneered the concept of psychological profiling and who is the basis for the character of Holden Ford.