Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

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Thursday

11

May 2017

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13 Reasons Why is Mesmerizing, Yet Frustrating

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We’ve had a renaissance of high school dramas over the past few years. Shows like Awkward, Faking It, Pretty Little Liars, and Riverdale stand out for their individualistic portrayals of high school life, quirks and all. High school is weird. 13 Reasons Why never tries to paint high school as anything other than an angst riddled warzone, but it does so with a grace that respects the sensitivity of its source material.

The fact that 13 Reasons Why managed to make national headlines shouldn’t be too surprising, even after we consider just how many shows compete for the spotlight these days. Any show that tackles suicide with a playlist of 80s gems is bound to attract some negative attention. While parents should be cautious not to let their children get any wrong ideas about the actions of Hannah Baker, the show never glorifies suicide. In fact, it’s probably one of the most effective fictionalized advocates against it.

13 Reasons Why succeeds on the strength of its cast. The good/evil spectrum has a few outliers on either end, but for the more part these characters are deeply flawed human beings who occupy a moral grey area for most of the season. There’s a reason for this beyond the typical “TV anti-hero” trope as well. These characters are hurting.

The show addresses pain with a maturity rarely seen on television. The first season takes place over the course of a few short weeks, which is hardly enough time to address such grief. I’m glad it didn’t try.

Katherine Langford and Dylan Minnette play their roles with a frustrating sense of brilliance. Hannah and Clay Jensen frequently do things that practically force the viewer to shout at the TV. The idea that any single action might have saved Hannah lingers, not because the show wants to take you in that direction, but rather because that thought is on all the characters’ minds (except for one, who’s rightfully portrayed as a sociopath). Blame is felt and each character is forced to come to grips with his or her own role, but in the end, Hannah alone made her decision. That idea is painful and can be debated, but the show deserves a lot of credit for facing the problem that will never yield a satisfying answer.

13 Reasons Why isn’t a perfect show. It has a strange relationship with its central plot device. In the book, Clay listens to all of the tapes over the course of an evening. The show chooses to stretch this out for the entire season, creating numerous pacing problems along the way. The fact that the thirteen reasons corresponds with the typical thirteen episode cable season explains this decision, but it often remains a point of contention as the viewer is forced to watch Clay make his way through the season wondering why he doesn’t just get it over with. The show never supplies a satisfying answer.

The frustration is oddly fitting. As someone who prefers watching shows week to week, even Netflix offerings, I found myself binging for the first time in ages. It’s a world where characters always pop up at the moment of greatest convenience, where parents disappear whenever it would be easier not have to have them around, and one where everyone knows everyone else’s secrets, except for the existence of tapes explaining why a girl took her own life. Maybe it’s the amazing visual displays, using color to set the tone of the mood, but I’ve rarely seen a show so comfortable being that flawed.

13 Reasons Why is a work of beauty. It’s raw and imperfect, but it possesses a keen ability to convey emotion. I was originally annoyed to hear it was getting another season, thinking it was a cheap cash grab at the expense of its concept. I was wrong. I’m not ready to be done with these characters.

Some will want to avoid 13 Reasons Why because of its subject matter, which is certainly fair. There’s a lot to take away from the show’s handling of the subject matter, never shying away from the grim realities its characters face. To call it one of the year’s best shows may be unsettling for some, but the show could very be Netflix’ most powerful offering to date.

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Wednesday

3

May 2017

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Too Much of a Good Fring?

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Gus Fring is one of TV’s all time greatest villains. Giancarlo Esposito portrayed Breaking Bad’s archvillian with a chill that never cooled his potential for cruelty. It was only a matter of time before the mild mannered fast food chicken/meth tycoon popped up on Better Call Saul. The only question was, when?

Despite its season opening flash forwards and cameos from Breaking Bad characters, Better Call Saul has done a great job establishing itself as its own show independent of its source material. It’s not really a prequel in the conventional sense since Breaking Bad wasn’t really about Saul Goodman’s rise from American Samoa law graduate to Cinnabon manager. Jimmy McGill’s story will inevitably tackle the origins of Breaking Bad, possibly even including Walter White and Jesse Pinkman, but all roads don’t need to lead to baby blue.

Gus Fring’s arrival does not have to change that. Better Call Saul has done a great job letting Mike Ehrmantraut do his own thing when the story doesn’t call for him to share the screen with McGill. The trouble is that Ehrmantraut, however endearing to the audience, is a supporting character. Better Call Saul works with Ehrmantraut crafting elaborate schemes that have nothing to do with Jimmy McGill’s war with his brother because we as the audience recognize how subplots work.

Gus is different. He is Breaking Bad’s closest equivalent to a Buffy the Vampire Slayer “big bad,” who put up one hell of a fight against the heroes before suffering an epic, and gruesome, demise. All eyes turn to Fring when he’s on the screen because he’s supposed to command your attention. Mike may do that because you like him, but that’s not his character’s job necessarily. Gus was crafted to be the man who pushed Walter to his limits, leaving a trail of innocent blood along the way. Mike was crafted to clean up the body of Jesse’s overdosed girlfriend.

Gus’ story can exist independent of Jimmy’s, but it competes for the spotlight in a way that Mike’s never did. Mike offers a breather from the main plot, allowing the HHM story to move at a comfortable, but occasionally sluggish, pace. Gus Fring is a far more interesting character than Saul Goodman/Jimmy McGill. The rise of a meth kingpin will always be more interesting to watch than brotherly squabbles, no matter how fun Michael McKean is to watch.

To some, this might not be a problem. If Gus is more interesting than Jimmy, wouldn’t his addition improve Better Call Saul? Maybe. It’s only been three episodes, but Gus has begun to command the spotlight, as any actor with Esposito’s talent would. This wouldn’t be an issue to mention if it wasn’t for the fact that Better Call Saul was already a great show. The phrase “less is more” exists for a reason.

My big concern is timing. We knew Gus would pop up, but Better Call Saul is only just starting its third season. If BCS follows BB’s run, we’re only a third of the way through the show. If BCS does last six seasons and Esposito stays on the show for the duration of its run, he’ll have been on Saul for twice as long as he was on Breaking Bad. There’s a reason Gus and Mike didn’t stay on Breaking Bad for the duration of the show’s run. As great as they are, they ran out of things to do.

All prequels have to deal with the matter of maintaining dramatic suspense. It’s harder to keep viewers engaged when they know what’s going to happen in the end. This hasn’t been as big an issue for Better Call Saul as say, the Star Wars prequels because Saul and Mike weren’t lead characters. Neither character appeared in Breaking Bad’s premiere or its finale. We can watch last season’s feud between Mike and Hector Salamanca with suspense even though we know both will die eventually because we don’t really know these characters’ relationship with each other.

The same can’t really be said for Gus and Hector. There’s a lot to Gus’ origin story we don’t know about, but it’s hard to imagine anything being half as memorable as Hector killing them both with a pipe bomb, taking half of Gus’ face with them. Gus’ status as a “big bad” makes his presence in the prequel far more complicated.

Which isn’t to say that he doesn’t have a role to play in Better Call Saul. The question of how Saul came to be professionally acquainted with Gus was the thing I was most excited for before the show premiered. Two seasons in, I’m still excited for that moment, but I don’t need to know now. The questions I’m more interested in right now is how the show will utilize Gus for upwards of four years.

Better Call Saul isn’t strictly Jimmy’s story just as Breaking Bad wasn’t just about Walter White. But Better Call Saul isn’t just about setting up Breaking Bad either. There’s a great story to be told independent of what came before. Gus will be a part of that, but he’ll also take away from the story that’s been established over the past two years. Early reports indicated that Saul could wade into Breaking Bad’s timeline. That kind of uncertainty is rare and refreshing for a prequel, but complicated by the presence of the source material’s most memorable villain. We know how that will end, and it isn’t at a Cinnabon.

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Monday

3

April 2017

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Home Fires and “The Next Downton Abbey” Effect

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Home Fires is in the news quite a bit for a TV show that was cancelled last May. Creator Simon Block recently announced that a series of novels would continue the story of the Great Paxford Women’s Institute’s role in World War II. PBS is set to start airing the second and final series this June and the show recently topped a Radio Times poll of British TV shows that deserve to be brought back. One might say, despite the cancellation, Home Fires was doing pretty well on the publicity front.

Downton Abbey’s worldwide success inevitably lead to a revitalized interest in period dramas. Practically every network, both in the US and the UK, have tried their hands in lace and corsets. Even Comedy Central entered the fray with Another Period, poking fun at the tropes of the genre. As with any popular piece of media, the phrase, “the next Downton Abbey” inevitably popped up when referring to practically any period piece that featured characters in wardrobes other than what you’d see in your local Starbucks. The presence of DA alumni Samantha Bond and Clare Calbraith certainly allows the idea of a comparison between Downton Abbey and Home Fires to exist, but it’s hard to see how this benefits HF beyond provoking fans of the former to check out the later.

Indian Summers, The Halycon, Mercy Street, and Doctor Thorne all received the “next Downton Abbey” label in the press. None lasted more than two seasons, though there’s little indication that Doctor Thorne was ever supposed to be more than a limited series, which makes the moniker even more puzzling. How can “the next Downton Abbey” only last three episodes, even if Julian Fellowes wrote the script? With the exception of The Halycon, which advertised its emphasis on glamour and lavishness, it’s pretty hard to make the case that any of the others were trying in any way to emulate Downton Abbey.

The “next DA” label has been used for successful shows as well such as Poldark, The Durrells (titled The Durrells in Corfu in America), Victoria, and The Crown, but even with those four it’s hard to argue that the association works to their benefit. All of them are fairly rooted in their source material with Poldark and The Durrells being based off popular book series, while the latter two are biographical dramas of English monarchs. Victoria, which airs in the US in Downton’s old timeslot on Downton’s network, has received extensive media coverage, nearly all of which focuses on its potential to follow suit as a worldwide phenomenon. This is really unfair to Victoria, which is an exceptional drama in its own right.

Downton Abbey occupies a place in British television reserved for the likes of Brideshead Revisited and the original Upstairs, Downstairs. The show singlehandedly revived its genre to a place of prominence in British and American television. Comparing every period drama to it runs the risk of putting them at a disadvantage when the shows inevitably lack an under butler, two footmen, and a witty dowager. They deserve to be allowed to exist on their own merits, not in relation to a beloved worldwide phenomenon.

It is rather interesting to note that despite the popularity of “the next Downton Abbey” moniker, no show has been either credited for its success or chastised for its failure based on its ability to mirror DA. Nowhere in the announcement of Home Fires’ cancellation did we see anything chastising the show for not taking place in a massive country estate presided over by an earl.

The closest example we have to this concept is perhaps the cancellation of the revival of Upstairs, Downstairs, which premiered as a miniseries in 2010, the same year Downton Abbey premiered. A second series was commissioned that was widely panned, though the departure of Eileen Aitkins, who left because she was unhappy with the creative direction of the show, and the limited involvement of Jean Marsh, the only cast member from the original series to participate in the revival undoubtedly diminished enthusiasm. One could point to DA as a source of the show’s declining ratings, as the BBC cancelled The Paradise in part due to similarities to the ITV’s more successful Mr. Selfridge, which also aired at the same time. The problem with this theory is that it implies that the world can only accept a finite number of costume dramas, which the post DA landscape has thoroughly debunked. Clearly the world can never have enough corsets. The simpler explanation that Upstairs, Downstairs failed because its second series wasn’t very good seems much more plausible.

The circumstances surrounding Home Fires’ cancellation remain a bit curious. A combination of constraints surrounding ITV’s budget as well a diminished international interest seems to be the best explanation, especially since PBS waited almost a full year to air the second series. The idea that Home Fires, as well as Indian Summers and The Halycon, were cancelled at least in part for not being more like Downton Abbey persists. Home Fires clearly wasn’t cancelled because nobody liked it or nobody watched it. Expectations can be burdensome for anyone and in the case of “the next DA” moniker, there doesn’t seem to be much of a benefit at all to tying an anchor of unreasonable ambitions to every single period drama that follows. Hopefully if another series Home Fires is ever commissioned, no one will suggest that it returned to assume its status as the next Downton Abbey. Only members of the Crawley family deserve to be burdened with that moniker.

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Tuesday

10

January 2017

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Vikings Boldly Lets Go

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Vikings has always managed to walk the line between fun and serious better than most shows on television. It doesn’t shoot for the awards circuit quite like Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey, or Wolf Hall, but doesn’t go completely over the top campy like Reign, The Bastard Executioner, or Xena: Warrior Princess either. It also has a strong chance to go down in TV history as having the best action sequences of all time.

The second half of season four put forth a test that few shows ever want to face. Could Vikings survive without its lead? Ragnar Lothbrok’s death made sense from a historical standpoint, fitting given it airs on the History Channel, but Travis Fimmel brought an unexpected emotional complexity to the character that wasn’t completely needed for the show to be a hit. His absence is a big loss for the show, which makes it peculiar to state that it’s also for the best.

Vikings became a great show because of Ragnar and will be better off moving forward without him.

To say that there’s nothing left for Ragnar to do is sensible, but slightly problematic. The show could have easily invented a new plotline for Ragnar, even if it wasn’t directly tied to Bjorn’s or another invasion attempt, and Fimmel could have stayed on the show. Even if this possibility makes you roll your eyes, it’s important to understand that Vikings wasn’t completely backed into a corner with Ragnar. Killing him off was the right decision, but killing off the star is never easy.

Ragnar lost his elasticity as a character. Not completely as Fimmel was still able to command the audience’s attention with his broken character. The value of Ragnar shifted in his final few episodes. As an outgoing lead, Ragnar’s interactions with Ivar eased what is naturally an uncomfortable transition. The second half of season four drastically alters the focus of the series, making Ragnar’s four children with Aslaug main characters.

Keeping Ragnar around would have likely involved the character morphing into the television version of Stannis Baratheon post Battle of the Blackwater (full disclosure: I am a devoted book supporter of Stannis and have published several articles critical of his TV direction). He’d be there on the screen, existing as a shell of himself pining for a future the audience knows isn’t going to happen. Few TV shows succeed when they spend their time reminding audiences of happier seasons. A clean break from the character was much more beneficial to the wellbeing of the show.

Showrunner and writer Michael Hirst deserves a lot of credit for “Crossings,” the first episode of the post Ragnar era. The show still feels like Vikings, even if we’re not entirely sure what direction the show is going to take. We don’t know which characters will be retained, or what role Jonathan Ryers Meyers will play when he joins the show in season five. The show’s relatively high cast turnover rate makes it likely that at least one of Lagertha, Rollo, Floki, or Bjorn will depart in the not so distant future. If “Crossings” serves as any indicator, it’s that the show still has a lot of gas left in the tank.

Shows evolve or they get stale. There’s only so many times you can build up a character and break them down again without the lingering feeling of familiar territory. TV provides entertainment, but also comfort in the sense that the audience gets to spend time with characters they’ve grown attached to at a specific time of the week. Many shows fade with age as the relationship between comfort and entertainment often erodes into a burden.

By killing off Ragnar, Vikings hopes to avoid many of problems that age inflicts upon TV shows. It won’t be as comfortable, more like a longship voyage to Wessex. It’ll be different. That’s why we watched it in the first place.

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Saturday

7

January 2017

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Pokemon Go Must Introduce a Moveset Variation

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Pokemon Go has been an embarrassing hobby of mine for months now. The question, “why are you still playing that?” is pretty indefensible when you consider how flawed the game is. Gym defenses are practically impossible while taking them depends largely on how much time you have to spend standing outside a church or post office rather than any actual skill. Despite my annoyance with the the limitations of the game, I have enjoyed its ability to mask the real world from its bland outer shell, decorating the landscape with an array of pidgeys that remind us of mankind’s unique ability to choose its own reality. It also gets me to the library to stock up on pokeballs…

I recently caught a Gyrados. This should be cause for celebration. Collecting 400 Magikarp candies is no easy feat, though one that tests endurance more than anything else. I should be celebrating, basking in the glory of having the prize that many of my friends desired, if only they could tough it out.

Unfortunately, my Gyrados is terrible. It has the worst charge attack: twister, making it a white elephant unworthy of its CP and the time spent acquiring it.

Twister is one of three charge attacks that Gyrados can learn. It does so little damage that one is essentially better off using the standard attack. The other two charge attacks, Hydro Pump and Dragon Pulse both inflict over double the damage that an individual Twister would. This chance occurrence reflects bad luck on my part, but also the biggest flaw of Pokemon Go as a game.

The inability to choose one’s charge move is a slap in the face to dedicated fans. The biggest problem facing Pokemon Go, and practically every other game for that matter, is retention rate. The overabundance of pidgeys and rattatas and the inconsistent spawns in rural areas play big parts in why people abandon the game, but the battling problems hit those who have presumably weathered the repetitive storm.

Pokemon Go is not a game of skill. You can use strategy in battling to get a leg up, but there’s really not much to it. The game’s bread and butter comes from the desire to power up one’s pokemon to take gyms, with that actual battling process serving as more of an afterthought.

Problem is that Pokemon Go is poorly structured in its rewards system for acquiring battle dominant pokemon. My Gyrados is my third strongest by CP, yet it’s nearly worthless from a battling standpoint. There is nothing anyone can do to change that. I’d run the exact same risk if I went out and caught 400 more Magikarp candies.

Pokemon Go has been slow to address its flaws. The buddy system is the only significant change to the gameplay itself, allowing players a sliver of control as to the pokemon they’re able to power up. A move set variation option could be added without need to overhaul the structure of the game. Users could select which charge attack to assign their pokemon and perhaps even work toward the stronger moves through battling or a TM/HM type system.

A modification like that would also address the game’s biggest flaw. Pokemon Go has little to offer anyone who with strong preferences toward specific pokemon. A Butterfree isn’t likely to beat a Charizard in the Game Boy versions, but that didn’t mean you couldn’t train it to. Even with the recent adjustment, CP still heavily favors a narrow and baffling group of Pokemon. If your favorite pokemon is a Wigglytuff, there really isn’t much you can do with it besides gush over its cuteness.

Like the buddy system, a moveset variation gives players something to work toward using resources already present in the game. We don’t know what causes pokemon to learn certain moves in Pokemon Go, only that we have no control over it. The way the current system stands, there aren’t really 158 pokemon in the game. A Gyrados that knows Dragon Pulse is for intents and purposes a different pokemon from one who knows Hydro Pump. That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Pokemon Go has many flaws to address, but adding a moveset modification would go a long way toward giving fans something to work toward that actually fits in line with the spirit of the franchise. Training Pokemon to learn better moves feels a lot more like Pokemon than farming candies in the hopes that chance will reward one’s effort. No person should have to suffer the indignity of owning a Gyrados with twister.

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Saturday

31

December 2016

0

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Mad Max: Fury Road – Black & Chrome Reaffirms the Value of Special Edition Releases

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The idea that a fourth Mad Max film would be any good, let alone nominated for Best Picture, still seems ridiculous a year and a half after its release in a world overpopulated with forgettable sequels and reboots. Fury Road succeeds on every level, providing a substantive action packed two hours free of the obligations to larger franchise ambitions. With no obvious area to improve upon, director George Miller’s statement that an even better cut of the film existed read like a perfectionist auteur never to be satisfied with his craft. That is, until Black & Chrome was released.

Miller cites a sound editing cut of The Road Warrior as the inspiration for Black & Chrome in the introduction to the Blu-Ray release. Given the scarcity of black & white films over the past fifty years, it’s not hard to see why a studio balked at removing color from a big budget release, but its absence makes perfect sense from a narrative perspective. In a post apocalyptic world where the characters are on a mission to find the “Green Place,” what color is there?

Black & Chrome offers a significantly grittier experience. Each characters’ scars and wrinkles become exposed without a palette to hide behind. The explosions in the sandstorm are claustrophobic in their presentation without the depth of color to serve as a reference point, much like what the characters would have experienced inside it. This comes at the cost of some of the technical marvels of the effects team, providing the kind of intimate experience that is rarely associated with action films.

What’s noticeable throughout the cut is that this isn’t a cheap cash grab designed to lure diehard fans into ponying up more money. Each scene is carefully constructed so that the black & white enhances the experience. Definitely a big step up from the b&w Instagram filter.

The Blu Ray version did not include the rumored silent version of the film. I’m not really sure how that would work in a way that didn’t rob the audience of its connection to the characters, though an enhanced score could give the film more of a Fantasia like feel. To use a whiskey metaphor, if Fury Road was a single malt, Black & Chrome would be the tiny drop of water that opens it up to enhance the flavor. Silent B&C could very well be the massive ice cube that strips it of its character.

Perhaps Black & Chrome’s greatest achievement is that it’s a superior cut that doesn’t eradicate the value of the original release. Miller may have preferred to have released this version straight from the get go, but it’s hard to imagine a world where the black & white version could have achieved the same level of mainstream popularity both at the box office and on the awards circuit. Fury Road occupies a special place in the film canon, being the only fourth entry in a franchise to ever be nominated for Best Picture. Miller himself remains a rare figure in cinema, having maintained creative control over his creation since the original came out in 1979. If B&C needed to wait, so be it.

Special edition and director’s cut releases have taken a hit in the streaming era, but B&C proves there’s still value in physical media, giving film aficionados Miller’s best cut without hindering the movie’s earning potential. Hopefully B&C will see a theatrical release as well. Some directors like George Lucas can’t stop tinkering with their masterpieces, cheapening them over the years with unnecessary CGI and blinking Ewoks. Blood & Chrome proved the exception, enhancing the experience through the absence of color. I was wary of the Blu-Ray’s $20 price tag, especially for a movie I’d seen multiple times already, but couldn’t resist adding it to my Christmas list. Blu Rays may be more of a niche market, but certainly not an irrelevant one.

 

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Wednesday

21

December 2016

1

COMMENTS

Rectify Goes Out On Its Own Terms

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The question of Daniel Holden’s innocence has always been Rectify’s low hanging fruit. If Sundance’s first original drama aired on network TV, the ads every week would feature variations of “did he do it?” along with some gripping music and a voiceover, but creator Ray McKinnon never made that the focal point of his masterpiece. In the week leading up to Rectify’s finale, I got the sense that we weren’t going to get any definitive closure. The four seasons we spent with Daniel remind us that life doesn’t work like that. Thankfully, the finale didn’t tell us anything different.

It’s easy to forget that the entirety of the show takes places over a few short months. The circumstances surrounding Daniel’s life barely change over the course of the series. He’s on the road to recovery and probable exoneration, but that’s about it thirty episodes later. Rectify’s pacing is a true marvel, moving at a glacier slow speed but with such precision that it’s easy to forget just how little time has passed, though for a show about a man who spent nineteen yeas in solitary confinement, it feels oddly fitting.

Part of the beauty of Rectify is that we’ll never know if Daniel really did it or not. The show supplied enough details to suggest Chris Nelms killed Hanna Dean, but never fully lets its lead off the hook. Daniel himself claimed to not remember in the season opener, understandable considering he was on mushrooms that night. Most shows would be ripped apart for not definitively revealing the killer, but Rectify managed to frame its narrative so that it almost would have been a cop out to supply the answer.

That’s also really not what Rectify was ever about. As Daniel put it in the finale, an exoneration would be only good for an occasional visit home, plus any future Google searches by artsy companions. He won’t get his years back. Some people in Paulie will always think he did it. Rectify never tried to trick its audience into thinking otherwise.

I didn’t think the season finale was the best episode of the season. I’m glad it didn’t try to be. There were so many deeply moving scenes throughout the season that you almost couldn’t imagine that there were any heartstrings left to tug. Of course Rectify managed to find a few, but the goodbyes offered in the final episode ended on a happier note than what we’ve come to expect from the show over the years.

Rectify’s conclusion had all the makings of a proper TV finale set through the lens of one of the most unique shows ever to air. We got to see familiar faces one last time, without the kind of shock scene that would have felt out of place. The best TV finales are the ones that remind you why you loved the show to begin with. The final dream sequence offered the only kind of conclusion Rectify could offer, bringing the show to an end knowing full well that Daniel Holden’s story is far from over.

Few shows demonstrate such mastery of the craft. Like The Wire before it, Rectify won no major awards and never achieved a sizable following while it was on the air. Both are fairly unwelcoming in their brutally honest deliveries, which rarely spare punches to their characters. Hopefully history will rectify Rectify’s standing in this so-called “golden age of television,” but until then we can rest easy knowing what a fantastic piece of art we got to enjoy.

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Monday

19

December 2016

0

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Rogue One Sets A Strong Template for Standalone Star Wars Films

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We live in a post-film era for big blockbusters. Being an entertaining, self-contained, couple hours of fun isn’t enough anymore as franchises work their own larger continuities into the mix to keep fans coming to the theatres. While criticized for being a largely derivative film, The Force Awakens was praised for setting up the franchise for future annual offerings. As a standalone film, Rogue One demonstrates what a movie can be without the weight of obligation.

Rogue One takes place during the long eighteen year period between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, enough for General Motti to remark, “your sad devotion to that ancient religion,” in the latter film. There’s a few familiar faces in the supporting cast, but the leads are complete unknowns. The presence of rebels not related to the Skywalker/Solo/Kenobi/Binks clans was rather refreshing as the mind tends to focus on the film itself rather than the potential parentages of the characters. Felicity Jones and Diego Luna captivate in the leading roles, never once suggesting that the two may be related or that one owned a droid built by the other’s father.

The film moves at a rapid pace, taking little time to explain who its characters are. You probably won’t remember most of their names. There is a natural inclination to knock the film for giving the audience little reason to get behind the characters, except the film’s standalone nature and lean 133 minute runtime stand in direct contrast to most action films these days. Rogue One doesn’t have the luxury of spending the entire film setting up future entries for its characters and it’s better off for not trying. I liked the characters enough to care if they survived various explosions. Isn’t that enough?

Which isn’t to say that it’s a perfect film. The cast is a little bloated and the story relies heavily on dramatic clichés to advance the plot. I’d care more, but I was having too much fun watching a movie that wasn’t trying to be a different movie or sell me on the next one.

The idea of standalone Star Wars films has existed since the Caravan of Courage/Battle for Endor duology back in the 80s. The world George Lucas created offers endless storytelling possibilities, which made J.J. Abrams’ decision to remake A New Hope and The Force Awakens incredibly frustrating. Rogue One doesn’t deviate quite as far from the original films as the Ewok movies, but certainly demonstrates what the franchise is capable of when separated from its beloved characters.

Rogue One succeeded for many of the same reasons as the original. It offered satisfying escapism with breathtaking special effects. It pays homage to its predecessors, offering numerous easter eggs for dedicated fans that don’t take away from the enjoyment of those who don’t even know what the Ewok movies even are. It doesn’t shoot for the stars, but one has to wonder if any film is going to in the Disney era. If this is as good as it gets, I’ll take it, as long as there aren’t any post-credit scenes.

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Tuesday

29

November 2016

0

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In Defense of No Man’s Sky

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As someone who grew up in the era where blowing into your cartridge was the only way to improve video game functionality, the idea that No Man’s Sky could receive such a massive structural overhaul months after its release day is still fairly remarkable. I did a live video defending the game back in August that quickly became the most watched on my page with 18,000 thousand views. There’s no denying the game is polarizing, rightfully so for many reasons. The problem is, many of the knocks against the game have never really been fair.

The two chief complaints I’ve heard since the games release tend to be concerned with its marketing and price point. No Man’s Sky promised big things in its trailer and failed to deliver vividly unique locations filled with interactive critters of all sizes. The game shattered sales expectations both in the U.S. and abroad, explaining the massive outrage that still manages to trend on social media months later.

One question that’s always stuck with me throughout this process is an age old quandary. How much of the blame belongs with the consumer?

No Man’s Sky may have skyrocketed in sales before taking a catastrophic nosedive, but the same can’t be said of the reviews. Those were always bad. Before falling off the grid, Sean Murray even hinted that the game might not be for everyone. The marketing may have been misleading, but this is hardly a groundbreaking revelation. The role of marketing isn’t to provide an objective opinion on a product, but rather to get you to buy it.

The other big issue focused on the game’s sixty-dollar price point. This is also a valid complaint, to a certain extant. It’s also one that’s easily explainable through a basic understanding of society’s relationship with entertainment.

Think about a movie trailer that looks moderately entertaining. You might want to watch said film, but do you want to see it in theatres or do you want to wait until it’s available to rent? Or better yet, do you want to wait until it’s on Netflix or another streaming service that doesn’t require you to shell out money just to watch that particular film? This line of thinking isn’t new.

It also isn’t fair to No Man’s Sky. Hello Games charged what they could get for it. A thirty-dollar price point would have alleviated some of the outrage (though there’s still the misleading trailer), but who’s responsibility is it to make that call? There isn’t a litmus test for what qualifies to be labeled full price. As we saw with the subsequent price drop, the idea that No Man’s Sky was in fact overpriced isn’t really contested.

Anyone who truly cared about that would have waited for the reviews, which never masked the game’s imperfections. The disappointment over No Man’s Sky was unavoidable. Choosing to wait to make a decision until all the facts were on the table wasn’t. Waiting a single day after the game’s release would have told you everything you needed to know.

No Man’s Sky is a deeply flawed game, but I never felt ripped off. I’ve played it for hours, mining crap and collecting Atlas Stones without really caring what the end goal is. As someone who doesn’t have a ton of time to really get invested in Fallout 4 or Skyrim (as majestic as they are), there’s something comforting about No Man’s Sky’s simplicity.

That reasoning isn’t going to fly for everyone, especially those who wanted another Skyrim or Fallout. Therein lies the age old debate of taking in something for what it is as opposed to what you want it to be. I don’t begrudge anyone who hates No Man’s Sky. It could have been better and it should have been better.

But we can’t pretend like there’s some concrete hours to dollars ratio for video games. The phrase “you get what you pay for” rings true here, but there’s also the idea that you have the ability to research that which you choose to pay for. I can’t help but feel like many of the people who hate No Man’s Sky are angry because they didn’t do that.

 

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Why Does Gilmore Girls Have a Monopoly on WB Nostalgia?

Written by , Posted in Blog, Pop Culture

Netflix offered millions of people a sanctuary from the Black Friday madness with the return of Gilmore Girls. The four episode limited revival has captured the interest of the pop culture world, bringing back the nostalgia of late 90s/early 00s WB programming. In an age with endless televisions offerings, both past and present, available to the consumer, it can be easy to forget that there once was a time when channels themselves were relevant at all, let alone ones that catered to a younger demographic.

With remakes and reboots popping up all over TV, it shouldn’t be surprising that Netflix wanted to book a return ticket to Stars Hollow. Gilmore Girls’ arrival to Netflix, relatively late to the streaming game in October 2014, garnered the kind of media attention that most current shows would kill for. What is perhaps surprising, is that Gilmore Girls is the only WB program to receive a revival in a world where Dynasty, Magnum P.I., and Prison Break are all being brought back to life. For a brief four month period, NBC wanted to capture the nostalgia of Coach before realizing that no one else did. So why is Gilmore Girls the only one of Michigan J. Frog’s offerings to return to millennial laptops, cell phones, and Apple TVs?

Gilmore Girls began its run right at the heart of WB’s love affair with the American youth. The show premiered in 2000, when Dawson’s Creek, 7th Heaven, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Felicity were plastered all over the covers of teen magazines and the insides of high school lockers. As far as ratings success goes, Gilmore Girls maintained a comfortable viewership relative to the rest of the network, but consistently lagged behind 7th Heaven and Smallville with ratings comparable to Buffy and Everwood.

When you think about one sentence that fully encapsulates all the feels of The WB, is there any better the the opening lines, “I don’t want to wait, for our lives to be over,” bringing images of a quaint North Carolinian town to mind? I don’t think so. I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting for a Dawson’s Creek revival either. Poor Grams.

While ratings are nearly irrelevant in the year 2016 and shouldn’t be used as a barometer for the quality of a show, they do remind us that Gilmore Girls wasn’t even close to being the flagship program on the WB. It ended unremarkably in 2006 after a one season run on The CW without creator and writer extraordinaire Amy Sherman-Palladino. The unsatisfying ending serves as a potential explanation for the desire to seek additional episodes, but no such treatment has been given to Charmed, which fell victim to massive budget cuts in its ninth and final season. Joss Whedon directed two of the highest grossing movies of all time, yet there’s been almost no talk of any Buffy or Angel continuation.

Gilmore Girls remains on an island, or perhaps in a diner of its own in WB lore. With podcasts like “Gilmore Guys” breathing new life into the fandom years after its demise, there’s no doubt that the show maintains a cult status with its viewers that most shows would kill for. There’s little question that the show’s writing was among the best on TV even if the Emmys refused to acknowledge it. The show’s fast paced dialogue, filled with pop culture references, practically forces repeat viewing. It could be that Gilmore Girls is the only WB show to get a revival because it was the best show on the network. Problem is that doesn’t really explain the legions of revivals while plenty of other popular and beloved programs remain dormant. Is anyone really angling for another season of The Wire?

Melissa McCarthy’s recent A-list success is obviously part of the equation, but I hesitate to give it too much credit. Sookie may have been Lorelai’s best friend, but was still a supporting character on a similar level as Lane or Paris. McCarthy’s cameo is important to recapturing the magic of the show, but hardly a driving force in A Year in the Life.

The varying success of other WB stars fail to shed any consistent light on the lack of appeal for other shows either. Michelle Williams, Katie Holmes, Jessica Biel, Keri Russell, David Boreanaz, Alyson Hannigan and Emily VanCamp have all either been in big budget movies or hit series, but James van der Beek has, so far, been the only former WB star to try to cash in on his old nostalgic value. Putting aside 7th Heaven’s soiled reputation in the wake of Stephen Collins’ transformation from beloved father to pedophile, it does seem odd that no network or streaming service hasn’t tried to tap into the former magic of the WB besides Gilmore Girls.

We’ve seen plenty of articles and studies on pop culture’s recent obsession with nostalgia. South Park captured it best with its “member berries” that use nostalgic references to give characters warm feelings of security. The past itself is less important than the idea of returning to a simpler time.

The world of Stars Hollow gave Gilmore Girls a unique leg up in this regard. Every episode takes you to a special place filled with all the warm feelings of community and beloved culture. The WB gave teens a sense that someone out there was on their side. Gilmore Girls possessed a degree of separation with its emphasis on family and the town itself.

An image of Joey Potter climbing through Dawson Leery’s bedroom window might look a little creepy in the year 2016. The idea of Felicity as a grad student or college professor seems a bit odd, regardless of hairstyle. What would the Camdens have to lecture their kids about in a world with legalized pot? Stars Hollow survives because the idea is timeless in a world where the doors opened by technology often lead to divisiveness and isolation. The best revivals are the ones that don’t just recapture the magic, but bring something new to the table as well. For much of The WB’s roster, nostalgia is probably best left in the past.

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