Surfing The Netflix: BLACK MIRROR, Season 5 (w/spoilers)

As an anthology series, Black Mirror has never been perfect but — along with other shows like American Horror Story or Easy — it’s refreshing to have these self-contained stories as opposed to the currently popular trend of long-form storytelling that’s become exhausting in its overuse. Following its cancellation by BBC Channel 4 and adoption by Netflix, the overall level of quality seemed to drop with episodes as bad as the series premiere, “The National Anthem,” started to appear more often. Though the third season only had two episodes I’d consider particularly bad, “Playtest” and “Men Against Fire,” the fourth was nothing but terrible episodes and “Bandersnatch” managed to somehow be worse than them.

I couldn’t help but get this sense Charlie Booker had creatively exhausted himself, perhaps needing more guest writers to keep things varied, and was becoming more reliant on gimmicks as opposed to creating a thoughtful sci-fi morality tale. So, at first, I was dreading the new season — only to be relieved when finding they cut the number of episodes in half. Based on the plot summaries alone, it sounded like a case of getting back to basics as the speculative technology and human drama are intrinsically connected than dissociated with one another. It didn’t turn out exactly that way but it’s a step up from the previous season and definitely “Bandersnatch.” Though I think it started off a bit rough with…

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Striking Vipers

It’s basically Brokeback Mountain with immersive VR tech, but it could’ve been so much more than that.

The immersive VR tech is actually the least of my problems — it’s taking the concept seen in “Playtest” and fleshing it out a bit, for the better. It’s that the story never really moves past the premise of two guy friends having sex with one another as characters in a Street Fighter rip-off, only briefly touching on other subjects without really committing to them. One of them explains how great it feels to play as a female character when it comes to the literal cybersex, showing a sense dissatisfaction with being in a male body when outside of the game. You almost think it may end up dealing with body dysphoria and trans identity in an interesting fashion but…nope! It would’ve made the whole episode more eventful than stretching out what would otherwise be a half-hour’s worth of story.

If there’s anything I could compliment, it’s that the ending argues in favor of normalizing polyamory and extramarital trysts than demonizing them as abnormal. Monogamous relationships are fine if that is what the people involved want — but society has tried cementing it as the only way to be in a romantic relationship. It’s probably why, along with the rigidity of divorce laws in the past, so many stories involve an unhappy marriage with one or both individuals being unfaithful. It’s a way to tolerate a situation they feel unable to escape from without the general social and familial repercussions that would come about from such abandonment. They were not only sold on this idea of “one true love” but that it’d last forever — the reality, of course, is never that simple and accepting it would relieve so much anguish.

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The reason “Shut Up & Dance” is one of my favorite episodes is that, unlike so many others, it’s about the living nightmare that is our current internet culture. It didn’t need a sci-fi concept attached to get that point across when weirdly addictive social networking sites, trolling as a hobby, and harassment campaigns carried out by message boards filled with sadistic obsessives are all straight out of a dystopian cyberpunk story already. As time goes on, Satoshi Kon and Hideo Kojima (why, yes, I am a Japanophile!) are only further proven right in their cynicism about the internet. It was never leading to some New Renaissance but instead the further perpetuation of cultural detritus as well as a mechanism for which people are driven by their id, operating more on confirmation bias and self-validation than any self-proclaimed “logic” or “reason.”

Much like how I described “Striking Vipers” as “Brokeback Mountain with immersive VR tech,” I’d describe “Smithereens” as Collateral meets Phone Booth (I can’t be the only person who remembers them…right?) with contemporary internet culture as a theme but that’s meant as a compliment in this case.

There are things I could’ve done without, like the protagonist’s tragic background as the impetus for his actions or the cliffhanger ending that doesn’t punctuate the theme explored, but they weren’t deal-breakers. Because, even with those problems, it does enough right otherwise to make those minor issues whereas episodes from Season 4 were major due to their overwhelming presence. The premise should not have been a product of personal tragedy but of social alienation and the frustration with how internet culture has seeped into our reality for the worst. The best example being the protagonist’s anger over the performative empathy displayed by other characters throughout — touching on an issue I have with online interaction. A lot of times it can feel impersonal and insincere, based less on genuine connection than optics, that’s lead to the fetishization of concepts like “civility” while treating outright honesty as uncouth or even an act of aggression (something the episode “Nosedive” goes into as well).

It’s the same way I feel when someone I know personally wishes me a “Happy Birthday” on Facebook as opposed to calling me and having an actual conversation. Despite these sites literally being made to allow (as their descriptor implies) for social networking, often just make you feel more alone and disconnected from other human beings. It blurs the line whether there’s actually a person on the other end of a message and not just a well-programmed bot. What’s also profound is the realization that, though one can overshare details about their lives on them, you really aren’t heard on these social networking sites unless you’re a “somebody” and — if you’re a “nobody” — the only way to be heard is to ingratiate yourself to a “somebody.” That “somebody” here is the creator of the titular social networking site played by Topher Grace.

The episode could’ve gone the route where Grace was just another selfish Tech-Bro, but he’s not. You get a sense that he and the protagonists are, quite surprisingly, kindred spirits on two different sides of a social divide. While the protagonist is a victim to the everyday ramifications of an internet-addicted culture, Grace himself is a creator whose invention has grown so big and unwieldy that he can no longer control it while bound to the corporate bureaucracy that has formed from its ubiquitous use. It’s telling, when we first meet the character, that he’s interrupted during a sabbatical from media exposure and — when informed of the protagonist’s actions — is willing to have an honest heart-to-heart with him, moreso than those in the PR department who’re only concerned with damage control and keeping the company’s reputation clean. Yet even the PR people aren’t outwardly malevolent though, as Hannah Arendt pointed out, the worst kinds of evil are often committed for the most banal of reasons.

I wouldn’t claim it’s one of the best episodes of the series (it sure as shit ain’t “Fifteen Million Merits,” “White Christmas,” or “Hated in the Nation”) but, in this case, it is the best of the season. However, I actually enjoyed the next episode a lot more than most people — whose reactions were somewhere between annoyed befuddlement and intense loathing — but I can fully admit it was incredibly flawed as well…

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Rachel, Jack & Ashley Too

Okay, I did argue that Charlie Booker should bring in more guest writers to keep things varied — but Miley Cyrus wasn’t the kind of person I was talking about. Even if he alone is credited as the writer for this episode, it’s hard to not feel that the entire second half was self-insertion rebellious fantasy plotted by Cyrus herself. This leads to the story featured feeling as if it’s two entirely different tales haphazardly combined.

The first half, which is certainly the better one, is about the dangers of parasocial relationships and getting attached to an idealized public persona of an entertainer. The first of the three titular protagonists, played by Angourie Rice, is friendless and such isolation causes her to worship a pink-haired pop star to an unhealthy degree. She eventually twists her affable father’s arm into buying a kawaii robot (the third titular character) based on said pop star that only furthers her obsession to the chagrin of Rachel’s sister, the second titular character played by Madison Davenport, who feels she needs to accept the difficulties and disappointment of reality than withdrawing further into the naive optimism the pop star represents. However, what makes all of this interesting is that the pop star herself really isn’t the person she advertises herself to be — she looks uncomfortable and robotic in public interviews while acting like a female Trent Reznor behind closed doors, writing a lot of dark songs about suicide and alienation.

At that point, my interest was piqued. I was expecting this episode to make some poignant observations about the relationship between the audience and the artist as well as how capitalism manipulates both to their personal detriment — much in the same way BoJack Horseman brilliantly does — but none of that happens. As the second half rolls around, Miley Cyrus’ aunt becomes a cartoon villain who drugs her niece into a coma and tries to replace her with a realistic hologram…‘cause money, I think? Ashley Too, upon viewing a news broadcast of the pop star’s coma, short-circuits and requires both Rachel and Jack to fix it. It was bad enough Cyrus’ aunt turned into Snidely Whiplash but, apparently, these pieces of merchandise have a full digitalized copy of Cyrus’ mind that’ve been limited in function for commercial purposes. Like…what?

As much as I think Cyrus voicing a foul-mouthed robot is hilarious (I have a thing for ladies that talk like scurvy-ridden sailors!), proving she should do more comedy acting in the future, it’s a plot turn that feels as contrived as it is nonsensical. I like the idea behind such a development, having Rachel’s illusions about Ashley O crumble and trying to appreciate the artist as an actual person. They didn’t need a cutesy robot or even the Evil Aunt to make that point, perhaps having Jack help Rachel sneak into a hospital to meet an Ashley O recovering from an accident instead. Rachel would see her idol in a position of vulnerability and lacking the superficial veneer of glitz and glam. Instead, the story becomes a Disnified kid’s adventure with a very convenient happy ending and Rachel’s newfound appreciation of Ashley O as a flawed but talented human being isn’t really dealt with.

The problem isn’t that the ending is a happy one, it could’ve been and worked, but it needed an appropriate happy ending in the way “San Junipero” did — there was a precedent set and the final moments punctuated it. As I stated before, this feels like it belongs in an entirely different story. It’s a disappointing ending, to both the episode and this season of Black Mirror, but at least now I’m not dreading the next one…

[Originally posted on 7/23/19 @]

Surfing the Netflix: JESSICA JONES, 3rd & Final Season (w/spoilers)

Honestly, I think Jessica Jones—as a series — was ill-conceived from the beginning. It puts forth this premise of a hard-boiled private investigator who happens to be superhuman, in a world with many others like her, but she is rarely shown investigating and (following the most annoying trend in serialized drama) the long-form storytelling stretches out material that may work for an episode or two over a dozen. It’s hard to express how exhausting it is to watch, being so hyper-focused on one antagonist over a single season and having so much of the other “action” be…people talking. Incessantly. It all feels like a goddamn stage production instead of a live-action streaming drama involving superhumans.

I couldn’t help but imagine an alternate universe where every episode was self-contained with a case-of-the-week format much like Murder, She Wrote or Columbo. Perhaps it’d lead to other Marvel comicbook characters given an interestingly grounded live-action interpretation, each one either acting as the episode’s antagonist or seeking out Jessica’s help with a problem, while Zebediah Killgrave (who I like to call “The Grapist”) is only mentioned in passing before making an appearance in a season finale. That would’ve actually kept my interest, as opposed to suffering through another attempt to make the lightning that is Game of Thrones’ format strike twice (seriously, stop it already).

The third season doesn’t change the formula — it’s more of the same.

Though the grounded approach is appreciated, a refreshing contrast to the empty bombast of many Marvel films, it’s almost come to the point where a lot of the material — even when based on superhero comics — is almost indistinguishable from a typical procedural crime drama (albeit with very little procedure involved). It’s not that I want Rachael Taylor to wear an outfit slavishly faithful to her comicbook counterpart (even the show acknowledges how impractical and silly it’d be) but, like, just call her “Hellcat” once. Anything that shows some kind of acknowledgment of its comicbook origins than disdainful of them.

Would you believe me if I told you that Gregory Sallinger and Erik Gelden are actually based on comicbook characters? I can’t blame you, if not — I certainly didn’t think they were until I looked it up. It’s almost as if they were entirely new (bland) characters and just had the names of some lesser-knowns from Marvel’s catalog stamped on them afterward. Again, if they were restricted to a single one-off episode, I’d of tolerated it, but they quickly wore out their welcome. Just like Zebediah Kilgrave and Alisa in previous seasons. None of them could really carry an entire season, by themselves, but were forced to due to this rigid adherence to a narrative structure that wasn’t befitting the protagonist or their world.

Though, to be fair, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is comprised largely of characters originally conceived for film and television but has managed to keep my interest through both thick and thin. It’s the farthest thing from perfect — it took a while to get its legs and seasons can be bifurcated in terms of quality, with one half being better than the other — but the show is at least eventful. Even the other Marvel Netflix series like DaredevilLuke CageThe Punisher, and Iron Fist had more going on within a single season while having the same long-form storytelling format. More importantly, even if downplayed in presentation, none of them felt as begrudging as Jessica Jones does about its origins. It’s why they have a solid sense of identity than feeling like another anonymous entry in an overcrowded genre of tormented detective stories.

It’s baffling to me that the most interesting plotline running through the season wasn’t Patricia Walker becoming a vigilante, which the series had been building up since the beginning, but Carrie-Anne Moss as Jerri Hogarth trying to reclaim an old flame even if it means ruining her family. Despite being stricken with Lou Gehrig’s disease, which would motivate others to make amends for those they wronged, she acts as if written by Ayn Rand and the most selfish piece of shit imaginable. Her opportunism is practically nihilistic, as she cuts ties to Jessica to defend Salinger as a way to save her law firm from going under or blackmailing Patricia as hired muscle to force someone into a legal agreement.

There’s something intriguing about characters diagnosed with a terminal condition, like Walter White in Breaking Bad, to approach it with amoral abandon than introspective regret. Within our society, it’s often a faux pas to speak ill of someone who may have (say) cancer regardless of their actual behavior — seeing someone like Jerri Hogarth presented as undeserving of anyone’s love or friendship, regardless of how horrible the state of her health, is almost cathartic. That’s not to say that she “deserved” to have such an illness (no one does) but that, when she uses it as an excuse for her terrible behavior, others rightfully call her out on how it isn’t a valid reason to treat others like garbage or to be immune to the consequences of her unethical actions.

Along with Detective Costa, Jerri Hogarth also represents how homosexuality should be portrayed in most media. She’s not dignified but nonetheless feels like an actual human being who isn’t entirely defined by their sexuality, it’s only part of her identity and not one that overshadows every other aspect of her personality. She’s a person who gets what they want yet, whenever attaining it, quickly becomes dissatisfied and looks elsewhere. The season reveals that it didn’t just begin within the first season of the show — but an intrinsic part of her behavior, well before it ever started. She starts off as an unfaithful partner and ends as the worst kind of homewrecker, airing out another person’s dirty laundry to the public and causing them to commit suicide…all because she wanted his wife all to herself, as even being an extramarital tryst in an open marriage wasn’t enough. To paraphrase a character from the film Bad Santa: her soul is dog shit, but it makes her the best character in this season as a result.

Usually, when people speak of a conclusion, they often use the phrase “it ended not with a bang, but a whimper” to evoke disappointment from a lack of impact. For me, Jessica Jones didn’t end with a bang or even a whimper but a yawn or maybe a snore. For all the problems I had with the first season of Luke Cage and Iron Fist, they upped the ante for their second season and the series finale in both manage to be quite exciting. Given it was inevitable that the shows would be canceled due to Disney wanting to take their ball and go home, it’s like the showrunners said “fuck it” and went all out as much as they possibly could. Jessica Jones, being the series to last the longest next to Daredevil, didn’t bother putting in even a third of the effort.

By the time Jessica and Patricia finally go head-to-head, it was too little too late and incredibly lame compared to the other final season smackdowns. The choreography and staging for the whole scene are basic and unimaginative, which doesn’t make the most of Patricia’s newfound cat-like reflexes even when stuck in a tight corridor. Her night vision, though it comes into play, falls flat when the “darkness” that surrounds Jessica isn’t present because the corridor is still dimly lit. It looks so ridiculous and moreso in a show that takes itself so seriously in presentation, which would pass me by in something light-hearted and tongue-in-cheek like Legends of Tomorrow if not being outright amusing.

If I am being as negative as I am, it is only because this show had a ton of potential and wasted it tragically by the end, rather than going out in a blaze of last-minute glory. I don’t hate the show (I’ve seen worse) nor would claim anyone on the crew was lacking in talent (again, I’ve seen worse) — otherwise, I would not have stuck with it from beginning to end just as I did Game of Thrones. Comicbooks are, to me, an art form that has long deserved to be taken as seriously as literature or cinema. I see adaptations like Jessica Jones, along with Daredevil, as a better way of proving that than many of the Marvel movies that only use and further perpetuate the least interesting tropes of the comics they’re based on. I want a version befitting cinema and serialized drama, playing to the strengths of those mediums, than simply a live-action comicbook.

I know Jessica Jones tried, it really did, and the effort is admirable but it would be dishonest to not express that the result was lackluster. I can only hope that Disney — instead of flippantly dismissing the series as some fluke — take notes on what the show did right and apply it to their future streaming series. Ever since Endgame, it feels like the sky’s the limit…

[Originally posted on 7/1/19 @]