Answers, Authenticity, Lost and Lana Del Rey

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By Jake Pitre

Our culture has a problem with answers. Or rather, with its incessant need for them. We need our stories wrapped up as succinctly and cleanly as possible (Breaking Bad, Fargo), and we need to know What It All Means. I don’t know if I could possibly pinpoint when this cultural demand started, but the ending of Lost could only have deeply intensified it. The outrage following that show’s finale was quick, vibrant and pure. “That’s it?”, many collectively wondered. Where’s my answers? What did it all mean? What did I just spend six years of my life on? I’m owed answers!

It’s this entitlement that irks me the most. One doesn’t have to agree with me about Lost or its (widely misunderstood imo) finale, but to dislike the show because you felt like it owed you answers to all your questions is truly misguided and obnoxious. Entitlement in general is perhaps the most unattractive trait one can have, and to apply it to a piece of art is childish. Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof did not owe you anything in terms of telling that story.

Beyond that, why do we feel the need for all the answers in the first place? My assumption has always been that it is some psychological requirement of complete closure, so that a door can be closed and life can comfortably go on. Ambiguity is scary because we have to decide what kind of person we want to be by confronting how we fill in the remaining gaps – did Tony Soprano get away or go down? Will Dale Cooper ever get out of the Black Lodge, or will he rot in there eternally? When a story doesn’t really end when it ends, the gaps left in its wake are nagging black holes that drive us wild.

Relatedly, there are those that criticize Lana Del Rey because she is inauthentic, whether in terms of plastic surgery, parental career assistance or lifestyle. True to her initial status as an Internet-borne star, her past was scoured by people online. It quickly emerged that her real name was Elizabeth Grant, that she was sent to boarding school when she was 15 due to her alcoholism, that she was in a cult for a short amount of time, that she had been in a seven-year relationship with the head of a record label, that her actual debut album was uploaded to iTunes for a brief time before being taken down, and on and on. Each new piece of information uncovered a new piece of the supposed “puzzle”.

To be fair, Del Rey’s mysteriousness and unknown quality practically begged the Internet to go looking for the truth, though that mysteriousness seems integral to her image and persona. Even today, after all of these “revelations”, she is an unknowable entity, occasionally giving us eccentric tidbits like rejecting feminism or her interest in SpaceX. This specific cultivation of a pop persona is completely unique in 2014, and no rumour about fake lips will ultimately detract from what she’s doing.

This foregrounds the uneasy relationship between Del Rey and our culture. When a pop star withholds personal information and perhaps obsessively calculates how to present themselves, it makes us suspicious, but that is only part of the Lana Del Rey phenomenon. What exists with her more than with any other contemporary artist is the mass frustration over how much of this persona she revels in is real and how much is theatre. With pop artists like Katy Perry and even Lady Gaga, it is far easier to tell what is artificial. With Del Rey, it’s more difficult to determine. She talks of her lyrics being autobiographical, but sometimes the tone is so tongue-in-cheek (“Brooklyn Baby”) that one believes she must be making fun of this lifestyle she presents, at least a little bit.

When she tells an interviewer that she wishes she was dead (which should not have come as a surprise to people if they’d listened to any of her lyrics, wherein she frequently says as much), the Internet doesn’t know if it should take it seriously. The thinkpiece writers come out in droves (*waves*). Does she really want to die? Is she just trying to further position herself within the sad girl aesthetic that she so often glamourizes? Or is she doing that and simultaneously making fun of it? If so, is it okay to make light of and lie about depression, especially as a public figure?

To be honest, I don’t care, and I don’t think anyone else should, either. There are those that love Lana Del Rey because they identify with her sad girl aesthetic, there are those that like her ironically for the same or similar reasons, and there are those that fall somewhere in the middle (*waves again*). The beauty of Lana Del Rey is this: we have no idea how disingenuous this all is, if at all. And it doesn’t matter, which she clearly understands fundamentally. To dismiss or dislike an artist because you believe they are faking it to some degree is puzzling to me. This is why I brought up Lost at the start – where does this cultural emphasis on (satisfying and complete) answers come from? Why is it understood to some that unless one knows how real their art is, or have all the answers, it must be revolted against?

This brings up the parallel issue of poptimism versus rockism, which I will not drag myself into, but it partly boils down to the idea that some music is more artificial than other music. The truth is, in music and across all mediums, artists are always posturing and are intrinsically “putting on a show”. I won’t necessarily come at it from a gendered perspective because Lana would disapprove, but does anyone criticize Bob Dylan or David Bowie for being disingenuous in their art and in their images? Is there a demand to know how much of it is real, and how much is performance? When one puts this emphasis on how real our artists are and how authentic their art is, it is disrespectful to the craft of creating art and emblematic of a deep misunderstanding of where art’s value comes from.

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How The Sopranos should have served as a model for Rape of Thrones

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By Duncan Chalmers

(Spoilers for both Game of Thrones and The Sopranos present)

Despite a number of characters being killed off, with one occurrence seemingly celebrated by almost every viewer, none of the deaths so far in this season of Game of Thrones have been able to achieve the same level of reaction as last year’s “Red Wedding.” Although it certainly was not intentional, there has been one scene that sent the internet into a comparable frenzy a number of Sundays ago. The episode it appeared in, “Breaker of Chains,” did little in terms of narrative progression, but the media has reacted intensely to a fairly short sequence in which Jaime Lannister rapes his sister, Cersei.

Despite comments from the director that suggest otherwise, rape is unquestionably what we witnessed in that sequence. The majority of the outcry seemed not to be focused at what actually occurred on screen, rather the scene’s inconsistencies with the novel, and the implications brought forth with those changes. I respect people’s desire for faithfulness to the source material, but any problems with that scene are not related to the adaptation process.

I am comfortable with David Benioff and W.B. Weiss making any changes that make the series work better on television. Therefore I want to consider this event on the basis of a narrative decision. If handled in the right way, art should be able to represent almost everything that occurs in reality, including sexual assault. As a form of social discourse it can allow us to consider and contemplate the most difficult elements of society. At its best, art can present powerful messages about subjects we are normally uncomfortable dwelling on.

Although the scene was handled so crudely, with a clear division of villain and victim, I do not think it’s fair to say that the series was problematic from that episode alone. Isolated from the comments of the people involved, the scene didn’t present the actions in anything but a demonizing tone. I believe that the context of such a scene is far more important than the content itself.

As much as I was frustrated with the decision when discussing the scene in the days following, I begrudgingly agreed that I would wait to see what the fallout would be as the season continued. To justify such a bold narrative choice, I thought the writers clearly intended to redirect the course of the series for these characters. But in the four episodes following, there has been little evidence of any impact.

I remember a while ago, when I was working my way through The Sopranos, having a debate with my father about a particular plot point from that series. After listening to me rave about the third season (which I personally consider one of the greatest ever,) he expressed his discontent with a scene from the episode “University.” In it Ralph Cifaretto violently beats a stripper named Tracee, who is pregnant with his unborn child, ultimately resulting in her death.

The scene is incredibly gruesome and intense; I remember nearly crying at its brutality. My father thought that the writers had crossed the line by displaying such violence, particularly against a woman. And he wasn’t alone, when the episode was released it received similar criticism to what Game of Thrones is experiencing now.

At the time, I passionately defended David Chase’s decision to include this scene, and I feel the same now. As awful and painful as it is, the sequence has a great significance to the entirety of the series. Not really in terms of plot, but more of the general tone of the show.

One of the things The Sopranos had to contend with is the moral representation of its characters. When creating an anti-hero driven story you have to establish a balance between keeping the characters engaging without absolving them of their sins. There is no denying that the mobsters represented in the series are likeable; they are funny, at times sympathetic, and truly fascinating. Captivating characters are important for maintaining an entertaining show, but the fear is that the writers will justify their actions in the pursuit of making them interesting.

With Tracee’s death, The Sopranos made a clear statement about the world it was portraying. These men, despite their charm and humour, are immoral people. That’s not to say there is no ambiguity or conflict to the morality the show represents; that was always something that it flourished in. But from that point forward it was impossible to ignore the true nature of the characters. Much of the criticism was directed at the detail of the violence. It is no doubt disturbing, but that’s what makes it so powerful. Sanitizing the event would only act as a disservice to the reality being portrayed.

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That’s why I didn’t really have an issue with the rape scene itself. If the writers want to make a statement about sexual assault that will have a significant impact on the characters and themes of the series, then all the power to them. But as the season continues, that is slowly being revealed to not be the case. Neither of the characters involved show any sign impact from what occurred, and the way the show deals with them seems to ignore it altogether.

As Tyrion’s trial is playing out, Cersei has been forced back into a villainous role, and Jaime is still well on track with his redemption arc from last season. I’m not saying that this plot point has to entirely alter the representation of them, but its strikingly false to simply ignore it. If we were expected to pretend as if it didn’t happen, then why even do it at all, especially since it was not even in the book. Anytime Jaime is on screen now, I feel alienated and uncomfortable.

There is still a possibility that the series could do something to salvage what has occurred. In The Sopranos the event altered Tony and Ralph’s relationship in a way that would not fully culminate until well into the fourth season. The fallout that occurred was not entirely explicit, but that subtleness proved to be both genuine and intensely poignant.

I’ve had a number of conversations with people about this scene, and the reason behind its inclusion. You can read in whatever sort of meaning you like, but I have not found any to be very convincing. And to me that’s a problem. Not simply as a disappointing flaw in the plot, but because when an artist uses something so impactful as sexual assault in their work, they better do so with proper intent.

As a viewer, I expect creators to say something important when they take such a bold risk. When Game of Thrones had one of its characters rape their own grieving sister, they didn’t say anything at all. And that silence speaks volumes.

 

‘I want to control my fate’: The Good Wife is network TV’s best drama

Josh Charles and Julianna Margulies in 'The Good Wife'. CBS Broadcasting, In.c

Josh Charles and Julianna Margulies in ‘The Good Wife’. CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

By Jake Pitre

Elevators. It has always been elevators with Will and Alicia. Missed connections, conversations had and conversations abruptly silenced, and of course, passions ignited. Opening and closing doors are a pretty perfect metaphor for their relationship, since their timing was never quite right. It wasn’t ever going to work. Was it?

With the possible exception of NBC’s Hannibal, The Good Wife is the best drama series currently on network television. I give the edge to TGW, though, because it is in its fifth season and how many shows are not only still strong this far into their lifespans, but are also in the midst of their best season yet? The show has always been rather fantastic, but this season has propelled it to new heights and it has been thrilling to watch. And then, The Thing happened on Sunday night. Spoilers follow, obviously, up to and including this Sunday’s episode. Go watch all of TGW, first. I’ll wait.

Done? Great. I have been awestruck in the last couple of days at the amount of digital ink spent on The Good Wife. Maybe I just follow too many TV critics on Twitter, but the amount of conversation this legal procedural in its fifth season has generated is impressive to say the least. This is a show that has been quietly brilliant for years, and is now blowing up as more people begin to realize what an enigma it is. It is often, perhaps understandably, dismissed because on the surface it does look like just another law procedural, dealing with a case per week and never really taking any risks. The difference, quite simply, is that The Good Wife takes plenty of risks.

Margulies and Matt Czuchry. Photo: David M. Russell. CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

Margulies and Matt Czuchry. CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

Actually, that’s only one difference. There are many things that make this show stand out. Some background, then. Its showrunners, Robert and Michelle King, are not only extremely talented writers, but they also care deeply about their show and their characters. Its actors, from Julianna Margulies as Alicia Florrick, our good wife, to Alan Cumming as Eli Gold or Christine Baranski as Diane Lockhart, are all superb and at the top of their game. The massive roster of rotating guest stars is staggering and particularly rich, including Michael J. Fox as a rival attorney, Carrie Preston as oddball lawyer Elsbeth Tascioni and plenty of unique and charismatic judges, such as Jeffrey Tambor. The topical, ripped-from-the-headlines cases are always handled with nuance and insight (especially when it comes to technology – this is your first reminder that this show is on CBS). The pace is crazily quick, and the dialogue is witty and often sassy. The typical 22-episode network season is excruciating and creatively draining for any show, but almost every episode of The Good Wife manages to be wildly entertaining and fulfilling, which is something that cannot be said about any other 22-episodes per season series.

That is all very impressive, no doubt. Then, in the fourth season finale, an unbelievably exciting thing happened: Alicia and Cary Agos (played by Matt Czuchry) decided to leave their somewhat struggling law firm, Lockhart/Gardner, and start their own. The show’s central premise was effectively upended (in a move rather ingeniously deployed this season by Archer, as well), and the fifth season began with excitement far higher than what came with Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce or The Michael Scott Paper Company. The shit hit the fan, as it were, in the season’s fifth episode, “Hitting The Fan”, which aired in October. Will Gardner (played gracefully with smarminess and charm in equal measure by Josh Charles) bursts into Alicia’s office once he discovers that his former lover had betrayed him and is leaving (not to mention stealing clients), sweeping her desk clean with aggressive power in a scene filmed with kinetic energy unusual for the show. It was a horrifying and impossibly satisfying moment, because this was the peak of more than four seasons of building tension.

The Good Wife is the unparalleled master of the slow burn. For four seasons, we had watched Alicia struggle with her relationships with her disgraced politician husband, Peter (Chris Noth), and her boss, Will. We had also watched Alicia (and Cary) rise in power, and her ambition followed suit. This development was the tipping point for everyone involved. The rest of the season, until this past Sunday, has been about the fallout (the next three episodes were called “The Next Day”, “Week” and “Month”, respectively). The catharsis of that episode (as heart-wrenching as it was), made all the more powerful because of all we’ve come to know about these people in the past few years, kicked the show into a gear unlike anything it had been in previously. In short, this procedural legal drama on CBS took a gigantic risk and it has paid off with a truly phenomenal run of episodes.

Alan Cumming and Margulies. CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

Alan Cumming and Margulies. CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

The Kings weren’t done, though. On Sunday, in a move that rocked viewers, they killed off Will Gardner, Alicia’s will-they, won’t-they love interest and the primary male star of the series. What seems to have angered many viewers is the way it was handled: a completely sudden, unforeseen random act of violence. Will is killed by his client in a courtroom by a stray bullet. Everything slows down. We’re at the hospital. One shoe is missing. Someone needs to call Alicia.

On a purely formal level, the scene is directed with great skill by Brooke Kennedy, who has been with the show since the second season. It is a scene more suited to an action-centred crime procedural, and it is directed in a way that builds a massive amount of suspense in a short period of time by choosing its angles carefully and using sound design and clever camerawork to its advantage. Many initial reviews of the episode failed to notice or mention this, which is just the latest example of the show being dismissed as little more than a procedural (the comparisons made to latter-day Grey’s Anatomy for this episode feel especially offensive).

The Kings and Josh Charles were immediately upfront online about how this shocking twist came to be: Charles informed them that he wanted to leave the show, Margulies suggested he stick around for half a season to be written out in a strong way, and Charles and the Kings obliged. Contractual obligations can drag a show down or come off as overtly obvious or trite (the Kings, in a letter addressed to Good Wife fans about the episode, made reference to George Clooney’s character on ER being sent “off to Seattle”). For this reason, I understand why some viewers were uncomfortable with the sudden act of senseless violence being their resolution to Will’s story on the show. In many ways, it feels like the obvious way to do it in this age of television where this kind of thing happens so often. I’m not so sure.

This is far different than if a lesser character on the show had asked to leave. This is Will Gardner. For many, the Alicia/Will romance was the foundation of the show (I disagree – more on that in a moment). The Kings had every reason to appease their audience and give Will his own kind of off-into-the-sunset/Seattle farewell. This would allow for potential future guest spots, and would keep the will-they, won’t-they on the back of viewers’ minds in Alicia’s decisions. The possibility (even, say, in the series finale) of a rekindled relationship would be ever-present. The Kings decided to answer once and for all: they won’t. Will is gone. Will is dead. Will is not coming back. There were other choices, and they boldly shut those doors.

Margulies and Charles. CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

Margulies and Charles. CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

That said, there is a little of having their cake and eating it going on here. The Kings have this strong justification, while also giving the audience something shocking and the network something to heavily promote. Only, beyond telling us something BIG was going to go down, this was held under wraps. No foreshadowing. No promos promising a “SHOCKING DEATH”. This was one of the most legitimately shocking episodes of TV I have ever seen (this was on CBS, by the way), even though I saw some comments on Twitter beforehand warning of something crazy happening. Plus, it was absolutely sudden. It is settled very quickly that, yes, he’s dead. No deathbed final words. It’s over. Alicia’s phone rings.

Setting aside the fact that such a major plot twist was kept secret in this day and age, without even a hint of a major death, I also welcome this for its clear-eyedness. For me, the Will/Alicia romance long ago lost its inherent power, and I think the same happened for the Kings. They split them up, then made great entertainment from their rivalry between law firms. And finally, in choosing to definitively kill him off when they could’ve sent him into the sunset, it reminds us what this show has always been about: Alicia. Or, as the Kings wrote in their letter, “the Education of Alicia Florrick”. How will Alicia (and the other characters – this death affects them all, not least of which Peter with his election-stealing investigation that Will was key to) react? What are the consequences? The Kings could still screw that all up, and this gut-punch could be the beginning of the end, but I am intensely interested in finding out – and I have faith in them.

Mark Harris, a writer for Entertainment Weekly and Grantland, summed it up nicely on Twitter: “Thrilled that a year-5 twist on a network drama has sparked real debate over what the whole series has been about.” I think its clear that the show has always been about Alicia, and Will’s death only cements that. For a long time, this choice – between Will and Peter – has been crucial to Alicia’s character. She has never wanted to come firmly down on one side or the other, preferring to keep both options relatively open, but this choice has partly defined the show (and, to some, completely defined it). What this episode seems to be saying, in a way that rings true, is that sometimes in life, you don’t get to make that choice. We will not know what Alicia’s choice would have eventually been, because Will is gone, and now the show is faced with what to do without that choice. Luckily, there’s much more to The Good Wife and to Alicia than just Will. If you were watching and thought their relationship was the most important thing about it and that the show will be nothing without it, I think you may have been watching it wrong. I don’t like to tell someone that they are watching something wrong, but if you don’t think that The Good Wife is about much more than Will and Alicia, you should rethink. Which isn’t to say that Will is not wholly significant. Now we will see how Will changed her, how his death will change her, and how she undoubtedly battles through. She wants to control her fate, after all.

However you feel about Will’s death, whether that it happened or how it happened, it was an admirable risk, and one that is only in keeping with the show’s long history of ballsy risks (albeit a little more showy). This season of The Good Wife has been more entertaining than most other things on television, and it’s time for it to stop being ignored by non-TV-critic folk (and old people who fall asleep with the TV on after The Amazing Race). This recent rush of discussion has been invigorating to watch and read through and participate in, and I hope it continues. So often, we waste endless thinkpieces and essays on TV shows that simply don’t deserve it, and the stuff we should be paying attention to passes us by. The Good Wife is doing something different, and succeeds partly by subverting those expectations laid on it. It did something, just this week, totally unlike itself and caused a firestorm of debate and conversation. This is only one part of a fifth season that has been on fire since the beginning, and will hopefully continue to be. Alicia now needs to figure out how to define herself without that relationship. How much does she let the loss, and the man, define her? How does it change those around her? How much will she be able to control her fate, when the world tells her you can’t? I don’t know, but I’ll be watching.

Best TV Episodes of 2013

By Jake Pitre

'Orange is the New Black'. Netflix.

‘Orange is the New Black’. Netflix.

2013 provided us with so many good TV shows, both new and old, that this list could potentially contain dozens of phenomenal episodes. In fact, there was so much excellent television in the last twelve months that it felt far too intimidating to list and rank the best shows, so I decided to focus on specific episodes instead. Much more manageable. And yet, I still struggled immensely in sorting through all the amazing stuff I watched this year and then picking out the best of it. The episodes gathered here are my absolute favourites, the ones that blew me away.

I watched a lot of TV this year, easily the most that I ever have, but there is still plenty I have not yet had the chance to catch up on (although I’m working on it). This includes Orphan Black, Broadchurch, Rectify, Scandal, Trophy Wife, Hello Ladies, The Bridge, BunheadsTop of the Lake, and the most recent seasons of Bob’s Burgers, ElementaryBoardwalk Empire, Treme and Person of Interest. I’ll do all that, I promise. I think that this is indicative of just how much great stuff is out there (and how I shouldn’t have wasted my time with The Newsroom and Under the Dome).

As we watched the fall of the anti-hero in 2013, we marvelled as diversity and originality burst forth on our televisions in so many ways. Orange is the New Black, my favourite new show of the year and a Netflix exclusive (as if we needed yet another source of essential original content), came out of nowhere in the summer with its unparalleled ensemble cast and total female domination with its rich and complex characters. Hannibal turned the serial-killer glorifying procedural genre on its head with its cinematographically gorgeous attitude toward the grotesque and thematic depth. The Americans turned a spy show into the most meaningful exploration of marriage on television. Everywhere you looked, and no matter how you watched, there was brilliant writing, distinctive directing, perfect performances, beautiful imagery and purely original storytelling. Here are my favourites.

20. Brooklyn Nine-Nine – “The Vulture”

From Michael Schur and Dan Goor, the masterminds behind Parks and Recreation, this cop comedy starring Andy Samberg and Andre Braugher hasn’t been around very long but has already established its ensemble cast splendidly. This episode, where they all work together in order to solve their case before the titular vulture, Detective Pembroke, who sweeps in on practically-solved cases and takes the credit. The ensemble, which also includes the hilarious Chelsea Peretti and Terry Crews, is one of the best currently assembled on television, and this episode is the best-so-far example of that. “You can join my dance troupe, Floorgasm.”

19. Futurama – “Meanwhile”

This beloved animated sci-fi from Matt Groening and David X. Cohen never really captured the same magic in its rebooted material as in the original four seasons. These last few seasons have mostly run from mediocre to good, with the occasional great episode. But the series finale (evidently for good, this time) was a perfect farewell. Combining a clever sci-fi concept (a time-travel device that only goes back 10 seconds) with powerful emotion (Fry and Leela’s relationship) is classic Futurama, and it works wonders here to provide a truly satisfying ending.

'Sleepy Hollow'. Fox.

‘Sleepy Hollow’. Fox.

18. Sleepy Hollow – “Necromancer”

This show needs and deserves a bigger audience. When at first it seemed pointless to reboot the story of Ichabod Crane and place him in modern times, it has proven to be one of the most delightful shows in TV – and even, occasionally, legitimately frightening. This episode, without spoiling too much, has the Headless Horseman finally captured by Crane and Abbie as they figure out what to do with him, and the results are both hilarious and chilling. Tom Mison (right) and Nicole Beharie have outstanding chemistry, and the often ridiculous situations are propelled by them – and their fist-bumps. “Dead guy, mental patient, and a time traveler from the Revolution.” “That’s our team.”

17. Masters of Sex – “Catherine”

One of my favourite new shows of the year, Masters of Sex isn’t really about sex – although, there is a fair amount of it on-screen and it is what Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson are researching. But the show is really about intimacy and our struggle for it and our complicated issues with it. The performances of Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan anchor this show, and this episode contains perhaps my favourite moment between them all season. It comes after an otherwise excellent episode, with shocking moments like Libby, Bill’s wife, standing up and Bill pointing out her blood-soaked dress, and the first appearance of Allison Janney as the wife of the provost (she better get some Emmy attention for this role next year). But at the end, when Bill finally breaks with only Virginia in the room, he asks her to close her eyes. He can’t bear to have her see him like this. It is a powerful and strangely elegiac moment, and one of the most lasting of the year.

16. New Girl – “Cooler”

They might as well have called this episode “The Kiss”. This was the episode where the show’s writers decided to quit the will-they-won’t-they game and answer with a strong, “They will”. And Jesus Christ, what a kiss. It was so unexpected (up until that point it had looked like they were going to walk right up to that line but refrain from crossing it) and so perfect, you know? There are so many ways this development could go wrong and throw the show off the rails (we’ve already seen some problems in the new season), but we trust in the writers and actors to carry this. “The Kiss” was fantastic, and we even got another rendition of True American, which there better be one of at least once a season.

15. Archer – “Live and Let Dine”

When this show is on the ball, it kills. And it works best when the entire ensemble is together, particularly in an enclosed space. The ISIS crew are called in to work security at a restaurant called 16 (pronounced ‘seize‘) to watch over talks between the States and Albania, and it’s all captured as part of a reality show, Bastard Chef. The chef in question is Lance Casteau, beautifully voiced by Anthony Bourdain, who is perhaps the best utterer of the term ‘cockwits’. Even deep into its fourth season, Archer manages to find fresh ways to take off on the spy genre and do so hilariously. “Not you, Chet. You look like a dinosaur’s tampon.”

'Girls'. HBO.

‘Girls’. HBO.

14. Girls – “On All Fours”

The second season of Girls was a little messy at times, but it would be hard to argue with this standout episode. Yes, this is the Q-tip episode as it has become known, and it shows these occasionally despicable characters doing pretty ugly things. Hannah is falling apart, all alone. Marnie is covering Kanye West’s “Stronger” for Charlie, and it is something you cannot look away from. And then she stumbles back into hooking up with Charlie, as she wants to be saved and he wants to save her, sort of (even though it’s doomed to fail again, almost immediately). Then there is Adam’s dark and deeply disturbing sexual experience with Natalia. This scene polarized some fans, and it is understandable from how horrific the scene is. But this episode is about how these characters can’t escape their pasts and how their pasts keep dragging them down, and Adam is the culmination of this. Girls in uncompromising, at least give Lena Dunham that.

13. The Americans – “Duty and Honor”

I could have picked several episodes from the stellar first season of The Americans, which tells the story of two Soviet KGB officers posing as an American couple in Washington D.C. during the Cold War. More than that, it is a show about their marriage, which started fifteen years earlier as just a cover (the first time they met, they were told they were to be married for the mission) but has turned into something real. This episode splits them up as Philip (Matthew Rhys) goes to New York City for a mission. While there, he sleeps with another woman, and his wife, Elizabeth (Keri Russell, who was robbed of an Emmy nomination this year), decides she wants to work on their struggling marriage. The ending, wherein she tells him this, asks if anything happened between him and that other woman and he lies, is the bedrock of their relationship, which is plagued by lies and passion in equal measure and in alternating roles.

12. Parks and Recreation – “Leslie and Ben”

'Parks and Recreation'. NBC.

‘Parks and Recreation’. NBC.

This episode was written (by Michael Schur and Alan Yang) as a potential series finale when the show’s future was uncertain, and it would have been a beautiful send-off. Luckily, that wasn’t the case, but it still stands as one of the show’s best episodes, which is saying something. The relationship between Leslie and Ben, who are absolutely perfect for each other, was slowly developed in order to strongly hit every emotional beat and significant milestone. It was all leading up to their wedding, which is thrown together at the parks department after some setbacks and yet is still completely suitable for these two and totally rewarding. Amy Poehler and Adam Scott sell the hell out of this episode, and it all hits exactly right with, “I love you, and I like you.” I got teary-eyed at that. Fuck.

11. Justified – “Decoy”

If there has ever been an episode to convince someone that Justified is worth checking out, this would be it. In its first couple seasons, the show was too obsessed with telling interesting, stand-alone stories rather than serializing. This changed more and more every season, and this – the fourth – was easily the most serialized and far better for it. Raylan Givens, portrayed by Timothy Olyphant who is peerless in delivering one-liners, is trying to get Drew Thompson out of Harlan County before the Tonin crew can get him. This results in an exciting episode, but one that still has plenty of time for what this show does best – clever dialogue. This mostly comes from Drew waxing nostalgic about Raylan’s father, trying to get into his head, but Raylan is having none of it, of course. “Playing the part of a lawman doesn’t mean you know shit about shit.” Amen.

10. Enlightened – “Agent of Change”

'Enlightened'. HBO.

‘Enlightened’. HBO.

I may have enjoyed the Tyler episode, “The Ghost Is Seen”, more than this, the series finale, in terms of my emotional response, but “Agent of Change” is far more exemplary of the show as a whole and is a testament to its form of storytelling and how cruel it was that the show was canceled by HBO. It is a relatively happy episode for a show that usually was not, ending on an uplifting note to Amy Jellicoe’s journey (a word she would no doubt choose). In her search for self-actualization, Amy hurt people, but also helped them. Tyler grew out of his shell, and his future with Eileen is assured and utterly heartwarming. Jeff’s article is finally published, and Amy stands up to Charles Szidon. It is resoundingly cathartic when Amy says, “I’m just a woman who’s over it. I’m tired of watching the world fall apart because of guys like you. I tried to take a little power back,” and all Charles can do is sputter in rage and call her a “cunt”. Amy wins, and although her story is now over, what a way to go out.

9. Hannibal – “Fromage”

'Hannibal'. NBC.

‘Hannibal’. NBC.

There are several episodes I could have chosen to highlight here (“Amuse-Bouche”, “Savoureux”, “Coquilles”), but I think “Fromage” was the best exploration of Will Graham’s deteriorating psyche and the show’s penchant for beautiful deaths. This is a show obsessed with death, all angles and aspects of it, and it chooses to depict it in exclusively creative and often gorgeous ways (the angels in “Coquilles”, the totem pole in “Trou Normand”). In this episode, a musician was killed, his throat opened, and a cello neck was inserted through his mouth. This is about one killer sending a message to another, and the episode ends up being more action-packed than Hannibal usually is. But what is truly significant is Graham’s rapidly worsening mental state, as he is having more hallucinations. Graham has been hesitant about doing this police work since the beginning, uncomfortable with what he is seeing, and all the while he is being manipulated by Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen, another actor robbed of an Emmy nomination). Hannibal blindly (or not) confesses to his therapist that he thinks he has found a true friend in Graham, and it all puts Graham in a box that he can’t escape from.

8. The Returned – “Camille”

'The Returned'. Sundance.

‘The Returned’. Sundance.

This beautiful French show, which aired on the Sundance channel this year, is kind of a zombie show, but it’s really not. In this, the pilot episode, characters who died years earlier are returning from the dead, ostensibly healthy and normal, although ignorant of what happened to them. The pilot is all mood-setting and mystery-establishing, and it accomplishes this in spades. There is a distinct influence that can be felt from Twin Peaks, so I’m already inclined to like it, but it has plenty of its own style. It is haunting and contains several frightening images, but it mostly works through the emotion and conviction (or lack thereof) of its characters. The camera lingers at the end of the episode over Camille’s family (pictured above), shaken by her return, confused, happy, afraid. Her twin sister is terrified at first at the sight of her sister, four years younger while she herself has aged. The Returned is concerned with what these characters do in the face of the unexplainable, and it’s thrilling to watch.

7. Mad Men – “The Crash”

'Mad Men'. AMC.

‘Mad Men’. AMC.

The sixth season of Mad Men was, in my mind, the one-hour drama equivalent of the messy second season of Girls. High prestige shows under similar amounts of pressure (one in living up to its terrific if divisive first season, the other in reaching towards its ending), sometimes succeeding and sometimes not so much. “The Crash” was the best episode of this season. It is a drug episode, as everyone in the office takes an unspecified drug and we watch the outcomes. It deals in surreality, as most of what happens is probably real but it’s difficult to be sure. This episode would probably have earned a place on this list just for the immortal gif of Ken Cosgrove tap-dancing on a bad foot, but there’s more going on. It’s an episode, like many episodes of Mad Men, about loss, and about Don’s self-destructive tendencies. He destroyed what he had with Sylvia, indirectly but inevitably, and he doesn’t know how to deal with that. He becomes careless and seems to be aimless and afraid. Tell me about it, Don.

6. American Horror Story – “Madness Ends”

'American Horror Story'. FX.

‘American Horror Story’. FX.

I’m still not entirely sure what to make of American Horror Story‘s third season, Coven, which I have been enjoying immensely but feels like a less-focused step down after Asylum. That season was kind of a beautiful mess, too, but it led to “Madness Ends”, a surprisingly poignant and affecting finale that expertly wrapped the story up. This is a show where you are constantly baffled as to what you’re watching. It is daring, but also pretty stupid sometimes. Some of it can feel ridiculous for the sake of being ridiculous. But there are moments of real brilliance, and this finale is full of them. The entire sequence of Sister Jude’s last days living with Kit and his family is among the best of the year, as she struggles with being her old self and helping to raise Kit’s children as a kind of surrogate grandmother. And when she dies, this woman we have watched do horrible things, it is so sad. This is partly due to Jessica Lange’s nonpareil performance, but it is also thanks to the writers having sketched this arc and drawing it to this emotional conclusion. American Horror Story is capable of such beauty and poignancy, but also of hilarious one-liners and embarrassingly stupid moments. There’s nothing else like it.

5. Game of Thrones – “The Rains of Castamere”

'Game of Thrones'. HBO.

‘Game of Thrones’. HBO.

As with every other fan, “The Rains of Castamere” was tough for me. I know that Game of Thrones, or rather George R.R. Martin, are not afraid to break your helpless little heart. I also knew going into the episode that something called the Red Wedding existed and that it was going to be “crazy”. It was. Outside of the Breaking Bad finale, I can’t think of a more talked-about episode of television this year. Deservedly so, as we watch the writers ruthlessly kill off multiple beloved characters all at once with such confidence unseen in any other TV show. It happens so quickly, and it is so horrible. After, it cuts immediately to the silent credits. Sit with that, the show seems to say. The world isn’t fair, whether your world is Westeros or Earth, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. The whole situation was set up brilliantly, as we slowly come to realize that something is not right here. The sequence was done so perfectly, and I kind of hate it for that because it makes me want to bawl just thinking about it.

4. 30 Rock – “Hogcock!/Last Lunch”

'30 Rock'. NBC.

’30 Rock’. NBC.

I’m cheating a little since this is technically two episodes, but together they made up the series finale for one of my all-time favourite shows, and it was a completely satisfying goodbye to Liz Lemon, Jack Donaghy, Tracy Jordan and everyone else. While working in a little feminist commentary about women-in-the-workplace, Tina Fey gave Liz the best possible ending, as she is happy with Criss and their two children (mini-Jenna and mini-Tracy) after putting on the final episode of The Girlie Show (and a future in television). Right to the end, 30 Rock was the best at rapid-fire jokes (Kenneth is immortal, “Goodbye Pete Pete, I will forget you.”). But it handled its emotional moments very well, like Liz and Tracy saying goodbye in the strip club they met at in the pilot (“But because the human heart is not properly connected to the human brain, I love you and I’m gonna miss you.”) and Liz and Jack’s flawless final talk (“There is a word, a once special word that’s been tragically co-opted by the romance industrial complex and I would hate to use it here and have you think that I’m suggesting any kind of romantic sentiment let alone an invitation to scale bone mountain…”). I couldn’t have imagined a better ending, and then Jenna sang the wonderful and bizarre “Rural Juror” song.

3. Breaking Bad – “Ozymandias”

'Breaking Bad'. AMC.

‘Breaking Bad’. AMC.

It’s not that I prefer to consider “Ozymandias” the series finale of Breaking Bad (as some do), it’s that in years to come when I think about 2013 as the year that the show ended, I will think of this episode. I think most people will. This was, along with the ending of “The Rains of Castamere”, the most punishing hour of television I saw this year. It was relentless and heartbreaking, and yet still felt somehow inevitable. Hank dies, and it hurts. But the most shocking moment of the episode for me was Walt spitting in Jesse’s face, “I watched Jane die.” This vicious and devastating line, delivered with a crazy amount of venom by Bryan Cranston (who is in a league of his own), didn’t emit a gasp but a yelp of disbelief. In an episode full of horrifying moments, that is the one that has stuck with me the most.

Directed by the great Rian Johnson (who also directed “Fly”), everything disintegrates in spectacular fashion. Walt tries, deludedly, to save Hank, but it fails (we at least get some relief from Hank dying with his dignity and identity strongly intact). He tries to tell Jesse that he means nothing to him by telling him about Jane, but we know better. Jesse becomes a slave. Walt kidnaps Holly in an act of pathetic desperation. This episode is an exhausting run of wholly devastating moments, and even though it destroyed me, I could not look away.

2. Orange is the New Black – “Lesbian Request Denied”

'Orange is the New Black'. Netflix.

‘Orange is the New Black’. Netflix.

I could have chosen practically any of this series’ excellent first season episodes, and I can’t disagree with many TV critics that put “Tall Men With Feelings” on their own lists. It’s a fantastic episode with a killer montage and thematic resonance. I wanted to choose “Lesbian Request Denied”, though, because this was when I knew this show was something special, and it is my favourite example of the show using Piper Chapman as a gateway to tell the interesting stories of other characters. In this case, it is the story of Sophia, a transgendered woman in the female prison with Piper. Creator Jenji Kohan knows what she’s doing with Piper being at the centre (in this interview, she even refers to her as their “gateway drug”), and she knows that Piper’s story can easily become the subplot while someone like Sophia, with a captivating and complicated story to be told, can become the focus.

Sophia’s forced switch to a lower dose of estrogen is something that affects her deeply and threatens her body, and we see through tragic flashbacks that she traded in one prison (her body) for another. On a lesser show, this would come off as trite and on-the-nose, but here it is beautiful and heartbreaking. Laverne Cox does an amazing job portraying Sophia’s struggle, and the complicated issue of transgendered people is dealt with maturely and movingly. This gives us a much stronger hold on who this character is when in the perspective of the prison, and her fight to find herself is depicted with tremendous care and passion. Again, this is a remarkable episode of the best new show of the year and is only one example of how it tells a compelling story about complex female characters.

1. The Good Wife – “Hitting The Fan”

'The Good Wife'. CBS.

‘The Good Wife’. CBS.

Few television shows, particularly procedurals on broadcast networks, are willing to go for the slow burn. This is when you spend a lot of time putting pieces into place, developing strong relationships, and laying foundations…in order to, eventually, burn it all to the ground. The writers of The Good Wife, led by series creators Robert & Michelle King, this year pulled off one of the best blow-ups in TV history. It is almost as if the entire show, which is currently in its fifth season, had been leading to this episode. I’m not overstating it, either. When the fourth season brilliantly ended earlier this year with Alicia Florrick inviting Cary to her home to tell him that she’s in (referring to abandoning their firm and starting their own), there was a flurry of excitement from the show’s fans. This is a show accustomed to good season-ending cliffhangers, but this was something else.

It may seem strange to those that do not watch this show that it is my choice as the best episode of the year. What you would need to understand, without going back and watching the whole thing (which you should do), is that this has been a long time coming. The splitting of the firm, yes, but more so the implications of this. Several episodes later, we are still watching as these characters struggle to process and deal with this change, especially as Will tries to understand Alicia’s betrayal. They are former lovers, and I cannot think of a more charged moment this year than Will storming into Alicia’s office and, as pictured above, throwing everything off her desk in an emotional act of anger and hurt feelings.

That moment, and the episode in its entirety, was what we’d been waiting for. The show has been building to this, and it earned the right to destroy everything it had built and start again, as Alicia and Cary are at Florrick Agos. I found myself rooting for them, very excited about the prospect of them starting their own firm, but I was also deeply sympathetic towards Will and Diane, blindsided by this betrayal and disloyalty. Beyond the desk-destruction, two other moments made this episode the best of the year for me. The first was Will, calling Alicia but instead getting her daughter, and he is very polite to her amid the chaos. A small moment, but a significant one putting the mayhem in perspective. The second was Alicia entering the elevator, up until that point remaining strong and steadfast, but then breaking down in tears. This isn’t what she wanted. Perhaps she was naive, but now it’s real and Will has told her, full of rage, that he was the only one that would take her in. And once she is alone, all she can do is cry.

Honourable Mentions

  • Eastbound & Down – “Chapter 26”
  • The Colbert Report – “Daft Punk”
  • Arrested Development – “Off the Hook”
  • Veep – “Running”
  • The Office – “Finale”
  • House of Cards – “Chapter 8”
  • South Park – “Informative Murder Porn”
  • Getting On – “Born of the Fourth of July”

“I liked it; I was good at it. And I was alive”: An Intricate Examination of the Breaking Bad Series Finale

waltfinale

[an incredibly self-evident SPOILER WARNING]

“That was the most disappointing hour of my life,” I stated, after being asked my opinion of the Breaking Bad finale immediately after Vince Gilligan’s name appeared on screen. Over the past day I’ve been thinking over it, and although it’s settled a lit bit better in mind, I have to believe that their is a lot of validity in that statement. Though, that admittedly says a lot more about my expectations than it does about the overall quality of that hour of television.

I can’t help but consider the inevitability of that feeling: of course I was going to be disappointed, it was impossible for it to live up to the hype. I don’t believe that to be true. Yes, it was probably never going to leave me a 100 per cent satisfied, but that also wasn’t where my expectations were placed. The episode had to wrestle with some of the issues the season had set up for it, flaws with the series as a whole, and perhaps most inescapable, the narrative constraints of the medium of television itself. With that all taken into consideration, I still feel like the finale faltered in several fundamental ways.

Breaking Bad from my perspective has always been so damned engaging because it managed an incredible balance between a suspenseful and captivating plot, as well as great depth in terms of its characters and themes. My cynical side wants to believe that the former of the two was what allowed it to eventually break through with the mainstream, while the more thoughtful viewers admired the latter. As much as I want to be that defeatist asshole who claims the mainstream is incapable of appreciating *cough* “true art”, I’m not entirely sure that is the case here.

I think that what people loved about Breaking Bad so much, and they do love it (I can’t think of any other show that is as highly regarded, by so many people,) is the fact that it was able to be both highly exciting, while also forcing us to contemplate its overall meaning. People were enticed by the fantastic tension, but were really enthralled by its profound internal conflicts, and how unsubtle the show went about them. That’s why I find myself so confused by the immense level of praise the finale has received from the fans, and much of the critical mass, because in my mind the finale largely failed in both of those aspects.

Let’s first evaluate it from the perspective of a conclusion to the series’ narrative. In the broad scheme of the show’s plot, ending with a massacre of the white supremacist drug gang feels entirely disappointing. Are we expected to believe that a series that has so many thrilling moments was all meant to culminate in the lazy resolution of a conflict that had essentially been established three episodes prior? Because realistically that’s what this was. Walt’s primary motivations were to kill these men for the murder of his brother-in-law and the theft of his life savings, which occurred at the opening of “Ozymandias,” two weeks earlier.

That’s what we were left with, a quick satisfying shot to the face of Uncle Jack, who in the show’s run was a less interesting villain than even Tuco Salamanca. This episode was both predictable from a narrative perspective (in hindsight was there really anyone else Walt could have been acquiring that assault rifle for?), and a mechanical one, it seemed quite clear the particular way events would play out after showing us both the rotating mechanism, and those blatant close ups on the car keys after attentively positioning the El Camino.

I can’t possibly imagine anyone considering what played out in that last 20 minutes to be nearly as exciting as any of the finales leading back to season two’s plane crash. The position the writers had put themselves in made it simply impossible to achieve anything comparable to the spectacular ending of season four. Perhaps you could say I’m being unfair to the writing staff for expecting anything of that calibre. But are they not entirely responsible for building that anticipation, after teasing us with this climax since the very first sequence of season five last year?

breakingbadfinale

None of this really matters though, because they didn’t satisfy the basic needs of the series’ conclusion. They focused so much time showing us this unsatisfactory plot, that they were unable to provide full fledged closure to Marie, Walt Jr., or even Skyler. But I guess that’s okay because we all hated that lot anyways, right? The argument could be made that this is meant to be indicative of a larger meaning for the finale. It just felt like misplaced priorities from my perspective, especially considering the comparatively substantial presence of Badger and Skinny Pete (though my dad will take great satisfaction in the latter’s appearance when he eventually finishes the series in what I imagine will be years from now).

I would’ve been fine with the idea of the finale placing a smaller emphasis on the plot in order to focus on the deeper implications of the characters and themes. Instead it just seemed like they went the other direction but were unsuccessful. Looking at this last hour we really didn’t get much in terms of the thematic elements that had existed from the very beginning of the series.

There was no moral uncertainty: we’ve all pretty much concluded that Walt is just an evil person. Which I suppose is enough to satisfy Vince Gilligan (I still admire him quite fondly) who had, from the show’s inception, been chasing this notion of reducing Walt from: “Mr. Chips to Scarface.” I guess I was hoping that would be a sort of bait and switch, and ultimately the show would continue to consider what that decline actually meant, because at the end of the day Scarface is not all that fascinating.

The small traces of actual development come in Walt realizing that his ‘legacy’ was at stake after realizing Jesse was cooking for the nazis via Skinny Pete and Badger, in what was one of the few moments of humour in an otherwise bleak episode. All that did was force me to realize how truly petty a man Walt is, as he remained the only person concerned with that legacy, even after it had destroyed the lives of everyone around him. I do realize that this motivating factor of pride and the struggle to undo past regrets, are some of the central themes of the series, but I didn’t feel like this episode really did all that much to progress them.

Then there is the biggest sin of all that this finale committed: its handling of Jesse. Jesse has long been my favourite character in the entire series, and I imagine this is a common sentiment. He was an enjoyable presence on the screen, while also having as much complexity as Walt. As the show progressed he became its moral centre, deeply unsettled by the actions of the characters surrounding him, and through his development he was immensely relatable.

The relationship between the two characters was always central to the series’ narrative, and they certainly failed to execute on that. Walt had always been a destructive force in Jesse’s life; his actions compromising any goodness Jesse was able to find. The consequences of Walt’s actions on Jesse were the most important representation of his failed morality. The finale did very little to examine this at all, leaving us simply with Jesse escaping while laughing ecstatically. This was a reaction that made sense in terms of resolving the last three episodes, but excruciatingly dissatisfying for the series as a whole.

In my mind the final confrontation between Jesse and Walt, and I don’t even necessarily mean that in a physical sense, was the most logical way to conclude the series. It was the one element of the series that remained prominent throughout its entire run, and would satisfy both the needs of the narrative and its themes. Instead we were left with no indication of the lasting effects Walt’s actions had on Jesse, simply left to make assumptions. This element of the finale forces me to question the writing staff’s perspective on Jesse’s significance to the series, even though every prior indication made that significance seem obvious. And that was the most disheartening thing of all.

waltdead

The overwhelmingly positive reception to the finale has made me feel alienated from the show’s fan base. I feel like my opinions are more in line with that of its prior detractors (the small group that it is). I find this an incredibly frustrating experience because I genuinely love the series. My best guess is that people allowed their fellow admiration to carry them into a conclusion that didn’t actively do anything to take away from the show’s previous achievements. Perhaps upon consideration they will also see some of its shortcomings, though I doubt most people will ever be as critical as I have been. My dad has always complained about my constant disapproval of how most stories end.

The overall contentment with the ending is clearly the result of Vince Gilligan’s choice to go the safe route. And based on the reaction, maybe he made the right decision. I just wish he had done a better job at attending to the elements of the series that made it work so well, while also taking a few risks. Breaking Bad was one of the most daring shows on television, and its a real shame that Gilligan didn’t come into the final stretch attempting to live up to that. Perhaps he would’ve alienated a portion of his audience, but isn’t that sacrifice worth it in the pursuit of a great conclusion?

Instead we’re left with an ending that is worse than disappointing, its almost entirely forgettable. I can’t imagine too many people will be debating this ending in the years to come, the way The Sopranos is still being discussed. I suppose I could let one hour television tarnish my impression of the entire series, but I have no interest in that. Begrudgingly I will overlook this lacklustre episode, instead remembering the absolutely phenomenal sixty one that preceded it.

Goodbye Walt and Jesse, you will be missed.

Sincerely,

Duncan

Not Like Anything That You’ve Seen Before, Ever: An Interview with Matt Zoller Seitz

MZS portraits-10

Matt Zoller Seitz is a busy man. He is the TV critic at New York magazine, he is the editor-in-chief of RogerEbert.com, and he is the author of an upcoming book being published by Abrams in October called The Wes Anderson Collection. As you might have guessed, it is a sort of compendium on the filmmaker, with loads of content sure to delight any Anderson fan. Seitz is one of the most trusted and insightful critics working today, always having something unique to say and with a wonderful way of saying it, too. I had the excellent pleasure of speaking with him over the phone about Wes Anderson, the book, Netflix, Breaking Bad and more. It was a great conversation and Seitz was very nice, despite the early hour. Check it out.

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Arbitrary Analysis: I’m pretty groggy right now.

Matt Zoller Seitz: Yeah, me too.

AA: Okay. I guess the first thing, why Wes Anderson? I was looking at the Amazon page for the book, and it talks about how he’s an auteur with all his aesthetics and everything, is that what drew you to doing a whole book about him?

MZS: No, it’s a little more complicated than that, I mean, for one thing I think he’s a major director. I think he’s as stylistically unique a director as Hitchcock or Scorsese, so there’s that. But on top of it there’s this whole personal backstory, which is that I met him in 1993 when I was a film critic for the Dallas Observer, just starting out, and he was a filmmaker just starting out. Nobody had heard of him, nobody had heard of me. His short film, Bottle Rocket, was in the USA Film Festival in Dallas and I was writing about the festival and they gave me a stack of VHS cassettes of all the films that they were gonna show and I watched them all, and the one that really stood out was Bottle Rocket.

I singled that one out for praise in the little capsule that I wrote, and if I remember correctly I think I wrote mostly about Bottle Rocket and the other films were kind of an afterthought. That turned out to be the first review that he got of anything he’d ever done as a filmmaker, and I don’t remember if he got in touch with me or if I got in touch with him, but that film got into development at Columbia Pictures as a feature film. And I just thought he and Owen Wilson were really, really talented guys, and I was constantly looking for local people to write profiles of, so I wrote a profile of them a few months later, I think it was when they had gotten the greenlight to develop this thing as a feature. Then I wrote a cover story about the making of Bottle Rocket [the feature version] where I followed it from beginning to end, and that was published in September of 1995. I think that was the longest cover story that had ever been published at the Observer at the time, it was almost like a little book it was so long.

Wes Anderson, on the set of 'Moonrise Kingdom'.

Wes Anderson, with actor Jared Gilman, on the set of ‘Moonrise Kingdom’.

And then I stayed in touch with him, you know, when I moved to New York and he moved to New York, we’d have lunch occasionally and I interviewed him a few more times, him and Owen Wilson, but always for subjects that had something to do with things they were obsessed with. It was like with the 30th anniversary of A Charlie Brown Christmas, I did a piece on that and interviewed them, and when Charles Schultz retired I interviewed them for that. Schultz is a gigantic influence on Anderson’s films. I did a video about the influence of the animated Peanuts TV specials on [his films], I do some side-by-side comparisons to the films and those cartoons.

So we just had all these personal sort of connections, I guess you’d say. When The Royal Tenenbaums came out, weirdly enough, Wes shot some scenes from that on the street where I was living in Brooklyn, and my house is in the movie. The scene where Gene Hackman and the grandkids are running around by the schoolyard there’s a shot where they throw water balloons at the gypsy cab and the cab comes to a full stop right in front of my house. I knew they were shooting on my street but I didn’t know they were shooting on my block, since the day they did I was at work in Newark and my wife was working as a secretary in the basement of the church which is in the background of the shot. That was a big surprise to me and I didn’t find out about it until I was watching the movie in a screening at the New York Film Festival in the fall of 2001 and when the cab screeched to a halt in front of my house, I actually pointed at the screen and yelled, “That’s my house!”, and the other critics in the room said, “Shhhh.” [Laughs]

There’s all these weird personal connections and affinities but over and above that I just love the guy’s movies. He’s a unique director and one that people imitate, often badly. He’s made an impact. I did a series of video essays in 2009 that studied his style and it was called “The Substance of Style”. Wes saw them, I hadn’t spoken to him in many years at that point, he saw them and wrote me a really nice note, saying “Hey, thank you for taking the time to study my movies this closely, I liked the series a lot, let’s get together some time”, you know. Not too long after that, Abrams Books called me up and an editor there, Eric Klopfer, said “we’re looking to do a book about Wes Anderson and I just watched the series of video essays so what do you think about writing a book about Wes?”. So that’s the long version of how the book came about, and that’s an epic answer, but that’s it.

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The cover. Click to enlarge to see it in all its beauty.

AA: So what exactly can we expect to find inside the Collection, is it an assortment of goodies from Anderson’s films, pictures and that kind of thing?

MZS: It’s built around a book-length interview with Wes. So it’s me talking to Wes about his artistic development over 20 years, and we go back to his childhood and adolescence a little bit, but mostly it starts with the Bottle Rocket short and feature and then we just work our way forward through his films. It’s also heavily illustrated with screenshots from the movies and behind-the-scenes stuff, some of which has never been seen before anywhere. We commissioned a lot of illustrations that are sort of tangentially related to Wes’ movies, like the cover of the book, for example, isn’t from any Wes Anderson movie, that’s sort of meant to represent the totality of Wes Anderson’s universe, and we have some other things in the book that are like that. Interspersed among this book-length interview are critical essays by me about each of [Anderson’s] seven films, and those are basically reviews, I guess you would say, of his movies and that’s also new because this is the first time I’ve published reviews or critical examinations of [his films]. So that’s the book.

It’s somewhat of a weird book, honestly, because it’s very analytical and gets pretty deep into his influences and how they manifest themselves in his films, but there’s also a lot of personal anecdotes. And we wander off the beaten track a lot, like there’s parts where we’re really not talking about his movies, we’re just talking about movies, or we’re talking about fiction, or music, or weird personal stuff. Like in the Darjeeling Limited chapter, he goes on for quite a long time about the experience of traveling abroad and how that sort of opened his horizons as a filmmaker, and we don’t get to Darjeeling Limited until fairly deep into the chapter. At that point, it’s mostly about his development as a person. So you can kind of tell as you’re reading it that this is a book by a guy who actually knows the director personally and [they] have been acquainted for a while. There’s a degree of comfort here that maybe you might not get if I was just walking in cold.

AA: So it’s more of free-wheeling conversation type of thing.

MZS: Yeah, definitely. In some ways, maybe a little too free-wheeling. [Laughs] That’s part of the charm of it. We go off on a tangent for like three or four pages about the use of music in movies which is kind of fun. And that’s basically just two guys talking, and there’s other things in the book like that.

Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman in 'The Darjeeling Limited'.

Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman in ‘The Darjeeling Limited’. Courtesy: Fox Searchlight.

AA: I want to ask about Anderson’s critics, because you obviously love the guy, but a big criticism of Anderson is that he has no inventiveness as a filmmaker and how every movie is kind of the same, at least stylistically, so what would you say to that?

MZS: I don’t really know what people want from a guy. That just seems dumb. [Laughs] Honestly, because what great filmmaker or artist can you not say that about? All his movies look the same? Well, I kind of feel like all of Kubrick’s movies look the same. All of Orson Welles’ movies kind of look the same. The directors who make movies that look completely different from one film to the next tend to be hacks that have no style, that’s been my experience. If somebody has a strong personality that comes out in everything that they do…I think what throws people about Wes is that his style is so simple. There’s maybe like 15 or 20 shots that he does, over and over, and there’s particular moods and modes that he has that he shifts into that you see again and again. But to me, that’s simplicity, that’s like when you read Ernest Hemingway and there are few adjectives. Wes doesn’t overcomplicate things, and that’s one of the things that makes him stand out. And all you have to do as far as I’m concerned to appreciate Wes’ uniqueness is to watch his films and then to watch Juno or Garden State, which could’ve been called, “Wes Anderson Called and He Wants His Style Back.”

AA: [Laughs] Yeah. I think we’ll switch gears away from Wes just for a second. There’s this big debate in TV criticism right now about Netflix, like I was reading the recent article in Time about Orange is the New Black where it talks about how this way of distributing TV seasons all at once is liberating but also causes this confusion over how you talk about these shows. I want to get your take on whether this is a good shift, a bad one, or just something new?

MZS: Well, I think it’s a good thing. I don’t think that every TV show needs to be made in the way that Netflix is making shows but I really like the way they’re making shows. Although I should say, to be specific, that I like the fourth season of Arrested Development and Orange is the New Black, because those are shows that are not TV shows that happen to appear on Netflix, they’re shows that were clearly made with Netflix in mind, and the way they’re telling the story is very unique, in that they’re jumping back and forth amongst different characters, and in the case of both of them, through time. And they’re doing them at a greater length than they would do if it were just airing on television, because they would be afraid that they would lose the thread of the story, and confuse the audience. The reason that they’re able to make those shows in that particular way is because they know that people are gonna be watching, sitting there with their remote control in hand, and be able to watch 2 or 3 or 4 or 5 or 6 episodes in the same sitting.

Taylor Schilling and in 'Orange is the New Black'. Credit: Jessica Miglio/Netflix.

Taylor Schilling and Yael Stone in ‘Orange is the New Black’. Courtesy: Jessica Miglio/Netflix.

AA: And just binge.

MZS: And they’ll remember what happened because they’re not waiting a week. That’s kind of major. Shows that air on a traditional broadcast network or cable channel, they have to split the difference, they can do complicated storytelling but they can’t do so complicated that when they pick up a thread that they dropped four episodes ago, the audience goes, “Who’s that guy?” or “Where are we? I’m confused,” and you can’t have that. So I think it’s an evolutionary advance, at least if you’re doing it right.

AA: Okay. So what has been some of your favourite TV of the year so far?

MZS: Arrested Development. Orange is the New Black. I’d be shocked if Breaking Bad wasn’t on there [once it’s finished], because it’s been on there every season since its been on. [Laughs] Behind the Candelabra, the Soderbergh film. Justified, probably. The Americans is tremendous, that’s the best new show to come along in a while, I think. Rectify on the Sundance Channel, I really liked because it was so quiet and subtle and almost like a stage play, which is unusual for television. Top of the Lake I thought was great. It’s a really good year, in fact I would say this is the best year for scripted television since I became a critic. I mean, there’s so much stuff. In a year where I’m wrestling with whether or not to put Mad Men in my top ten, what does that tell you?

AA: I kind of have to ask this. What would be your favourite Anderson film?

MZS: My personal favourite Wes Anderson film, the one I think about the most, is The Life Aquatic. I find it almost overwhelmingly powerful. It’s so strange, it’s such a strange mix of tone. To some degree all of his movies are, at least since The Royal Tenenbaums, which was the first Anderson film that veered between comedy and tragedy. I think the swings are even more extreme in The Life Aquatic, and the story is a little more focused on one thing, which is mortality. The climax with the jaguar shark on the bottom of the ocean floor is tremendous, that’s still my favourite ending of any Anderson film.

Cate Blanchett and Bill Murray in 'The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou'. Courtesy: Beuna Vista Pictures.

Cate Blanchett and Bill Murray in ‘The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou’. Courtesy: Beuna Vista Pictures.

I like all of his movies. I think The Darjeeling Limited might be his most structurally perfect film, and I think not too many people would agree with that, but if you really study that thing and you look at what every scene does, it’s kind of a marvel of precision. And then, of course, Rushmore…I mean, hell, man, I could talk about his movies all day, that’s why I wrote a book about him. [Laughs] He’s made I would say three or four films that I would consider perfect, which is a pretty great batting average, and the ones that are less than perfect are not like anything that you’ve seen before, ever.

AA: So how did Michael Chabon get involved? [Chabon wrote the book’s introduction] He’s one of my favourite authors so I was curious about that.

MZS: Well, as it turns out, I wanted to find somebody to write an introduction, and I don’t know why I thought of him. I didn’t know if he liked Wes’ films, I just knew from his fiction that he seemed like the kind of guy that would. And it turned out I was right about that. Wes didn’t have anything to do with it, so it was kind of a wonderful coincidence that it turns out that he and Chabon kind of know each other. So I said, “Hey, guess who’s writing the intro to the book,” and he goes, “Oh I know that guy!” [Laughs]

AA: So my last question: How’s Breaking Bad going to end?

MZS: I don’t know, I’ve been debating that with my daughter for the last two months. I don’t know if Walter’s going to die or not, I’m starting to feel like he has to die because the show is a tragedy and in a tragedy things don’t end very well for the hero. I just can’t see it suddenly reversing course and then he somehow saves himself and everybody forgives him. And since this is the kind of show where people who do bad things tend to be punished. So I feel like it’s kind of the end of Walter’s suffering. I’m not exactly sure what that means but, it’s going to be painful.

Bryan Cranston in the final season of 'Breaking Bad'. Courtesy: AMC.

Bryan Cranston in the final season of ‘Breaking Bad’. Courtesy: AMC.

AA: Okay, well on that note…

MZS: [Laughs] I wouldn’t be surprised if they went in a direction like The Shield, which is to say maybe more of a whimper than a bang. But a bang wouldn’t surprise me either because it’s Breaking Bad and things blow up. In any event, I think that it’s going to be a good ending. It won’t be disappointing, I know that. I have enough confidence to know that. They give you what you didn’t expect, but it’s equal to what you did hope for. You sat there all day fantasizing about what they’re going to do next, and then you see it, you go, “that’s better than I imagined”. There aren’t a whole lot of shows or movies that you can say that about, usually what you come up with on your own is more interesting than what they give you. That’s the hallmark of a really great show.

The Wes Anderson Collection comes out October 8. Pre-order it on Amazon here.

– Jake

Best of 2013 (So Far)

As the halfway point of 2013 has come and gone, it is customary to take stock of all the entertainment we’ve encountered so far and determine what’s worthwhile. We decided to have some AA writers pick one thing from a list of categories (Film, TV, Album, Song, Video Game) as their favourite of the year so far, tell you why, and maybe mention some other notable things. Take a look, share your own, enjoy, don’t enjoy, see if I care.

FILM

Jake

My favourite of the year so far is, without question, Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. In some ways, it was very misunderstood. tumblr_mpwkdxOHcr1rrsipro1_500Based on the marketing and the general vibe of “Disney girls gone wild”, expectations were shattered for many filmgoers who went to see it. I can’t help but feel like this was by design, at least partly because Korine just enjoys fucking with people. The actual movie is a surreal and hypnotic masterpiece of social commentary paired with obnoxious glorification, willfully presented as a collection of ideas not necessarily organized in any way and intended to disturb, entertain and interpret however you see fit. Korine himself succintly described it as a “pop poem”, and it’s a beautiful one at that (horrifyingly beautiful, really). Also well worth noting is Shane Carruth’s long-anticipated follow-up to Primer, the cerebral and sublime Upstream Color. You don’t have to get it completely (you won’t), you have to just give in and let yourself experience it (multiple viewings are recommended). A science-fiction film that’s less about answers and more about what brings people together and what identity actually means. With the gorgeous cinematography and muted but nuanced performances, it’s absolutely essential viewing. I was also pleasantly impressed with giallo homage Berberian Sound Studio, James Wan’s terrifying and atmospheric The Conjuring, and Rob Zombie’s continuing quest to make his music career obsolete with The Lords of Salem.

Kevin

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Warm Bodies: Even though this film didn’t get particularly good reviews, I thought it was a unique and thoughtful rethinking of traditional genre films. I enjoyed seeing how the comedy was derived from the problems associated with mixing romantic comedies and zombie films, because it made the film feel self-aware and intelligent. It was pretty well-acted (especially by Nicholas Hoult, who played the lead) and well shot, with some pretty funny moments sprinkled in throughout. Aside from the film being a bit predictable, I thought it was a very enjoyable 97 minutes of cinematic fun.
Monsters University: I thought this was a great movie (in comparison to average Hollywood films), but only a decent Pixar movie. What I mean by this is that it was very enjoyable to watch and I never really felt bored, but looking back on it, I realized that nothing unexpected or particularly original ever happened, compared to other Pixar movies. The whole film essentially just followed a typical coming-of-age film’s plot, and then added in a bunch of monster themed stuff (which was awesome, funny, and heartwarming). Overall, I enjoyed watching this movie, but I think it should have been better. Billy Crystal and John Goodman were still perfect in their characters (Mike and Sullivan).

Duncan

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2013 has been a solid year for film thus far. Yes, the hollywood blockbusters may have been especially bad this year, despite surprise favourites Iron Man 3, and the funnest film of the year so far, Fast & Furious 6. But the real star of this year has been the independent releases, where the lovely Frances Ha, and not fully accomplished but still haunting, The Place Beyond the Pines have stood out. But for my money the best movie of the year, hell the last 3 years, is Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight. Following up on two fantastic predecessors, Midnight is the strongest and most engaging in the “trilogy”. I don’t think I’ve ever been so involved in the lives of two characters before. I’m ecstatic when they have their amazing sequence long conversations, and I’m heartbroken when it begins to fall apart. There’s room for people to call the film a gimmick and exploitive, but frankly I don’t care. If Linklater broke some unwritten rule when he produced this film then so be it, I don’t want to watch movies in a world with rules that keep films like this from me.

TV

Jake

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I’m going to ignore my own rule because there’s just too much great TV. For pure entertainment value, nothing beats Game of Thrones, which probably just had its best season yet and delivered one of the deepest gut punches any piece of entertainment has ever given me with the Red Wedding. I’m not quite finished it yet, but Netflix’s Orange is the New Black is phenomenal and will hopefully reach even more people than House of Cards did, with its stellar writing and diverse ensemble cast, making it ridiculously addictive. I was skeptical when I learned that Netflix ordered a second season before even putting the first one on their service, but now I totally get it. They probably just wanted to see more, like everyone else. Then there’s Hannibal, which is easily the best show to premiere outside of cable in years with its stellar cast led by Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen, beautiful imagery, mood and atmospherics, and great writing thanks to creator and dark mastermind Bryan Fuller. Girls avoided the sophomore slump with a messy but overall fulfilling season including great, glorious scenes like this one (“She’s too self-involved to commit suicide.”). Enlightened was cruelly cancelled after being cruelly under-watched and the whole thing still just makes me sad so that’s enough about that. Also, 30 Rock‘s final few episodes in January put the show out on top, providing an emotional but hilarious farewell; Archer remains the most under-appreciated comedy on television; Justified continued its solid run of clever dialogue, great performances and killer storytelling; Mad Men‘s sixth season left some feeling unsatisfied but I think it worked wonderfully, and deserves to be mentioned if only for finally giving us this; and New Girl was great and funny all season but especially deserves recognition for the expert handling of The Kiss. And despite its many flaws, damn it was nice to have Arrested Development back.

Kevin

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Game of Thrones: I was a late bloomer to the amazingness that is Game of Thrones, but in the last two months I’ve watched all three seasons, leading me to conclusively say that this is the best show on TV right now. Acting? Better than most films I’ve seen. Directing? Excellently shapes the many story lines into one fairly understandable package. Cinematography? Beautiful and rich. Red Wedding? Horrifying beyond belief. It is no surprise that Game of Thrones has received 16 Emmy nominations for season 3.
The Voice: Considering how many reality TV shows there are about singing, and how many of those have become quite terrible (*cough* American Idol *cough*), The Voice is really surprisingly good. I loved Usher and Shakira as judges, especially compared to Christina Aguilera, and I think their charisma and actual understanding of the modern music industry helped the show out immensely. Though I was unhappy with the results, I thought the level of talent on the show, as well the show’s format, was better than anything of its genre I’ve ever seen.
MasterChef: I’m a sucker for cooking-competition shows, and I think that MasterChef is the best of its kind. In this program, Gordon Ramsay is far less of an unapologetic dick, and actually lets his food do the talking sometimes. I think the contestants that the producers bring on the show tend to be more appealing and likeable, to the point where the viewer would actually want to see them succeed rather than fail. Season 4 continued to impress me with its original challenges and captivating story lines (which are admittedly somewhat formatted by the producers, and then relayed to the contestants).

Duncan

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It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me to talk about the strength of a year of television over another. With the majority of shows coming out in a year being renewals of the previous season, there’s pretty good insurance of a year’s quality of programming. I certainly haven’t been keeping up with enough television to fairly make this judgment, but I’ll do so anyways. This year has seen the return of a few heavy hitters, Game of Thrones in particular just came off a very strong season. I ask you to look past all the hype of the big dogs, sorry Mad Men, for the show that has been the strongest this year. This is a little bittersweet considering the show’s untimely cancellation, but I believe it needs to be celebrated regardless. Enlightened delivered a season early this year with more narrative direction, as well as emotional strength. The show has a weird charm to it, and feels different than anything else on the air. Forget about Tony Soprano, never has a character made me feel so divided than Laura Dern’s Amy Jellicoe. This season also took the time to follow the supporting men in Amy’s life by spending episodes following Mike White and Luke Wilson’s (who was robbed of an Emmy nomination) characters. Screw the overpraised Girls, White and Dern have created the most consistent and powerful show in HBO’s line up, and nobody noticed.

ALBUM

Jake

Obsidian_album_coverMy favourite album of the year so far changes at least daily, if not hourly, so I thought that instead, like the TV section, I would mention a few that I really love. Baths are a band (or rather, person – Will Wiesenfeld) that I missed the initial buzz on, back in 2010, and only discovered a short time before the new album, Obsidian, dropped in May. But while Cerulean, the debut, was a collection of great electro-pop songs, Obsidian is Baths’ fully-realized vision. With deeply personal lyrics and a more expanded but refined sound environment, it is the type of thing practically made with my enjoyment in mind. Austra followed up on their excellent debut, 2011’s Feel It Break, an album that is very personal to me, with Olympia, a more collaborative and optimistic group of songs. Led by Katie Stelmanis’ beautiful opera-trained voice, their music still feels gloomy, it’s just surrounded by some more great beats this time. Then there is Yeezus. Kanye West‘s new album is that rare breed of “mildly disappointing only because it’s not perfect”, but then, that imperfection seems intentional. So despite the occasionally lazy lyrics and misogyny (and those two things are definitely intertwined), it’s still miles ahead of pretty much everything else. I’ve fallen out of love with some of this year’s “comebacks”, like Justin Timberlake and Daft Punk, but one that I still connect with is The Knife‘s Shaking the Habitual. Acting simultaneously as a feminist manifesto and experimental electronic album, it is full of ideas and good beats, too. I’ve also really liked the new albums from Vampire Weekend, Savages, Phoenix and Sigur Rós.

Kevin

WFTDWaiting for the Dawn – The Mowgli’s: This whole album (and the greater collection of work by this band) is pure joy. The Mowgli’s are an extremely positive band, with a very full sound (they are an 8-piece after all) and a tendency towards interesting instrumentation. I love that they have a guy who plays the melodica in a lot of their tunes because that’s just the kind of band they are (the weird kind). I also love that they are named after a character from The Jungle Book. Great band, uplifting album.
The 20/20 Experience – Justin Timberlake: As I’ve said before, this album is good, but not great. I stand by that, though it is still one of my favorite releases of the year. Timberlake shows a lot of his tendency to experiment with his music and sample beats and melodies from various cultures and countries, while still creating music friendly to American top 40 radio audiences. I love that he’s not scared of putting several eight-minute songs on the album, and that he truly shows a lot of variety in the style of his tunes. I just wish every tune was as good as “Mirrors”.
In a Tidal Wave of Mystery – Capital Cities: Capital Cities is a really fun indie pop duo who definitely generated some good press with the release of their EP in 2011, which featured, “Safe and Sound,” a completely dancey dance track. The band’s debut album is a collection of songs that are both catchy and intricate, leaving the listener grooving and thinking at the same time. “Kangaroo Court,” Is my favorite track from the album. The tune (and many of the other tunes on the album) features a prominent trumpet counter-melody, which is a nice surprise to see coming from a pop duo. This band will be big in the future (I’m still not sure if that’s a good thing…).

SONG

Jake


It is incredibly hackneyed by now to claim that any buzz band is “the next big thing”, but I really hope that CHVRCHES start to get a lot of attention when their debut album, The Bones of What You Believe, drops in a couple months. Every song they put out, from The Knife-inspired “The Mother We Share” to the delightful earworm that is “Gun”, I love them more. But my favourite of the released singles and of the year so far is “Recover”, the type of song that you can listen to over and over and never get sick of it (trust me). This is electro-pop perfection, people. “No Eyes” is the standout track for me from Baths’ Obsidian, with its personal story of sex addiction and infectious beats. “Full of Fire” is perhaps The Knife’s greatest achievement yet. “Blood on the Leaves” may mix Nina Simone with a tale of alimony, but Hudson Mohawke’s beats and Kanye’s impassioned delivery make it the highlight on Yeezus. “Latch” is truly wonderful, but is also indicative of how great Disclosure’s debut album, Settle, is in its entirety. Others worth noting: “Hannah Hunt” + “Diane Young” by Vampire Weekend, “Play by Play” by Autre Ne Veut, “Hurt Me Now” by Austra, “Now I’m All Messed Up” + “Closer” by Tegan and Sara, “Attracting Flies” by AlunaGeorge, “Ain’t It Fun” by Paramore, “Black Roses” by Charli XCX, “Get Lucky” + “Giorgio by Moroder” by Daft Punk, “The Real Thing” by Phoenix, “Human” by Daughter, “Warm in the Winter” by Glass Candy, “She Will” + “Husbands” by Savages, “I’m Waiting Here (feat. Lykke Li)” by David Lynch and “Slasherr” by Rustie.

Kevin


Say It, Just Say It – The Mowgli’s: I already wrote about how much I like the album, and this tune is probably the highlight for me. It perfectly summarizes their tendency towards group-sung choruses and really happy sounding instrumentals (major chords FTW). It’s high energy, well sung, and well written. Though I’m unlikely to hear this one on the radio anytime soon, I’d definitely call it my top summer song, and hopefully the band can gain a bit more of an audience because they certainly deserve it.
I Want Crazy – Hunter Hayes: Yeah that’s right, fuck you, Jake.
Centipede – Childish Gambino: Donald’s back and clever as ever. “Centipede” is inventive, catchy, and experimental. It’s maybe one of his most ambitious tunes yet. Gambino’s singing sounds better than I’ve ever heard it before and his rap is definitely impressive. What I love most about this tune is that it shows a progression in his work. This is a different side of the guy we came to know in Camp, and after just one song, I think I like it.

GAME

Jake

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Admittedly, I haven’t played too much from this year. But two that I have played are perfect examples of extremes in the gaming industry. On the one side, you have Bioshock Infinite, a mainstream, big-budget game that proves how good blockbuster games can be. Although it has its issues (including a major narrative problem with the Vox Populi), it is thoughtful storytelling complemented by beautiful visual aesthetics and a real emotional connection that develops between the player and Elizabeth, your companion. And on the other end of the spectrum is the indie point-and-click Kentucky Route Zero. Although only two Acts out of an eventual five have been released (the first in January, the second in May), the first two have been enough to impress me substantially with this quiet but gripping tale of a truck driver trying to make his way through the mysterious Route Zero in order to make a delivery. Even working on such a small budget, the game manages to create a beautiful and enigmatic atmosphere, along with a focus on Lynchian storytelling, strange sense of humour and all. I’ve also just finished The Last of Us and really enjoyed it, despite how much it borrows from other franchises, particularly in terms of gameplay and combat. There’s also the fact that such an adult, depressing, deliberately paced and engrossing narrative must be coupled with a high head-count in order for it to be a blockbuster game, a quality shared by Bioshock Infinite (the games also share a deep bond between the two main characters, and you get very emotionally involved with both). In the end, though, this game’s shortcomings are beyond forgivable because of how production values and outstanding execution (not to mention a top-notch story with a perfect ending) can make all the difference. If I had to choose, it would be my favourite of these three.

Kevin

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Temple Run 2: I can’t tell if this pick is going to come across as a troll or not, but I legitimately love Temple Run 2. The original was a game changer (semi-pun?) for mobile gaming, and I think the sequel stepped up and delivered some key improvements, while maintaining the game’s original vibe.  It’s still chaotic and still frustratingly difficult, but now it’s far more visually appealing and offers several new obstacles. I’m stoked to see what they’ll come up with for Temple Run 3.

The Last of Us: I’m going to preface this pick by saying that typically most of the years best games come out closer to the end of the year (for Christmas and such). However, The Last of Us was great. Like, really, really, really great. The game is intelligent, violent, and heart stopping. My only gripe is that it sometimes feels a little linear, but that’s okay because it’s FUN.
Side note: Journey was the best game of 2012 because REASONS.