Summer TV Catch-Up: #iZombie, #MrRobot, #Sense8, #Transparent

Anyone who tries to tell you that this isn’t the Golden Age of Television needs to go back and watch all of those classic TV shows from the ’50s and ’60s with an objective eye. Not to say that there aren’t some gems—of course there are. But in an age where everything is an homage to something else, if not a soulless digital double, it’s easy to mistake nostalgia for quality. Which is not to say that today’s shows are any different—they can still be subdivided into the good, the bad, and the ugly—but with cable and streaming services constantly upping their game, the result is some spectacularly good TV.

Possibly too much. I’m a regular TV watcher—unrepentantly so, given the slim pickings at the multiplex these days—and even I can’t keep up with all the good stuff. And there is *so much* good stuff on TV these days: ambitious dramas, cutthroat fantasy, inspiring superheroes, auteurism at its best. If you would rather go see Furious 7 or Jurassic World than watch a season of [insert popular and critically acclaimed show here], then… you should probably go read some other blog. 😉

This quality TV glut is one of the many reasons I love the summer. Even though some channels have smartened up and started featuring original content in the summertime, mostly the powers that be might as well have a great big “Gone Fishin'” title card playing 24/7.

So once I had my fill of baking in the sun, I had time to catch up on four shows that I personally think are worthy of a few of your precious viewing hours. While they are far from perfect, each is fun, provocative, and egregiously entertaining, at least in my humble opinion.

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iZombie

I resisted this one for a while, even though it comes from the creator of Veronica Mars, Rob Thomas. Mostly because I am zombied out. I also don’t like gross body horror stuff. But I should have known better since a) this is on network TV, so the brains and intestines are kept to a minimum, and b) Veronica Mars is one of my favorite shows of all time. The plot is about Liv, a promising med student with a hunky fiance and a great family life who goes to a party one night where there is a zombie attack. She gets infected and has to give up everything in her life to work at the morgue so she has a steady supply of brains, brains, brains. The brain she’s eating also gives her the personality of the deceased, which she uses to help solve their murder.

The procedural element is the weakest part of the show, since it’s the same case of the week structure that endless cop shows use, and it’s impossible at this point to bring anything new to that. But the serial aspects of the show won me over very quickly, mainly the stellar supporting cast. Also, the show never cuts corners in the suffering department. In the first season alone, each character is put through the ringer emotionally, and the writers always choose the most painful development for them. And all this with a ton of witty banter and just plain fun interactions. Liv taking on the personalities of the people she eats results in some side-splitting and heartbreaking interactions. Thomas, like with Veronica Mars, is committed to strong multicultural casting, and the best part of the show is her fellow mortician Ravi, who needs to be my boyfriend, like, now. Also great are David Anders as the big bad zombie Blaine and Robert Buckley as her ex-fiance Major Lilywhite (best name ever). The only character who didn’t quite hit for me is her detective partner Clive, partly because he isn’t aware that zombies exist, and therefore is kept out of a lot of the serialized aspects of the plot.

If you’re looking for a fun, fresh take on the zombie genre, or even just some witty banter, check out iZombie.

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Mr. Robot

And the award for the worst title of a new television show goes to…

A lot of factors kept me away from this one when it first started airing, but, wow, was I wrong. This is easily one of the best first seasons of a show I’ve seen in a long time, a cinematic pressure-cooker that had me holding my breath when not theorizing about what exactly is going on. In the tradition of ’70s paranoid cinema but with an up-to-the-minute take on technology and societal woes, this show evokes Kubrick, Fincher, and those nightmares you can’t wake up from.

Our unreliable narrator is Elliot, a mega-introvert who works at a tech security firm but who moonlights as a hacker Robin Hood, righting the wrongs in his environment through cyber blackmail. He nemesis is Evil Corps, an Apple/Google-esque company that controls, well, everything. He and his best friend Angela both lost their parents to cancer caused by Evil Corps’ negligence, so it’s no surprise Elliot gets in bed with fSociety, a group of hackers set on eliminating everyone’s debt by destroying the corporate infrastructure. The enigmatic Mr. Robot is their fearless leader… or is he? Elliot is the Alice in this tale, and as he steps through the looking glass, he discovers a whole other world, and parts of himself that he never expected. ‘Unreliable’ is the watchword here.

By the end of ten riveting episodes, every one of your expectations will be met while subverting all character tropes. Angela, Elliot’s friend, is a tigress in disguise. Sweet Shayla at first seems one-note, then turns into an aria. Menacing businessman Tyrell Wellick and his snobby wife at first seem like stereotypes of the up-and-coming business class, but prove far shiftier, and more human, than first expected. Then there’s Darlene, who just plain rocks. I can’t say more for fear of ruining the many, many surprises to come, but trust me, this is one roller-coaster you want to ride.

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Transparent

Despite the overwhelmingly positive critical reception, I had resisted watching this show because of the conflicting opinions within the transgendered community about whether the way it represents that community is a good thing or not. To read more about their criticisms and concerns, click here. (Like any community, there are a variety of opinions, but from what I could tell, the common consensus leaned towards the negative.) I personally cannot speak to whether the show accurately or positively depicts the experience of transitioning, so I’m going to focus on the show as a show.

It’s an exceptional show. These are flawed human characters—some might say they are characters defined by their flaws—that you will recognize and cringe over. You will panic and think, “Is that me? Please don’t let that be me.” Nominally, it’s a show about a 67-year-old father of three’s transition, but it’s actually a show about a family, the Pfeffermans. There’s Maura, trying to navigate this major change in her life with dignity and grace (her family does not make it easy). There’s lackadaisical Sarah, the oldest, who reconnects with her long-lost girlfriend, leaves her husband pretty much on a whim, and spends the rest of the series white-knuckling it through that decision. There’s petty Josh, the commitment-phobic middle brother who has an ongoing affair with his former babysitter. There’s self-centered Ali, still on the gravy train, who will try anything once and can’t seem to make any solid decisions for herself. And there’s Shelly, the distant mother more worried about trivialities than whether her current husband is missing.

Watching them battle through their respective life challenges could seem like torture, except that creator Jill Soloway and her team of writers imbue the show with whimsy, emotionality, and an honesty that is beyond affecting. There’s definitely an Office UK version of this show to be played for squirm-inducing laughs, but they go the more fulfilling route. It’s also nice to see a show that depicts a religion other than Christianity (they are Jewish), and isn’t afraid to engage with it on a critical level. That said, the writers’ interests quite obviously evolved away from Maura and towards the children, with her barely appearing in the last episode. Irritating Ali, who I believe is the character that stands in for Soloway herself (the show is semi-autobiographical), is given showcase after showcase, as if the narrative is somehow as narcissistic as she is. But that is a small criticism in what is really a beautiful and heart-rending depiction of family life.

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Sense8

Before I get into the nitty-gritty, I want to say I loved this show to bits and pieces. It is daring, it is passionate, it is avant garde, it is maddening in all the best ways. It’s about a cluster of eight people who can feel and communicate with each other even though they are spread across the globe, but this sci-fi premise plays a backdrop (a deep backdrop) to an exploration of other cultures and life experiences. The creators tip their thematic hand pretty early with the idea of the universality of human experience, but you never really mind because the message is a strong and resonant one.

Structurally, there are some very slow and navel-gazing parts, but you forgive these because the phenomenal cast gives it their all and then some. My personal favorites were Sun, the badass corporate dragonslayer; Lito, the melisma-loving Mexican soap actor; and Nomi, the former hacker and current LGBTQ blogger. And so many others. The show was shot in the eight different countries the lead actors represent, and it works if you turn the sound off and just gape at the beauty of each place.

Still, I would be remiss in not mentioning that I had some serious issues with the representation of all these diverse cultures. Specifically, the inability of the creators to escape privileging the white characters. Though Sun does get a few good fight sequences, overwhelmingly it is the white male cis-gendered American who jumps in to save the day for the male, female, and trans characters. He’s also the one who has all the agency in terms of learning about them being sensates and the hazards of that new world. Not to mention that the narrative for every character of color is resolved in the penultimate episode, so that the last episode can concentrate on the romance between the two white straight characters, and how the white American dude rushes to save his love interest. To top it all off, the series ends in a Pieta-style tableau of the characters around the white male savior.

Whether consciously or not, the creators really struggled to subvert these common narrative tropes and get away from archetypes. I also think they should re-evaluate the need for gratuitous action and violence in a show that purports to be about authentic human experience and multiculturalism. I’m not saying they should turn it into some kind of We Are The World sing-along, but several of the characters drop a lot of bodies with little to no consequences. That Wachowski-style, “Guns, lots of guns,” approach to the action doesn’t quite mesh with the show’s themes. For the second season, I hope they work harder on the plot structure, so that every act, violent or no, is character-motivated and realistic. But is it worth your time? Hell yes.

Have you watched any of these shows? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Selina

Review: U2 Innocence + Experience Tour

I went to the Garden of Love,

And saw what I never had seen:

A Chapel was built in the midst,

Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,

And ‘Thou shalt not’ writ over the door;

So I turn’d to the Garden of Love,

That so many sweet flowers bore.

And I saw it was filled with graves,

And tomb-stones where flowers should be:

And Priests in black gowns,

were walking their rounds,

And binding with briars, my joys & desires.

William Blake, Songs of Innocence and of Experience

 

I took the money

I spiked your drink

You miss too much these days if you stop to think

You lead me on with those innocent eyes

You know I love the element of surprise

In the garden I was playing the tart

I kissed your lips and broke your heart

You… You were acting like it was

The end of the world

In my dream I was drowning my sorrows

But my sorrows, they learned to swim

Surrounding me, going down on me

Spilling over the brim

Waves of regret and waves of joy

I reached out for the one I tried to destroy

You… You said you’d wait

Until the end of the world

— U2, Until the End of the World

 

Last Friday and Saturday night, the city of Montreal was rocked by some of its favorite adopted sons, the magnificent U2. As a diehard fan, this weekend was the equivalent of a Christmas that only comes around every four or five years—a leap Christmas, if you will—so I thought I would share with you some of my thoughts and feelings about the shows (beyond, you know, WHHHHHOOOOO!!!!).

A bit of history first: I saw my first U2 show over 20 years ago, on the first leg of their iconic Zoo TV tour, and have seen the band every time they’ve played here since. That’s around 12-13 times by now, and if I had my druthers it would be ten times that. The closest I’ve ever felt to a religious experience was seeing them a month after September 11th, 2001, the crowd like an open wound and their music the only balm that could soothe us. Though I do love the elegiac side of them, pump-your-fist anthems and ear-worm sing-alongs, what first drew me was the post-Bowie swagger and theatricality of Achtung Baby, an album born and raised in one of my favorite cities in the world, Berlin. For a communication studies student, the multi-media malaise and pop-as-cultural-revolution aesthetic of Zoo TV spoke to every philosophy I was struggling to form, every artistic ideal I was honing at school. I’ve always loved U2 most at their darkest: doubting, critiquing, mourning. They’ve always understood that it’s only after hitting the bottom that you can truly soar.

I’m the first to admit that the output of 21st century U2 has challenged some of us who love them for their blue period, but their newer albums have always had just enough to hook me in, and certainly their live shows make up for any deep-track mediocrity. Some heady rock ‘n’ roll voodoo happens whenever they take the stage, Bono’s earnestness and bombast, powered by one of the tightest units this side of the Navy SEALs, transcending the bounds of time and space. At their best shows, like the one last Saturday night, the crowd’s thundering applause, ecstatic yawps, and wilding cries swirl into a hurricane of euphoria. At its epicenter is, of course, the band, a zenith of cool amidst the narrowing gyre.

Prior to this weekend, this particular album-tour-hiatus, rinse-repeat cycle had left me a bit embittered. After the high of their last album, No Line on the Horizon, my favorite since Zooropa, their latest, Songs of Innocence, left me cold. After the first two listens, I put it aside for almost a month, not impressed. I eventually went back for another listen, and like a good deal of the second half of the album—The Troubles and Sleep Like A Baby Tonight are favorites—but I feel the first half is some of their weakest material ever. Every Breaking Wave only worked for me once I heard the acoustic version. Still, I anxiously awaited a tour announcement. A few lesser songs would not ruin their live show.

When the announcement finally came, I was pumped. Two shows in a much smaller venue! The promise of an entirely acoustic performance the first night, then an electric one the second! But buying the tickets proved to be aggravating to the extreme. Loyal fans like me, fans who pay their fan club dues every year for the privilege of getting tickets first and fast, were only permitted to purchase two seats *for the entire tour*. This didn’t just stop them from seeing multiple shows—pretty much forcing them to buy scalped tickets—but groups of friends couldn’t go together. My two closest friends and I have been seeing the band together for years, and this time we weren’t able to. I also know of families who couldn’t sit together or even be guaranteed to go to the same night. This showed a rare disrespect from the band to their most loyal followers, and left a seriously bad taste in my mouth. Not to mention that actually buying the tickets reminded me more of Dante’s circles of hell than Blake’s flawed utopia.

Still, six months later and looking forward to a long weekend of U2 bliss, almost all was forgiven. Sure, it was annoying that the band asked us to be there for 7:30, and then made us wait for an hour. I was also a bit ticked that those two different shows were Frankensteined into one grand spectacle—I have longed for an acoustic set from them for years—but, when the lights went down and the crowd leapt to their feet on Friday night, I was ready to rock and roll.

While it didn’t reach the dystopian heights of the Zoo TV tour or the emotional resonance of the All You Can Leave Behind tour, the Innocence and Experience tour (I refuse to use the stupid official capitalization) finds the band in a curious, playful, if introspective mood. They are still U2, one of the best live bands in the world, and every concert of theirs is worth far more than the price of admission. Musically they are a powerhouse, and Bono’s voice has never sounded better. No other band can mix slithery rock with soul-rending ballads, punky cynicism with messages of social justice. I know I’m in the minority, but I love how Bono combines overt theatricality with honest pleas for goodwill and compassion, musings on the nature of art with “oh, oh, oh, oh” call and response, aka “the most beautiful sound in the world.”

The first section of the show, Innocence, began with a one-two-three punch of rockers, expertly revving the crowd up. Then came a series of songs that traced the journey of the band from their origins on the north side of Dublin (I Will Follow and Cedarwood Road, one of the better songs on the new album) to their beginnings as a band. There was the requisite tribute to Bono’s mother, and to his wife, Ali, who he is still trying to write the perfect song for. Sunday Bloody Sunday was gut-punch spare, with a firebrand Larry Mullins Jr. on the snare drum. Raised by Wolves, another new track that I’m not terribly fond of, didn’t quite come to life live either, but it provided a twisted transition into one of my favorite songs of all time, Until the End of the World, U2’s very own Blakian briar.

Ever the innovators, U2’s two attempts at integrating the latest technology into their live show had widely disparate results. The giant screen that dominated the middle of the auditorium, with an inner catwalk that integrated the band members with its projections, was only visible to 50% of the audience and muted the impact of several songs, most notably Invisible, where it pretty much swallowed them whole. When they started to play it, all four members hidden in the screen, I thought it was a recording. There’s such a thing as interpreting a song’s theme a bit too literally.

The second gambit, inviting an audience member to dance onstage during Mysterious Ways, and then film the band for the song after, simultaneously broadcast on Meerkat, was brilliant. Everyone in the audience, perhaps trying to mask their collective envy of their lucky peers, was raving by the end of this segment. It worked especially well on Saturday, when another audience member was invited to play Edge’s guitar for him during Angel of Harlem. The dude had chops, and the moment was pure magic.

The Experience part of the show was classic U2, playing propulsive hits from different eras, like Pride, When the Street Have No Name, and City of Blinding Lights, and breaking your heart, with the aforementioned Every Breaking Wave and of course With or Without You. The band was smart enough to switch up a few songs on their set list on each night, yielding treasures like Bad, Ordinary Love, and Out of Control. Which perfectly described the crowd by the end of the Saturday show, chanting fervently for a second encore, singing One… as one.

There may have been a few bumps in the road this time, but there is still nothing like the passion and the power of the best band in the world, U2. Rock on, lads.

I’ll leave you with a video of the acoustic performance of Every Breaking Wave on Saturday night. Bono’s voice is exquisite.

Selina

Review: Coriolanus

Theatre is in my blood. I love reading it, writing it, performing it, directing it. Whenever someone would ask me, “How would you like to die?” my answer was always, “Performing on stage in some septuagenarian production of an Agatha Christie play.” I used to live in London, England, and would haunt the West End every weekend, squeezing my behind into as many of their tiny, tiny seats as I could afford to during my time there. I don’t think it’s an understatement to say I saw over 100 plays, from dramas to musicals, Shakespeare to the modern masters, hole-in-the-wall productions to main events on Shaftsbury Avenue. Being so close to such culture is the one thing I miss the most (not to say that Montreal doesn’t have its share of culture).

When the National Theatre began to broadcast some of its plays in cinemas around the world, I discovered a new temple at which to worship. Theater should, after all, be for the people, and the fact that so many can now see the best actors, directors, writers, and stagecraft wizards of all time by taking the bus to their local and shilling a mere $20, well… Just another boon of the digital age. So far, I have seen both versions of the Danny Boyle production of Frankenstein starring our two contemporary TV Sherlock Holmeses (they alternated parts – the best was JLM as the monster and Benedict as Victor Frankenstein), Helen Mirren reprise the Queen in The Audience, Kenneth Branagh play Macbeth, the 50th Anniversary of the National Theatre celebration special, and, last night, Coriolanus starring Tom Hiddleston.

Tom Hiddleston, foreground, as Coriolanus, at the Donmar, London, December 2013.

A Donmar Warehouse production directed by Josie Rourke, Coriolanus is the story of an early Roman general who excels at being a war hero, but who self-destructs when his ambitions, arrogance, and snobbery lead him into politics. Raised by a domineering mother to be the ultimate one-percenter, he is a brave and loyal man with good intentions who can’t see past his own prejudices at a time when Rome isn’t the epicenter of the ancient world, but a county full of warring tribes.

This staging has allegedly done away with a lot of the pomp and circumstance of past productions, paring both the set and the text down to their bare essentials. This is the kind of minimalist theater that entrenches itself deep in the heart, rich with symbolism, centering on performance, leaving space for the audience’s imagination. With a bunch of black chairs, a few ladders, some paint, some graffiti, and a bucketful of fake blood, Ms. Rourke, her crew, and her actors conjure up a tragedy as if by Satanic ritual. As someone who had never seen the play before, I had no trouble at all understanding what was going on; this is what I love about modern British theatre. The actor’s speeches were lucid, not flowery, imbuing the poetic lines with meaning and power.

As Coriolanus, Tom Hiddleston owned the stage. He is young to play the role – it’s usually reserved for someone middle aged – but he’s so good that you can’t help but think that this is what Shakespeare must have meant the character to be all along. He gives the character so many shades – earnestness even in his naivety, principled-ness even at his most arrogant, paternal love even as takes a hard stance against his family – that the reasons he succumbs to his tragic flaw are, while inevitable, totally understandable. He handles the nuances of Shakespearean language as if it was his mother tongue, and gives his body entirely to the production: the fight scenes, the close-ups, the camaraderie, everything. Everyone else in the cast, right down to the ensemble players, is brilliant: Deborah Findlay as Volumnia, Hadley Fraser as Aufidius, Birgitte Hjort Sorensen as Virgilia. Triple-threat Sherlock producer and Whovian Mark Gatiss is especially suave and heartbreaking as Menenius, the perfect conniver until the tables are turned on him. The only sour note in the cast was struck by two actors who played Brutus and Sicinius, who were serviceable but who never really gelled as a pair (especially since they were supposed to be lover-schemers) or as a credible threat to Coriolanus.

There’s even a little homoerotic subtext made text for your viewing pleasure!

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Overall, a riveting production. There is an encore screening later in the month of February, and if you are lucky enough to live close to a cinema playing it, I wouldn’t miss it! All sorts of info about this and upcoming screenings can be found here: http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/ I would particularly recommend the encore presentation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, since I saw that live in London last spring and it is easily one of the best plays I’ve ever seen. Whatever they are doing at the National Theatre, they are definitely doing it right!

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