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.
The worst being M.O.D.O.K., a new stop-motion animated series from Marvel. The TV series is based on their comic book character.
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.
June 15th, 2021 at 3:05 pm
Just to give some idea of my taste in superheroes, my favorite these days is probably The Tick! I’ve never actually seen the comic books, but I loved the 1994 animated series (bought the DVDs) and both live action series (bought the DVDs of the 2001 series with Patrick Warburton).
The 2016 live action series is available on Amazon Prime, and it’s a very worthy reboot. Pity it only got two seasons.
I rather liked Deadpool, but after that I’m just kinda meh.
June 15th, 2021 at 10:21 pm
Netflix: Altered Carbon. Prime: Patriot & the Boys generally unpredictable plots — which I prefer.
June 16th, 2021 at 12:30 am
I’ve been thinking about checking out The Boys.
June 16th, 2021 at 1:06 pm
I don’t mind superhero movies for the thrill ride aspect, but have a hard time getting into the TV shows. The only one I’ve watched all the way through lately was WandaVision, and that left me annoyed.
When it comes to comedies, I can usually only get into them if they have a serious backbone. Otherwise I really don’t end up caring about what happens. I might watch slapstick comedy if it’s already on TV, but going to the trouble of streaming it is rare. So MODOK hasn’t really drawn me in.
But I’ve been watching a ton of TV lately myself, almost all of it anime. I watched Neon Genesis Evangelion last weekend. It was very…strange. The ending was so bad they redid it with a movie, which was better but still very strange.
I think I mentioned before that I once tried switching to the sub version of Cowboy Bebop. The characters all sounded so different that it completely through me out of the story. At the time, my friends all insisted that the only proper way to consume anime was via subs. But I’m still mostly a dub guy. There are some shows that appear to only be available with subs, so eventually I might have to give on that.
I’ve definitely noticed that the translation subs are often different than the spoken dialog, and it seems like at least some of the services just use the translation sub for their closed captions. The end result is that I can’t watch them with English audio and the captions on, the variance is too distracting.
June 16th, 2021 at 3:00 pm
I recall you were debating whether to keep watching WandaVision. Apparently you stayed with it. The Cinema Sins guys on YouTube have a sister channel TV Sins that goes after TV shows, typically individual episodes. They did a lot of the WandaVision episodes, so I feel like I got glimpses of much of the show. Nothing I saw much appealed to me.
I would have to agree that the superhero TV shows are a step down from the movies. (The exception is The Tick, which I think is excellent, but it’s on a whole other level.) The live-action ones are the worst, I think. As I’ve mentioned before, animation helps mitigate the fundamental absurdity of superheroes. The Tick works so well as live-action because it’s meant to be absurd.
I’ve seen that with subtitles not matching the dub. Yeah, very distracting. I’ve seen cases in regular shows where the captioning either leads or lags the dialog significantly. That’s just as distracting, and I have to do without the CC.
I’m getting used to it with Fairy Tail, but it prevents me from telling how much of the tone change is actually in the show itself (I sense there’s some; certainly that EDM intro music is a shift) and how much is from the dub being so colloquial and young-sounding.
June 16th, 2021 at 6:05 pm
I actually gave up on WandaVision after the third episode. It was just dropping clues too miserly and slowly. A friend convinced me to watch the next episode and I eventually did, where a lot more information came out. I then finished it. But I found the overall story unsatisfactory. Some of it came from never really finding the scenario compelling.
I also watched the first episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. It had potential, but there were aspects of the story that just didn’t draw me in. Haven’t watched any other episodes. I’m debating whether to even attempt Loki.
The biggest issue I have with the subs is it seems like the effort makes me not pay nearly as much attention to what’s happening visually. I feel like I miss a lot of action. I know it gets easier with practice. But it took an effort for me to get back into anime, so I’m enjoying that breakthrough for a while before attempting the subs again.
June 16th, 2021 at 6:40 pm
Heh, the TV Sins folks’ episodes about The Falcon and the Winter Soldier made it pretty clear that wasn’t for me, but then the whole Captain America sector of Marvel was always the least interesting to me. Per what I said about critics, it’s struck me how, while the TV Sins folks obviously like the show and implicitly and explicitly praise it, they can’t help but recognize what a high level of bullshit these shows have.
Shit-covered raisins, and they love the raisins, but there’s still a lot of shit, and it’s too much for me.
That all goes double for Thor and Loki, another aspect of Marvel I never was into. All the bullshit of superheroes plus the bullshit of actual mythological figures. It’s just too silly for me to take seriously, and as we’ve discussed before, these live-action films are meant to be taken very seriously.
It is definitely true that reading subtitles takes away from the visuals. I’ve needed Close Captions for decades to enjoy TV at all, so it’s something I’ve just had to live with. Count your blessings!
June 21st, 2021 at 6:08 pm
“When it comes to comedies, I can usually only get into them if they have a serious backbone. Otherwise I really don’t end up caring about what happens.”
I forgot, but I meant to, once again, express my surprise that you haven’t watched The Good Place, which not only has a serious backbone, but a lot of very tasty meat on that bone (to mix metaphors). It has everything anyone could want in a sitcom: great cast, fresh situation, very smart writing, tons of imagination, and it’s a laugh-out-loud comedy that centers on moral philosophy (and gets it right).
There’s an episode in the second season that brings the Trolley Problem to literal and hysterical (if somewhat gory) life…
June 21st, 2021 at 8:39 pm
I actually watched the first episode after one of your descriptions of it, but it didn’t draw me in. The characters and premise didn’t really work for me. Maybe at some point I’ll give it another try.
June 21st, 2021 at 9:20 pm
Okay, I gotta ask. It’s a very original premise. Can you identify why it or the characters didn’t appeal?
(I should maybe mention that “doesn’t work for me” — because of the way my ex-wife used it as a weaponized way to say “No!” without justifying why — became something of a red-flag-bull thing for me.)
June 22nd, 2021 at 3:21 pm
This is another case of it having been a while since I watched it. What I recall is finding the protagonist and the way everyone responded to her annoying instead of funny. And I didn’t find the afterlife premise attractive. Can’t really say why those were my reactions, just what I recall.
I might have a different reaction if I try again in the future.
June 22nd, 2021 at 6:18 pm
Well, as mentioned on the other thread, taste is taste, and there’s no accounting for it. Per what I said on the other thread about my mental model, while I’m surprised the quality, depth, and philosophical connection, isn’t a draw, I’m somehow not surprised you’re not engaged. (Same as with Discworld and, I’d bet, Good Omens and maybe Neil Gaiman’s work in general? Sandman series? American Gods?)
June 22nd, 2021 at 8:41 pm
I actually enjoyed Good Omens, which I watched following your review of it. Part of it is I just liked the characters. Another part is it definitely didn’t seem to take itself too seriously.
I watched about half the first season of American Gods. I recall finding it okay, but something interrupted my progress and I wasn’t interested enough to get back to it.
Never tried Sandman.
But to your model of me, I should point out that one of my favorite movies is The Ten Commandments, and I’m a big fan of fantasy in general. It’s just that some fantasy is appealing, and some isn’t. Personal taste is a complex thing, and mine is known to vary over time.
June 22nd, 2021 at 10:41 pm
I had more the books in mind along with the Discworld ones, but I have to say that I thought the adaptations of both Good Omens and American Gods were quite good and faithful to their respective sources. I do know that you like fantasy (even more than I do, actually).
But you can see, perhaps, why I experience a sense of dissonance when you said that you “didn’t find the afterlife premise attractive.” It doesn’t seem that the premise itself is a significant issue.
As you say, taste is complex. Exploring one’s own or someone else’s is an interesting exercise!
June 23rd, 2021 at 7:04 am
I should note that I’m not turned off by all afterlife premises. But, from what I recall, the society depicted in The Good Place, and the way the whole thing worked, didn’t connect with me. I suspect if I’d found the protagonist more appealing, I could have gotten past it.
June 23rd, 2021 at 8:50 am
Heh, well, this part couldn’t be more subjective on my part, but I’ve always found Kristen Bell hugely appealing. Ted Danson, too, but I’ve always had a bit of a thing for Bell. She just kinda sparkles. I do know what it’s like to dislike a character for whatever reason.
A pity it falls that way for you on the subjective Like-Dislike axis, since (as I keep saying) the show kinda pegs on the objective Good-Bad axis in just about all categories. (My Quality vs Taste post explores those axes if their names don’t make them obvious.) But I can name any number of very high quality shows that are the same way for me. (Downton Abbey for example. Or maybe even Game of Thrones.)
Hell, most people are probably that way when it comes to opera. Doesn’t matter how good it is, it’s just not appealing!
June 16th, 2021 at 6:29 pm
[…] post is a follow up to the one yesterday about TV shows I’ve been watching recently, but this one is about recent movies. Actually, there’s a […]
June 17th, 2021 at 10:15 am
The TV Sins folks took on M.O.D.O.K….
June 17th, 2021 at 10:16 am
Here’s an Honest Trailer for Invincible…
And there’s the TV Sins take on it:
August 10th, 2021 at 2:43 pm
[…] Legacy, somewhat like Invincible (an Amazon Prime animation; see Tons of TV), is about the older and newer generation of superheroes and the conflict between the ideals of the […]