“Joe Pera Reads You the Church Announcements” is my favourite Christmas storyDec 22, 2020
Joe Pera Talks With You is one of the strangest shows of the past two years. Joe Pera plays a fictional version of himself as a man in his mid-30s, but he carries himself with a distinctly grandfatherly manner. He speaks slowly and deliberately, he has a little hump in his posture, and he mostly dodders around and remarks on the mundane parts of his life. Each eleven-minute episode has Joe teach the audience about something that fascinates him, or tell a story, or explore a part of his town. It captures the vibe of visiting an older relative, in a good way; it forces you to slow down, relax, and adjust your perception of the world to appreciate the little things that are often hard to see.
“Joe Pera Reads You the Church Announcements” is the episode that made me fall in love with the show. Joe has just heard “Baba O’Riley” (sometimes mistitled as Teenage Wasteland) by The Who for the first time and can’t contain his excitement over how good it is. “Baba O’Riley” is a fantastic song, but it’s so overplayed that it’s hard to fully appreciate it anymore. But the show plays Joe’s enthusiasm totally straight. As he excitedly introduces his friends and family to a song they’ve heard hundreds of times before, they smile and nod and indulge him. It’s impossible not to get swept up in his love for it, and I found myself hearing it with new ears, getting amped up by a song I’d grown sick of years ago.
This is also the show's only Christmas episode, even though the holiday barely features beyond a few decorations in the background and a mention of how Baba O’Riley helped make the tradition of decorating the tree with Nana “familiar, but new.” It’s small, but it’s a sweet thought, and I appreciate a Christmas story that doesn’t focus on the tradition itself, but just acts as an excuse to gather with loved ones. I realize that’s the moral of a lot of Christmas stories, where some goofy dad focuses on having the best tree or perfect turkey or whatever and forgets that the real meaning of Christmas is his family. But by placing a lot of focus on the traditions of Christmas, those movies still reinforce their importance. The brief and frictionless nature of Joe Pera lets the connection between people take the spotlight in such a way that it's easy to forget this episode is even set at Christmas. And the fact that something as small as Joe finding a new favourite song keeps their Christmas fresh speaks to what tradition has come to mean to me.
As I grew into my late teens and early twenties, I became more and more disillusioned with Christmas (like I imagine a lot of people do). It’s a time in your life where you’re gaining independence from your family, but (likely) you’re not on your own in the world enough to fully appreciate them, and you’re certainly too young to have a family of your own, which leaves the holidays feeling like this weird obligation you should have outgrown. I love shopping for my niece and nephew, but everything else felt like a pointless chore. Then, on a whim, I decided to buy a small Christmas tree for myself. My family’s been using the same fake tree with the same lights and bulbs since before I was born, so when I saw a small fake tree with artificial snow on the branches, the novelty drew me to it immediately. And, amazingly, I loved putting it up. Decorating a tree by yourself, for nobody but yourself, should be depressing, but I had a good time. I found a box of old ornaments from when I was about 5-10 and digging through them and choosing the ones I remembered the most fondly helped me feel connected to my family. I was able to work at my own pace, and make little games for myself as I decided to fit all these ornaments on a tree too small for them. It was familiar, but new, and seeing my cheap, small, shabbily-decorated tree warms my heart a little each time. Just like the enthusiasm I felt for Baba O’Riley hearing it through Joe Pera’s ears, this little tree let me see Christmas through fresh eyes again. And I think this whole experience has changed the way I see Christmas. The traditions are pointless, but that is the point. They're a reason to make sure you gather with loved ones, and might serve to provide a bit of comforting familiarity, but they should only be adhered to as long as they serve that purpose. If bending or breaking them makes the experience memorable, and helps you bond with your family, what else could matter?
Why Deadpool’s depression makes him fit the format of a monthly comic perfectlySep 11, 2020
The one exception I’ll always make is for Deadpool. Unfortunately, Wade Wilson is a character that’s very easy to get wrong. He’s a comedy character who breaks the fourth wall, making him easy to slot in to team books or shallow minis as an annoying wiseass, who relies on acknowledging that he’s a comic character for humour rather than actual jokes. This version of the character became especially pervasive after Daniel Way popularized the lolrandom style of humour in his 2008-2012 run. In the hands of his best writers, however, he’s more of a sad clown archetype, and a damn good one at that.
Wade is a textbook case of Major Depressive Disorder. Like most depressives, he’s extremely self-loathing, and developed his sense of humour as a way of forming shallow relationships without letting anybody really get to know him. While most of his current guilt stems from his work as an assassin, it’s not hard to imagine that this has been a lifelong struggle for him. Depression, and the internal conviction that you’re a worthless piece of shit, is all-encompassing, and it makes it really tempting to do awful things. Maybe it stems from a coldness towards people derived from the emotional numbness of depression, or a desire to make others feel as awful as you do. Maybe it’s freeing to stop fighting and be the piece of shit you know you are, or your self-loathing has become so routine and comforting that you need to do terrible things to make it easier to perpetuate. Regardless, it isn’t hard to imagine Wade giving in to his worst instincts and becoming a hired killer, despite knowing it’s wrong.
This, naturally, leads to him becoming ostracized from the community, which is what he really wants. It’s impossible to get close to other people when you’re consumed with your own self-loathing. You question the sincerity or value of anyone who accepts you. You feel like a liar for accepting compliments or displaying confidence. You feel manipulative for presenting yourself in a way that gets others to like you. And any close relationship involves a degree of vulnerability, and it’s hard to open yourself up to the possibility of rejection when there’s a little voice in the back of your head rejecting you every second of every day.
Paradoxically, you can’t not yearn for human connection either. With no ability to find self-worth from within, it needs to come from other people. As already mentioned, his humour allows him to keep people around to kill time with and to keep him out of his own head, but also prevents them from getting close enough to understand his turmoil. (Being part of a cutthroat, criminal underworld is also great for this.) These shallow relationships are no substitute for real friendships, but they abate some of the loneliness without risking the possibility of rejection. But this doesn’t mean he doesn’t still long for more.
Early on in his first solo series, Wade fell in love with Siryn, one of the female X-Men. A chance encounter and some basic human decency from her impacted him greatly, and he became obsessed with her. Not believing himself to be worthy of her love, not wanting to inflict himself on her and not ready to open up to the possibility of rejection, Wade’s love manifested as stalking (a fact he acknowledges is creepy, wrong and not romantic). He knows his love is one-sided, he knows she was just being a good person, but, never having been shown that kind of pure acceptance before, he can’t help but stare at her through her window and fantasize about a world where someone—anyone—loves him. That knowledge that his love for her really has nothing to do with her as a person and only has to do with him latching on to the briefest bit of acceptance he’s ever been shown, also plays on his mind as he hates himself for only being able to love for selfish reasons. But ultimately, he can’t approach her because the fantasy is so valuable at that point that he can’t risk losing it for the off-chance of it actually coming true. But, like anything else, the comfort of that fantasy will fade and he’ll want the real thing, and if he pursues it and gets rejected, he’ll only hate himself all the more for being stupid and greedy enough to think he could deserve or attain love.
Another factor in his reticence to approach Siryn is his appearance. It’s a long story, but Wade’s skin is incredibly scarred and disfigured, giving him a convenient excuse to not try and reach out to people. He can tell himself that it’s okay to be lonely and creepy and sad because, even if he worked hard to fix all that, nobody could ever accept him due to his physicality. While most people don’t have the extreme disfigurement he does, it’s an effective metaphor for how depression can turn your cruelest lens inwards and convince you that you may as well look horrifically disfigured. Depression can affect your perception of reality, as your mind knows things to be true but your heart can’t accept them. Wade has been accepted by people despite his appearance, yet still clings to his mask to hide himself away. His depression won’t let him accept that he doesn’t need it, that he has reason to believe that someone can love him without the mask. Because losing that excuse puts him one step closer to having to face his depression and put himself closer to facing rejection.
So what does this have to do with the format of a monthly ongoing book? Wade is smart enough to know these things about himself, and he wants to be better. He does eventually decide to put himself out there and approach Siryn, and it actually works out for a little while. He’s formed a few long-lasting friendships in the wider Marvel Universe, usually after extraordinary circumstances force people to be around him for a long time. But managing depression is a lifelong job, and backslides are inevitable.
Only being able to derive self-worth from outside sources leaves Wade needy and easy to manipulate. For example, one of those long-lasting friendships Wade formed was with Captain America in the excellent The Good, the Bad and the Ugly arc. He gained some legitimacy, felt good, even became an Avenger. Then, during a recent storyline where—long story—Captain America turned out to be a Nazi, Wade felt compelled to stand by him. Sure, people had misgivings about what Captain America was doing, but he had stood by Wade when nobody else would, believed in him and supported him when he couldn’t support himself. To turn on him now would be to sever one of his few connections. To deny himself a source of love and value. What choice did he have? When Captain America’s nefarious Nazi plans were revealed, Wade inevitably got some splashback and became reviled in the community again, leading to his book being re-titled The Despicable Deadpool, as he fell back into his comfort zone of amoral killing and wallowed in self-loathing.
Wade Wilson’s story is a story of self-improvement and, more importantly, trying to figure out how to improve yourself. Self-improvement is a story that should never end, and it’s often a two steps forward, one step back process, up until it’s two steps forward, five steps back. Wade is damaged and missing some essential part of himself that others have, and his search for meaning and purpose and acceptance without that leaves him in a self-destructive cycle, but his intelligence and earnestness stops him from ever giving in to his darker side completely. The sad truth is that if he was a real person, free from the editorial need for status quo to be maintained, he’d likely be stuck in this same cycle of peaks and valleys, stability and instability, like the rest of us are.
Joe Schmo Show: The Live Action, Visual Novel Reality SeriesSep 4, 2020
Back in the early 2000s, the reality TV landscape was pretty different. Instead of getting a peak into the lives of celebrities or certain vocations (with plenty of contrived drama), they focused on regular people isolated into some kind of competition, with immunity challenges and eviction ceremonies. And, still lots of contrived drama. Which is an odd approach, as the premise of "a dozen or so people locked into a house, competing for a large sum of money" should have provided plenty of drama as it was, yet there was still a lot of over-the-top characters and bizarre situations that stretched believability.
The Joe Schmo Show was conceived as a parody of that type of reality show. Under the guise of a fake show called "Lap of Luxury," ten people were locked into a mansion and had to vote for who they think should be evicted every night, and the last one standing wins $100,000 with small competitions sprinkled in for either voting immunity or smaller prizes. The catch is that all but one of these people are actors, taking on the persona of a reality show archetype (the asshole, the schemer, the quirky one, etc.), following a script and trying to see how the typical manufactured realty TV drama goes when it's pushed to 11 and a real person is right in the centre of it.
It's an interesting premise, but what really makes the show is the Schmo himself. It seems like they expected a lot of the comedy to come from placing him in the middle of drama and seeing his awkward reaction, or trying to stay out of it, and there's even a sense early on that he was meant to be the butt of more jokes, but the man they chose is the most improbably sweet, considerate man out there. Matt Kennedy Gould is a saint.
I originally watched the show in my mid-to-late teens, when I wasn't as immersed in the world of videogames, but on a recent rewatch it struck me how much the Matt Man reminds me of a visual novel protagonist. One by one, the actors come to Matt with their pre-written problems, and without fail he listens to their concerns and is supportive every step of the way. He even goes out of his way when he sees people in need, such as when the host has a bit complaining about how humiliating this gig is, clearly meant as a jokey aside during setup before a competition, and Matt steps forward to give him a pep talk about how this show is going to be seen and as long as he's putting his best foot forward it doesn't matter how good the show is, it'll bring him more work.
Furthering his status as a visual novel protagonist, Matt (at least as portrayed on the show) doesn't seem to have many issues himself, except for an extreme version to chocolate (which is silly enough that it almost could be a VN protagonist thing). He's funny and outgoing and supportive, but mainly exists to build bridges between others, to support people and further the group dynamic. He's an amazing audience surrogate, since most people when watching a show like this will wonder what they would do in this situation, and Matt Kennedy Gould is exactly who we'd all like to imagine we are.
I've always found VN protags a little insufferable because they're always too perfect, and the characters you help just heap praise on them and it feels like a disingenuous way to hype up the player rather than the character, and that nobody's this perfect or deserving of praise, but next time I feel that way I'll just have to remember the Joe Schmo Show and that there are people like that out there.Mr. Looigi likes this.
Kanji Tatsumi and LGBT Representation in Persona 4Jul 13, 2020
As some of you may have noticed, a certain game has released recently that’s caused quite a stir over its depiction of LGBT people. I haven’t played either Last of Us game, and haven’t followed the story behind the game closely enough to have any thoughts on Neil Druckmann and co., so I’m not gonna talk about them specifically. But the whole situation’s got me thinking about LGBT representation in games, specifically in the context of another game that’s been in the spotlight recently due to a PC port: Persona 4.
I’m in favour of more representation for LGBT people in media, and I think Persona 4 does a great job in this department. But there’s a growing contingent of fans, even though they might be a vocal minority, that have put the game on blast lately for not going far enough. So I want to talk a little about what one of its characters, Kanji Tatsumi, means to me and why I think he’s a terrific example of LGBT representation. I’m hoping framing the discussion in this way will help keep some of the toxicity of the TLOU2 discussion at bay.
Let’s start with the basics—Persona 4 is a game about helping people deal with their repressed emotions. Each dungeon is a physical manifestation of their psyche, and the boss will be their Shadow, a distorted version of how they view the parts of themselves they can’t accept. Kanji’s dungeon is a men’s bathhouse; his Shadow is a lispy, flirtatious man running around in a towel. The message seems fairly obvious: Kanji is a closeted homosexual. But things aren’t as cut and dry as that.
I think this is where a lot of people’s issues with Kanji’s story come from. It feels a little like queerbaiting—teasing a queer character early on to get the attention of fans desperate for LGBT representation, only to backpedal later and say “Don’t worry guys, he’s not really gay!” I understand the frustration at that, but I think dismissing Kanji as a bad LGBT character simply because of it does a massive disservice to the story he tells about the complexity of sexuality.
Kanji’s family owns a textile shop, which leads to Kanji developing a knack for knitting and sewing at a young age. He gets mocked for being too girly and becomes isolated from the world, as neither sex can accept a man with such feminine interests. Partially to reaffirm his masculinity and partially to solidify the wedge between him and the world that rejected him, Kanji adopts an overly tough and brutish persona, replacing people’s contempt for him with fear. But that insecurity over his lack of masculinity stays embedded, and possibly manifests as his confused sexuality.
We first see Kanji’s attraction to men when he meets Naoto Shirogane, a woman who’s presenting as a man at the time. (Whether or not Naoto is another example of queerbaiting is a whole other can of worms I won’t get into.) After discovering she’s a woman, he continues being attracted to her. Of course, the root of his attraction to Naoto is that she’s one of the few people to accept him and make him feel valued or safe. But it leaves the question of his orientation murkier, leading to cries of noncommittal representation being lobbied against the game.
It’s important to note, however, that just because Kanji’s only love interest is female, that doesn’t stop him from being a queer character. Nothing definitive is ever stated about Kanji’s sexuality, and more crucially, Kanji seems just as fervent for answers as his fans. For example, when the prospect of Naoto entering a beauty pageant comes up, putting her in a position where she would dress more traditionally femininely than she normally does, Kanji begs her to do so as it would “clear up a few questions for [him].”
The idea of not understanding your own sexuality may seem alien to some people—whether you’re straight or gay or anywhere in between, you just like what you like, right?—but the complexity and range of feelings present can be hard to navigate as a teenager, especially for those who have had self-doubt instilled in them from isolating experiences as a youth.
Personally speaking, I consider myself mostly straight, as I’ve always had a slight attraction to men since I hit puberty. As silly as it sounds now, the underwhelming nature of that attraction drove me crazy as a kid, as it left me without a comfortable label and identity. Girls caught my attention everywhere I went, yet I couldn’t help but notice—and appreciate—men with some degree of regularity. I didn’t think I was gay, but those pesky thoughts reminded I wasn’t totally straight either. My conception of bisexuality at the time was that it was a purely equal, balanced attraction to either sex, so I couldn’t find any sense of identity there either. I would try to force thoughts into my head, to cut out the unwelcome ones and force myself to be either gay or straight. I didn’t care which one; I just wanted to know where I belonged.
This led to panic and rumination over my sexuality. I’d heard stories of men who wouldn’t come out of the closet until middle age, sometimes having a wife and kids, so I worried that I was gay and would waste much of my life in the closet. Maybe I was gay and I was just trying to suppress my feelings after growing up in a household with four older brothers who were constantly hurling gay jokes, usually at me. Or maybe I was straight and the vague attraction to men was implanted in me from internalizing those jokes. Maybe I was straight and was simply so desperate for acceptance and love that I’d be willing to settle for a man. I realize these ideas are ridiculous, but without any grounding sense of identity back then, I was floundering to simply understand who I was. After all, I’d never seen anyone going through what I was going through, so I must have been the only one. It must just be a problem with my screwy head.
I wish there was a more narratively satisfying conclusion to this story, but after a few years of this, more pressing concerns came up and I simply decided that I was happy to call myself straight and live that way, but to keep my mind open if the opportunity to explore those feelings ever arose. Curiously, as I stopped being so hard on myself about it, those feelings slowly subsided (though never disappeared), until, somewhat recently, a friend came out of the closet to me and all those feelings rushed back to me harder than I’d ever felt them before. After that, though, they’ve waned again. I’d be lying if I said I still didn’t have some lingering frustration at the lack of consistency in my sexuality, but I’m still taking things one day at a time.
I can’t help but wonder, however, if seeing a story like Kanji’s would have helped me back then. Some simple reassurance that things aren’t as easy for everyone as they seem sometimes. Something to let me know it’s okay to not understand yourself, as long as you can accept the answers you find in your own time. I realize there's another side to this coin, that there are gay gamers out there who needed to see someone like Kanji fully embrace his homosexuality and be out and proud, and I empathize with how hard it would be to see him heel turn and, conveniently, unknowingly be attracted to a woman the entire time. Regardless, I think the backlash to his story is a bit overblown, and even reductive to the case for LGBT representation. Sure, I'd love to see a fully out Persona character someday, but to pretend that Kanji doesn't represent the LGBT community is to ignore the huge, complex spectrum of sexuality that’s out there.
Animal Crossing is an amazingly perfect quarantine gameApr 8, 2020
I haven't left my house in about 72 hours. I've always been a homebody, but until the option to leave my house was taken from me I don't think I realized how much I relished simple excursions that broke up my day. Even though a lot of the things I left the house for were things I can still do at home, like seeing a movie or working out or getting something to eat, it doesn't feel like as much of an activity when I'm doing those things in the same few rooms I do everything else. And I think that's the oddest part, the way everything sort of feels like one activity when you're inside all day. The hours all melt together and I spend all day thinking I'm busy at something but also have no idea where any of my days have gone, as I flitter back and forth from one activity to another at a whim.
Weirdly enough, that lack of structure to my day is what makes Animal Crossing: New Horizons such a good quarantine game. Obviously any game you can dump a lot of hours into is good for a situation like this, but there are tons of games that can support triple digit playtimes. What makes Animal Crossing so perfectly timed is its structure and the way the in-game clock lines up with the real world. When I get up in the morning, I know something will be different in my town, like my house will be expanded, or a new resident will have moved in, or that goddamn museum will be open so I can unload those forty bugs and fish I caught three days ago. I know there will be basic maintenance, like the five new 2x Nook Miles objectives to do, cleaning up the fossils that have somehow risen to surface-level overnight, or selling every piece of natural fruit on my island to Tom Nook before anyone gets a chance to eat. I know if I want to talk to every resident in my town, some will be up before me, some after, and I might need to come back to the game at a certain time to catch them. It can sometimes feel like a chore or an obligation, but it's always a fun one, and anything that can break up the monotony right now should be cherished.
It also gives me a fun, novel way to interact with my friends. At a time where the only way I can hang out with them is to either chat or play video games together (not that that's extraordinarily different from what we normally do, but the lack of options and not having them in the same room is certainly a blow), Animal Crossing allows for some direct interaction. Even if it's as simple as visiting their island to write something stupid on their bulletin board or get into some furniture-rearranging hijinx, it lets me feel like I'm tangibly affecting their world in a way I otherwise can't right now.
Of course, Animal Crossing isn't the only, or the main, thing I'm building my schedule around right now. I still work weekends, I'm keeping busy with home improvement projects and work for this site. But all those things, regardless of how much I enjoy them, still have some pressure to them. Even a job you like will be stressful, the painting I'm doing around my house requires me to be precise and quickly clean up mistakes, and stuff for the site means hitting deadlines and trying to pull my weight or not let other people down. But my deserted island emulates a low-stakes version of the real world, where I can enjoy the fulfillment of a daily routine, the sense of progression over a long period of time, and a vibrant, changing world because my friends are out there living their own lives, too. I don't think I've ever seen a game so perfectly made for its time.
relauby recommends: Bubsy's 4D ChessApr 1, 2020
I originally wrote this article as part of our GBAtemp Recommends series. Unfortunately, it was shelved by the editorial staff because I took some potshots at Bubsy 3D, which happens to be my boss’ favourite game. As an act of rebellion against this egregious oppression, I’m publishing the article here, in full, uncensored.
Video games are a unique breed when it comes to expectations regarding their sequels. The music industry is filled with one hit wonders, TV shows have their sophomore slumps and movies tend to go for a “bigger is better” mentality with their sequels, often losing what made the original so special. But video game franchises tend to benefit from taking a second bite at the apple. Whether it’s due to the complexity of game design or the relative youth of the industry, it’s fairly uncommon for the most beloved entry of a game series to be the first one.
Case in point: Bubsy’s 4D Chess. While it’s been a contentious subject among GBAtemp’s magazine staff, I’m actually of the opinion that the original Bubsy 3D is not a very good game. The controls are slippery, the colours are garish and ugly, and Bubsy himself is just a grating character, oftentimes less a real person and more just a vehicle for cat jokes, like his obsession with yarn or his (p)awful puns.
This just makes Bubsy’s 4D Chess even more impressive. After defeating the Woolies at the end of the previous game, things return to normal and Bubsy can lead a peaceful life. That very serenity leads to the central conflict of the game, and of Bubsy’s arc. While Bubsy is praised as a saviour, people’s reverence for him can’t help but diminish over time, and, without the dazzle of his heroics, he begins to grate on people. The cat puns and stereotypical behaviour are thin replacements for a personality, and as we see through flashbacks, Bubsy has always had a hard time with vulnerability, instead choosing to obscure the real him under his obnoxious behaviour. There’s even an implication that Bubsy’s actions in the previous games weren’t born out of generosity or empathy, but nihilism. If he couldn’t gain people’s favour naturally, maybe he could do it by facing extraordinary danger, and if he lost his life trying, what loss was there really?
There’s also an escalation of events that keeps Bubsy grounded and sympathetic as a character, even as his actions become less and less defensible. Floundering to maintain his relevance, he tries changing his appearance, dyeing himself black to revitalize his public image. When that fails, he tries to become a regular street-level crime fighter, but having had a taste of the good life, is less willing to risk his neck for others. In a final moment of desperation, he contacts the Woolies and offers them his collection of yarn, the very thing he risked life and limb to protect previously, if they stage an attack and allow him to “save” everyone again. It’s a breathtaking sequence, watching him shed one false self for another. It’s a smart subversion of audience expectations too, as ridding himself of his yarn collection, and thus his previous self, would be cathartic in almost any other context.
The gameplay cleverly mirrors the regression of Bubsy’s character by reverting back to a 2D, SNES-style platformer. The levels are overly easy, since the threat by the Woolies isn’t real. It creates a bit of an empty, hollow gameplay experience, which reflects how empty Bubsy’s goals are, but isn’t the most engaging for the player. There’s been a lot of debate among art critics if that’s a viable way to present one’s ideas. If a work conveys how boring something would be by being boring itself, does that justify boring the audience? Does putting the audience in the intended emotional state to better convey its ideas inherently make a work “good,” or does art also have to provide entertainment? Does cost or runtime factor into these questions, and how big of a role does the commodification of art play here? These are heady questions I won’t try to answer, but Bubsy’s 4D Chess certainly deserves credit for trojan horsing them so subtly into a 2D platformer.
It’s worth noting that while the level of challenge doesn’t do much to engage the player, there is a lot of work put into the art design that held my attention. The music is spectacularly over-the-top and stylish animations are applied to Bubsy’s animations, showing how he thinks of himself, as this remarkable hero. But the levels themselves are dreary looking and the other characters you see look uninterested, reflecting the reality Bubsy is shielding himself from through his denial. It’s a simple joke, but an effective one due to the work put into Bubsy’s character, and only becomes more effective as we see the further depths of his shallowness.
Bubsy’s 4D Chess may seem like an ill-advised sequel at first glance, but it shows how reworking bad material can sometimes be more effective than starting fresh. Whether you liked Bubsy 3D or not, anyone who’s played it knows Bubsy and has some level of investment in him. If this story was told with a brand new character, we’d know to expect his downfall. But because it’s Bubsy, him being on top doesn’t seem like a setup for a fall, but just the natural progression of the storyline. You also wouldn’t expect a Bubsy game to take its protagonist’s emotional journey so seriously, so you’re blindsided a little when the first dramatic beat happens, without even realizing you’re invested. It even rewards longtime fans of the series by tying it into the previous games, making this tonal twist feel like the final piece of a puzzle popping into place. And that’s what Bubsy’s 4D Chess feels like overall: the missing piece that finally makes mascot platformers live up to their full potential, and allows the genre to cement its place in gaming history.
“BoJack Horseman” and the way fiction can help peopleFeb 9, 2020
Back in December of 2017, I was suicidally depressed. Depression had been a big part of my life for a while, but by that point all I could think about was my way out. I couldn’t help but come up with a plan, a date, and a list of conditions that, if not met by that date, I’d execute the plan. One night, for some reason, I had a strange moment of clarity about what was happening to me and I called the suicide hotline.
I felt like such a fraud on the phone. If I was calling a suicide hotline, that meant I wanted help, which meant I didn’t really want to die; at best, I didn’t want to live, which isn’t the same as wanting to die. I can see how silly that is now, but at the time, I was scared of being called out for my hypocrisy. Regardless, I called and, on their advice, drove to my local psychiatric hospital’s emergency room and spent most of the day there, being interviewed by various nurses and doctors. They told me they considered admitting me for a few weeks, which I would have agreed to, but ultimately decided I should be part of the outpatient program. They set me up with a psychiatrist, started me off with a prescription for new antidepressants and encouraged me to find another therapist. I’d been on various antidepressants for years and tried a lot of different therapists, but I felt like I needed to approach this optimistically. At the very least, I’d now done my due diligence. If I could walk away from the suicide hotline’s advice, the last line of defence, and still want to off myself, I knew I’d be able to rest peacefully, content in the knowledge that I hadn’t half-assed the decision.
But it worked. Probably because they came from a psychiatrist rather than a GP like my other meds, the new antidepressants were far and away the most effective I’ve ever had and, whether it’s because of the benefits of my new meds or just the luck of the draw, I connected instantly with my new therapist. The last two years have been good to me. I’ve got a long ways to go and I’ve run into some setbacks, but I can honestly say this is the happiest I’ve been in my whole life. I owe that, of course, to the wonderful mental health professionals who helped me, but, a part of me wants to give some credit to BoJack Horseman.
When I was in the depths of my depression, BoJack helped me understand myself in ways I don’t think I would have without it. For example, I remember thinking one day about how BoJack has a tendency to overthink the consequences of his actions, and assume that the worst possible thing will happen, and I was trying to figure out why. Until I realized that I do the same thing. I think depressives are filled with such self-loathing, and consequently spend so much time thinking about themselves, they develop a weird sort of narcissism. Whereas people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder tend to think of themselves as exceptionally talented or gifted, depressives tend to think of themselves as exceptionally bad, so any bad actions they take must lead to catastrophic events, and even innocuous actions will probably manage to fuck something up anyway. It’s an odd thing to spend so much of your life in self-loathing and then decide you need to work on managing your own self-importance, but I’ve been trying to keep in mind lately that most of my actions aren’t even memorable, let alone disastrous or capable of making multiple people hate me. Other people just don’t think about me as much or as critically as I do, so I don’t need to walk on eggshells around them. It’s still hard for me to know when I genuinely screw up and when my shitty brain is making me think that what I did is worse than it really was, but that’s something I’ll have to keep working on.
Now that I’m more emotionally stable, BoJack Horseman mainly serves as a reminder of how far I’ve come and, sometimes, how far I still have to go. In the final batch of episodes, released last Friday, a character makes an offhand remark about how he had been suicidal but held off from committing the act because the Knicks were having a good season. When asked what he would have done if they’d been having a bad season, he nonchalantly responds, “I don’t know. Gotten into baseball?” It’s a funny line, and the scene moves on quickly without dwelling on it, but it resonated with me in a way the show hadn’t for the last two years. I don’t think, before hearing that line, I’d realized how tightly I’d held on to my insecurity over calling the suicide hotline. At the root of it is something that the show touches on elsewhere in this recent half-season: people’s insecurity over whether their damage is sufficient enough to justify the ways it’s affected them. A part of me still believed that the fact that I reached out for help meant I wasn’t properly depressed enough to need that help, and all the improvements I’ve made over the last two years were predicated on a lie. But that brief moment, that acknowledgement that even people in the darkest pits of depression can and should latch on to any reason to keep living, made me feel better. It comforted me on an insecurity I’d otherwise be too scared to mention to anyone, and made me feel less alone, because if these writers were able to pinpoint exactly what I’d been feeling, then I can’t have been the only one feeling it. It was a feeling that the show had managed to stir in me many times before, but I was amazed at its ability to still do so when I was out of the deepest parts of my depression. It’s such an insignificant, throwaway line, but it’s a perfect distillation of what BoJack Horseman is to me: funny, comforting, and deeply insightful.
I don’t want this blog to come across as too sad sack-y. Like I said before, I’m doing well these days. But the show ending has, admittedly, put me in a very melancholic mood, so I wanted to take a minute to reflect on what it’s meant to me, and say goodbye. I’m really gonna miss this stupid horse show.
My Thoughts on Dead Rising 2, 3 & 4Dec 26, 2019
This is a companion piece to my GBAtemp Recommends article on Dead Rising. I wanted to talk about each game in the series but that article would have been too long, so I decided to move that discussion over here in case anyone was curious.
Dead Rising 2 (and Spinoffs)
For Dead Rising 2, development shifted from Capcom’s internal Japan studio to Blue Castle Games (bought out and renamed Capcom Vancouver after Dead Rising 2’s successful launch). The influence of a Western developer is clear here, but Keiji Inafune and the core Japan team stayed in constant contact with Blue Castle throughout development, allowing it to retain the gameplay’s quirky humour. The script, however, seems to be mostly Blue Castle’s work and its unevenness slows down the momentum considerably.
The biggest difference between the two games are their protagonists. Frank West never had the strongest personality, but he always felt like a real person, which made it all the funnier to see him in a cutscene dressed as Mega Man. Dead Rising 2’s protagonist, Chuck Greene, is a more traditional American action hero, no-nonsense and hard-faced. The rest of the world around Chuck has its ridiculousness amped up to 11, which does create some fun moments, but since it’s contrasted with Chuck’s severely nonplussed reactions to everything, there’s nothing grounded to make the absurdity pop. Worse yet it is the one-note and immature humour of some of the characters, such as the scantily-clad, breathy twins whose every line of dialogue is an attack on Chuck’s sexuality or masculinity. There’s nothing inherently wrong with jokes like that, especially in a series like Dead Rising, but the relentlessness and sophomoric nature of it makes the gag wear out its welcome quickly.
Dead Rising 2 still nails the humour in its smaller moments, however. There are some fun survivors out there, like the warring stand-up comedians who won’t return to the safe house with you until you award one of them with a comedy trophy (the loser will take some convincing, or even payment, to follow you to safety) and you’re once more supplied with a litany of ridiculous weapons and costumes (though, again, the fun of the silly costumes is diminished somewhat by the cutscenes already being so aggressively silly). It’s really just more of what worked in Dead Rising.
Aside from the combo weapons, gameplay changes in Dead Rising 2 are mainly relegated to fixing problems from the first one. Thankfully, the survivor AI has been drastically improved, perhaps teetering towards being so easy to care for that they can be pretty much ignored, but it’s hard to complain about given the disastrous AI in the original. Getting mission-related calls no longer stops you from acting, and it’s easier to check the time and your quest log. The map isn’t as effective as the Willamette Mall (Dead Rising 2 is set in a casino resort and too many of the areas are dominated by rows upon rows of slot machines), but this is mitigated somewhat later in the game by the inclusion of vehicles in certain areas that make it easier to get around. Online co-op was also added in a very straightforward, simple way. The second player just plays another Chuck, they don’t appear in cutscenes and don’t keep any progress, just latching on to the story file of the main player. Still, for a game where a lot of the enjoyment comes from exploring and making your own fun, it’s always nice to have someone else there to show off to.
The other spinoff was Dead Rising 2: Off the Record, a “What If?” scenario imagining what would happen if Frank West was the star of Dead Rising 2. Blue Castle’s version of Frank is more egotistical and wisecrack-y than Capcom’s, more annoyed than terrified by the outbreak, but it works given the character’s history. T.J. Rotolo is always welcome in the role, and giving the main character an energy that’s closer to the manic world helps the comedy play a little better. Besides that, there are a few new survivors and psychopaths, some quality of life improvements, the re-introduction of the photography system and a new space theme park area. It’s the superior version of Dead Rising 2, but not enough has changed to make playing both versions worth it.
Dead Rising 3 & 4
Shortly after Dead Rising 2’s launch, series producer Keiji Inafune quit Capcom. It’s unclear how much guidance there was from Capcom’s internal Japan team moving forward, but Dead Rising 3 feels remarkably different than previous entries, and Inafune’s absence is felt. (Inafune himself said, very diplomatically, in a 2013 interview that Dead Rising 3 was “not the game [he] would have made.”). Immediately upon its reveal as an Xbox One launch title in 2013, there was fan outcry over the dismal brown and grey aesthetic, both for not being Dead Rising and for seeming like a relic of the previous generation.
Reactions softened after release, but ultimately this wasn’t the game Dead Rising fans were looking for. Between its drearier tone, near-removal of the timer, and unintuitive map, most of Dead Rising’s identity had been stripped. Set in the town of Los Perdidos, players are faced with a larger map and none of the landmarks that made the first two maps so memorable. Due to the burned-out husks of cars, dilapidated buildings and fires raging throughout the city, everything looks the same and with its constant turns and narrow streets, it’s impossible to get any sense of direction or know where you’re going without constantly checking your map. Vehicles are given a bigger emphasis this time to accommodate the bigger space, but you’re under little threat while driving so moving from point A to point B becomes tedious rather than a tense survival experience.
The game would be a total slog to get through if it weren’t for the combo vehicles. Dead Rising 3 lets you weld together vehicles if you can get them back to garages found around the city. It’s similar to the combo weapon system in that some are only good for the one-time novelty of it, but also in that once you find one that works, the simple joy of mowing down zombies with it never goes away. Combo vehicles were the only meaningful addition this time around and it seems much of the game was designed around them, but the joys of ploughing through a horde of zombies on a motorbike with a steamroller attached to the front doesn’t quite make up for the shortcomings in almost every other department. It’s not just that Dead Rising 3 doesn’t feel like Dead Rising; it feels so watered down that it could almost be anything.
It’s an odd move to return to the beginning of the series’ roots while also fundamentally changing the series, and it ends up feeling like a hollow gesture to appease longtime fans (just look at the way the advertising blared “FRANK IS BACK” to hype up series loyalists). Frank doesn’t look much like himself and, worst of all, T.J. Rotolo wasn’t asked to return to voice Frank, rendering him completely unrecognizable. The new actor does a fine job but if you’re trying to bank on your fan’s love for the character, replacing the actor is complete self-sabotage. It’s a shame because the script actually serves Frank quite well. He’s suffering from PTSD and uses an abrasive sense of humour to keep people at a distance, but the façade breaks whenever he’s forced to confront what happened to him at Willamette. It’s a clever way of reconciling the relatable, human Frank of Dead Rising with the boisterous Frank of Dead Rising 2: Off the Record, even if it’s not terribly original for horror-comedy protagonists. A lot of the comedy suffers from the immaturity that’s always been a part of Blue Castle’s writing with the series, but grounding Frank’s jokes in something so human produces real laughs and as such, Dead Rising 4 is probably the most successful of any of Blue Castle’s scripts.
Where Dead Rising 4 falls apart is the gameplay. Again being set in a whole city, it suffers from the same map issues as its predecessor, but without the freshness of combo vehicles to soften the blow. New this time around are robotic exo-suits Frank can pilot, offering easy transportation and mass zombie slaying abilities. They’re fun, but the issue is that they’re just found in the map rather than being assembled, robbing you of the sense of improv that comes from building a combo vehicle from materials on-hand. The combat and inventory systems were also overhauled, becoming more complicated with the goal of allowing you to switch between items more fluidly, but in tense situations it can leave you scrambling to find what you’re looking for, especially given the way the combo weapon system trains you to load your inventory with items that might be useless on their own but useful later on.
With the shuttering of Capcom Vancouver in 2018, the future of the Dead Rising series isn’t looking good. We’ve seen Capcom revive dormant series before (Devil May Cry V from earlier this year stands out), but the question is if Dead Rising has the fan backing for a revival to make sense. Even at its most popular, the series was highly divisive, with plenty of people respecting the premise and openness but being completely unable to get past the restrictive timer. Fans haven’t been excited by the series since Inafune left (they also likely wouldn’t be excited if he returned given the way his reputation has tanked since going independent) and attempts to broaden the series’ appeal only upset existing fans rather than creating new ones. As much as I hate to say it, Dead Rising got more chances than it probably deserved, and it might be best if it stayed dead.
My Top 10 TV Shows of the DecadeDec 20, 2019
So I’ve been reflecting on the decade and, I don’t think I’m the first person to make this observation, there’s been a lot of good TV lately, so I wanted to take some time to talk about my favourite shows and hopefully spread the word if you haven’t heard of some of them.
Two quick notes before we begin: every show on my list is a comedy. Comedy is particularly hard to talk about since it’s so subjective, so I’ve mostly focused on the aspects outside of the comedy that make these shows work, while also hopefully giving a sense of the humour by including a clip or discussing the character dynamics. But, in case I don’t mention it in my review, I’ll make a blanket statement here: these shows are very funny, each and every one of them having doubled me over in laughter and forcing me to pause so I can compose myself at one point or another.
Most of the shows on my list have also concluded their runs. It wasn’t a rule or anything, but it’s much easier to connect with a show that’s been around longer and been able to tell its entire story. So while I might think the first two seasons of, say, Succession are better than the first two seasons of Silicon Valley, I have a much more immediate connection to Silicon Valley right now because it’s been with me longer and I have some closure on it that I don’t with Succession.
Honorable Mentions: Ash vs. Evil Dead, Barry, Baskets, Better Call Saul, Big Mouth, Breaking Bad, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Corporate, Fargo, The Good Place, The Jinx, Joe Pera Talks With You, Louie, Rick and Morty, Succession, Under the Dome, Veep
10. Catastrophe [Channel 4; 4 seasons; 2015-2019]
Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney’s unassuming little romantic comedy works because of its brutal honesty. After a one night stand leads to an accidental pregnancy, Rob and Sharon decide to get engaged and see if they can make their family work. There’s never any pretence that this is love at first sight or that what they’re doing isn’t crazy, even from Rob and Sharon, who are constantly joking about how little they know each other. But they’re also not just miserable and chained together; they’re two people who love each other, even if they’re not comfortable saying it yet, who have their own reasons for wanting to do their best at starting a family. It’s a romantic comedy freed from the tropes that so often hold the genre back, like the misunderstandings or contrived circumstances that get in the way of the relationship. Instead, Catastrophe draws a realistic, three-dimensional portrait of two people and shows how they complement each other, how they don’t, how they work through the times they aren’t compatible and why their relationship is worth fighting for.
9. Vice Principals [HBO; 2 seasons; 2016-2017]
I love a good villain, and Walton Goggins’s Lee Russell is a goddamn great one. Vice Principals does a lot of things right, but the credit for taking it from a good show to a great show rests squarely on the shoulders of this manipulative, cowardly, sadistic little man. He’s the kind of guy that will offer to get you a coffee so he can spit in it; the kind of guy who’ll call the cops on an annoying neighbour, then not being able to stop himself from watching from the window, singing to himself with pride about how tough he is for handling the situation. Goggings brings such a passion to the character, playing every emotion as big as he can without chewing the scenery. Because that’s the thing: Lee never feels one-dimensional or fake. What we know of his upbringing explains how he became the way he is, and depictions of his home life show a man who feels powerless and put-upon, regardless of how valid those feelings are. None of it comes close to redeeming him, but it grounds the character and stops his bigger moments from breaking the reality of the show’s world. He’s such a perfect role for a character actor like Goggins to play. He’s quick-witted and manipulative, very performative, always trying to win people over with superficial charm, and just the right combination of pathetic, cowardly and depraved that he stays fun to hate, instead of just hateful.
8. Silicon Valley [HBO; 6 seasons; 2014-2019]
The tech industry is fertile ground for parody, so it’s surprising not many shows have jumped in with both feet to tackle the subject like Silicon Valley has. What’s unsurprising is that the show is co-created by Mike Judge, who already tackled similar subject matter back in Office Space. It won’t win any points for subtlety, but Silicon Valley’s satire is cutting and vicious, while still allowing room for character work and story. Focusing on a small start-up with a revolutionary compression algorithm, it’s a rare show that can make computer programming and start-up businesses exciting, but Silicon Valley employs various corporate capers as the team tackles various legal and inter-personal issues that threaten their company time and time again.
It’s got some major issues that hold it back. It hits the reset button about halfway through its third season, and again about halfway through the fourth season, which kill pretty much all the momentum it’s built up to that point. The fifth season shows some progress, but not any further than we’ve already been before the first reboot, so it isn’t until the sixth and final season that they can resolve this issue. To its credit, the sixth season is very good, opening with the start-up’s CEO testifying in front of congress about data privacy and corporate overreach, signifying that the scrappy start-up is big enough that the show can now more comfortably parody corruption by large corporations like Facebook or Google. It also has a clever storyline that addresses the show’s over-reliance on two particular character pairings, then doesn’t pair those characters together again until the finale, and also addresses the underuse of the female characters on the show, although it’s a little too close to the finish line (especially when season six is the shortest season) for it to have much impact.
Despite how much the show stays in its comfort zone, it never compromises on its humour. It’s a master of the creative vulgarity loved by so many HBO shows, and is endlessly quotable as a result. It also has one of the strongest comedy casts on TV, with Zach Woods deserving particular attention for his work as Jared Dunn, one of the funniest and most strangely compelling characters of the last decade.
7. Brockmire [IFC; 3 seasons; 2017-present]
Brockmire started life as a Funny or Die sketch, casting Hank Azaria as a disgraced baseball announcer who goes on an expletive-filled tirade in the booth after finding out his wife is cheating on him. The series picks up several years after that incident as Brockmire decides it’s time to re-start his announcing career, starting at a small local stadium and working his way up from there, while struggling to fight off the stigma from the incident and keep his substance abuse in check. It’s the kind of show that’s been done before, certainly, but what makes the show stand out is its pragmatic optimism without becoming saccharine or underplaying the dark path its protagonist went down during his exile.
Brockmire is fundamentally a decent guy who’s genuinely tested by his demons, rather than an asshole who also has addiction issues on top of everything else, which can often feel like the case in stories like this. That’s not to say he doesn’t do bad things, of course, but it’s easier to get invested in his redemption when we care about him because he’s a good person, not just because he’s a funny dickhead (see: Danny McBride in Eastbound & Down). Brockmire’s guiding star throughout the series is baseball, the game he’s dedicated his life to. Giving him such a clear, strong passion helps define his character and make him much more likeable. His love for the game is infectious, as his eloquent soliloquies convey why it's so important to Brockmire for him to get back in the booth. Brockmire, while unafraid to look at the dark corners of life, has a real passion and joie de vivre that’s so often absent from the cynical TV comedy landscape.
6. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend [The CW; 4 seasons; 2015-2019]
Just as Catastrophe is a subversion of romantic-comedy tropes, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a full-on deconstruction of them. The series focuses on Rebecca Bunch, a miserable corporate lawyer in New York who quits her job and moves to a small town in California to follow the man of her dreams, Josh Chan. Upon discovering he’s already in a relationship, Rebecca arms herself with her knowledge of romantic-comedies and assures herself that this is just a trial before she and Josh can start their relationship. The joke being that Rebecca (and by extension, most rom-com leads) is only pursuing Josh to suppress her deep-seated psychological issues, pinning all her hopes and dreams on him and telling herself that if she can just get the love of a good man, she can finally be happy. It sounds like a cheap gag to take shots at a silly genre, but the show uses this premise to pull you in before shifting to a harrowing, truthful depiction of mental illness and commentary on the ways people use stories and pop culture to inoculate themselves from the real world.
It’s also a showy, unabashedly theatrical musical. Each episode has at least two songs, accompanied with either full-on music videos or impressive dance choreography. The songs are clever and well-written, effective style parodies of a diverse range of music genres, though the show most comfortably settles into showtune territory when it needs to. The fact that the same episode contains “It Was a Shit Show”, a sorrowful post-mortem on an ill-advised relationship, and “We Tapped That Ass”, a vulgar rumination on the memories of past relationships that haunt Rebecca, shows the versatility and humour of not only the songs, but Crazy Ex-Girlfriend in general.
The premise: Nathan Fielder stars in this reality series as a business strategist who visits struggling small businesses and comes up with bizarre ideas to solve their problems or draw attention to them. What makes the series work so well is the character Fielder’s created for himself: a walking embodiment of corporate culture, soft-spoken and polite while strictly toeing the company line and seeing no humour in his outlandish ideas. He also plays him as socially awkward and deeply lonely, such as in the episode where he hooks a mechanic up to a polygraph (to win over people who inherently distrust mechanics) and asks the mechanic, while he’s still hooked up to the polygraph, if he’d like to continue hanging out after they finish shooting for the day. His ideas also have a great comic escalation to them, like the idea for helping overweight people ride horses by tying helium balloons to them to alleviate the weight, which then requires two additional riders to follow with paddles to protect the balloons from branches and then a third rider to pilot a drone with a scarecrow attached to prevent birds from popping the balloons, as his narration insists that he’s done great work by helping promote inclusivity and letting overweight people escape the shame and embarrassment of not being able to ride a horse.
The show pushes believability with its pranks often and there are certainly moments I have doubts about the authenticity of, but it’s never really bothered me much. The funniest moments for me have always been Fielder’s absurd escalation, his commitment to the awkward act and his penchant for making ideas much more complicated than they need to be, not necessarily how people react to those things. Nathan for You may not always be real, but it’s inventive, daring, bizarre, and funny as hell.
4. It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia [FX; 14 seasons; 2005-present]
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia started the 2010’s in its sixth season, so I’m going to restrict myself to just discussing later-era Sunny here. This is fairly easy, since many of my favourite episodes come from this era, as it might be the only show to ever make good use of Flanderization. At its outset, each member of The Gang was terrible, but they all felt pretty similar and not extreme enough in any one direction to have major distinctions from each other. Over the years, each of them came to uniquely personify all the worst aspects of humanity. Mac is a raw and exposed nerve, desperate for any validation or acceptance he can get; Frank is hedonism and anarchy incarnate; Charlie is a rescue dog, overly trusting of anything in his comfort zone and prone to going feral when forced outside of it; Dee is unhinged and broken from years of abuse; and Dennis’s egotism and lust gives way to a thinly-veiled sociopathy and sexual deviance that can rival any of TV’s greatest monsters.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is the anti-sitcom. Rather than focusing on a group of people who, whether by choice or circumstance, spend all of their time together and grow to love each other, like a typical sitcom, Sunny focuses on five people who are forced to spend all their time together because they’re the only five people in the world who can tolerate each other. Focusing a comedy on the worst parts of humanity forms a delicate balancing act, one that I think mainly works due to the focus on the ways The Gang tries to justify their actions (with Frank often acting as the standout who embraces his awfulness and only makes it all the more obvious how repugnant the rest of The Gang is) and by reinforcing their co-dependancy. Take, for example, the relationship between Mac and Dennis. Mac was raised by negligent parents, a fact which he is in denial about, forcing himself to believe that his parent’s abuse is how genuine love is expressed. He’s also a devout Christian and a deeply closeted homosexual. Dennis is a sociopath who sees himself as better than everybody else, believing himself to possess superior intelligence, charisma and sexual talents that raise him to a nearly Godly status. Mac needs Dennis around because Dennis’ open contempt for him mirrors his relationship with his parents, and having a “best friend” he’s so attracted to allows him a target for his sexual desires without ever having to admit his true orientation. Dennis needs Mac around because he needs someone to feel superior to and someone that worships and hangs on him the way Mac does. Dennis is of average intelligence, at best, but is still by far the smartest member of The Gang, and Mac usually holds the crown for least intelligent. Mac’s lack of dating success (for obvious reasons) also helps Dennis maintain his image of himself as God’s gift to women.
Now, take the clip below. Mac and Dennis have just bought a boat together, Dennis excitedly tells Mac he wants to use it to lure women below deck, which he doesn’t realize is as disturbing as it sounds, and then tries to convince Mac that what he’s doing isn’t predatory. Dennis desperately needs Mac to believe him to maintain his image of himself as someone women enthusiastically (or at least willingly) glom onto; Mac desperately needs to believe Dennis so that he doesn’t have to confront the fact that his hero is a monster. But the clear abhorrence of Dennis’s plan stands in both of their ways. It turns what could have easily been a lame, edgy joke about a sexual predator into a multi-layered bit of character work that makes the butt of the joke these men and the flimsy excuses they trot out for their bad behaviour.
There’s a lot more to commend It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia on - like the committed and dynamic performances of the cast or its excellent continuity and world-building - but really, that clip says it all.
3. American Vandal [Netflix; 2 seasons; 2017-2018]
It would have been so easy for this show to turn out bad, or at least mediocre. The premise - a high-school parking lot is vandalized with spray painted penises and a student decides to make a true crime documentary about it - seems like a thin excuse to talk about dicks in a very serious tone while using filmmaking techniques to make the subject seem weightier than it is. And don’t get me wrong, that’s a big part of American Vandal’s appeal, but it does so much more as well. A genuinely engrossing mystery is crafted here and I found myself ludicrously absorbed into the politics of this high school, trying to suss out character motivations or see through alibis. Dylan Maxwell, the student accused of the vandalism, is a truly heartbreaking figure, the kind of high-school burnout archetype that isn’t often given a sympathetic eye in movies or TV. He’s the type of guy who falls in line just enough with people’s expectations of him that nobody gives him a second thought, and it takes a whole documentary being made about him for anyone to re-consider their opinion of him. There’s some interesting commentary on the true crime genre as well, particularly on people’s media literacy when it comes to drawing conclusions from them that seems to be inspired by the response to Making a Murderer.
The second season focuses on a new case at an affluent private school in Washington State. The satire of the justice system is more on-the-nose this time around, as there are actual criminal charges at stake, and I don’t think it’s as funny as the first season (though that might just be my preference for dick jokes over poop jokes), but it’s much more thematically rich. Much of the season revolves around the dual lives people are forced to live to get by, and how that isolates them. This takes a few different forms. DeMarcus Tillman is from a poor, mostly black neighbourhood who gets scouted by the school’s basketball program and has to act whiter to fit in around school. Kevin McClain was a normal kid until an unfortunate incident in sixth grade led to him becoming a target for bullying and he develops an eccentric persona to cope with the fact that nobody will associate with him, which only makes him more of an outsider.
Kevin’s story touches on the unique kind of bullying that exists in the social media age. Kevin’s antics often get posted on social media, spread around under the pretence of, at worst, some friendly teasing, even when Kevin knows the students are mocking him behind his back. But to stop doing it, especially when there’s no overt bullying, would mean admitting that he cares about the opinions of the people that have already rejected him, so he has no choice but to double down on his strange behaviour, pretend it’s all in good fun, and drive the wedge further between him and the rest of the world.
Stories about the isolating effects of social media often make me roll my eyes as they don’t go beyond surface-level observations, like someone ignoring the world around them because they’re too engrossed in their phone. But American Vandal has always had a great understanding of high school life. It uses that insight to look at the way social media affects young people, the first generation to be so over-exposed, with the nuance and empathy it deserves.
2. Review [Comedy Central; 3 seasons; 2014-2017]
Forrest MacNeil is a Life Reviewer. He takes commands from his audience, who supply him with bizarre experiences as he’s forced to pursue and review whatever thought comes into their head. As someone who writes and consumes a lot of media criticism, this show touches on a lot of things I find personally interesting. The arbitrariness of review scores; the folly of trying to review anything when every experience is subjective and the review will always be influenced by the reviewer’s unseen biases; and the pointlessness of trying to find deeper meaning in something that just isn’t there. I should probably take some personal offence from a show that has its main character trying to find a universal truth out of requests such as “What’s it like to eat 15 pancakes” or “What’s it like to be kicked in the balls,” but it’s hard to let that bother me given everything else this show manages to pull off.
The thing that really pulls me in is Forrest himself, and the way Andy Daly plays him. The show starts out seeming like a sort of sketch comedy show; Forrest runs through a few review requests with disastrous results, and they may callback to each other, but there’s no real consequences or build up. Then, in the third episode, Forrest is asked to review divorce. He bristles at the idea, but his ego and some manipulation from his producer Grant (played with terrifying coldness by James Urbaniak) convince him that his work is too important, that his show helps people and only he can create this objective document of the human experience. From here Forrest becomes a poster child for the harm caused by the sunk-cost fallacy, as he clings to Review (his show-within-the-show), allowing it to strip away everything else in his life, because leaving would mean admitting that the abandonment of his family was for nothing. We see Forrest’s life crumble in the margins of his reviews as he makes increasingly self-destructive decisions (because, as much as Forrest insists his life belongs to the viewers and he’s only doing what’s asked of him, they are of course his decisions), and Andy Daly imbues him with such blissful ignorance that it’s impossible not to sympathize with him a little. Forrest compartmentalizes his behaviour, refusing to see that reviewing life is stopping him from living it.
Review is based off an Australian show with the same premise and that show, while funny, leans a bit too far into nihilism for my taste. The reviewer there thoughtlessly commits murder within the first few episodes, and makes a show of remorse, but it’s never taken seriously. What makes the American Review work so well is that the show clearly cares about Forrest and the people in his life, just as Forrest himself cares for the people around him. Forrest is aware of the damage he’s causing to himself and others, and does his best to mitigate it when he can, but ultimately he has to prioritize the security blanket of Review over everything else, because without the show, he has nothing left. Review certainly delights in the cruel, creative twists of fate that befall Forrest, but its best moments derive their comedy not from wantonly piling misery onto him, but from the cognitive dissonance that drives him to dismantle his own life, his mind and heart fighting the awful things he’s doing, but his body and actions being given over to the whims of the audience, again and again.
I’d be remiss not to mention that Review has one of the most genuinely unsettling finales I’ve ever seen, especially for a comedy. Without getting into specifics, Review pushes Forrest just to his breaking point, then cuts before we hear the snap. We see enough to leave little doubt that Forrest finally loses what’s left of his sanity after the credits roll, but we don’t see him come out of his state of denial, so we have no idea what form that break takes, or how far into the depths it drags him, and that’s what makes it so harrowing. The scariest monsters in horror movies are never fully shown. We see Forrest become a monster over the course of Review, but we never get to see him fully realize how monstrous he is, or what that knowledge might drive him to do.
1. BoJack Horseman [Netflix; 6 seasons; 2014-2020]
BoJack Horseman was roundly dismissed by critics in 2014, and for good reason; the first half of the first season is awful. Bob Raphael-Waksberg’s show about a drunken, washed-up star of a Full House-style sitcom seemed irreverent and nihilistic, touching on stereotypical behaviour of toxic celebrities as broad comic beats without going beyond surface level gags. At the halfway point of the season, however, something clicks. BoJack’s actions start to be treated with real consequence, and considerable time is spent on the root causes of his depression and alcoholism. More interestingly, the central question of the series isn’t whether BoJack can turn himself around and be redeemed, it’s whether redemption is something that’s even karmically possible for him. BoJack Horseman rejects the notion seen in other TV shows that love can be expressed by a grand gesture. You’ve got to do it every day, be supportive and loving and add more to someone’s life than you take away. How long does he need to do that before he’s considered “redeemed?” If the people he’s hurt want nothing to do with him anymore, how can he make it up to them? Even if he becomes a saint, does any of it matter if he’s still the same man horse that caused so much pain in the first place? “How do you make something right when you've made it so wrong you can never go back?” The final season, set to air January 31, 2020, looks like it’ll tackle those questions.
It’s hard for me to talk about this show without just listing and dissecting every amazing thing it’s done, so I’m going to make this highly personal appeal and hope it resonates with someone: BoJack Horseman is the most relatable show I’ve ever seen. There’s a long history of mental illness and addiction in my family; I’ve had a lot of first- and second-hand experience with many of the issues portrayed in the show, and I’ve never seen them done as realistically as they are here. Some of it surely has to do with the time in my life the show found me, but it’s had a profound impact on me, helping to shape the way I understand myself and the world around me. I see shades of myself in many of the other characters, like Todd’s struggles with his sexuality and identity or the way Mr. Peanutbutter stubbornly hides his feelings under a mask of optimism.
Maybe the show doesn’t work as well if you don’t have that deep connection to its themes. I browbeat a friend of mine into working through the first six episodes to get to the good part of the show, and while he was enthusiastic and thought it was really funny and interesting, I don’t know that I saw the same love that I have for the show. Until, that is, it reached a storyline concerning BoJack’s mother’s dementia, which mirrored an experience his family had been going through recently. Which, in fact, might be the key to BoJack Horseman’s success. It has such a keen insight into people and such a swath of experiences represented that it can often feel like a show made specifically for you at the exact moment you needed it.