This Was A Triumph

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Portal doesn’t have as much plot as some other games, but is all the better for it since the focus on puzzles means that their setup and pacing is perfect. Its ambiguous, cynically funny tone and sleight-of-hand twist means the narrative integrates well in the spaces between gameplay. Unlike the “data log” approach that has run rampant in video game storytelling for years, much of the plot in Portal is dictated to you point blank by a mysterious computerized voice. Chell’s primary arc is her increasing awareness of what’s going on, in tandem with GlaDOS’ gradual dissolution into madness. The latter is achieved through Ellen McLain’s excellently nuanced performance, with equal parts dry menace, non sequitur and dark humor.

Unlike many similar rogue AI sci-fi stories, it’s not overwritten – each level has a few lines and (even better) visual context clues that flesh out the situation with economy and wit. Crucially, these intercom speeches almost never interrupt gameplay, unless the design dictates that the player sit still and notice something. It’s yet another smart move that Portal uses the same engine and player avatar as Half Life 2 – which is to say, the protagonist is silent and first person, leaving some mystery behind their reason for being and a chance for the player to imprint themselves on the character. (You can see from looping portals that you’re a jumpsuit-clad woman, but if I remember right, her actual name is never mentioned in the game itself.)

But discussing the dialogue leaves out Portal’s amazing achievements in mood and suggestion through elegant design. The environments tell the story, particularly the eerie and inexplicable walled-up living quarters that you first encounter at the perfect time, far enough along to notice something is amiss. Empty observation rooms peer down on you, silent cameras scan your every movement, the ambient music is at once calming and ominous, and the gradual stir craziness of being holed up in such pristine, sanitized chambers eventually starts to impact the player. (This tense mood is exacerbated by having to euthanize your “friend” in test chamber 17 and sneaking through an abrupt gauntlet of deadly turrets in chamber 16.) Furthermore, there is no context given about the world outside of Aperture until the coda. This experience is so slick and pared down, every thought counts, and the absences do some of the work too. Portal’s somewhat short runtime leaves the player wanting more, although the game has achieved everything it sets out to do by the finale.

Being a music fanatic, I have to gush about perhaps the game’s most famous moment: Jonathan Coulton’s ending song. Besides being a novel concept for a dénouement which perfectly complements the prevailing tone, “Still Alive” is a marvelous tune. It functions as an overview of the plot, filling in a last few holes. It’s an emotional peak of the game experience, especially with the shock of the cake reveal and the player being re-imprisoned immediately afterwards. It’s a clever way to display the credits and give you a reason to stick around, what with the coding language aesthetic and cute graphics. It’s a bonus epilogue that rewards the player for getting to the end with a suitably quirky payoff. It’s a beautiful melody being sung by an impersonal computerized voice – a metaphor for the whole experience, in a way. But more than anything, the lyrics are so wonderfully in character: at once a gallows humor take on the villain’s moral deterioration, a declaration of derision, and a strange plea of love (a hint at some rich subtext). There are even meta jokes in there, and a sequel stinger at the very end.

Speaking of which, Portal 2 doubles up on pretty much everything that made the first game successful (length, number of characters, game mechanics, plot twists, etc.), and is a complete success. This goes for the ending song as well, which is a worthy successor to “Still Alive”. There are technically two of them in concurrence, both very effective. I don’t want to go too much into the sequel’s many strengths, when it’s very similar to the original (in a good, harmless way that expands meaningfully on its predecessor). But both are essential experiences for anyone who cares about pop culture.

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“We Are You, Freeman.”

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Half-Life 2 flows. Its narrative takes place over three consecutive days. The pace of exploration, puzzles, combat and atmosphere is flawless and the four are inextricably woven together. There is unobtrusive, but unmistakable world-building beyond the heroic “escape, progress and retaliate” arc. There are sparing breaks in the action: some exposition delivered in close quarters here, a tone-setting televised monologue there. But the player herding in these instances is handled seamlessly, allowing time to explore its iconic environments and admire the still-capable graphics rendering it all.

Half-Life 2 sings. As with any Valve property, the physics engine and control layout have been designed with a PC in mind, and they are both extremely intuitive and responsive for what the game asks you to do. There is only one set path through the world, but the design disguises that linearity with a bold, universe-in-peril plotline and a convincing illusion of breadth and choice. The scripting (in the sense of AI and NPC dialogue) is top-notch, which keeps the fighting interesting and the interactions memorable. Speaking of singing, the score is equally accomplished, trading in tasteful ambient techno patterns and melodies at appropriate junctures, with lovely sound design to boot.

Half-Life 2 wows. From the moment it boots up, the introduction of new mechanics and concepts never winds down. The amazing thing is how brilliantly the game serves as its own tutorial, while never seeming anything less than an organic thrill ride. Again, while of its time in some ways, it is still a towering achievement of storytelling and immersion. This is thanks to its stunning technical and art design, creating an entire post-apocalyptic city through dynamic objects, textures and lighting. City 17’s maps are detailed and easy to differentiate, no matter how many corridors you walk or abandoned structures you explore. With such wrinkles as vehicular segments, cooperative levels and stealth objectives, the gameplay never flags.

Half-Life 2 endures. All its component parts, both artistic and mechanical, serve the narrative perfectly. Its aesthetic holds up thirteen years on, through careful programming and tasteful design. Besides some mild continuity, it is entirely possible to jump in and enjoy without having played its predecessor. Crucially, its themes never impede on the proceedings; they’re expressed along the way, on the fly. This culminates in a controversial, yet meaningful, open ending. After that, the two episodic sequels are outstanding continuations in their own way and get my highest recommendation. These days, all three are cheap on Steam and I would urge any adventure game fan or FPS dabbler to buy them and marvel at City 17, and Gordon Freeman’s daring one-man mission against time and fate.

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“I hope I […] get old”: The Five Year Gap

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By my count, at least 30 90s/2000s indie bands and rappers have reunited recently after a recording hiatus of five years or longer, a noticeable lull in a once-breakneck industry. It’s a strange period in the image and commerce of non-top 40 music. These groups, which had destructive and ironic stances on artistic and financial success, eventually found themselves in a niche climate where it was fashionable and reasonable to return, bolstered by the demand of their fan base. Of course numerous bands before the 90s endured this awkward pull back into the spotlight for endless reunion tours and whatnot, but it’s a strange situation when it starts happening to younger and younger artists. In any event, I have made efforts to familiarize myself with the earlier work and the new stuff by these musicians, and will categorize, based on their own standards, how well they did once they came back.

Sleater-Kinney’s new album is better than their supposed “classic” period, and my favorite since their last record, The Woods. In my opinion, they had just built up steam and figured out what worked in their songwriting with that album, and the new one picks up where they left off. Guided By Voices came out of the woodwork with a characteristic explosion of solid new material, which was silenced by their abrupt second breakup (and subsequent recent regrouping). Another band that improbably improved on their old output is Superchunk, who slowed down and polished their sound a bit, but made it more resonant and coherent in the process. Similarly, I far prefer Swans’ modern output to their old phase one stuff. It’s still psychotic, painful, impenetrable high-art chaos, but a sort that coheres into memorable musical experiences after enough exposure. It’s unlike anything else out there; the only close relatives I could describe would be stuff like Nick Cave, Captain Beefheart and Liars.

Demonstrating their usual disregard for decorum and lackadaisical unpredictability, Pavement had the stubbornness (and perhaps tastefulness) to not release any new music upon their much-heralded return, instead just touring to promote a greatest hits compilation. On the other end of the spectrum, the perennially damaged and embattled Replacements didn’t even have a chance to record before they imploded once again, out of bitterness and apathy. Dinosaur Jr., in their humble way, simply felt like making music again, and did so to general acclaim. Massive Attack does this on-again, off-again thing so often it’s more like an artistic roundtable that meets up every decade to fine-tune some collaborative work and then disappear. They’re currently in a fallow period.

Queens Of the Stone Age, like a few other groups, barely qualified for this criteria, seeing as their frontman and mastermind Josh Homme was busy with a big side project and went on a brief sabbatical between albums. But …Like Clockwork is a very good effort from them, and Villains is compulsively listenable as well. Younger upstart Vampire Weekend is also about to reach that five year gap length in 2018.

Also in this category were artists who operate slowly, and put out new stuff without losing a step. Built To Spill’s new record was fine, if unremarkable, and Beck’s five years in the making Morning Phase wasn’t very good at all, but that’s just because it’s moody acoustic Beck. In my book, moody acoustic Beck is rarely good. The pop-pandering, mainstream-slick Colors is at least a moderately enjoyable diversion, which also took a while to make.

Radiohead took an extra-long break after The King of Limbs. Thom Yorke started a couple new side projects, which were increasingly bad and didn’t bode well for the new record. Jonny Greenwood continued with his soundtracks, and Phil Selway even released a solo record. The eventual album, A Moon Shaped Pool, was definitely good, if not a revelation. The Magnetic Fields were prolific in their five-year sabbatical, crafting a behemoth five-disc vanity project I have yet to undertake listening to. LCD Soundsystem even went so far as to break up, causing their five-year split, and yet the inertia of fandom and boredom brought James Murphy back into the fold with the adequate and intriguing American Dream, justifying the return and almost making up for his foolish finality.

Elsewhere, Fleet Foxes became redundant and restless in the folksy revival they spawned, and dropped off the radar after Helplessness Blues. The Crack-Up passed by with modestly positive reviews but didn’t stay in the public eye. Grizzly Bear similarly took a sabbatical during their peak of cultural relevance, and maybe because of that, Painted Ruins is muddled and inconsistent, as though they’ve lost a step. There are still a few bangers on there amidst goofy experiments, however.

Past that category are three bands in particular who had run their course, peacefully split apart, and didn’t need to reconvene. But they did, to varying degrees of success. I’m talking about the Shins, the Strokes and Ben Folds Five. The middle band was already showing signs of wear and tear when they hung it up in 2007, and while their comeback records haven’t been bad, they haven’t really justified the regrouping beyond a few decent singles. The Shins, however, had a deceptively likable slow grower of an LP with Port Of Morrow. Not as good as their first three, but Mercer’s songwriting hasn’t lost too much luster. What’s more, it also contains perhaps the band’s best ever track, “Simple Song”. The current Heartworms is something I’ll check out at some point. I like the first single well enough. Meanwhile, Ben Folds Five misjudged the tone and cultural environment around The Sound Of the Life Of the Mind, which was quite uninspired and unremarkable by Folds’ impish standards.

Some groups had been speculated to resurface for some time after personnel changes and time for one-offs, like Modest Mouse and Blur. On both counts, these artists disappointed somewhat with their new efforts that weren’t worth the wait. Both of them split the difference between recapitulating old tricks and half-heartedly experimenting with new styles, while lacking the succinctness and energy of prior work. But by the same token, their previous legacies have secured their reputations and they could do very little at this point to ruin them. Furthermore, Damon Albarn took some time to tend to his excellent secondary endeavor, Gorillaz. Almost five years passed between their second and third albums too, due to other obligations. And it took another six-odd years for the newest one to be released. I haven’t heard many encouraging things about Humanz, but I’ll still check it out.

During this renaissance for reemerging musicians, a few long-gone bands picked up right where they left off. Faith No More’s new record is leaner and more sensible than some of their past classics, despite being no great shakes. Jane’s Addiction and Alice In Chains were also early proponents of this sort of cash grab (or revisitation, if you’re generous), but their new stuff was universally panned and I have no interest in listening to it. Longest of all these was the 21-year hiatus of 90s shoegazers My Bloody Valentine, which had become the stuff of legend. The shocking thing was that 2013’s m b v was a worthy followup to their massive cult classic Loveless.

Indie rappers got in on the action too, with A Tribe Called Quest reuniting before the unfortunate passing of Phife Dawg. De La Soul also popped up to release a couple post-breakup albums in the 2010s. It’s been more than five years since MF DOOM’s last proper solo work, or even since his most recent high-profile collaboration. Missy Elliott has been teasing new material for a while now, post-retirement. Janelle Monae is rapidly approaching this status with the follow-up to The Electric Lady, despite spreading her talents to other media in the meantime.

And then there’s the first indie/alternative outfit (at least within the parameters of this piece) to get back together after a breakup: the Pixies. They put aside their differences and went touring in 2004, even turning it into a concert film. Then, after another period of silence and solo work, they recorded two LPs of new material (without Kim Deal, which is a notable loss). Fittingly, their second act is sort of an average of all these cases. They didn’t put out any material for a while, then they did and it was regarded as awful or lackluster, whereas I find it solid with some faint hints of what once made them great. So at the end of the day, these two records may not add a ton to their legacy, but they don’t detract from it either.

Finally, an unusual instance: Chuck Berry quit the music making business in the late 70s, focusing instead on intermittent tours. When his health began failing in the last couple years, he mustered the strength to make one conclusive self-titled comeback album, before passing away earlier in 2017. The king of all things rock and roll took the longest break of all and went out on a high note.

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Reflecting On the Screen

You know me – I tend to overcomplicate things, and to write long sentences about them (I hope I’ve gotten better about that). My passion for the arts has become self-reflexive enough to the point where I admire others’ writing about them too. So analysis and lists are my jam. I have plenty of time in my life to daydream and think about what I like and don’t like in pop culture, and why, and to second guess those impulses. So my very favorite things, despite occasional misgivings, have stood up to tons of scrutiny. Usually this is because they have some fundamental truth or angle to them that I appreciate even above the formal qualities. So I had some fun and worked those ideas into these short blurbs about my personal favorite episodes of television. Hopefully that, plus the suggested further viewing, will give you the push you were looking for if you are interested in starting any of these.

These are kind of in a ranked order, but it’s vague. I liked the way some contrasted and commented on the ones next to them. There’s plenty of TV I’ve not seen enough of to judge, or haven’t thought about critically, or have forgotten over the years, or haven’t paid complete attention to, or it’s new media (which I debated including). But I only had enough discrete shows to get to 45 entries, so I’ll go with that and update this to a rounder number when I’ve seen more. Obviously, there will be some major spoilers ahead, mostly in the form of fancy pictures I couldn’t resist including. Some of these are also series finales. Consider yourself warned.

eydno1621unm16fzttvp“The Body”, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

“…”

The best episode of TV I have seen is more than its flawless execution, historic influence and notable experimentation. Its focus is a topic that’s crucial to humanity, approached without excess or didacticism, and every character behaves in a distinct and honest way when facing it. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a very early example of the medium’s ambition and elasticity (below you’ll find the ultimate musical episode and dream episode, respectively). Joss Whedon’s masterpiece is charming and messy, overflowing with supernatural concepts. But The Body brutally deals with one very natural reality: empty space, or in other words, death. It hurts to watch, but it is perfect art.

Also watch: “Once More With Feeling”, “Restless”

Ozymandias“Ozymandias”, Breaking Bad

“We’re a FAMILY! ….We’re a family.”

Ozymandias is more or less the point of Breaking Bad, one of TV’s best and darkest shows. It is complete, mortifying catharsis for a painstaking story about constant change and decay, and the evil that people allow themselves to perform. The brutal cause and effect tragedy on display throughout this show is staggering.

Also watch: “Full Measure”, “Face Off”

Person To Person“Person To Person”, Mad Men

“A new day, new ideas, a new you.”

I already wrote about this and don’t have much to add. A superlative episode of TV about fulfillment.

Also watch: “In Care Of”, “For Immediate Release”

The Cartridge Family“The Cartridge Family”, The Simpsons

“This gun has made me lose everything… my family, my friends, everything but my precious, precious gun.”

The Simpsons needs no description, no justification, and no dissertation from me. In TV terms, it is everything. I haven’t seen even close to enough, and yet I know it well because I am alive, middle class and under 50 years old. So let me, in my ignorance, humbly pick a few episodes that I happened to watch back in the day and enjoyed immensely.

Also watch: “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show”, “Bart Sells His Soul”, “Three Men And A Comic Book”, “One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish”, at least several dozen more

Boy the Earth Talks To“Boy the Earth Talks To”, Deadwood

“AMERICA!”

Deadwood has more in common with theater and poetry than television, but David Milch did a great job cramming his literary ambitions into episodic format anyway. This show aims to do nothing less than represent the creation of America, in all its ugliness, serendipity and ambition. Crucially, Deadwood never loses sight of the intimate lives and dignity of its large cast, and has plenty of space for the personal triumphs and tragedies in its community. For example, this exciting hour glides seamlessly from talky class conflict to bloody class warfare, while introducing one of TV’s best villains in George Hearst and boasting one of TV’s best performances in Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen.

Also watch: “The Catbird Seat”, “Tell Him Something Pretty”

30

“-30-”, The Wire

“The lie’s so big, people can live with it”

Anyone will tell you Baltimore is a character in the Wire. But so are its Bureau of Police, crime syndicates, its residential street corners, public institutions like schools and city hall, its areas of industry, and its press. The individuals that populate these establishments are among the most realistic and complex characters you’ll find in television history, and this overstuffed series finale does justice to them all. -30- brings to a close a novelistic examination of the stagnant death of the American city, through crime and negligence and malice and ignorance and greed and good intentions and bad luck. In particular, its epilogue lets the themes of bureaucratic futility come (sadly) full circle, as every character replaces another and the country moves on.

Also watch: “Corrections”, “Late Editions”

The Garage Door“The Garage Door”, Freaks & Geeks

“I’d be lying if I didn’t say this was painful.”

Many prestigious and excellent shows focus on America in the abstract, but few of them nail the minutiae, the stuff that is somehow so specific it’s universal. While the Wire had a turbulent inner city setting, Mad Men was a straight-laced period piece, and Deadwood had a historical and linguistic remove, there is almost no barrier between Freaks & Geeks and real life (at least as a middle class white person, to be frank). The show was generous with its empathy and storylines, never going broad when it could be unflinching. The most believable and grounded of any episode on this list is unsurprisingly an emotional tour de force with a superb closing tune (which you know is my weak spot). The Garage Door is about a messy parental affair with no true villain and an awkward get-together between assorted estranged teen couples. Ripples of emotional cause and effect waft between the characters in different plots, which is sublimely affecting. No violence, no fantasy, no mysteries or weepy melodrama – the bittersweetness of childhood took place in 1980, and it takes place now.

Also watch: “Looks And Books”, “Girlfriends And Boyfriends”

Interview“Interview”, The Office [UK]

“Life just goes on.”

It’s hard to talk about this episode. It’s so superficially small and dramatically complete that it’s self-evident. Its emotional beats are subtle and earned, the tone is as real as it gets (much like the preceding entry), and the characters all have my sympathy despite being various shades of losers. You can find here the awesomeness of the human spirit and the utter futility of life, at the same time. Maybe it’s due in part to the setting, an unglamorous and profound metaphor for life and one of the best-realized workplaces in TV history. Unless he commits a crime, people will always give tiresome douchebag Ricky Gervais a lifetime pass for this show, and I understand why.

Also watch: “Judgement”, “Christmas Special Parts 1 And 2”

Godfellas“Godfellas”, Futurama

“When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.”

This is the most complex consideration of faith and theology I’ve witnessed in pop culture, which is surprising coming from such a goofy, satirical show. The devastating final line of the episode plays just as well whether or not you’re a believer, and the journey to get there is deceptively weighty while remaining amusing and true to the typical Futurama style. That’s best exemplified in other ‘sweet, then cynical’ high-concept laugh riots such as the two classics below.

Also watch: “Parasites Lost”, “Roswell That Ends Well”

Crossover“Crossover”, Adventure Time

“You, your family… everyone will die.”

Adventure Time uses freedom wisely. The vast and malleable realm of Ooo; the archetypal elasticity of its main characters; its rotating stable of diverse writers and artists; the myriad possibilities of animation; and its open reign of eleven minutes at a time as a canvas for absolutely anything to happen. Its world-building and narrative are triumphs of paring that freedom down to the essentials, sculpting away what doesn’t work and honing the detail of what does until it achieves perfection.

I always say this and nobody heeds; oh well. The greatest show of its era is an epic, kaleidoscopic, haphazard, ridiculous, big-hearted, young-adult short-feature art film, created by nonwhite nonbinary indie comic artists on a trivialized cable network, which won many awards, spun off several successful careers and became a worldwide phenomenon during a quiet decade of excellence. To a greater degree than any other show on my list, on Adventure Time, ingenious fantasy becomes devastating reality and then turns to epic myth. See it and believe.

Also watch: I’m cheating and going with the “Islands” and “Elements” miniseries arcs

Jose Chung's From Outer Space“Jose Chung’s From Outer Space”, the X-Files

“In our own separate ways, on this planet, we are all alone”

Darin Morgan might be my favorite screenwriter. Each of the six scripts he did for the X-Files is among the most lively and thoughtful television you’ll ever witness, masking casual brilliance with sparkling character humor and enhancing every inch of the story with worthwhile detail. What starts as a hysterical takedown of the X-Files format telescopes into an examination of the mythology’s true emotional underpinning, and eventually, a meditation on why storytelling exists to begin with. But Morgan pulls it off with such genial ease, he’d never dream of writing a sentence as laborious as that.

Here’s the thing though: This pick doesn’t entirely represent the show. Its revolutionary synthesis of pulpy police procedural, Twilight Zone sci-fi moralizing, romantically charged buddy cop narrative, and high-octane spy thriller intrigue made for a broad template. The other contributor to its longevity was the reliable and iconic character base, particularly the sparring, flirty lead duo of supernatural believer Mulder and skeptic scientist Scully. Some of the best TV writers of the 90s felt free to experiment with different styles and tones on the X-Files, and Morgan’s vision was but one of many. From week to week, it could be such disparate things as a heartrending true crime tragedy, a high-camp supernatural romantic fable, a terrifying found footage slasher movie, a humbly sweet mismatch comedy, an Emmy bait story arc about real life illness, or a trippy puzzle box hallucination – and lots more. Despite its central mystery running out of steam at the end of season five (and its wild unevenness in the episodes besides), about half of the long, storied series is well worth watching.

Also watch: “Zero Sum”, “Folie A Deux”

Amigos“Amigos!”, Arrested Development

“I never thought I’d miss a hand so much.”

The brain of every comedy lover (myself included) ties into knots when trying to conceptualize how one writes an Arrested Development episode. First you have to sketch out nine story arcs for a 22-minute episode, keeping the seasonal picture in mind. Every line (narrator included) has to be either plot or characterization, and most must also function as a setup or punchline. At your disposal is a world of running gags to mutate, evolve and call back to. Experiments of any kind are encouraged – from stylistic tangents to larger-than-life parody to incomprehensible chronology looping – as long as the deranged and self-defeating Bluth family is at the center, barely composing themselves and only slightly worth rooting for. Any and every type of humor is allowed; this includes esoteric pop culture references, background gags, slapstick, character bits and much more. Once you have that going for you, just do it for four whole seasons.

At the time, there was very little precedent in TV history for AD’s tone, structure and filming style, and now almost every single-camera network comedy rips it off to varying degrees of success. The first three seasons are a tremendous achievement (the fourth is a laudably ambitious step down), but Amigos! may be the high point.

Also watch: “The One Where Michael Leaves”, “The One Where They Build A House”

Mac Bangs Dennis' Mom“Mac Bangs Dennis’ Mom”, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia

“How do you show love? You go and have sex with old people!!!”

The finest and tightest farce story I’ve ever come across. Not to sell short the wonderfully malicious and disturbed ensemble just starting to cohere into a masochistic comedy machine, with endless outrageous scenarios to match. Not everybody likes the outsized chaos of Sunny (their loss). Everybody likes this episode.

Also watch: “The Gang Gets Analyzed”, “Gun Fever Too: Still Hot”

Scott Tenorman Must Die“Scott Tenorman Must Die”, South Park

“The tears of unfathomable sadness! Yummy!”

Like all TV shows, South Park had its peak time, place and audience. It held that power for a good long time too. But it has lost its way, as most long-running shows do. I guess that’s okay, because at the height of its powers, to the right kind of disenfranchised privileged person, its impact was global and indelible. Trey Parker and Matt Stone stole the twist for this one from Shakespeare, but to my teenage mind it was an inconceivable shock. Despite its self-serving and contradictory politics, the one thing that will never age about this show is the wicked hilarity of its characters, and Scott Tenorman Must Die raised the bar on that troll logic cruelty to an extent that they will never surpass. As an unlikely bonus, this episode also features the greatest band of the era in a surprising guest spot. When a boundary needs to be pushed (or even when it doesn’t), South Park has no peers.

Also watch: “Woodland Critter Christmas”, “Cartoon Wars Parts I and II”

Oh Louie Tickets“Oh Louie/Tickets”, Louie

“ugh”

Louie isn’t a comedy. But what is it? It had romance, grim drama, documentary-like interludes, an eerie episode or two, and okay yes, I suppose a lot of comedy. Ostensibly a Seinfeld-esque standup-centered cringe comedy showcase, it immediately pushed the limits of not only that trope, but the medium in general.

Louie picked apart the meaning and function of art just as much as it picked apart its creator, in a high-wire act of brazen indulgence and singular vision that ended up seeming humanistic at the time. Plus, with such a mundane focus and schlubby lead, it’s often hard to call it pretentious since it undercuts itself at every turn. This leads to a woozy, bizarre tone with the uncomfortable sense that anything could happen, which is a hallmark of many artworks that are genuinely new and fresh.

I wrote this blurb right before it was confirmed that CK was a sexual assaulter, which complicates the context and actual storylines of this show with what a crappy, threatening dude he is. Turns out his willingness to take shots at himself in his work was possibly an exploration of his own guilt and evil impulses. At least he collaborated with a ton of talented people on this show – chief among them Pamela Adlon – whose work still holds up. Call Louie what it really is: hypocritical, conflicted innovation.

Also watch: “So Did the Fat Lady”, “Eddie”

Royal Episode 13“Royal Episode 13 (Or, the Queen Will Be Watching)”, Monty Python’s Flying Circus

“Oh, most magnificent and merciful majesty, master of the universe, protector of the meek, whose nose we are not worthy to pick, and whose very feces are an untrammeled delight, and whose peacocks keep us awake all hours of the night with their noisy lovemaking. We beseech thee, tell thy humble servants the name of the section between the triglyphs in the frieze section of a classical Doric entablature.”

Monty Python were the Beatles of comedy. That’s really all that needs to be said (and George Harrison was the one who said it, so what other credentials do you need?). The intelligence, purity and catharsis of their work transcends even its missteps and the ravages of time, which is extra hard to do with a sketch comedy. The first season was a culture shock the likes of which probably won’t happen again, the second season saw everything coming together and the world changing around these six men, and the third season polished it all to an immaculate finish on a crest of cult popularity. The shortened, John Cleese-less castoff fourth season was a fascinating and instructive misfire with its share of classic moments. This pick is from the show’s daring peak (the ending pushes the envelope so far they had to insert mock protestation as censorship). But even at its lowest, the surrealism of Monty Python’s Flying Circus is pure entertainment.

Also watch: “Spam”, “How Not To Be Seen”

A Talking Junkie“A Talking Junkie”, Mr. Show

“Hey everybody, it’s Bob and David!”

The thing that makes these past two shows the best sketch comedies of all time by leagues is inspiration. Mr. Show lays down so many ideas in such short spans of time that some parts are bogged down because of it (the juxtaposition of different concepts are as plentiful as the actual jokes).

All other sketch comedy has a specific style of writing, characterization or comedic voice that it’s tied to, and the crew makes that work. Mr. Show had such an embarrassment of talent that it went completely gonzo for four years. Some of it seems dated or ineffectual now, and not all of it is perfect. But just wait five seconds. There. Now it’s amazing again.

Also watch: “What To Think”, “Peanut Butter, Eggs, And Dice”

Made In America“Made In America”, the Sopranos

“This thing of ours”

David Chase hates telling stories. After years of oppression under the rules of being a script workhorse, on his own show he shrugged them off or subverted them every chance he got. For some damnable reason, everyone adores his work because of this. It’s undeniably evocative and singular, but also sometimes frustrating and boring, succeeding more on a tonal level than anything.

The Sopranos is the most nihilistic show ever, trading in mundane dialogue, unchanging characters, drab visuals and petty upper-middle-class concerns. It ended up drastically influencing the glut of television we are currently in, but watching the show can be a draining experience. Its controversial finale works for me so powerfully because it both is and isn’t the ending of a story. The viewers who want Tony to live unscathed through the whole meal at Holsten’s technically get their embarrassing lack of catharsis and context for the 60-plus hours they just sat through, whereas the ending sequence is shot and edited in such an explicit way as to suggest a long-gestating plot and thematic development for those of us with hearts and some semblance of taste. You decide which is better; I’m cutting to black.

Also watch: “The Test Dream”, “Long Term Parking”

Rickshank Rickdemption“The Rickshank Rickdemption”, Rick and Morty

“It gets darker, Morty”

This show blows up decades of speculative fiction just to watch it all burn, snatching every fragment of the human condition out of the rubble. It’s sophomorically funny until it’s not, turning on a dime from sloppy retrofitted improv riffing to soul-shattering darkness. The thing is, Rick and Morty is spectacularly fun and creative as well. Mashing up as many as four story tropes and concepts an episode might be the most rewarding thing for a pop culture savant like Dan Harmon to do, although he and Justin Roiland have the skill to layer existential character drama and juvenile humor on top.

Its toxic fandom presupposes that the show’s concepts are mind-bogglingly complex, when they’re not. R&M might not be the smartest show, but it is a (compellingly) sad show. In fact, the themes of mental illness, existentialism and blinkered cynicism are the destructive factors it’s cleverest about.

Also watch: “Rixty Minutes”, “Total Rickall”

One Last Ride“One Last Ride”, Parks And Recreation

“I’m ready.”

Parks and Recreation is a relief. It’s easy to write stories about human fallibility and evil. It’s hard to make those topics shine. But it’s damn near impossible to write compellingly about human compassion and bonding, and so Michael Schur has pulled off a miracle with this fulfilling and generous workplace comedy classic. There is now no excuse to not shine a little light and camaraderie into our bleak TV landscape, because Parks and Recreation proves that stakes and conflict can still exist amidst respect and an easygoing tone (not to mention lots of great character humor). As a bonus, it underlined the pride and necessity of civic participation in an era where it was never more necessary. This heartwarming finale is more enjoyable with a working knowledge of the show and characters, so go back and watch the whole thing again.

Also watch: “The Fight”, “Andy And April’s Fancy Party”

Cooperative Calligraphy“Cooperative Calligraphy”, Community

“I’m doing a bottle episode.”

Some comedies are primarily about heart and some are more about laughs. If I had to choose, Community is the one of the few modern live action shows which balances both well. The gags are things real witty people would say. The references are ones that would happen in the real world. The conflicts at least start out pretty believable.

But where Community shines (and gained its impressive cult following) is in the framing. Oh, the framing! Remember the episodes where Jeff and Britta hooked up, or Abed lost touch with his family traditions, or when Annie and Jeff learned not to underestimate each other? If not, that’s too bad, because Community’s exceptional sincerity and story craft are on display in those premises. But you definitely remember the John Woo shootout extravaganza, the Christmas claymation spectacular, and the mind-bending pillow fort conspiracy thriller, because those are the exact same episodes, respectively.

Time and time again, Community went further stylistically than any sitcom ever has (to captivating and dramatic effect!) while never forgetting Dan Harmon’s famous narrative circle graph which made the joyrides resonate with honesty. “Cooperative Calligraphy”, while another genius take on a trope, purposely underlines the simple fundamental drama between the cast, and it’s a series highlight because of this. These broken people finding redemption in one another, needing something, paying for it and reaching realizations in the end. That is fiction, and television, at its best.

Also watch: “Modern Warfare”, “Mixology Certification”

Black Tie“Black Tie”, 30 Rock

“Twirl! Twirl again! Keep twirling!!”

30 Rock is so effortlessly, exuberantly witty that it becomes transparent at times. It’s a Skinner box of laughter, and I rarely take the time or effort to give it the credit it deserves for its genius. This show is in love with all other television shows, so it’s obvious to say it nails the rhythms of TV comfort food, while mixing in a small amount of serialization and growth so as to withstand repeat viewings. It has enough of a character and narrative skeleton to get the laugh engine running, and that’s fine. I don’t mind when it gets really wacky, such as in this early oddball standout. But it’s so consistent almost any episode could have gone here.

Also watch: “Rosemary’s Baby”, “Cooter”

Reggie Watts Wears“Reggie Watts Wears A Purple And Yellow Quilted Sweatshirt”, Comedy Bang! Bang!

“Back to the time period after the present!”

Comedy Bang! Bang! was one of the first successful podcasts before it became a TV show. It’s a showcase of modern improv, with real comics and character work rambling for an hour each week. The show, also masterminded by host Scott Aukerman, is a masterpiece of indie comedy. It’s a sweeter, more upbeat offshoot of Mr. Show’s scabrous surrealism, and a worthy modern successor to it (CBB even features most of that show’s cast). Its benefit over the podcast is the integration of scripted sketch comedy material that’s as great as the riffing. This penultimate episode isn’t a logical place to start, because actual continuity is baked in (on a goofy fake talk show, of all things), but I had to choose it because the lengths to which Aukerman goes for the narrative are actually incredible. Along with Community, no show so deeply embraces the concept of limitless playfulness and delight in its ideas.

Also watch: “Ty Burrell Wears A Chambray Shirt And Clear Frame Glasses”, “Zach Galifianakis Wears Grey Corduroys And Brown Leather Shoes”

Bastogne“Bastogne”, Band of Brothers

“Hey doc, it’s gonna get busy, pal”

I am only a novice in the genre, but I haven’t seen a war story like this before. (Besides maybe the previous work of its creators, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks.) Sure, you have your lulls and your girls back home and your laborious training and your heroic reversals and the bleak chaos. But what other modern war movie jumps around like this? What about the kindness in these human beings? The boredom? The humor? The rest of the world rotating around this battlefield? Bastogne is a messy, idiosyncratic portrait of the Battle of the Bulge, told from the perspective of an unlikely candidate in the conflict. Its casually brutal snowblind narrative is outstanding, as is the rest of this landmark miniseries.

Also watch: “Why We Fight”, “The Breaking Point”

Orange is the New Black - The Animals Thoughts“The Animals”, Orange Is the New Black

“Even if you’re the city now, one day you’ll be the monster.”

This thrilling TV episode raised some ire, but in the service of an important topic. Orange Is the New Black premiered at the dawn of a TV movement where representation of POC and LGBTQ folks was burgeoning, and despite its white, cisgender writers’ room, at least did some justice to groups of marginalized people not often seen on television to that point. Given the delicate topics they were tackling and how they approached the characters, some thought the creators’ efforts at sensitivity weren’t good enough and didn’t justify their sensationalized plotting.

To complicate this, much like the following episode, OITNB isn’t afraid to be sentimental, to be pulpy, to lose its way or overindulge in its characters. This tonal whiplash increased the necessity of taking trans and black lives seriously in their stories. For instance, the show was refreshing in its Lost-esque flashback structure and willingness to humanize everyone, including – in “The Animals” – a privileged white rent-a-cop who accidentally asphyxiates a beloved character in a climactic tragedy.

Given the historical precedents of suffering in this era, the external machinery of OITNB, the prison-industrial complex, and other factors, the moral arithmetic here is awkward and complicated. It’s certainly not immune to criticism. But to my mind, it’s a fascinating (and inflammatory) way to look at injustice, both in the show’s prison setting and behind the scenes.

Also watch: “We Have Manners. We’re Polite.”, “You Also Have A Pizza”

Wrath Of the Lamb“Wrath Of the Lamb”, Hannibal

“It’s beautiful.”

Hannibal was a fearless show, without a doubt. It diced up the continuity it was based on to fit its needs, leapt into the source material’s inner workings and backstory without proper viewer conditioning, and spared no expense on the most incredible visuals and sound design I’ve witnessed on TV. This bravado also led it down hyper-indulgent and campy pathways which were part and parcel of its operatic aesthetic. Hannibal is wondrous overkill to the last morsel.

Also watch: “Savoureux”, “Kaiseki”

Doctor Who S9 Ep11 Heaven Sent“Heaven Sent”, Doctor Who

“Personally, I think that’s a hell of a bird”

I also wrote at length about this episode elsewhere, but suffice it to say Doctor Who is one of western culture’s best fables, and the Doctor himself one of its most iconic heroes.

Also watch: “Blink”, “The Eleventh Hour”

The Children“The Children”, Game Of Thrones

“KILL ME!!!”

The incredible pivot point of a problematic, massively dense, megahit TV drama that tried to pull off much more than it reasonably could, but which deserves lots of credit despite the backlash. A deconstruction that didn’t know when to stop, Game of Thrones became an unprecedented sensation because of all its ambition and promise, and then was let down because of those same indulgences. It was gripping because any character could die, and they did so often it derailed the plot, becoming parodic and meaningless. There was an epic sweep and scope to its world, which led to characters spiraling further and further away from one another, causing bloat and lapses in the plotting. GOT tried its hand at all kinds of storytelling: there was some psychological drama, rich historical political intrigue, allegorical mystical fantasy, and all-out bloody warfare action. But they weren’t all equally accomplished, and didn’t always sit together in a believable fashion. Furthermore, after its artistic peak, its story got so hung up on topping itself and outguessing the audience that it became ridiculous, and lost any clear path it had to a traditional narrative catharsis. It aimed for detail-perfect realism, but undercut that with nonsense side plots and absurd magical contrivances. Not to mention the fact that this miserable atmosphere became viscerally unpleasant, and garnered criticism for being socially irresponsible. So, much like the embattled and ruined societies it depicts, GOT was a grandiose but haphazard and cruel mess with some true value to it nonetheless.

See also: “The Rains Of Castamere”, “Baelor”

My Screw Up“My Screw Up”, Scrubs

“Where do you think we are?”

Scrubs is a warm, sloppy, well-meaning and sometimes great sitcom peppered lightly with heartbreak. It’s more of an earnest workplace comedy than a medical drama (coincidentally, real physicians have said it’s the most accurate hospital show). Despite its lesser seasons, character devolution and erratic tone, Scrubs was always heartfelt. In fact, most fans tend to prefer its more thoughtful and sad installments, such as this one. Because of its skill with both melodrama and hyperactive silliness, it’s a wonderful comfort food show.

Also watch: “My Lunch”, “My Finale”

Tim and Eric

“Comedy”, Tim and Eric, Awesome Show! Great Job!

“Finally, everyone can laugh…”

Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim are geniuses of garbage. They were influenced by an era of poisonous irony, confusing postmodernism and pop-culture nonsense. In an obscure late-night airing slot on a network for nerdy teens, they salvaged low art not with any highfalutin tricks or condescension, but by cannibalizing it for their own purposes while turning the intensity up to ten. The sensory overload of the editing and intentional discomfort of their performances are something to behold, and Tim and Eric wield them expertly in lots of different permutations, from parody to gross-out gags to pure surrealism. This is anti-comedy so potent and well-executed that it becomes actual comedy. Although it’s not for everyone.

Also watch: “Man Milk”, “Greene Machine”

Part 7 Peleliu Hills“Part Seven [Peleliu Hills]”, The Pacific

“You can’t dwell on it.”

This story contains the two or three most disturbing things I’ve ever seen on TV, and it’s not close. That dubious honor of realism and emotional power goes to another knockout World War II miniseries from Spielberg and Hanks. The Pacific gives visibility to an equally maddening and monstrous side of the conflict, but dodges the potential traps of such racially loaded material by instead being an incisive psychological and cultural portrait of the American troops (more so than even Band of Brothers was). All the historical stuff is very, very brutal and matter of fact, evoking fear more than anything else.

Also watch: “Part Six [Pelelieu Airfield]”, “Part Nine [Okinawa]”

Happiness, Pillow Fight, Imaginary Friend“Happiness; Pillow Fight; Imaginary Friend”, Review

“It’s so great to hear my rights! I’m so glad for the Constitution!”

This show is like nothing else… besides the Australian program that inspired it, that is. At first, Review seems like an excuse for satirical prank humor, but there are scripted multicamera sections, and an exaggerated character being played (masterfully so) by Andy Daly. So then it rises to the level of satirical slapstick, taking the chance to get this well-meaning buffoon into R-rated situations. But there’s also the mockumentary show-within-a-show conceit, and even within the first episode, glimpses of Forrest MacNeil’s life and psychology, which become rather unsettling. At that very early point, we already have a dramatic, story-based hook behind at least two layers of fiction, since his travails carry over through the series.

After a while, the dry professionalism that hilariously carries Forrest through the worst experiences of his life becomes the predominant tone of one of the darkest and saddest comedies in a TV era full of them. At its emotional core, the flawless diamond that is Review’s 22 episode run could be compared to the macabre suffering of Job, the hollow sadness of Ricky Gervais’ David Brent, or Albert Brooks’ revolutionary mass-media satires. But more than anything, Daly (and the onscreen “creative team”) has presented a bleakly funny look at insanity and obsession, wrapped up right at the point of no return. Three episodes of Review’s unique style (just watch the below episodes first) should justify all this high-minded praise.

Also watch: “Pancakes, Divorce, Pancakes”, “Murder, Magic 8 Ball, Procrastination”

Topsy“Topsy”, Bob’s Burgers

“Electric love”

Since Parks and Recreation ended, this is the sweetest show on television. The hallmark of Bob’s Burgers is a wonderfully inclusive and celebratory attitude toward its off-kilter characters, especially its central family. To this day, it still bases plausible yet wacky conflicts between them, but never loses its heart. Add to that a penchant for musical interludes and the excellent cast chemistry, and it’s yet another sitcom for the ages.

Also watch: “Mother Daughter Laser Razor”, “Mazel-Tina”

The Third Conchord“The Third Conchord”, Flight of the Conchords

“Pied Piper wasn’t cool, he took all those kids into a cave.”

Cult classic Flight of the Conchords is a deadpan wacky Spinal Tap-esque musical comedy with an imagination that outpaces its humble beginnings and low budget. Its quality pretty much speaks for itself.

Also watch: “Bowie”, “The New Cup”

Archer Vice House Call“Archer Vice: House Call”, Archer

“Are we not saying ‘phrasing’ anymore?”

Archer is pretty much egotistical alcoholics arguing, interspersed with erratic genre action. Though it’s a well-animated spy thriller for plot purposes and has some amusing continuity, Archer’s comedic allure is all about the dialogue. It’s so esoteric, fumbled and fast-paced that it would frankly be even more enjoyable on the page. The show’s plotting can forget itself and turn on a dime as well, evidenced by the numerous reboots and reversals employed by creator Adam Reed to keep himself entertained. But even when the back-and-forth gabbing is too abstract for belly laughs, it earns them anyway with an amazing voice cast taking increasingly outrageous workplace comedy to its limits every season.

Also watch: “The Limited”, “Lo Scandalo”

Sit In“Sit In”, Girls

“Hannah?”

Girls is problematic and inconsistent, but was also a bold and worthwhile experiment, much like Orange Is the New Black. It had a lot of unbounded artistic promise complicated by an asshole creator, like Louie. It faced a lot of white privilege issues and anti-feminist flack, but was also complicated and probing in its themes and character work, which resulted in some standout episodes. With focuses on modern romance, mental illness, class hypocrisy and social status from an aching, aimless and idealistic band of characters, I suppose Girls is primarily an examination of millennials. With all the chaos and backlash that buzzword implies.

Also watch: “Vagina Panic”, “It’s A Shame About Ray”

Space“Space”, Off the Air

“?”

Off the Air is pure television. Pure stimulus, even. No narrative. Eleven minutes. Constantly shifting overlapping cross-edited stitches of animation and film. They’re made by random indie artists and outsiders. Soundtrack is surreal art rock and electronic soundscapes. Each entry revolves around a common theme. Only constant is the time, framework and end titles being there in some form. Full attention not required. Beautiful.

Also watch: any other two episodes

Resumes & Jamiroquai's Dad“Resumes & Jamiroquai’s Dad”, My Brother, My Brother and Me

“You guys would tell me if I looked like a very magical pervert, right?”

A friendly, off-the-cuff unpolished gem of a show from three brothers who started their burgeoning media empire with a comedy podcast. Please enjoy it and then join the all-inclusive, always-happy McElroy cult.

Also watch: “Secret Societies & Apologies To Nathan”, “Candlenights & Vape Ape”

Klick“Klick”, Better Call Saul

“What he wants and what he needs are two very different things.”

Better Call Saul had the best pedigree and head start in television history, and yet still took a while to find its footing. Reboots, remakes and prequels are fast becoming the order of the day in TV programming, and it illustrates a lot of the problems and potential with those properties. For a while at least, there is very little new here – it seems to be a photocopy of Breaking Bad’s themes and struggles, only with less cohesion and stakes, because only certain characters can be threatened due to what the viewer knows of future events. Far too many BB mainstays appear as clumsy dramatic irony or grandstanding self-reference, and its bifurcated structure is bizarre. Furthermore, the show takes a while to find its specific tone, scope and moral dilemma. But even before it does, BCS’ story execution, visual flair and performances are still among the best in the game, and it’s worth watching for that alone, especially once it starts improving. Spoilers: At the end, a better show happens.

Also watch: “Gloves Off”, “Rebecca”

Helga On the Couch“Helga On the Couch”, Hey Arnold!

“Some things are best swept under the rug, Helga.”

Hey Arnold! is a show for children, and why should that be an insult? Much like Adventure Time, at its best, it presented kids with notable empathy, imagination, and moral truth, not to mention the next best thing to swearing I was allowed to watch on TV at the time. It can be quite sorrowful under the surface, but never once loses its hopeful soul, thanks to the unusual gentleness of its eponymous lead. It does a lot of what I praised AT for, but earlier and in a gritty-realistic NYC setting. There’s mature satire here, alongside beautiful tone poems, harrowing psychic darkness, classic Borscht Belt comic relief, teenage moral lessons and grandiose escapades. Hey Arnold! was formative for me, and I still love it despite not seeing it in years.

Also watch: “Heat/Snow”, “The Journal”

Wet Painters Krusty Krab Training Video“Wet Painters/Krusty Krab Training Video”, Spongebob Squarepants

“Looks like Mr. Squarepants understands POOP.”

Spongebob Squarepants didn’t aim as high as the other two youth-oriented shows I admire, but nothing could compete with its sense of humor. It’s animated fun in the same vein as classic Chuck Jones shorts. I can only speak for its first three or four seasons, which were great enough on their own to kickstart its still-going worldwide popularity. It’s hard to pick only one standout two-pack episode, so just consider these placeholders for a very amusing show that still holds up.

Also watch: “Bubblestand/Ripped Pants”, “Jellyfishing/Plankton”

Braingeas Final Cranny
Body
“Braingeas Final Cranny”, Xavier: Renegade Angel, and “Body”, Wonder Showzen

No quotes can do these shows justice

These shows are exceedingly weird things that are super niche. They’re great and impossibly clever/alienating. Cool? Cool.

Also watch: “Damnesia Vu”, “Damnesia You”; “Space”, “Health”

A Substantial Gift“A Substantial Gift (The Broken Promise)”, Police Squad!

“We’re sorry to bother you at a time like this, Mrs. Twice. We would have come earlier, but your husband wasn’t dead then.”

This is some classic old-school madcap goofball comedy that I grew up with, but I’ve already written about all those things. So while it’s a little redundant, what set the creative icons of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker apart is their dedication to beautifully lowbrow, formula-breaking gags. That and their destructive PCP habit. See, jokes like that.

Also watch: “Ring Of Fear (A Dangerous Assignment)”, “The Butler Did It (A Bird In the Hand)”

The One With the Embryos“The One With the Embryos”, Friends

“Actually, it’s Miss Chanandler Bong.”

Out of all the shows I saw incompletely before I had any interest in analysis or completism, Friends might hold the largest place in my subconscious, although it certainly isn’t high art or anything. It doesn’t always even hold up that well, but as far as slick, melodramatic nostalgia goes, it can be a lot of fun. So I went with the consensus best episode.

Also watch: “The One Where No One’s Ready”, “The One Where Everyone Finds Out”

 

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What Is Who?: Other Great Episodes

Doctor-Who-Ninth-Tenth-Eleventh-Twelfth

“Hello, sweetie.” 

If you liked Dalek, other notable villain episodes:

Rise Of the Cybermen

The Age Of Steel

            This two-parter reestablishes the Doctor’s second most iconic foe, also mechanical and bent on totalitarianism. Rose is initially dating a sheepish guy named Mickey, who soon becomes a companion on his own terms when he learns her secret. This story is a showcase for his meek heroism, while also demonstrating the lumpy pacing of DW two-parters. If I recall correctly, the second half is better.

If you liked The Girl In the Fireplace, other notable historical episodes:

The Vampires Of Venice

            A potentially campy filler hour that actually has a cracking good plot with tons of nice character moments, and an engrossing sense of place for this mid-budget show.

Vincent And the Doctor

            A beautiful and pointed exploration of loneliness and mental illness, where the serialization, metaphorical monster, and focal character all dovetail.

If you liked Doomsday, other notable season finales:

The Pandorica Opens

The Big Bang

            Like Doomsday, these episodes work much better with seasonal context and character empathy, but they’re roughly self-contained epic jaunts showing just how badass the Ponds and Eleven are, and how grandiose Moffat lets his twisty storylines get.

If you liked Smith And Jones, other notable season premieres:  

The Impossible Astronaut

Day Of the Moon

            A perfect example of an incredible jumpstart that Moffat mostly fumbled at the end. Enjoy these classics in the moment – they’re fun time travel stories on their own with a new villain that’s super cool (albeit cribbed in some ways from a classic Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode).

If you liked Human Nature and The Family Of Blood, other notable pacifist episodes:

Planet Of the Ood

            The Ood aren’t a classic adversary so much as a passive race that the Doctor keeps tabs on. Their subservient nature makes for a fascinating dynamic in this solid hour’s free will and/or racism allegory. Also, yeah, they look pretty creepy, but it is what it is.

The Zygon Inversion

            Another example of a superior second half, The Zygon Inversion hits a lot of familiar Doctor Who themes: talking through things, regret and suffering, the pointlessness of evil, showmanship and flamboyance, petulant rage, and an investigative spirit.

            The only preamble a new viewer needs is that an undiscovered alien culture on earth called the Silurians has begun to wage war and stake their claim to the planet. Their leader disguises itself as Clara and wants to wipe out all humans, in a chilling metaphor for immigration anxieties. The Doctor’s superiority over most life forms can sometimes manifest in a benevolent, doting Godlike way, as it does here.

            At one point they return to a room from Day Of the Doctor, where a universe-saving armistice plot twist was reached through the Time Lord’s shenanigans. It is there that perhaps the greatest scene and monologue from the revived series occurs, exemplifying all those above facets of the Doctor’s worldview in a brilliant performance from Capaldi.

If you liked Blink, other notable thriller episodes:

42

            This episode revels in its pulpy, high-tension premise – a then-timely ticking clock riff on 24 with plenty of action and cannon fodder.

Dinosaurs On A Spaceship

            Here, there’s a surprising amount of time for moral quandaries, side character beats and developing the companions despite the unabashedly childish concept. Its threat and structure are also very unusual and intriguing.

Time Heist

            Time Heist sets up the fiction of this world to pretty much do a straightforward heist caper with minimal sci-fi, and it’s a blast.

If you liked Midnight, other notable dark episodes:

A Good Man Goes To War

Let’s Kill Hitler

            More portentous and grim than psychologically disturbing, these twisty-turny mythology payoff episodes heavily utilize Moffat’s go-for-broke puzzle-box story methods. The final result sort of collapses under its own machinations, harming the internal logic of some of the characters, but it’s a thrilling ride the first time through. This continues a pattern I observed earlier in season six. If you don’t question it and keep an emotional distance, it’s pretty impressive.

The Waters Of Mars

            This is another unusually despairing Davies episode (a long-form special, at that) about gray morality, the Doctor overstepping his boundaries, and the best laid plans going awry.

If you liked The Eleventh Hour, other notable episodes from season five:

The Time Of Angels

Flesh And Stone

            A double-shot Weeping Angel redux by way of Aliens. The iconic foes hadn’t lost their novelty or menace yet, and a familiar face shows up for the adventure, depending on which of these episodes you’ve already seen.

If you liked Amy’s Choice, other notable companion-centric episodes:

Father’s Day

Kill the Moon

The Woman Who Lived

            Next, an unrelated triptych to demonstrate how the Doctor complicates and infiltrates human existence. First, by breaking and complicating familial relationships. Then by lording over this lesser species without proper regard for their sapience and dignity. Finally, his alien machinations and ramshackle solutions tending to cause more problems than they’re worth.

            There are some interesting moral quandaries presented among these three hours. Kill the Moon is a reproductive rights allegory wisely turned over to the women in the cast, and which just barely lands on the smarter side of the issue while offering shades of opinion. Next, The Woman Who Lived finds the Doctor accidentally creating a time-prolonged demigod equal out of an innocent young girl, and the unspeakable angst that created for her contrasts with the Time Lord’s seemingly altruistic methods. Then, Father’s Day sheds light on how the families of companions carry on after their child disappears (for all they know – it’s all very Peter Pan-esque) while giving Rose some character shading.

If you liked The Lodger, other notable comedic episodes:

Turn Left

            A “what if?” episode that’s a showcase for Donna, one companion who’s not in this list a whole lot. This does a good job depicting her charming life, silliness and all.

Flatline

            This is a terrific adventure episode with an incredibly imaginative threat and a great use of Clara as a heroine. But I’m also including it here because of the most inspired comedic set piece this show has ever done.

If you liked The Doctor’s Wife, other notable TARDIS-related episodes:

Journey To the Centre of the TARDIS

            More boundless TARDIS zaniness, with a couple eerie surprises.

If you liked The Snowmen, other notable Christmas episodes:

A Christmas Carol

            A perfect Christmas episode balance of a familiar holiday tale, tweaked to fit the Doctor’s sci-fi milieu.

If you liked The Day Of the Doctor, other notable mythology episodes:

The End of Time, Part 2

The Wedding Of River Song

The Time Of the Doctor

            These three episodes are all imperfect, but still have the signature of their creators and a lot of potential. The End Of Time has a typically lackluster first part, while the second half is a surprisingly slick, moving reunion tour of different companions as Davies bids farewell to his pet project. Among them is Wilfred, Donna’s grandfather and part-time spacefarer. He’s jovial, down-to-earth and childlike.

            The Wedding Of River Song is a breathless attempt to ground a supporting character, Doctor and seasonal arc that had all gone out of control through Moffat’s increasing story escalation. That it even succeeds mildly is impressive. It’s a bit perfunctory, confusing and cynical about its characters, but essentially the plot makes sense.

            The same goes for The Time Of the Doctor, the 50th anniversary companion piece to the Day Of the Doctor (and an ostensible Christmas special, technically). If there’s any occasion to forgive Moffat’s grandiosity, it’s this impressive story arc. It also marks another important facet of the show, the one regeneration episode on my list. For season seven, Smith’s “death” is appropriately off-format and belabored, but the basics are there, and it’s still resonant.

If you liked Mummy On the Orient Express, other notable mystery episodes:

Silence In the Library

Forest of the Dead

            This fan-beloved two-parter has some of Moffat’s best story ideas, and it moves quickly and eventfully, despite a couple odd moments. It’s also crucial for introducing a rare non-companion supporting player, and a rarer still romantic foil for the Doctor. The thing about River Song (Alex Kingston) is… well, you’ll see, but suffice it to say that I skipped over her spotlight episodes in the general primer for a pragmatic reason, and your acquaintance with her should start here.

If you liked Heaven Sent, other notable existential episodes:

The Satan Pit

            This unsettling second-part entry tackles the possibility of an unknown deity, and gets very cutting with its examination of faith and religion in a stifling setting similar to that of Midnight.

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Heaven Sent

Heaven Sent 2

“I can’t always do this. Why can’t I just lose?”

Who is the Doctor from Gallifrey?

            Heaven Sent has more answers to that than almost any Doctor Who story, revealed bit by bit as the Time Lord bares his soul and overcomes his darkest hour. He wants to know things, harboring a healthy fascination and respect for all peaceful races. He has a thirst for experience and hedonism, accompanied by a madcap sense of humor. He is aware that constant change is a permanent part of his life, and as much as he would sometimes like to stay put and get attached, he never allows himself to do so. He doesn’t want to be alone, even though his travels are fundamentally lonely. He lives with a host of personal demons and failings for a hyperextended lifespan. Because of this, he has to mask his guilt and pain in various ways. He has a ferocious will to persevere and win, using his incredible intellect to do so. He is loyal to his friends and his moral code. He is incredibly resilient, willing to withstand tremendous pain for his cause. He is arrogant, having repeatedly cheated death and disaster through unlikely means. Lastly, he is afraid: of himself, of all the terrible things in the universe, of failure.

            Heaven Sent is a modern TV classic, and arguably the show’s best episode. It’s the first Doctor Who story to my knowledge without any sort of companion. Twelve is helpless, defeated and left in a desolate labyrinth to reckon with all these variables – who he is.

            It’s effectively creepy and disorienting, with one of Moffat’s trademark conceptual story gambits. Yet this one is both grander and more elegant than the rest, while serving important thematic and character functions. The increasingly weary, apocalyptic last seasons of the showrunner’s tenure get pushed to their astounding breaking point here.

            One of the most noticeable traits of Heaven Sent is its marvelous original score, on a show which usually skimps on that front. There is a lot of silence and thinking in this episode, so it’s necessary to fill in the gaps. Likewise, the show’s cinematography is brought to the fore here, and it shines. A recent loss is wounding the Doctor at the hour’s beginning, so an emotional factor is implied. After getting to know Doctor Who over these posts, those few details should be enough for you to get your bearings, so I won’t spoil any more. Enjoy!

HEAVEN SENT (By Steven Moffat)

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Mummy On the Orient Express

Mummy On the Orient Express

“Shut up and give me some planets”

           We jump into season eight with a semi-serialized, but fabulously creative monster of the week episode. In and of itself, that tentative mix of continuity and standalone was refreshing for the show, which had gotten rote on one side of the equation and ridiculous on the other since the beginning of Moffat’s tenure. Tethering the two arguably improved both and gave some sort of throughline to Clara’s emotional struggles. As a result, the plotting of these seasons morphed a bit, with relationship drama bleeding through between episodes more than usual.

            This particular entry has a compelling angle for the sadly mishandled Clara, which is just to have a good time despite her reticence (hence the quote above). Her boyfriend Danny Pink is briefly shown, and as usual with companion SOs, after a charming romantic subplot, he gets sucked in to the whole shebang before too long. Mummy On the Orient Express is a continuation of earlier conflicts the Doctor, Clara and Danny have with one another, while also setting up story beats further down the line. And yet the main event makes for a fantastic standalone.

            Doctor Who isn’t above referencing or even adapting classic British literature and storytelling. In fact, some of the show’s best episodes revolve around classic ensemble mysteries for the Doctor and his companions to piece together. This is a thrilling example in that vein, with a perception monster that seems like a tangible, despairing threat, allowing the Doctor to confront the existential dread that deeply informs his crisis management skills. But unlike some gloomier scripts, this one has a triumphant payoff and shows the Time Lord at his best.

            Twelve (Peter Capaldi) is charmingly gruff, haunted and paternal, a contrast to Eleven’s adolescent antics. After the heightened nonsense of season seven (which sometimes worked, to be fair), Moffat’s last few years featured grounded characterization, a standoffish tone, and a true embrace of danger. This was reinforced when Twelve forgot a lot of the fireworks at the end of Smith’s reign, and had to be taken care of by Clara. Just goes to show how evergreen this show and its worldview are – no matter how long a fallow period lasts, a batch of great episodes could be right around the corner.

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