Oct 9, 2020
What We’re Streaming: July 2020
Well, we were all extremely confident that July would be the month that the Agony Booth would triumphantly return to bringing you box office predictions as Tenet and Mulan packed newly reopened theaters and subsequently saved the entire movie industry. I think we all know how that story ended. So here’s another installment of What We’re Streaming, a roundup of the movies and TV shows we’ve been watching while stuck at home. Here to share what they’ve been streaming are Thomas Stockel, Julie Kushner, Tyler Peterson, Nathan Kerner, and me, Dr. Winston O’Boogie.
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The Mandalorian (Disney+)
Julie: In this Star Wars universe-based series, the titular Mandalorian is a man whose face/identity is virtually always enshrined in a helmet (though his moral code seems a bit more Batman morally gray, than Darth Vader morally black). Though his allegiance is predominantly to himself, it’s also simultaneously to two groups: the rigidly honorable Mandalorian who raised him, and the bounty hunters’ guild who employ him as one of their contractors. It’s the latter group that hire the Mandalorian to retrieve a Very Valuable Object and deliver it to an Imperial Lord, who will extract from the object an Even More Valuable Gift. It’s the nature of that Very Valuable Object, and the wide variety of assorted unsavory characters who wish to obtain it for themselves that fuel the adventures of The Mandalorian’s eight-episode first season.
I’ll be honest. I’m not nearly as well-versed in the Star Wars universe as most of my Agony Booth colleagues. In fact, my family and I splurged on Disney+ this month mainly so that we could watch Hamilton when it premieres on July 3rd, and I chose to also watch The Mandalorian because a) buying an entire media platform just for one Broadway show seems a bit frivolous, even for me; and b) that Baby Yoda is just so darn cute!
That said, I actually really enjoyed this series. First off, the production values are insane. This is a series that looks every bit like the $100 million it cost to make. The costumes, the score, the set design, the air and land battle scenes, the highly detailed and aesthetically complex various creatures that populate the universe, the animated credit sequences, the adorable Baby Yoda… I mean, they even got Taika Waititi to direct an episode of this thing!
If you’re a Star Wars aficionado, I’m certain that you’ll ooh and aah at the innumerable Easter eggs that are undoubtedly sprinkled through the series. But even as a virtual Star Wars noob like me, this is a series that’s clearly designed to be accessible to virtually everyone. The overarching plotline is simple, engaging, and easy to understand. And up until the seventh episode (where the seemingly errant plot points of prior installments are tied together in a satisfying way), most of the series actually works as a sequence of standalone mini-movies that are paint-by-numbers formulaic, but in a refreshingly enjoyable way: Namely, the Mandalorian goes to a planet. He makes a friend or two. Someone tries to take his Very Valuable Object. He and his new friend(s) fight that person or group. The Very Valuable Object is saved, Mando says goodbye to his friend(s), and leaves the planet with the Very Valuable Object in tow in search of his next adventure.
Did I mention how much I love Baby Yoda?
Tyler: You may be down on Netflix’s original series and I certainly can’t blame you. The typical streaming model of dumping a whole season and encouraging viewers to binge it as fast as possible is consciously designed to generate massive amounts of online buzz within a week or so of its debut, with the side effect of having the show disappear from cultural memory almost instantly. It’s like eating a bag of candy that gives you an intense sugar rush but leaves you un-nourished and empty an hour later. Plus, the fact that they craft their shows with the help of algorithms fed by viewer metadata—including plot points, themes, visual styles, and even the presence or absence of certain actors—means that if you see one show, you have, in a very real sense, seen them all. It all appears designed not to entertain you so much as occupy your time by keeping your eyes glued to the screen while you lay those golden data eggs.
But it would be better to watch 100 Locke & Keys than to let your prejudice keep you from the absolute marvel that is Baran bo Odar’s Dark. A unique, genre-bending experience, Dark first arrived in 2017 and was slept on, I think, first because of its foreignness (it was Netflix’s first German-language program) and next because its previews—featuring an insular and seemingly cursed small town, a young boy who disappears under mysterious supernatural circumstances, and a clique of preteens and in-the-know adults on a dangerous crusade for the truth—led people to believe that it was a Stranger Things rip-off. As indeed it seemed for the first episode, before it fucks your brain sideways into a Gordian knot of time travel shenanigans crawling with murder, religion, conspiracy, incest, insanity, jumping back and forth between five different time periods, and consciously blurring of the line between science and magic, god and human, cause and effect.
Dark eschews many of the tenets of modern speculative fiction with a refreshing lack of tiresome worldbuilding—it’s never very clear what’s causing the rifts in time, and whenever you think the rules are firmly established, they’re broken. It also puts the lie to the American obsession with characters who are relatable and likeable; all these people do is brood and scream at each other, and it’s mesmerizing. What truly sets Dark apart, though, is the rich philosophical soil in which it grows—subtle but no less potent existentialist musings occasioned by the show’s largely miserable characters following cryptic instructions from less-than-trustworthy people to fulfill incomprehensible agendas that will change the timeline in ways impossible to predict. Paradox, treachery, stolen identities, avoidable deaths, apocalypses averted, apocalypses begun: these are the things our show’s characters put up with in a futile quest to protect their own banal miseries against the horror of those they know not of. The third and final season just dropped. Don’t miss it.
Nathan: I talked about Inuyasha in my last column, so I figured I would mention it again since I finished it not too long ago and my daughter is already rewatching it. I glossed over what the story was about, because like a lot of anime series released in the stateside boom of the late 90s/early 2000s, it has a large cast of characters and a lot of overarching storylines. So forgive me if the next few paragraphs sound like I’m losing my mind.
Inuyasha is the story of Kagome, a modern Japanese teenage girl who one day is pulled into her family’s dried-up well by a centipede demon who claims Kagome has something called the “Shikon Jewel”. She lands at the bottom of the well and climbs out to find she’s in the middle of a forest, where she sees a boy about her age with wolf ears pinned to a tree by an arrow. He turns out to be Inuyasha, a half-human/half-dog demon hybrid who once sought the jewel to become a full demon.
Kagome has also passed through a time portal in the well, and is now 500 years in the past, when violence and demonic forces run rampant. After the jewel is torn out of Kagome and shattered in a battle with the Centipede demon (told you this would sound weird), Inuyasha and Kagome go on a journey to find the remaining shards before they fall into the hands of those who would use its power for evil, while gathering a diverse group of travelers along the way.
I know that sounds dense, but the show combines the best of both old-school TV and serialized streaming TV. Every season has several overarching plotlines, usually culminating with a final battle at season’s end. But there are plenty of standalone and monster-of-the-week episodes littered throughout to give each character some much needed development. The episodes also run the gamut from super-dramatic to lighter, humorous fare, like episodes where Inuyasha follows Kagome to the modern world and fish-out-of-water shenanigans ensue.
I can’t say more without going over my word limit. It may seem a bit daunting, especially if you’re new to anime. But it’s definitely a pretty cool series, and if you like fantasy, monster battles, and long-form storytelling, and you’ve been meaning to check out anime anyway, then this is worth a watch.
Watchmen (HBO Max)
Winston: Recently, HBO chose to take advantage of this moment in time (as well our president’s baffling decision to hold a rally on an important date in black history at the site of the worst racist massacre in American history) by making last year’s Watchmen series free to watch. Which is only fitting, because the show kicks off with the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, and most of the action takes place in a Watchmen alt-universe 2019 Tulsa where the police (including Regina King and Tim Blake Nelson) are targeted by white supremacists, forcing them to use code names and wear masks like costumed vigilantes.
When I first heard of this show, I immediately thought that DC’s Watchmen property was an odd fit for a series tackling issues of systemic racism. And after watching all nine episodes, well, to be frank… it’s still an odd fit. We’re constantly pulled away from brutal tales of racial injustice for scenes of squids raining down from the sky, Hong Chau as a supergenius who’s turning her daughter into her mother, and Jeremy Irons (literally) farting around a large English manor being attended to by a staff of clones.
Despite all that, it’s an intriguing show, with terrific performances and a story that cleverly weaves together real history with alternate Watchmen history, throwing in plenty of references to the original comic book maxi-series along the way. Some moments are sublime (like learning the true history of the Hooded Justice vigilante, or a deeper examination of Dr. Manhattan’s non-linear existence), while some are as banal as any superhero flick at the multiplex. But overall, it’s still worth streaming.
The Rifleman (Amazon Prime)
Nathan: I’ve watched several of these episodes before, but now I’m watching them in order, because this show is really good, and because the creators of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine have said it was a big influence on their show’s development.
The Rifleman stars the square-jawed Chuck Connors as the widowed Luke McCann, who moves with his son out west in the aftermath of the Civil War. They settle on some land, and try to live their lives in peace, but they’re at a crossroads where all kinds of unsavory characters can happen by. Luke has skill with a gun, and owns a modified Winchester rifle, and his skills lead to him having to solve the problems of his neighbors.
In those days, TV was not quite in its infancy anymore; it was more of a toddler, and the rules of what it could do were only recently written. The Rifleman, like Star Trek after it, reflects what the medium could do at its best. There are no overarching stories like most shows (even sitcoms) have today. If modern TV shows are constructed like novels, with episodes acting as chapters, then classic TV episodes are like short stories featuring recurring protagonists. There were some duds here and there, but at their best, TV dramas like The Rifleman were tightly plotted, well-paced suspense stories that didn’t waste a moment, and featured actors acting their faces off.
Speaking of those actors, you’ll see a lot of familiar faces. Among the guest stars are western stalwarts James Coburn, Warren Oates, and Lee Van Cleef; the boss of the Six-Million Dollar Man, Richard Anderson; and the best Klingon in the original Star Trek, Michael Ansara. In fact, the pilot episode had me wondering, “who is that guy? He seems so familiar but I can’t place him.” It wasn’t until the end credits that I realized it was a 22-year-old, just-starting-out Dennis Hopper.
The talent behind the camera was also impressive. Before New Hollywood, TV was a sort of film school for a new generation. The pilot is worth watching, because it was written by Sam Peckinpah, who wrote six episodes total and directed four of them. This was well before he revolutionized western and action movie violence with The Wild Bunch. Writers who also contributed scripts included industry lifers Samuel A. Peeples (who wrote the second Star Trek pilot), Cyril Hume (Forbidden Planet) and Bruce Gellar (creator of Mission: Impossible). Directors who helmed episodes include James Clavell (author of Shōgun and writer of The Fly and The Great Escape), Arthur Hiller (The Out-of-Towners), and Richard Donner (Superman, Lethal Weapon).
You don’t have to view the episodes in order, but the show is compulsively watchable, well-written, and while there are a few installments that fall flat in the 168-episode run, I would put its best episodes, pound-for-pound, up against any show produced in the modern era.
Jack Ryan (Amazon Prime)
Thomas: Many years ago, when I found myself desperate for something to read between Honor Harrington and David Drake novels, someone pushed a copy of Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising into my eager little hands. This began a short but torrid love affair with all things Clancy. To me, Jack Ryan was a tremendous protagonist, and a thinking man’s hero who used brains as well as the occasional automatic weapon to solve problems. Ultimately, the love affair ended with Debt of Honor, though I can’t exactly explain why.
When it came to Jack Ryan’s on-screen appearances, the quality rapidly fell off after The Hunt for Red October. Alec Baldwin was well cast as Jack, but Harrison Ford was a little, well, old for the part, and Clear and Present Danger was an abomination of a film. So when I heard about Amazon’s Jack Ryan series, I was naturally skeptical.
How happy I was to find my fears unjustified. John Krasinski has re-invented himself it seems, going from the lovable loser on The Office to credible gritty action hero. Prolific actor Wendell Pierce (did you see him in The Wire? You took our advice and binged The Wire, didn’t you?) is fantastic as Ryan’s superior and friend James Grier.
Admittedly, season two isn’t as good as season one, perhaps because there was a dearth of Abbie Cornish as Dr. Cathy Mueller. And season one’s Suleiman is a more compelling villain than Jordi Molla’s Nicolás Reyes. It might seem that I’m trashing season two, but nothing could be further from the truth; it’s just that season one was so good and set the bar so high.
Jack Ryan does a great job balancing action with political intrigue. I consider it a thinking man’s action series, with villains that feel almost real, and heroes that are intelligent but flawed. Here’s hoping season three arrives soon.
The Vast of Night (Amazon Prime)
Winston: In 1950s New Mexico, we meet Everett, a small-town radio deejay, and his teenage pal Fay who works as a local switchboard operator. One night, Everett and Fay field a lot of frantic calls about a mysterious object in the sky (which we don’t see until the final two minutes of the movie). This leads to Everett taking a call from “Billy”, a former military man who worked on a highly classified project that had something to do with aliens. After his lengthy monologue (which features bizarre and frequent cuts to a black screen as he talks), Everett gets a call from Mabel, an old woman who claims that her son was abducted by aliens. After she too gets a lengthy monologue, we get the movie’s only special effects shot, and then the movie ends.
With its endless scenes of talking, talking, and hey, just a little bit more talking, Vast of Night feels like it started out as the script for a Welcome to Night Vale type podcast that got upgraded to a movie with no modifications. It reminds me of those old B-movie creature features that had a budget of like $250, so they just had all the characters yap for 80 minutes until the final scene where they finally showed the monster. Well, in all fairness, there’s one admittedly impressive tracking shot that takes us from Fay’s switchboard, through the local high school gymnasium during a basketball game, and over to Everett’s radio station in one seemingly unbroken cut. But it happens for seemingly little rhyme or reason other than the filmmakers wanting to show off. Also happening randomly is a pointless effect where we’re sometimes watching the characters on an old staticky black and white TV set, in reference to a framing device that presents this film as an episode of a Twilight Zone-like series called Paradox Theater.
I’m frankly dumbfounded at how this tedious, overlong student film somehow won the audience prize at Slamdance 2019, and got glowing reviews from critics. In these times of global lockdown, are we really so starved for streaming entertainment that a talkfest slog like Vast of Night becomes some sort of must-see recommendation? For god’s sake, all 156 episodes of The Twilight Zone are on Amazon Prime. Watch those instead.
1776 (Amazon Prime)
Nathan: Before Hamilton comes to Disney+ (yet another property Disney bought the rights to and now acts like they created the thing), check out the OG Founding Fathers musical, 1776. It may not have hip-hop, but it’s got Mr. Feeny from Boy Meets World as John Adams! And it has the song heard in the video above, which is just wonderful.
And that’s what we’ve been binge-watching this month. We’ll be back in August, but will it be another installment of What We’re Streaming? Come back next month to find out.