Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: I Am Stretched On Your Grave

In case anyone’s forgotten that Sinéad O’Connor is a genius

On Neko Case’s newsletter Entering the Lung (which I recommend to everybody, even if — or especially if — you’re not already a fan of Neko Case!), she’s been writing about how profoundly she was affected by Sinéad O’Connor’s albums Lion and the Cobra and I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.

That reminded me of the first time I heard the latter, over 30 years ago (!), and how striking it was to be expecting a late 80s/early 90s pop album and to suddenly hear O’Connor’s version of “I Am Stretched On Your Grave.”

It’s remarkable even on the surface level, and this clip from a concert video shows why. In case it gets removed from YouTube: It’s just O’Connor alone on the stage, singing a haunting folk song over a recording of a drum loop and bass. Occasionally the lights will flash along with the accented drum beats, casting huge shadows on the back wall as if to visually represent what an outsized presence O’Connor has on stage. I love the song, and it’s my favorite from a record I’d only bought because one track was such a big hit that everyone in the US in 1990 was required to own a copy. The traditional fiddle solo by Steve Wickam at the end indirectly introduced me to The Waterboys, which hit me right at the peak of my obsession with the Pogues and Irish folk/punk/pop music.

I only learned today that O’Connor’s version wasn’t a contemporary take on a traditional folk song, but a cover. The words are an English translation of a 17th-century Irish poem, and they were set to a folk tune by Philip King of the band Scullion in 1979. This counts as a Tuesday Two-Fer because the two versions are similar on the surface, but put into context, are remarkably different. The difference reveals the brilliance of O’Connor’s version, which I’m only just appreciating now.

Both are essentially a capella, to accentuate both the power of the singer’s voice and the power of the original poem. It’s full of the dark, sinister imagery of a gothic romance. And it’s resolutely Irish, celebrating and preserving the culture by reinterpreting it for a contemporary audience.

If Sinéad O’Connor had just done all of that and thrown “Funky Drummer” into the mix, it would’ve been brilliant enough. But she takes ownership of the song, not just as a showcase for her voice and her talent at production, but as a creepy interlude on an album full of songs about the things important to her. It’s easier to see now how it fits into the work of a defiantly anti-pop-star artist who was too talented not to be famous. And how she insisted on using her fame to highlight the things she felt passionately about, even as that fame was working hard to destroy her.

For one thing, it’s telling that it’s on the same record as “Nothing Compares 2 U,” a pop song that can’t help being good just because Prince wrote it, but still feels shallow in comparison. That song still wallows in the romanticism of someone pining over a failed relationship, while “I Am Stretched On Your Grave” goes hardcore into all-consuming obsessive grief. Like Kate Bush’s deliberately eerie voice in “Wuthering Heights,” O’Connor howls to suggest not a grief-stricken man, but a banshee doomed to eternally haunt the grave of her lover.

And there’s another layer when it’s put into the context of an album with songs about divorce1“The Last Day of Our Acquaintance” is my second favorite song on the record. Damn, what a good record!, pregnancy, motherhood, independence, and identity. O’Connor doesn’t change the gender of the poem, and leaving it intact acts as an indictment of entrenched misogyny that could be easily overlooked if it were presented as a man singing a traditional folk song:

Oh, and thanks be to Jesus
We did what was right
And your maiden head still
Is your pillar of light

Without changing a word, she drains it of any capacity for being interpreted as a love that transcends death. It becomes the lament of a madman who based his lover’s value on her virginity and her fertility. It comes across not as the loss of a soulmate, but the loss of property.

And yet, it’s not just a simplistic, facile rejection, either. I love that at the end of that concert performance, at the point the traditional fiddle solo takes over, she doesn’t turn the stage over to the soloist. Instead, she does an Irish dance over the recording. It seems to suggest that this isn’t just about the music itself and her arrangement; it’s about her. It’s a part of her heritage, one that she wants to share and celebrate.

The media tried hard to reduce Sinéad O’Connor to all the things that made her weird, as if she were nothing more than an angry bald-headed woman who made grand-standing gestures like tearing up a picture of the Pope on live TV. But there’s a complexity implicit in her music and the way she presented it, deeper than the nihilism of punk and deeper than the simple dichotomies of the present, when people seem eager to reject outright everything they find problematic. I don’t see any hint of irony in O’Connor’s Irish dance; I think she genuinely loves the spirit of rebellion and love of music and poetry that’s part of Irish culture, even if it’s a culture that had a history of trying to destroy people like her. Now I respect that she remained defiantly herself; her version of “I Am Stretched On Your Grave” suggests “in a couple of decades, you might be able to understand this.”

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    “The Last Day of Our Acquaintance” is my second favorite song on the record. Damn, what a good record!

One Thing I Like About Encanto

Encanto managed to tell a straightforward story without feeling too simplistic

First of all, I’m proud of my joke, which goes like this: Will I still enjoy Encanto if I haven’t seen 1 to (n-1) Canto?

Anyway, one thing I like about Encanto is that I got to watch it on Disney+. I was wrecked by the end of this movie, and I’m kind of tired of having emotional breakdowns in public movie theaters. Magic of cinema, sure, I’m all for it I guess, but I’m 100% behind home streaming for first-run movies1As long as the studio takes that into account when negotiating contracts with their actors who’ve been a prominent part of several of their films for almost a decade, instead of, say, being a multi-billion dollar company hypocritically trying to shame actors for being greedy during a pandemic..

But that’s not the main thing I liked about the movie. There are actually two more things about Encanto that I liked a lot, and I was having kind of a hard time choosing which one was the most worth writing about. Then I realized that they’re both aspects of the same thing: the storytelling is straightforward, direct, and earnest, but without feeling simplistic, maudlin, or juvenile.

One example of that is the song “Surface Pressure.” I came into the movie after missing the first 30 minutes or so (I since went back and watched it), right as that song came on. I knew the basic premise of the story, and I already knew a surprising amount about the characters just from being on The Internet. I’d seen videos of people doing covers, and I was aware that the song “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” had become a meme, and I’ve seen lots and lots of musicals Disney and otherwise, so I thought I knew what the structure of the movie was. A song as confessional as “Surface Pressure” must come late in act 2 or so, after we’ve gotten to know the characters but then — twist! — we go deeper and learn more about the characters’ mental state.

So I was pleasantly surprised to see that this was more or less Luisa’s introduction. Or at least the most dialogue she’s had in the movie up to that point, by far. She goes from being “I’m the sister who’s strong” to having an entire song explaining exactly what stresses she’s under. The question “what’s bothering Luisa?” only lingers for about 5 minutes, tops.

The reason that pleasantly surprised me is because movies so often treat that kind of directness, even in musicals, as being too on-the-nose or too simplistic. You can’t just have characters who are self-aware; that’s basic! You’ve got to let the mystery and intrigue stretch out, so the audience can see the character’s arcs playing out as they happen. But here, Mirabel talks to characters, and they immediately tell her exactly what’s on their minds, what their crises are, what they’re dealing with.

It’s almost as if Mirabel’s magical gift is being able to listen and understand what other people are going through.

The other example is that the movie has no villain. Family animated movies have evolved past fairy tale storytelling — and even when they do tell fairy tales, they can focus on aspects of the story that make them feel contemporary — but they still often feel juvenile because of their need to make every conflict about good guys vs bad guys. I still say that the one thing that keeps Up from being a flawless movie is that it spends so much time building its characters and organic, interesting conflicts, then just turns it into a movie about defeating the villain.

Encanto does have an antagonist, but they’re not motivated by greed or evil; they’re motivated by love. The reason the characters can be so direct about their internal struggles is because the movie isn’t about finding out what’s wrong. Everybody knows what’s wrong, and they just don’t know what to do about it. The conflict is driven by the completely understandable belief that it’s the family’s duty to be stewards protecting the miracle, forgetting that the entire reason the miracle exists is to protect the family.

Even though Encanto is full of characters saying explicitly exactly what they’re thinking, that doesn’t mean that there are no layers to it. It has three metaphors that are carried throughout: the casita itself, the candle representing the family’s magic, and the butterfly. I really like that the first two are made explicit as soon as they’re introduced — another case of being direct and skipping any unnecessary obfuscation — while the butterfly quietly lives on Mirabel’s shoulder until the climactic song about finding protection in each other and then needing to break out of that cocoon.

Tangentially related: I keep going back to all of the internet memes about “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” and videos covering “Surface Pressure,” and realizing how I’m at least a couple of decades too old to be able to navigate modern social media. I can’t imagine being able to set up a camera and earnestly sing into it and then release it to the public without cringing. I can’t watch the short videos without being suspicious of exactly how many of them are “genuine” and how many are just part of a viral marketing campaign. Don’t people worry that they’ll look gullible or foolish for being taken in by Disney marketing?

But then, worrying about being taken in by marketing is an extremely Gen-X anxiety to have. I find it reassuring that there are people who don’t particularly care whether something they enjoy is coming from a “paid influencer” or not; all that matters is that they’re enjoying it. And there’s nothing to be lost by being fearlessly earnest and direct. The people who would turn up their nose at it were never going to like it in the first place, and as for the people willing to engage, telling or showing them exactly what’s on your mind and what you love is the best way to engage with them.

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    As long as the studio takes that into account when negotiating contracts with their actors who’ve been a prominent part of several of their films for almost a decade, instead of, say, being a multi-billion dollar company hypocritically trying to shame actors for being greedy during a pandemic.

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.'”

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    And few things make me cringe more than seeing an adult writer use “cringe” in that way.
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    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.

One Thing I Like About Eternals

Eternals is a defiantly humanistic adaptation of cosmic-powered source material

I didn’t like Eternals. It was overlong, meandering, and ponderous. Its action sequences were weightless in multiple senses of the word. It made baffling story decisions from the opening text crawl to the post-credit sequences.

I’ve lost interest in picking apart things I don’t like, not so much out of any vague push for “positivity,” but because there’s just too much good stuff out there I’d rather be concentrating on. But unlike some other high-profile projects that more or less evaporated after failing to live up to expectations1See: The Matrix Resurrections. Or better: don’t., Eternals left me with something. It was a hazy sense of well-being, a faintly optimistic feeling of global community and shared humanity. (More than just the general light-headedness that came from still being up at 3 AM after foolishly starting the movie at midnight).

In short: Eternals took a part of the Marvel library that was designed from the start to be grand and cosmic, and defiantly turned it into a gentler, more humanistic story. I might not think it was successful, but I can respect that it was so full of intent, especially considering the weight of the MCU machine behind it.

Because I’ve recently read Jack Kirby’s original The Eternals comics, and then Neil Gaiman and John Romita, Jr’s 2006 update, I can’t help comparing them with the movie version’s adaptation2I haven’t read any of the other Eternals comics, so I can’t really comment on the aspects of those that were used in the movie version.. In particular, there are two aspects of the comics that are done differently in the movie, and they end up saying a lot about what the movie was trying to do: one aspect is representation, and the other is the audience’s entry point into the story.

Continue reading “One Thing I Like About Eternals”
  • 1
    See: The Matrix Resurrections. Or better: don’t.
  • 2
    I haven’t read any of the other Eternals comics, so I can’t really comment on the aspects of those that were used in the movie version.

Boba Fett and the Thundercat-Installed Stomach Mod

Random thoughts after Episode 4 of The Book of Boba Fett

It has come to my attention that the street gang in last week’s episode of The Book of Boba Fett were directly (and blatantly!) patterned on Mods, not just “vaguely European” as I’d thought. I regret the oversight. I do love that Fennec Shand explicitly calls them “the Mods” in this episode, presumably from “modified.”

(I’m also embarrassed that I didn’t come up with with calling them “Mos Vespas.” I mean it was right there and I didn’t see it).

I was also aiming low last episode, apparently, since I was delightfully surprised to see Stephen Root show up in a Star Wars franchise. In retrospect, he was bound to show up eventually, considering the demand for character actors for all the new movies and series. The bigger surprise was this week, when Thundercat showed up as a rad black market cybernetic-modification installer. Complete with a rad soundtrack during the A-Team-inspired montage where he wheels out a special cart holding his robot arm replacement. It was one of those cases where I could tell he was having a blast to be in Star Wars, and I was so happy for a complete stranger. I’m sure the make-up crew was also happy that they didn’t have to do a whole lot to make Thundercat fit into Star Wars.

Even though episode 2 is still by far my favorite, I’ve liked all the episodes so far, and this one definitely didn’t disappoint. On the surface, episode 4 just seems like wrapping up act two and heading into the climax — the flashback part of the episode detailing how Boba Fett found and saved Fennec Shand didn’t seem to be reinforcing or building on ideas in the “main” story, but simply connecting the dots. It was full of great, satisfying moments, but I didn’t immediately pick up on any “thematic resonance” that the other episodes had.

But after thinking about it some more, I think it just makes explicit the themes that have been going through the rest of the series. This one is about loyalty through respect, explaining exactly why Boba Fett has been doing what he’s doing. It’s important to see him continuing to build alliances and add characters to his gang. Even past adversaries, like Black Krrsantan and that rabbit droid. I’d been wondering how they’d make a story about an anti-hero feel compelling, and they’ve done it by showing he’s got his own code of honor.

And I’ve got to admit it’s fun to have a series where the characters aren’t constantly struggling to stay true to the light side. Watching Boba Fett mow down a murderous biking gang was oddly satisfying, as was watching him and Fennec Shand take on the Sarlaac with the coolest weapon in Star Wars.

I also loved the Bantha. Through all of these episodes, I’ve been wondering how things are “supposed” to look, and how much is a limitation of practical effects, shooting scenes in studios instead of on location, or using TV-budget CGI. But the Bantha was so much more expressive and detailed than they’ve ever been shown before, and it never didn’t feel real to me. I don’t want to watch a making-of, because I don’t want to know exactly how it was done.

One thing that occurred to me during this episode is that it feels like they’re finally achieving what Star Wars has been wanting to do in live action for a long time. The train heist from episode 2 was a perfect rendition of late 70s/early 80s Star Wars action and comedy, and I think the scene in the kitchen from this episode nailed the tone that much of the prequels were trying to achieve. Hitting the right combination of goofy slapstick and action violence.

I don’t know how to write fan letters in the Modern Era, but if I did I’d want to thank Jon Favreau for delivering, over and over again, the fun and expansive version of Star Wars that I’ve been wanting to see ever since I was little.

Project Diary: Tanuki Clock Part 2

Redesigning my tanuki taiko drummer

Quick update on my project to make a Raspberry Pi-powered taiko-playing tanuki clock: I redesigned the character into a seated position, both to give more emphasis to the clock, and to make it a little bit more ambiguous where he got the taiko drum from.

I’m happier with this version, but while it makes some things theoretically simpler, it introduces a bunch of new problems. The most obvious is that it’s just so much bigger. It no longer fits on my printer, and it’s not immediately obvious how to cleanly break it into smaller components. Plus the test prints will take forever — a quick test of just the taiko drum was predicting a 15-hour print time.

Also, having the taiko oriented horizontally means the arms have to rotate at an angle, and I haven’t yet figured out exactly how I can make that work. In addition to wishing I’d had some electronics classes in school, I wish I’d taken some mechanical engineering.

(I did a quick test having the taiko vertically oriented, and the tanuki standing behind it, but that would’ve made the thing even bigger).

One thing I’ve realized trying to redesign the model is that I follow some depressingly talented artists on Instagram. I’ve been hearing for years the complaint that Instagram is bad for people’s mental health, but I’ve never understood that. I can’t remember ever seeing an “influencer” and feeling inferior or wishing that I had any single aspect of their life. (Unless they’re making me sad that I’m not at Disneyland, which is something that it usually pretty straightforward for me to correct). But seeing some artist post a photo of their “sketch” that’s still infinitely better than I’ve been able to make after hours of work, just makes me feel extremely amateurish. And I am an amateur, so fair enough, but it’s still kind of dispiriting.