TV Tuesday 5/24/22

I’ve been awaiting the sophomore season of Netflix’s Russian Doll with both anticipation and dread. Anticipation because I thought season one was outstanding, one of the best shows of 2019. I only mentioned it briefly in a post back then (and gave it a solid Wow! rating). I meant to write a whole post about it but never did.

The dread came largely from how complete the story arc of season one was. It was hard to see more story there. Dread also came from how good it was — a very hard act to follow. Maybe best not to try?

Season two finally came out last month. My best reaction is something along the lines of “Huh?” but the phrase “muddled mess” keeps running through my mind.

Unfortunately, it seems my sense of dread proved the more accurate. It was a mistake to try a second act. They should have let the first one stand.

The first season is an almost perfect sparkling diamond. It was so good I watched it again about a year later (which is when I should have written a post about it — stories like that are so much richer the second time around). It’s based on the Groundhog Day idea of someone returning to a start point every time they die. One big difference, the main character Nadia (Natasha Lyonne, who also did some of the writing and directing) can’t avoid dying over and over, despite her best efforts.

Each time she dies, she’s returned to standing in her friend’s bathroom during her 36th birthday party (thrown by said friend). Each time she exits the bathroom, reality is slightly altered — smaller, like how each nested Russian doll is similar but smaller with less detail.

A brilliant story excellently executed. Two thumbs up, highly recommended, strong Wow! rating.

§

I don’t lump the Groundhog Day premise with most time-travel plots. One might call it a time-loop story, but I see the notion as more akin to restarting a video game, possibly from a save position.

Season two of Russian Doll, which takes place days before Nadia’s 40th birthday, is definitely a time travel story, but it’s one without much internal logic. Time travel specifics are glossed over to the point of making it a magic wish. In this case, one granted by magical subway trains. (Which is a neat idea, actually.)

The first season obviously was a fantasy. The reset loop premise generally is karmic in some fashion and not under the control of the character. (In the Tom Cruise movie, Edge of Tomorrow, it was due to aliens rather than karma, so there are exceptions.)

Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) in her time-travel machine.

The time-travel in season two is even more fantastic — essentially magical wishes. Going to the past requires taking a ride on a New York subway train and… wishing? needing? to be in another time. The universe apparently figures it out.

An aspect of this is that the time-traveler ends up in the body of an ancestor. In Nadia’s case, it’s mainly her pregnant mother, Lenora (Chloë Sevigny), in 1982 (resulting in a scene in which Nadia gives birth to herself and ends up carrying her just-born self around for a while).

The plot involves 150 gold Krugerrands stolen from Nadia’s grandmother, Vera, back in 1982. They were Nadia’s intended inheritance, and it appears fate has given Nadia a chance to recover them. After initially unwittingly helping the conman her mother was dating steal them in the first place.

An unrelated (and I thought gratuitous) B-plot involves Alan (Charlie Barnett), the guy from season one who was caught in the same time loop. After Nadia tells him about her subway time-travel ability, it turns out he has it, too. He chooses? is drawn to? East Berlin in 1962, where he inhabits his grandmother’s body.

Nadia/Lenora carrying baby Nadia in an unexplained dreamscape.

Season one, despite its magical time-loop, had a gritty reality that grounded what was often a surreal story. It felt present and connected.

Season two seems without that grounding grit. The story is surreal to the point of being entirely dreamlike. For instance, Nadia goes to Budapest chasing clues, but there’s no real sense that she traveled. The story largely ignores issues of work, finance, and logistics. It just floats along from event to event.

Maybe I need to watch it again, forewarned and forearmed. Taken on its own merits, I might feel differently about my thumbs down, Nah! rating. (I still need to do that with the live-action Cowboy Bebop — another huge Netflix disappointment.)

As it stands, with a three-year gap for a measly seven half-hour episodes, it reminds me of HBO’s Westworld. But on a shorter scale. The second season of Westworld wasn’t up to season one, but it was the third season that really stunk (apparently a fourth is coming; whatever). In both cases, though, an outstanding season one but no follow-through. Perhaps the pressure was just too much.

§ §

Recently I finished yet another one-season stand-alone Japanese anime, Last Exile (2003, 26 episodes). Unlike many anime series, this was an anime series first. There is manga, but it came later.

Right-to-left: Claus Valca (pilot), Lavie Head (navigator & mechanic), Alvis E. Hamilton (“cargo”), a vanship flying past behind, and a giant battleship in the distance.

It takes place on a fictional world (which extended material names Prester) where two nations, Anatoray and Disith, are locked in a stylized form of warfare. The rules of which are enforced by the technologically superior Guild (which lives in the sky).

Although “future science fiction” in many regards, the cultural context is steampunk, a 19th century retro-vibe. There are steam pipes and gauges and turning shafts and gears.

Most of the action takes place in flying machines, from giant battleships on down to small two-person craft (called vanships). All fly using Guild-developed anti-gravity devices, not aerodynamics. There are references to “Claudia fluid” and “units” from the Guild.

Steampunk is often big on dirigibles, but these machines are much heavier than air and don’t operate anything like dirigibles. Some are as vast as aircraft carriers (and serve the same purpose). They are presented as if they were ships and submarines — including references to being “sunk” (rather than “shot down”).

The nautical context is strengthened by the sense that the clouds here have more substance than normal clouds, almost as if they were far denser. Ships that impact them make big splashes.

Disith battleships (left) and Anatoray battleships (right). Note how the clouds are below the ships, almost like the surface of a sea.

The main characters are Claus Valca and Lavie Head, both fifteen-years-old, both friends since childhood. Their fathers flew vanships, two-person flying machines that look half classic car (with huge front ends) and half race car (with sporty lines). In fact, they’re based on the Junkers A 35, a German plane from the 1920s.

The kids are orphans. Their dads were lost in the turbulent Grand Stream that divides the warring nations. As it turns out, they were on a crucial diplomatic mission. Their kids inherited a vanship, which they fly as couriers for Anatoray. Naturally they become crucial in monumental events involving both nations and the Guild. And naturally there is more going on than at first appears.

Along with the vanship designs, which are as customized as race cars, there is a distinct German influence (not uncommon in Japanese anime). On the other hand, the text uses the Greek alphabet (or a close analogue), which was an interesting look.

 It was an engaging change of scene and tone. The story kept my interest okay. I give it a strong Eh! rating. Worth seeing for anime fans or steampunk fans.

§ §

Hulu has a Watch List they call My Stuff. It has four screens, TV, Movies, Expiring, and Network. The first two are what you’d expect, the TV shows and movies you’ve added to the list. The third lists any from the first two that are within two weeks of expiring. The fourth I’ve never explored, but it seems to have to do with individual episodes of TV series.

Hulu divides the TV list into three groups: shows with new episodes, shows with unwatched episodes, and shows you’re current on. Within those groups, the shows are sorted alphabetically. It’s a fine system, but it has always been glitchy. It gets confused sometimes. (Movies are divided into unwatched and watched groups and alphabetically within those.)

I added Futurama to the list a long time ago, and I’ve been unable to remove it ever since. Nothing I did made it go away. But the list has behaved better lately, and I also noticed an Episodes screen in the show’s page that had a couple episodes listed. I removed them. That may have done the trick, or maybe it was recent bug fixes, but I was finally able to remove the show from the list.

Netflix lost points with me when they removed the ability to order the Watch List (which they call My List) manually. Now it’s random, no order at all, and no manual ability. I can’t imagine WTF they’re thinking there.

Amazon Prime (My Stuff) uses the order added, newest at top. Which is fine, and one can sort the list by removing and adding shows in the right order.

§ §

Stay sorted, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

10 responses to “TV Tuesday 5/24/22

  • Wyrd Smythe

    A project for another time: Compare Japanese anime between those based on manga and those that started as anime. It’d be interesting to see if there is any noticeable difference between adaptations and original videos.

    Manga is also a visual art, so maybe not, but a storytelling form using static images seems different to me than one using moving images. I’d be interested in whether starting with static versus moving images makes any difference.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    See my post about the 2020 movie Palm Springs. It’s another entry in the list of movies that use the Groundhog Day reset premise. I liked it a lot and gave it a strong Ah! rating.

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    It seems like anime is fascinated with 19th century type settings, usually some mixture of steampunk and fantasy. They seem to go there as much as American fiction goes to medieval settings. Even when set in the future, many of the settings have a 19th century feel to them for some reason.

    I haven’t noticed a quality difference between anime adapted from manga vs original material. Some of the best anime is original stuff. As you noted, the mediums are similar. TV shows seem to have a good track record, at least in the last decade or so, of staying reasonably faithful to the source material, at least for the few series where I know anything about the manga.

    Some anime and manga are adapted from light novels, the Japanese equivalent, I think, of YA material, where there might be more of shift. I’ve never read a light novel, so can’t be sure how well they get ported.

    I do hear of other manga adapted from anime. Cowboy Bebop and Psycho-Pass come to mind. I’ve heard the Evangelion manga adaptation fleshed the story out in interesting ways, although I wonder if the anime sequels paid any attention.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I suppose, from a design point of view, the 19th century is visually attractive. And different, which is always interesting. They probably don’t have the feel for western deep history, medieval Europe, ancient Greece or Egypt, that we do. For them, I guess deep history would be feudal Japan and Samauri.

      “Quality” is one of those double-use words (“high/low quality” versus “the quality of smoothness”), so to be clear, I have no reason to look for a quality-as-value difference between original anime vs original manga. But there might be a quality-as-a-property difference between stories initially told with static “snapshots” versus stories told with dynamic images (the “camera” moves, people and objects move, there’s editing, music, and so on). It’s a little similar to movie adaptations of comics versus comic book versions of movies. And it’s because both are image-based that the comparison might be interesting. (Or not.)

      The light novels are apparently a whole other thing, a third leg to the stool. Things seem to flow all ways, some stories start as novels (I’d have to go back and look, but one of the anime shows I’ve seen fairly recently was a novel series first), some start as manga, and some start as anime. I imagine there are various online resources for the more popular franchises, too. It’s apparently only such resources that provide “Prestor”, the name of the world in Last Exile. It’s not mentioned in the anime.

      I get the sense that Watanabe is an anime storyteller. Not just Cowboy Bebop, but Samauri Champloo and Space Dandy are also original anime. (Speaking of which, I’ve always watched the subtitled version of Cowboy Bebop each time. Recently, because I wanted something guaranteed to be really good, I started re-watching it again and this time decided to watch the dubbed version, which I’ve heard is excellent. It is.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        On the 19th century, could be. I’ve noticed that the British are often drawn to the 19th century as well, which might be because that was their peak empire period. For the Japanese, the late 19th century was a time of epic transformation. They were a medieval society in 1850, and an industrial world power by 1904 able to defeat Russia in a war. So for both, the 19th century, and maybe early 20th, may just represent glory days. Certainly for Japan it was a time when they first became aware of the wider world.

        One thing that happens in a lot of manga, is the characters describe what they’re doing, particularly in fight scenes. It serves a purpose, because without it, it can be hard to piece together what’s happening. (I realized how useful it was when I read Blame! which had none of it.) That can get ported to the anime adaptation. I’m not sure how much of that shows up in original anime.

        I think I’ve noted to you before I have some friends who will only watch subbed anime. They think my preference for dubs is the sad mark of an amateur. So I was pleasantly surprised not that long ago to learn most anime producers would prefer we watched the dubbed version, so we’re not distracted from the artwork.

        One benefit of watching subs though, is you get a lot more content, and even if a series is being dubbed, the sub is usually available 4-6 weeks earlier.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        No doubt nostalgia plays a role as well. Our rose-tinted notion that things were better back then. Both movies/animations and manga/comics are primarily visual arts (“show don’t tell”), so don’t underestimate the value of sheer visual appeal. Steampunk looks super cool, especially in how it juxtaposes old and new. And it’s such a nice change from high-tech cyberpunk, another visually cool look that became popular.

        I’ve tried many times, but for some reason I can’t get into manga, so I can’t comment on the fight description therein. (For many years I was seriously into comics and graphic novels, but I seem to have exited that phase.) Based on comics, I’d guess it’s the static snapshot mode that’s responsible for making action sequences, as you say, hard to piece together. Sometimes it’s hard to even understand what’s been shown in a given frame. I’ve often gone over and over a sequence trying to understand it.

        The information content is much, much higher in an animation, and even higher in live action, which is why the ethic “show don’t tell” works. And why I’m pondering the possibly subtle putative difference between stories that start as manga, let alone as novels, and those that were animated from the beginning. The modes are different enough that such differences might exist. (Such as extra description taken from the manga but not really needed in the anime. (If in fact it wasn’t needed.))

        I’m sure you recall my stance on subs/dubs. Pretty much whatever works for you, and it’s very true that reading captions or subtitles detracts from just watching the visuals. But my hearing is bad enough that I need closed captioning all the time, and subtitles are just more of the same. I’m used to, or rather resigned to, that detraction (and I do notice it sometimes). I also have some preference for hearing the original voices and language. It’s fun to compare the sounds to the words.

        I’m still sorting through older stuff and actively avoiding getting sucked into anything current, so release dates aren’t a concern for me.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Manga definitely takes getting used to. The whole right to left thing confused the hell out of me the first time I tried it. (The newer ebook versions often have an explanatory page.) I also sometimes wonder how well the dialog is translated.

        And the black and white thing is an issue for a lot of people. I think my background in reading the old black and white Curtis magazine comics in the 1970s made a difference. Manga actually gives me a sense of nostalgia for that stuff.

        That said, my manga reading is now spotty at best. I’m still trying to follow the Alita Mars series as it gets translated, but not much else. Often the breaks between releases are so long I have a hard time remembering where the story left off.

        I do remember your stance on subs / dubs, and can definitely understand why the subs aren’t a big issue for you. I really should work to get a little more comfortable with them, so I’m not missing out the additional content.

        I didn’t set out to get into anything current. I actually didn’t realize Attack on Titan or Legend of the Galactic Heroes weren’t done when I started watching them.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        It is funny how a manga eBook initially opens to the “last” page. For me, I think it is the black and white art, plus, these days, as I mentioned, I seem to have lost interest in comic books. I’ve had the graphic novel The Eternals in my Amazon Prime library but can’t seem to find much interest in reading it.

        It can be hard to tell with anime sometimes. What looks like a years-old show with no new seasons is sometimes an anime just waiting for enough new issues of the manga to come out to produce a season. I’ve been able to focus on the low-hanging fruit of single season shows at least five years old.

        Doesn’t always work. Apparently there is a fourth season of Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon due out in July. I got fooled by season one being from 2015. But seasons two and three are from 2019 and 2020. (This, by the way, I mentioned recently, is the series that began as light novels. And then manga and finally the anime and some OVAs. And video games.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I definitely have no interest in superhero comics, which rules out most of the domestic stuff. I think I told you about a comic that looked kind of interesting, until near the end of the first issue when it was revealed that all the characters were superheroes in disguise. 😖

        Yeah, Attack of Titan started in 2013, which lured me in. But that was one where they had to wait on the manga. And they still haven’t finished the damn final season yet, and won’t until next year, even though the manga finished early last year. Actually, this discussion made me check for new Alita issues, which there were a couple. After reading them, I found the AoT issue where the series is at and started reading. (Kind of dumb that despite just buying them legally, reading the simple pirated version is a better experience.)

      • Wyrd Smythe

        It’s so true that American culture has gone all-in on superheroes. It’s kind of funny to think back to the first Superman movie, or the first X-men. We had no idea what that was the beginning of.

        Or of what a little TV show by a guy named Gene would kick off. Or that fun Sci-Fi movie George did way back in ’77. The birth of juggernauts.

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