For me, one of the challenges of writing a blog post is coming up with a title. A scan of my Index shows I like short and punchy (with a dash of clever if I can manage it), and I’m not above using puns (in fact, quite love them). I wanted to call this Channel Surfing, but I’ve already used that title. (In retrospect, I should have called that one TV Triple. If only I’d known.)
Earlier this year I read a lot (see: this, this, this, or this). Lately I’m watching more TV, trying to whittle away at various watch lists. (For a retired guy, I have a lot of TODO lists. Lists on multiple ebook platforms, lists on multiple video streaming sites, household lists, personal lists,… I even have a list of local breweries to try.)
Here’s a list of what I’ve been watching lately. And a cutaway about cutaways.
There’s a convention that, if one has good news and bad news, one should lead with the good news to set a positive tone. (In leading with the bad, the good may be lost in the reaction.) Ever defiant of convention, I’m going to lead with the worst and work my way towards greener pastures.
I’m not a fan of stop-motion. It reminds me of those Christmas kiddie shows I had to watch too many times as a kid.
It does depend on the script. I’ve seen ones I really enjoyed. Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs is high on that list — in part because I love dogs. (Get it? Told you I loved puns.) I also enjoyed his Fantastic Mr. Fox.
I can always be won by good writing, but M.O.D.O.K. (in my view) doesn’t have any. I didn’t care at all for the first episode. I watched the second to give it a second chance and didn’t care for it at all, either.
In fairness, the series has been well-received by critics and audiences. More than one writer has compared it to Robot Chicken, which I think is right on the mark. If you like Robot Chicken, you’ll probably like M.O.D.O.K. just fine. (I don’t, and I didn’t.)
At its core, it’s a form of humor I find inexplicable. To be clear, that’s on me — comedy is personal and very much a matter of taste. Mine just doesn’t run along those lines.
For me it’s too random — a form of comedy more suited for stand-up or vaudeville or very short bits. Mostly just wall-to-wall gags, many of them hung on small hooks. (Tacked on with little to hold them to the characters or plot.) Occasionally one landed with me, but mostly they made me shake my head.
Part of it is not finding the characters interesting, engaging, or worthwhile. There’s no one to connect with, no one to care about, none of them have any reality. They’re all puppets for the gags.
Frankly (and again this is on me), I’m astonished at how seriously many critics take comic book storytelling. For example, in the Wikipedia article for M.O.D.O.K.…
Eric Francisco of Inverse gave the series a positive review, stating that “In its own tragicomic corner, outside the Marvel Cinematic Universe, M.O.D.O.K. shines as a nuanced portrait of a supervillain trying to have it all” and that “M.O.D.O.K. has strengths all its own, primarily as a too-real tragicomedy about a life gone awry and a marriage crumbling into dust,”…
I can only say that he and I clearly live in different worlds. (Inverse is that online magazine that keeps breathlessly telling me about SF movies I have to see. They’re almost always wrong.)
Indeed, at the end of the first episode, MODOK’s wife announces she wants a divorce. As if such a marriage could have existed in the first place. The absurdity makes the attempt at normal values fall flat on its face. The huge flaw is that any of them pretend any of this is in any way normal.
A big part of the problem is throwing the absurdity at us full force — giving us a ridiculous story with ridiculous characters — and then expecting to buy pathos from us with clichés and old tropes. To me, it’s cheap and way too thirsty. And just dumb.
There is also that the main character is both a loser and a major asshole, so why would I care about him? The show seems to be reaching for Despicable Me (down to having yellow-clad minions), but we had reason to care about Gru.
Compare this to another absurdist series, Rick and Morty. Episodes are more focused, the gags are more organic, and we’re given enough normal handles on the characters and situations that we can engage with the stories. There’s nothing for me in M.O.D.O.K. (I’ll note that Rick and Morty have the good sense to avoid time-travel and all the ‘yeah, buts’ that involves.)
For me another issue is the whole superhero thing, which I am so over. Part of the problem is the fundamental absurdity of superheroes. The superhero-with-family trope is all the more absurd.
So far I’d give it at least a Meh! rating, and possibly a Nah! (but I’d have to see what they do with the new plot thread they introduced in the second episode… if I can bear to watch more episodes).
Speaking of superhero-with-family, Invincible, a new animated series on Amazon Prime.
As with M.O.D.O.K. this is based on an existing comic book series, but in this case from the comics world alternative, Image Comics.
(Number three after the Big Two. You may not have heard of them, but you’ve probably heard of some of their titles: Spawn, The Walking Dead, Kick-Ass. The Netflix series Jupiter’s Legacy, which I’m considering, is also based on one of their titles.)
While M.O.D.O.K. is quite violent in a played-for-laughs Road Runner cartoon kind of way (albeit a bit more graphic and lurid), Invincible takes its violence entirely seriously, and there’s quite a lot of it.
This series involves a more normal family (or so it seems), except that dad, Nolan Grayson (J.K. Simmons), is basically Superman — here called Omni-Man — and his son, Mark, has inherited his powers. The series begins when Mark, a teenager, comes into those powers.
Mark’s mother, Debbie (Sandra Oh), is a normal Earth woman. As with DC’s Superman, Omni-Man is an alien; he’s from Viltrum. In this case it’s not Earth’s Sun that gives him power but that he’s a member of a highly advanced superpowered race.
He’s considered Earth’s greatest, most powerful hero,… but at the end of the first episode he kills everyone in this reality’s analog of the Justice League.
Which sets up one hell of an interesting series arc. I have to admit my jaw dropped.
Mark (Steven Yeun), who takes the name Invincible and is very excited about being a superhero, ends up in the ultimate father-son battle.
I got the impression somehow this was going to be more deconstructive then it was. Instead it’s a fairly normal — albeit alternative — comic book story.
The family aspect, as usual, is silly, but in this case it’s necessary to create Mark and the father-son conflict. Yet, this isn’t an examination of superhero families so much as of the question of the real consequences of super-powered beings. Especially alien super-powered beings.
What if they didn’t have our best interests at heart? What if they had some secret agenda?
It was more conventional than I had hoped for, but I found it interesting and engaging enough to watch all eight episodes. I’ll certainly watch season two. (Apparently Prime has signed for both seasons two and three.) I give it an Eh! rating and a thumbs up if you like that sort of thing.
(I always did like the alternative comics more than the usual fare. I’ll take The Authority over the Justice League any day. “Superman” and “Batman” as gay lovers? Rampant promiscuity? Shameless abuse of power? Isn’t that how super beings would likely really behave? Think Hancock.)
Speaking of animation, but escaping from the over-exposed superhero genre, I finally got around to watching the new season of Love, Death & Robots on Netflix.
I enjoyed the second season as much, if not perhaps a little more, than the first one. Part of it — and this is just an impression I haven’t checked — is that the second set of stories had happier endings throughout compared to some bummer endings in the first set.
What I enjoy most about this series is the different animation styles. It’s fun to see various approaches to drawing a story.
If the series feels like the film Heavy Metal (1981) that might be because David Fincher and Tim Miller worked on a reboot of that film for years. Love, Death & Robots is what they did instead. I was a fan of Heavy Metal magazine back in the day, enjoyed the movie, and I’ve always liked alternative animation. I’m definitely a fan here.
Last time I mentioned this I gave it a (low) Wow! rating, and the second season doesn’t do anything to change that. The reason for being a little wishy-washy on the rating is that as much as I enjoy the stories, they don’t really grab me. I don’t find myself dying to describe them to others.
Let me cut away for a moment to mention the narrative cutaway, a common modern sit-com device. It’s a form of the more general flashback.
It’s also a form of cutaway, but more than the usual short insert of something relevant. What I have in mind is when a character is talking and they begin to relate something that happened. The action cuts away to that scene taking place, and when the action returns to the character talking, the other characters act as if they’ve seen the entire scene we just saw.
It implies, from the reactions of others, that the character describing the scene did so in extraordinary detail.
(It reminds me a bit of the magic we sometimes see with surveillance cameras, especially when they cut to convenient angles to show off the action. We’re so used to video content we don’t really notice the edits.)
The great show Scrubs used the narrative cutaway to great effect, often cutting away to a character’s imagination. On the snap back, it could sometimes be as if that character had described what they were imagining. It was a common device in that show and in others.
I’ve mentioned the Japanese anime Fairy Tail before. Nine seasons, 328 episodes, very much in the Shonen style (which grates sometimes), but with enough creativity, style, and energy, that I’ve been thoroughly enjoying it.
(Ya gotta be tickled by a series with a fish-loving talking blue cat rightfully named Happy, who can manifest wings and fly while carrying a person.)
I recently finally got to the ninth season, only 40-some episodes left, and the whole thing has changed.
Not the storytelling, but Hulu has the first eight seasons with Japanese dialog and English subtitles. The ninth season is dubbed English, and it really changes the tone!
The dubs are way more colloquial and generally accessible, almost too much so. The English voice actors sound really young, and it makes the show seem more like the cartoons of my childhood (like Jonny Quest). It feels young. When the dialog was in Japanese, it somehow elevated the story.
(There is also that the opening titles have an EDM tune now rather than the hard rock tunes of past seasons. I’m really not a fan of EDM.)
I’m getting used to hearing the characters speak English, including having new voices, but it was quite a shock at first.
There is a difference between translation subtitles — which have to match the language actually being spoken — and closed captions of dubbed dialog — again, it has to match the dialog being heard. So even for someone like me, who always uses closed captioning, subs and dubs have somewhat different content.
I’m really seeing the tone change here. I want to watch the dubbed version of Cowboy Bebop sometime soon to compare it with the subs version. (The dubbed version of that one is acclaimed.)
As usual I had more to say than I expected, so I don’t have time for a set of other shows I’ve been enjoying, the various family sit-coms done by Kenya Barris: Black-ish, Grown-ish, Mixed-ish, and #BlackAF.
That’ll have to be another TV Tuesday.
Stay watching, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.