Friday, January 18, 2019

Top Tens of 2018: The Full Lists

TV Shows

#10: GLOW
#9: Haunting of Hill House
#8: Devilman Crybaby
#7: Aggretsuko
#6: The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
#5: Channel Zero: Dream Door
#4: Laid Back Camp
#3: Riverdale
#2: Sanrio Boys
#1: Channel Zero: Butcher's Block


#10: Black Banner Magic
#9: Notes From the Back Row
#8: Spectology
#7: The Next Picture Show
#6: All Systems Goku
#5: Filmspotting
#4: Game Studies Study Buddies
#3: Cocaine & Rhinestones
#2: Got It Memorized?
#1: Waypoint Radio


#10: Lucah: Born of a Dream
#9: Celeste
#8: Rhythmcremental
#7: Ni No Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom
#6: Into the Breach
#5: Zones
#4: Heaven Will be Mine
#3: Dead Cells
#2: Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
#1: Extreme Meatpunks Forever: Powered by Blood


#10: Janelle Monae - Dirty Computer
#9: Nine Inch Nails - Bad Witch
#8: Trust Fund - Bringing the Backline
#7: T.I. - Dime Trap
#6: Lil Wayne - Tha Carter V
#5: Pistol Annies - Interstate Gospel
#4: Robyn - Honey
#3: cupcakKe - Ephorize
#2: Priscilla Renea - Coloured
#1: Kacey Musgraves - Golden Hour


#10: House of Deadly Secrets
#9: Breaking In
#8: Sorry to Bother You
#7: Hotel Artemis
#6: Traffik
#5: The Rider
#4: The First Purge
#3: The Miseducation of Cameron Post
#2: Good Manners
#1: Blindspotting

And that's it for 2018, from me. Thanks for checking it out. And hey, maybe consider taking a peak at the old Valentine's Day Compilation call for submissions.

Top 10 Movies of 2018

Of all the lists I put out this week, this one is probably the one I'm most qualified for. I watched 56 movies in 2018, a very large chunk of which were new. I reviewed each of them the same day (more or less), so if you want my initial thoughts on some of these movies you can check out my letterboxd account. Most of these reviews are adaptations of those initial thoughts; some completely revamped, some only lightly edited. I hope you enjoy.

#10 House of Deadly Secrets

This isn't a particularly good movie, I guess. Hi, literally two sentences from now spoils the whole thing. This may or may not be true of any of the reviews from here on.

More importantly, the way it wraps up is... there's something. Sylvia, the neighbor who is actually the mother of the girl who went missing in the house in the 1970s, is trying to conjure her daughter. It turns out she accidentally killed Cindy with cough syrup and (unidentified?) pills, buried her in the rose garden, and then made up the story of her being abducted. This all comes out just after she holds Maggie (the house flipper who moved in and is the protagonist)'s daughter Ava hostage, trying to turn her into Cindy. It comes to a head with Maggie digging up Cindy's remains and Sylvia/Veronica confessing, saying that she made up the story and hid the body because her husband would have accused her of killing their daughter and hurt her.

We learned earlier that she ended up killing her husband, and that she claimed self defense. This information is presented in a way to make it seem like she was full of shit; that she just wanted to kill him. Which makes sense in a horror movie. But this isn't a horror movie, really. It can't decide if she's an avatar of evil or the subject of a true crime novel. That inability to decide is annoying but also, maybe, productive.

Because the results of that confession are twofold. For Sylvia/Veronica, it ends in forgiveness. Her daughter appears to her and says that she accepts the apology. For Maggie, it serves to reconstitute the family. We learn a bit into the movie that she's split from her husband, Zeke, because he stole money from her to make an investment that broke bad. He is also there at the confession, and has been helping out. The movie ends - just before a very weird, unnecessary stinger that reveals that this movie still has no idea if it's a horror film - with the couple reconstituted, their daughter looking on happily.

If I were going to pick out one neat thing, it's the way that this movie revolves around three generations of women. Patty McCormack's bizarre, sometimes very interesting performance of a woman who became a mother in the 70s; Angie Patterson's Maggie, and her daughter, Violet Hicks' Ava. The regular intercutting of Sylvia/Veronica's time with her own daughter complicates that as well, giving Addison Aguilera's Cindy screen time to be a missing branch of that tree as well. Basically nothing happens outside of the context of the families, either; there are a few brief shots at school and one sequence in a police office, but that's it.

I'm saying all this to try to wrap my head around what I think is interesting about the ending, but I'm still not sure I've quite got there yet. The way this movie wraps up almost seems like an argument that the nuclear family is constituted through trauma.

The division between Zeke and Maggie is papered over by the actions of a woman traumatized by her "failure" at motherhood, compounded by her fear of patriarchal reprisal/violence. And the families that it is concerned with are almost exclusively made of women, with men as potential violence at worst and incompetent grifters at best. But even with that, it can't imagine them as unnecessary.

There is, in other words, a politics to this bad movie about a grandma abducting a girl because she killed her kid forty years ago. And it's a complicated one, that centers women and gives them complexity. I think that's why this movie stuck with me, and I think it's why it makes it on this list over things like First Reformed, Upgrade, and other films that I found more well made. This fucking thing.

#9 Breaking In

There's an incredible movie in here. It does away with the three stooges' bullshit. It allows itself to linger on the promise of the movie's best moments, whether that's the brief People Under the Stairs moment when the daughter takes to the crawl space, the situation between Gabrielle Union and the first villain in the woods, or even just the promise of a horror movie that isn't constitutionally allergic to the very idea of cell phones. In this top ten I may or may not be grinding some axes. Sorry. The idea that horror movies are ruined by cell phones is super lame and everyone who thinks that is true should feel bad.

That movie isn't the one called Breaking In, which is also embarrassingly PG-13 in too many ways that doesn't mean it is too chaste to threaten sexual assault because Stakes, I Guess. Fuck those three dudes have a disastrous effect on the movie that I saw in this that never really existed.

What does exist is only bad, mostly, in relation to what it could have been. Union gives a largely very good performance, despite being given some truly cringeworthy lines, as do the two children (even if the boy is basically rendered a non-character like a third of the way through). And the camera is so desperate to fill in any potential gaps that even briefly-experienced characters - like the real estate agent, who gives a solid performance - on their own are undercut by the insistence on cutaways that are actively insulting at best.

Some of those moments, though. Union through the glass, making clear the extent to which she's willing to go; or her taking action on the roof. Or the generator lighting. The opening drive to the property, even, which is the only time the film is willing to linger on shots. It's a natural beauty that frames the action without actually serving as a frame, ultimately. But there is stuff here. If only it had more confidence in its audience, and a more genuine desire to stitch together something particular.

#8 Sorry to Bother You

Sorry to Bother You is the movie I wish Okja had been. The surreal elements are genuinely BuƱuelian, and work incredibly. The message is unapologetically communist. The twist - if you're still worried about spoilers, worry about them - of Cash turning into an equisapien and getting an affinity group together to perform a direct action on Steve Lift's home was so good it justified the boring half hour or so leading up to it. It wraps up economic, racial, and ecological exploitation into a specifically visual, narrative experience in really excellent ways.

It's at number eight on this list, though. Which is weird. Which means: it was better than like, fifty other movies I saw this year. That's something that shouldn't be forgotten. Unlike my TV shows or (to a lesser extent) albums lists this year, I think I'm genuinely qualified to be writing this list. I saw a lot of shit. And unlike the number ten spot on this list, it isn't here because it chewed away at my brain for months despite me not liking it, and thinking that I should maybe put Jurassic World 2: Fallen Kingdom's weird anthology or Upgrade's excellent cyberpunk or Tau or First Reformed or Annihilation's excellent central performances or Kodachrome or Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle or Hereditary or You Were Never Really Here there because all of those were better in certain ways (I have impressions of all these up on my letterboxd if you want quick responses). Sorry to Bother You is good as fuck, is what I'm saying.

I'm also saying it's this low for reasons that continue to elude me. All those things I said in the first paragraph are true, and are things I like a whole bunch. I enjoyed seeing the movie. I've especially enjoyed Boots Riley becoming a figure that film critics have to contend with. But outside of that, it didn't stick with me. Maybe on a rewatch I'll change my mind entirely. Maybe not. As it stands, it feels off. This placement and my feelings toward the movie in general.

#7 Hotel Artemis

This is a movie about a Boomer woman escaping the traumatic house built for her by a Boomer man for his benefit. She does so in order to become a street medic during a protest against water privatization in near future Los Angeles. It fucking rules.

Foster plays the owner of the Hotel Artemis, a safe haven and hospital for the lumpenbourgeoisie, on the night of the riots. Her performance does such a good job of identifying her coping mechanisms. Jeff Goldblum's brief appearance as the Wolf King of LA, "a hippy who gave up his beads for bullets" (according to Foster's character) and the aforementioned Boomer dad, is also pretty excellent at conveying the way a generation infused with capital has treated its children. And their non-capitalist cohort, as well.

That central tension is served so well by the other patients; Sofia Boutella's Nice genuinely kicks ass in her final sequence, Bautista continues to show depth without undermining his bruiser look; Sterling K. Brown's Waikiki is run a little ragged with motivations but goddamn if he doesn't have the charisma to pull it off.

It's also just a good house movie with some super solid action sequences. Hidden doorways and house rules and a porous inside/outside line.

I don't think there's really a whole lot to say about it, otherwise. It's a great use of cyberpunk without dissolving into neon and smoke in the rain. You might have to let the plot tensions work on you and melt away simultaneously to enjoy it. But dang does it kinda rule.

#6 Traffik

The script for this film is clunky in a way that is belied by the incredible chemistry between the main couple. It is bizarre seeing two people who clearly work together incredibly well deliver stilted lines meant only to reinforce a dead obvious theme or concern or piece of information only meant to drive the plot forward. There's also a failure to take advantage of some brilliant setpieces; the version of this movie that pauses at the house and becomes You're Next but with differently-fucked family dynamics and a sense of broader structural oppression might be my favorite movie of all time.

What we actually get is a largely very good movie with some deep flaws, enough of which hit me closely in a way that didn't let me cruise past. The smaller (what a strange word here) is the premise, detailed in the title: this is a movie about human trafficking, a real problem that is almost exclusively used (in my experience) in media to further criminalize sex work no matter how the worker came to that form of labor. I only say smaller here because I think that fundamentally affects the way the story moves without actively being a problem in and of itself.

The larger (again, a strange way of phrasing this) issue comes at the end: this movie does a pretty great job at making it clear that the cops can't be trusted and that the issues it is grappling with are systemic, right up until it abandons that. The resolution is that the FBI are the real cops, basically; or rather that they are the cops of our ideological projection rather than the corrupted locals. It's such a pat repetition of the Comey bullshit it feels like it couldn't possibly not be intentional. It also feels like the ending of Get Out but if the friend hadn't been in the car, and nothing else was changed. It's a gratifying fantasy, I suppose, but one that deeply betrays Traffik's radical potential and, honestly, does so throughout the film in a way that holds it back at crucial moments.

The thing about it, though, is that it does have all that radical potential. It's not a movie that's a joy to watch, or one that I think hits at core tensions in smart or unique ways. What it is, though, is something worth wrestling with. If that central chemistry doesn't work for you, I imagine it would be a mess, but I think it's incredibly strong. And that was enough for me to care enough to poke and think about what Traffik did, in a way that weirdly stuck with me for most of the year.

#5 The Rider

The Rider is basically a neorealist film about a rodeo rider who gets in a serious accident and can no longer ride. It's one of those movies that people who like looking at landscapes in motion will talk about endlessly. I can be one of those people. It's so pretty.

There's a moment that sticks out: most of the movie follows Brady Blackburn as he recovers from the injury and fails to stop riding. He's rarely alone, but the companionship isn't entirely obvious. Then there's the campfire sequence. His friends sit around, trading stories. It turns into a pretty incredible moment of explanation for the way care work gets done in masculine circles.

There are others, too. That one shot with the plateau in the background is goofy. That sequence toward the end with Lane is kind of incredible.

It won't appear elsewhere, but I think the complicated relationship I had with Thoroughbreds helped me love this movie. Because I really want to see that one again in a couple years, and see if my gut feeling - that it is an incredible thing, despite the way it nuts over Kubrick and refuses to let the central relationship develop - is true. But it also put horses in the front of my mind, and seeing another movie with horses that does keep those relationships real and complicated was really nice.

It's a tiny bit annoying that what amounts to a biopic is one of the best movies I've seen this year, but it's the case I guess.

#4 The First Purge

The First Purge was absolutely my favorite theatre-going experience of 2018, and I did a lot of that (RIP moviepass; who would have guessed that if going to the theater was actually affordable people would actually do it?). I also saw it ages ago and haven't been able to return to it, so this isn't going to be the most well-considered review.

I liked the original Purge a ton, and hadn't seen any of the sequels. The First Purge brought me in for fairly obvious reasons; the marketing around it seemed to foreground the racial elements that the first one handled muddily, and seemed poised to do so in a smart way. I think that bore out. It also looked to be explicitly about class war, and it was frankly delightful to see a movie about lumpenprole revolutionaries of color that was, if not explicitly about that, more or less exclusively about it.

The thing that made this movie work - other than moments like the corridor fight scene and the explicit links between the state and white supremacist movements - was the way it telescoped in and out of characters, making no one have to be emblematic of everything. People were allowed to be complex, to contain multitudes, and to do so without the whole movie being some boring character study. The ideas this movie wanted to hit on were allowed to breath without sacrificing any of the action.

It's just all around a really phenomenal thing.

#3 The Miseducation of Cameron Post

There were a lot of nice, well-framed shots throughout this movie about a group of teens being emotionally abused by shitty adults - the moment where John Gallagher Jr's Pastor Rick breaks down being exemplary. It wouldn't be at all the same thing if this had the stakes of a horror film, but the fact that it was shot like one went a long way for me.

I have two ideas as to why this movie lingered with me so powerfully throughout the year. That previous paragraph is the first one; the composition was just strong. In terms of pure visual enjoyment and in terms of a varied aesthetic palette. That aspect was super surprising. The second one is the reason I went to see this thing in the first place.

Chloƫ Grace Moretz gives, for my money, the best performance of the year. I'm no acting critic, but she does a great job of letting the camera linger on her, in a way that is better than Ethan Hawke in First Reformed. And he did great in that! But her reservations with the people around her, her disinterest in being there, the way she barely registers that this is punishment until people take a genuine interest in her; all these things played out entirely in her expressions and body language and they felt fucking real to me.

I don't know that I've ever even considered having a thing on a best of list because of a central performance. I barely think about acting at all. I bet any one of you reading this could make a better case than I could for a different, better job done this year. But it modeled something for me that I needed to see in a person, and it did so among beautiful composition and in circumstances that felt real.

Fuck me, was this my favorite movie this year? No. Okay. No. It's baffling that it got so close, though.

#2 Good Manners (As Boas Maneiras)

Good Manners (aka As Boas Maneiras) is The Brazilian Lesbian Werewolf Movie. It is more than that also, but it is especially that. Specifically, it is The Brazilian Lesbian Movie for the first half, and The Brazilian Werewolf Movie for the second. Because one of the lesbians gives birth to the werewolf, and does not make it out alive. And because the movie shifts so immensely in that moment that it feels like two movies.

This might be the only movie I've ever seen where I had to leave the theater while I was watching it. I stepped outside for about ten minutes. It is not gory, and it is not manipulative. It's just so fucking much. The love story in the first half is so complicated by class; the werewolf story in the second is so fraught by gender and parenthood. Everything about this movie gnawed away at core aspects of me as a person. I really need to rewatch it. Because it might be my favorite thing of this year, but also because I was simply so overwhelmed that I have a hard time articulating anything.

One thing: this movie loves floors. There are such particular angled shots that take in the carpets and the ground. It's a movie that looks down, that averts its cinematic eye temporarily, only to return to the sights. I don't know that I can make an argument about how that works holistically, because the whole overwhelmed me and so eludes me. But I remember that.

#1 Blindspotting

About a third of the way through Blindspotting, there's a dream sequence. Our main character, in the last days of his parole, is in a courtroom. Everyone is rapping or reciting slam poetry. The visuals are stark and uncompromising; probably taking inspiration from The Trial. It is messy and I am willing to bet it doesn't work for a lot of people; I am willing to bet there are innumerable versions of me that it doesn't work for. The version of me who saw it, though, was entranced. Up to that point, I would have scoffed if you told me that this might be my favorite movie of 2018. From that point on, I was rapt.

This movie feels grounded in the right way, which is to say intentionally and purposefully. The slow opening moments provide a space of contrast for the more extravagant bits; Collin's slow gestures toward rapping aren't overwrought character bits but a build towards climax; Val's lowkey acceptance of the signifiers of gentrification when applied to others is a central tension rather than a quirk. This is a movie that feeds into itself with an intensity that allows it to get away with a climax that should be deeply embarrassing. And that is, in some ways. But it still works beautifully.

I'm willing to admit that some of my infatuation came from seeing shots of the neighborhood I've called home, on and off, for over six years at this point. That part probably won't translate. I suspect a lot of things about this movie might not translate, honestly. That's fine. Knowing what a singular experience I had with this movie, I can't do anything but highly recommend it. Not because I think everyone will like it, or because I think it's without flaws. But because it captures so many things so well that maybe someone else might have that singular experience, and I think that's worth it.

Which is more or less my motto, I suppose. I'm not good at recommending things to people. I think a lot of that comes down to how particular the joy I get out of things is, how much of myself I inevitably bring to the table. I wouldn't trade the experience I had with Blindspotting in 2018 for any other movie, even ones I think are better. Which is why it's up here.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Top 10 Albums of 2018

This year wasn't a particularly strong one for the kinds of music I'm interested in. I attempted to keep up to date with major country releases on and off, and most of them were deeply disappointing. Most of the rap I listened to didn't stick with me. I didn't keep up with my friends' stuff, even, all that much. But hey, here's a thing: at the bottom of this list, in its own section, I'm going to list to some stuff from the scenes I've orbited for a while. Check them out.

#10 Janelle Monae - Dirty Computer

I've always felt a little embarrassed over how much I like Janelle Monae. Which is: a bit. I think her work is fantastic, what I've heard of it. I also haven't had much of it on rotation. When I listen, it often clicks with me. When I'm not listening, I tend to forget about it, other than that she's very good and doing really cool stuff. Dirty Computer was very nearly the same, for me, until I forced myself to listen to it a half dozen times over the course of this year. I'm not sure that I get it, now, necessarily, but this sure is one hell of an album.

#9 Nine Inch Nails - Bad Witch

I've never been a fan of Nine Inch Nails. In the last few years, my feelings have softened; I kind of hated them back in the day. When I got into industrial and noise in my early college years, I really hated them. Then I learned about how much he was genuinely a part of that world, and eventually started dating someone with a longstanding love of them. Then they appeared on Twin Peaks, and I was like fine. Fine, I guess I'm okay with this Trent Reznor nerd.

I listened to Bad Witch - maybe the first full album of theirs I've ever listened to? - because of an offhanded recommendation made on the Black Banner Magic podcast. In the backseat of a car driving in the dark, it ended up surprising me. Bad Witch is full of weird breakbeats, sometimes reminding me of (and I'm not an expert here, trust) some weird halfway point between UK Garage and Atari Teenage Riot. Other points - "Play the Goddamned Part" in particular - didn't so much feel reminiscent of Nurse With Wound as they transported me directly back to walking through the woods listening to them at night in 2007.

Anything that puts me in the headspace of Atari Teenage Riot and Nurse With Wound is something I'm going to have a fondness for. I don't know that I love Bad Witch; I probably won't even return to it that many times. But there's a specific kind of joy to it that I can't deny, for me at least.

#8 Trust Fund - Bringing the Backline

I wasn't a huge fan of We Have Always Lived in the Harolds, the last Trust Fund record I listened to; it took down the energy from Seems Unfair, their previous, and became contemplative. Which wasn't an objectively bad thing, but my favorite song of theirs is "Football," and I think that's what I come to their music for: incisive pop punk about selves, little moments in relationships, and a pleasant, conflicted energy. That's not fair to them as people or musicians, but it is what it is, I guess.

Bringing the Backline is a nice dialectical synthesis of Seems Unfair and Harolds. The soundscape is way lusher, not just by tweaking the main instrumentation with fuzz and other effects but adding synthesizers and some other new instruments. All of which is mixed to keep Ellis Jones' vocals at the forefront, which is incredibly important.

If anything, the thing that Trust Fund does so well is to be a band that cracks jokes that aren't particularly funny, and to be funny without cracking jokes. Jokes can do a lot of things other than make you laugh; they can show character or reveal psychology. Jones is good at that, and it's pretty cool to hear.

#7 T.I. - Dime Trap

T.I.'s the anti-Jay-Z. Both are some of the first models of what it looks like to be an old rapper who isn't washed up, but continues to redefine his own work without getting lost in the past. Jay-Z's model is of a business, man, though. T.I.'s is a slow, steady radicalization.

He's not at the forefront of anything. "The Amazing Mr. Fuck Up" is one of my favorite tracks on the album, but the beat sounds like some shit Lil B was doing in 2012 when he was "proving" he was more than a novelty, only with more money. His politics aren't as sharp as Vic Mensa or Vince Staples'. But no one else has his body of work, and the way he presses and shapes it is still meaningful.

And there's always something about me that will get weak kneed for a rapper who overflows his bars, especially when it's done in a way that conveys that the rapper just wants to keep going rather than being unable to edit. T.I.'s one of the kings of that.

Song by song, it's not the strongest album he's ever put out. The back half suffers a bit, but the closing track - "Be There" - wraps it up pretty nicely.

#6 Lil Wayne - Tha Carter V

I have this problem where any time I think I want to write something quick about Lil Wayne, I almost write ten thousand words. I am not going to do that. My verdict, quick and dirty: Tha Carter V is disappointing, but it's also way better than it is disappointing.

It's disappointing because Tha Carter III made expectations impossible; these numbered Carters have to be perfectly in line with the times, push beyond them, and breakout successes. That's not what this is. It's a reflection, in line with most of Lil Wayne's other music since the fallout with Cash Money. It fits into his phenomenal body of work really well, and has some absolute standout moments. It's a very, very good record.

#5 Pistol Annies - Interstate Gospel

Even without this third album, their first in half a decade, the Pistol Annies were already all timers. Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley push each other's individual tendencies towards irreverence, subversion, and striking images into the stratosphere; many songs get a single verse from each, and it is clear that any one of those verses could have been expanded into a very good song. They rule.

This record is a bit of a weird one, though. Track by track, it's incredibly solid. The songwriting moves along quickly and pleasantly, highlighting both quips and central ideas without a single song seeming to drag. "Commissary" is a possible counterexample, but only because I don't think the characters get enough space to develop. "When I Was His Wife," "Got My Name Changed Back," and "Milkman" are all examples of the Annies at their finest, full of joy in shit talk and language. Another example: the first verse of the second proper song - "Best Years of My Life" - are:
I picked a good day for a recreational Percocet
I've got an itch to just get high
I'm in the middle of the worst of it
these are the best years of my life
On the other hand, the album opens with "Interstate Prelude," which turns out to be the first minute and change of the title track. As an opener, it's fine; in context of the album, it's a bit awkward. It seems, at least on a first listen, to be aimed at signaling that the girls are proper Christians, despite what you're about to hear. Because that's more or less what the song proper conveys, if in the metaphor of being on the road as a musician.

My impression, more or less, is that this is a Pistol Annies record that has incredible songs, exactly like you'd want. As an album, I'm a little less convinced. But that's okay with me. It has moments of intergenerational tension in "Milkman," of solidarity among women in "When I Was His Wife," of the strange social formations around coupledom in "Masterpiece." It's full of good shit, in other words.

#4 Robyn - Honey

I've been basically checked out of Robyn's output since Body Talk 1-3, and if Honey is any indication I haven't missed a whole lot (apparently it's her first release since then? -ed). Her music still vacillates between incredibly straightforward singles sung in her breathy falsetto that work very well, surrounded by songs that verge on talking, often. Her themes are still about brokenness in relationships, becoming-robotic (but rarely, maybe never, digital), and alienated bodies writhing against themselves and with each other. And it's still hella compelling.

It's in the space that those oscillations create that her distinctive lyrics find their footing. The chorus for "Beach2k20," for instance, goes:
[Do you want to go out]
To this cute place on the beach
They do really nice food
I mean, it's right on the beach
Come through, it'll be cool.
That last bit is one exemplar; Robyn's so often in a mode of awkward aloofness, a fake uncaring that comes across as flirting. It's one way that she focuses. Another: she characterizes her second-person, only to be merciless toward them, as in "Because It's In The Music:"
And I wonder when you hear it
Are you getting that same feeling?
Like you wanna break down and hide.
I keep playing it anyway
If there's a thing that I appreciate about Robyn's records, and which I only realized listening to Honey, it's how much that focus matters. Her range gives her the ability to talk specifically and personally about the "you" that most pop music leaves as ambiguous as possible, without collapsing it into memoir. Which couples with her thematic fascination with alienation from bodies - her own included - to become hella relatable. Also the way she insists on four-to-the-floor kicks even when they're demonstrably unnecessary is very endearing to me.

#3 cupcakKe - Ephorize

Ephorize was sort of my go-to album this year. If I wanted to listen to something and wasn't in the thrall of either of my top two, it was probably what I turned on. Even if I didn't, I'd consider turning it on before deciding, say, to check out something new or to give Tha Carter V or Dirty Computer another shot.

There's something about the way that cupcakKe structures a chorus that gets me every time.
Tap the head of the dick, duck duck duck goose
Head of the dick, duck duck duck goose
Get that dick up and runnin when he fuck this cooch
Covered in all my cum the dick be lookin' like a goose
is genuinely the best. She largely uses simple phrasing and heavy repetition in a funny voice, and it hasn't gotten old to me at all. Even when it's on her weird social justicey tracks ("Crayons" from this album) that I'm less keen on even though I appreciate that she consistently does them.

If you know cupcakKe's music it's probably because of her sex songs, which are very good. They're good because of their content, but mostly because they give her a canvas on which to play with goofy one-liners. I prize rappers who convey how much they enjoy themselves while they perform their craft above everything, and cupcakKe is up there.

cupcakKe also released an album late in the year, Eden, which wasn't quite the heavy hitter her first was. There is a song called "Garfield" where the chorus is just her saying "fat cat fat cat fat cat fat cat fat cat fat cat… Garfield. Garfield Garfield Garfield, Garfield Garfield Garfield," though, which is pretty excellent.

#2 Priscilla Renea - Coloured

I think this might be the actual best country record of this year, but the one that follows managed to eat me alive so well that I can't help but put it at number one.

Coloured is such a neat thing. It's a reflection on growing up black in America, using country and pop (and some rap, musically) as a medium. It opens with "Family Tree," a song with a striking central image and that has a chorus that erupts like a fucking volcano in the chorus. "Jonjo" follows, which is catchy and affable and just joyous. Crucially, "Denim" is on this album, fulfilling the quota every country record must meet of having a song with an overly belabored metaphor that is kind of wack but also really endearing.

The closing two songs are what make the album, in my mind at least. "Let's Build a House" is a slow, methodical appeal to resilience (sorry Robin James) that at least gestures toward a kind of collectivity, again with a strong central image, and is also just a lovely song. And then there's "Land of the Free," which explicitly refers to its propagandistic function:
If you don't believe it's true, I guess I wrote this song for you
You'd think I'd say these words because I hate America?
That's just life for me
Living while black in the land of the free
It also has a complicated relationship to reparations, and a lengthy, Hendrix-esque rendition of the National Anthem at the end. I love it for all of that. It's such a particular thing, so clearly and fully felt, and so welcome in its genre. I love this record a bunch.

#1 Kacey Musgraves - Golden Hour

In my messiest moments this year, I spent weeks doing very little but listening to the back half of Golden Hour - from "Space Cowboy" on - on repeat while playing the Microsoft Solitaire Collection. I was doing daily challenges in each of the five variants while those songs played. I can't really hear any of them without my vision partially dissolving into Klondike. I did have a wonderful moment, on the way to see Taylor Swift's Reputation tour, sharing a love of this album with two friends. That has hopefully helped it to stay away from becoming my new Hybrid Theory, the Linkin Park album I still can't hear without subvisualizing the sewers of Cabilis from EverQuest.

This is a good fucking album. I've always been a bit low on Musgraves' work - she has felt to me, for some time, like country music for people who don't like country music. Which is fine, I guess, but it isn't for me. Except when it is, like, perfectly made for me.

There isn't a bad song on the fucking thing. "Slow Burn" sets everything up so well; "Lonely Weekend" is such a compelling look at the kind of person I know (and can be) who really needs to backseat their relationship and enjoy friends. "Butterflies" is damn near perfect. "Oh, What a World," is very good filler at worst (that continues the vocoded motif that the rest of the album needs to work), "Mother" is incredible, and "Love is a Wild Thing" is maybe the closest the album comes to a forgettable song, and probably also the best traditional country bop on the record.

Let's keep going: "Space Cowboy" is so good it made me want to watch Cowboy Bebop, a show it has nothing to do with, really, and which I don't give a shit about. "Happy & Sad" is the best song about anxiety I've ever heard, including that it doesn't know that that's what it's about (or at least the narrator doesn't). "Velvet Elvis" is the most annoying thing in a very heartwarming way. "Wonder Woman" isn't for me but I very much appreciate the sentiment. "High Horse" is what sold me on the album, because it bangs and because its criticisms are so vague and so endlessly intriguing. "Golden Hour" is the best possible way to close this thing out, and "Rainbow" is a really nice coda.

Speaking of which: it's no Rainbow, but I'm frankly surprised anything this year even got remotely close. That's the highest praise, from me, I think, that I could possibly give.

Some Other Stuff You Should Listen To

Quick note: some of the folks here I know well, some I have hung out with a handful of times, some I barely know at all or effectively don't. This is just some stuff from a scene or two I've never been a part of but have been around for, well, like, a long time, lets say. I'm not a good guide to it, either. Look these folks up and find out who they've worked with and shit. It's worth your time.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Top 10 Games of 2018

#10 Lucah: Born of a Dream

Lucah: Born of a Dream is a top-down, 2D character action game with (I believe) fully hand-drawn art. It plays similarly to something like Hyper Light Drifter, albeit in a way I enjoy way more. I also was considering not including it on this list, because it was shown at the Playdate Pop-up, which I organize and helped curate. Then I realized that was really silly. If you want to hear me (& my co-host Bela (who also put out a great game this year that you should buy imo; I did recuse myself from that one)) talk to the lead designer and the sound designer, you're welcome to check out this episode of our old podcast.

I'm not entirely sure I'm the best equipped to talk about the themes of the game, though I would say that central to the story are questions of faith and identity. Central moments involve parishioners self-flagellating, Cardinals hosting bloodsports, and major enemies named things like Christian and Messiah. The main character, who you name at the beginning, is occasionally pointed at as a savior or as a harbinger of doom, and it is revealed late on (unless I misread something) that you have a previous name, though the character who uses it immediately reverts to the one you chose after letting it slip. I should also say that the game probably needs a content warning for ideation; it's not a happy world that you're wading through. It is a beautiful one, though, and one that is always compelling to interact with.

#9 Celeste

Celeste is absolutely not my kind of thing. I hate masocore games, and barely tolerate most platformers. It has a story barely more subtle than Braid's. Playing it on a Switch with finicky Joycons wasn't necessarily frustrating, but it definitely lead to a lot of deaths where my intent didn't match up with the execution.

I also didn't just beat the whole game, but beat every B-Side except for The Core. I think I ended up only missing three strawberries, themselves in the A-Side of The Core. I did not touch any C-Sides or go for any of the secret golden strawberries or whatever, but given that I was fully expecting to barely play past the tutorial - and that I'm not at all someone who cares about challenges, especially ones that come after I've beat a game - that feels like a kind of wild amount to have played.

#8 Rhythmcremental

A rhythm-based idle game with no real endgame. I played it long enough to get all six of the sound stings on each of the available surfaces, which is difficult because there's a bug when you hit one of the items that brings you down to something like a negative billion points.

No, there's not really anything here. I made a bad song out of this game. It's no Tap my Katamari. It's just a cool thing.

#7 Ni No Kuni 2

What an uneven game in so many ways. An incredible opening - Roland, the President, rolls into town and it gets nuked. He appears in a fantasy land lead by King Evan, a child whose father has been slowly assassinated with poison by his chief advisor. He helps the kid escape and set off to create a new nation whose primary aim is to end war, which turns into a game where you wander the world having folks sign a "Declaration of Interdependence" in order to unify, ending war.

The combat is a solid update of Quest 64, and is simple enough as is with room for complexity. The world is pleasantly variegated, and has a ton of charm. Each item has a cutesy twist for a name, and the descriptions are often used in fetch quests. It's full of siloed off systems; a city builder with freemium aspects that is weirdly fulfilling on its own terms, a procedural dungeon crawl with its own difficulty timer and economy, a (kind of bad) top-down real time strategy game with powers and gauges that don't exist elsewhere. The way those things don't interlock is interesting, in terms of how we value games and especially in the wake of things like Breath of the Wild.

Alongside the map's variety, there's a good hook in each of the kingdoms. The first place you convert is a casino town that lays all decisions down to the whim of fate, in the form of a massive statue that rolls a die. The conflict comes down to the fact that the king is (being manipulated to) fudging the numbers; rolls are fixed by a mechanism in each of the dice that weight them according to what the roller needs. Even Lady Luck is being manipulated by remote control, which is why the monthly roll to raise taxes has happened to be as high as possible for the last three months. You expose this corruption and disgrace the ruler. There's an interesting conservatism in the town, though. Disgrace is a hard thing to sustain in a town that is often ruled by superstition, where change is looked at with suspicion at best. The people who are making it are convinced that correlation is causation, and so of course they would be reticent to overthrow someone, especially when it seems he is both repentant and was being manipulated.

The second town is full of merfolk and run in an authoritarian fashion. Certain staircases are off limits, love is outlawed, and no one is allowed to emigrate. Investigating this, you find that the town was actually destroyed a few hundred years ago. The only thing that has kept it going was the queen's magic. Any new arrivals or exits would upset the balance she has upheld, explaining the laws. In the end, she agrees that the time may have come to pass, and so signs the Declaration of Interdependence and relaxes the laws.

The third city, Broadleaf, is closest to my heart. The president and CEO of this nation/corporation has become a petty tyrant, working his people past the point of exhaustion. Protests are sprouting up demanding better working conditions. You travel with one of the three people who were part of the original startup that ended up as this nation. With her, you see this president go from tech idealist to small business owner to tyrannical CEO. It's an arc that is easy to identify the truth in, even if it too ends in his being manipulated and ultimately offering to sacrifice his own life for his workers/subjects in a redemption arc. At that point, the protests sort of just melt away.

Each of these things are well drawn, poignant stories in their own right. And I even appreciate the motivations in them, often. It's the way they are all brought together that makes me more and more suspicious that this game might, in fact, have an incredibly fascist message.

I wrote too much here and some of this was already covered but okay here are some bullet points:

  • Ding Dong Dell's coup is an oppressed class rising up to … impose an ethnostate. The possibility of that oppression being real is basically denied by Roland during his turn as an infiltrator.
  • Broadleaf's redemption rests on 1) outside interference, despite the clear throughline from startup CEO to tyrant 2) idealism in the form of "jogging memories" and, relatedly, 3) the benevolence of the tyrant.
  • Goldpaw is more or less explicit, really. After the corruption scandal brings down the Grand High Roller, the citizens are basically all about keeping him around. They're wildly disempowered & atomized, and caught up in turns of superstition.
  • Hydropolis is a weird one. The queen has been holding this kingdom together for three centuries without sleep because of an apocalyptic event. She finally lets it go because the outside manipulator has been vanquished and she is finally willing to admit her love. But when she relinquishes the laws and people begin coming and going, the kingdom goes nowhere. The only thing that makes sense is that she just needed to hold the kingdom in stasis long enough for the apocalypse to pass, and has spent the last - let's be generous and say - two and a half centuries holding her citizens hostage in a loopy Groundhog's Day for no reason.
  • The big thing: all of this works well if it's self-directed. The building of friendships, abolishing of war, increasing diversities of place and opinion, are all excellent on their own terms. Even Evan's building a kingdom of low key technocrats is interesting because at no point is it framed that way. People aren't recruited because they offer a specific service to Evermore; they find themselves there for various reasons and end up contributing in the best way they can. The microscopic view of this game is all about comradeship and from each according to their abilities.
  • Which is why the "outside manipulator" thing is so consistently troubling. Presumably it is meant to give this game an end boss. But what it really does is recast all of that in a fashy light. These kingdoms aren't joining together to eliminate war; they're doing so in preparation to fight an outside scourge. And not only that, the scourge is in their midst. The people are being corrupted by it. Nazi shit, my guy.

#6 Into the Breach

Based on my Steam library, and I have no reason to think it's wrong or missing anything, Into the Breach is the first game I've ever unlocked every achievement in. The second, which I also got this year, was Heaven Will be Mine. I think the only game that might have qualified for that would have been getting all the Notices in Super Smash Bros. Melee, which I'm fairly confident I did. I'm not good at videogames. Sometimes I play them for a long time though.

The rough rundown: Into the Breach is a tactics game from the makers of FTL. You pilot three mechs on a series of 8x8 grids, fighting giant bugs that are threatening human cities. Your health bar is the amount of buildings that have been destroyed; your mechs also have their own health. You progress through a handful of levels over the course of two, three, or four islands (your choice) and then do a two-part final stage. I've heard a lot of people say it is very hard. I think I got my first win on my second attempt, on Normal difficulty. I'm not sure how that happened, as I am not particularly good at videogames.

The way you play Into the Breach is basically how I play chess. I'm pretty good at getting a lay of the board, and if I take a minute or so I can get a sense of how a good number of possibilities might play out over the next two turns. I can't think more than two moves ahead, because (I suspect) I have no sense of what someone else will actually go for (unless it's really, really clear, like a guaranteed checkmate; and even then I'm never sure if they'll see it), which means I hold too many possibilities in my head.

You might be better at Into the Breach than I am if you can keep more information in mind, but it rarely seems to make a difference. You just need a good lay of the land, a sense of what everything on the board is doing, how shifting that around will affect things, and the willingness to sit there and walk through the possibilities before you make the move, for this move and the next. I'm not even great at that, but sometimes I'm in the mood to spend the time to do it. I spent most of my time playing Isaac Jones, the pilot who gives you an extra reset. I rarely needed to use it, but I needed it for mindset reasons. It's that kind of thing.

Before and after this, you'll see me end these little write-ups in ambiguous ways. I'll say something positive, or that I don't have anything deep to say. It's been that kind of year with videogames, for me. Partially because I was so invested in Kingdom Hearts, and partially because I'm trying to use this as a way to recognize games that affected me at the time but haven't stuck with me beyond my playing them, or inspired big, sweeping thoughts. So that's another one of those things this paragraph is describing.

#5 Zones

This collection of five games by Connor Sherlock, the creator of one of the standout early walking simulators, The Rapture is Here and You Will Be Forcibly Removed From Your Homes, is gorgeous. From the moment you boot up Void Traversal (or Witch of Agnesi; both are in the ACT ONE folder) this is clear. I happened to boot up Void Traversal first, and stood stock still while I took in the beautiful mottling of the world, it's messy pinks and aqua swallowed digitally into black. There's a good chance I would have stood there for a long time, but that the soundtrack made me feel compelled to move.

I was deeply into walking simulators back about five years ago. I've fallen off them, in a variety of ways, in the intervening half-decade. Which is one of the reasons why I'm a little anxious about Zones, despite how much I immediately fell in love with it. Five years of iteration, especially from someone like Connor Sherlock, means I'm almost certainly missing a lot. There have been developments in walking simulators that I don't know, and that bothers me.

Specifically, at least with Act One of Zones, I have no idea if I was intended to just wander or if there were points of interest that I missed; specifically ones that would have progressed my understanding of the whole, or ones that would bring me to an end point. That psychological distress ended up being productive, though. Because Zones, for me, has become an object lesson in ateological level design.

If there are points of interest that I missed, this might be a lie. But that's fine.

So: in Zones you wander around landscapes. I have no idea how they're generated - other than by Connor Sherlock, for his patreon subscribers, I believe on a monthly basis. This collection drops you in them and then you walk around while some synths play cool, propulsive shit and they look incredible. And usually there's something, a landmark like a freestanding structure or a mountain range or a floating crystal or the sun, that you point yourself at and just fucking book it towards. And then, in most of them, you hit the jump button and zoom way too high up, like your character lists sideways high up, and that's super sweet also.

I spent a couple hours just poking at these worlds and I'm so glad I did. Here are some screenshots. Thanks.

#4 Heaven Will Be Mine

Heaven Will Be Mine is a visual novel about mecha pilots flirting over the future of non-humans, and the follow up to Worst Girls Games' We Know the Devil, a game I loved a whole fucking bunch. I'll be upfront about this: Heaven Will Be Mine doesn't live up to my feelings on that, for reasons that I think are a terrible intermingling of personal, aesthetic, and thematic. I also don't think it needed to live up to those feelings to be an exceptional thing in its own right, which I absolutely believe it to be.

Roughly, you can play through three routes, each with its own main pilot and faction. I went with Pluto first, whose faction ending I found to be the most compelling and rich; I then played through as Luna-Terra and Saturn. Each route has at least a few interesting things; some to do with mech size, some to do with personal histories and relationships outside the triad, some to do with the possibility of a future. The structural aspect of We Know the Devil that so enamored me to think of collectivity, where you functionally always play all three, is dissimulated here into your choices being between who wins and who loses in any particular conflict. It's also a very neat mechanic, but one that didn't hit me quite as hard.

I'm so glad this game exists, and I am fully in for whatever Worst Girls does next. And maybe at some point in 2019 I'll poke back into this and see if I don't get more out of it. I suspect it has that in it, at least.

#3 Dead Cells

Dead Cells definitely has that thing. The thing that roguelites do. It's a run-based action platformer, where drops and levels are procedurally generated. It has persistent progression; you unlock things that show up in later runs. Deaths feel like your own fault, most of the time, whether that's because you managed your build poorly, rolled or attacked at the wrong time, or dove deeper than your current state could reasonably handle. That thing, though, is that you - I - feel like run-to-run, you're - I'm - improving. Not because of those unlocks (though they help), but because you have a slightly better understanding of the game, its mechanics, its flow.

This is not, generally, a thing I'm interested in. I like roguelikes - Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup is probably in my top five or ten games of all time at this point - but I'm mostly interested in playing games on easy. I prefer Kingdom Hearts' combat to Kingdom Hearts 2's, and am probably the only person who would rate Snowblind Studios' action higher than, say, Platinum's. Being as honest as I can be, execution is probably my least favorite aspect of videogames. That, or smuggled-in libertarian/fascist propaganda (This War of Mine (and probably Frostpunk (I haven't played it))), I guess.

That last bit isn't totally irrelevant, I promise. The tone of Dead Cells kind of sucks. The character gives the bras d'honneur (that thing where you flex one arm forward and slap your bicep that's like giving the finger; they are a French studio, I guess), there's a hidden room with a bonfire and the text "GIT GUD," and it's replete with jokes about how prisoners are stupid (you shouldn't look for missing books in the prison, lol) and "magic mushrooms" and shit.

All of which might have turned me off had I not known that they self-describe as an "anarcho syndical workers cooperative," according to this Kotaku article. That bit of knowledge - plus the fact that I didn't have to buy the game myself, and that I needed something to play while listening to podcasts for a big chunk of this year and didn't have anything else great - ended up leading to me putting something like a hundred hours into Dead Cells. And beating it on every difficulty up to Expert.

As with many of these things, I don't have a big thesis statement. Getting that feeling of genuinely improving over time was nice, and the game feels good. They're about to nerf the strategy that got me those wins, so I'm almost certainly never going to play the game again. Which feels good too. Dead Cells, hey, congratulations. I'm probably going to forget about you very soon but you were kinda important to my year.

#2 Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

I fucking really like Smash, okay. I dumped what probably amounted to thousands (plural) of hours into Melee when I was in high school. I was not going to tournaments; I never learned how to wavedash or shield drop or edge cancel. I was largely not even playing it with anyone else. Sometimes I'd force my little brother to play with me, because I was a dickhead. I played a lot of the single player modes, and I played a lot of me vs. level 9 computers. I did this over and over and for so long that I've since been pretty passable at every subsequent game. I didn't play a lot of Brawl; my heart wasn't in it, my life wasn't in the same place, and the one thing I did want to try - playing online against my friend Wingus, who lives in Australia - was so laggy that it happened only once or twice. I ended up playing a lot of Sm4sh, because that game was really fun, and I even managed to go to one local. Mostly I played alone again, or with one friend who picked up the series with that game and actually put in the mental work (instead of just the time, like me) to go from much, much worse than I was to - well, let's say somewhere between "a little" and "much" better.

Said friend (who is responsible for every game on this list that isn't a PC game, due to their having consoles for which they get games; thanks) also keeps me up on the competitive scene, from the petty dramas (sorry about Ganondorf or whatever, reddit) to the discovery of tech, what's forthcoming, and just about everything else. I am not particularly invested in this, but it is nice. I love Smash Bros, you know? Knowing where it's healthy and where it isn't is nice.

I genuinely don't have much to say. World of Light is really cool, even though I give zero fucks about Nintendo's history. The Squad Smash variant, where you choose 3v3 or 5v5 and run through that number of characters against your opponent, is a lot of fun. I think I main Peach now on accident? That's weird as hell.

And the game feels fucking good. I imagine I'll go back to Sm4sh at some point and wonder how I ever played it, even though this game feels so familiar to that. Movement is crisp, and it feels like getting more familiar with it will make me better. It's just a good nice videogame.

#1 Extreme Meatpunks Forever: Powered By Blood

Extreme Meatpunks Forever is, well, kind of excellent. It's a hybrid visual novel and arena beat 'em up based around ring outs and movement skills, set in a world where the sun is gone, everyone has mechs made of meat, and you play as a group of antifascist queer folks who regularly beat the fuck out of (and even kill!) neonazis. The game follows four meatpunks - antifa, more or less - as they get run out of their rural town, trek across the desert for a week, and meet up with another group. They eat gas station food and chill with a sun cultist along the way, fight fash, and develop crushes and explore their own traumas, past and present.

I've been aware of Heather Flowers' work for a little while now - 10,000 Years was showcased at the Playdate Pop-up in 2017 - though I haven't engaged with nearly as much of it as I have wanted to. Her work, at least to me, continues the tradition of the extremely personal, political, revolutionary games that got me back into the medium back around 2012-13. It rages against the world as it is, the forces of reaction, and it is equally comfortably embodying that raging as it is transmogrifying it into abstract aesthetic spaces that draw the player in and force them into reflection.

Extreme Meatpunks Forever might be the crystallization of her work so far in this particular way. It also might not - again, I really need to explore her work more - but either way it is excellent. Its characters blossom out of sketches to become messy coincidences of allegory and people; the explosion of worldbuilding coheres as much in aesthetic fury and incendiary joy as it does in suggesting a world. Flowers explains all this better in her Meatpunk Manifesto.

The biggest surprise was when this game got hard. The mechanics are fairly straightforward; in the visual novel side, you click to advance and occasionally make a choice. In the brawler side, you use the WASD keys to move, left click to punch, and right click to use a special action (dependent on who you are playing as). It isn't the deepest, and the first two episodes were about what I expected from the tutorial; play whoever, barely use the specials, just be aware of your positioning and you'll be able to mash it out. That's true for everything but maybe two or three fights. In the last two episodes, there are pieces that ended up taking me a half-dozen tries or more, and forced me to really learn the right-click mechanics and whose I was best at using (or cheesing. I relied on Sam a lot at the end). It was frustrating. Which felt right. The same way dying repeatedly in Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus kind of felt right, even if it was largely because the game made poor decisions if you were looking at it solely from the perspective of gameplay flow.

Those brief difficulty spikes ended up producing the kind of friction that, up to that point, had only ever partially existed in the narrative, through the forcing of choice. Going in, I was honestly expecting not to have this game end up on this list. Not because I thought it would be bad - as I've said, I've liked everything I've seen of Heather Flowers' work before - but because I expected it, I think, to be somewhat slight. That expectation lead to me wanting to be able to see everything in one playthrough. Forcing me to only see one or two people's interactions, then, made me feel like I was going to be forced to replay through to see the rest when it might not really be worth it. That all turned out to be bullshit on my part. But having those pain points crystallized into having to replay specific fights - which, I should also state, are totally skippable from the moment you fail one, indicating that I was probably more bought-in than I even thought myself to be from early on - made me understand on a conscious level what I was experience subconsciously.

And hey, counterpoint to a lot of those others: this game fucking stuck with me. It's still itching at my brain on the regular. Good shit.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Top 10 Podcasts of 2018

When putting together this list initially, I was a little worried I would end up recapitulating a lot of what I said about the ten best podcasts of 2017. A few of them stopped being produced, and a few new ones came into my rotation, but a list that was over half retreads seemed boring. So I gave myself a stipulation: no retreads. Go read that list; most of what was written there still stands for this last year (Friends at the Table is slightly different; they're back in Hieron for its final season, and holy shit is it good so far). And then read this one and get ten new feeds to subscribe to, maybe.

#10 Black Banner Magic

I'll note at the top that I'm internet friends with one person involved (although I'm not entirely sure how) in this show, and I probably wouldn't have given it a shot without that connection. I almost certainly would have heard about it, since they are affiliated with Revolutionary Left Radio. But the early Dr. Bones guest spot (before he was outed as a predator and a sex pest; at that point I simply actively disliked his politics) and the tagline - a leftist podcast for occultists, an occult podcast for leftists - would likely have left me uninterested.

I dabbled in occult signification in late high school, wearing a pentacle and Libra necklace around, investigating numerology, and engaging with conspiracy theory (without necessarily believing in any of it, per se). It was co-incidental with my transition from a sort of libertarianism to the left, and probably had some influence - though I expect it was more in spite of than due to. The residual hangover of that period is likely part of my own relative distaste for the prevalence of things like astrology and tarot in the left & queer circles that have made up the bulk of my social life for the past six or so years. It's a distaste I try to keep to myself, and one that has attenuated with my understanding of its use as personal narrativization and interpersonal care. The lingering annoyance has more to do with the way it externalizes fault, primarily, but that's not entirely here nor there.

All of which is to say: this is not a podcast for me, necessarily, and I still think it's a pretty interesting one. Dr. Bones(' pirate utopia ass) aside, the guests have largely been very interesting. Hearing them describe the various ways they practice gives me a sense of the way the occult community can function as genuine community, and the host is good enough at both maintaining the flow of conversation and dropping in historical information to keep me paying attention.

It's worth a listen.

#9 Notes from the Back Row

Even more compromising: I'm IRL friends with one of the hosts of this podcast, and have written for the site. That second part isn't the compromising bit, I just wanted to plug my piece about M. Night Shyamalan. I even suggested to my friend that Back Row needed a podcast before they did and offered to help; they went ahead and found a competent professional instead. End of disclosures.

If 2017 was the year I explicitly went out to find left podcasts, 2018 was the year I finally found a groove with film podcasts after years of fits and starts. You'll read about a couple more later, but an honorable mention to The Projection Booth, a podcast that would probably be at the top of this list if I was able to commit more time to following it regularly.

Notes From the Back Row is still finding its identity; episodes come out biweekly and are sometimes roundtable discussions, sometimes three or four segments where each host talks to themself for ten or twenty minutes. I personally prefer the former, but that's my taste across the board with podcasts. Back Row distinguishes itself - like the website - by focusing on the interests of the hosts, which is to say it doesn't keep up with the discourse (in the "not being structured around release schedules" way; they all seem like dope people who care).

Episodes about Heist films, SNL comedies, what constitutes hype and how it affects you, and even a defense of the criminally underwhelming Truth or Dare all give genuine consideration to topics that I might not care deeply about, but am happy to be convinced of. More than anything I'm looking forward to the show developing, and seeing what it turns into.

#8 Spectology

Spectology is a science fiction book club podcast, and it's also the last one on this list that has a co-host with whom I have a passing internet familiarity. I'm not particularly up on literature podcasts (maybe next year?), but I was pleasantly surprised when I gave this one a listen; the co-hosts, Matt and Adrian, do pre-read episodes on Science Fiction novels that are spoiler-free, and post-read episodes that dive deep into the novel. Both tend to feature animated conversations about books I've never read, along with personal anecdotes and serious consideration of the political and generic content of the book. They've consistently surprised me with how on point I find their analysis (based on their summaries at least).

The episode that sold me was on The Sparrow, a book I had never heard of and, based on the pre-read episode, I have zero interest in seeking out. The discussion, though, was excellent. In the pre-read, they talk a lot about religion in science fiction, and both had nuanced, interesting takes that were grounded in reading. And in the post-read episode, they went in on the novel's colonialist underpinnings and how poorly it handled the loss of faith aspects. I'm super into celebrating a shared love of things, but being able to turn that critical edge is what sold me.

As the year went on, they ended up doing a good job of bringing in guests and picking interesting books. I'm not a huge fan of it ideologically, but the episodes with Ellie Bartels on the Ninefox Gambit (the only book I have read from their 2018 run) touches on so much interesting content about the military and gaming's relationship to it. The Gnomon episodes with Max Gladstone were fun conversations between people who were just really excited. And the Binti episodes were compelling enough to convince me to suggest that trilogy as a book for my own book club, which is always nice.

#7 The Next Picture Show

A part of the Filmspotting family of podcasts (the only part other than the flagship now, I believe; RIP to Filmspotting: SVU, which is what dragged me into the whole thing), The Next Picture Show is a group of former-Dissolve critics who talk about an old movie in conjunction with a new release. It's a little headier in construction than in practice; basically one week you get a discussion of an older film and some feedback, then the next you get a brief review of a new film, a comparison between the two, and some other recommendations. Rinse and repeat.

I love the idea of this format, and often love it in practice. It can lead to some weirdness though, where I end up not listening for a month or more at a time.

If you're interested in a 2018 pairing, I think the discussion of Putney Swope and Sorry to Bother You is probably the most interesting. They also paired Isle of Dogs (a movie I have negative interest in seeing) with Chicken Run for an interesting conversation about animation. The hosts have a pretty set dynamic which, like almost all podcasts, they talk about as much as they enact, so if you don't get along with their banter it can be a bit difficult, as I sometimes don't. Mostly, though, it's a genuinely interesting premise executed on successfully.

#6 All Systems Goku

I finally have some idea of what happens in the Buu saga. And the Cell saga. I think I dropped off before that was really airing on Cartoon Network back in the day. And that's kind of nice.

All Systems Goku is Giant Bomb's Jeff Gerstmann and Dan Ryckert's first foray into anime, done by recapping five or so episodes of Dragon Ball Z Kai at a time. There's really very little to say; they are total amateurs in knowledge, but they're very professional at hosting podcasts. The content is an enjoyable thing with no real value. It's a pleasure to listen to.

#5 Filmspotting

The most annoying thing about Filmspotting is that the co-host I most agree with, in terms of both arguments and general taste, is an old Christian dad who loves the films of Wes Anderson. I couldn't identify less, and yet. He's often right, and even when he's very wrong, it's usually for compelling reasons. It's so frustrating.

Filmspotting is a weekly film podcast, of the discussion variety, that usually talks about a new movie and then does some sort of top 5 list about a related topic. They play games and talk about local Chicago stuff. It's a pleasant thing, and though the public radio format makes the conversations often feel rushed, both Adam and (the afore described) Josh have a good sense of how to quickly make their points clearly and, if not convincingly then at least coherently.

My favorite thing from this year was probably the Vincente Minnelli marathon they did; I've only seen Meet Me in St. Louis and that was quite some time ago. I doubt I'll end up seeing most of the films they discussed, but I'm glad to have some basic knowledge about that director.

#4 Game Studies Study Buddies

I guess I kind of lied. If I'm counting Adrian from Spectology as an internet acquaintance, then I should say that I've had brief interactions with both Cameron Kunzelman and Michael Lutz on Twitter over the last handful of years. Mostly, though, that's why I know about this, not why I listened or loved it. Because I'm woefully underexposed to what Game Studies actually looks like, having only seen it from blowups around Bogost and a handful of other critics. And hey, this is a podcast that seeks to remedy that, in some way, so I was all in as soon as I heard the concept.

Their monthly episodes each dive into one text from the broader Game Studies canon (or a little outside it), taking it on chapter by chapter. A big part of the draw is that both Cameron and Michael are thoughtful, engaged readers and conversationalists who come at the text from different disciplinary backgrounds that aren't incompatible. It leads to interesting, edifying conversations.

Episode five, on Caillois' Man, Play, and Games is probably the most interesting conversation so far, for my money.

#3 Cocaine & Rhinestones

Most of Cocaine & Rhinestones was published in 2017. I didn't discover it until this year, and enough of it was released in 2018 that I feel comfortable putting it on this list. Even if it was the kind of podcast that got covered in the New York Times or wherever. I think I heard about it a few times, but I remember it clicking around when I listened to this episode of the Trillbilly Worker's Party podcast.

Without this show, I probably wouldn't know that Bobby Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe" is one of the greatest songs ever written, or about how great "Harper Valley PTA" is. That's enough to put it on any list. On top of that, though, it's the only NPR-style podcast I've ever been able to stomach. I'm much more about the conversational ones.

If you're at all interested in country music, it's probably a must-listen kind of thing at this point. Not because it's some exhaustive thing, but because Tyler Mahan Coe weaves an interesting narrative out of what might be considered ephemera, and does so while exposing you to some cool shit. I'm glad I listened to it.

#2 Got it Memorized

2018 was the year I got into Kingdom Hearts. I played the first game way back in the day, and I honestly can't tell how much I played of the second. I have vague memories. Which is appropriate, I guess. I had a fondness for the series based on that first game - there is something about rote action games that really hits home for me, and something about convoluted messes that does the same - but I couldn't really say why.

At the beginning of the year, I replayed the first game. Then I started in on the remake of the second, re:Chain of Memories, for the first time. It took me months; the game's action is insufferable in so many ways, swapping out the rote action for a messy card-battle system. The story, though, grabbed me really hard. It's about Sora losing his memories in this castle, and having them replaced with false ones, and about how he maintains his bonds of friendship through that experience and even forges new ones because of it. It's such a precious thing. Then I went on to play Kingdom Hearts 2, in full for (almost definitely) the first time. And then 358/2 Days, Birth by Sleep, and re:Coded. I'm currently most of the way through Dream Drop Distance, and plan on playing through 0.2 Birth by Sleep ~a fragmentary passage~ and watching the HD movie of Unchained X. I'll probably end up playing Kingdom Hearts 3 as well, once that's out. Maybe not, though, who knows.

Because of how long re:Chain of Memories took, I wanted something to supplement with while getting into the more story-focused, Disney-lite games that came after. Which is when I found Got it Memorized, which is a Kingdom Hearts recap podcast. The hosts, Wheels and Jo, go through each game piece by piece, wrapping up what happens and tying it into the broader narrative as it stands. It's a nice way to keep things straight in your head, and to get a slightly different perspective on a series that is notorious for the ways in which it is confusing.

Playing through the games, with the help of Got it Memorized, has made me realize that sense of re:Chain of Memories I had was only a part of the reason the games grab me. Because at their core, this is a series about identity. Friendship is crucial, there, because what the fuck is friendship without identity? Sora's answer is that it's a promise kept, maybe. The series' is a little harder to pin down.

Here's one reason I think it's about identity: all of the stuff that is actually confusing about the game is confusing because it is problematizing identity. The prime example: Ansem. Ansem is the boss of the first game; he's also a wise old man who researched the Heartless. The boss of Kingdom Hearts 2 is Xemnas; he is Ansem's Nobody (a body without a heart). Ansem is still around, though, masquerading as DiZ, because the person who became the boss of the first two games was actually Xehanort. Xehanort is this old fuckbag who stole a man's body, lost his memories and identified himself as Ansem before splitting into those two.

The parts about Heartless and Nobodies is fairly boilerplate fantasy fare, constructed systems that feed into themselves in order to achieve particular goals. All the real questions about the game are "who is" questions. Who is Ansem, who is Xehanort, who is Sora. And each of those is meant in two ways. Who is Sora? As in, what kind of person is he, what is his identity. But also, who is Sora? As in, which of these characters is Sora, or is in part Sora, or is in Sora? The answer to that last one includes Roxas and Ventus at least.

So these games about identity, in the sense of who is the I and also in whom is the I, kind of took over my year. For material reasons, partially; it's a year that I really started working through my own identity in a real way. Having some other folks talk about the particulars of what was happening in this game that mirrored my own experience was helpful. So thanks to those folks. Also play Kingdom Hearts, that shit rules.

#1 Waypoint Radio

Waypoint's podcast game exploded in 2018. The Monday/Friday episodes of Waypoint Radio got formalized - Monday is hosted by Austin Walker and is about games of the moment, Friday by Danielle Riendeau and revolves around a specific topic. They also launched Waypoints, a Thursday podcast hosted by Rob Zacny that takes up media outside of games, and Be Good and Rewatch It, a film and TV podcast hosted by Patrick Klepek. They also continued the occasional Waypoint 101 series, which dives into a specific, slightly older game, and the occasional Article Read series, where one of the staff reads an article they wrote and has a discussion with another staff member afterwards. Waypoint Radio, in other words, became a podcast network in its own right. And every iteration is really solid.

As a games-focused focused podcast, Waypoint Radio has continued to be really astute on questions of labor practices in the games industry and unafraid to discuss issues of representation, exploitation, and politics in general. Plus a lot of football, sometimes. It's different from almost all of the other gaming podcasts I follow - not because none of them tackle either end of the industry, but because of how it synthesizes the smaller podcasts I tend to listen to with the larger ones. It's easy to forget, especially when you listen to as many podcasts as I do and prefer more conversational ones like I do, how much work and talent go into making a conversation interesting for listeners while not disappearing into toothless chatter.

The fact that they make what might be the best possible gaming podcast is then coupled with the fact that the staff shares enough of my taste that I can actually take their recommendations, which is basically unheard of for me. Channel Zero, in particular, would have gone completely under my radar and I would have missed my favorite season of television from 2018 without this show. More than that, though, I might have checked out of games news-style podcasts entirely; the Giant Bombcast and the Beastcast each had rough patches where I considered dropping them out of my rotation entirely (and the Bombcast is the reason I got into podcasts to begin with back around 2013), and those are basically the only other ones I go to (I'm an occasional unsubscriber/resubscriber to Kotaku Splitscreen, which I'm back on since Maddy Myers rejoined). Which probably would've been better for me in a lot of ways, but hey. Waypoint's that good.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Top 10 TV Shows of 2018

The title's a bit of a lie. The rest of these lists are going to be genuine top 10s. This one is a bit fudged. Because, well, I watched ten TV shows this year. And a lot of Pretty Little Liars, but that's not from this year. So this is less a best of and more a year in review for me. That's why, for instance, GLOW made it on here. You'll see what I mean. Anyway, enjoy!

#10 GLOW (s2)

The first season of GLOW had a slow ramp-up and a pretty wonderful ending. By the last two or three episodes, it became a show that seemed to genuinely appreciate professional wrestling not just as a spectacle, but as a storytelling medium. As someone who has been a fan of the actual stuff, it felt like something that was incredibly obvious finally being done for the first time. A scripted show that respects wrestling! That realizes it for the multi-faceted art form it is, despite its many problems! And it's about women! I cheered.

GLOW's second season said: what about fuck all of that. What if we just reduced wrestling to a spectacle again. Take everything out that even hints that it might be telling a story on its own; revert all of that back to the control of the shitty scenes between the blonde lady and the brunette. Except: pull back on that story too, even though it's way less interesting than anything else going on with any of the wrestlers. Why don't we pull back on the whole ladies thing, too.

GLOW's second season is a brutally boring ten hour long attempt to make Marc Maron's shitty dad character relatable. Fuck this show.

#9 The Haunting of Hill House (s1)

Here are two reviews. The first is me having watched through the whole series. The second is me halfway through the series.

First. I'm sorry to all my friends who I love and respect that y'all loved this show. I'm sorry that y'all got tricked into watching a ten hour Wes Anderson movie that has a couple of shitty ghosts in it. And then second:

The Haunting of Hill House has two things.

One of the two is: every flashback is motivated in the most annoying way possible. A clock turns into a watch in the past. A low-angle shot of someone walking in heels transitions into that same person walking down a hallway from the same angle. A ghost turns into a ghost.

The second is: the laziest Freud. Everything that happens to you at seven is entirely who you will become in the future. All the seeds are there, and there's nothing that happens between your preteen years and your late-20s/late-30s that can change that.

On the positive end: despite looking terrible (Netflix is worse than HBO in terms of house style at this point) and being shot in the most condescending way possible, it does sometimes have a genuine rhythm of addiction that works. And it's nice to see parents being genuine with their children.

Here's the secret third review: I adore haunted houses that are actually about the house, because 2008 happened. Houses fucking eat people. This show takes three of the central pieces of fiction in that genre (Jackson's original, the '63 The Haunting and the '99 The Haunting, all of which I adore) and fucks them into a mess about how to properly set up a match cut and how to revolve a camera in a way to strike a set for scares and how to dissolve the systemic issues with houses into a story of a petit-bourgeois family who goes through strife in order to reproduce families. Fucking oh my god fuck this show.

#8 Devilman Crybaby (s1)

I think I can fairly confidently say that Devilman Crybaby is the worst thing Masaaki Yuasa has ever made. Mind Game is one of my favorite films of all time; Lu Over the Wall and The Night is Short, Walk on Girl both made my top ten movies list last year. Tatami Galaxy and Ping Pong are both excellent, and I know I liked Kaiba well enough, despite not remembering many specifics. He's easily one of my favorite working directors. And that's despite having real issues with a lot of his work. Specifically with his main characters, and how they're often one month on the wrong forum away from becoming MRAs. Which is what I expected to continue to have a problem with here, and instead got the opposite.

Devilman Crybaby is Evangelion with a Netflix budget, which means it's Eva without any of the loose ends that make that show so compelling. On top of that, it's Eva with entirely too much credulous use of Christianity. It's even an Eva that trades "I mustn't run away" with "I must run a relay."

The way that it's the most Eva, though, is the way that Eva is the worst; it's a show that has collectivity boiling underneath its surface, and which instead sides with its most individualist impulses. It's so boring. And it doesn't even look that good.

#7 Aggretsuko (s1)

Sanrio - and all purveyors of corporate kawaii - has always been in the business of commodifying minor movements of revolt. Which is why it makes sense that they would team up with Netflix, a company that seems hell bent on doing for television (and, to a lesser extent nowadays, movies) what streaming services like Spotify have done for music: providing a simple, legal alternative to the internet's grey market in such a way as to fuck artists over just as bad, but make huge amounts of money for a major corporation. Our beautiful technological present is reterritorialization, the same way that kawaii aesthetics were born out of the writing of school girls that was done in such a way as to obfuscate messages from their teachers and other administrators. More about kawaii later, however!

Aggretsuko, as a character and a TV show, is basically the distillation of that commodification. Which is why she's great. As a character, she's the feminist invocation to speak out, and the subcultural aesthetics of death metal coupled cleanly with lean-in corporate culture. As a TV show she's feminist Office Space, when at least the elements of care work are still relevant to a generation lost in the gig economy. It's all capital capture all the way down, and that's one of the reasons I like Sanrio so much.

On the other hand, it's a nice show about solidarity between working women - though not to the point of disrupting the flow of capital, of course. It's about where that solidarity breaks down as well, as embodied in the chatty, gossip-spreading co-worker, the fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants friend who promises a job and doesn't deliver, and the surveillance of search history by the boss.

More than anything it's about what kinds of solidarity you'll seek out and be drawn to when doing reproductive labor. Who will help you pick up the pieces after an exhausting day so that you can make it back. And who, like Retsuko's short-lived boyfriend, won't. They get dumped. Work goes on, you pay the man at the karaoke place for a private place to scream, and you get drunk and do it all again. The pig boss keeps being sexist, HR gives him the slightest talking to, and nothing happens, because capital's got to keep flowing.

It's pretty fun, but not super impactful, honestly. The Christmas episode is kinda lame too.

#6 The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (s1)

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is at its best when it's most reminiscent of Xena: Warrior Princess. It doesn't have enough meat in the central cast - or a desire to explore their friendships in serious ways that don't center Sabrina - to live up to the best moments of Riverdale. It's also entirely too Netflix-produced to be fun and willing to abandon itself to its whims to live up to Xena. Which puts it in a bit of a weird spot; some great tossed-off episodes, barely any character development that amounts to anything, and the fact that nearly every character is assigned a motivation that doesn't at all, well, motivate their actions.

Take the demon that takes over the teacher early on in the season, who we learn at the end (spoilers I guess) is Lilith, Adam's first wife and mother of all demons. It's established fairly early on that her entire purpose is to get Sabrina to sign the book of the devil, and that she is doing so on Satan's command. We also establish, through scenes with the Satanist priest, that she wants to do so by "womenly wiles" or whatever. In other words, through social and emotional manipulation rather than force. In secret rather than out in the open. If I liked this show enough to watch it a second time, I'd have straight-up GIFs here, because the vast majority of this stuff is said explicitly. Here's what she does in the show: saves Sabrina and her family from a nightmare demon; maybe show Sabrina's friends visions?; help Sabrina start a feminist reading group; and summon 13 witches to burn down Greendale so that Sabrina is forced to sign the book to stop them.

You might think to yourself: that doesn't seem so much like an escalating plan as it does one thing that works after a bunch of things that clearly wouldn't work. And I might agree with you. Because, like most of the other people in this show, she definitely doesn't do anything according to the motivations that are loudly proclaimed about her throughout the show's run time. This isn't a thing I hate. It's just really weird how consistent it is. Or, more specifically, if there's anything about it I hate it's how long the show spends proclaiming what each character is doing, when it could have been a much tighter thing that plays in a darker, witchier space and worked well because of it.

On the other hand: the show does some really interesting stuff with the Weird Sisters, especially. Ambrose Spellman works surprisingly well. I'm curious enough about Susie and Roz to be a little worried. All of which is to say that despite having bogus ass motivations, the interpersonal character work is fairly strong, and that's mostly what I want from something like this.

#5 Channel Zero: The Dream Door

The second of two seasons of SyFy's creepypasta adaptation show in 2018 is probably better than the other one that was released, but it didn't do quite as much for me. The basic premise: a newly-married couple move into the man's house, only to find a door in the basement where there wasn't one prior. Opened, it leads to another door, behind which is the woman's childhood imaginary friend. The clown-faced contortionist Pretzel Jack is her protector, in a way that can be a little overprotective. A little less than the back half of the six episode season is dedicated to a new neighbor who turns out to have similar powers, and the creepy obsession he develops with her.

I think the discussion on this episode of Waypoints does more justice to the show than I can, so if you want a (mostly non-spoilery, as I recall) explanation, head there. For my part, I think the themes that resonated with Danielle Riendeau hit me in a similar way, but not as hard. It's a mostly smart look at the way trauma, internalized, plays out in relationships. That podcast also makes a good case for the ways in which the racial politics succeed and don't.

One thing that sticks with me is the chemistry between the three leads. They did a pretty great job with the casting, and developing those sparks in weird, uncomfortable ways.

#4 Laid Back Camp

The things that Laid Back Camp do well seem, on their face, to be fairly easy. This 12-episode anime about a group of high school girls who go camping during one winter season has sprezzatura, you might say. One girl loves solo camping, and runs into another who biked a long way to see Mt. Fuji only to fall asleep before she got there. This girl has just moved and entered the same girl as the first, where she finds a couple more girls who have an Outdoor Activities Club. A drunk lady who subs in for a teacher on maternity leave and a friend of the first girl rounds out the main cast, when they all end up going camping on Christmas. How could you fuck that up?

The answer, of course, is: in a million different ways. Kitsch walks a thin line. And a show that runs twelve episodes with just over twenty minutes of content (skipping the opening and closing songs) is still going to run you over four hours, which is longer than most very long movies. It needs to have something compelling to hold that length. Especially when three quarters of the "action" is basically watching characters cook and eat things outdoors. The other quarter keeps that action compelling, though.

Shima Rin is the girl who likes solo camping in winter, and Nadeshiko Kagamihara is the girl who wants to see Mt. Fuji. Their friendship is incredibly sweet, based on respecting each other's boundaries but also pushing each other to try new things. It gives Shima an arc that's pretty comfortable; she goes from being someone who only wants to camp alone, to being someone who loves camping alone but is okay with camping with her friends sometimes too. She doesn't have to obliterate herself for the social, but she doesn't have to alienate herself from it either. It's just nice.

#3 Riverdale (s2)

I burned through the first two seasons of Riverdale in less than a week, and that was pretty early on in the year, so my memory of precisely what took place is a bit rough. I definitely wrote about two thousand words on it, but as far as I can tell those are lost forever. Back your shit up in a place you can find it, friends. I also haven't seen any of season three yet.

My main memory of my initial impressions, at this far of a remove, are basically that the first season of the show did an incredible job of threading the main characters' relationships together. It knew when to pull out of Archie's storyline and weave in Veronica's, or Betty, or Jughead's. And it did so in a way that lead to genuinely great interactions between women; Veronica and Betty specifically, but secondary characters as well. The second season - the one under consideration here, I guess - did a much worse job at this. It blew the scope way up, and in doing so lost some of that ability to characterize and develop interpersonal relationships. On the other hand, it did give us the brilliant version of Cheryl Blossom that now exists, so it wasn't all a loss on that front.

To quickly go over that difference in scale: Season one of Riverdale was more or less the first season of Twin Peaks, with a little less mysticism and empathy. A small town suffers a death, and the season revolves around resolving the who and the why. Along the way some people hook up or break up, some come and go, and mostly we're interested in the texture of the town. Season 2 is what the second season of Twin Peaks was probably trying to do; with the central mystery resolved, it's all about how that central trauma warps that kind of small town. Instead of pageants and camping trips, though, it's all histories of genocide and betrayal and present-day local governmental manipulations and riots.

The stuff of season two is, frankly, way better than the first season. People aren't just individuals, they're players in a social space, fighting collectively for what they want and need. Tensions among groups bubble and explode and are manipulated in particular directions by the rich to meet their own ends. Shameful secrets produce generational consequences. It's a show with one eye staring hard at how real life works. The individual components, and the interpersonal relationships that worked so well in the first season, are backdropped for the best possible reason. It's still kind of a bummer, though.

Especially because when it does get personal again, as with the reveal of the Black Hood stuff that plagues the first half of the season, it's simply not as good. Season one is so incredibly adept at not just pacing the character growth, but literally cutting between it. The relatively few episodes are cut together so well that I almost never felt like I was getting too much of any one plot line or character. Everyone felt represented, not because the show needed them to be, but because it was worked best at every moment. The second season feels way more uneven; Archie's little fascist neighborhood watch is overwhelming one moment and forgotten the next. Jughead's investigative journalism then itself becomes overwhelming. The worst thing, though, is how little time Betty and Veronica are given together. They have incredible chemistry in the first season, and how they get along drives so much interest. Second go around, they're basically strangers to each other. It's a goddamn shame.

But then, even with that issue. And for a show whose racial politics are pretty busted. And all the other bits and pieces. It's a show that ends in a beautiful, comprehensive riot and that gave us Cheryl Blossom, and that's pretty sweet.

#2 Sanrio Boys

Like most things Sanrio, Sanrio Boys is a stilted, awkward attempt to suss out the nicest story of consumptive production, specifically in regards to gender. This time around, we follow a boy who has a deep love of Pompompurin, based around its association with his grandmother, which is buried under the dual traumas of his being bullied over that love as a kid and his grandmother passing away soon after, which didn't allow him to grow past his transference (in the psychoanalytic sense) of that bullying into anger at her. The show itself follows his induction into a group of self-described Sanrio Boys, and the trials and tribulations that result.

The very basic breakdown: Sanrio Boys is basically two six-episode seasons of television mashed into one. The first introduces Kouta as the protagonist, and revolves around the assembly of the five boys. A soccer player, a flirt, a class president, and a young English boy who is often mistaken for a girl are the friends. The second half of the season sees them assembled and walks through the creation of a theatrical play they put together, which also serves as a framing device for the show. Which is weird in a way I'll get into in a moment.

The first half of the season works surprisingly well. The boys have fairly reasonable conflicts and resolutions, and it moves along. What it's doing, more or less, is positing the possibility of homosocial reproduction through kawaii aesthetics. Boys can be produced through their gendered consumption of Sanrio characters, albeit in ways distinct from how girls are. They have to overcome stereotypes of perversity, instrumentalized femininity, and arrested development, for instance. None of these things are dealt with in any robust way, though, because the goal is to show that overcoming these obstacles is a way to cement the homosocial even more firmly.

This isn't going to be an essay by the way. It's basically bullet points in paragraph form. Call it 7 theses on Sanrio Boys.

The two-seasons-in-one structure is most pronounced, and kind of at its worst, in the character arc of Kouta. In the first half he's a troubled kid, incredibly fixated on that Freudian moment of losing his toy and his grandma, but he's fundamentally about being the glue. The boys assemblage is possible because he is able to see past their various masculine performances, assess what's actually eating at them, and say the things that will help them move past it. His traumatic moment grounds him and makes him good with people. The second half unmoors this character. Kouta no longer has to make impromptu speeches about trusting others. So the second half of the show basically devolves into his psyche, and not in a "final two episodes of Evangelion" kind of way. He simply shifts from someone who gets other people to someone who is in his own head about why he's the only one who doesn't "sparkle." It's boring.

Ryo, the underclassman, is basically a genderswapped version of Mana Fujisaki from Onegai My Melody (which is a much better show than either of the Sanrio anime from this year). More importantly, he's the season's focal point as far as gendered production is concerned. His character goes from a mysterious hanger-on who ogles the class president (Seiichiro) at archery practice to a boy-who-is-mistaken-as-a-girl and who hates being pampered with cute things to a, well, basically the same but a little more accepting of himself, by the end. Ryo's more "unstable" gender is allowed to persist more or less unchanged throughout, which on its face is a fairly good thing. This show being what it is, though, it's a little more complicated than that. Because this show is about friendship.

Sanrio's marketing materials have always heavily implicated the idea that their primary function is to facilitate friendship. Small gift, big smile has been their tagline for ages; for further information, check their corporate about page. Their success as a company is almost entirely reliant on their ability to insert themselves into social situations that require exchanging low-price items. They brand them in order to produce that "big smile;" from recognition or from appreciating cuteness. The more friendship exists, in other words, the bigger the market for Sanrio goods (as long as there exists in those friendships the need to exchange gifts. Which there always is). That means Ryo's not being forced into one or another gendered position has less to do, at the base level, with him learning to accept himself, and more to do with the production of the market of the goods being sold. It's about the consumptive production of gender, in other words.

There's not a lot to say about the play, really, but I did want to return to it. Because it's just such a weird framing device, in that the play is basically a recap of the show (but mostly the first half) that runs over the first episode's opening credits and the last episode's closing credits. Or, it's a three-act version of the three-act structure of the show. It's an artifice that doesn't so much expose the artifice of what preceded as it does smile blankly back at it. I kinda loved it.

#1 Channel Zero: Butcher's Block

It's been long enough since I watched Butcher's Block, the third season of Channel Zero (discussed earlier) and the first that came out in 2018, that I don't know that I can do justice to this weird neat thing. Or rather, the way I want to do it justice is to say: maaaan. Maaaaaan. This fucking thing. This Fucking Thing. And repeat variations on that until people who like the weird, particular shit that I like watch it. I don't know those people though.

Butcher's Block is based on a series of (quite good) creepypasta about forest services individuals, most of which are unified by a few threads of strangeness that they encounter. Most famously, there are the stairs leading up out of the woods, and ending in a door. This season takes that image - one among a handful in the original stories - and runs with it. The protagonists aren't rangers, but two young women who move to a new town to start a new life. They find out what's at the top of those staircases. They are tempted by what's up their to fix their brain chemistry - specifically their genetic predisposition to schizophrenia - at a terrible cost.

It's full of big open shots of fields with a plantation in the background, of painfully literalized psychoses, of angry old gods. It's a season about eating; people eating people, gods eating people, people eating things, society eating people. It's all so on the nose and such a joy. I feel like I should go rewatch it? I'm probably not going to. But I kind of want to.

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