One Thing I Love About What We Do In The Shadows

The series that makes me like the relentlessly unlikeable

Sometimes I feel like I’m missing out, because there are two closely-related sub-genres in comedy that I just can’t tolerate: ones based on a character looking stupid or awkward, and ones where the comedy comes from how awful and unlikeable the characters are. The “Driver’s Ed” sketch from I Think You Should Leave is one of the most brilliantly funny things I’ve ever seen on television, but I can barely make it through an entire episode of that series.

So it’s a little surprising that What We Do In The Shadows has been one of my favorite series for three seasons, and so far the fourth is looking like the best one yet. The characters are so relentlessly awful but you can’t help but be fascinated by them, even if you’re not outright rooting for them to succeed. (Or at least, not to die permanently).

I liked the movie What We Do In The Shadows even if I didn’t love it; the concept was obviously brilliant enough to carry on indefinitely, but the execution felt a little bit like an improv sketch without a punchline. I felt like there wasn’t quite enough material to live up to the premise.

Now I’m wondering if part of that is because it feels like the movie was holding back. One of the remarkable things about the series is that it just doesn’t need to go as hard as it does, every episode. If I’d been in charge of it, I would’ve probably been satisfied that I’d assembled one of the best casts ever — you can tell you’ve got a bunch of actors operating at their peak when Matt Berry sometimes comes across as the most understated one — and been confident that they can take the pronunciation of one word, or one glance at the camera, and make it the funniest thing on television. Natasia Demetriou as Nadja gets my vote for MVP of the show, but everyone gets a chance to be fantastic. There’s an episode where Kayvan Novak as Nandor has to impersonate each of his male castmates, and it wasn’t until the end of the episode that I realized he’d been doing the impressions; they were so dead-on that I just assumed that he must have been lip-synching to the other actors’ VO.

And even with that cast, they’re excessive in how many new things they try to cram into the series. Make a haunted doll a recurring character? Face-map one of the main actors onto the body of a baby or a toddler for an entire season? Casually include practical-effect sirens, werewolves, orcs, and fairies for one-off jokes? Make a series of period-accurate drawings, paintings, tapestries, and engravings showing the past lives of the characters over hundreds of years, each of which will only be on screen for a second or two? Why not? It often seems like the only rule during production of an episode is that no one ever responds to a request with “no.”

But I’m also now wondering whether the movie feels as if it’s holding back because it insists on having a sympathetic protagonist. The joke of Taika Waititi’s character is that he’s kind of a hapless creature of the night, guiding the documentary crew through the story and presenting all of the weirdness as if it were normal, everyday business in New Zealand. Every one of the characters in the TV series, though, is given every opportunity to be vicious, petty, arrogant, selfish, vindictive, callous, bloodthirsty, pathetic, and just irredeemably horrible.

And yet, you get as invested as they are in whatever their petty desires are from episode to episode. For a while, it seemed like Harvey Guillen’s Guillermo was intended to be our relatable protagonist. But even at the beginning, they included plenty of scenes with him cutting up dead bodies and stuffing them into dumpsters. As the series has continued, they’ve made it more and more clear that he’s choosing to be a part of all this. It’d be foolish to go along with his self-delusion that he’s the “normal” one who’s holding onto his humanity.

I don’t think this would work at all if it were in lesser hands. They know exactly how to push every one of the characters as far as they’ll go and then pull your sympathy just at the last moment. It’s pretty amazing, and I’m still not entirely sure how they do it. But I love watching these characters who have each proven themselves to be completely irredeemable, and I’ll keep hoping they never stop being awful.

One Thing I Love About Baymax!

The Baymax! series on Disney Plus proves that being positive, uplifting, and inclusive doesn’t require reducing yourself to a bland, deflated, mess.

(Note: I would’ve loved to include a screenshot from the series illustrating what I’m talking about, but someone at Disney or Apple or Google finally disabled the ability to capture stills from Google Chrome, just like it’s already disabled on Safari. It should be covered under fair use and is nothing but free marketing from fans voluntarily promoting stuff online, but hey, go off. You wouldn’t screenshot a car!)

I liked Big Hero 6 a lot, even though it always felt like an electric ball of potential energy that was never quite able to resonate with me. So much of what I liked about it was deliberately constructed to make people like me like it: the character design of Baymax, the cross-cultural future-present world-building of San Fransokyo, the action/comedy tone, all made to appeal to the part of me that’s still a teenage nerd1Which, let’s be honest, is all of me..

But even though you could already see the multiple variants of Baymax figures on toy shelves even while the film was still running, it didn’t feel crass or manipulative to me. Instead, it reminded me of the early “blue sky” phases of a project, when everyone is throwing out tons of creative ideas, all building on top of each other, with no obligation to streamline or focus. In fact, the attempts to focus all of that energy onto a Disney Animated Feature story are the parts that didn’t quite work for me. I vaguely remember an attempt to use family tragedy as the instigating event for the story, but even as someone hard-wired to respond to those stories, I didn’t feel like it was authentic. And to this day, I wouldn’t be able to give a synopsis of the movie’s plot. Ultimately I felt like the movie was so many fantastic ideas without enough heart to hold them all together.

So the new Baymax! series is essentially the opposite. Each episode is a charming story concentrated to its 11-minute-long essence. It uses all the world-building that’s been established, but doesn’t dwell on any of it — it assumes that you’ve either seen the movie or its action series spinoff, or maybe it just assumes that the audience will be able to get it without any lengthy explanations needed.

Instead, it takes a recurring premise — Baymax steadfastly helps someone who thinks they don’t want or need his help — distills the story down to its basic beats, mines as much comedy action as it can out of it, and then the kicker: delivers a resolution to the character’s story that feels completely earned.

None of it feels schmaltzy, maudlin, or formulaic, partly because the stories are too brief for extended moments of manipulation, but also because the series has the confidence that it can move you without resorting to tear-jerking moments.

And also because it so often treats Baymax not as the hero but as the antagonist. One episode about a food truck owner with an allergy is filled with shots calling back to the Terminator movies, with a panicked hero trying to escape a robot in relentless pursuit. That wry sense of humor is what lets the series be so relentlessly positive and inclusive, without its feeling trite or performative.

It’s such a brilliant idea to take all the components ready-made for an action-comedy adventure series and turn them into a series of charming and uplifting animated shorts. It feels to me like all of the creativity and imagination that went into Big Hero 6‘s world-building finally found the kinds of stories that work perfectly within its world.

  • 1
    Which, let’s be honest, is all of me.

Ms Marvel Super Follow-Up Issue 1

I’d already been enjoying Ms Marvel, but the finale episode knocked it over the top

The Ms Marvel series had already won me over on sheer charm, but the finale episode was so well-done that it knocked the show into my #2 favorite MCU series, right after WandaVision1Please don’t turn Kamala Khan into a villain, Marvel. The scene of Kamala revealing her secret identity to her family was enough to win me over just on its own.

My biggest complaint — my only complaint, really — is that once you show a villain firing weapons at children, you need to show them getting a bigger comeuppance than just losing their job.

Some of the middle episodes seemed to me to struggle with balancing MCU-level fate-of-the-entire-world action scenes with a series targeted at a younger, more family-friendly audience. I think the finale did a much better job with it overall2But the content warning at the beginning of the episode was a thoughtful and necessary inclusion, keeping it mostly at the those-wacky-teens-and-their-inventions level while still keeping the stakes high.

Best of all is that it managed to stay true to the series’ overall tone of joy, optimism, community, and family, without coming across as mawkish or tacked-on.3I think Captain America’s final speech in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was well-written and well-acted, but it still felt like an over-simplistic afterthought after the more mature and nuanced takes on it earlier in the series. The repeated idea of responding to aggression with empathetic resistance is a great one even for audiences that don’t fall into the “young adult” category. This is the first MCU series that I would love to see turned into an ongoing series4As much as I loved WandaVision, it absolutely didn’t need a second season, and I hope there is one after the movies.

A final spoiler note related to my wondering whether I’m in the target audience or not: We’d seen a comment online about Bruno’s last revelation in the finale (which was a big surprise to me, after so many months of speculation about how the MCU was going to continue!), mentioning the sound cue that played underneath it. We watched it again today, cranking up the volume and listening for anything unusual, but didn’t hear anything particularly odd — maybe it was a sound effect from one of the earlier movies that we didn’t recognize?

As a joke, I said that if they really wanted to drive it home, they would’ve included the iconic theme song from the 90s TV series that I’m still not trying to spoil for people who haven’t seen all of Ms Marvel yet. So we went back and listened to the scene again, even more closely, and there it was: that iconic riff, played barely audibly just underneath the theme music5Which reminds me: hearing Pakistani/Indian takes on the usual MCU themes has been just delightful through the whole series.. Which made me wonder: was it that subtle for everybody watching? Or just for those of us who are in our 50s and having to watch everything with the subtitles turned on these days?

Whatever the case, I’m squeezing myself into the target audience even if that wasn’t the original intention. I’ve been charmed by this series and I can’t wait for The Marvels.

  • 1
    Please don’t turn Kamala Khan into a villain, Marvel
  • 2
    But the content warning at the beginning of the episode was a thoughtful and necessary inclusion
  • 3
    I think Captain America’s final speech in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was well-written and well-acted, but it still felt like an over-simplistic afterthought after the more mature and nuanced takes on it earlier in the series.
  • 4
    As much as I loved WandaVision, it absolutely didn’t need a second season
  • 5
    Which reminds me: hearing Pakistani/Indian takes on the usual MCU themes has been just delightful through the whole series.

One Thing I Love About Ms Marvel

Apart from possibly the best casting in any MCU project, the thing I like best about Ms Marvel is the same thing I liked about Hawkeye

At the time I’m writing this, I’ve seen the first five episodes of Ms Marvel on Disney Plus1I believe it’ll be a six-episode series, so only the finale is left.. I’ve been surprised by how much I enjoyed it; I can’t really think of a better word to describe it than delightful.

I admit that I initially assumed that it would be little more than a victory lap for the MCU2Kind of like Rogers The Musical combined with some nods to Muslim-American culture that could either come across as pandering or inert. Instead, there’s a real feeling of enthusiasm, excitement, and pride that comes through.

It’s what makes the series work, since it would frankly be underwhelming if it were nothing more than an MCU super-hero origin series: the pacing is weirdly disjointed, as stuff just seems to happen instead of flowing together in a clear chain of cause-and-effect. But the disjointed pacing in most MCU projects seems to be the result of trying to cram in big action set pieces at predetermined intervals, while here it’s reversed. In Ms Marvel, it usually feels as if they’re trying to work backwards from a predetermined set of character moments, while fitting everything into a set of 30-minute episodes.

But those character moments work largely because the performances are so good. Iman Vellani as Kamala Khan is so perfectly cast that it’s almost absurd; Marvel has released making-of featurettes that describe how Vellani was at least as big a fan of Captain Marvel (and Ms Marvel, and the comics in general) as her character is, and it comes across as completely genuine.

I’m also really impressed with Zenobia Shroff’s performance as her mother Muneeba Khan. Her character is given so many opportunities to evaporate into clichés, but she manages to feel genuine and sympathetic throughout. Any story about a teenager coming of age is going to have scenes where the parents are antagonists, but even when she’s set up to be the main obstacle, there’s a sense that you can understand why she’s doing the things she does. It would’ve just come across as “hyper-protective immigrant mom” had she not been able to convey a genuine sense of compassion.

All of that works together towards what I think is the one thing I like most about Ms Marvel, which is essentially the same thing I liked about Hawkeye, which is that it has a tone and focus that go beyond just being a super-hero origin story. Kamala Khan is a character even more obsessed with super-heroes than Kate Bishop was, but these series don’t accept “super-hero” as a genre on its own. Hawkeye was an action-comedy that frequently called back to the MCU, while Ms Marvel is a coming-of-age story about a Pakistani Muslim-American teenager that uses the supernatural not so much as the focus, but as the thing that helps her define herself.

Part of that is knowing what the target audience is. This feels like a show about a teenager that isn’t necessarily targeted at teenagers, but designed from top to bottom to be something that teenagers can watch with their families. That means that the crises are kept mostly in the realm of things that a girl in high school in Jersey City would be concerned about, with the destruction of the entire world3Because this is still an MCU super-hero story, after all being treated as a backdrop for more personal stories.

I spent a lot of the series thinking that I was enjoying it, but I was just barely included in the target audience, but as the series has progressed, the more I’ve been convinced that it is at least partially aimed at people like me — white Americans who don’t know much about the experiences of American immigrant families, and only the most basic details about non-European history.4And distressingly little about non-European present. I don’t know how much, if any, of the series was actually filmed in Karachi, but seeing even the MCU version of it was more than I’ve ever seen of Pakistan in the media. I’ve picked up the barest hint of basic info about the separation of India and Pakistan, but I either never knew, or I’d forgotten, how much of the conflict was driven not just by British colonialism, but by divisions between Muslims and Hindus. Obviously I’m not claiming that I’m now an authority, but seeing even this much presented in an accessible format is more than I’ve gotten before.

I’ve read criticism from the original Ms Marvel comics writer, lamenting that the TV series chose to change Kamala’s powers from the body-stretching/shape-shifting ones in the comics to something “shiny and sparkly.” I can see both sides to the argument, as I understand it. I like the TV origin story much better than the comics I’ve read — even if The Inhumans hadn’t been such a disappointment, tying Kamala’s origin story to that instead of something more rooted in Islamic mythology would’ve been a huge missed opportunity. Also, even if the body-stretching imagery looked good — and it rarely looks good even on feature film budgets, much less in a TV series — it would make Kamala seem more like a junior Reed Richards than a hero inspired by Carol Danvers.

But there is an extremely important idea from the comics that has undeniably been lost in the TV translation: in the comics, when Kamala first gains her powers, she almost subconsciously takes on the form of a more Westernized version of beauty. It takes a while before she’s comfortable presenting herself as a Pakistani-American teenage girl with a big weird fist, because she’s spent her entire life being barraged with imagery that suggests she’s weird and different. Ironically it’s kind of a shame that the TV version of Kamala comes across as more confident than her comics counterpart — she’s often insecure, and often feels like an outsider, but in the TV version, it’s more because of her nerdiness than her ethnicity or heritage.

To be fair, the TV series does hint at that, with a scene in which obnoxious white kids give her alcohol at a party, but it’s pretty brief. Most of the series presents Kamala and her family as part of a sizable Muslim community that welcomes non-Muslims, instead of portraying them as an isolated enclave surrounded by people who see them as outsiders.

I’m obviously not qualified to say whether that’s an entirely positive change or not. It does have the effect of making me feel even more like I intersect with the target audience, though — the comics felt as if they were made to give Muslim and South Asian teenagers in general a character whom they could directly identify with, from someone who understands what their experiences are like. The TV series often feels more like it’s intending to show non-Muslims like me what a different culture is like. I do wonder if it would seem too simplistic, too juvenile, or too didactic for teenagers who’ve already grown up in that environment, but I can only say that I’ve loved seeing the portrayal of a culture that’s not my own, but inclusive.

  • 1
    I believe it’ll be a six-episode series, so only the finale is left.
  • 2
    Kind of like Rogers The Musical
  • 3
    Because this is still an MCU super-hero story, after all
  • 4
    And distressingly little about non-European present. I don’t know how much, if any, of the series was actually filmed in Karachi, but seeing even the MCU version of it was more than I’ve ever seen of Pakistan in the media.

Boba Fett and the Road Less Traveled

Reconsidering both The Book of Boba Fett and how “sophisticated” Star Wars needs to be

It’s only been a month since the finale of The Book of Boba Fett, which would be too early to go back and give it a second look, except Ben Chinapen made a pretty good video essay about the series, presenting Boba Fett’s character arc mostly independent of everything else in the show.

The video does exactly what it sets out to do: recap Boba Fett’s story in chronological order, to call out how the series managed to take what was essentially a dozen or so lines of dialogue and a cool suit, and turn it into an actual character with real motivations and such. There aren’t any shockingly surprising new takes in the video, but that isn’t a knock on the video at all. It’s just an acknowledgement that the series wasn’t really about ambiguity or layers. All of its meaning was floating there on the surface, keeping all the action scenes from being purely empty calories.

It did make me realize, though, that the series did have a little more thematic resonance than I originally gave it credit for. My main complaint about The Book of Boba Fett stands, and it’s the most obvious one: the series just suddenly loses interest in its main character and goes back to making The Mandalorian. I was willing to give the fifth episode (“Oops, All Mandalorians”) the benefit of the doubt, since it didn’t just continue Din Djarin’s story, but established it as a parallel for Boba Fett’s. But I thought the sixth episode (“How Grogu Got His Groove Back”) was a complete non-sequitur.

It seemed like the series hadn’t just lost interest in Boba Fett’s story, but stopped it completely to show us some fan-favorite characters doing predictable stuff that could’ve happened off-screen. Meanwhile, the Mandalorian chose a new spaceship completely inappropriate for bounty hunting, as if the filmmakers knew the scene they wanted to see at the end (and the toys they wanted to sell) and worked backwards from that, instead of giving it any genuine motivation. Worst of all, the ultimatum Luke Skywalker presented at the end seemed hypocritical and completely out of character; he’d seen more than anyone else how the old Jedi rule of “no attachments” always ended in tragedy, so why was he making Baby Yoda choose one or the other?

But if you reconsider that episode as an intentional part of The Book of Boba Fett instead of a clumsily-shoehorned interlude, it makes more sense. It’s yet another story of a character who has a path clearly laid out for him, but he chooses to define his own path and his own clan. Grogu didn’t even have a name until midway through the second season of The Mandalorian; until then, he was “Baby Yoda.” So of course he was going to end up following the same path as Yoda, training to be a powerful Jedi. (How that would fit in with the timeline of The Last Jedi was going to be an interesting exercise for the writers). I felt like the series was showing me stuff I already knew was going to happen, because it hadn’t even occurred to me that it could play out a different way.

In that context, the end of that episode feels less like an ultimatum, and more like Luke offering the freedom of choice. And the character appearances are meaningful, instead of just being cameos for the fans: Ahsoka chose to leave the Jedi and make her own way, while Luke speaks more like he’s doing what he thinks he’s supposed to do instead of “trusting his instincts.” Even Din Djarin’s new spaceship feels less forced; he wasn’t choosing a ship for being a bounty hunter, because he was redefining himself as something else. He didn’t need room for bounties, but for his new family.

To be clear: I still don’t think it all works. I think the series would’ve been a lot stronger if they’d spent that time developing the characters and plot threads they left hanging, like the Rancor, and Jennifer Beals’s character, and the Hutts, and the other crime lords, and Fett’s history with Cad Bane and other bounty hunters. But at least I can understand why they thought the two episodes of The Mandalorian fit into The Book of Boba Fett without being completely arbitrary.

It seems like I spend a lot of time insisting that Star Wars works best when it doesn’t try for nuance or layers or ambiguity, and just sticks to Good Guys vs Bad Guys with spaceships and lasers. The reason the stories resonate isn’t because they’re complex or open to multiple interpretations, but because they take straightforward ideas about morality and free will, and present them in interesting ways. It’s best kept in the realm of parable, which is why it feels facile to look for too much in the way of philosophy or thematic complexity, and why it feels tone deaf to try to work in too much moral ambiguity or “mature” content. But that’s also why I refuse to just reject all of it as being frivolous or just for kids; having all of the “meaning” floating on the surface, ready for interpretation, is a feature instead of a bug. The simplicity and accessibility makes it universal, not necessarily juvenile.

This is a franchise that has more archetypes than fully-realized characters — outside of the comics and some of the animated series, Boba Fett was the ultimate example of a “character” who had no actual characterization apart from “a bad-ass who has a cool spaceship and a jetpack.” I’m currently reading a book of short stories that recount events from the movies from the point of view of an incidental or background character, and it includes one from the perspective of Boba Fett. It’s written by Paul Dini, who’s extremely talented, but having to work with the version of the character as it exists in the movies. And it shows just how little there is to work with; it’s difficult to make music when you’ve only got one note to play.

So I respect what a big swing it was for The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett to take one-note characters and spin them into genuine character arcs about loyalty, identity, and self-determination. And I doubly respect that they did it while keeping everything in the realm of parable, instead of trying to take the Rogue One approach, trying to turn stories of Good vs Evil into “more mature” stories of politics and morally-compromised heroes. I’d expected The Book of Boba Fett to be a story about an anti-hero, with all the double-crosses and dirty deals of a mob story — Star Wars trying to bring spaceship and lasers to a more action-heavy version of The Sopranos. As frustrating as the series often was, I really like that they rejected that idea. Instead of asking me to identify or even empathize with an anti-hero, they took a pretty shallow non-character and let him become a hero.

Boba Fett and Other Figures Each Sold Separately

Thoughts about the finale of The Book of Boba Fett, and the season (series?) as a whole

When I finished watching the season finale of The Book of Boba Fett (no word yet if there’ll be a season two), I thought it reminded me of all the times I’d procrastinated and then crammed for a final exam at the last minute. Sometimes I’d squeak through with a B- because I was careful to check off all the requirements, but it was clear that my heart wasn’t fully in it.

The more I think about it, though, it takes me even further back. It reminds me of when I was little younger and playing with my Star Wars toys, throwing together my favorite figures and whatever playsets I had, trying to make a story out of it. The stories were always disjointed and a little repetitive, and clearly just building up to whatever showdown I wanted to see, like, oh I don’t know, Boba Fett riding on the back of a Rancor going raaarr! and then droids are shooting at him pew pew pew and then he fires his rocket fwoooosh and it explodes.

Characters would all gather around one small location for no good story reason, and they’d just hole up there for long stretches of time when I forgot about them. I’d suddenly remember something that I’d wanted to include, so I’d just bring it in without sufficient build-up. And most of it would be a lot of firing lasers back and forth without much actually happening.

And yes, I was still enough of a nerd to try to have a thematic arc for my story. So I did appreciate that the finale hit the right beats for Boba Fett’s story in this season — defeating the vestiges of his past with the help and the tools of the new tribe he’d found for himself — even if it came across a little obvious and clumsy.

A highlight of the episode for me was Fennec Shand’s chance to be a total bad-ass at the end, with a more brutal graphic scene than we’ve been used to seeing in Star Wars in a while. I also liked how the Rancor was depicted, in that pseudo-stop-motion practical effect style that reminded not just of Return of the Jedi but the obvious reference to King Kong. (I also liked that the framing was like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, although after all the business with the Tuskens, I’d been hoping for Lawrence of Arabia).

I still don’t think Grogu should’ve been anywhere near this series, and especially not Luke Skywalker. Including them feels like it was done for the benefit of marketing or merchandising, not for the good of the story, and just comes across as crass. But if they had to include Grogu, I at least loved his hilariously awkward walk, which always looked like that little girl who walked in on her dad in the middle of a BBC interview.

I don’t like being too critical of the series. For one thing, some of the most annoying people online have been vocally critical of the series, and I hate thinking that I have anything in common with them. But more than that, my main criticism has always been that it’s fine. I’ve gotten spoiled by the Disney+ series with The Mandalorian, WandaVision, Hawkeye, and even Falcon and the Winter Soldier being from huge franchises with built-in audiences, but still always better than they needed to be.

This series had a ton of really cool stuff, so much that it feels odd to be critical of it — Thundercat doing cyborg modifications on an assassin played by Ming-Na Wen and a space marshall, all to a space funk soundtrack? What the hell am I complaining about?! But so much of that really cool stuff was put in the wrong places, or presented in a weird or shallow way.

More often than not, The Book of Boba Fett showed me the stuff I wanted to see. But it was exceptional in those brief moments where it was showing me something I’d never expected to see. I wish there’d been more of that.

One Thing I Like About Murderville

The new Netflix series is a semi-improv comedy that avoids almost everything I hate about improv comedy

I’m really enjoying the new Netflix series Murderville, which is surprising, because I don’t like improv comedy.

Actually, that undersells it: I hate improv comedy. It makes me profoundly uncomfortable. It combines social awkwardness with people desperately trying to be funny, creating a Saw-like nightmare scenario that I’d usually do just about anything to escape. And the fact that the people who like it seem to really like it just makes it worse. My discomfort over improv made me dislike The Adventurer’s Club at Disney World, which on paper seems like it should’ve been the coolest thing that ever was.

The premise of Murderville is that Will Arnett plays a hapless detective who gets paired with a new rookie detective each week. Everyone has a script except for the rookie, who’s played by a different celebrity guest star, and who has to improv their way through all the scenes and put the clues together to guess the killer at the end of the episode. None of the mysteries so far have been at all challenging, but the prospect of someone having to keep a scene going while simultaneously paying attention to clues is where the comedy lies. Especially when the scenes are constructed specifically to mess with the guest star — forcing them to eat hot sauce, do the Harpo Marx mirror routine, go undercover with an embarrassing name, or explain death and murder to a little girl.

It’s a combination of absurd comedy (I keep being reminded of Childrens Hospital, partly because of the tone but mostly because it’s the same production company, and many of that series’s actors keep showing up in Murderville), prank show, game show, and improv. It’s such a brilliant concept that I was disappointed to learn that it was based on a British series with the same premise.

Disappointed because I was imagining yet another case of a genius British TV series being clumsily adapted for US audiences in a way that robs it of everything that makes it special. Luckily I found this hilariously snobby review in The Guardian, which trashes Murderville for doing exactly that. The writer describes the Netflix version as “torturous cringe”1And few things make me cringe more than seeing an adult writer use “cringe” in that way., then goes on to list the aspects of the original that were changed for the US version.

And in every single case, it sounds to me like the change was infinitely for the better. For one thing, Murderville casts celebrities who are used to doing comedy (and Marshawn Lynch, who’s awesome in his episode because he seems game for anything) instead of B-list reality TV stars and pop singers — apparently, the charm of the original was in being able to mock “self-ironising” media personalities for being awkward and uncomfortable?2I have to say that the line “Perhaps, the US doesn’t quite have the same depth and diversity as celebrity Britain, so it can’t cast the sort of self-ironising, famous-yet-normal types who made Murder in Successville such a pleasure.” is just chef’s kiss in its pure insufferableness. The writer notes that both versions have sequences where the guest has to wear an earpiece and do everything that Will Arnett’s character tells them to do, but the US version fails because it’s done in front of other actors, instead of forcing the guest to embarrass themselves in front of people who aren’t in on the joke.

Most telling, though, is how the writer faults the US version for breaking the inviolable rules of improv. Guests look at the camera, Arnett tries to steer scenes back on track, and everyone breaks character and starts laughing “far too often.” Which I mention because that’s the One Thing I Like most about Murderville: it embraces the moments when the actors crack up.

I have to say I didn’t really notice exactly how well it worked until my favorite moment in the first episode, in which Conan O’Brien is having to improvise a story to a group of women in order to “maintain his cover.” The whole scene is set up so that the actor he’s playing against is feeding him lines to force him to slip up, and he’s clearly in his element, doing basically the same stuff that he did in the unscripted segments on his show, reminding the audience that he was a comedy writer long before he had a talk show. He delivers the punchline to his story, and it cuts back to the actor cracking up before immediately turning her head to hide her laughter from the camera.

That cut is what makes it stand out — if the point were to make a funny scene, they could’ve ended on the punchline and edited around the laugh, but they deliberately chose to include it. The point wasn’t just to construct a comedy scene; the point was to show the joke land. The series seems eager not to show people being embarrassed, but to show people having fun.

It goes both ways, too: earlier in that episode, Conan and Will Arnett are interrogating a magician played by David Wain. Wain keeps doing magic tricks, and Arnett keeps losing his shit over every one, which has Conan cracking up. I wouldn’t expect everyone to know who David Wain is, but if you do, it changes the whole feel of that scene: it’s not the prank show implied by the premise, but three comedians trying to make each other laugh. There’s a similar moment in the episode we watched tonight, where Kumail Nanjiani tries to goad Arnett into doing a racist impression of a Pakistani person, and Arnett seemingly side-steps it at the last minute.

Again, the setup makes it seem like the goal is to put Arnett in an awkward position to embarrass himself, but that’s not really the case. It’s actually just giving Arnett an opportunity to be spontaneously funny, to let audiences see that spark of creativity that’s impossible to get with heavily-rehearsed material. If nothing else, having such a heavily-edited format allows the producers to emphasize the moments they want to: either go the Reality TV route and assemble the show for maximum drama and embarrassment, or take the Murderville route and show everyone getting the gag and having fun with each other.

I get improv comedy well enough to know that that spontaneity is the whole appeal, and that trying to force spontaneous moments into happening is almost always a mistake — no appearance of Debbie Downer on SNL was ever as good as the first one, where Rachel Dratch was looking at her castmates in desperation, trying to keep things on track while simultaneously knowing that the sketch was turning out to be so much funnier than anything that could be scripted. SNL is always hoping for moments like those — with Bill Hader as Stefon having to read jokes he hadn’t seen before the live airing; or Kate McKinnon looking for signs that someone else on stage is about to crack up, and then doing everything she can to get them to break character — but the show is stuck just hoping those moments happen, because it’s not something you can force. SNL kind of has to pretend that the point of the show is to go smoothly, even though some of its most memorable moments have been the ones where something goes wrong.

So I really like that Murderville splits the difference between scripted comedy and improv, allowing for spontaneous moments while still having a script and editing to keep things from going too far off the rails or falling flat. I really like that everyone’s in on the joke, even if not everyone’s in on the script — the only people who are being put on the spot are people who chose to be. It seems like the entire show is built around seeing actors having fun, and hoping that rubs off on the audience. I’m sure that to some people, having everyone in on the joke would make it seem like Murderville is too safe or doesn’t have that edge that awkwardness and discomfort and embarrassment bring to comedy, but I hope those people will grow out of it eventually.

And in case it sounds like I’m being anti-British, I’m definitely not. I’m just ragging on that one writer for The Guardian. In fact, there’s a great example of what I’m talking about in one of my favorite moments from Taskmaster: I won’t completely spoil it, but early in the episode, the contestants are given a task to do on cue, but the cue isn’t given to them until much later, at the worst possible time. Greg Davies says that it seems like one of the moments in the series that made James Acaster genuinely angry. Acaster says, “Well at the time I was pretty furious, but I was also thinking: ‘Ah, this’ll be good.'”

  • 1
    And few things make me cringe more than seeing an adult writer use “cringe” in that way.
  • 2
    I have to say that the line “Perhaps, the US doesn’t quite have the same depth and diversity as celebrity Britain, so it can’t cast the sort of self-ironising, famous-yet-normal types who made Murder in Successville such a pleasure.” is just chef’s kiss in its pure insufferableness.

Boba Fett and the No For Real, Though, Did Temuera Morrison Get Laryngitis or Something?

Thoughts about episode 6 of The Book That Used To Be About Boba Fett

Things are heating up with chapter 6 of The Book of Boba Fett, with a guest appearance that must’ve gotten a lot of fans excited. There’s one scene with a fan-favorite character, a mysterious and notoriously deadly bounty hunter who hasn’t made a lot of appearances in the Star Wars universe lately. His name is Boba Fett.

I gave a pretty charitable interpretation of the last episode, figuring that it fit into the story because it showed how Boba Fett’s story and the Mandalorian’s were thematically similar. This one, though, just had a pretty cool showdown in a desert town that was at least tangentially building on the season storyline, and then a ton of stuff that should’ve been in season 3 of The Mandalorian.

It bugs me because I would’ve liked almost all of it, had it been presented as part of that series instead of interrupting the story I’ve gotten invested in. It actually retroactively makes me like the series so far a little less, because the stuff that’s been introduced — like the Rancor, and the Sanctuary club, and the Mods — no longer feel like parts of a building story, but just seeds for images that’ll appear in the final showdown with the bad guys. There was so much room that could’ve been used for telling an intriguing story of crime bosses and double-crosses and revenge plots, but they chose instead to just use it as a vehicle to squeeze more comics and animation characters into live action.

(I say “almost all of it” because the choice at the end seemed like a completely false one that never should’ve been presented in the first place. It seemed like something meant to play on the audience’s emotions instead of something that would’ve been genuinely motivated by any of the characters involved).

I hate to say it, but I was pretty disappointed and even annoyed by this episode. I’ve seen quite a few disgruntled types bad-mouthing the series around the internet, and I don’t want to add to that — even the episodes I’m not crazy about still seem to have stuff I like a lot. I just feel like the storytelling has been frustratingly disjointed, from a team that in the past has been able to give the audience everything what they want to see but make it feel resonant as well.

Top 10 TV

My 10 favorite episodes of TV ever, because why not

I can tell I’ve been watching too many YouTube videos and listening to too many podcasts lately, since I was inexplicably compelled to compile/update my list of Top 10 Favorite Episodes of TV Ever. (Actually, it was prompted by the sudden thought, “Damn I loved WandaVision,” which is something that I think about almost daily).

These aren’t necessarily all of my favorite TV series (but most of them are), and many of them are here because of one scene instead of the entire episode, and also I obviously went over 10 because none of this is at all important. Also I loved series like Alias, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, 30 Rock, and Avatar: The Last Airbender, but couldn’t think of any one particular moment or episode that stood out in my memory. Also I guess I should mention that I’ve never seen more than one episode of Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Wire, True Detective, or Fargo, and I got so annoyed with The Sopranos that I had to stop watching and it drove out any memories of how much I was enjoying the first part of the first season.

16. True Blood, “Plaisir D’Amour”
This one starts with showing what happens in the True Blood universe when a vampire gets staked, and that scene alone was my favorite in the entire silly series. This is where the series hooked me, and I was low-key obsessed for a while there. The show is so horny and so over-the-top, that I’d spent a lot of time wondering whether they were in on the joke. The start of this episode made it clear: oh yeah, they get it.

15. The Book of Boba Fett, “The Tribes of Tatooine”
Still early in a series that I haven’t liked quite as much as The Mandalorian, but damn if that train sequence wasn’t one of the best Star Wars moments I’ve ever seen. It also had Boba Fett’s vision quest at the end of the episode, a perfect example of how these series can best spin off into weirdness while still feeling like Star Wars.

14. Battlestar Galactica, “Sometimes a Great Notion”
This might be the bleakest episode of a very bleak series, and at the time I thought it was one of my least favorite. But one character’s suicide is the one scene that I remember the most vividly from the series, all these years later. I’m sure it was done mainly for shock value, but it felt like a flash of maturity in a series that was otherwise designed just to heap trauma on its characters. It’s an intriguing idea that if someone’s been suffering under years of stress and horror that an ongoing series demands to keep things exciting, they’d choose to go out with a pleasant memory instead of a brutal one.

13. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Hush”
One of the best of the gimmick episodes (another of my favorites was called “Doppelgangland”), this one worked for me because it went back to the formula of combining gags based on the supernatural premise with the theme of a Teen Girl Drama; Buffy and her boyfriend were having trouble communicating.

12. Arrested Development, “Mr. F”
I’m not going to suggest that this episode was ever in good taste, but it still feels like it’s aged poorly enough that I feel a little weird calling it out as a favorite. The whole storyline with Charlize Theron’s character was what hooked me on the series (I didn’t see the first season until later). This episode in particular is where the whole shaggy-dog-story format of Arrested Development finally “clicked” for me: the ingenious way it piled set-ups on top of each other across an episode or multiple episodes, finally letting them all pay off in an interconnected punchline.

11. How I Met Your Mother, “Three Days of Snow”
This is the one where Marshall shows up to meet Lily at the airport with a marching band (spoiler), and that moment makes me cry every damn time. This is still one of my favorite sitcoms, because it had no hesitation being maudlin and romantic. And by the way, I still say the series ended perfectly, and anyone who says otherwise just didn’t get it.

10. Futurama, “The Sting”
This is the one where Leela is mourning Fry after he’s killed by a giant bee. The episode of Futurama that first springs to mind as a favorite is “Jurassic Bark,” and I’ve got a soft spot for “Teenage Mutant Leela’s Hurdles” because it’s where I got the name for my cat Pazuzu. But “The Sting” is the one that surprised me for being so surprisingly sweet and romantic.

9. Star Trek: The Next Generation, “The Inner Light”
This is the one where Picard is hit by a probe that causes him to experience the entire life of an alien on a doomed planet. It shows off the best potential of Star Trek: not being obsessed with continuity or grand story arcs, but taking a single sci-fi premise and spending an hour elaborating on it and its repercussions. My second favorite episode of the series was called “Remember Me,” the one where Dr. Crusher realized, “If there’s nothing wrong with me, there must be something wrong with the universe.”

8. Cowboy Bebop, “Speak Like a Child”
This is the one where Faye Valentine receives a Betamax tape in the mail, and Spike and Jet have to go pick through the ruins of Earth to find a machine that can play it. The last scene gets me every single time I see it, and Faye’s “I don’t remember” is what does it.

7. The Mandalorian, “The Sin”
This is the one where Mando returns to collect the bounty on the foundling and then regrets it. It’s hard to pick a single favorite episode of the series so far, but I think this is the one that really started to deliver on the premise. Not just the premise of a bounty hunter finding redemption and re-inventing himself, but the premise of Star Wars on TV means you get to see a whole covert of Mandalorians flying jetpacks and shooting lasers at aliens and because it’s all in a series you get to see more of it next week.

6. Lost, “Man of Science, Man of Faith”
The introduction of Desmond and the code he has to keep typing in to keep the world from ending. At the time, the cold open of this episode just blew my mind, and I’ve always liked the song “Make Your Own Kind of Music” because of it.

5. Twin Peaks, “Coma”
This is the one where Maddy sees killer Bob menacingly crawling towards her in the Palmer living room, which still might be the scariest thing I’ve ever seen on television. As a bonus, it’s got the song James, Maddy, and Donna sing together, without a trace of self-consciousness.

4. The Good Place, “Dance Dance Resolution”
This is the one where Eleanor (and one time, Jason) figures it out over and over and over again. After the season one finale, I thought I knew where the series was going to go, but they crammed every one of my short-sighted predictions into a single episode, and then went off in new directions.

3. WandaVision, “Breaking the Fourth Wall”
Once again: damn, I loved WandaVision. This is the one with “Agatha All Along,” and while the reveal itself wasn’t that surprising, every element of the reveal and the end of the episode was pulled off flawlessly. It was so satisfying to see everything that the series had been building for weeks culminating in one extended sequence. There are so many great details in it, one of my favorites being how the aspect ratio quietly and near-invisibly changes as Wanda moves from a 2000s sitcom back into the “real world” of the MCU.

2. Doctor Who, “Blink”
The series overall kind of crawled up its own butt, and they overused the Weeping Angels to a ridiculous degree, and I’m still even more annoyed by “wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey” as I was by “the cake is a lie.” But this episode is still a masterpiece, full of genuinely scary moments and monsters that are terrifying because of the implications of their attacks, not just the attacks themselves. Plus Carey Mulligan is so charismatic that she overshadows the leads; at the time I was convinced this had to be a back-door pilot for her own series.

1. The X-Files, “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space
Always my favorite episode of television ever, even if the rest of The X-Files has mostly lost the magic it had over me in the 1990s. The series tried this kind of meta-storytelling multiple times, but it never worked as well as here because it wasn’t just parodying The X-Files, but spinning the parody into a larger idea about the nature of faith and belief. Highlights are Jesse Ventura and Alex Trebek as Men in Black, the D&D player who knows a little something about courage, and the fairly savage parody of the ridiculousness of Fox’s Alien Autopsy specials of the time.

Boba Fett and the Mystery of the Disappearing Boba Fett

My thoughts on Episode 5 of The Book of Mostly Boba Fett

When the first episode of The Book of Boba Fett showed him punching and flamethrower-ing his way out of a sarlaac, I thought that clearly the series was trying to make up for all the indignities the Star Wars franchise has piled on the character over the decades. But I can’t think of much that’s more disrespectful than getting Cousin Olivered out of your own series!

Obviously, I love The Mandalorian, and I’ve been eager to see how the story progressed after the finale of season 2. The last episode all but explicitly said that he’d be coming back in this one, and I was really looking forward to seeing what had changed. And it would’ve been awkward to just say, “Hey look, Mando’s back!” without addressing any of that. And this was, by any standard, an excellent episode, full of cool stuff. But it was an episode of The Mandalorian.

I wish that they’d managed to bring him back in a story that kept Boba Fett’s moving forward, and saved all the best moments of this one for an episode of the next season of The Mandalorian. They could’ve teased the intrigue in this appearance — Where did he get that new ship? What did he get for Grogu? — and then gone into all of this detail in a flashback.

One of the reasons I’ve loved these series is because they don’t just show me what I want to see, even as they’re showing me exactly the version of Star Wars I’ve been wanting to see since the early 1980s. There’s always a real effort to make stories that have thematic resonance and show a real arc for the characters, even for those of us in the audience more preoccupied with seeing space battles and jetpacks. This episode just left Boba Fett’s arc hanging.

I do appreciate that it sets up Din Djarin to be a kind of analogue of Boba Fett. They’ve both lost their tribe, and they’re reinventing themselves on their own terms instead of what other people have told them they have to be. That’s been the ongoing theme of this series so far. It would’ve been stronger if both characters had been there to play off of each other.

But apart from that, I really liked everything in this episode. The new ship is, indeed, wizard, even though I wonder how a bounty hunter can work with a starfighter that only has enough extra space for a baby Yoda. I loved seeing the BD droid from Jedi Outcast, Amy Sedaris speaking the Jawa language, the Rodian kid staring at the Mandalorian like on every commercial flight, the arches in Mos Eisley taken from Ralph McQuarrie’s concept art that I had hanging in my bedroom. I even gave a genuine gasp of emotion at The Armorer’s final dismissal, which surprised me as I hadn’t thought I had any emotional attachment to any of these characters apart from Grogu.

I just wish they’d figured out how to work Boba Fett into an episode of The Book of Boba Fett.