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.

Blog Archive