Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Some Interesting TV of 2017

I was originally planning to write a "Best of" list for my favorite TV shows of 2017, but I've gotten a little tired of the genre of "Best of" lists.  There's a mind-boggling amount of TV content available these days, so it seems a bit presumptuous to claim that the best of it can only come from the measly percentage that I've seen.  Also, these shows are all different enough that it seems unfair (impossible?) to rank them against each other.  Besides, it's mid-Februrary 2018, so it seems a bit late to march in the "Best of 2017" parade.

Instead I give you: Some Interesting TV of 2017!

(Note also that I'm limiting myself to science fiction and fantasy broadly construed.  I'm also only talking about shows that came out in 2017.  And I'm leaving out a few I did watch, like The Orville and The Mist.  I'll wait for a future post to tackle the latest episodes of The X-Files and Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams, which were released in the US in 2018).

Twin Peaks: The Return

This was one of my most anticipated shows of 2017.  As I wrote about in an earlier post, "Twin Peaks and the Pleasures of Weirdness," one of the things I've loved about Twin Peaks since I first watched it as a teenager is how weird it all is.  And The Return or Season Three or whatever is even weirder than the original.  Director David Lynch cut out most of the pretense of an evening soap opera that honestly probably got most people watching back in the 90's, and then he went into full Blue Velvet or Mulholland Drive mode.  If you don't like Lynchian weirdness turned up to eleven, the latest incarnation of Twin Peaks is not for you.

From my earlier post:
But why can weirdness be so much fun?  My theory is that weirdness is so pleasurable precisely because making sense of the world -- something we do constantly -- is a lot of work.  Watching a scene in the Black Lodge is a way to relax your sense-making mechanism, to open up your mind to things without trying to squeeze them into pre-made conceptual categories.  To just experience.
Since I wrote that post before I had watched the full season, I should say that aside from all this delightful weirdness, Twin Peaks: The Return takes on the whole idea of nostalgia, especially the kind of nostalgia that would prompt someone to watch a show like Twin Peaks: The Return.  It leads the audience into this nostalgia.  But then the show complicates its own nostalgic preconditions.  And obliterates them along with the audience's preconceptions of what this or any other TV show could be.

As with my favorite movies of 2017, my favorite TV shows challenged our expectations.  And Twin Peaks: The Return does this more than just about anything else I encountered in 2017.

Star Trek: Discovery

In a year when a lot of science fiction is about defying expectations in a way that annoys a vocal sub-set of fans (case in point: Star Wars: The Last Jedi), perhaps something like Star Trek: Discovery should have been expected.

First of all, there was the fact that after the first episode it's only available in the US by subscription to CBS All Access.  Then there was a brief brouhaha from Sad Puppy types who whined that two of the main characters were women of color, which is weird considering that it's Star Trek.  There was anxiety about how the show would turn out given mixed reviews of the J. J. Abrams movies, which many long time fans (including myself) felt had lost some of what made Trek unique.

All of that was even before the show started.   Then we had a two-episode premiere that featured a mutiny, weird-looking Klingons, and a focus on a main character rather than a crew as ensemble.  We didn't even meet the whole crew until episode three.

I wasn't entirely sold on Discovery at first, but I thought it was nice to see Star Trek trying something new.  After all, I can always comfort watch old episodes of The Next Generation anytime I want.

But I kept watching, and I'm glad I did.  I continue to love the new characters and the excellent cast that plays them (I'm a huge fan of Tilly, Saru, and Stamets; Michael Burnam is one of the most interesting characters in Star Trek).  Here's what I said a few months ago in a fuller review:
Discovery may not be the show that Star Trek fans wanted, but it may be the show we need.  Why do I say that?  Two reasons: it had to fit into what TV has become in 2017, and it provides a vision of how we might get through tough times.
Now that the season finale has been released and I've seen the whole first season, I want to develop that second point on getting through tough times.  One of the major criticisms of Discovery has been that it has lost the utopian ideals that made Star Trek the show it is.

There's some truth to this.  On the face of it, Discovery doesn't have the utopian elements of The Original Series or The Next Generation.  I find it more in line with Deep Space Nine in tone.  You don't have to like Deep Space Nine, but to say it's not Star Trek seems a bit much.  Also, I think it's good for a franchise to try something new.  Those old Star Trek shows are still there.  But most of all, watching the whole season of Discovery shows what the intention was all along: to show how the utopian ideals of Star Trek can emerge even in trying times.

Without giving too many spoilers, I can say one of my favorite parts of later episodes is when the characters triumphantly declare, "We are still Starfleet."  Whether in space, in a mirror universe, or here on Earth, a difficult situation doesn't mean we should abandon our ideals.  If anything, we need them more.  And that's downright utopian if you ask me, at least in the sense championed by philosopher Mary Midgley, who views utopia as a fruitful vision rather than an obtainable goal.

Is the show perfect?  Of course not.  Starting with a lot of backstory didn't work terribly well and alienated a lot of viewers right off the bat.  I found a lot of the season rushed, so much that some of the big reveals felt a bit random and neither the audience nor the characters had time to process anything.  One character death seemed unnecessarily cruel and problematic to me.  There are some loose ends, but maybe that's giving something to do in season two.  I don't think Discovery will be my favorite Star Trek show, but then again I doubt anyone would've said The Next Generation was their favorite having only watched the middling first season of that show.  Maybe Discovery will keep me on my toes.  And that's a good thing.

(PS: Yes, I watched The Orville.  It's okay and has its charms, but I'm a bit baffled by how much some people love it, although a recent episode of the Geek's Guide to the Galaxy podcast gave me some reasons to go easier on the show.  Still, I don't understand the opinion that it's "the real heir of Star Trek" or some such thing.  See why I say that here.)

The Good Place

We philosophy professors aren't used to seeing our kind depicted on TV.  Compared to usual TV fare of cops, lawyers, or doctors, our lives honestly aren't that exiting, at least from the outside.  I think philosophers have pretty exciting mental lives!  So imagine my surprise in 2016 when a show with a philosophy professor as one of the main characters arrived on prime time network TV.  And the characters actually talk about philosophy!  (Philosophy has also made recent appearances on The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and two new shows I haven't seen yet: AP Bio and Here and Now.  Is there a sudden interest in philosophy among TV executives?). 

The basic premise of The Good Place is that four people die and find themselves in "the good place," which is depicted as a quirky, fantasy place rather than anything resembling a TV preacher's sermon.  Soon the characters start to suspect that they don't belong there, and hijinks and moral philosophy ensue.  No, really.  The philosopher tries to help the other characters and himself learn to be good people with some help from the likes of Aristotle, Kant, and Philippa Foot.  It also contains at least one philosophy joke that's going into my rotation.  See below.

Here's what I said about the show last year.
... 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 Good Place was one of my favorite new shows of 2016.  So does season two live up to the standards set in season one?  It forking does!  It's hard to say much about season two without some major spoilers, so let me give a few spoiler-free highlights.  The philosophy lessons continue, and they even start to involve Michael (Ted Danson), the architect of the place.  The characters, especially Eleanor (Kristin Bell) and Chidi (William Jackson Harper), make real moral progress in their quest to become better people, which makes for some great character arcs.  The ending of season two is as much of a twist as the ending of season one.

My favorite part of season two was when they try a full-fledged simulation of the trolley problem.  Usually philosophers imagine this as a thought experiment: if you were in a trolley careening down a hill with the brakes failing, would you stay on track to kill five people at the bottom of the hill or would you pull a lever to switch tracks to kill only one person?  When Chidi talks about this, Michael complains that it's too theoretical, so he makes an amusingly gory simulation.  It's funny, but perhaps there's a serious point about the relevance of lived experience for moral reflection.

I'll be excited to see the amusing movements of heaven and earth in season three!

Stranger Things 2

I loved the first season of Stranger Things.  Read what I said about it here.  So how does the second season stack up?

For the most part my opinion is: It's more of the same.  Not that that's a bad thing.  Sure, this season is far more Lovecraftian (with all the attendant philosophical shenanigans there), we get a whole episode set outside of Hawkins, Indiana, the group gets a new member (aka, "the girl"), Sean Astin of all people shows up, Lucas's sister Erica is awesome, and most improbably: Steve (aka, Nancy's boyfriend with the hair) turns out to be an alright guy.  So, there is some new stuff here, but nothing that shatters the mold of Stranger Things.  Granted, it's harder to shatter the mold when you only had eight episodes before.  And maybe Stranger Things is fun just the way it is: something somehow simultaneously nostalgic and fresh.

And thank Cthulhu they kept that awesome opening sequence and added a new(-ish) retro synth-tastic score from Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein.

This isn't to say that I loved everything.  The women and girls could have been fleshed out a bit more as characters. The episode with the punk gang was pretty weird.  I'm honestly not sure I liked it.  And they gave the only character of South Asian origin the name of the Hindu goddess Kali.  Sure, the character is wrathful, but is that the best they could do?

For the most part I liked Stranger Things 2.  I plan to tune in for Stranger Things 3: The Search for Dart.


Sense8 was my favorite new show of 2015, but we didn't get the full delivery of season two until 2017.  There was a single episode released at the end of 2016, which prompted me to write:
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.
Sense8 is one of the most character-focused science fiction shows I've ever seen.  Granted, it's been a few months, but I'm honestly having trouble remembering much of the plot of season two.  But I remember and love all the characters.  It's worth watching Sense8 just to spend time with these amazing, compassionate people who show us how a group of people can love and care for each other when that group is diverse in lots of ways (gender, sexuality, race, culture, language, geography, occupation, economic situation, etc.).

Some of the non-spoilery plot details I do remember involve the discovery of other sensates, one of whom is played by seventh Doctor and Radagast the Brown Sylvester McCoy!  There's also further exploration of the cool science fictional concept of sensates as a variety of human that has the ability to feel and communicate directly with others (this effect is depicted in the show with the actors standing next to each other while their characters are physically located continents away).  All of this leads to a sort of X-Men plot in which the sensates (mutants?) are under attack from obnoxious bigoted baddies.

Unfortunately, Netflix canceled the show (mostly because filming on five continents is really expensive), but they're allowing one wrap up episode to be released later this year.

Black Mirror: "USS Callister"

While I'm a huge fan of its spiritual ancestor, The Twilight Zone, I have mixed feelings about Black Mirror.  Part of it is that I lack most of the anxiety or hope about technology needed to fully appreciate it.  Technology can be cool or annoying, but I don't think it's changing the human condition as much as tech prophets hope or tech curmudgeons fear.

I haven't watched much of the third and fourth seasons of Black Mirror (what happened to all the British accents?), but I did make sure to watch the Star Trek-inspired episode "USS Callister."  Jesse Plemons (who played Breaking Bad's wholesome psychopath nicknamed "Ricky Hitler") plays an angry co-founder of a tech firm named Robert who gets disrespected by his coworkers.  To get back at them, he makes digital copies of everyone on his shit list and forces their digital selves to participate in his Star Trek: The Original Series-style virtual reality play time.  But the catch (because it's Black Mirror) is that the digital people can think and feel, which of course prompts philosophical questions: Are these copies people?  Are they really conscious?  Is Robert engaging in an act of extreme cruelty by making people and then forcing them to adhere to his whims with no hope of escape?  As a Twilight Zone connection, Robert reminds me of the sadistic kid from "It's a Good Life" who keeps his entire town prisoner to his psychic powers.

Along the way you get plenty of fun ribbing of Star Trek as Plemons does his amusingly pathetic William Shatner impression.  I'm totally a Star Trek fan, of course, but the deeper critique of the way a certain segment of angry white dudes abuse their favored fandoms is a good way to spark a conversation worth having.

I don't want to give any major spoilers, but I will say that the ending genuinely surprised me and made this probably my all-time favorite Black Mirror episode.

So there you have it!  Let's hope for plenty of interesting TV in 2018!

No comments:

Post a Comment