Friday, December 06, 2019

Notes From the Streamapocalypse

Until last month, 2019 felt like a year in which popular culture was winding itself down.  What seems like an abnormal number of shows, including juggernauts like Game of Thrones, wrapped up their stories, while others were cancelled.  Collaborations like the Netflix MCU were brought to an abrupt end.  Everywhere there was a feeling of holding one's breath, clearing the decks in preparation for the coming onslaught.  And then, a few weeks ago, that deluge arrived with the launch of Apple TV+ and Disney+, two new streaming platforms seeking to directly challenge Netflix and Amazon for primacy in a field that already feels hopelessly crowded and balkanized.  Scripted TV is only one front in that fight (Disney+, for example, can afford to launch with only one original scripted series because it has such an enormous back-catalog to boast of, whereas Apple+ is scrambling to measure up with four new scripted series, and more to come).  But it's the one I find most interesting.  Overall, my verdict is that all of these shows are ambitious, and a few are interesting, but none of them are truly great (and all suffer from the besetting flaw of streaming TV, of working better at a binge, which obscures annoying tics and makes the plot seem to flow better, than in weekly installments).  If this is the future of television, my reaction to it is decidedly qualified, with a few sprinklings of hope.
  • See - You have to respect a series that realizes its premise requires some major suspension of disbelief, and, instead of trying to ease the audience into it, just throws them over a cliff.  After a title card informing us that a virus has decimated the Earth's population and left the survivors blind--an affliction that has been passed down a dozen generations, until the very concept of sight seems fantastical--See immediately drops us into a battle scene, between two armies that can only sense each other using sound, smell, touch, and taste.  It's never entirely convincing--you can believe that human society would survive the loss of the sense of sight, but not in the standard form of post-industrial tribes conducting quasi-medieval battles.  But you can't help but respect the show's commitment to its high concept, and the obvious thought that has gone into imagining how a society like this would function.  So yes, there are questions the show won't address--such as who laid out the neat and orderly rows of the village in which our hero, Baba Voss (Jason Momoa), lives, or how everyone could be wearing animals products like wool and leather.  But if you accept that as the buy-in--if you accept, in other words, that being sightless is the norm for these characters, and that like any other living being they have adjusted their way of life to the senses they have--then it is quite neat to see the tricks the show's writers have come up with to make that life seem practical and possible.  These range from the simple (probably variations on techniques that blind people today use) like characters snapping their fingers or making some vocalization to announce their presence, or writing on one another's palms as a form of silent communication, to invented social structures and roles, such as the revelation that some people are so skilled at moving soundlessly that they become hired spies, able to eavesdrop on anyone simply by standing next to them undectected.

    That cognitive dissonance is one of See's chief pleasures, but also one of its challenges.  It can be hard to put yourself in the characters' heads--you are, after all, watching a visual presentation about people for whom the visual plays no role in their lives.  When Baba Voss, for example, enters a room where his son is being held captive, the audience will momentarily assume that he knows his quest has succeeded, before being reminded that the son has to vocally announce his presence to his father.  Before long, however, the characters themselves begin to develop an awareness of this gap.  The show opens with Baba Voss's wife Maghra (Hera Hilmar) giving birth to twins, whom the viewer can see are sighted.  Maghra came to the village already pregnant, and the twins' father, the fugitive Jerlamarel (Joshua Henry), stuns Baba Voss and the village wisewoman Paris (Alfre Woodard) by committing feats such as building a bridge across a ravine, or killing a bear with a bow and arrow, achievements that to them seem magical.  As the twins grow older, the show's scheme becomes clearer--this is a superhero story in which nobody has superpowers.  It's just that in a world constructed without any consideration of vision, the sighted Kofun (Archie Madekwe) and Haniwa (Nesta Cooper) can cut through the established rules of their society without even thinking about it--the kidnapped Kofun, for example, writes a message for Haniwa when his captors stop for a rest, knowing that only she will see and understand it.

    Whereas most superhero shows implicitly treat the audience like normies, awed by the hero's powers, See has us identify with the superpowered beings, for whom remarkable feats are so natural that they can't help committing them.  By the same token, though the villains of the show, the evil Queen Kane (Sylvia Hoeks) and her witchfinder, Tamacti Jun (Christian Camargo), insist that they are pursuing Jerlamarel and his children for spreading the heretical notion of sight, it only takes a few instances of Kofun and Haniwa easily evading their grasp to make the point that their real concern is much more prosaic.  Sight represents an existential threat to the power structures of the show's world--a point that other superhero stories have made in the past, but which here is understood much more viscerally because we share the same superpower.

    None of this would matter, of course, if See wasn't also an entertaining story.  The plot moves along at a brisk clip, bouncing the characters from one peril to another as they evade Tamacti Jun's pursuit and travel towards Jerlamarel's promised land, with periodic fight scenes that are all the more effective for how they depict and take advantage of the characters' blindness.  But See also knows how to give the characters room to be themselves.  Momoa, in particular, is a delight precisely because of his willingness to cede the center stage.  Though a fearsome warrior and respected leader, his character is ultimately an enabler of other people's heroism (not just the children, but also Maghra, who turns out to have connection to the seat of power, and plans of her own).  He struggles with the knowledge that his children have so completely outstripped him that they can't help but condescend to him, and that for all that they love him, their biological father will always have a connection with and a hold on them that he never could.  It's a portrait of masculinity that one doesn't often see, especially in action storytelling--a hero who knows that he is outmatched, but who is determined to do his part nonetheless.  Kofun and Haniwa's stories are more conventional--they face the call to adventure, and worry about the power over others that their sightedness confers on them.  But the show is willing to take their stories to challenging places, such as Haniwa tearfully admitting to her parents that she's afraid of her own capacity for violence, even as she insists that she has to pursue her power and legacy. 

    Less successful are the show's villains--Kane, in particular, is a caricature of an evil, sexually voracious woman, and her actions in the second half of the season feel more like an excuse to let Hoeks vamp and chew scenery than a plausible plot development.  But this is made up for by the challenges the characters face, simply by living in the world.  See is at its best when it stresses its characters' vulnerability against the vast natural landscape, or in the bizarre structures that the various communities they encounter on their journey have constructed to allow themselves to survive.  If the show makes the audience feel like superheroes, it also makes us feel just how big its now-empty world is, and how even sight doesn't always give its heroes the ability to navigate it safely.

  • The Morning Show - Apple reportedly paid Jennifer Aniston a not-so-small fortune to star in this show, her first regular TV gig since Friends ended fifteen years ago.  It's tempting to snark at a wannabe streaming giant using yesterday's stars as a crutch, but the truth is, Aniston is the best (at some points, the only) reason to watch The Morning Show.  Her performance as Alex Levy, a co-presenter at a popular morning news show whose world is rocked when it's revealed that her partner, Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell), has been accused of multiple instances of sexual misconduct, is a fascinating, complex portrait of a middle-aged woman who is at once beleaguered and breathtakingly privileged.  As the scandal breaks we watch Alex, who has clearly been operating on auto-pilot in both her professional career and personal life, realize that none of the people around her--not the other employees on the show, not the show's producer (Mark Duplass), not the head of the news division (Billy Crudup), and maybe not even her husband (Jack Davenport)--actually respect her, even though she's the only thing keeping their careers afloat.  It's a familiar scenario for many professional women, who find themselves expected to simply go along with things, because everyone else needs them to.

    Alex's reaction to this is gratifying to watch.  Whether she's calmly informing the network president that she's in charge now, because he needs her more than she needs him, or backing the show into a corner by publicly announcing her new co-host before anyone has had the chance to come up with a shortlist, she's content to burn it all down rather than continue to live with disrespect.  But Alex is by no means a feminist hero, and the show gleefully explores her many contradictions.  She's tough and hard-working, but also spoiled and self-absorbed.  Empathetic, but also vain and narcissistic.  Most importantly, as the season draws on it becomes increasingly clear that she knew, at least on some level, what Mitch was doing, but turned a blind eye because she needed him as a friend and a bulwark against the world.  She is, in short, exactly the sort of person you'd expect a rich, famous, self-made white woman to be, and the pleasure of watching her comes from not knowing, from one moment to the next, whether you want her to face some comeuppance, or stomp on the even more annoying people arrayed against her.

    Unfortunately, Alex is far from from The Morning Show's only focus.  It is, in fact, hard to pin down just what the show's focus is, whether it's a character study or a two-hander or an ensemble piece, and whether its interest is in the people it's depicting or the system they exist within.  But either way, everything around Alex is questionable at best, hard to watch at worst.  It is, for example, simply inexplicable that the show keeps Mitch around past the first few episodes.  At first, it seems that he is going to take the path of many exposed sexual predators in the #MeToo era, and become a right-wing commentator pandering to an anti-feminist audience.  But when Mitch veers off that path, it becomes clear that the show genuinely thinks it is using him to expose the grey area between obvious violators, like Harvey Weinstein or Louis C.K., and people who are simply long-term creeps.  But this is a point that is actually made far better by other characters, as in an interview with one of Mitch's victims, who insists that she was victimized as much by the other employees of the show, who treated her like damaged goods after she acquiesced to Mitch's advances, as by the man himself.  Or a subplot about the show's weatherman (Nestor Carbonell) and a much-younger PA (Bel Powley) who are in a serious relationship, but can't figure out how to distinguish their affair from what Mitch did.  Or, most intriguingly, an older producer (Karen Pittman), who had an affair with Mitch years ago that ended amicably, and who is now becoming aware of how that has soured attitudes towards her on the show.  Keeping Mitch around only focuses the story on his whiny insistence that he shouldn't experience any consequences for his actions, instead of castigating the culture that made those actions possible.  Other characters, such as Crudup's Cory Ellison, feel simply unreal.  Cory responds to every upheaval in his division with exclamations of excitement, clearly thrilled by the trainwreck his flagship show has become.  The intention is presumably to make him look like a savvy disruptor, but--leaving aside the fact that reality has given us more than enough reason to be wary of men who think disruption is the path to a better world--Crudup's dead-eyed performance makes Cory seem less like a cheerful imp, and more like a budding serial killer.

    But the biggest problem with The Morning Show, by some long way, is Reese Witherspoon's Bradley Jackson, a local reporter who, based on a viral video in which she screams at an anti-environmentalist in a protest against a coal mine, lands the job as Alex's new co-host.  From her name, to her politics (she's an independent who finds Democrats and Republicans equally worthy of disdain), to her convoluted family history (she has a troubled mother, an addict brother, and a boatload of daddy issues), Bradley feels like a character sketched out by Aaron Sorkin, and then rejected for being too unrealistic and over the top.  Witherspoon does her best to humanize her, but she can't do much against the show's own incomprehension of her.  It's never clear, for example, why Bradley, an investigative journalist who likes to report challenging, hard-hitting fare, would be interested in presenting a soft-focus morning show where all her material is scripted and half the stories are feelgood pap.  The obvious answer, of course, is that no one in their right mind would pass up this sort of opportunity (especially not someone like Bradley, whose career was on the rocks before the viral video made her a star).  But the show seems unwilling to give Bradley any sort of careerist instincts.  She stays on The Morning Show because that's what everyone expects of her, futilely complaining when they won't run the more challenging material that she'd like to cover, and acting surprised when her pursuit of the Mitch story--including the question of what Alex knew and when--earns her enemies.  It's the exact opposite of the fascinating, self-contradictory yet also believable portrait that the show paints of Alex, and it makes the entire experience of watching The Morning Show supremely frustrating.  The further the season advances, the more time Alex and Bradley spend together, and the more obvious it becomes that only one of them has a story worth telling.

  • For All Mankind - Of the four inaugural Apple TV+ shows, this is the one that has garnered the least attention, which in a way feels appropriate.  The elevator pitch for the show is "an alternate history in which the space race never ended, and humanity--specifically, NASA--continued its expansion into the solar system".  But For All Mankind is being screened in a world where the space race did end, in part because people got bored of space, and the Apollo missions quickly lost their luster and became must-see television for only a small group of fanatics.  So it's not surprising that creator Ronald D. Moore hasn't been able to capture the imagination of a mass audience.  But to make this excuse is also to let For All Mankind off too easy, because for all that it is a niche taste, it's also a show that puts its very worst foot forward.  Far too much time is spent establishing just why the space program continued and expanded, along the way indulging in some of the worst habits of Apollo Program fannishness--chiefly, "what if we made this incredibly complicated and dangerous endeavor even more so in order to cut through the audience's awareness that it all worked out?"  It's not even enough for the show to posit that the Soviets won the race to put a man on the moon (in reality, the Soviet space program was plagued by mismanagement and infighting, and had effectively given up on a moon landing by the late 60s).  We also get a sequence in which the astronauts on the Apollo 11 lunar lander lose contact with mission control for hours and are presumed lost after a much rougher landing than the real one.

    Positing that the reason the space race continued is that the Russians stayed in it and remained competitive is obviously fraught with a lot of political and ideological subtext.  For All Mankind had the opportunity to comment on the role that jingoism and anti-communism played in driving the American space program and its employees.  But instead the show seems to buy into that worldview hook, line, and sinker.  It's not just the characters who view a Soviet on the moon with alarm, but the show itself, which seems to expect the audience to accept that an American on the moon is an uplifting moment for all humanity, whereas a Soviet moon landing is a belligerent act.  The show then goes from bad to worse with an absolutely bizarre redemption tour for, of all people, Wernher von Braun (Colm Feore).  Again, there was an opportunity here for a challenging conversation--far too many dramatizations of this period downplay or erase von Braun's role in the Apollo Program, which he ran until well after the moon landing.  But For All Mankind instead chooses to sugarcoat the man, having him lament the way the Nazis "corrupted" his V2 rocket design by using it to target civilian populations.  The series's second episode even pretends that nobody at NASA knew that von Braun had been a member of the SS and had used slave labor in his factories during WWII.

    Once it gets over the hump of explaining why the space race has continued, however, and gets about the business of speculating how that would look--a permanent lunar base in the early 70s, with plans for Mars and the rest of the solar system to come--For All Mankind becomes much more fun and engaging.  A lot of this has to do with how it diversifies the space program.  During the first two episodes, our point of view character for much of the dismay at NASA is astronaut Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman, who is at least a head too tall to be an Apollo astronaut), an invented character who feels almost like an illustration of how the myth of the Right Stuff has become filtered through modern anxieties about masculinity.  Ed is taciturn and emotionally withdrawn, but also prone to insubordination and outbursts of anger, for which he never experiences any real consequences.  So it's a palpable relief when the show puts him on the back-burner in favor of a new program to train women astronauts.  This leads to the series's best episodes, in which the first of these candidates, Molly Cobb (Sonya Walger) ends up on Ed's mission, and has to confront not only his well-meaning condescension, but her own entirely earned suspicion of male authority figures.  The rest of the female candidates feel almost like a carefully-chosen array of social issues--one is black, one is gay, one is the wife of an astronaut who laments abandoning her own professional ambitions after marriage and childbirth--but it's still fun to watch women like this get to take part in the Apollo story.

    The crux of For All Mankind's alternate history is the suggestion that continuing the exploration of space would have required radical change on the ground as well, and that the program would have spurred important social advances in unexpected ways.  Some of these speculations feel silly and contrived--the hearings over NASA's failure to beat the Russians to the moon cause Ted Kennedy to cancel his getaway to Chappaquiddick, thus eventually leading to his presidency.  But others are intriguingly thorny, such as the revelation that President Kennedy got the ERA passed by moving a lucrative NASA contract to a Republican-controlled state, which ultimately leads to a fatal accident due to faulty Saturn V parts.  None of it, to be honest, bears much scrutiny, but at its best moments, when it drops the nostalgia and simply starts spinning a story, For All Mankind can be a genuinely exciting work of science fiction.

  • Dickinson - Unlike the other three Apple TV+ show, which dropped a few introductory episodes upon the platform's launch and then switched to a weekly schedule, Dickinson's entire first season was made available as a chunk.  You could read this as a sign of Apple's lack of confidence in the show, and if so it's hard to blame them for being anxious.  A deliberately anachronistic comedy about the teenage years of early modernist poet Emily Dickinson, whose story beats conspicuously echo those of modern teen soaps, doesn't exactly sound like it would have a broad appeal.  And yet, judging by my twitter feed, Dickinson has become Apple TV+'s most iconic foray.  Which may not mean anything, from a viewing numbers standpoint, but a wannabe entrant into the increasingly crowded field of scripted TV could do worse than to make a splash with something idiosyncratic and memorable.  This is not to say that Dickinson completely pulls off its mixture of tones, references, and period details.  There are as many misses as hits in the show's first season, and at times it feels as if creator Alena Smith hasn't quite landed on the story she wants to tell with it.  But when Dickinson works, it is simply marvelous, and even when it jars, it's so much more interesting, more itself, than more conventional fare like The Morning Show (or even For All Mankind and See) that one can't help being won over.

    Played by Hailee Steinfeld, Dickinson imagines its heroine as both a proto-feminist and a spoiled brat.  Emily dreams of writing poetry that will rock the world (or, at least, the staid and comfortable corner of it that she lives in, as the daughter of one of Amherst, Massachusetts's most prominent families) but also chafes against the expectation that she help around the house, and runs roughshod over the feelings and wishes of the people closest to her, chiefly her younger sister Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov) and her best friend, Sue (Ella Hunt).  The early episodes of the season focus on Emily's shock that Sue has agreed to marry her brother Austin (Adrian Enscoe).  Though her snide, incessant undermining of Sue's happiness is clearly rooted in romantic jealousy (the two have a relationship that the show doesn't try to put a label on, but which is both emotional and physical), it also stems from Emily's selfishness, her inability to grasp that Sue, who has lost her entire family to disease and has been left penniless, longs for security, and genuinely likes Austin.  In another episode, Emily feigns illness in order to gain some time for herself, to write and read and just do what she wants.  But in a period in which even minor illness can end fatally (as seen through the example of Sue's family, and in a storyline late in the season in which Emily falls for her father's clerk only for him to succumb to tuberculosis), this pretense deeply traumatizes her parents (Toby Huss and Jane Krakowski). 

    As much as the show castigates Emily for her selfishness, however, it also wants us to see it as, in its own way, revolutionary.  By insisting on her right not just to an education and a creative outlet, but to her own time and privacy, Emily is demanding recognition of her humanity.  While her mother expects that every minute of Emily's time be spent in homemaking and husband-seeking, and her father views her every attempt to develop her mind and her craft as an affront to his own dignity, Emily struggles to balance what she owes to herself with basic decency and kindness towards others.  That she usually overcompensates in one direction or another is hardly surprising, and the show never fails to remind us what a tragedy it would be if she ever stopped trying.

    It's a heavy topic, and Dickinson lightens it not only through its constant use of humor (it's interesting to consider that this is the only one of the shows I'm writing about in this post that is explicitly a comedy) but through its consciously anachronistic storytelling.  Some of the best moments in the show come when it juxtaposes the norms and restrictions of 19th century life with storylines taken straight out of Beverly Hills 90210, as in a mid-season episode in which the Dickinson children, left alone in the house by their parents, decide to throw a party, or a later subplot in which Lavinia is dismayed that the handsome but shallow boy she's been making out with has shown everyone the nude self-portrait she gave him.  When this sort of alchemy works, it causes the entire show to click into place, its story both specific and timeless, realistic and heightened.  The fact that Emily's parents speak in an affected, faux-historical cadence, for example, while all the young characters talk like modern teenagers, is at once a reminder of the show's artifice, and a perfect metaphor for the generation gap.

    But Dickinson is also trying to do so many other things that the result can end up feeling scattershot and uncertain.  It is sometimes fantastical, as in a subplot in which Emily imagines that she is in a long-term flirtation with Death (Wiz Khalifa); occasionally historical, featuring guest appearances from Henry David Thoreau (John Mulaney) and Louisa May Alcott (Zosia Mamet), who are much more accurate to the real writers' personalities and preoccupations than the show's treatment of its own heroine; and every so often, genuinely horrifying, as when Austin and Emily's father behave violently towards her, or when Sue is sexually harassed (perhaps even raped) by her employer.  The constant tonal shift can make it hard to decide how to react to the show, what it wants us to feel and how seriously it wants us to take it.  This is particularly noticeable in the show's struggles to place its characters in their historical context.  It nails the well-meaning but vague liberalism of its privileged characters' social set, where support for abolitionism is taken for granted without any willingness to take concrete steps towards ending slavery (much less treating black people like equals).  But when it tries to address Emily's own clueless privilege, it often punts.  The family's black servant (Chinaza Uche) gently chides her when she tries to express solidarity with him, reminding her that their situations are entirely different.  But there's really no place to take this thread from that point, and the result feels perfunctory, as if Dickinson knows it needs to address this issue, but can't find anything meaningful to say about it.  The impression formed is of a show that hasn't settled on a tone or approach, and is simply trying them all on--perhaps because it's so much fun to do so, and so exciting to have the opportunity.  To be fair, this is consistent with Dickinson's heroine, who is as excited by the possibilities she sees before her as she is confused and overwhelmed by them.  If the show sometimes doesn't seem to know what it is from one scene to another, perhaps that's part of the point.  And for the moments in which Emily--and Dickinson--truly find themselves, a bit of confusion is worth enduring.

  • The Mandalorian - Watching the fan reaction to Disney+'s first scripted show, and the first live-action series set in the Star Wars universe, has felt a great deal like being gaslighted.  For the life of me, I can't understand what so many people see in a show that, four episodes in, feels thoroughly uninvolving.  That's not to say that there aren't things to praise about The Mandalorian.  It is, for one thing, absolutely gorgeous to look at, combining the stunning compositions of A New Hope with the detailed, tactile production design of the new movies, and featuring some excellent fight scenes that are all the more engaging for being small-scale--no space-battles and CGI extravaganzas here, just close-quarters combat with physical heft and palpable stakes.  And it has proven itself to be excellent meme-fodder, from the million GIFs and drawings of Baby Yoda, to the increasingly delightful pronouncements of director Werner Herzog, who appears on the show as a former officer of the Empire, and whose attitude towards the entire endeavor in interviews is wonderfully irreverent.  But as an actual viewing experience, The Mandalorian is--dare I say it--kind of boring.  In its worst moments, it feels not at all unlike watching someone else play a Star Wars-themed computer game--the same thin, barely-there storytelling concealing a structure that is nothing but a string of missions.  Some moments even feel like cut-scenes, in which the show's titular hero returns to his base after completing an objective to receive an upgrade to his armor and new weapons.

    The basic concept of The Mandalorian is obviously "a spaghetti Western in the Star Wars universe".  Set after the collapse of the Empire in Return of the Jedi (but before the sequel trilogy), it follows a bounty hunter who is recruited by some Imperial die-hards (led by Herzog's character) to retrieve an unspecified item, which turns out to be the aforementioned Baby Yoda (well, probably not actually baby Yoda but a baby of Yoda's species; which has caused everyone to realize that despite being one of the franchise's most iconic characters, we have never learned the name of Yoda's species).  This leads to a series of challenges and conflicts, as the Mandalorian must overcome teams of mercenaries, other bounty hunters, and even opportunistic scavengers who cannibalize his ship.  It's a solid enough concept, but the execution feels too flimsy to hang an entire series on.  The first three episodes, in which the Mandalorian receives his assignment, finds his quarry, delivers him to the client, and then decides that he isn't going to leave a baby with a bunch of space-Nazis and rescues him, should have been the first act of a movie.  As the opening salvo in a TV series, they drag, all the more so because of the show's central gimmick, the fact that the Mandalorian, in accordance with his culture's strictures, never takes off his helmet.  This is not only a criminal waste of actor Pedro Pascal, but it leaves the show with no emotional center.  Faceless characters may not be inherently unemotional, but the writing on The Mandalorian does nothing to compensate for the character's facelessness; to bring this back to computer games, he feels like the player character in one of them, just present enough for the audience to project themselves onto, but with no personality of his own.

    What fills that void instead is a cubic ton of fanservice.  The show's storytelling is awash in references, both well-known and obscure, to the series's canon.  So the Mandalorian uses carbonite to store his targets for transport, and the aliens who cannibalize his ship are Jawas.  Not to mention the Mandalorian himself, whose very existence is an acquiescence to fandom's decades-old (and, to me, inexplicable) infatuation with Boba Fett.  Some of the details are aimed at fans far more obsessive than I, referencing the computer games or little-read Wookieepedia pages.  But this sort of thing should be a garnish, not the main course, and it increasingly feels as The Mandalorian is substituting the momentary high of recognition for genuine emotion or drama.

    If the preamble structure of the first three episodes gives rise to the hope that, once the show has established its premise, it can start building an actual story on it, episode 4 dashes that hope.  It delivers an entirely standard Western story, in which the Mandalorian, seeking refuge for himself and his child, agrees to help some villagers fend off raiders in exchange for a place to stay (in accordance with the show's mandate never to let an opportunity for fanservice pass by, the raiders have gotten their hands on a leftover Imperial AT-ST).  Not only is there no depth to the episode's storytelling, which merely gives a familiar template a Star Wars-themed re-skin, but it seems to establish the rest of the season's structure--episodic adventures in which both the Mandalorian and his charge are merely blank slates to be acted upon, with no character arcs or themes to develop.  Around the margins of the show's storytelling, one can glimpse interesting ideas about how the world of the series looks in the aftermath of the original trilogy--the very fact that the remnants of the Empire are still up to no good; the appearance of Imperial weaponry in the hands of criminals; the suggestion that the rebellion hasn't really lived up to its promise, as in a guest appearance by Gina Carano as a former rebel soldier who left when things got "too political".  But this is rather thin gruel, and it's increasingly clear that this is not what the show is going to be about.  It's been a bit depressing hearing the voices calling The Mandalorian a return to "real" Star Wars.  There's a lot to be said against the new movies, but they at least try to push the franchise forwards, while The Mandalorian seems content to wallow in fanservice.  If this is the future of the franchise, well, I'm not even sure "future" is the right word for it.

5 comments:

Brett said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brett said...

Ugh, typo. Repost-

For All Mankind is one of those shows where I think I know too much about the history of the Space Race - including the Russian space effort - to buy into it. Or maybe I'm just not into shows that do the whole "we're okay, they're hyper-competent" myth vis a vis the Cold War.

I like The Mandalorian, but I'm honestly at a loss as to why. Maybe it's just the action scenes? The thing that sold me on the show in the first episode was seeing the robot bounty hunter take apart a whole ton of fighters in the shoot-out (although it does make me wonder why there aren't a lot more of those droids - they seem to pretty easily outclass entire groups of regular soldiers).

It is a bit neat to see a major Star Wars show that isn't about

1. The Skywalkers
2. The Jedi
3. Rebels vs the Empire

Abigail Nussbaum said...

It is a bit neat to see a major Star Wars show that isn't about

1. The Skywalkers
2. The Jedi
3. Rebels vs the Empire


Well, sure, but the triumph of it feels a bit hollow given how yoked to the franchise's history the show nevertheless is. Episode 5, which I watched a few hours after hitting post on this review, felt practically like a drinking game. Returning to Tatooine, it does not let a single scene pass without making some obvious (and, in some cases, completely extraneous to the plot) reference to A New Hope.

But anyway, I'm mainly commenting to make an addendum to my review of For All Mankind, whose most recent episode forces me to reevaluate my mixed-but-positive reaction. It now seems obvious that soap opera shenanigans and the mainpain of Ed Baldwin will be the show's primary focus going forward. Which is a truly inexplicable choice, since surely anyone fannish enough about space exploration to tune in will have zero interest in either of these things.

Unknown said...

As The Mandalorian regresses for me from intriguing to the dull-but-fun "Weekly Adventure Time with Baby Yoda," I have to say I am impressed by how the series has kept the episodes at roughly 40 minutes run time. I'm not a huge fan of how streaming and premium cable shows tend to start at around 60 minute episodes and then slowly creep into the 65-68 minute run times for regular episodes and then 75 minute run times for premiers/finales.

I don't love The Mandalorian, especially as it has settled into its "not going anywhere, but just going to riff on a Western trope each week" period, but at 40 minutes I can still be interested enough to tune in.

Dubble G said...

Re: The Mandalorian, I continue to find it amazing that we now have, in addition to millions of dollars of tie-in products, hours of televisual entertainment produced solely because some barely-there background character wore a kind of cool helmet 39 years ago.

I don't think it should come as a surprise that the series aims for comfort more than innovation. The Star Wars property had rapidly become a kind of modern-day cargo cult, building replicas of the original trilogy in the hopes of recapturing some of the magic.

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