Black Mirror (Season 3, 2016)

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Black Mirror Season 3, written by Charlie Brooker (Netflix, 2016).

Score: guilt-tripping and fearmongering.

People have a weird relationship with science and technology: they trust them but they don’t bother to try and understand them. People complain about things their phones do or won’t do without realising some of those are for their own safety, or that they aren’t using the phone correctly. I worked for three years in tech support and you’d be surprised at how many people assume the manufacturer is obliged to back up all their personal data without even asking for permission and at the same time defend that 1234 is a perfectly good password. Bothering to understand the most basic things about computers and handheld devices is for nerds and millennials, and that really is a shame because technology is an incredibly powerful tool.

So, what do you do if you want to warn society about misusing such a mighty instrument? Wave your arms around, wail that the end is nigh and point fingers at everyone, of course. Black Mirror’s villains are unbelievable and boring because they’re all the lovechildren of Dr. Evil and Nolan’s Joker. Its allegories are ham-fisted, short-sighted and unoriginal. Even when it criticises technology directly, it’s really misguided.

What if phones, but too much, indeed.

But, for some reason I can’t start to wrap my head around, there is one episode in this season that it’s actually good, and not only for Black Mirror standards: “San Junipero”. Probably because it drops the edgelord act and actually examines an issue, with its good and bad aspects. Also, it bothers to create characters who actually have human, understandable motivations, which one would think would happen more frequently.

Here are my six rants for the six separate episodes:

***SPOILERS***

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The Handmaid’s tale (Season 1, 2017)

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The Handmaid’s tale, Season 1, created by Bruce Miller (Hulu, 2017).

Score: must-watch.

I first read The Handmaid’s tale back in December of 2013, over three feverish days. I recall myself gawking at my e-reader at the tram platform after a long day of work. I remember deep discomfort and gradual coping towards what was coming out of those pages.

In the wake of an infertility epidemic, a martial coup turns the United States into a totalitarian theocracy. Fertile women, dubbed Handmaids, are gathered, assigned as property to the regime’s elite and forced to conceive children for the Commanders. Failure to comply with the rules of the new order results in physical punishment, mutilation or leaving the house in a black van and never being seen again. The Handmaid’s tale follows the life of a woman formerly known as June (Elisabeth Moss), now forced to take the patronym Offred after the Commander she’s been assigned to, Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes). June is decided to be reunited with her husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle) and young daughter, who went missing when they were trying to flee the country to Canada and she was captured.

Let’s go over the science-fiction mantra one more time: science-fiction is about the world right now and right here, not trying to guess the future or to issue warnings (except for warning about things that are actually happening). Publicity of the show has focused too much, for my taste, on reassuring people that the Free World will not become Gilead tomorrow, don’t be silly. Everyone’s like, oh my god, do you think this could happen to us? No way, we’re above that. It seems we’ve got our heads too deep inside our own butts to realize all this is happening, has happened and will happen again. Maybe not near our homes, but definitely somewhere out there, to other human beings. Is it so extremely distressing to entertain the idea that we may be complete barbarians? Even more important, is it completely unfounded?

***SPOILERS***

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Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Seasons 2 and 3 (2014-2016)

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Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Seasons 2 and 3 (Fox, 2014-2016).

Score: stumbled and fell but later recovered.

Remember what I said about Brooklyn Nine-Nine being a show with a fair and witty sense of humour? Well, that stopped being true with the beginning of Season 2.

The sense of humour got blunt. Characters started to behave in ways they would never have before. It was painful to watch Jake mock Terry for wanting to get a vasectomy, make an awkward racial remark to him, as well as bet on Rosa’s friend’s phone number like it was a trophy. Boyle stopped being lovable and became downright ridiculous; Gina lost all her social skills and became mean in a way that made me wonder why the other characters kept her around at all.

Fortunately, around episode 15 of Season 2 things got back on track and the show slowly turned into what it used to be again. There are no really big changes to the kind of episodes and the dynamics between the characters; every year we get the customary Halloween episode, all of them delicious, and the Pontiac Bandit keeps paying us visits.

The beginning of Season 3 saw some changes to the Captain of the Precinct that were foreseeably temporary, a new romantic relationship and, halfway through, the introduction of hilarious Adrian Pimento (Jason Mantzoukas), a paranoid former undercover agent Rosa is instantly hot for.

All in all, it’s not up to the level of quality set by Season 1, but still worth watching.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Season 1 (2013)

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Brooklyn Nine-Nine, season 1 (Fox, 2013).

Score: hilarious.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine follows everyday life in the 99th Precinct of Brooklyn. Main characters are Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg), a childish but brilliant detective; Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero), a perfectionist, insecure and sweet; Charles Boyle (Joe Lo Truglio), an adorkable foodie; black-leather clad tough-as-nails Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz); Terry Jeffords (Terry Crews), a scary-looking mama hen for his subordinates; and petty and narcissistic civil servant Gina Linetti (Chelsea Peretti). In the pilot, a new commanding officer arrives: impassible and strict Captain Ray Holt (Andre Braugher).

What I like the most is this show’s fair play sense of humour. It has a very diverse cast but stereotyping jokes are mostly avoided (there are a couple of lesbian jokes that are really out of place but in general this is well done). Characters are given likable personalities, with virtues and flaws, and those flaws are funny, neutral and not stereotypical or looking to ridicule. For example, Boyle is likable for being loyal, cheerful and helpful, but he also blurts out secrets as soon as he knows them and can be very fastidious about his food. Captain Holt is black and gay and the jokes made about him are about how inexpressive and stoic he is (though it is mentioned several times how hard it was to him to get promoted for being part of a minority).

Gags are mostly based in ridiculous or absurd situations and episodes are fast-paced and varied. I actually laugh out loud at least once in every episode. The show is pretty much choral and follows the format made popular by shows such as The Office and Parks and recreation. The second half of the season adds two romantic arcs and knits the personal relationships tighter, and it’s not an unwelcome change (don’t let people tell you otherwise, I’m nearing thirty and workplaces are still like high-school, and I suspect they will always be).

Highly recommended.

Westworld, Season 1 (2016)

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Westworld, season 1, created by Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan (HBO, 2016).

Score: interesting, though slow.

Loosely based in the homonymous 1973 film starring Yul Brynner,Westworld is set in a futuristic Wild West theme park inhabited by lifelike androids. Wealthy people pay astronomical amounts to spend a holiday in a fictional, scripted setting where everything can be as tame or as exciting as they like while being completely safe for them. Not so much for the poor hosts, the androids, which can be raped, tortured and killed only to be serviced and sent back to the park without any memories of their demise. Everything starts to change when some hosts start remembering past narrative cycles, such as Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood), the sweet farmer’s daughter, or Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton), the madam of the brothel in Sweetwater. In the meantime, Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), founder of the park, is being threatened out of power by a management board who wants a more manageable and profitable version of the park. Two coworkers (Jimmi Simpson and Ben Barnes) come to Westworld to bond and on a voyage of self-discovery. A mysterious man in black (Ed Harris) who has been coming to the park for three decades is looking for a higher stakes game within Westworld, something called the maze.

If you’re going to watch this, you need to be patient because the first five episodes barely give the viewer any new information. Good thing is that the last five give out all the necessary information to wrap up the story with no cliffhangers, so this is something you can get into knowing that even though a second season is confirmed, you only need to commit for ten episodes. After having watched the whole thing, the first episodes do give out information, you just don’t understand it yet, so pay attention and enjoy the ride. Also, given how important circular timelines are in the story, you need to be acquaintanced with scripted events that happen in Westworld every narrative cycle and how they start changing as the plot advances, and that means some repetition in the first episodes.

It’s an adult show in that it has action, violence and copious nudity but also in that it requires some figuring out due to the nature of its storytelling and, being about androids who may or may not be becoming sentient, it also deals with some philosophical and anthropological themes I’ll explore below. As it has been already pointed out it has learned a thing or two from video games and role-playing games, in that it features NPCs, sidequests, a difficulty curve and sandboxing. Red dead redemption is an acknowledged influence and you can tell.

Visual effects are quite good. It doesn’t look like they’re saving the budget for the finale and everything looks in place and believable. I especially liked the effects for showing young Dr. Ford, it looked very convincing. Costumes and sets look gorgeous and any anachronisms and inaccuracies can be excused because you are looking at theme park Wild West from the future. It was probably the idiots at R&D who mistook an African Cape buffalo with an American buffalo, or they couldn’t find an American one and the guests wouldn’t know the difference.

To sum it up, entertaining and worth watching.

***SPOILERS***

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Stranger things, season 1 (2013)

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Stranger things, season 1, created by the Duffer Brothers (Netflix, 2016).

Score: a very simple idea, elegantly executed.

It’s the early Eighties in a small town in Indiana and four pre-teen friends are playing Dungeons and Dragons. After their session is over for the night they go back home on their bikes. Will (Noah Schnapp) is snatched by a monster in his backyard, and his disappearance shakes the whole town. His three friends, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), put all their nerdy knowledge in service of finding him. Joyce (Winona Ryder) is convinced that her son Will is alive after some paranormal events in the house and will go to any lengths to bring him back, with or without the help of her elder son Jonathan (Charlie Heaton). The town’s sheriff, Jim Hopper (David Harbour) is going through a hard time after the death of his little daughter and being relocated from the city, but as the mystery of Will’s absence becomes more complicated, he’s reminded of why he became a police agent. Mike’s older sister, Nancy (Natalia Dyer) is busy with school and her boyfriend Steve (Joe Keery), but becomes concerned after her friend Barb (Shannon Purser) goes missing too. Last but not least, the night of Will’s disappearance a strange girl of few words in a hospital gown (Millie Bobby Brown) walks in a diner while being pursued by government agents. After escaping, she ends up being found by the three friends who were looking for Will, and she’s the key to finding the boy.

Stranger things is nothing new. In fact it’s laden with homages to Steven Spielberg’s and Stephen King’s works of the Eighties, along with horror and sci-fi classics. But that doesn’t mean it’s not an excellently written show on its own merit. At only eight episodes of forty minutes each, every episode (except for the second one, which is a bit slow and boring) flows seamlessly. Most scenes either advance the plot or develop character, but character development is not so prevalent that it stalls the action.

Characters are my favourite thing about Stranger things. They are built on archetypes so they are easily recognizable but then they are developed into something else. ***SPOILERS*** Joyce looks like she’s going to be a neglectful, incompetent single mother but turns out to be resourceful and compassionate. Hopper starts out as a depressed, demotivated agent but as the conspiracy unfolds, he proves he really cares about helping people and doing the right thing. He also proves resourceful not only bluffing and negotiating but also punching his way around. Nancy looks like she’s going to be a vain and shallow popular teenager but she’s genuinely concerned about Barb. The fact that she’s the only one who cares that Barb’s gone is the biggest flaw of the show, as it has been repeatedly pointed out by fans. (Like, they only needed to add a couple scenes showing that at least Barb’s family has acknowledged her disappearance… Maybe they shot them but then edited them out?) She also shows sympathy towards Jonathan and can see through Tommy and Carol… and so can Steve. I really liked how both Nancy and Steve are put in a situation where they can relent to peer pressure or make a moral choice and in the end they do. Also, she decides to take revenge on the monster and uses her knowledge and intelligence to design a trap for it with Jonathan. The fact that she stays with Steve instead of dating Jonathan not only avoids a cliché but is also in-character: Nancy knew and loved Steve before all the action started, and given that Steve apologized to both Nancy and Jonathan and helped them, the most natural thing for her would be to stay with him, not run to Jonathan. Like, she even says several times that she’s not romantically attracted to Jonathan. The kids feel very real, not too cute or corny or annoying. They have reasonable conflicts for their age and situation and serve as a suitable comic relief. The characters solve the puzzle not too early, not too late, but only when it makes sense for a reasonably intelligent person to do so.

The ending is not precisely surprising but the finale follows quite closely the rule of “surprising, yet inevitable” that makes for a satisfying resolution. It also provides reasonable closure for the story while at the same time leaves some openings for the confirmed second season. ***END SPOILERS***

I was quite skeptical of Winona Ryder’s performance but she does very well, also the five kids are a highlight. Special effects work well, not showing too little in order to stay in a low budget, but also not showing too much or getting bad results due to budget restraints.

This show everyone is talking about is fun and exciting and worth a watch. Enjoy!

Homeland, Season 1 (2011)

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Homeland, season 1 (Showtime, 2011).

Score: outstanding.

Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) is a determined, hardly deterred by rules CIA agent who also happens to be taking treatment for a psychiatric disorder. While involved in the War on Terror, one of her sources tells her that an American prisoner of war has been turned. Ten months later U.S. Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) is rescued after he had been held hostage for eight years and left for dead. Following her gut, Carrie decides to put Brody under illegal surveillance as she’s convinced he’s a terrorist preparing an attack on U.S. soil.

If I have to say one thing about Homeland is that it’s cleverly written. The cliffhangers are well placed, the dialogue is natural (especially good in negotiation scenes) and mostly avoids exposition. The pace is almost perfect, never stopping, not giving away too much, not waiting too long to resolve foreshadowing, not spelling out everything for the viewer but not being unnecessarily cryptic or confusing. The good guys are flawed and make mistakes, but at the same time they’re mostly quite likable. The bad guys are human and their motivations are nuanced to go further than “we’re terrorists because we hate freedom, har har”. There are even a few instances of characters that look like stereotypes who are turned on their heads and presented as something more complicated than a sad commonplace (e.g. Prince Farid, Aileen Morgan). Despite being mostly a thriller, some run-time is devoted to the characters’ personal lives and their backgrounds. I know the show has been criticized for its portrayal of Islam and though I’m quite ignorant of it, it seemed to me that Homeland approached the topic quite carefully, both by presenting good and bad characters from different religions and backgrounds and by giving evil Muslim characters some character development, humanity and understandable motivations.

The main attraction of season one is whether Brody is a terrorist or not. And the tension is kept masterfully. For every hint that Brody is indeed a terrorist we’re given two that he actually isn’t. For every hint that Carrie is just delusional, we’re given two that she’s really on to something. Even when something looks crystal clear, you keep thinking: “but there must be more to this… the correct explanation cannot be the simplest one.” The last three episodes or so kept me jumping in my chair and fist bumping the air. I haven’t been so excited watching a TV show since Breaking Bad.

Technical aspects are okay, the only thing I hated in this area was the nauseating shaky handheld cameras that made no sense in almost every scene they happened. Everyone’s acting is natural and credible, but Claire Danes has everyone for breakfast every episode.

All in all, great experience and worth watching. Let’s see how long they keep it up, as it is very exceptional that any team of writers can keep writing this well for more than four seasons.

House of cards (Season 4, 2016)

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House of Cards, season 4 (Netflix, 2016).

Score: On a plateau.

***SPOILERS FOR SEASONS 1 TO 4***

Claire is decided to leave Frank if he stays unwilling to acknowledge a career of her own, but she won’t go public because the momentum he can give her is too succulent to leave to waste. Thus, the first chapers explore what it would be like if the Underwoods were pitted against one another. But that gets boring fast so something must happen to change the direction of the plot. This is where Lucas Goodwin gets in. He gets out of jail for helping the FBI and enjoys some sort of surveillanced freedom. He uses that to try to shoot Frank dead and kill Meechum in the process, because what kind of bodyguard would Meechum be if he didn’t stop a bullet for the President? If they wanted to have Frank shot, Meechum had to go. And thus when Frank finally recovers things get back to normal.

I’m getting a bit tired that this show has to use up full-season arcs to undo what the previous season cliffhanger did. Season 2′s cliffhanger was Rachel attacking Doug and leaving him for dead. All of Doug’s Season 3 arc was devoted to nursing him back to health and putting him back in service of the Underwoods, though he barely does anything this season. The same thing happened with the Claire-wants-a-divorce cliffhanger: they spent half the season undoing all of it (and it required almost killing Frank) until they’re both back at square one: sacking and pillaging back to back. I still don’t get what function Thomas Yates serves as a character, but it looks like after roaming Season 3 like a ghost he’s now Claire’s lover.

This is conflicting for me, because in the one hand it fulfills one of my fetishes: it’s realistic. Like people don’t serve narrative purposes in real life, but things just happen in a more or less sequential order. In the other hand, I’m watching fiction. I want ellipsis, I want what I’m watching to have a beginning, a crux and an ending, and at this pace the ending is far beyond the point I get bored of this. There’s still exciting backstabbing and political shenanigans, but it’s more of the same now. It’s on a plateau of exciting stuff and if it stays up there indefinitely it’s going to stop being interesting.

One thing I liked a lot was Hammerschmidt’s arc. Something has to come back and bite the Underwoods in the butt, and it might as well be Hammerschmidt. Something very positive about this season was that there were a lot of throwbacks to previous arcs. Whether this was the intention all along or just the writers being clever, I don’t care, it was an effective strategy.

This story needs closure now. I know it’s hard to kill the goose that laid the golden eggs, but as good as something is, it needs to end sometime.

Wayward Pines, Season 1 (2015)

Wayward Pines, season 1, created by Chad Hodge and produced by M. Night Shyamalan (2015).

Score: Pretty good.

This came to my attention thanks to darumaphoto, which recommended it on my last trip to the tattoist’s studio, and boy am I grateful for the advice. Wayward Pines tells the story of Ethan Burke, an FBI agent sent to the blood-curdingly chill town of Wayward Pines to find another missing agent. Wayward Pines cannot be left no matter how hard you try and its inhabitants are encouraged to keep a normal façade or very bad things happen when they disobey and discuss the past.

Wayward Pines was intentionally marketed as a spiritual successor to Twin Peaks, as well as having an aesthetic and atmosphere similar to Alan Wake, Silent Hill and several of Stephen King’s novels. While in the end Wayward Pines is very different business, if you’re a fan of any or some of those, you’re going to like it. While the first two episodes are kind of slow and repetitive, make sure to watch at least up to episode five to find out whether you like it or not.

The cast is lead by Matt Dillon, who looks like he bit off more than he could chew most of the time. Thankfully, the weight of the storytelling is alleviated from his shoulders later on. Juliette Lewis is also there. I’m sure she’s a lovely person but I just dislike her acting, so I’m glad she has little screentime. The rest of the cast do just fine but this is not a show that’s going to be remembered for its brilliant acting, while it clearly has many other virtues.

While, as I said, the first two episodes are a bit slow-paced, the writing in general is well-paced and economical. I’m glad they chose to wrap it up in a single season, even though there might be material to make a second one, because that means they developed just the ideas they wanted, not having to overdevelop the plot in order to generate more runtime. I’ll be happy if they make a second season, but I’m also very satisfied if this is a single-season work, since it’s perfectly finished.

All in all, you’re going to like this if you enjoy speculative fiction. And now, I need the ***SPOILER TAG***

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