Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Jason Mendoza belongs in The Bad Place. And that's a problem for The Good Place.

The Good Place wrapped up its extraordinary second season a couple weeks ago, and the show deserves all of the hosannas that have been thrown its way since. The Good Place is really nothing less than the best sitcom on TV - Michael Schur, his writing team and the remarkable acting ensemble assembled for the show have created something truly delightful.

But The Good Place has always been interested in doing more than just telling jokes, even if it's pretty damn great at that. A sitcom can't be said to succeed unless it's consistently funny, and if a sitcom is consistently funny it can't be said to fail. But that doesn't mean it's humorless or unfair to raise questions about other things a show offers.

And that's particularly true for The Good Place, which from day one has - with great skill - grappled with the big problems of moral philosophy and asked difficult questions about the nature of human betterment and how the motives of self-improvement affect its morality.

And the show has a very clear answer to those questions. You can pretty fairly sum up the show's philosophy with Michael's impassioned speech in the season finale:

"Because of my accidental experiment, these four humans got better. After they died. That's not supposed to be possible. Over and over again I watched as they became thoughtful and generous and caring...."

It's a good speech, and Ted Danson sells the hell out of it. It's a wonderful sentiment, beautifully expressed, and it serves as a succinct mission statement for a wonderful show.

It's also kind of bullshit.

Oh, it's not all bullshit. In fact, it's mostly true. It's true of three of the four humans Michael is talking about. Hell, it's even true of eternal Siri analogue Janet, whose character arc has been one of the show's great successes.

But it's bullshit when it comes to Jason Mendoza, the lovable dolt played with such skill by Manny Jacinto. Because to put it bluntly, Jason isn't better. He hasn't improved himself. In fact, Jason's pretty awful.

None of that is a reflection on Jacinto, who has been a revelation in the role. But there's an extent to which Jacinto's performance, which has brought a real depth of emotion to what could have been a one-note dirtbag role, has hidden his character's lack of development, and how that static characterization undermines - at least in some measure - the show's driving ethos.

To use the clickbait-y title I rejected but am not too proud to break out here, The Good Place has a Jason Mendoza problem.

Every other member of our charming foursome has, indeed, shown the improvement Michael raved about. Eleanor has taken huge strides to make herself a better person. Chidi has embraced a measure of decisiveness. Tahani has found self-awareness and (a little bit of) humility.

So it's weird that, in his big speech to the immortal Judge, Michael highlights Jason's supposed improvement, saying "And now he's so much better." It's weird because Jason isn't better.

Jason's the same guy he's been since his true nature was revealed in the first season. And that's a guy who - in his pre-rigor mortis days - would:

  • Chuck empty spray paint cans at flamingos
  • Sell fake drugs to college students
  • Exhibit entirely too much passion for Molotov cocktails 
  • Get himself killed trying to commit robbery

Of course, you could put together a similar list for Eleanor, who made her living telemarketing fake pharmaceuticals to senior citizens. The difference is that we've seen Eleanor evolve over the course of two seasons - above all else, we've seen her grow to regret her life and her decisions and to recognize her moral failings. We've seen her try to become a better person. 

Can we say that about Jason? I don't see how. He's positively proud of the flamingo assault ("When I was six, I hit one right on the butt!"). In "Rhonda, Diana, Jake and Trent," which saw the group briefly invade the actual Bad Place, Jason doesn't just get along with the demons he and Chidi have to interact with - he gleefully bonds with them, connecting in a way that's too earnest for the largely guileless Jason to fake. 

Jason is not a more thoughtful character than he was when we first met him. He's not a kinder person than he was when we first met him. He is fundamentally unchanged from the person he was when the series starts.

What we've heard about Jason's life, and what we've seen of him in the afterlife, doesn't paint the picture of evil or even maliciousness. But there's no great normative benefit to hurting people through thoughtlessness. 

This isn't just complaining about a fictional character's personality flaws - these flaws speak directly to the theme of the show. It doesn't necessarily undermine the idea at the heart of The Good Place to say that Jason has never improved as a person - three out of four ain't bad, after all. But when your North Star is the concept of betterment, of self-improvement and the power of human connection to spur positive changes in our lives, you need to at least grapple with the reality that a quarter of your data set doesn't fit the narrative.

Or, at the very least, your characters shouldn't act as though Jason's improvement is a self-evident thing. There's simply a huge dissonance between The Good Place's conception of Jason and the reality of the character as shown on-screen. 

This particular failure isn't fatal - even great shows have flaws, and The Good Place is undeniably a great show. But Jason's static characterization stands out - not just because every other element of The Good Place is so well done, but because character development is an intrinsic part of the show's DNA. It's arguably what the show is about, in a fundamental sense. 

The Good Place has earned the trust of its viewers - it has surmounted every hurdle that its premise and narrative would seem to suggest. If, two seasons in, the worst thing we can say about it is that one character is more a well-acted amusement than a dynamic human being, that speaks volumes about the show's quality. 

Still, as we look forward to a much-deserved third season, the big outstanding question for The Good Place isn't narrative in nature - we know Schur and company will handle that part fine. Instead, the big question is how - and if - the show will be able to reconcile its perception of Jason with the reality of the character.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Top 10 Television Episodes of 2017

By the standards of most human beings, I watch a staggering amount of television. But by the standards of those who are paid to write and watch about TV, I've missed an awful lot. That won't stop me from offering an unqualified list of the best episodes that aired in 2017, of course, but keep in mind that there's a lot of great TV I wasn't able to watch this past year.

That said, the list:

10. Speechless, "C-A--CAMP"

This is admittedly more of a season achievement award than anything else. Speechless was one of the highlights of the 2016-2017 new television season, a genuinely sweet, heart-warming sitcom about an under-represented community that never forgot to be funny. Speechless' greatest achievement is its ability to portray J.J., the high schooler with cerebral palsy who is at the center of the show, with dignity and grace, while still mining his teenage boy flaws for sitcom humor. J.J.'s not a saint, he's not an inspiration - he's just a kid, and that means he can be gross and weird and inappropriate.

"C-A--CAMP" is the season finale and a solid showcase for the entire Speechless ensemble. Exploring J.J.'s first real stab at independence, "C-A--CAMP" is, in many ways, a stereotypical network sitcom season finale: it's big and emotional (there's a helicopter!), and ends the season on a note of small-bore change that won't fundamentally alter the structure of the show. But "C-A-CAMP" is a reasonable representation of an outstanding first season (that has been followed by a similarly excellent second season), and belongs on this list.

9. Lucifer, "Off The Record"

Lucifer is more of an entertaining show than it is a genuinely good one, and it certainly falls far short of greatness. It does a few things very well, and it has a keen grasp of those strengths. It knows the right tone for its story and characters, and it hues to that tone with impressive consistency.

"Off The Record" makes this list, however, because it's one of the few Lucifer episodes to try something different. By playing with perspective and chronology, and diving deep into the psychology of a reporter (played by Patrick Fabian, who'll show up again on this list) who's new to the wacky Lucifer universe, "Off The Record" represents a rare bit of adventurousness and ambition from a show that's usually content to stay in its lane.

8. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., "The Return"

One reason for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s improvement since its disappointing and tedious first season has been the abandonment of standalone episodes. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D found its groove when it stopped trying to tell isolated stories and instead focused on longer arcs, which provided a more compelling framework for the show's characters.

"The Return" is kind of an exception to the overall trend, then, an episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D that stands out on its own. It represents a fitting culmination to the Framework arc that saw the main characters trapped in a computer simulation in which HYDRA controlled the world. It compellingly explored the consequences of the actions the characters took while trapped in the Framework, treating them as meaningful choices with emotional resonance.

But the real highlight here is Mallory Jansen (formerly of the late, lamented Galavant) as Aida, the former "life model decoy" whose journey to self-awareness and - of course - super-villainy is the best character arc of the season. Jansen's performance in this episode was, quite simply, one of the best on television in 2017, though it was never going to get much recognition.

"The Return" asked a pretty fascinating question: what happens when a super-powered entity discovers emotion - including heartbreak - for the very first time? The answer itself wasn't terribly surprising - it goes badly. But Jansen's furious, grief-ridden performance gave life and energy to the end of the show's fourth season, and proved that even predictable stories have the power to move us.

7. Better Call Saul, "Lantern"

Some of the seams started showing in Better Call Saul's still-excellent third season, especially in the storylines involving Breaking Bad returnee Mike Ehrmantraut. Mike's scenes were smart, well-shot, intricately put together and, frankly, kind of boring.

Fortunately, the McGill Brothers and Kim Wexler were still around to keep things exciting. "Lantern," the season three finale, (likely) marks the death of Chuck McGill, played with smarmy brilliance by Michael McKean, who steals the episode with a portrayal of Chuck's episode-long nervous breakdown that's as exceptional as it is hard to watch.

But there's enough limelight here for multiple characters, including Howard Hamlin. As played by Patrick Fabian, modern television's finest douchebag, Howard had evolved from an empty suit antagonist in the first season to a man of genuine strength and integrity. The scene in which he tells off Chuck, largely sparking the older McGill brother's cringe-worthy breakdown, is as much a catharsis for the audience as it is for Howard.

6. The Good Place, "Michael's Gambit"

"Michael's Gambit" isn't on this list entirely because of Ted Danson's creepy, evil smile toward the end of the episode, but that smile sure is one hell of a kicker.

It was easy to be skeptical about The Good Place's basic premise, which saw Kristen Bell's Eleanor accidentally sent to heaven after her cruddy, undignified life ended in a cruddy, undignified death. But The Good Place quickly put those concerns to rest, immediately establishing itself as the best sitcom on television, a show defined by its hilarity, thoughtfulness and intricate plotting.

All of that narrative worked paid off in "Michael's Gambit," the show's season finale, which revealed that our core group of characters - Eleanor, Tahani, Jason and Chidi -  were actually in The Bad Place, test subjects for demon Michael's new theories on hellish punishments. Punctuated by Danson's masterful laugh, this was the best sort of twist: utterly shocking, but completely reasonable in hindsight.

5. Rick and Morty, "The Rickshank Rickdemption"

Another season achievement award. Rick and Morty had a predictably outstanding third season, combining unique sci-fi weirdness with a genuine willingness to probe the psychological depths of its thoroughly fucked up characters.

Did Rick and Morty occasionally wallow in cynicism and emotional darkness? A bit. And while Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland admirably deconstructed the mindset of a self-proclaimed evil scientist god, there was still an awful lot of straight-forward "Rick is an impossibly awesome evil scientist god" stuff this season.

But that's nit-picking. "The Rickshank Redemption," Rick and Morty's season three premiere, was the show at its best - gleefully weird and satisfyingly subversive, with an impossible to untangle combination of sincerity and utter bullshit.

For the record, other possibilities here include "Pickle Rick," "Vindicators 3" and "Rest and Ricklaxation."

And shut up about the sauce.

4. The Good Place, "Dance Dance Resolution"

If "Michael's Gambit" proved that The Good Place could pull off an extraordinary twist, "Dance Dance Resolution", the third episode of season two, proved that Michael Schur and his team weren't taking any steps backward after a great first season.

"Dance Dance Resolution" is a sitcom triumph, a hilarious episode of television that manages to address every concern critics and fans had about the show's second season while moving the plot forward in meaningful ways.

"Dance Dance Resolution" sees Michael resetting his Bad Place experiment time and time again, only to be foiled repeatedly when Eleanor (and, in one particularly embarrassing scenario, Jason) keeps figuring out the ruse. No matter which deeply mediocre food item Michael fills the neighborhood with, or which torture scenario he conjures up, something always goes awry.

And for extra-special bonus jokes, check out writer Megan Amram's exhaustive list of restaurant puns.

3. Better Call Saul, "Chicanery"

The creative team behind Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad have many strengths, but the greatest is their ability to make high-quality prestige drama that's actually fun. These shows are complex and challenging and well-made, but they're also enjoyable in a way that much of our modern prestige television industry just isn't.

This isn't to say that these other shows are bad (check out #2 below) - it's just that Vince Gilligan and company have found a way to make great TV that never feels like an obligation.

"Chicanery" isn't an explosive bit of pulp storytelling, like Breaking Bad classics "Ozymandias" and "Crawl Space." But in its relentlessly focused, skillfully claustrophobic portrayal of the fraternal battle between Jimmy and Chuck McGill, as waged in a bar association hearing that determines whether Jimmy will lose his legal license as a result of his actions in the show's second season, "Chicanery" makes clear just how brilliant this entire group of writers, actors and directors really is.

It's probably not a coincidence that "Chicanery," like "Lantern," keeps Mike off-screen. The story of Jimmy McGill and his evolution into Saul Goodman has always been the show's best, and "Chicanery's" laser focus keeps the tension palpable as we see just how far Jimmy is willing to go to save his own skin and destroy his own brother.

2. The Leftovers, "The Book of Nora"

I'll confess, I sometimes found The Leftovers to be a bit of a chore. I often appreciated it more than I truly enjoyed it - this chronicle of a world where two percent of the global population had disappeared without a trace or an explanation always took itself very seriously, and while the show's exploration of grief and trauma was well-acted and crafted with great care, it was also relentless and unforgiving.

Still, there was no denying the show's quality, and it went out on a high note with its third season and - especially - with its series finale, "The Book of Nora."

Mostly taking place decades in the future, "The Book of Nora" highlights the grace notes that were always a part of the show's ambitious symphony. It is, in the end, a story of the necessity and durability of human connection and of our ability to find redemption and love in the face of extraordinary trauma and even our own mistakes.

In some ways, it was unfortunate that Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrota decided to end the series with Nora's big monologue about discovering The Departed in another universe (it makes sense in context). It's too easy to obsess over whether Nora was telling the truth, too easy to ignore everything else that was great about "The Book of Nora." And for a show that stubbornly insisted there was no answer to The Departure, just the reality of the loss and the necessity to continue in the face of tragedy, it was surprising to see just such an answer.

Still, Nora's monologue is beautiful, and Carrie Coon throws everything she has into it. And, in the end, while the show provides a possible answer, the truth of it is as irrelevant as ever. What's important is Kevin's final line: "You're here."

1. Game of Thrones, "The Spoils of War"

I've already written at some length on why I disagree with the consensus that Game of Thrones is a show in decline. If you're the masochistic sort, you can read that piece here.

But "The Spoils of War" is the episode that needs no defending. It's a brilliant, thrilling hour of television, one of the best Game of Thrones has produced. It's spectacular and magnificent and utterly exhilarating.

"The Spoils of War" reveals a creative team in perfect control of the staggering effects resources - both practical and computer generated - available to them. In many ways, it represents the culmination of six years of waiting for Daenerys' dragons to be fully unleashed, and "The Spoils of War" delivered on that promise in a way that won over even the most skeptical of observers.

And perhaps most impressively, "The Spoils of War" manages to hit multiple emotional beats amidst the blood and flame of the Loot Train Battle that defines it. Peter Dinklage manages to imbue "Flee, you idiot...you fucking idiot..." with all the intensity we've come to expect from him.

There were definitely subtler episodes of television that aired in 2017. There were definitely more emotionally resonant episodes of television that aired in 2017. But there was nothing that aired on television in 2017 that was as simply great as "The Spoils of War."

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Last Jedi and The Limits of Subversion

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a good movie. I'm pretty sure of that.

The rest of my thoughts on the movie are pretty jumbled, but that's not a bad thing. I'm still thinking about the movie about a week after seeing it, which is usually a good sign and more than I can say for any of the other Star Wars films (most of which I liked, to be clear).

But the movie gives us a lot to think about, and thoughtful people are going to disagree from time to time. What's most interesting about the discussion surrounding the movie is, instead, where reviewers seem to agree.

Here's The AV Club with "The Last Jedi's Best Moment is a 'Fuck You' to George Lucas and J.J. Abrams."

Here's Albert Burneko with "A List of Some Of The Times The Last Jedi Told The Older Star Wars Movies To Eat Shit."

Here's i09 with "The Last Jedi Killed My Childhood, And That's Exactly Why It's Great."

And on and on it goes. The gist of these pieces is basically the same: The Last Jedi excelled because it subverted our expectations of what a Star Wars movie should be. It rejected the old, well-worn tropes of the franchise and found a new path forward.

These takes aren't wrong - this isn't another "disagreeing with critics" post, though there's probably a different piece to be written about what it says that critics are all so gleeful about a Star Wars movie not being a Star Wars movie. The moments these pieces are built around definitely do represent attempts to subvert audience expectations - whether it's the deliberately anti-climactic reveal of Rey's mundane parentage, Kylo Ren's rejection of redemption or even Luke's initial discarding of his father's old lightsaber, there's no doubt Rian Johnson was able to elicit genuine surprise at any number of points in the movie.

 But it's in this ambition that The Last Jedi's biggest disappointment - and biggest missed opportunity - lies. You might be aware that there's a big wall surrounding your seemingly idyllic home, but you never really know its true extent until you walk right up to it and encounter it head on. And that's The Last Jedi's curse: in pushing the boundaries of what a Star Wars movie can be, it showed just how strong those boundaries really are.

Or, to put all my cards out there right now: Rey totally should have taken Kylo Ren's hand and accepted his offer.

It was in that moment after the assassination of Snoke, with Ren's hand out-stretched, with the possibility of the two young powers joining forces to eradicate the Jedi, the Sith, the Resistance and the First Order, to "kill the past" and forge a new future free from the shackles of this famous history, with all that in the offing, that a truly new, exciting and, yes, subversive Star Wars was possible.

Think of the dramatic possibilities that existed in that one moment - the possibility of seeing a likable, charismatic, powerful hero turning on all the audience held dear and embracing evil (put your hand down, Hayden). Or, perhaps, causing us to re-examine how we've always looked at morality in the Star Wars universe - Rey and Kylo, together, might not have been part of the Dark Side. They explicitly wouldn't have been Sith. They would have been something new, something unique, two wounded but powerful individuals driven by their own resentments, tired of chafing against the legacies of those who came before.

And we would have been forced to ask: are they right? Was the universe that came about as the result of the eternal conflict between the Jedi and the Sith really the best possible universe? How much had been destroyed in those interminable wars? Would things be better if all traces of the Jedi and Sith were wiped from the universe? Could a better world be built from these ashes?

We could spend the final movie of this new trilogy watching Rey and Kylo march across the universe, wiping out the Resistance and the New Order alike, building new institutions to replace what they had destroyed. Would Rey be capable of killing Finn? Of killing Leia? How would Kylo Ren react when he finally had the opportunity to destroy Luke Skywalker? We'd finally see the foundations of this well-worn universe thoroughly subverted.

This wouldn't have to end in a dark place. It wouldn't have to end in tragedy. There could still be redemption and light when the final credits of Episode IX rolled. But it would be something different - something truly unique.

But, of course, The Last Jedi didn't choose this route. Rey didn't take Kylo's hand, and she spurned his offer.

And it's in that decision that we see just how unforgiving the wall around Star Wars really is. Because Rey never really had a choice, did she? The Dark Side, a Ren-Rey team-up, the true destruction of the Star Wars legacy - the structure of the franchise ensures those sorts of stories aren't possible.

Oh, there's room for disappointment, for danger, even for the occasional tragedy - but only if they're temporary (or, in the case of the prequels, pre-ordained). Something truly transformative is off the table, at least in this particular story.

There was nothing in The Force Awakens that was as disappointing as Rey's decision to spurn Kylo Ren's offer. That's a reflection of the first movie's lack of ambition, of course, and the fact that The Last Jedi could elicit such an emotion is a testament to Johnson's skill.

But The Force Awakens was a palate cleanser, an attempt to erase the bad taste of the prequels and remind us why we liked Star Wars in the first place. It did that job well enough.

The Last Jedi was something different. It's a better movie, to be sure, and infinitely more interesting. Still, the great paradox of The Last Jedi - and perhaps its defining legacy - is that its ambition illustrates the futility of itself.

The Last Jedi proudly and self-consciously rejected many of the tropes that have defined Star Wars for decades. But for as many expectations as the movie subverted, the core of the franchise proved as predictable and untouchable as we always believed it to be.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Two Years Later: Why Arkham Knight Remains The Best Of Rocksteady's Arkham Games

Rocksteady Studios' Arkham series of Batman games, which launched in 2009 with the justly lauded Arkham Asylum, illustrates just how much goodwill a videogame can generate by simply getting a few big things very right.

The games' Predator encounters, in which Batman has to stealthily take out a room full of heavily armed enemies by using the room's features and his own array of gadgets, are consistently tense and challenging, and they give the player tremendous freedom in solving the problem at hand.

The Freeflow combat system created for the Arkham series is one of the finest core gameplay mechanics debuted in the last decade or so - it's simple and intuitive, simultaneously balletic and kinetic, allowing the player to effortlessly guide Batman through a crowd of goons while rewarding reflexes and anticipation. Combat in the Arkham series has impact - blows feel real, they have weight, and the system provides the right feedback to the player at the right time.

But more than anything else, the Arkham series nails the feel of the experience, of actually being Batman. The Arkham games put players in the cowl of the iconic character by allowing them to truly inhabit Batman's strength and athleticism in all parts of the game, including those without any enemies.

The series got these big things right, and in doing so it was able to move past the games' relatively uninspired stories, blunt, on-the-nose dialogue and a basic structure in which everything else was essentially thin connective tissue between the next Predator encounter or combat section.

I have, over the last couple weeks, been replaying Arkham Knight, the final game in the series. And the experience has only strengthened what I came to believe after finishing the game the first time: Arkham Knight is the best game in the Arkham series because it is, in a handful of very important ways, a striking, genuinely beautiful experience, one that, like the series as a whole, succeeds by hitting a few perfect notes.

Movin' On Up

Consider the following Indisputable Ranking of the games in the Arkham series:

1. Arkham Knight
2. Arkham Asylum
3. Arkham Origins
4. Arkham City

Set aside Origins, the competent but unnecessary prequel put together by an outside studio - there's basically nothing it does that other games didn't do first, which makes it somewhat irrelevant to the conversation, even if it's a basically enjoyable gameplay experience.

There are plenty of folks who would disagree with that ranking, callously disregarding the fact that it is, in fact, indisputable. Perhaps the biggest disagreement I have with the public view of these games comes with Arkham City, the second game in the series.

I put Knight on top - and City on the bottom - for a number of reasons, and I'll get into most of those below. But the biggest thing putting Arkham Knight over the top in this competition is also the simplest: movement.

Character movement is, of course, the most basic element of gameplay, and it's almost always the first thing a player learns - "Press the left thumbstick to move Batman forward." But when your game is set in a massive, wide open sandbox, the ability to efficiently move the player character from Point A to Point B is not just central to the experience, it's crucial to the success of the game. When you have to traverse a lot of territory, difficult, tedious movement can wreck an otherwise solid game.

And that's one of many areas where Arkham City falls short. City moved Arkham Asylum's gameplay into a wide open sandbox setting, but it did not adequately adjust Batman's movement capabilities to the new, much larger environment. 

Put more simply, getting around Arkham City was a pain in the ass. It was a tedious experience, especially early in the game before the player had unlocked the grapnel boost, which enabled easier movement across rooftops. Getting across the game's map took too long, and it certainly wasn't "fun." It took the experience of playing as Batman and turned it into a commuting simulator.

Arkham Knight avoids those pitfalls - first, by bringing the much-maligned Batmobile into the equation, enabling rapid traversal of the environment, but even more importantly, by equipping the player with the grapnel boost from the get-go.

The grapnel boost (which can be upgraded throughout the game to allow for greater speed and length of travel) does more than let the player propel himself from ledges and roofs through the Gotham night - it allows the player to more fully tap into the experience of being Batman. The iconic image of Batman is not of the character beating up a generic mook or even fighting the Joker - it's of Batman illuminated against a full moon, cape fully extended, descending from some striking bit of Gotham City architecture.

Arkham Knight understands that to fully inhabit Batman, the player needs firm control over his movement, as well as an ability to gracefully glide across the night sky. As such, the simple act of movement in Arkham Knight is a genuine pleasure. When the player propels himself from a roof and glides through the rain, he's not just traversing the map to reach an objective - the sense of control and athleticism in that simple act is crucial to the experience of playing the game.

An Art Deco Joy

Of course, there's another reason that moving through the Gotham City of Arkham Knight is such a pleasure: put simply, the city is gorgeous

It's tempting to contrast the Gotham of Knight with the walled off prison town of City and say that Knight's Gotham feels more like an actual city. And it's true that the environment of Arkham City doesn't feel like a real place: it's a same-y, unattractive mess of boring, blocky buildings, lengthy, tedious interiors and a dull gray color palette. There's nothing aesthetically pleasing about the city of City.

But there's nothing particularly "real" about Arkham Knight's Gotham City. It doesn't feel like a real, lived-in city. Gotham, in this game, is a city where every building is either a soaring Art Deco skyscraper or a Gothic cathedral. The entire city is designed to provide Batman convenient ledges to grapple off of or to silently brood on. 

Very practical architecture

But realism is overrated, especially in a videogame based on a comic book property. Arkham Knight's Gotham City is something better than realistic: it's awesome. It's a creation that is glorious and grandiose, monumental and magnificent.This game's Gotham City is, in fact, one of the most beautiful environments in the history of the medium, a rare case of aesthetics meshing perfectly with the tone of the story and the very core of the character.

Every city should have massive statues liberally sprinkled throughout
Arkham Asylum is a very different experience than the three games that followed it. Asylum is a deliberately claustrophobic experience, one that values atmosphere more than aesthetics or movement. Batman spends more time in Asylum crawling through vents or striding through hallways than gliding across striking vistas. 

It's not an inherently inferior experience, but it is decidedly less spectacular. And that's the best description of Arkham Knight's environment and, in fact, its entire "vibe:" spectacular.

I'll rent an apartment in that building

"This Is How The Batman Died."

Arkham Knight has the best story in the run of the series, but if we're being honest, that's not really saying much. These haven't been games defined by their nuanced and complicated narratives - Arkham Asylum ended with Batman beating up a TITAN-infused gigantic Joker, after all.

Arkham Knight tells a solid enough story about the end of Batman, and manages to keep it relatively tight and focused. Arkham City spread itself too thin and tried to accommodate all the members of Batman's rogue gallery, and in doing so it short-changed most of them. Arkham Knight, by contrast, lets peripheral villains like Two-Face and Penguin stay in their side quests, keeping the main story focused on Scarecrow and the new, titular villain. 

Still, there's plenty to criticize here. The Arkham Knight's secret identity really isn't much of a secret - most players guessed it pretty quickly. And the game tries hilariously hard to milk genuine emotion out of Poison Ivy, one of Batman's weaker villains. There's an undeniable charm to watching massive plants spring out of the ground and destroy tanks, but if your narrative is leaning hard on Poison Ivy, you've probably mis-calculated. And the decision to turn Catwoman into a damsel in distress was not well thought out, regardless of the fact that the character herself calls it out within the game. 

But what Arkham Knight's story gets right is tone. The plot points don't all add up, and there are definitely ridiculous points within the narrative. But the game's story embraces the necessity of "ending" an iconic character with true panache. Every element of Arkham Knight's story is infused with the importance of the moment - it feels big in a way that Arkham City's narrative does not.

In the end, that's what makes Arkham Knight such a compelling experience. It's certainly not a perfect game, and I'd probably grant it falls short of greatness.The Batmobile is not the miserably boring addition that many critics say it is, but the game definitely leans too heavily on it, reducing many sidequests to lengthy tank chases through the streets of Gotham. And the game's side quests are too reliant on the now-ubiquitous open world game collection missions.

But Arkham Knight finds the right tone from its opening moments and stays consistent with it throughout. It's an unapologetically big game in its narrative and its environment. It's a genuine epic in a series that called for an epic conclusion. Arkham Knight is, like most of the best Batman stories, almost Wagnerian in the grandiosity of the sentiments expressed and the striking iconography of the visuals. 

And the game maintains this tone in all of its most striking elements: movement, aesthetics and narrative. For this consistency, and for all of its successes, Arkham Knight is both an outstanding experience and in sore need of a re-evaluation from the gaming community that greeted it with significant skepticism upon its release. 

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Gotham Embraced Ridiculousness and Found Its Best Self

It's difficult to identify Gotham's worst moment - there's a lot of competition for that particular honor. But it might well have been the show's third episode, "The Balloonman," in which James Gordon and Harvey Bullock quite earnestly hunt a masked vigilante who is murdering corrupt individuals by tying them to weather balloons.

There are fewer options when trying to determine the show's best moment. I'm partial to the close of "Unleashed," which comes near the end of the show's second season, in which Penguin and his underling Butch use a rocket launcher to blow up the seemingly invulnerable Theo Galavan, brainwashed into believing he's the avenging paladin Azrael. After the deed is done, Penguin waddles away, while Butch waves a jaunty goodbye and wishes Gordon, Alfred and Bruce Wayne a good night.

The Why of "Better"

It's not always easy identifying or articulating how or why a show has improved. Sometimes there's a new actor or a new showrunner or an exciting new storyline, more money for production design or special effects. But there's often some ephemeral, hard-to-pinpoint thing that wasn't there when the show began.

ABC's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D is a good example of the second dynamic. That the show is much better now than it was for most of its first season is essentially indisputable. Identifying the "why" is more difficult - you have to dig deep (the show has refined its core relationships, the actors are more comfortable in their roles, the writers have largely abandoned standalone episodes in favor of serialized storylines), and even then there's an element of post facto reasoning to the exercise.

Gotham is a somewhat similar example. The show, as it has since its pilot episode, blows through plot at a reckless pace, and its stories, at their best, do not stand up to careful scrutiny - and are utterly preposterous at their worst. It's still too reliant on generating audience goodwill by showing us people who are related (or even just similar) to iconic Batman characters. And it still has just two settings for its female characters - boring love interest and violent psychopath.

And yet, Gotham IS better than it was. It is, in fact, one of television's more consistently entertaining shows, even if we're compelled to admit it's nowhere near one of the medium's best, and that it even falls short of "good" status.

But for all its flaws, Gotham is genuinely fun. And it got there by abandoning all pretensions of genuine quality.

Finding the Right Tone

Gotham's first season was defined, as every professional critic observed, by its jarring tonal inconsistencies. These didn't just show up from episode to episode - individual scenes would be riven by these tonal shifts. Every actor seemed to be performing in a completely different show - Jada Pinkett Smith was channeling Eartha Kitt from the campy 60's Batman series, Donal Logue was playing the Jerry Orbach character in a bloody Law and Order reboot and Cory Michael Smith (playing Edward Nygma) was trapped in a cutesy romantic comedy. And poor Ben McKenzie was apparently working under the impression that he was in a prestige drama about a good man's fall and redemption, a delusion which would have been hilarious if it wasn't so sad.

 The issue was not so much that all of these performances were bad - Pinkett Smith was consistently entertaining, and I always got a kick out of the Nygma-Kristen Kringle dynamic (many, many others did not, it should be noted). The problem was that none of them meshed: a scene with Gordon, Bullock and Pinkett Smith's Fish Mooney would involve Logue wisecracking, Pinkett Smith purring her lines and McKenzie growling and glowering with all of the intensity he could muster. It was a mess.

The show's improvement over the last few years has been tied, above all else, into its ability to settle on the right tone and the right approach to its subject matter. That tone has, from day one, been exemplified by Robin Lord Taylor, the show's breakout performer.

Taylor's Penguin has always been Gotham's best character and most entertaining element. Taylor's performance has never been subtle, but he's always found a way to emotionally convey the character's alienation and ambition without ever losing his sense of fun. Penguin has always been the one character on the show who seems like a comic book character in the best sense - real without being realistic, heightened to the point of exaggeration while still commanding the audience's attention and respect.

Gotham has, in fits and starts, evolved to match Taylor's tone. That evolution is demonstrated by the difference between the two moments I highlighted at the start of this post.

"Balloonman" was the show's attempt to play a ridiculous and cringe-worthy premise with complete seriousness - you can't have two hard-boiled police detectives investigating murder-by-weather-balloon without the whole thing falling apart within the cold open. Gotham asked us to regard the entire scenario as something genuinely threatening (and even instructive for the young Bruce Wayne), and while one can squint really, really hard and imagine a brilliant writer-director combo making that work, Gotham didn't so much fall short as it stepped in a pothole and broke its ankle in front of the entire school within the first 10 seconds of the Homecoming Parade.

"Unleashed," which aired about a year and a half after "Balloonman," understood, by contrast, the ridiculousness of what was on screen and gloried in it. The scene in which Penguin and Butch blow up Galavan/Azrael is largely played for laughs - the episode doesn't expect us to see it as Galavan's tragic end or as a character-building moment for the future Batman. It's funny, and everyone involved plays their roles appropriately.

A Balancing Act

But the key to Gotham's improvement has been its ability to stay on the drama side of the drama/comedy line, if barely. The "Unleashed" scene plays Galavan's death for laughs, but while Taylor is clearly enjoying himself, he still inhabits Penguin's indignation and fearsomeness. That's always been Taylor's gift - his scenes are frequently funny, he is frequently funny, but Penguin remains a genuinely terrifying figure.

There's no doubt that Gotham is campier than it was in its first season, but it has managed to avoid falling completely into caricature. The show's new tone is a kind of dark camp - heightened, ridiculous, but with a Gothic aesthetic and a gleeful embrace of gore aided by some genuinely impressive visual effects.

 Gotham's second season, which marked the beginning of its ascendance, was sub-titled "Rise of the Villains," and its increased focus on the show's bad guys represented a change that was significant as it was welcome. The first season devoted plenty of time to the underworld machinations of Penguin, Fish Mooney and Carmine Falcone (a usually good John Doman, who always seemed out of place on this show), but the second season took all of that scheming, threw in the twisted Galavan siblings, mixed in a centuries-long conspiracy and evil goings on at Arkham Asylum and produced something much more interesting and entertaining.

That dynamic has continued through season three and first two episodes of season four. Gotham's villains - whether you're talking about Penguin, Nygma, Victor Zsasz, Tabitha Galavan (who survived her less fortunate brother) or Barbara Kean (Eric Richards, invigorated after being freed from the need to play Gordon's boring love interest in the first season) - provide a consistent spark of charisma and entertainment.

The "stakes" here are comically low, considering both that Gotham is a prequel and that death has long since lost its meaning on this show (Barbara was killed in the season three finale, but is almost certain to return at some point this year). But the actors playing these villains do so with malevolent glee, and the show embraces the villains' storylines with an enthusiasm it simply can't muster for Gordon, Bullock and Bruce Wayne.

Take, for example, Gotham's ballsy decision to kill off Kristen Kringle (Nygma's love interest) in the second season, then bring the actress back a season later to play a completely unrelated character who happens to look exactly like Kringle and happens to fall in love with Nygma herself. There's no conspiracy there - "Isabella" isn't a distant relation of Kristen Kringle, coming to Gotham City to wreak bloody vengeance on Nygma. She's just a random woman with the exact same face as Ed's dead girlfriend.

And then the show kills her a few episodes later just to drive a wedge between Nygma and Penguin.

There's something breathtaking about that, right? It's so impressively and unnecessarily stupid that it works, somehow.  It's a writing staff committing wholeheartedly to an ill-advised idea, then abruptly pulling the plug because they grew bored with it.  You want to hate it, but you have to admire the chutzpah.

The Aesthetics of Ascendance

All of these improvements in acting and storytelling have been accentuated by the show's distinct aesthetic sensibility. Put simply, Gotham is one of the most gorgeous shows on television, possessing a visual style that syncs perfectly with the show's newer, more successful tone.

Gotham's visual style is a mish-mash of different aesthetics, but it combines them in a way that works far better than it should. The buildings and interiors are all designed in a grandiose Art Deco style - check out this image of Theo Galavan's penthouse from the show's second season (image courtesy of the Gotham wiki):

I would absolutely live here

Street-level scenes, meanwhile, are all grit and grime and urban decay, and the show has never met a grate it didn't think would look better with steam pouring out of it. 

And all of the clothing styles seem like they're frozen in the years between the 30's and 50's, which can create some truly striking visuals, like this shot of Nygma in his 50's-style G-man suit:

Those cheekbones!

Everything about the show's visual palette is heightened and exaggerated - everything is sharp angles and bright colors set against dimness and darkness. None of it is unbelievably over the top, really, but it's all unique to the show, and it helps create the impression of a universe that is similar to ours, but noticeably off.

It's apparent, as we enter Gotham's fourth season, that Gotham is never going to be a great show. The show's plotting remains too enamored of its own twistiness, allegiances change with eye-rolling suddenness, scenes featuring our "heroes" are mostly boring and any real emotional depth (such as the surprising heart and sentiment that defined the Penguin-Riddler relationship early in season three) is quickly subsumed by the show's need for blood and betrayal. 

Still, in our Golden Age of Television, when there's a glut of high-quality prestige shows, there remains a space for Gotham's entertaining, unapologetic ridiculousness. 

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Yes, Game of Thrones is a great TV show - still

Game of Thrones aired its super-size season finale Sunday. I liked it - zombie ice dragon! Other people were less enthusiastic, which is fine - my pop culture opinions have not yet acquired the force of law. 

In and of itself, that's not really notable. I haven't been a journalist for about a thousand years, but I don't think "People Disagree On Merits of Television Episode" is much of a headline. But the reaction to Game of Thrones' finale and its 7th season - as well as the usual end-of-season "state of the show" think pieces - illustrates a really fascinating set of dynamics that define the critical conversation around HBO's smash hit.

It's fair, I think, to say that critics have turned on Game of Thrones. One need not rely on childish fanboy whining about people "hating" the show to make that observation - it's more or less objectively the case that most prominent TV critics are less fond of the show than they used to be.

A pretty representative articulation of that can be found at Vox's listing of the 18 best TV shows airing right now, curated by the great Todd VanDerWerff. Here's part of the Game of Thrones entry:

"Sure, Game of Thrones can be a little same-y and unbearable at times, but goodness, at least it's not you who's getting stabbed in the head. And it's still TV's most opulent drama, produced within an inch of its life and gorgeous to look at. The show might never be the all-time classic TV series it was once poised to become, but it’s still essential, if only to know what everybody else is talking about."

That's about as backhanded as compliments get. "Still essential, if only to know what everybody else is talking about?" But setting that aside, the most revealing - and typical - part of that passage is the implication that Game of Thrones is a show in decline - or, at the very least, a show that has fallen from its previous heights and has become something noticeably less than it once was.

VanDerWerff is hardly unusual in this diagnosis. You can find any number of pieces making that same argument. You can even find Adult Swim bumps to that effect.

There's no critical hive mind, of course, and every Game of Thrones skeptic came to that position at a different point in the show's run. But for most, the cut-off point was somewhere around the season four finale. For some, that point came a season earlier or later.

Regardless, the show's "decline" essentially comes down to a simple turning point: when Game of Thrones gained the resources it needed to really indulge in spectacle and grandeur. 

Or, phrased another way, critics mostly loved Game of Thrones when they could plausibly portray it as anything other than an epic fantasy series. It was a political thriller! It was a workplace drama! It was a road trip movie! It was a mis-matched buddy comedy! 

But, as Matt Zoller Seitz observed in a thoughtful and nuanced piece, Game of Thrones "isn't what it once was." And if it once was possible to downplay the show's epic fantasy elements, that time is past. Game of Thrones is epic fantasy, a fact it now has the money and manpower to show off more or less every week. It's not a coincidence that the critical consensus soured on the show once it fully embraced a soaring, sweeping ethos.

Allow me, then, to submit the following proposition: Game of Thrones remains a great show on track for all-time classic status. The show's current critical reputation has less to do with a significant decline in quality and more to do with a built-in disdain for genre fiction and a strong critical bias for small-scale, grounded, relatable drama.

It's not wrong to say that Game of Thrones has changed over the years. It is a bigger show now, more inclined to shoot for the Big Moment and the extraordinary setpiece. It's a show defined by spectacle and grandeur in a way that it never was before. 

And there's no denying that in the process of becoming spectacular, the show has lost some of its subtlety and nuance. There's less room for the smaller, character-driven moments that defined much of the show's earlier days. Quiet, candle-lit conversations between two characters have been replaced by dragon attacks on loot trains and zombie dragons spewing blue fire to bring down The Wall. 

It's possible to take this observation too far. Game of Thrones is still eminently capable of creating those intimate, small-scale, character-driven moments. The Sansa-Arya feud from this past season is an excellent example - the relationship between the two sisters is a fascinating examination of the way trauma sticks to even the best-intentioned of individuals, of how it can poison and subvert our closest relationships and most promising futures. The reunion of these two women was a triumphant moment, but it did not wipe away all they had experienced.

Instead, their pasts colored their views of each other and made them vulnerable to Littlefinger's machinations and manipulations. After all, Sansa had spent the most recent years of her life either living in a den of homicidal lions in King's Landing or married to a monstrous Ramsey Bolton. Arya had spent hers moving through a series of horrifying situations and environments in which any slip-up could have proven lethal. Neither Stark sister was in a position to trust, and into that environment Littlefinger slipped quite easily, taking advantage of Sansa through the classic abuser's trick of isolating her from friends and family and building a world in which she could rely only on him.

And for all that, the resolution - the discovery and unmasking of Littlefinger's plot, and the death of this long-running character - was both satisfying and earned. It was ironic and yet fitting that Littlefinger - the ultimate schemer, the man so profoundly in love with his own cleverness - would doom himself by giving the woman he loved the tools she needed to see through his scheming.

Still, storylines like these are more the exception than the rule in the Game of Thrones of 2017, and the opposite was true in the show's critical salad days. But here's the thing: the idea that subtlety is superior to spectacle, that small is better than large, that Big Moments are easy and the best drama occurs during quiet moments, is just an artistic value system. A perfectly legitimate one, to be sure, but also one that possesses no special claim to objective truth.

Game of Thrones is different than it used to be, but it is not worse. The show possesses an unparalleled ability to induce awe and wonder in its audience. The spectacle that critics invariably preface with the deprecatory adjective "empty" is, in fact, an extraordinary accomplishment, as worthy of critical appreciation as any quiet moment of depression from an intricately drawn anti-hero. At a time when our standards for Games of Thrones' big, effects-driven battle scenes should be un-meetable, the show continues to exceed all expectations for these moments.

Consider, for instance, the fall of The Wall in Sunday's season finale. As a plot point, this wasn't the least bit surprising - we all knew it was coming, going back to the end of season six. But though the moment was more than a year in the making, it surpassed expectations because no one saw a zombie ice dragon coming.

There's nothing subtle about a zombie ice dragon, of course, and there's nothing about it that's going to appeal to observers who consider quiet character work the foundation of great drama. But it's one of the clearest examples yet of a show that's more capable of accomplishing the extraordinary than anything else on television.

Whether in the wight-driven massacre of "Hardhome" or the record-breaking pyrotechnics of "The Spoils of War," Game of Thrones has showcased a once-in-a-lifetime mastery of spectacle and of the emotions its audience experiences while witnessing it. That ability to entrance viewers with moments they cannot find anywhere else on television is not a minor attribute to be acknowledged and quickly dismissed in a parenthetical nested inside a harsh critique - it is a staggering force and a dynamic worthy of genuine respect.

It is also why Game of Thrones remains a great TV show. And why it will be remembered as one of the greatest series in the history of the medium.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

ZZ Ward returns with a strong sophomore effort in The Storm (Review)

Artist: ZZ Ward
Album: The Storm
Grade: B+

The Storm, ZZ Ward's second full-length album, cements Ward's status as one of modern pop's best musicians. But as it confirms that position, it raises another question: is Ward capable of - or even interested in - being anything more?

If pop music is defined by the tension between accessibility and authenticity, then Ward - along with Elle King, whose 2015 hit "Ex's & Oh's" is one of the best pop songs in recent memory - has shown a unique ability to reconcile those qualities. She is an absurdly talented singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist with a gift for crafting catchy songs that feel as though they're the product of a singular talent and not a pop song production line.

If nothing else, The Storm works as a perfectly solid demonstration of that particular gift. Album highlight "Cannonball" is the best example, a brilliant, bluesy track that serves as a showcase for Ward's musical versatility (you don't see a ton of skilled harmonica players in modern pop music) and is well-accented by Fantastic Negrito's soulful guest vocals. It's a toe-tapper, a song that mainlines straight to the listener's brain and burrows deep while reveling in Ward's unique talent.

Really, though, the entire album proves the point. There's not a bad song on the album, and from beginning to end The Storm is stuffed with quality. Each track is quality, well-crafted blues rock. They're disciplined, intricately engineered songs without an ounce of fat or an extraneous note - the 11 tracks barely exceed a combined total of 35 minutes, and if the definition of a good work of art is one that leaves the audience wanting more, The Storm certainly qualifies.

Ward has never been a particularly subtle lyricist - her favorite tactic is to wrap her arms tight around a central metaphor and squeeze every ounce of life out of it over the course of a single track. But even going back to "Put The Gun Down," her rollicking, 2012 introduction to the modern pop scene, Ward has shown an admirable willingness to write songs in which she's something less than a noble figure. "Cannonball" and "Bag of Bones" both evocatively paint a picture of weakness and desperation, while "If U Stayed," with its chorus of "And when you're holding on to your very first child/I hope you think of me and everything we had/And everything we couldn't be," conveys those ignoble feelings we experience in the aftermath of a breakup and in the face of our desire to be above such bitterness.

So why, then, does The Storm fall just short of genuine greatness? Why is there the gnawing sense that something is missing?

It's tempting to say that The Storm represents a step back from Til The Casket Drops, Ward's debut album, and, indeed, there's nothing here with the propulsive energy of "Put the Gun Down" or the smoldering intensity of "Blue Eyes Blind" (Ward's best song). And Ward's voice is less of a potent weapon here than on her first album, where she showcased a remarkable ability to range up and down the full length of the vocal register at will.

But though Til The Casket Drops was a genuinely brilliant album, that criticism is not quite on the mark. The issue is not that The Storm is worse than Ward's first album - it's that it feels like nothing more than a continuation of it.

Everything you can say about The Storm can be cross-applied more or less directly to Til The Casket Drops. Ward's style and approach haven't evolved much at all in the five years or so since her first album.

And, to be sure, there wasn't much need for evolution, or even room for maturation. Til The Casket Drops was already an impressively mature album, especially for a debut offering. If there was a flaw with that first album, it was in the lack of flaws - a slight failure of ambition that was noticeable, though eminently forgivable considering the talent on display.

Five years later, that lack of ambition is still forgivable, but it has only grown more glaring with time. There are no fascinating failures here, no epic, cringe-worthy nine-minute tracks on some issue that's close to Ward's heart, no songs that show a still-young musician perhaps a bit too eager to push the limits of her magnificent talent.

I wrote earlier that there's not a bad song on The Storm, and that's true. It's also true that she's yet to release a bad song at all. That is, in one sense, an extraordinary achievement, the reflection of a talented musician with a clear sense of who she is and an iron grip on her style. In another sense - one that's less important, but still real - that's a reflection of an artist who is, perhaps, slightly too comfortable with that style and unwilling to re-draw her boundaries. The basketball player who shoots 100 percent is impossibly, impressively efficient, but he or she is also taking only the easiest of uncontested shots.

There is a sense with The Storm - as, again, there was with Til The Casket Drops - of Ward checking off boxes in order to hit all the expected marks. Here's the stripped-down track that shows off the musician's authenticity ("Bag of Bones"). Here's the soulful, true blues track ("Cannonball"). Here's the tragic ballad ("If U Stayed"). Here's the spunky girl power anthem ("She Ain't Me"). To say that Ward is just checking boxes or hitting marks isn't to say she doesn't check those boxes or hit those marks with great skill - she clearly does.

But every track Ward releases seems precision engineered to achieve a specific goal or convey a specific image. And that is, in some sense, profoundly unnecessary - Ward's talent is obvious, and would shine through in any context.

One of the most insidious mistakes a reviewer can commit is to ignore the work in front of them and instead criticize an artist for failing to make the album/movie/novel/show the reviewer wanted. So it's not fair to say that Ward needs to do anything more than what she's doing or to demand an artistic evolution that's not really necessary.

But there are no surprises on The Storm. Every song demand's the listener's respect, but none demands their attention. There's nothing wrong with the road ZZ Ward is on, but it is well worn, and there's room for the occasional scenic detour.