Thursday, April 30, 2020

Pandemic Viewing

Quarantine is both a great time for watching TV, and a terrible time for anything that requires more than a fleeting attention span. A lot of people seem to be drawn to comfort viewing, to shows that you can have on in the background and tune out for minutes at a stretch without missing much. I've done that, but I also feel that a weird period deserves weird entertainment. The shows I want to talk about here are all boundary-pushing in one way or another. Not always successfully--some of them are less clever than they think, and others are odder than they need to be--but they all capture the strange, otherworldly feeling that permeates our lives right now. They're also all really beautiful to watch, with lots of gorgeous natural scenery, vibrant urban settings, and psychedelic animation--just the thing you need when you've spent weeks staring at the same walls. I'm sure one of them will be a worthy distraction from the more dispiriting variety of strangeness that now dominates our lives.

(On a completely different note, I wrote about HBO's adaptation of The Plot Against America over at Lawyers, Guns & Money.)
  • Dispatches from Elsewhere - Jason Segel's first major project in years (which he also created, co-wrote, and co-directed) is so palpably earnest and well-intended that one feels almost like a villain for criticizing it. Not that Dispatches is bad, but it plays a slightly annoying two-step of gesturing at profundity, and then, when you point out that the show isn't really that profound, insisting that this is in fact the point. Based loosely on the documentary The Institute, about people who participate in a large, multi-player scavenger-hunt-slash-LARP, the show follows a group of people who fall into what might be a game, and might be a deadly serious battle between competing, shadowy forces. Segel plays Peter, a withdrawn, lonely man whose outwardly successful life conceals social and emotional barrenness. After answering a cryptic street ad, Peter forms a team with three other characters: Simone (Eve Lindley), a recently-transitioned young woman who is discovering even after taking that huge step towards affirming her identity, she still struggles with making friends and forming connections; Janice (Sally Field), a retiree whose husband's recent debilitating illness has left her wondering whether she gave up on her dreams and independence to become a wife and mother; and Fredwynn (André Benjamin), an abrasive genius who cares more about being right than about other people's feelings. Together, they are recruited by The Jejune Institute to play a series of games and puzzles, in search of the elusive Clara (Cecilia Balagot), who has left murals and environmental art throughout the show's setting of Philadelphia. But just as quickly, they are contacted by The Elsewhere Society, who insist that Clara has been kidnapped and must be rescued. Is the whole thing a game or a piece of viral marketing, as Simone and Janice insist? Is it, as Fredwynn is certain, a shadowy conspiracy to be untangled? Or is it a sign that the players are somehow special and destined for more than their mundane lives, as Peter not-so-secretly hopes?

    Dispatches is too twee, and the puzzles its characters work through too obviously designed to be games, not actual hurdles, for us to believe that there's anything deeper here than a bit of fun. And, to be fair, this is clearly the conclusion the show is leading us to--Peter and Fredwynn's conviction that there must be more to it, that Clara is a real person in need of rescue, is never entirely convincing (though, in the end, also not entirely wrong, which is only one way in which Dispatches tries to have its cake and eat it too). But the result is a series that feels more engaging for its mundane aspects than its fantastical ones. The four characters are well-drawn and -acted, and their anguish is wrenching in part because, as the show insists, it is so familiar and universal--feeling stuck, not knowing how to make a change that will give you the happier life you know you're capable of, worrying that change is no longer possible, and not being willing to shake up your comfortable lifestyle, even though that might be the only path to making something better of it. Segel seems to have recognized that his character type--the disaffected, middle class white guy who is plucked out of his comfortable but boring life by the hand of destiny--is a stock type that has been given center stage in too many stories already, so he makes Peter almost comically withdrawn and passive, allowing the other characters to take center stage. He also gives Peter and Simone a love story, which feels quietly revolutionary but is mainly just really well done and very romantic--including the parts of it where Simone insists that Peter can't use his relationship with her as a substitute for developing his own personality.

    The problem with making this sort of "the parts are greater than the whole" criticism is that Dispatches anticipates it in a way that feels too clever by half. Of course the mundane problems and ordinary relationships of its characters are more interesting and engaging than its candy-colored, gamified adventure plot! That's the point. And, well, that's kind of annoying. The series ends with a metafictional turn in which Segel plays a (fictionalized, I think) version of himself as a recovering alcoholic trying to find the next step in his life and career, who writes Dispatches from Elsewhere as a way of conveying to his audience that they don't need an adventure plot to make them special, but are special in their ordinariness. Which is not an unworthy message, but also feels like a way for the show to slip out of any criticism. The very fact that it isn't about anything terribly important or different is part of the argument it's trying to make. And yet even that argument doesn't feel particularly profound or revelatory, despite the show's most earnest efforts to convince us otherwise. It's ultimately hard to know whether to recommend Dispatches from Elsewhere. There's a lot here that's worth watching for, including some beautiful visuals and a good use of its urban setting in a way that makes it feel both welcoming and full of mystery. But the show amounting to so little, while insisting that this is actually a lot, also makes it hard to talk up.

  • Devs - The first foray into television by Alex Garland, of Ex Machina and Annihilation fame, is a visual and auditory delight. Or maybe delight is the wrong word. Devs is full of gorgeously composed yet undeniably sinister images--the research lab where much of its story takes place, decorated in russet and gold and tucked away in a ziggurat whose only access point is a slow-moving, transparent car floating across a vacuum; the gigantic, molded plastic statue of a playing toddler that looms over the wooded campus of the technology company where the lab is located--and it has an overpowering, insistent soundtrack, by Ben Salisbury, Geoff Barrow, and The Insects, which never fails to put you in a state of anxiety and dread. It's such an impeccably made show that one is tempted to give it more credit for interesting ideas and profound messages than its actual story ends up earning. That story begins with Sergei (Karl Glusman) a developer at the Silicon Valley behemoth Amaya, being invited by the company's guru-like founder Forest (Nick Offerman, sporting a delightfully awful haircut) to join a secretive division called Devs. When Sergei disappears and is later found dead of an apparent suicide, his girlfriend Lily (Sonoya Mizuno) is instantly suspicious, and begins an investigation that leads her to the purpose of the Devs project.

    The core problem of Devs is that it can't decide whether its purpose is to castigate the cult-like mentality that accumulates around technology companies, or to tell a science fiction story in which one of those companies develops a genuinely world-changing technology (instead of just hocking gadgets and snarfing up users' data). And so it ends up doing neither. There's initially a lot of fun to be had trying to parse the cryptic exchanges between Forest and his second-in-command, Katie (Alison Pill), and the other engineers on their team, as they discuss the implications of what they're developing (though eventually that cryptic quality starts to feel like a way of dragging the story out, and ultimately it's hard not to conclude that Devs might have worked better at feature length). But when the secret is finally revealed, it is a concept that has become almost old hat in science fiction--a system that has modeled the world so perfectly that it can predict the future with absolute accuracy.

    Having established this concept, however, Devs doesn't entirely seem to know what to do with it. It condemns Forest as an ersatz prophet, so obsessed with the system's ability to show him his deceased daughter that he sanctions murder and treats people like pawns. But at the same time, Devs is literally world-changing, a godlike technology that upends notions of free will, as its developers find themselves incapable of acting any way except the one it predicts for them. One might have expected the show to get into the implications of such a technology for government, society, and civil rights and freedoms, as similar treatments of this premise have done in series like Westworld or Person of Interest. But while a minor subplot involves a senator funding Forest's research, it never goes anywhere, and beyond establishing the awesome potential of its technology, the show never reaches for anything beyond the mundanely personal--Forest's monomaniacal dedication to his grief; Katie's dead-eyed loyalty to him; Lily's refusal to be bought off or intimidated from investigating Sergei's death.

    It's that last one that is the show's greatest weakness. Mizuno has been a perennial scene-stealer in works like Ex Machina and Maniac, and the time seemed more than ripe for her to get a starring role. But Lily is a thankless part, full of informed traits that conceal a near-total lack of personality. Though ostensibly a story about Lily avenging the death of the man she loved, Devs ends up treating her more like a romantic object than a protagonist. Having recruited her ex-boyfriend Jamie (Jin Ha) to help investigate Sergei's death, the show seems more invested in validating Jamie's anger over his and Lily's breakup, and rewarding his dedication to her by having her take him to bed, than in exploring Lily's own ambivalent feelings towards both men. And the ultimate revelation that Lily is, somehow, the only person capable of seeing the Devs system's predictions for her and defying them, feels entirely unearned. Instead of making Lily look special, it makes the other characters look stupid for not even attempting the obvious. Devs ends on a note of great ponderousness and faux-profundity that fails to obscure just how thin the show's concepts and ideas are. It's worth watching for its look and sound, but ends up having very little to say.

  • Tales From the Loop - SF fans seem to have overlooked this strange, quasi-anthology series from Amazon. Which is a shame, because it's a lovely, melancholy show that does things that a lot of televised SF doesn't attempt. Based on the art book by Simon Stålenhag (whose The Electric State became the first art book nominated for the Clarke Award last year), Tales From the Loop is set in the small town of Mercer, which sits above an underground research facility known as The Loop. Though the show never reveals much about the Loop or what's being done there, the town is littered with artifacts that have strange properties--a doohickey that can stop time, a structure that echoes back to you the voice of you future self--and spots where time and space bend around on themselves. On another show, this premise might have been the starting point for an action story or a technothriller, but Tales From the Loop takes it in a more measured, contemplative direction. Each episode follows a different resident of the town, mostly connected to a single extended family, as their encounters with the town's weirdness help to illuminate their emotional state and struggles. Two teenage boys discover an object that allows them to switch bodies and end up experiencing lifelong consequences; a fastidious, solitary security guard at the Loop crosses over into an alternate universe, where his alternate is married to the man of his dreams; a father obsessed with protecting his family buys a robot with whom he hopes to scare off a prowler; a young boy crosses a stream in the woods and emerges twenty years later than when he left.

    Fittingly for a show based on an art book, Tales From the Loop is a feast for the eyes. The bucolic natural setting of Mercer is dotted with oddball technology--a barn with an enormous antenna lodged in its roof; a tractor that floats on anti-grav suspenders; discarded robots that wander in the woods; the mysterious, glowing pylons that loom over almost every location in town. Contrasted with the show's meticulous production design (the setting is a non-specific, more socially accepting version of the 70s or 80s), it creates a worldbuilding effect that is irresistible, a lived-in science fictional world. The soundscape, as well, is immersive, combining natural sounds with sweeping music (by Philip Glass) that conveys the show's prevailing tone of melancholy at the passage of time, and the way technology exposes human frailty and foibles. It's all quite lovely, though if I have one criticism of the show, it's that this is an approach that can sometimes overstay its welcome. I found myself thinking that Tales might have worked better as a half-hour drama. Though the slowness of its storytelling is clearly deliberate, taking long moments to let characters take in their situation and react to it, this is a choice that can end up delivering diminishing returns. Still, even at a somewhat bloated episode length, Tales is worth seeking out. Its weirdness, and its characters' familiar confusion at the world and the mess they've made of their lives, feel exactly right for this moment.

  • The Midnight Gospel - If Tales From the Loop is delightfully weird, Netflix's animated series The Midnight Gospel is overwhelmingly--some might say, overpoweringly--so. Simply explaining what the series, from Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward, is about can take some time. Set on a fantastical world, a mobius loop floating in space, the series follows middle aged slacker Clancy (Duncan Trusell), who lives in a trailer and has recently purchased a "universe simulator", a device that allows him to visit any number of fantastical worlds (though many of the available options contain no surviving intelligent life because of "operator error"). Clancy visits these worlds and finds people to interview for his "spacecast". But, in a further twist, these interviews are actually real ones which Trusell conducted on his podcast with guests that include author Anne Lamott, mortician and blogger Caitlin Doughty, producer and falsely-conviced member of the West Memphis Three Damien Echols, and Trusell's own mother Deneen Fendig, who recorded her interview before her death in 2013.

    As Clancy interviews these figures, his and their on-screen avatars engage in adventures that seem to have little or nothing to do with the subjects being discussed, which range from philosophy to religion to our attitudes towards death. In the first episode, for example, Clancy interviews the American president on the world he visits (voiced by Dr. Drew), which is undergoing a zombie apocalypse. So while the two escape the ravening hordes of zombies, picking them off with weapons or mowing through them in trucks, they are also casually discussing drug use and whether our attitude towards drugs is misguided. In another episode, Echols discusses his relationship with the occult and how magic plays a role in various philosophies while his character, a humanoid figure with a fishbowl for a head, captains a ship crewed by cats through a iceberg-strewn ocean. The kooky appeal of the show is rooted first in its psychedelic animation, which often veers towards the scatological or gruesome (in one episode, Lamott play a giant dog-deer hybrid who converses with Clancy as they are both transported through the rendering process of a meat production plant, finally emerging as a still-talking, pink slurry), and second in the contrast between the extraordinary events on screen and the wide-ranging, inquisitive, friendly conversation on the soundtrack.

    I imagine that some people will be completely won over by The Midnight Gospel, but I found myself admiring it, and the very fact that it even managed to be made, more than I enjoyed it. I suspect the series might have worked better for me in weekly installments, to give one time to take in both the visual excess on display and the ideas under discussion. But with only eight episodes of about 20 minutes each, it's easy to rush through the whole thing, and eventually the glut of ideas and imagery can feel overwhelming. I found myself tuning out, either looking at the pretty pictures without paying much attention to the topic under discussion, or listening to the conversation while looking at a second screen and ignoring the animation. Still, the idea of being able to visit strange and fantastical worlds from the comfort of your own home has an obvious appeal right now, as does the possibility of exploring more complicated, far-reaching ideas than pandemic mitigation strategies and their failures. For some people, I imagine that The Midnight Gospel will be the perfect escape in this moment.

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