GLOW (Season 1, 2017)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

It’s 1985, and Ruth Wilder is a struggling actress in Los Angeles. Desperate for money, she answers an ad for “unconventional women,” and finds herself at a gym with several other, equally-confused ladies. Two guys, B-movie director Sam Sylvia and pampered rich boy Sebastian Howard, then come out, and explain that they are looking to put together an all-female wrestling show, GLOW, or the Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling. Ruth, like everyone else, is shocked to hear this, but decides she’s willing to give it a try. Unfortunately, Sam doesn’t “like your ass. Or your face, and dismisses her straight off the bat. Ruth, however, isn’t taking no for an answer, and after putting on an elaborate show, including an unscripted fight with a friend who’s husband she’s been sleeping with, lands the job. And, from that point on, the story just gets bigger and more ridiculous.

GLOW has a lot of things going for it. It’s got good acting, a premise with a lot of comedic potential, and some nice period decor. I also really like the fact that it features an almost entirely female cast, and that it passes the Bechdel Test. And yet, despite all this, I can’t really say if I like GLOW or not.

A lot of it comes down to personal taste. First off, I’m not a big fan of the 80s. The poofy hair styles, the huge shoulder pads, the annoying synthesizer music; it all gets on my nerves. I also don’t like how casually racist and homophobic movies and TV shows from that era are, and how, nowadays, when we fetishize the Reagan years, we neglect to mention the negative aspects of the time. If you read my review of Stranger Things, a show that I really loved, you saw that I didn’t like how it failed to touch on the darker facets of 80s culture. This show does a slightly better job at highlighting the racism and sexism of the time, but, still. The period in which this show is set kind of annoys me, so maybe I went in somewhat biased. On top of this, I didn’t grow up with wrestling, so the series doesn’t hold any nostalgic charm. Literally the only two things I know about professional wrestling are the scene from the original Spider-Man film, where Toby Maguire has to fight Macho Man Randy Savage,  and the VH1 reality show, Hogan Knows Best, which was on when I was a kid. So, yeah.

But by far the biggest thing I had a problem with was the writing; specifically, the humor. It’s very, very dark. If you are easily offended, then don’t watch this show. Because they go places I wasn’t expecting them to. Every taboo topic you can think of–racism, incest,dead babies–gets touched upon. There’s a whole episode devoted to making miscarriages funny, and the season finale includes a substantial father-daughter incest subplot. It’s really kind of creepy. Now, look, I don’t want to sound like I think gallows humor can never work. I think In Bruges is one of the most underrated films of all time, and it features tons of offensive jokes. But there, the tone was a whole lot darker. Here, the show is pretty light-hearted and upbeat. But then, out of nowhere, it’ll throw in these very macabre bits of humor that, one, aren’t funny, and, two, don’t feel as earned. Another aspect of the writing I didn’t think worked were the characters. Oh sure, the four main people–Ruth, her friend, the director, the trainer–are all pretty fleshed out and interesting. But everyone else kind of just fades into the background. Yes, that’s to be expected in an ensemble piece, but here, it’s very noticeable. Two characters in particular, an Indian-American wrestler played by Sunita Mani, and a Cambodian-American wrestler played by Scott Pilgrim vs The World‘s own Ellen Wong, get the shaft when it comes to background and personality. We know next to nothing about them–Sunita’s grandma likes wrestling, Ellen likes birthday parties–and they are treated the worst when it comes to stereotypes. The wrestling personas they are given are, and I swear I’m not making this up, Beirut the MadBomber, and Fortune Cookie. Yes, Fortune Cookie. And the racist jokes don’t stop there. At every single opportunity, the writers throw in a “Asians can’t speak English” jab, or an “Asians know Kung Fu” barb. And, yes, they have characters comment on how offensive these  stereotypes are, but most of the time, someone else in the scene will say “shut up” or “get over it.” This is actually a very old writing technique, referred to as “ironic lamp shading,” where a character in a work of fiction will point out how stupid, illogical, or offensive something is, but then go right ahead and do it anyway. It’s meant to keep us, the audience, from questioning the tropes we’re seeing, but I’m not taking the bait here. Just because you know something is offensive doesn’t excuse you from doing it. If anything, that makes it worse. It shows us that you lack moral fiber, since you know something is wrong, but chose to go ahead and do it anyway. If you want to comment on racism or sexism, have there be negative repercussions for all the bigotry. Or, and here’s a novel idea, don’t write racist jokes, or characters who are racial cliches. Just a thought.

Guys, I really don’t know what to say. There’s enough good in GLOW to keep you invested, I finished all 10 episodes, but the dark humor, offensive characterization, and inconsistent tone are also quite off-putting. I don’t know if I can recommend this to you all. But if anything in the review spoke to you, maybe go and give it a look. You might find something in it that I didn’t.

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Atypical (Season 1, 2017)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

Sam is 18, and he’s never had a girlfriend. This is due, in part, to the fact that he’s on the Autism spectrum, and has trouble reading social cues. Now, though, with only one year of High School left, and a newfound attraction to his therapist, Julia, he’s determined to get a “practice girlfriend,” so he can learn how to please a woman. This quest brings him into conflict with his mother, Elsa, whose whole life has been consumed by taking care of him, and whose confusion over not being able to micromanage his existence leads her to make some bold new choices of her own.

Atypical is funny, well-acted, and very well-written. Seriously. The dialogue alone should be enough to get you to watch this series. It’s sharp, witty, believable and specific to each individual character. And the characters themselves feel like real people. They have quirks, interests, show a wide range of emotions, and at times are lovable, and at other times, loathsome. From a pure story and dialogue perspective, I have no complaints about Atypical. It’s a well-written, well-acted sitcom, with only eight, half-hour episodes, so there’s no need to worry about it dragging. And if you’re like me, and want to see greater representation of Asian people in media, you’ll be happy to learn that several key supporting characters, such as Sam’s therapist, and unrequited love interest, Julia, and his best friend, Zahid, are Asian, and not at all stereotypical. They’re well-rounded, have personalities, arcs, and even some flaws. They’re some of the best aspects of the show, and its’ refreshing to see Asian characters like this in a mainstream series.

All that said, I do have some thoughts on Atypical. They’re not complaints, per se, just thoughts. First of all, I’m not sure how accurate the series is in it’s representation of Autism. As I’ve mentioned before, many films and TV shows exaggerate certain disabilities so as to make disabled characters more pitiful or sympathetic. As such, I’m always somewhat wary whenever a film or TV series comes out where the whole concept is that a character is mentally or physically challenged. And I’m sure that, to some people, Sam will come off as a stereotypical representation of Autism. Yes, he’s a likable, compelling character. And when you watch the show, you can tell that the writers did do research on the symptoms of Autism. But his condition is still somewhat exaggerated, and should not be seen as a be-all-end-all portrayal of the spectrum. In the show, Sam is extremely sensitive to bright light, and loud noises, and is virtually incapable of speaking about any topic other than Antarctica; his obsession. I’ll tell you right now, not all Autistic people are like that. My best friend has Aspergers, a high-functioning form of Autism, and he isn’t sensitive to light, or loud noises,  and he can talk for hours about virtually everything. Autism, as I’ve mentioned before, is a spectrum, with varying degrees of severity specific to each individual person. There probably are people like Sam out there. And they might be very happy to see themselves represented on the small screen. But for people who don’t have as severe a condition as he does, or who want to know what Autism is really like, this might not be the perfect portrayal to watch.

The second thought I have on Atypical is really more of a nitpick, but one that I think is worth bringing up. And that is the character of Paige. She joins the show about two episodes in, and ends up becoming Sam’s “practice girlfriend.” She’s sweet, understanding, sympathetic, and I don’t buy her character for a second. I don’t buy that, A, she would ever be attracted to Sam, and, B, that she would be able to put up with him when they start going out. For starters, she’s way too attractive. She’s the classic Hollywood beauty; tall, blonde, and thin. She legitimately looks like a model, and yet she’s chasing after a guy who looks like the love child of Michael Cera and Dobby the House Elf. And if that’s not ridiculous enough, her character is supposedly the smartest girl in school. Between her brains and her looks, she could have literally anyone she wanted. So why is she so determine to get with this kid who, initially, doesn’t even recognize that she likes him, and then, later on, acts like a total dick to her? And not in a “he doesn’t know any better” way, but in a legitimately mean-spirited, jerky kind of way. I would have believed her character more if she were also disabled, less attractive, or just less perfect in general. As it stands, though, she’s too nice and too pretty, and she just doesn’t feel like a real person. Maybe I’m being unfair here, and I do want to mention that the actress playing Paige does a great job, but I would like it if, for once, Hollywood cast, and forgive the pun here, atypical leading ladies. Older Women. Large Women. Disabled Women. Women Of Color. They’re all just as interesting, and capable of love, as blonde super models, and they exist in higher numbers than the latter group. I would like it if, in the future, female characters would be allowed to exist in all the shapes, sizes and colors that their real-life counterparts do.

But, in the end, those are both small nitpicks, and not any real harm to the show. Atypical is funny, well-acted, well-written, and the perfect length for a sitcom. If you’re looking for something fun and charming to watch, give this Netflix original a look. You will not regret it.

Black Mirror (Seasons 1-3)

Greetings loved ones. Liu is the name, and views are my game.

What if you could build a man, based on his social media posts? What if you could watch memories, like movies, on a screen? What if a signal was sent out that turned half the world into passive spectators, and the other half into murderous hunters ? These questions, and more, are what get asked and explored in Black Mirror, a British anthology series that’s streaming on Netflix. Each episode features a different cast, a different story, and a different reality. But all feature the recurrent motif of technology, and a dry, nihilistic sense of humor. The series might best be described as half science fiction, half satire.

In many respects, Black Mirror is the spiritual successor to The Twilight Zone, the classic sci-fi anthology series that ran for five seasons back in the 50s. Both feature episodes with different casts and story-lines. Both ask moral and philosophical questions, usually through a scientific or magical plot device. Both feature macabre twist endings, and both gave actors who would eventually become super famous their first big break. Seriously. Black Mirror has got way more famous British actors in it than I would have thought. You’ve got Domhnall Gleason, from The Force Awakens, The Revenant and Ex Machina. You’ve got Hayley Atwell, or as you may know her, agent Peggy carter from the MCU. You’ve got Tuppence Middleton from Sense8. You’ve got Daniel Kaluuya from Get Out. You’ve got Toby Kebbell, who’s starred in every major big budget flop that’s come out in the last four years. You’ve got Gugu Mbatha-Raw, from Belle, Beauty and the Beast, and Beyond the Lights. And, of course, you’ve got Benedict Wong, from Marco Polo, Doctor Strange, and The Martian. So much talent. And it was all before they were famous. But I’m getting sidetracked.

Black Mirror is a very smart, very well-written series. Even in its weaker episodes, the show is consistently entertaining. The acting is always top notch, as is the production design. And I really want to emphasize this, its original. Every single episode features a unique; thought provoking concept. And none of them are remakes of older stories, adaptations of preexisting material, or spin offs of other stuff. Do you realize how rare that is? Do you realize how virtually nothing that gets made these days is not a sequel, remake, adaptation or spin off? For that reason, I have to recommend you all watch this. Even if you don’t like sci-fi, you’ll appreciate the show for it’s emotional depth and it’s originality. Especially the latter.

But before you get the wrong idea, the series isn’t perfect. Where the show falters the most is its cynicism. Virtually all the episodes end in an extremely bleak manner, and, very often, those endings fly in the face of the world and the characters that have been established. I understand tragedy is seen as the highest, most respectable form of dramatic art, but forced tragedy is awkward and unrealistic. And it doesn’t hit you as hard when you know that the story shouldn’t have ended that way, not because you didn’t want it to, but because the ending was easily avoidable. And example of this “false tragedy” I’m talking about is the episode “Fifteen Million Merits.” In it, we see Daniel Kaluuya raging against the numb, media obsessed dystopia that he’s living in. He spends the entire episode telling us how much he hates it and how much he hates the people who have turned the world into thoughtless zombies. And yet, by the end of the episode, he joins the big media company and becomes part of the system he despises. And it comes out of nowhere. It’s not like the show builds up to this by throwing us little hints that maybe he actually likes the system. He hates it, and then, out of nowhere, when he’s given the chance to join it, he does. Why? It doesn’t make sense. And because of that, I don’t feel devastated. I just feel confused. And even in episodes that don’t include sci-fi elements, like the first episode of the series, “the national anthem,” the show’s harsh, mean-spirited tone is off-putting. In that episode, a royal princess gets kidnapped, and the only way to save her is if the prime minister fucks a pig. And we have to watch him do it. Why? What possible good can come from forcing us to watch an old man get pressured into committing bestiality. What does that say, other than that you hate politicians? I hate Donald trump, but I would never want to have to watch him fuck a gorilla. That’s just cruel and mean. And it doesn’t teach us anything. The only episode that has a happy ending is San Junipero, a sweet little love story about two women finally being able to be with each other in an artificial construct. And there, it comes as an all too welcome relief.

All I can say is that Black Mirror is a brilliantly-written, highly original, but deeply mean spirited and nihilistic show. I want to recommend it, but I feel I can’t do so without warning you of its content. Make of this what you will.

Sense8 (Season 2, 2017)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

Will and Riley are on the run. So is Nomi and her girlfriend, Neets. Lito has been publicly outed after confronting a friend’s abusive ex. Kala has gone ahead and married her fiancé, Rajan. Capheus, having done the unthinkable by standing up to a local warlord, is now hailed as a hero. Wolfgang is reunited with his best friend, Felix. And Sun, poor Sun, is still trapped in solitary confinement. But not for long. Because things are moving, and faster than you might think.

Sense8 is a show I really enjoyed when it first came out. I liked the concept of people becoming psychically linked. I liked the international cast and setting. I liked the fact that it touched upon relevant social issues, such as gender, sexuality, and identity. But, as much as I liked it, I was more than willing to admit it had problems. Hokey dialogue, underdeveloped plot threads, illogical character choices; these were just a few of the bigger flaws I noticed. And yet, I still recommended the first season to everyone, and was excited to see what the creators, Lily and Lana Wachowski, would do with the second. Well, season 2 is finally here, and this is what I have to say about it.

A lot of the problems from season 1, such as on-the-nose dialogue and stupid character choices, carry over. So does the show’s reliance on racial and national stereotypes. And yet, the funny thing is, when you’re watching the show, you don’t really care. Seriously. Maybe its because the dialogue is less hokey than before, or because the stereotypes–like the idea of the white savior and Asian martial artist–are actually addressed this time around. But, honestly, I think its because the show has so much heart, and so many great character moments, that you forgive its weaker aspects. There are so many great beats in the first episode alone –like when Sun is reassuring kala that sex is something to enjoy, and not be afraid of, or when Lito’s boyfriend, Hernando, gets outed during a lecture, and handles it with grace and dignity–that I have to recommend you all see it.

To put it bluntly, Sense8, season 2 is silly, but its the best kind of silly. Its fun, its inoffensive, and it leaves you feeling warm inside. You really love these characters, and you love following them on their journey. Does that journey make sense, or follow any kind of narrative logic? No. But who cares. The show is still beautiful, and I still think you should give it a look.

Master Of None (Season 2, 2017)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

After spending six months in Italy, mastering the art of pasta making, Dev returns to New York, where he reunites with his friends, and has wacky misadventures involving love, technology, race, and, of course, food. Lots and lots of food.

Now, if you’ve read my blog, you know that I absolutely adored the first season of Master of None. I thought it was very funny, and a lot of what it had to say about modern technology, the immigrant experience, and the limited roles available for Asian actors really spoke to me. And, for the most part, Master Of None, season 2 maintains a lot of what made that first season so great. The series regulars are awesome, there’s some biting social commentary, and, of course, it’s funny. Very funny. In fact, I laughed a lot more at this season than I did at the first one. I still like the first season better, but that’s mostly because I like what it has to say. But, if you don’t care about commentary, and just want to laugh, I would recommend this season to you. And, in general, I would recommend the season to everyone. It’s a fine example of modern television.

That being said, I do have problems with it. The biggest, for me, is the season long romantic arc between Dev and the show’s new female lead, Francesca. I… hated it. Seriously. I hated it. I hated Francesca’s character. She’s a bland, uninteresting bore. I hated how Dev’s constant complaining about how he likes her, but can’t be with her, ground the comedy to a halt. This whole scenario, liking someone who’s already in a relationship, was dealt with beautifully in one, 20 minute episode in the first season. We don’t need a four episode arc to tell this story. Another thing that works against this season is all the cutaways to food. Yes, food is a huge part of Dev’s character, and the first season did feature it, but there it was kept to a gracious minimum. It never got in the way of the story. Here, the cutaways override the story. There were many moments while I was watching where I was certain that the only reason they were showing this was that Aziz Ansari wanted to eat something, and he told the crew, “film it.” And, finally, part of what made the first season special was how it thoughtfully dealt with social issues. The second season does have a few episodes, like “Religion,” “Thanksgiving,” and the finale, “Buona Notte,” which deal with faith, coming out to one’s parents, and sexual harassment in the workplace, but, for the most part, food and mother of all bores, Francesca, take center stage here.

Still, I did like the season overall, and I would recommend it to you. It is funny, and it does have a lot of what made season 1 great. Just go in with tempered expectations.

Dear White People (Season 1, 2017)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

After an ill-conceived blackface party reignites lingering racial tensions, the students of the fictional Winchester University air their grievances in specific, unique ways. Some, like local provocateur Sam, do so by protesting major events, and shouting obscenities over the radio. Others, like shy journalism student Lionel, do so by investigating the causes of the party, and writing stories for the college paper. There are those who try to work with the administration. There are those who try to manipulate it to their own advantage. And, in the end, they all come together in this 10 episode adaptation of the acclaimed drama film from 2014.

Now, if you’ve read my blog, then you know that I wasn’t actually a big fan of the original Dear White People. I thought that it had trouble balancing its tone, and that the overly quirky aesthetic–perfectly symmetrical shots, pastel colored backgrounds, whip pans–was jarring when set against the serious subject matter. Well, someone must have read my review, and shown it to the director, because Dear White People the series is simply spectacular. I enjoyed it immensely, and consider it vastly superior to its feature length predecessor. Certain elements from the original film that didn’t add anything–the Reality TV Crew, Troy’s relationship with a White girl–got cut, while other elements–the back stories of Sam and Coco, Lionel’s struggle with his sexuality–got considerably more fleshed out. And all the stuff from the original film that was good–the witty dialogue, the strong performances–carried over. It was the best of both worlds, and I’m very happy about that. Part of what I think helps this series stand above the film its based off of is the fact that the creators have 10 episodes to tell their story, as opposed to just two hours. As such, they have a lot more time to go back and develop various characters and plot threads. Like I said, Coco and Sam, who, in the original film, just didn’t like each other because the latter was taking attention away from the former, get a much more nuanced, and fairly tragic, history with one another in the series. Characters who weren’t that important in the original movie, like Sam’s radical friend Reggie, get whole episodes devoted to them. Hell, his episode, which, incidentally, was directed by Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins, was probably my favorite one in the entire show.

Put simply, Dear White People the series is a masterclass in adaptation. It omits weaker elements from the source material. It expands upon aspects that need to be expanded upon. It maintains the best aspects of its predecessor, and manages to be highly entertaining all the while. If you want to laugh, cry, and, best of all, think, give this show a look.

American Crime: Season 2

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

If there’s anything I’ve learned after 21 years on this Earth, it’s that having expectations is never a good idea. All you’re doing is setting yourself up for disappointment. I bring this up because, I went into the second season of American Crime, a show that I reviewed on here, and really loved, with expectations, and wound up being highly disappointed. Now, I’m not trying to say that the second season was terrible, it just wasn’t quite to the same level that the first one was. And I wanted to tell anyone who might have been looking to watch it, be warned. It might not be what you expected, or hoped for.

For those of you who don’t know, American Crime is an anthology series, meaning each season revolves around a different plot and characters, created by John Ridley, the man who wrote 12 Years A Slave.  The first season centers around a murder in Modesto, California, and deals with themes like race and xenophobia. The second season revolves around a rape in Indianapolis, and seeks to examine homophobia and the stigma of sexual assault. Except it doesn’t. It starts out with you thinking that its going to be about those things, but quickly shoots off into a number of sub-plots, each dealing with a different issue. You’ve got one plot thread involving the principal of a public school, and tensions between Black and Latino communities. You’ve got another one focusing on a wealthy Black businesswoman, and her seeming dislike of other Black people. You’ve got the conflict between public and private schools, and how unfairly favored the wealthy are in terms of treatment. And there are a ton of other topics, like mental illness, cyber-security, teen drug dealing, divorce, child molestation, and even school shootings, which don’t get brought up until the last three episodes, and which honestly feel like they were just thrown in. Now, I do believe that each of those subjects deserves to be written about, and that the writers of American Crime did provide some interesting perspectives on them, but the series as a whole feels over-stuffed and scatter-brained. If they had just limited the show to the rape case, and all the issues that accompany that topic, I feel the season would have been more cohesive and thematically focused. As it stands, though, the season felt overwrought, and I feel like there were too many disparate elements that had nothing to do with each other.

Now, some of you might be thinking, “well, fine. It’s got a lot of story lines and topics. So what? Is it at least enjoyable?” Yes, and no. As with the first season, the acting is good, the dialogue is great, and there are a lot of gut-wrenching scenes and moments. At the same time, however, the fact that the show kept shifting perspective, and didn’t seem able to decide which issue it wanted to focus on, all made it harder for me to latch on to any one character. Because the show didn’t do that. People who you think you’re going to follow and care about, like the young man who says he got raped, end up becoming either secondary, or despicable. In his case, we find out pretty early on that it “wasn’t rape,” because he “wanted it,” a sentiment I find highly offensive to victims of sexual assault, and the show actually spends more time trying to get you to care about the kid who beat him. There are also a number of other characters, like this random hacker who just shows up in the eighth episode of this ten episode season, who are thrown in at the last possible second, and who suddenly become major players. This season honestly reminds me of films like Spider-Man 3, or The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which had an overabundance of plot threads and characters, and disappointed at the box office and with critics as a result. Now, granted, American Crime, Season 2 got much better reviews than those films when it came out. Still, there were points when I was watching it that I didn’t think I could go on, and that’s never a good sign for a TV series.

So, if you were a fan of the first season, maybe you’ll enjoy this. As for me, I don’t feel any need to watch it again.