Monday, October 31, 2016


Westworld is a confusing show to write about, because the temporal fuzziness that occurs around the looping narratives of the hosts and the out-of-time dreaminess that appears in the basement scenes makes it hard to say exactly what we are “seeing” at any given time.  When Bernard or Ford are interrogating Dolores in that theatrically-darkened, antiseptic space, is she literally sitting in front of them, or are they logging in to the “VR tank” the jackass clean-up technician mentions to monitor her behavior coding remotely?  When she sees another version of herself in the crowd, is that the robut equivalent of a hallucination brought on by the latent code Arnold left in her, or are there actually multiple copies of different hosts roaming different parts of the park?  Or most pressingly, does the show think that it has confirmed the two-timelines theorizing with “Contrapasso”?

Going into the episode, I was already taking the speculation about William being the Man In Black as a given, so when Lawrence showed up as an different version of himself in William’s storyline so promptly after being exsanguinated by MiB, I took it as explicit confirmation of that theory.  And I was happy to, because my hope is that once we get the first round of reveals out of the way, we can get on with some clear drama.  But then I started seeing reactions of people thinking it just meant that his body was quickly collected and repurposed for a different storyline, as we know can occur.  It is still technically possible, I suppose, but you still have to ignore something fundamental about how fictional narratives are constructed.  It would be so simple to confirm if there were not two timelines  - you just need to have Williiam/Logan’s storyline intersect or be commented directly upon by any of the underground crew.  And there is no reason to play coy about any of this if it is heading for the reveal that the storylines are occurring concurrently (which is to say, no reveal at all).   Letting the ambiguity hang around would only serve to distract the audience from the simpler story you were actually trying to tell, and if it’s actually some sort of double-bluff cover to distract us from another, different twist it will be edging into too-clever-by-half territory.  

Plot twists have to walk this fine line.  First, they should be genuinely surprising, itself an uneviable task in the age of crowdsourced television sleuthing.  If the entire online world is able to get even slightly ahead of where you spaced out your reveals, your show is suddenly dumber than rocks.  Conversely, you also have to play fair enough that the twists don’t feel arbitrary or turn the entire sleuthing process from a fun game to an adversarial vendetta.  And that is really super easy to do, since the internet does not, generally speaking, have very thick skin.  

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Hey stupid jerkshow, you think I write this blog so I can feel not smarter than my TV?
The dual timeline theory walks that line well enough, in my opinion, but continuing to put twists ahead of characterization is starting to cause problems.  The scenes of Hopkins making cryptic threats and allusions to people are cast for maximum intrigue and portent, but they don’t appreciably change anything from last week.  We don’t learn any more about the human agendas being pursued, and the only real progress on the robut end is the closing moment of Maeve waking up to terrify a nonentity technician character.  I say only real progress, because while Dolores has the more dramatically presented moment of epiphany, flat out declaring an end to her damselhood, it fell flat for me.   Being convinced that this portion of the story is predestined to place her back in her loop for 3 more decades of oblivious victimization takes the triumphant winds out of those sails before it can really get going.

It’s not her, or William’s, fault, but being stuck in prequel does them no favors dramatically.  I was more interested by her interrogation with Ford, who seems to know that she was a favorite of the mysterious Arnold.  “Have you been dreaming again, Dolores?  Imagining yourself breaking out of your modest little loop, and taking on a bigger role?” he taunts (emphasis added) in a manor that somehow blends kindly and malicious in that special Anthony Hopkins-sauce.  

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His conversation with Harris was similarly intriguing without being particularly informative.  But again my sympathies tend to lie with the Man In Black’s perspective: eventually Westworld is going to need real stakes, instead of stylishly-shot portents of what those stakes might someday be.  Pretty much the only action at headquarters this week revolves around Elsie figuring out that the Stray’s weird behavior was part of some corporate espionage plan to beam data outside of the park’s strictly controlled environment.  As with so much, this has the basic shape of intrigue, but the motivations and power dynamics of the humans on the management side are still so opaque that there isn’t much to say about it besides “guess we’ll see.”
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Meanwhile, a week without Armistice is a week without joy

  • Logan complains to William about so much of the park being market-tested and designed by committee when entering Pariah, echoing exactly the shade MiB threw at Hector in the jail cell last week.
  • Lawrence also offers William a drink on the train.  MiB tells Lawrence that he knows is habits and what liquor he likes to swill.  This is hardly definitive, just sayin’.
  • This week in piano/classical rock covers:  Nine Inch Nails’ “Something I Can Never Have" during the orgy scene.  They do their best to make that orgy baroque and big enough to sort of justify the town's reputation as the real hub of depravity in the park, but eh.  It's not like there aren't brothels and massacres and in the "safe" town too.   When the whole park is designed to be a consequence-free video game, it doesn't seem really necessary for it to have its own secret Tijuana.
  • When Teddy grabs Harris’s knife, it’s a rare moment when a host feels legitimately dangerous despite all the strictures we know still bind them from doing real harm.  Marsden does a great job in that brief moment, becoming suddenly physically energized and emotionally dead.

Sunday, October 30, 2016


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Following the rapturous critical response to FX’s semi-anthology, semi-comedy series Louie, cable has become littered with half hour pseudo-“comedies” that style themselves sitcom-as-art-film. You may have skipped most of them, but the weary, chagrined vibe is visible even from the impressionistic promos.  Maron. Better Things. Master Of None. Married. Legit. One Mississippi.  Even HBO is getting in on the jokeless comedy train with the recent debuts of High Maintenance and Insecure. Semi-autobiographical, deliberately low-key, largely episodic, artfully composed, conspicuously soulful, carefully self-deprecating but only intermittently funny, such shows draw reviews that use words like “insightful”, “lyrical”, “thought-provoking”, “poignant”, and “masterful” more than “hilarious”.  They carefully avoid total self-seriousness but will never go for the big laugh at the expense of a good wallow at the inherent sadness and alienation of the human condition.  It’s like if Wilco was a TV show.  (In case you are not a Midwestern white guy in your 30s, that would be a band that is perfectly capable of delivering a rollicking rock show, but only feels most itself when indulging its sad-bastard acoustic side.)

I really like Wilco, mind you, and I’m usually down for a good wallow.  I watch many of these shows, and find a lot to appreciate in them an episode-by-episode basis.  But I never quite fall in love, even with Louie, the wellspring itself.  And as an entire genre enters its bearded-Robin-Williams phase, a sort of cumulative weariness develops with ostensible sitcoms intent on asking the question “does comedy really have to be funny, though?”

To which I'd answer yes, dummy, of course it does.  I know, comedians are these secretly forlorn and tormented intellectual types (so secretly that it can take up to six minutes into a comedy-themed podcast before they start telling you about it). But if you really want to make a drama, just sack up and do it without the cover of being able to say it was all just a lark if that drama falls flat.  

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Never Forget.

Amongst this field, FX’s Atlanta stands out as at once the angriest, silliest, and artiest of these shows, which has made it the one I find myself actually looking forward to each week.  Whereas the rest seem most enamored with Louie’s restraint, taking its formlessness as a license to go long stretches without jokes, Atlanta embraces that formlessness as a means to tell jokes that are stranger and more idiosyncratic.  Or in the case of the “B.A.N” episode, essentially transform into a longform sketch show, complete with commercial parodies that stand next to anything produced by SNL or Rick and Morty.  This doesn’t mean that it won’t indulge in extended stretches of indie-film melancholia, but that it recognizes that the freedom to do so also allowed Louie to blindside you with laughs The Big Bang Theory could never pull off, whether it’s the hero’s date opting for a daring escape via helicopter when he tries for a kiss or spending half an episode on a dramatic build up to an elaborate fart joke.   In Atlanta’s case, the brilliant episode “The Club” has a Wonder Woman-inspired gag that I won’t spoil except to say that it pays off in the place I least expected, resulting in the single biggest laugh any show has pulled out of me all year.  

It’s not all whimsy, though, and Atlanta does not lack for cultural commentary.  It is, directly and constantly, about being black in America, a subject that gets more and more fraught with each passing week and its commensurate video of an unarmed black man being shot by police.  Being one of those thirtysomething white dudes that traffics in Wilco analogies, I’m not best qualified to speak to the full extent of its success or failure in this regard. But I think it’s generally to the show’s credit that, even as it is showing me things I have rarely seen on TV, it doesn’t feel like it is ever speaking directly to me.  Which is maybe even more potent, showing being more effective than telling and all that.  The blade of satire in episode 5 in particular, featuring special guest star Justin Bieber, gleams all the sharper because it never has anyone directly articulate the double standard his behavior lays bare.   

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Ever wish you could punch someone in the pose?
But my favorite thing about the show is Darius, played with spacy understatement by Keith Stanfield. As the permastoned sidekick and foil to the more grounded leads, he seems to occupy the familiar “kooky neighbor” comedic archetype – Atlanta’s Kramer, if you will.  But while I generally loathe that type of character, they are not doing the things with his portrayal that bring out my inner Frank Grimes.  For instance, in “The Club”, Darius finds himself quickly and humorously shut out of Alfred’s VIP section for failure to adhere to proper wristband protocol.  If it were a Kramer or a Taco or a Phoebe in this set up, they would somehow get pulled into the even more exclusive balcony that Alfred had been envying, become the toast of the hipper crust through sheer dint of idiocy, and enjoy the immediate and devoted infatuation of the host/hottest person there.  Darius, though, just wanders home and eats cereal.    

That, to quote last week’s biggest laughline, is a real situation.  We all know genuine weirdos, and we alternately love and tolerate that weirdness, but it's rare to see a half hour comedy resist turning their token weirdo into a magical elf. One who floats through life cluelessly blessed, inexplicably irresistible to the opposite sex, shrugging in blissful ignorance whenever the more “relatable” characters point out how ridiculously everything seems to naturally align in their favor.  Darius can be rather clueless, but he mostly just floats, to no particular success. Which makes him, in a way, the anti-Kramer, and as I type this I’m realizing why I have such dislike for that archetype.  Those magic elf-types function as walking embodiments of Privilege, generally of the White variety.  And Atlanta posits that such privilege does not exist for black Americans.  

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Queasy Racial Epiphanies are definitely not brought to you by Papa John's
But the best thing about Darius is that he’s strangely, sneakily funny, and the same goes for the show he calls home.  If only the rest of the artsy-fartsy comedy movement would deign to try for something so basic.