Now that it’s actual Thanksgiving, it’s time to wrap up Pop Culture Thanksgiving with an extra-sized editions where we talk about all kinds of TV and then throw some podcasts and comics into the mix because we have hearts full of love. Let’s get to it!
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend — Rachel Bloom has, with the third season of her quirky CW romcom, taken the opportunity to plumb the depths of what happens when someone is truly depressed and mentally ill. She’s clearly set out to destigmatize the word “crazy” by showing that this happens to real people all the time, and there is both help and hope in the world for those dealing with everything from clinical depression to bipolar to multiple personality disorder, with which her character, Rebecca Bunch, was recently diagnosed. If the show had come out of the gate this way, it wouldn’t have resonated, but because we have seen Rebecca act stable and normal, if perhaps a bit erratic, we the audience can appreciate the fact that she was pushed off the rails by being left at the altar. This move by her supposed love, Josh Chan, probably also saved her, because it forced Rebecca and all those who love her to deal with illness more honestly and treat it rather than dismiss it. There are still fun musical numbers and silly subplots, but the show is now more an important exploration than a frivolous romp, and that’s great. (MW)
Gotham – Try not to be too shocked. We’re in the fourth season now, and Gotham still makes me so happy. There was a time when I was hoping for a hard-boiled procedural about Jim Gordon and Harvey Bullock. Gotham is not that. In fact, it’s a lot of things I specifically said on this website that I didn’t want it to be. I didn’t want them introducing established villains while Bruce Wayne was still a teenager. I definitely didn’t want the Joker. And while Gotham started out with Penguin (and it makes sense for him to be active pre-Batman), in seventy-plus episodes we’ve seen everybody from Clayface to Professor Pyg to Ra’s al Ghul along with a guy who is definitely going to be the Joker. And I love it.
Gotham doesn’t purport to be the backstory of any Batman that we know (and there’s a theory that this is actually set on Earth-3 and Bruce grows up to be the evil Owlman), so the continuity ramifications of the Electrocutioner or Eduardo Flamingo pre-existing Batman are minimal. It’s a crazy-ass world where all the Batman stuff happened too early, before there was a Batman to deal with it. And I enjoy that because I love the Batman supporting cast. Batman without Batman is a risky proposition but they pull it off through sheer chutzpah. It’s Law and Order only the perp is always a Batman villain.
And this cast. Holy smokes. I will keep arguing that Robin Lord Taylor deserves an Emmy for his Penguin performance, and I think he’s bringing us the best version of the character we’ve ever seen. He and Donal Logue were the immediate standouts, but everybody else has stepped up their game. I love seeing Erin Richards come into her own – her Barbara Kean was not well-served by the writers in Season One, until they decided to just turn her into a villainess and now every scene she’s in is awesome. There are too many people to mention, but it’s turned into such a great cast.
I love the way they’ve knocked the dust off some villains with new takes. They made the Mad Hatter as big a threat as the Joker, rethought Victor Zsasz, genderswapped Firefly, and just for fun did a comic-accurate version of Solomon Grundy and then set him loose in a world without superheroes. They’re doing some cool things and even things that seem like missteps (I am leery of the second recasting of Ivy, for example) usually either work out in fun ways or the show just bails on them and moves on. There was a time in Season One when the producers were upset that FOX went for 22 episodes because they were plotting it for 13 episode seasons. Instead of padding it out, they just added more story and then kept adding. If something doesn’t work out, it’s gone in two episodes. If it does, it gets bigger and crazier so that what was originally presented as a standard real estate acquisition plot tuned into the realization of a centuries-old grudge with the help of a gang of karate monks.
The cold open of Season Three’s finale ended with maybe the perfect visual metaphor for Gotham. There’s a quick shot of a train that is on fire racing across the tracks. That’s the show. There are rails, but you’re never going to notice them because everything is on fire and people are screaming and it’s all chaos. But also? It is an amazing ride. (EJ)
This Is Us — While some feel the show has gone a bit too dark in its sophomore season, I still enjoy it for bringing us relatable family drama with which most everyone can find some part to identify. From stories that cover fostering children, racism, miscarriage, opioid addiction, celebrity, or something as universal as living up to your parents’ expectations, this show delivers the goods each episode. The cast and the writing are working in tandem here to take the words from the page and translate them into heartbreaking performances. Kevin’s crisis could come off as a standard problem that he brought upon himself, but when you see what he’s gone through his entire life–which the show has laid out for us over the course of its run–it makes more sense that he would become an addict, and screw up his relationship with Sophie when he seemingly has it all. Kate and Toby may not be Randall and Beth levels of perfect just yet as a couple, but they are clearly meant for each other. And Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia continue to kill it as Rebecca and Jack, often times acting out different phases of their lives in a single episode. Here’s hoping that before the second season ends, we’re given a chance to have some happy times with the Pearsons, because they have earned some fun.(MW)
Mister Miracle – My favorite comic right now is a twelve-issue miniseries about super escape artist / New God / househusband Mister Miracle. Scott Free (yes, really) is a great character but it’s hard for people who aren’t Jack Kirby to really do justice to this weird, weird concept. The new series by Tom King and Mitch Gerads dials back that Kirby bombast and opens with the aftermath of Scott’s failed suicide attempt. So far, the series has played with the idea of Scott as a superhero who also performs death-defying feats for paying audiences, as well as his status as a New God (and the son of Highfather) who’s opting out of the war with Apokolips.
The Fourth World characters are legitimately amazing, but they’re so very Kirby and attempting to do a Jack Kirby cover track usually results in disaster. The best versions of the New Gods come from creators who bring that creative spirit but go in a different direction. Walt Simonson, Grant Morrison, they got that. And so do King and Gerads. The nine-panel grid on every page couldn’t be less Kirby (even if it hearkens back to Watchmen and some of Keith Giffen’s best work), but it’s as expressly political as his work was. (Forever People was basically a series about super-draft dodgers.) There’s a horrifying scene where Barda (generally an entirely sympathetic character executes the vile Granny Goodness by beheading, which in 2017 is impossible not to associate with ISIL. And there’s Orion, usually the hero of the Fourth World saga, now corrupted by power and behaving more and more like Darkseid. It’s dark stuff even though it stars the man in one of the most garish superhero costumes ever created. (Green, red, and yellow? Why not?) And it’s still early days, so this series could go anywhere. Are the distorted panels glitches in reality? Is Scott experiencing any of this or is it an elaborate trap? Is he the victim of anti-life? Or is he just a guy who’s seen some bad stuff and is having a hard time processing it? It’s challenging work that makes brilliant use of Kirby’s mythology. (EJ)
Stranger Things — I have not gotten through season two yet, but suffice it to say that the three episodes I have seen confirm that the fun continues, deepening the drama and mystery put in motion by the events of season one and allowing more characters to dot the canvas. The core group of friends–Mike, Dustin, Lucas and Will–have grown up and get more to do, while Will’s mom Joyce gets a love interest in Bob (played by Sean Astin, forever a “Goonie” in my book). Will’s brother Jonathan still pines for Mike’s sister Nancy…who is still with Steve. Sort of. And what of Chief Hopper and Eleven? Well, that’s probably the best part of the story that will unfold in the hours I have yet to watch. And once you’ve binged the season, don’t forget to watch Beyond Stranger Things, a breakdown of the season hosted by spunkyfave Jim Rash. It’s motivation for me to finish this puppy sooner than later! (MW)
Matt Gourley Podcasts – Matt Gourley is probably best known for his improv podcast that never seems to come out anymore, Superego. It might only be available through paid subscription now, but let’s put that aside. He’s currently doing three podcasts through Earwolf, and they’re all wonderful. There’s Pistol Shrimps Radio, a show where he and his Superego collaborator Mark McConville do play-by-play for a Los Angeles-based women’s recreational league basketball team despite not knowing anything about basketball. Like nothing. It gets really silly really quickly and somehow I always end up invested in the Shrimps’ performance, even when Matt and Mark go a long time without referencing the score.
There’s I Was There Too, a fun interview podcast where Gourley talks to people who were “present for the great scenes of cinema history”, which is an inflated way of saying he talks to people with tiny parts in big movies. The series kicked off with Paul F. Tompkins talking about There Will Be Blood (a movie from which he was almost entirely cut) and since then he’s talked to the guy killed by the ED-209 in Robocop, Ahmed Best (the motion capture actor behind Jar Jar Binks), Steve Agee on Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Marc Evan Jackson on Skull Island, and a host of others from Meatballs to Legally Blonde. Sometimes he even branches out into TV. The behind the scenes info is fascinating and Gourley’s love of movies shines through. It’s a consistent delight and sometimes closes with special features that may or may not be about Gourley’s cat, Margaux the Fat Guy.
Finally, he and Matt Mira resurrected their James Bonding podcast (formerly on Nerdist) after several years. Once again, the two Bond aficionados discuss the movies in depth. Every other week they cover one movie (they take turns choosing rather than going in order) and in between, they talk Bond topics. Favorite henchmen, what a 007 theme park would be, Indiana Jones (that one is a bit of a reach), and it’s all a lot of fun. They bring in guests with widely disparate amounts of Bond knowledge, which results in some interesting takes. I take issue with Gourley’s distaste for Pierce Brosnan’s Bond but civilized people can disagree on such things. (EJ)
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel — Since the rest of season one does not drop until November 29th, there’s not much I can say beyond the fact that the pilot was fantastic. If you liked Gilmore Girls, or Mad Men or just stuff about the 50s and/or New York, you have to check this out. The titular Mrs. Maisel is Midge, a happy homemaker who has two kids and a seemingly perfect husband, Joel. She loves helping Joel with his fledgling standup career, bribing club owners with homemade brisket for better timeslots. But when Joel makes a sudden revelation after he bombs one night, Midge is caught off guard and alone. In her anger and frustration, she gets sauced on Manischewitz and, in her nightie no less, takes the stage at the comedy club and kills it with an impromptu routine about her own life that ends up with her in jail for public indecency. She’s saved by Alex Borstein’s Susie, who becomes her de facto agent. Susie is sure Midge can make it in the somewhat new world of standup, and she determined to get it done. So is Midge, it would seem, despite the outrage of those in her uptight world who think she belongs at home, figuring out how she ruined her marriage. I can’t wait to binge this show! (MW)
Peak TV – Let’s just close out our giving of thanks by reflecting on how lucky we are to have this sheer mass of entertainment available to us. It sometimes seems like this Golden Age of TV – remember 2015 when Parks and Recreation, Mad Men, and Community all ended over a few short months? But that just opened the door for more. With some really interesting network shows out there (The Good Place, Last Man on Earth, This Is Us), a strong lineup of cable channels consistently providing quality content (FX, AMC, TBS), and the infinite wells over at the streaming services, there’s something for everybody. Ten years ago, people would have lost their minds of how good Halt and Catch Fire or The Leftovers are. Instead they were mostly cult favorites because you can’t watch anything. If Netflix’s Lady Dynamite had come out in, say, 2010, I would have gotten the logo tattooed somewhere on my body as a show of devotion but in this world, I haven’t even started Season Two. I saw Amazon’s pilot for Sea Oak and it blew my mind – it was something I’ve never seen before and I desperately hope it goes to series. This weird little nugget of perfection is out there and there’s so much TV that I found it almost by accident.
As a nerd, I had some lean years. There were times when we’d just watch absolute garbage because it was genre and thus in the realm of the things we cared about. It was a desert out there, so anything that had any connection to sci-fi or superheroes would be eagerly devoured. But now, I mean, there’s a TV show about Iron Fist but it’s bad and I don’t have to watch it. Because there are superhero shows that are actually good. There’s no more watching something just because it’s on or because it’s about a character that I like in another medium. I mean, I just now remembered Legion, which I thought was incredible. This amazingly weird and innovative show that I recapped and I plumb forgot about it because I’ve seen so many other things that I’ve loved since then. The amount of quality TV available to us right now is just staggering, and you have to be thankful for that. (EJ)
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!