Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

Monthly Archive: November 2019

Thursday

14

November 2019

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The Mandalorian Season One Review: Chapter One

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Note: This review contains spoilers

The Mandalorian carries a lot of weight that most television series don’t really deserve. After more than a decade of waiting, the first live action Star Wars show is finally here, a drama that also happens to be the flagship offering of a new streaming service. The kind of hype that comes with this terrain would be enough to destroy a planet the size of Alderaan.

To its credit, episode one never feels like it’s trying to juggle all this weight. Instead, it’s mostly an introductory narrative, one that isn’t particularly full of answers or compelling reasons to care about the characters. With regard to the latter, it doesn’t exactly need to give a reason. Star Wars already has plenty of fans.

As a lead, The Mandalorian is a challenging character to get behind. The helmet doesn’t help, limiting Pedro Pascal’s range. As far as this episode goes, how you feel about the title character could largely boil down to how cool you find his costume.

The breakout character in episode one is perhaps unsurprisingly Werner Herzog’s Client. There’s some obvious joy to be had in seeing such an iconic director amidst a group of Stormtroopers, but Herzog plays the role with complexity that makes you wish he were in more scenes.

The first half of the episode relies a bit too much on Mythrol (Horatio Sanz) to carry the narrative. He’s funny and the perspective is helpful as a means to introduce the show, but he’s also a guest character who isn’t going to be around for the long haul. At times, it felt like the episode was kicking its feet, waiting for the big action to begin.

The sight of The Mandalorian and IG-11 fending off countless foes on Arvala-7 was spectacular. The whole sequence brings out the best in Disney+, merging high quality production values with the comfort of one’s own home. The sets are all lavishly designed, but it wasn’t until the blaster fire picked up that everything really started to feel like Star Wars.

The end reveal of a baby from the same species as Yoda, the name of which remains a mystery to this day, felt like a bit of an unnecessary big finish, like the episode wanted to end on a note that would get everyone talking. It worked. We’ve never seen a baby Yoda before, unsurprising for a species that lives for hundreds of years.

While there’s no established norm for runtime on a streaming service, at 39 minutes, episode one feels a bit on the short side for a show meant to be the premier offering for the whole streaming service. That’s not to say that the episode should’ve padded itself with extra filler, but the delivery felt a bit underwhelming. Worst of all, at times, it felt a little long. Not exactly a great sign for an episode shorter than most network TV dramas.

Chapter one was a passable episode of television that never felt like it was trying to win over viewers who weren’t bound to tune in already. Star Wars is a big deal. This episode felt small. That’s not the worst thing in the world, especially since it accomplished some world-building, but Star Wars deserves better.

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Thursday

14

November 2019

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Lady and the Tramp Is Visually Pleasing Lifeless Slog

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For a company known for its princesses, it’s rather remarkable that the original Lady and the Tramp remains one of Disney’s finest love stories more than half a century after its release. The film presents complex themes in a manner that can be understood by children but perhaps resonate more with their parents. After a year of highly disappointing live-action remakes that transformed their source material into bloated jumbled messes, failing to recapture the original magic, an adaptation made for Disney+ seemed like a good way to lower the stakes.

As far as aesthetics go, the 2019 Lady and the Tramp is a finely crafted film. The sets are spectacular, capturing the feel of the early 20th century in a way that feels suited for the big screen. Similarly, the acting is top notch. In particular, Yvette Nicole Brown and F. Murray Abraham look absolutely delighted to be there, giving performances that radiate their vibrant energy through the screen.

The voice cast finds itself in a puzzling position. There’s nothing inherently wrong with Tessa Thompson or Justin Theroux as Lady and Tramp. The trouble lies more with the nature of what they’re being asked to do.

The canine leads are convincing, but not particularly compelling. Using actual dogs carries a degree of authenticity that CGI can’t provide, but that also boxes the voices into a bit of a corner. Some degree of disconnect between the dogs and their human voices is to be expected, but this comes at a cost to the film’s emotional core. It’s hard to find the romance convincing when the actors aren’t capable of playing along.

Animation doesn’t really have this problem since the artists have plenty of leeway to impose human characteristics onto their subjects. With the 2019, Lady and the Tramp, the special effects department is perfectly capable of making the dogs talk, but they struggle to convey emotion in the process.

As fun as many of the human actors are, the nature of the film’s plot doesn’t give them much to do. Brown’s Aunt Sarah is a delightful villain, but she isn’t on screen very much. It’s almost as if the 2019 film expects its audience to be familiar enough with the 1955 version to superimpose their own nostalgic memories in the absence of strong character development.

The human leads aren’t really leads. Thomas Mann and Kiersey Clemons don’t do anything wrong, but there comes a point in time where the audience is supposed to care about this family. The film forgot to supply a reason.

Lady and the Tramp might be Disney’s best live-action remake of 2019. That’s not saying much. What’s most unfortunate is the idea that this is such a near miss. There’s so much to like about the way this film was constructed, from its beautiful scenery to the actors who so clearly love being a part of this timeless narrative. If only there was a heart at the center, beating life into the anemic presentation of the story.

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Thursday

14

November 2019

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“i’m gonna make you love me” Is a Moving Portrait of a Life in Transition

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Detransitioning, the process of transgender people returning to the sex one was assigned at birth, can be a touchy subject within the LGBTQ community. The notion of transitioning being a “mistake” naturally crosses most, if not all, trans people’s minds at some point in time, a natural feeling given the gravity of what’s at stake. The exact detransition rate can be hard to pinpoint due to differences in methodology used, but many peer reviewed sources have found the number to be anywhere from 0.3% to 3% among adults.

The documentary i’m gonna make you love me features a man named Brian Belovitch, who transitioned in the late 70s, living as Natalia/Tish for many years before reverting back. As Natalia, Brian got married, lived as an army wife in Germany, and performed in many nightclubs throughout New York City. The film presents a fascinating portrait of what life was like for trans people back then, as Natalia had seemingly little trouble living life as a woman, a stark contrast to the kind of narratives right-wing media pushes today.

Brian makes for a fascinating subject, an engaging man who wears his emotions on his sleeves. There are times when he clearly feels uncomfortable, but there aren’t any moments where it feels like he’s holding back. The archival footage contrasts well with his contemporary persona, a lively spirit who’s just trying to figure out who he is in this world.

Director Karen Bernstein features interviews from a number of people from various stages of Brian’s life, who help to add context to his transition. Brian’s family was far from supportive, even going as far as to blame him for adding stress to his mother’s life. Contemporary footage of Brian with his husband Jim helps take some of the edge off the often brutal narrative, giving the audience an assurance of a happy ending.

The documentary itself does have a bit of an identity crisis. As a film, i’m gonna make you love me largely aims to showcase the full picture of Brian’s life, past and present. The narrative is quite anchored to Brian’s transition and subsequent detransition. While Brian’s transition into Tish receives ample focus throughout the film, detransition is only covered for a brief portion toward the end.

Having thoroughly explored the origins of Tish, the film regrettably doesn’t have the same lust to dig deeper into the resurfacing of Brian. There are a few reasons offered to explain the detransition, including health and social considerations, but the brevity with which this is covered leaves a lot to be desired. To some extent, this is a natural product of the limitations of documentaries to adequately cover a full life within a ninety-minute narrative, but that’s also reflective of the choices that Bernstein made as a director.

There are people who will seek out this film as part of an effort to paint transitioning as a dangerous proposition with uncertain results. Brian has lived his life without regret. I’m gonna make you love me is not a film with an opinion of whether or not transitioning is a good idea, though many may try and twist Brian’s story to fit their own agenda. With that in mind, there’s an added importance to narratives like this one that showcase people rather than the ideas they’re supposed to represent.

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Monday

11

November 2019

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Making Waves Presents the Case for Sound

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The larger than life imagery that often dominates the big screen can make it easy to forget that movies are an experience enjoyed across multiple senses. Sound plays a crucial role in storytelling, conveying messages that words can’t possibly get across. In Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound, director Midge Costin presents sound as a vital component for the staying power of cinema.

The film takes its audience on a tour through the history of filmmaking, thoroughly explaining the rise of sound and how it came to be taken seriously. The transition from silent movies to talking pictures was hardly seamless, as microphone technology at the time created many problems for the actors forced to perform within its confines. Most film fans are bound to have heard the phrase “sound stage,” though perhaps not knowing that Hollywood relied on these spaces because location shooting created noise beyond what anyone at the time had the power to control.

Making Waves utilizes footage from dozens of films, allowing film aficionados to connect with its messaging on a deeper level. The work that sound engineers do on a daily basis looks immensely complicated to a general audience, but the film never allows itself to sink into territory that’s too hard to understand. Costin explains the various ways that sound editors manage all the various components that go into their craft in a way that’s easy to understand.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the film is best enjoyed by dedicated film buffs. Costin uses a variety of well-known films to illustrate her points, as well as interviews with numerous Hollywood icons including George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. The films used cover a wide enough spread that practically anyone can follow along, but there is definitely an added emotional resonance that stems from having experienced the sensations that are being described. The feeling of awe and wonder that stems from many Star Wars scenes is certainly more relatable to those who can remember the first time they saw those images

There are points where Making Waves does veer off a little into inside baseball. Costin, herself a sound editor, clearly has plenty of heroes within the business. A few receive extended focuses for their work alongside such directors as Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. These scenes are interesting enough, but there’s a bit of a disconnect between them and the broader focus of the film on the overall history of cinematic sound. Condensing documentary footage into one ninety-minute feature is always a challenge, but sometimes it felt like the film had its eye on two separate balls.

Making Waves illustrates the case for sound in a comprehensive and compelling fashion. Costin covers an astonishing amount of ground in one single documentary. It’s the kind of film that sticks with you as you sit down to watch another, taking extra care to absorb the craftsmanship from the sound editors. Fans of film, or those who want to deepen their understanding of cinema, will most certainly want to check this one out.

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Tuesday

5

November 2019

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The Morning Show Is an Elaborate Disaster

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There is a sense of irony in the decision by Apple to include a program like The Morning Show as part of its marquee offerings for a new streaming service. The rise of entities like Apple + suggest that the future looks pretty bleak for broadcast television, many of which rely on their morning shows to buoy the costs of their news divisions. If Apple and its streaming competitors are successful, the industry that The Morning Show fictionalizes may not be around for all that much longer.

The Morning Show assembles an A-list cast for a narrative that dramatizes the backstage fallout that the #MeToo movement brought about. Morning show staples such as Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose found themselves transformed from beloved American fixtures to personae non gratae practically overnight. For many, #MeToo represented a long-overdue course correction for workplace sexual harassment.

Others feel that #MeToo went too far, casting men out from society without due process. Those men in particular would certainly like to return to their former glory. The Morning Show likes to entertain the grievances of these men, aired through Steve Carrell’s Mitch Kessler, co-anchor of the titular broadcast who found himself cast out for sexual misconduct that he somewhat vehemently denies.

Mitch Kessler serves as an immense drag on The Morning Show. He’s insufferable in practically every scene, which inevitably carry an aura of “bothsideism” by token of the large amount of screen time that the character eats up. He exists solely for the demographic who ask the question, “What about the men?”

The problem with keeping Mitch around is that it prevents The Morning Show from being able to move on from the incident that sets the show in motion. Remaining co-host Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston) is presented as a woman understandably caught between two worlds. She doesn’t condone Mitch’s behavior, but she sympathizes with him in a way that makes it difficult to relate to her character, especially in the absence of other redeeming qualities.

The Morning Show never presents a reason why its audience should care about any of these people. Alex isn’t a very likable person. There’s a fair bit of sympathy that one could garner for the sexism of her situation, as studio executive Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup) treats her as damaged goods rather than a woman with a career independent of her disgraced co-host. The show does a remarkably poor job of presenting anyone to root for.

Reese Witherspoon’s Bradley Jackson is ostensibly meant to function as protagonist, but the show banks too heavily on the character’s “viral” moment in its first episode, where Bradley passionately fact-checks a protestor at a coal mine. Bradley is set up to be a rival for Alex, but it’s unclear why a general audience would be expected to relate to her brand of news. Bradley’s desire to highlight hard news is immediately contradicted by her heated political moment, while claiming to be sort of a conservative-libertarian centrist. It’s as if Bradley was crafted by a person who knows literally nothing about news.

Most tiresome are the long-winded monologues presented several times each episode, moments that reek of self-importance in the utter absence of substance. The acting is good, but there’s just nothing behind the curtain of The Morning Show. Its stellar production values can’t mask the fact that this show wants to be about the value of news and the #MeToo movement without taking a stand on either.

The Morning Show has entertainment value as a big budget soap-opera, but the act grows old fairly quickly. The A-list cast makes the whole thing a bit more watchable, but that’s hardly a novelty in the streaming era. Apple invested quite a lot in this show, but clearly not enough in its writing department.

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Tuesday

5

November 2019

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The All-Americans Gives an Intimate Look into an East LA Tradition

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The idea of sport existing as a unifier offers comfort in these seemingly divided times. Beginning in 1925, the “East LA Classic” homecoming football game between rivals James A. Garfield High School and Theodore Roosevelt High School has grown to become one of the most popular annual high school games played in the country. In The All-Americans, director Billy McMillin explores this historic rivalry against the backdrop of the challenges imposed upon each school’s predominantly Latino population.

As its title suggests, much of the narrative in The All-Americans centers around the very question of what it means to be an American. Using soundbites from far right commentators, McMillin juxtaposes the hate too often spewed in the media with the faces of those most affected by the fear-mongering. Football is often seen as “America’s Game,” while Latino immigrants are often told to go back to “their” country, even those who have lived here their entire lives.

Several scenes depict classroom discussions of America’s uneasy relationship with nativism and the idea of the country serving as a “melting pot.” The students bring fascinating perspectives to the table, gently pushing back on the very concept of the American Dream. The All-Americans features several people who are undocumented, perpetually living with the concern that they may one day face deportation. Though Trump’s name is never uttered, he remains a looming presence throughout much of the narrative.

The film does an excellent job of explaining the importance of the East LA Classic, as well as the role that football plays in shaping the players’ lives. For most, playing on the team doesn’t carry any significant collegiate opportunities. Roosevelt’s coach speaks of his team’s 100% graduation rate, ensuring that players will leave school with a degree and the opportunities that come with it.

A few students from each team are given an added focus. One of these players became a father himself, juggling school, football, and providing for his kid while trying to lead a relatively normal life. Several scenes depict the player’s extended families, giving a broader sense of perspective to their stories, as well as the importance of the Classic itself. Several players explicitly remark that they started playing football just to be a part of this specific game, carrying the lineage of the near century-old event.

With time dedicated to the history of the classic, the actual game itself, both teams, their coaches, several players, and a broader discussion of the politics of immigration, The All-Americans aims to tackle quite a bit of material. Its runtime of just over ninety minutes doesn’t exactly lend itself well to all of these objectives, but McMillin has a strong grasp of pacing. The film never lingers too long in one area while giving the audience all it needs to follow along. One doesn’t even need to understand football to enjoy the film.

The All-Americans is a touching documentary, one that never tries to paint a false sense of finality by the end. Narrative resolution is a tough proposition when dealing with a bunch of high school students who will face plenty of greater hardships than what they’ve encountered on the field. Their lives are just beginning. The film does an excellent job of covering the role that the Classic played in their lives while never losing sight of the fact that in the end, it’s just a game.

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Monday

4

November 2019

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The Return of Linda Hamilton Makes Terminator: Dark Fate A Worthwhile Experience

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The box office disappointment of 2015’s Terminator: Genisys might have signaled the end of Hollywood’s preeminent Judgement Day narrative, but such a decision would have ignored the elements of the film that worked. For all its timeline shortcomings, Genisys served as a great outlet for Arnold Schwarzenegger to prove that his iconic role could improve with age. Schwarzenegger’s “Pops” T-101 was funny, caring, and perfectly capable of kicking ass.

With that in mind, Terminator: Dark Fate served as a natural vessel for the return of the franchise’s other true iconic star. While Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and Genisys both have merits as action films, the absence of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor has deprived the series of its original emotional core. For all the emphasis that’s been placed on John Connor, it is Sarah Connor who has been responsible for saving the savior.

Dark Fate as a film is completely aware of the puzzling contradictions that exist within “chosen one” narratives. To be told that you will someday be a figure of great importance seems to diminish the notion that there’s plenty of choices to made along the way. Terminator has always been a series about saving the future, but to do that, one must naturally also keep the present out of harm’s way.

Daniella Ramos (Natalia Reyes) wasn’t born to lead a resistance. Knowledge of future actions hardly alters this dynamic. Heroes are made, not willed into existence. For all the ways that Dark Fate feels rooted in the past, Reyes never feels lost in the shuffle, ensuring that Ramos remains a vital presence in the film as all the chaos unfolds around her.

While Terminator has always been a feminist franchise, Dark Fate lets its heroines lead the narrative. Mackenzie Davis plays Grace, an enhanced human capable of taking on a “Rev-9” Terminator (Gabriel Luna), the franchise’s most menacing villain since Robert Patrick’s iconic T-1000. For all the guardians who have been sent back in time to protect the savior of humanity, Grace manages to combine the strength of the T-101 with the compassion of Kyle Reese.

Dark Fate shines brightest when the focus is on Hamilton, who puts forth one of the best performances of her career. Sarah Connor isn’t the primary focus of the film, but an essential piece of its narrative. Connor hasn’t lost any of her edge from Judgment Day, but the characters wears the scars of the past while still being capable of eliciting more than a few laughs. Hamilton and Davis have a natural chemistry that brings plenty of levity to the film’s otherwise grim tone.

Fitting with the film’s feminist dynamic, Schwarzenegger takes a backseat role, similar to that of Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard in Blade Runner 2049. The T-101 is still a vital piece of the narrative, but the film looks more to Hamilton than Schwarzenegger to be its elder states-person. This works for a lot of reasons, chiefly among them being that Schwarzenegger has had his time to shine in earlier sequels. His Dark Fate T-101 is a different take than his Genisys counter-part, but the films complement each other well at least in part because Dark Fate recognizes where to trod in this well-worn pasture.

Dark Fate isn’t a perfect movie by any means, but quite a satisfying journey for fans of the franchise. The film doesn’t really build on the format of the first one, the same model that’s been replicated by every sequel besides Salvation. For many, this return to the franchise is an unnecessary proposition.

It’s not exactly high praise to refer to something as more of the same, but Dark Fate has a firm understanding of the franchise’s mythology. Not every movie needs to reinvent the wheel, as long as its adaptation of the wheel remains an entertaining experience. Dark Fate brings together everything that fans loved about the first two Terminator films. Whatever timeline reboots lay ahead in the future for this franchise, the chance to see Sarah Connor once again in peak form should not be missed on the big screen.

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Friday

1

November 2019

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Markie in Milwaukee Is a Powerful, Often Unsettling Transgender Narrative

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Transitioning is an incredibly difficult journey even under the best of circumstances. The highs of living out of the closet often contrast with the struggle for acceptance that far too many transgender people experience. Markie in Milwaukee documents ten years of turmoil that one transgender woman faced, coming to grips with her identity against a backdrop of an incredibly unsupportive community.

Markie Wenzel is a woman stuck between two worlds, facing a choice few ever have to consider. She’s an upbeat, soft-spoken person with a pleasant demeanor, if not a little socially awkward. Her height, close to seven feet, led to bullying at an early age, something that hardly let up as she began her transition in the mid 2000s.

As a minister in a fundamentalist Christian church, Markie encountered quite a lot of pushback from her community as she began to present as female. Her family all but abandoned her, refusing to accept a hiccup in an otherwise happy life.

The film offers a broad lens to examine Markie’s life at the various stages of transition, including the point where she decided to stop and return to life as Mark, a decision that was rewarded in the form of family visits, including a new granddaughter. Markie’s church took her back, basking in the glory of a sinner come to repent for the crime of being born different.

Markie in Milwaukee operates on an entirely different narrative wavelength than its subject, a moving narrative that highlights the many conflicts that transition brings out. Director Matt Kliegman largely lets Markie speak for herself, but the framing of the documentary often suggests that he’s at odds with the statements coming from Markie. The film carries the feel of belonging to Markie, but the audience is given plenty of leeway to suggest that there’s more beneath the surface that she’s not quite ready to tackle.

Kliegman puts the audience in a challenging position with regard to how to process Markie’s choices. Generally speaking, it’s considered inappropriate to second-guess the way a transgender person explains their identity. It is impossible to watch Markie in Milwaukee and not do just that.

This dynamic is most on display in scenes highlighting Markie’s church and her family. Despite a few efforts by Markie to suggest her detransition was not fueled by religious pressure, she contradicts herself on a few occasions. The footage from her church and children’s home demonstrates the intrinsic link between the two.

In all her years of transition, Markie found acceptance in the form of support groups and friendly strangers out in public. She didn’t appear to develop any meaningful connections beyond those surface level relationships. That kind of isolation is bound to be tough on anyone.

The saddest aspect of the film is the way in which Markie lives her life believing that she’s caused all this damage to her family. To say that that’s their problem, not hers, is an accurate reflection of the situation, yet Markie’s life is not improved by the notion that her identity shouldn’t be a burden on anyone else. For too many transgender people, the idea that our lives are an abomination is allowed to fester, tearing away at one’s psyche.

As a transition narrative, Markie in Milwaukee would have been improved by a stronger focus on the decision to embrace her old identity again. Kliegman touches on the subject a few times, most notably in a conversation between Markie and her therapist. One can certainly understand the sensitive nature of the subject matter, but the resolution to Markie’s story leaves more questions than it probably needed to.

Markie in Milwaukee is a flawed narrative, but a vitally important one in today’s climate. In many ways, Kliegman’s film is most valuable to the family members of transgender people, serving as a cautionary tale for the road that too many loved ones have to face alone. Markie Wenzel has been dealt a raw hand in life, but her story can help future generations to avoid the same hardships.

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Friday

1

November 2019

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Still Packing Plenty of Laughs, BoJack Horseman Sets Up the Endgame

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It’s hard to believe how different the TV landscape looks since BoJack Horseman made its debut in 2014. As more and more streaming services pop up to do battle, placing a higher premium on each studio’s back catalog, Bojack found itself in an unique position. Comedy Central bought the syndication rights to the comedy-drama, the first streaming series to make such a reverse commute back to cable television. As the oldest of Netflix’s Originals still making new episodes, this two-part final season brings about a contemplative aura, fitting for a show known for its honest portrayals of mental health.

BoJack Horseman has always stood apart from other animated series for its willingness to let its characters grow. Much of comedy stems from the audience’s familiarity with the figures on screen, but as a lead, BoJack has spent most of the series trying (and failing) to change. The titular horse spends much of the first part of the season still in rehab, haunted by figures from his past, but the tone is quite different. In the past, there’s a natural sense that BoJack will relapse and return to his obnoxious ways.

It’s rather remarkable that an animated show can so perfectly express the palpable fatigue present on a cartoon anthropomorphic horse’s face. BoJack looks tired. He’s ready to not be the guy that audiences have known, loved, and often been frustrated with.

Season six feels like a show ready to go out on top, lining up all its principle players for meaningful conclusions to this delightfully surreal journey. There aren’t as many completely over the top storylines, such as Mr. Peanutbutter’s ill-advised run for governor or Todd’s stint at “WhatTimeIsItRightNow.com,” but the slightly quieter tone works well for the season. BoJack still has plenty of zany antics, but the story arcs feel deliberately aimed at the end game.

This season is a massive improvement over last on the joke front. Plenty of them will sail over the heads of people who don’t live in Los Angeles or work in digital media, but there’s quite a few laugh-out-loud moments in practically every episode. BoJack also experiments with its episode narratives, unafraid to give the spotlight to minor characters.

There are a few episodes where the show feels like it is spinning its wheels from a narrative standpoint, revisiting arcs that were better off left alone. The trouble with two-part final seasons is that you get more episodes than usual, but there’s also an increased focus on the final destination. Not every episode needs to be spent driving the characters toward that goal, and some of the plotlines seem stuck in the middle.

Season six is a delight that shows how much gas BoJack Horseman still has in the tank while also making a strong case for why it’s probably time to wrap things up. Plenty of animated shows carry on indefinitely, but BoJack’s never been quite like anything else on television. Few programs have had such a keen understanding of emotion, but BoJack has always excelled at defying expectations.

 

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