Thursday, February 9, 2017

Recent TV Round Up

I originally intended to write a Best TV of 2016 post.  But now that we're veering toward mid-February 2017, it seemed a bit late for that.  Also, I watched a few new things while I was putting off writing this post.  So I give you: Recent TV Round Up featuring Stranger Things, The Good Place, Westworld, Sense8, and The OA!

Stranger Things

Last week I rewatched Stranger Things after having watched it last summer.  I loved it just as much the second time, especially now that I've been obsessively listening to the soundtrack for several months.

Here are a few excerpts from my post, "More 80's Than the 80's: Stranger Things and my Totally 80's Nostalgia-thon."

My 80’s nostalgia became a full-blown epidemic upon watching Netflix’s Stranger Things, which is the best thing I've seen in months, and heard, too -- the soundtrack is amazing! ...
If you're in any way a fan of 80's science fiction and fantasy movies and you haven't seen Stranger Things yet, do yourself a favor: fire up your Netflix account (or get one) and watch this show.  ...
The miracle of Stranger Things is that it feels like the 80's without feeling derivative.  The Duffer Brothers tell a compelling and unique story within the More-Eighties-Than-Eighties aesthetic ... 
The acting performances are all great, especially from Winona Ryder and Millie Bobby Brown. The mood is wistful, emotional, or eerie appropriate to the situation. There's some real science fictional horror going on (despite how the series has been billed, there's nothing supernatural per se, just Lovecraftian). Nerds rejoice! The whole thing starts and ends with a group of friends playing Dungeons & Dragons. And did I mention that soundtrack? The one I'm listening to as I write this? Amazing.

Would I love Stranger Things as much without the 80's nostalgia and the nerd-glorification?  I considered this as I rewatched it.  There's some cool stuff to think about with regard to alternative universes and the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics (which is mentioned directly), and I do genuinely find the story compelling.

But maybe the deeper philosophical point is about the responsible use of nostalgia itself, something I discussed more in my earlier post.  While the 80's nostalgia of Stranger Things is fun and healthy in moderation, it could perhaps be taken to excess.  In glorifying the 80's, we shouldn't forget that it was also a deeply troubled time.  This is a lesson perhaps all the more serious now that we here in the United States are currently embarking on a quest to "make America great again."

The Good Place

Chidi (William Jackson Harper) teaching Eleanor (Kristen Bell) about utilitarianism

This is one of those shows that forces me to ask, "How did this get made?"  If you had told me a year ago that a half hour comedy about the afterlife that features a philosophy professor as one of the main characters would air on NBC, I'm not sure I would've believed you.  But then I wouldn't have believed that Donald Trump would now be President of the United States, either.  Goes to show what I knew.

The basic idea: Eleanor (Kristen Bell in a delightfully scruffy role) is an all around selfish jerk who dies and goes to, you guessed it, the Good Place.  There she discovers that her soul mate is a philosophy professor from the Ivory Coast named Chidi (William Jackson Harper).  Michael (Ted Danson) is an Architect (angel?) in charge of the neighborhood.  Eventually Eleanor realizes that she's not supposed to be in the Good Place; hijinks ensue.

While the show doesn't delve too much into the details of Kantian, Aristotelian, or utilitarian ethical theory, that it delves at all is a delight to see, not to mention the fact that Eleanor's effort to become a better person, with help from Chidi as her teacher, is the central arc of the plot.  It's great to see philosophy treated as a serious, worthwhile, and useful topic on mainstream American TV (words I never thought I would write!).

My one criticism is that The Good Place might give viewers a picture of moral philosophy as having more of a consensus than it does.  Kantians, Aristotelians, and utilitarians do not all actually agree on even basic things like what it means to be a good person and why you should be good, but they do agree, perhaps more than most philosophers care to admit, on specific ethical directives.  They would all agree that Eleanor's selfishness, for instance, is her primary moral flaw.  The disagreement is rather on why this is her major flaw.

But that The Good Place is encouraging ethical reflection in a mainstream TV audience is a beautiful thing.  This is doubly true in that its reflection is about what it means to try to become a better person as opposed to typical TV ethics, which seems to mostly involve wondering how much we can subvert civil liberties while punishing criminals or killing terrorists.  It's nice to see a show focus on the important work of trying to be a decent human being.

The show is also forking hilarious.  Yes, I said, "Forking," which is what happens when you try to drop an F-Bomb in the Good Place.  I particularly love the character of Jianyu/Jason (Manny Jacinto) and Michael's frenetic (and often unsuccessful) efforts at maintaining the heavenly splendor of his neighborhood.

And the ending is...  well, I don't want to spoil it.  But you should definitely watch up until the season finale.  It's to die for, which I guess the characters did.


Anthony Hopkins in Westworld

Westworld is the type of show I should love: robots, artificial intelligence, questions about what makes us human, etc.  And I did like it a lot, especially how it all wrapped up.  But it took me a few episodes to get into.  And it never entirely lived up to the hype for me.

This is an improbable remake of the 1973 Michael Crichton movie of the same name, which sadly I either haven't seen or don't remember.  The HBO show has all the blood, violence, swearing, and nudity you'd expect from an HBO show.  It also has beautiful desert scenery care of southern Utah, which is also nude.

Westworld is a Wild West theme park inhabited by robots (hosts) and humans (guests) who pay a lot of money to visit the park.  The hosts don't know they're robots, but instead are fully immersed in their parts as 19th century cowboys, prostitutes, gunslingers, ranchers, etc.

Because this is an HBO show trying to capitalize on the gritty success of Game of Thrones, the guests pretty much visit Westworld to murder, torture, and/or have sex with the hosts.  But it's okay, because they're robots.  And there are magic guns that eviscerate the flesh of the hosts, but cause no damage to the guests.  At this point any science fiction fan basically already knows where this is headed, but it's fun to see it play out.

Lo and behold!  Some of the hosts realize that they're robots getting raw deal and... well, I don't want to spoil it, especially the ending.

There's a lot to like about Westworld.  It really does foster some thought about artificial intelligence and humanity's inhumanity.  And the ending was really cool.

So what didn't I like?  Some of it, I admit, is that I've never been a big Western fan.  Something about dying of tuberculosis at age 32 after scraping a living from the land and watching my back for assholes trying to kill me just never really appealed to me.  Give me modern medicine and grocery stores any day (unfortunately my fellow Americans now seem hell bent on making our gun laws even more lax than they were in the 19th century).

A deeper critique is that I feel like we've had a lot of the "let's explore the darkness that lies within the human heart" stuff.  I wonder if we might finally move beyond our cultural obsession with dystopia.  Why do we need to be reminded of our inner demons on HBO when we see them in the news every single day?  I'm not saying our entertainment should be all puppy dogs and rainbows.  We need explorations of the negativity and cruelty that lurk within.  Those are real parts of human nature that deserve artistic and philosophical understanding.

But something about Westworld just feels a bit... gratuitous.  I keep wanting to tell the show, "I get it, people are evil bastards.  Now let's do something else."  But instead we get more shots of nude robots being clinically dismembered or human-looking robots casually murdered.  I realize those images are supposed to be upsetting, but it'd be nice to see some redeeming qualities or some sign that there's a struggle between the devils and the better angels of our nature.  Instead, almost every single character seems to behave as if they're in a Hobbesian state of nature, a war of all against all.

Granted, Dolores and her relationships with Teddy and William are supposed to be the counterpoint to all this - Dolores tells us, "There's beauty in this world."  But it's honestly hard to see.  Of course it's true that life is suffering and cruelty and despair, but life is also kindness and compassion and decency.  In its explorations of one side of human nature Westworld often forgets about the other.


Sensates' birthday party!
Sense8 was my favorite TV show of 2015.  We haven't gotten the full delivery of Season Two yet, but Netflix did give us a two-hour pilot/holiday special/episode 1 of Season 2.

This probably sounds kind of weird and audacious, but that's exactly what you'd expect from Sense8. The show is difficult to explain (see more here), but there are eight "sensates" around the world who are connected to each other in surprising ways.  The pilot/holiday special/episode 1 reminded me of everything I love about this show: its characters, settings, and core ideas.  It's too bad there's a new actor playing Capheus (Toby Onwumere instead of Aml Ameen), but they had some fun with the change: a friend tells Capheus that he looks different today.

Sense8 is a nice counter-point to a show like Westworld.  It's not all kittens and cotton candy for the sensates, either, but they are connected and come to love and care for one another.  Sense8 reminds us that we are not actually Hobbesian individualists doomed to atomic insularity.  It's normal and rational to care for others, even if the others live, look, and love differently than you do.  It's a beautiful message, one that I think we need now more than ever.  I'm glad the Wachowskis and J. Michael Straczynski are putting it out there.

The OA

A WTF? moment in The OA
The OA, like Twin Peaks, delights in its many WTF? moments.  Not that I think The OA is exactly on par with a classic like Twin Peaks, but both shows are set in wholesome towns (with secrets lurking!) and major mysteries.  Instead of a murder (Who killed Laura Palmer?), The OA begins with the reappearance of a woman who had disappeared seven years earlier.  She was blind when she disappeared, but now she can see.  Weird, huh?

It only gets weirder from there, but in a delightfully bizarre sort of way.  Where did Prairie go?  (Yes, that's her name, although it was originally Nina before she was adopted and when she was the daughter of a Russian oligarch).  Why did she come back?  What has she been doing for seven years?  What does "OA" stand for?  What is Phyllis from The Office doing there?  And - most importantly - what does interpretive dance have to do with all this?

I don't presume to know the extent of the reader's imagination, but I'd venture to say that you're not going to foresee a lot of what The OA has to offer.  It's truly bizarre in ways that make me wonder what the hell Netflix was thinking.  I guess they were thinking it would be a wild ride.  And they were right.  Even if I didn't love everything about The OA, as a lover of the deliciously outré I applaud the effort.

My favorite question: To what extent are the narratives within the narrative themselves more narratives filled with artfully contrived WTF moments?  Who is actually telling this story and why?  And does it matter?

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