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‘The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance’ is Dark, Twisted, Spectacular and a Technical Marvel

Everything a fan could want and possibly more!

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Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is an utter feast for the eyes, pulses, and minds and it will more than exceed the expectations of fans of Jim Henson’s original. This is one of the most ambitious and immersive TV events of the year – a series that builds on the wonderment of the 1982 film and delivers a smarter, creepier, more whimsical, and more narratively thrilling adventure. Age of Resistance is made with such intelligence, imagination, passion, and skill, that you can feel the filmmaker’s passion oozing out of every frame. Anyone else looking to make a fantasy TV series should take notes since this is a prime example of how to do it right.

Whether you’re watching for fulfilled nostalgia or simple curiosity, Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance will more than keep you enthralled with its craftsmanship and pure artistry. It’s extraordinary work, grandly conceived, brilliantly executed and one of the best fantasy tales since Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Let’s dive in.

THE DARK CRYSTAL: AGE OF RESISTANCE

A Bit of History

When Jim Henson’s passion project (co-directed with Frank Oz) hit theaters in 1982, nobody knew what to expect. The film received a mixed response including parental concerns about its dark nature but luckily for Henson who put his career (and his relationship with legendary producer Lord Lew Grade) on the line— The Dark Crystal became the 16th highest-grossing film of 1982 earning $40,577,001 stateside in its box office run. Not too shabby for a surprisingly dark fantasy film populated entirely by cutting-edge puppets. And while it didn’t earn as much as the producers would have liked, The Dark Crystal managed to turn a profit and thanks to home video, the movie began to find an even larger audience with time, becoming a bona fide cult hit with devoted fans worldwide asking for a sequel.

Now nearly forty years after its release, fans are getting what they want in the form of a 10-part fantasy series that serves as a prequel to Jim Henson’s most personal project. Thanks to Netflix, his daughter Lisa Henson was awarded the time, resources and budget to flesh out what the pioneering puppeteer started and the results are awe-inspiring.

THE DARK CRYSTAL: AGE OF RESISTANCE

Story

Adapted by writers Jeff Addiss, Will Matthews, and Javier Grillo-Marxuach, Age of Resistance expands upon the world that Henson crafted while taking certain elements from previously established lore such as J.M. Lee’s prequel novels. What’s most surprising about the series, however, is how closely it resembles the original film. Set fifty years before the events of The Dark Crystal, Age of Resistance follows a trio of Gelfling hailing from separate and distinct tribes that view the Skeksis as benevolent overlords only to soon learn their vulturesque masters are killing Geflings and drinking their “essence” to gain immortality. The band of determined Gelflings eventually join forces and set out on a mission to figure out what exactly is happening to the Crystal of Truth. Over ten episodes, Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance sees our heroes traverse the planet Thra and mount a growing rebellion against the Skeski parasitic rule. The action unfolds along multiple narrative lines as the treacherous Skeski fight to seize power over the planet and exploit the eponymous crystal with which they hold hostage in their underground laboratory. And so begins an epic journey full of heartache and difficult choices ahead. As Age of Resistance races along to its climax, the peaceful Geflings will encounter death, betrayal, and unspeakable acts of torture.  

This Show is Dark

Coming up with enough material to last ten hours can be a challenge, but The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance packs the narrative with so many subplots and so many characters, it’s at times difficult to keep up. Given that the season ends with multiple cliffhangers, it’s clear that the creators hope to continue the show and further develop the characters and the world they inhabit.

On the surface, Age of Resistance is your typical good-versus-evil story with plenty of twists and turns along the way as our heroes venture from one dangerous quest to the next. Despite being a series that stars puppets, Age of Resistance is very much a dark fairy tale tackling issues of climate change, misinformation, and the lies that corrupt and greedy world leaders will tell in order to maintain the status quo. The Skeksis after all, are power-hungry and somehow they have convinced the entire world that their greedy action is in everyone’s best interest. Somewhat more subtle is the commentary on same-sex marriage, racism, religion, and prejudices. But what really stands out is the level of violence and horror that I assume many won’t be expecting.

The Game of Thrones for kids…

One of the most memorable aspects of the original Dark Crystal is how it didn’t shy away from tackling the harrowing aspects of its subject matter despite its young target audience. Like any epic fantasy, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is filled with tragic deaths but I was somewhat surprised to see how it doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to showing the pain and suffering the Skeksis inflict on other characters with scenes of cruelty, torture, and murder. Most of the actual gore is kept offscreen (save for a few scenes featuring puppet blood) but it’s chockfull of nightmarish imagery guaranteed to frighten younger viewers. It doesn’t help that the Skeksis are deliberately foul in every way, and their actions place these characters alongside the evilest men and women from Winterfell. Needless to say, there is no shortage of death and tragedy here. Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is the stuff of nightmares, and even more depressing is knowing the grim reality of what’s to come in the future.

A Technical Marvel

The seventh episode of the first season is when things really start heating up, but amidst the action and spectacle is a touching scene in which a pair of wise puppets bring to life their own puppet show in order to relay vital information to the Gelflings on their quest. It’s just one of the many instances in which Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance either breaks the fourth wall and/or pays tribute to the original film (along with the art of puppetry)– and it’s these quieter moments that fans will appreciate most.

Speaking of which Age of Resistance features plenty of scenes of hand-to-hand combat, chases and action-packed battles. Directing all ten episodes, Louis Leterrier (Clash of the Titans) committed to keeping CGI enhancements to a minimum, so much so that when you do recognize CGI effects, they often become distracting. It can’t be overstated just how well Leterrier is able to navigate his camera around so many puppets while crafting a world that’s wholly immersive. Even more impressive is that Leterrier, along with his cinematographer Erik Alexander Wilson, shot each episode primarily with handheld cameras in order to dig into the action and make viewers seem like they are in the midst of the turmoil. Over 170 puppets were reportedly created by the Jim Henson Creature Shop for the series, and each and every character comes to life through careful camera placement, editing, and the physical performances by 83 expert puppeteers (Kevin Clash, Louise Gold, and Dave Goelz, to name a few), acrobats, dancers, stuntmen and yes its incredibly star-studded voice cast, which is way too many actors to name. A few standouts worth mentioning here, however, include none more than Simon Pegg‘s The Chamberlain; Mark Hamill who brings an over-the-top performance to his role as The Scientist; and Andy Samberg who steals the spotlight as a Skeksis heretic. Additional credit should be given to composer Daniel Pemberton and Samuel Sim who remain true to the soundtrack of the original film by Trevor Jones – and original creature/costume designers Brian and Wendy Froud, without whom this series would have never been made. The hard work of all these men and women combined helped create an effect that CGI just cannot replicate.

Dark Crystal Age of Resistance Review

What Louis Leterrier and company have accomplished here is amazing on every level. The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is a technical marvel and an achievement in the art form of puppetry. Every scene is teeming with life and every episode is blessed with a good script, fantastic performances, and stunning visuals. Age of Resistance is crammed with so much adventure, so many spectacular effects, so much derring-do, and so much visual wonder, it will keep some viewers coming back for more. More importantly, it’s clear the entire team went out of their way to stay true to Jim Henson’s vision and retain the spirit of the original film. Netflix deserves credit for taking a gamble on such an ambitious project and judging by how it ends, we will hopefully see a second season in the near future.

  • Ricky D

Some people take my heart, others take my shoes, and some take me home. I write, I blog, I podcast, I edit, and I design websites. Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Goomba Stomp and the NXpress Nintendo Podcast. Former Editor-In-Chief of Sound On Sight, and host of several podcasts including the Game of Thrones and Walking Dead podcasts, as well as the Sound On Sight and Sordid Cinema shows. There is nothing I like more than basketball, travelling, and animals. You can find me online writing about anime, TV, movies, games and so much more.

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The Righteous Gemstones Season One Episode 5 Review: “Interlude” Is an Early Series Highlight

The Righteous Gemstones flashes back and delivers its best episode yet.

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The Righteous Gemstones Interlude

One of Peak TV’s most pervasive trends is an addiction to the flashback episode – what was once a silly device to fill episode requirements on long running comedies became essential back bones to modern dramas. Propelled by shows like LOST and Orange is the New Black, which utilized frequent, lengthy flashbacks to build out its array of characters, the last few years have seen an uptick of these “retro” episodes – from Arrow to Westworld and even Carnival Row, modern shows have a penchant for self-indulgent episodes full of wigs and retro fashion. And while “Interlude,” The Righteous Gemstones‘ best episode yet, initially feels like another one of these unnecessary digressions, by the time it reaches the stunning conclusion of its 40-minute running time, it firmly establishes itself as one of the best episodes constructed in this very specific, suddenly popular mold.

As “Interlude” slowly lays out the many personalities and loyalties in Aimee Leigh’s life, The Righteous Gemstones begins to build out some of the more meaningful, contemplative ideas teased in its earlier episodes.

Where most flashback episodes fall apart is their sense of self importance; what “Interlude” understands is that it is possible to recreate a moment in the past without having to build some sense of mystery around it. “Wicked Lips” already gave us the foundation of the central conflict between Eli and Baby Billy, which means “Interlude” exists simply to give context and texture to stories and people we already understand. Billy’s opportunistic ways, Eli’s disgruntled sense of self, Judy’s strange, unappreciated uniqueness… all of these elements are well defined in the first four episodes of the series, and “Interlude” smartly doesn’t try to play coy with these long-festering conflicts.

The Righteous Gemstones Interlude

Centered around Aimee Leigh discovering she’s pregnant with Kelvin, “Interlude” is a careful observation of the ripple effect the news sends through the family. In doing so, The Righteous Gemstones goes through a radical emotional shift; rather than just being a black comedy about a falling evangelist empire, “Interlude” reveals a deeper, more complex emotional core to the young comedy – so much so, it almost feels like a different series, the humor of “Interlude” often taking a much subtler route than the abrasively juvenile style of the opening episodes.

But like Eli said, change takes time to understand; as “Interlude” slowly lays out the many personalities and loyalties in Aimee Leigh’s life, The Righteous Gemstones begins to build out some of the more meaningful, contemplative ideas teased in its earlier episodes. And it does so across a broad spectrum of characters; Billy’s desperation to stay relevant, Eli’s slow transformation into the imposing figure he’d become, and Jesse’s misbehavin‘ ways are all given voice in “Interlude,” injecting Gemstones with some much-needed emotional depth, which helps deepen the many Biblical parallels Danny McBride and his creative team are beginning to flesh out.

The Righteous Gemstones Interlude

But where “Interlude” surprises the most is with the two OG Gemstone women; both Aimee Leigh and young Judy spring to life as characters in this episode, offering intriguing perspectives on the two “true” Gemstone women. It’s a tough act to nail; Aimee Leigh is essentially the God of the Gemstone kingdom, her absence the foreboding catalyst for the downfall of the evangelical empire -you only get one shot at a first introduction for asuch an important character, and “Interlude” absolutely hammers it out of the park, as dynamic a combination of writing and performance by (the eternally incredibly talented) Jennifer Nettles.

“Interlude” offers a look at so many different shades of Aimee Leigh; as the family matriarch, the famous face of the burgeoning Gemstone empire, a sister, and a woman in her 40’s facing a difficult, unexpected pregnancy. In an episode with a lot already on its plate, the most impressive part of “Interlude” is how her character is brought to life; it’s hard to make a woman who manipulates poor people with cheap platitudes and displaced righteousness, but goddamnit, “Interlude” does it with nuanced grace, a highly unexpected (but entirely welcome) turn that nonetheless helps the many plot threads of the series find their harmony.

I mentioned Judy as another highlight; perhaps this one is more personal, as a one-time contender for “child in the family with the weirdest habits,”but where “Interlude” does so well is inform Judy’s character in the present. As the Gemstone family plans the future of their family business, she’s left to sit on the stairs alone, or be admonished for her stranger habits and indulgences; of course, this leads her to lash out, in the form of being an absolute bitch to her guests, during an elaborate birthday party thrown by her parents (perhaps as some sort of compensation for how intentionally excluded she is from the normal rhythms of the family).

The Righteous Gemstones Interlude

That party is the absolute highlight of the episode, the “pushing all the chips to the center of the table” moment for The Righteous Gemstones. While watching Judy piss and moan about the gifts she’s being given, Eli is admonished by his father for the people they’re turning into, tarnishing the humble legacy of their family name with extravagant gifts and exploitative practices. They talk about what Eli’s birthday used to look like (he’d usually get chores off for the day), leaving Eli to contemplate the generational chasm that inevitably forms in families, and how hard it can be to stay eternally loyal to the amorphous, irrational idea of what a family “should” be.

In typical Gemstones fashion, this leads to a drunk Jesse (thanks, Uncle Baby Billy!) getting shitfaced, puking on the hamburger grill while yelling at Eli about pissing on the face of his unborn sibling. But those moment of humor only act to illuminate the deeper conflicts The Righteous Gemstones is beginning to surface, ideas about legacy and loyalty that should illuminate characters like Kelvin, Judy, and Billy as Gemstones moves back into the present, and the temptations of power and money only continue to tear the inter generational bonds apart.

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Freaks and Geeks Episode 1 Review: “Pilot” Remains Iconic and Subversive

Our rewatch of Freaks and Geeks begins with the show’s infamous pilot episode.

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Freaks and Geeks Pilot

Even after twenty years, the opening minutes of Freaks and Geeks‘ first hour feel subversive; it opens on an overwrought confession of love between a football player and cheerleader (“I just love you so much… it scares me”) on the bleachers, only to immediately shove them off-frame to introduce us to the “freaks” hanging out below. In one beautifully-crafted shot, “Pilot” sidesteps so many of the shows of its era, from big names like Dawson’s Creek, to other fare like Hang Time or USA High (both notable as female-led series airing in the late 1990’s). This wasn’t a show about the stress of winning regionals or melodramatic love triangles; Freaks and Geeks was interested in more fundamental truths about adolescence, about those formative years of life where elements of the real world begin to seep into the sugar-coated fictions of childhood. At its very core, it is about the infancy of identity, the beginning of the lifelong struggle to figure out who we are.

Freaks and Geeks captures the poetic dichotomy of high school life: how every small personal or moral victory gained in the four years between middle school and college, is often met with a doubly embarrassing and humiliating experience.

The first characters we meet are the male freaks – who, ironically, would be the three actors who would become the biggest stars of the show. Daniel Desario (James Franco) is telling Nick Andopolis (Jason Segel) and Ken Miller (Seth Rogan) about the “edgy” Molly Hatchet t-shirt he wore to church. Daniel’s aghast at why the priest wouldn’t let him in: “Why not, man? It’s church; we’re supposed to forgive people there.”

Freaks and Geeks Pilot

Both an interesting framing device for it’s most complicated character (he’s wearing someone else’s shirt to form an identity, something we’ll see explored more later in the series) and an indictment on what the high school experience is like, writer Paul Feig’s opening lines are laser-focused on upsetting the stereotypes and expectations of what a high school story is; though many series of its ilk posited themselves as explorations of identity, few even attempted to explore the psychological (and existential) implications of high school in a way the first ten minutes of Freaks and Geeks quietly does.

From there, “Pilot” slowly begins to build out its expansive cast of characters, set against the backdrop of the first day back to school after summer vacation – one that just so happens to form a demarcation of the Weir children’s identities, as they begin to break out of the archetypal boxes placed on them by their class mates, teachers, and society as a whole. Seeking nuance where most shows would look to establish familiarity, it’s the little touches to Lindsey and Sam’s characters that flesh them out so magnificently; while there are certainly the familiar notes of “suddenly rebellious teen” and “nerd striving for more,” there’s great care built into the show’s two central protagonists. Lindsey suddenly wearing her father’s army coat, Sam’s absolute fear of any kind of emotional interaction… these notes are subtly surfaced throughout the first hour, and help establish an impressive ability to build characters, of which it would do so about a dozen times in the first hour (save for maybe Rogan’s Ken, who is just an insufferable douche in his few starring moments).

More importantly, Freaks and Geeks captures the poetic dichotomy of high school life: how every small personal or moral victory gained in the four years between middle school and college, is often met with a doubly embarrassing and humiliating experience. Take Sam Weir (John Francis Daley) and his friends, Neal Schweiber (Samm Levine) and Bill Haverchuk (Martin Starr, in arguably the show’s best role); they try to stop the class bully Alan (Chauncey Leopardi) from picking on them, only to endure triple the ridicule and physical intimidation from standing up to him. Sam even conjures up the nerve to ask out his biggest crush Cindy Sanders in painfully awkward fashion (Natasha Melnick), but she’s already got a date (but promises to save a dance for him, which hardly turns out the way he expects).

What remains impressive is how Feig hasn’t forgotten these moments of insecurity and struggling with self-definition, or conflated those struggles with sentimentality for the space between a child’ts life and adulthood. It explicitly rejects that approach for something more contemplative, and in its unassuming honesty, something far more layered and exploratory.

Freaks and Geeks Pilot

In one of the pilot’s best scenes, her brother Sam comes to talk to her after she explodes on her father Harold (Joe Flaherty), who tries to point his daughter in the right direction by pointing out that everyone dies when they do things wrong. When Sam asks her (in Millie’s words) “why are you throwing away your life?”, Lindsey’s response is heartbreaking. She reveals she was alone with her grandmother when she died, and saw how scared she got when her grandmother saw “nothing” waiting for her as she felt herself dying.

“She was a good person – and that’s what she got,” she tells Sam, and Lindsey’s search for identity snaps into place: she’s coming face to face for the first time with the biggest existential question of them all… what the hell is the point of a life? It’s a trauma most adults can hardly contend with, forget teenagers who barely know what their life will look like six months from now; “Pilot” places Lindsey squarely in the center of that essential internal conflict – and more importantly, observes just how ill-equipped the world around her is to answer her question, the well-meaning intentions of others, like her parents or Mr. Rosso, the school counselor ultimately empty, self-serving gestures to assuage their own fears (or in Rosso’s case, trying to win the academic decathlon).

It’s a rather unconventional approach to take for a high school series, to immediately marginalize many of the events it contains – particularly those of the “geeks”, and their fear of bullies – dismissing the typical high school narratives as the vapid pieces of work they are. Like a spiritual successor to Dazed and Confused (or a predecessor to Linklater’s other young adult masterpiece, Everybody Wants Some), the typical high school experience is but a lens for more meaningful explorations of character and identity, and not the other way around.

It’s even more unconventional for a high school series to center itself on a young woman, one not concerned with boys, popularity, or some strange intersection of the two: Lindsey’s conflicts are decidedly internal, rejecting the empty sense of accomplishment garnered from her intelligence and achievement in competition. She’s still young and naive – her visible crush on Daniel’s freewheeling approach to life a clear sign – but she’s both in control of her emotions, and isn’t dismissed as a superficial entity, as so many other high school shows would do with their central female characters (I’m looking at you, Gossip Girl). She’s not a cheerleader or an Ugly Betty; she’s Lindsey Weir, a complicated, confused person trying to find her way – Freaks and Geeks‘ ability to personify her, without judging or manipulating her into a stereotype, is still a fascinating thing to deconstruct.

Freaks and Geeks Pilot

Another reason Freaks and Geeks remains an all-time favorite of mine is how this approach is eventually applied to every character in the series,big or small. Though this isn’t necessarily conveyed effectively in the first hour (after all, it’s only 49 minutes, which leaves little room for characters like Millie or Ken to be developed), but as the series continues, Feig’s signature becomes defining a set of archetypes by breaking down and redefining the stereotypes it employs. Even the bullies like Alan and Kim Kelly (an absolutely magnificent Busy Phillips) get defined a bit: as the geek seer Harry Trinksy tells Sam and company when they’re seeking options to solve their bully problem, the reason he’s picking on them is probably because he wants a friend, and just doesn’t know how to express his feelings. It doesn’t forgive him for being as asshole (as Harry’s friend points out), but it fills out a snot-nose shithead like Alan, and make him a much more three-dimensional character than he had any right to be (and one it would further expand on, in later episodes like “Chokin’ and Tokin'”.

Oddly, the part of “Pilot” Feig, Apatow and company attribute most to the early dismissal by most of the series is the presence of Eli, a mentally retarded character played very heavily by Ben Foster. I tend to disagree – Eli’s one of the more important characters of the pilot, revealing to Lindsey what a self-righteous journey her public displays of rebellion have been. When she calls out the kids who are joking around with him (in a semi-mean way, but are still being friendly), she insults Eli, who runs away and falls, breaking his arm in the process. It’s a brutal reminder to Lindsey about how honesty can be such a double-edged sword in a world like high school – and a condemnation of her attempts to appeal to other students by being his date to the dance (which later serves another purpose, when they share a dance and Freaks and Geeks reminds us just how trivial and easily solved so many dramatic high school moments can be).

Although every minute of a pilot is tough, the final sequence is really the hardest, often leading to overt platitudes, forced emotional moments, or plot set-up for a potential series: Freaks and Geeks does none of these, pushing most of the characters aside in its final minutes to focus on Lindsey and Sam at the homecoming dance. Sam finally gets the dance with Cindy he’s been dreaming about – but it’s not a slow song like he thinks, as Styx’s “Come Sail Away” goes from its slow opening chords to the moving, dreamy prog rock beat of the verses and chorus. Lindsey apologizes to Eli, and lets all the problems of her life melt away around her as they sway to the increasingly-loud backing track, finally taking off her father’s bomber jacket and enjoying the moment she’s in, and not worrying about the ones past and to follow. It’s simply a beautiful, beautiful conclusion, one that still makes any room I’m in extremely dusty when watching it.

Freaks and Geeks Pilot

It really can’t be understated the use of “Come Sail Away” in this scene; as the song’s ludicrous lyrics ebb and flow through the ever-changing instrumentation, Freaks and Geeks uses its licensed music in “Pilot” as a parallel for the series to follow. So often Freaks and Geeks would take the normal, almost operatic approach to high school conflict, and re-contextualize it, immediately undercutting the expected conflicts to tug away at the deeper truths forming during those times, transforming moments we’ve seen so many times before, into uniquely moving, haunting pieces of contemplative art.

We all know the unfortunate fate of Freaks and Geeks, dismissed by NBC and America, cancelled before airing its final handful of episodes (which would show up later in the fall to little fanfare). But like many cult favorites, its cancellation was a blessing in disguise: there are few blemishes of failed story lines, and no time for controversial cast changes or the inevitable dip in quality shows see in longer runs. For 18 episodes, Freaks and Geeks is near-perfect television, a depressingly poignant look at high school (and the world) in 1980, with a few hopeful moments thrown in to remind us that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, a time when we can look back and remember the trials and tribulations much more fondly than we could actually living it. Even if there’s nothing waiting for us in the end, Freaks and Geeks argues that the journey of discovery is worth the trip itself, as long as we’re suffering through it all together.

Other thoughts/observations:

  • Welcome to our 20th anniversary Freaks and Geeks celebration! I’m going through all my original Sound on Sight/PopOptiq reviews from back in 2013, re-examining each episode and expanding each of my original pieces on the series over the next two weeks.
  • Seriously, if you’ve never seen the closing sequence of “Pilot,” it is perhaps my favorite five-minute sequence of television. Watch it.
  • Nobody ever knows how to say Neal’s last name correctly.
  • the dodgeball scene is pure art.
  • Mr. Ross makes a great point to Lindsey about her relative privilege; her biggest concern is being sentenced by her prosperous family to attend a homecoming dance, a bit of sorely-needed perspective so many other genre counterparts willingly ignore.
  • Among other things, Nick’s drum kit has 2 gongs, 10 cowbells, 12 toms… and four kick drums, as overwrought and useless as it sounds. It’s construction does a lot to explain the comment he makes earlier about shop being the only class he can pass, though.
  • It’s difficult to watch Eli’s character through the pilot: in a series that often explores the lack of genuine support systems for its characters (and how fundamentally important it can be to healthy development), seeing Eli struggles to exist and be accepted are heart wrenching.
  • Between Freaks and Geeks and Other Space, Paul Feig is behind two of my favorite “why the fuck did they cancel these after a single season” series.
  • Bill asks Neal a poignant question about his bullying: “What’s the point of all this?” Alan doesn’t have an answer, so of course, he compensates with his aggression. We’ll learn more about where that comes from later on.
  • Sam’s “that could be good” when Cindy says she’ll save a dance for him… it is awkward perfection, a perfect showcase of how well-casted John Francis Daley is in the role.
  • Nick talks about how much disco sucks, and Bill threatens someone who makes a joke about dating his mom… even though it is only the first episode, Freaks and Geeks is smartly planting seeds for future episodes to germinate in fascinating ways.
  • Neal suggests enlisting Kim to beat up Alan after she intimidates the hell out of Sam – probably not a terrible idea.
  • Bill just wishes his mom would leave notes inside his lunch, instead of writing them in ink on the front of the bag, giving him the “Little Man” moniker he is frequently mocked with.
  • “Should I wear a cup for this?” “That’s between you and your God, Bill.”
  • I always forget how much the opening credits of this show fucking rock.
  • “For the record, I weigh 103 pounds.” Line kills me every time.
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“Rodman: For Better or Worse” is a Superlative 30 for 30 Documentary

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Dennis Rodman in "Rodman: For Better or Worse"

The question of whether a professional athlete who supposedly causes a lot of trouble off the field or in the locker room is worth the trouble for his team — and the accompanying question of whether such framing is fair to the athlete after all — remains frequent in professional sports discourse. At pretty much all times, that debate is being had about one sports star or another. Throughout the 1990s, the most frequent subject of such discussion was NBA forward Dennis Rodman. He’s in the basketball Hall of Fame, was on five NBA championship teams, and is generally considered one of the best rebounders in the history of the game. 

He was also once referred to, on the cover of Sports Illustrated, as “the NBA’s weirdest player,” and probably made more headlines in his career for his various antics than for what he did on the court. He dated Madonna. He cross-dressed, hinted that he was gay, and once “married himself” while wearing a full wedding dress. He joined pro wrestling’s NWO. He had ugly divorces from multiple NBA teams (and from multiple women), and after retirement, he befriended North Korean dictator — and supposed Bulls fan — Kim Jong Un, claiming credit for his subsequent summits with the president. 

Now, ESPN’s 30 for 30 series has released a documentary about Rodman, titled “Rodman: For Better Or Worse.”  Directed by Todd Kapostasy, the husband of figure skater Tara Lipinski, the film goes through the entire history of the man known as “The Worm,” from his troubled youth up through his career, his many controversies, and his post-retirement life. It’s a fair, accurate and balanced depiction of Rodman that understands why he was a significant figure in NBA history, but also doesn’t let him off the hook for some of his antics. For instance, the film has no interest in making excuses for the North Korea stuff, or for the time Rodman kicked a cameraman for no reason during a game. 

To its credit, “Rodman: For Better or Worse” cares about Rodman’s actual on-court game, and why it was important and revolutionary. He was a dominant rebounder who hardly ever shot or scored — the the type of player who might not have a place in today’s game, when rebounding matters a lot less. And yet Rodman was a significant player, part of the Detroit “Bad Boys” teams (subject of their own 30 for 30 a few years ago), as well as the first contending David Robinson teams in San Antonio and the second cycle of championships of the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls. His career concluded with ill-fated stints with the Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks. 

“Rodman: For Better or Worse” is far from a pure hagiography and apology. For one thing, it includes footage of Rodman’s adult daughter revealing that her father was hardly ever around for her childhood. This evokes shades of the Ric Flair 30 for 30, which had as a primary takeaway that the wrestling legend was a terrible father. The film also goes into the incident where Rodman considered suicide when he played for Detroit, and indicates that the player has battled mental illness and substance abuse throughout his life. 

“Rodman: For Better or Worse” mostly leans on media members as talking heads, although there’s also some presence of his former teammates. John Salley is all over the film, while Isiah Thomas and David Robinson appear briefly, with Thomas even walking off camera while crying. The producers were also able to land the big fish — Michael Jordan — who doesn’t do this sort of thing often. (And in traditional Jordan fashion, he has nothing of note to say.) 

All of that works, but there’s one thing in particular that doesn’t. For some reason, weird metatextual touches that accompany an intrusive narration by Jamie Foxx are tacked on at points. Not only are the touches a bit too cute, but the film doesn’t even commit to them. It’s also not exactly clear why footage of the Broadway production of Oklahoma! needed to be used to demonstrate that Rodman lived in Oklahoma. 

The 30 for 30 series began ten years ago next month as an ambitious series of documentaries meant to commemorate ESPN’s 30th anniversary, while encroaching on HBO’s then-dominant position in sports documentaries. A decade on, 30 for 30 isn’t quite as ambitious. There are only five or six of them each year, they’re no longer being made by famous directors (Peter Berg and Barry Levinson made some of the early films), and seemingly half of them somehow involve the University of Miami football team. At their best, they look back on sports stories you probably barely remember, and do them justice. These includes docs like Big Shot, the 2013 story about how a guy named John Spano lied about having money so he could buy the New York Islanders. There’s also the following year’s The Day The Series Stopped, about the earthquake that disrupted the 1989 World Series. At worst, there’s ridiculous stuff like where Deion Sanders talks about the time he played both baseball and football on the same day — which probably doesn’t crack the top ten of intriguing stories from Sanders’ sports career. 

Occasionally 30 for 30 gets super-ambitious, like with the Oscar-winning OJ: Made in America from 2016, and 2017’s Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies; and they’re doing it again next year, with a long documentary about the 1990s Chicago Bulls teams on which Rodman played.  The show also has branched into podcasts, including a terrific recent series about the fall of racist Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. “Rodman: For Better or Worse” isn’t quite up to those heights, but it’s still a winning entry. 

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The Righteous Gemstones Season One Episode 4 Review: “Wicked Lips” Finishes On a High Note

The terrific third act of “Wicked Lips” begins to realize The Righteous Gemstones’ abundant potential.

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The Righteous Gemstones Wicked Lips

“Wicked Lips” is akin to an amuse bouche of The Righteous Gemstones‘ deeper-seeded ideas and explorations; though one might expect that to occur in the first few episodes, there’s a lot more meat on the bones here than say, last week’s entertaining-but-gaudy “They Are Weak, He Is Strong”. More importantly, it accomplishes this by focusing on some of the show’s more shapeless characters, giving strong definition to characters like Amber and Kelvin in a rather impressive third act.

The harder “Wicked Lips” tugs at the most damning ironies contained inside its protagonists, the more tantalizing the climatic potential of these stories becomes.

There’s still a bit of tonal chicanery for The Righteous Gemstones to figure out, but “Wicked Lips” is a step in the right direction, the episode recalculating its own formula on the fly. What begins as severely dated comedy (cyber goth dancing!) eventually gives way to something much more ominous, as Danny McBride and his writing team begin to pull on the many, many loose threads left in the wake of the Gemstone empire. Baby Billy’s desperation to be integrated back into the business, Gideon and Scotty’s burgeoning plan to rip off the family, Chad’s inability to delete his emails… these stories all begin to percolate during “Wicked Lips,” a build up of anxiety personified by Keefe’s extremely uncomfortable attempts to avoid the trappings of his former life.

The Righteous Gemstones Wicked Lips

Quietly, the theme of “Wicked Lips” becomes about salvation, and what motivates and defines it for those in the gravitational pull of the Gemstone empire. Like anything else in capitalism, salvation is a commodity to be bought, traded and sold, one that can be shaped into anything, from vengeance to desperation, all the way to outright authoritarianism, seen best when Kelvin invades a young woman’s room, all because her rich parents think she’s being tempted by Satan and her shitty boyfriend.

Most importantly, “Wicked Lips” asks the question of what we are willing to sacrifice to “save” ourselves, and how easily that can be taken advantage of. Kelvin doesn’t want to help Dot for her own good; he’s doing it to prove a point to his father, just as Gideon is silently trying to do to his family (by robbing them blind). The Righteous Gemstones is a world full of people who are far less than pure of heart; seeing that manifest in a multitude of different ways, particularly those outside the bounds of “evangelists being rich sure is weird!,” is fascinating, especially when it builds out a bit of depth for some of its weaker characters, like Kelvin and Amber.

It all builds to a rather terrific final sequence, when Jesse nearly kills his son trying to exact his revenge on the ominous red van that tried to black mail him – excuse me, “doing a car prank”. In an episode whose visual influences range from Goodfellas to Step Up (seriously; Kelvin’s gymnastics sequence just needed a Gabrielle Union cameo), it is the car chase at the end that shines brightest. Watching Jesse chase Scotty’s van down a dark, empty road serves an exciting visual metaphor the scene builds on with each shot, from the bright lights of Jesse’s SUV lighting up the inside of the van, to the milk-white pistol Jesse draws once the van violently crashes in the middle of the road.

The Righteous Gemstones Wicked Lips

Jesse doesn’t need to actually hit the van for it to flip; after all, Psalms teaches the followers of Christianity that the wicked will undo themselves, their wicked and twisted ways eventually becoming their undoing. Though it fits the moment for Gideon and Scotty, it’s really an ominous sign for Jesse and every other member of the Gemstone family; the faster they go and the harder they chase their Godless indulgences, the more dangerous their tunnel vision of temptation will lead them to an inevitable downfall.

“Wicked Lips” leans hard into that, whether it’s Keefe resisting the Satanist temptations of his old life, or Jesse trying to hide the fallout from the activities his world would define as Satanist; the juxtaposition is rich, and although it does take “Wicked Lips” some time to push those parallels together in a meaningful way, it is magical to watch it unfold across the last eight minutes of the episode.

Though next week’s flashback episode is titled “Interlude,” the final act of “Wicked Lips” really feels like the turning point for its first season, slowly bringing some of the season’s bigger ideas and turns to the surface. It is most certainly a half hour of percolating material; nothing is particularly explosive, but the harder “Wicked Lips” tugs at the most damning ironies contained inside its protagonists, the more tantalizing the climatic potential of these stories becomes.

Other thoughts/observations:

  • The Righteous Gemstones was renewed for a second season today, ensuring that the unholy misadventures of the Gemstone family will live into 2020.
  • I know the costuming of this show is meant to be overwrought and stage-y, but it still feels like Kelvin’s outfits and hairdo are out of sync with the show’s actual tone. In a way, it’s too much of a caricature.
  • It serves its narrative purpose well, but Dot suddenly deciding to join youth group seems… an unearned moment? I’m willing to give The Righteous Gemstones the benefit of the doubt, for the time being.
  • “I got the power of God in me, son…. and I will fuck you up.”
  • Billy’s unguarded enthusiasm to do anything that involves him making money is the kind of naked desperation McBride always spins comedy gold out of. I can’t wait to see this show unwind Billy’s strange cardboard persona as the season continues.
  • One simply can’t deny the wet drops emoji is not a cum reference; what else could you actually use it for???
  • Though it seems hard to believe the money laundering going on at the Gemstone church – trust me, people give away crazy amounts of money to these people. I mean, Jim Bakker went to fuckin’ prison, and that dude’s still got a career.
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‘Wu-Tang: An American Saga’: Hulu’s Latest Doesn’t Bring the Ruckus

Hulu’s latest series is part rose-eyed biopic and part cliche gangster drama, neither of which are particularly effective.

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Wu-Tang: An American Saga is one of 2019’s stranger creations; presenting itself as a semi-autobiographical retelling of the legendary Staten Island rap collective’s origins, Wu-Tang: An American Saga is really an urban melodrama in the vein of Power or The Wire, albeit one without the understanding of self the aforementioned shows pertain. Like the super group whose story it is fictionalizing, Hulu’s latest drama is a mess of contrasting styles, ideas, and approaches as maddeningly inconsistent as the Wu catalog. Equally earnest and self-righteous, Wu-Tang: An American Saga‘s best moments are often its quietest, haunting interludes between musical sequences and trite gangster story lines; unfortunately, those moments are spread too thin across its first three episodes to hold the whole experiment together.

Equally earnest and self-righteous, Wu-Tang: An American Saga‘s best moments are often its quietest – unfortunately, those moments are spread too thin across its first three episodes to hold the whole experiment together.

Co-created by the RZA (him and Method Man also serve as executive producers, with most members of Wu-Tang Clan noted as “Consulting Producers”) with Alex Tse (whose previous credits include co-writing 2009’s Watchmen film), Wu-Tang: An American Saga centers its story around a young Bobby Diggs, stuck between the drug world that keeps the family bills paid, and the music world he so desperately wants to break into. Played by Moonlight‘s Ashton Sanders, the character of young RZA forms the foundation of the series, positing young Bobby as the connective thread between the many different characters and happenings in Wu-Tang‘s fictionalized version of 1991 Staten Island.

Problem is, so many of those characters and situations feel like echoes of 30 years of material from New Jack City to Empire; though there’s an undeniable understanding of the show’s fictional versions of Bobby, Sha, Dennis, Cliff, Ason, and company, Wu-Tang insists on drawing out their origin story from the same blueprint as its obvious cinematic influences. Which in a way, feels a bit self-aggrandizing; in its attempts to feel gritty and realistic, the influence of the show’s subjects on their portrayals seeps through the material, which at times, places its characters inside genre cliches in strange, self-glorifying moments.

That lack of separation from subject to screen is impossible to ignore; it only feels like half the conversation is being had, so reluctant to observe its subjects rather than deify them through cliched material. Take the character of Ason (aka a young Ol’ Dirty Bastard): Wu-Tang‘s first three episodes effectively portray Ason as the unhinged, lovable radical with crazy dreads that was his public image around fans; TJ Atom’s performance is wonderful, capturing the freewheeling joy that was the foundation of Ason’s unusual creativity and personality. But Ason was also a serial abuser, a rampant alcoholic and drug addict, and most likely suffered from undiagnosed mental illnesses (plus other traumas, like the time NYC cops took shots at him for effectively no good reason) that eventually led to his death in the middle of Wu-Tang’s New York studio.

Though Wu-Tang: An American Saga has every right not to engage with that part of his story, there’s a feeling of massaging ODB’s legacy through this show that I feel with every character, refusing to explore even the ideas of inner conflict and morality that makes the exercise feel… well, a bit masturbatory at times. Having the foreknowledge of their success, and their well-known influence on American culture is baked right into the series, an unspoken framing of every scene that allows its creators to not really engage with their own legacy on an interesting level.

Wu-Tang An American Saga

For better or worse, it feels like a Wu-Tang album; one that straddles the line between honest storytelling and reinforcing its own worst habits, one willing to go on strange diatribes (the second episode has some strange, randomly inserted animated bits) and unsatisfying diversions, all in what feels like cherry-picked personifications of its characters. The most frustrating of these isn’t even Ason – it’s Shameik Moore’s Sha, an absolute miscalculation of performance and character that drags down the entire Wu-Tang affair.

Quite frankly, the way Raekwon comes off in Wu-Tang is dumb: in their attempts to paint him with shades of gray, the series simply leaves him as a big blank. Considering how integral he is to one of the show’s central mysteries – the first episode begins with him spraying bullets through the windows of a young Ghostface’s home, before stashing the gun at RZA’s family home – Wu-Tang‘s inability to explore Sha in three dimensions sells many of its big dramas short. Sha is meant to be conflicted, torn between his job, his dreams, and his childhood friends – but the show, and its audience, already know how the story ends, and Wu-Tang takes no chances at trying to define Sha beyond his actions, which just make him an empty vessel for the show’s lesser, more stereotypical elements.

When Wu-Tang is able to divorce itself from the friendly self-authorship of its story, there are signs Wu-Tang can find its voice at the strange intersection between 90’s gangster epic and musical biopic; sequences with Bobby’s attempts to buy a drum machine, coupled with Dennis’s hidden relationship with his boss’s sister are genuine attempts to bridge the gap between humans and legends, rare side plots that give Wu-Tang some sense of identity beyond simply mythologizing their origin story.

Wu-Tang An American Saga

I just wish there was more of that, and less of the show’s attempts to emulate so many of its cinematic influences (or in the case of Method Man, shows he’s already been on), in order to build empty melodramatics around its characters, themselves largely a collection of archetypes Wu-Tang doesn’t want to add any unique, or unflattering, shades to. People simply are who they are because of their environment, Wu-Tang argues, at times even suggesting Bobby is the only one with a vision beyond the ghetto, beyond the short life spans and long jail sentences that have plagued generations of young black people (though in the rare moments where Wu-Tang does lean heavy into those sociopolitical elements, it does have a bit of spark), and nearly consumed the lives of the Wu-Tang Clan before they made it.

Whether the events of Wu-Tang: An American Saga are factual, are irrelevant: what matters is how those stories are adapted to the screen, and how the clear influence of its subjects colors their on-screen portrayals. Unfortunately, most of Wu-Tang‘s first three hours are too consumed by that thought to have anything interesting to say on its own; it’s rather happy to indulge itself in the habits and rhythms of other fiction, with the strange undercurrent of never letting its characters exude any kind of real, inner conflict about their inherent destinies. With time, maybe Wu-Tang will find that; but there’s little sign this series is more than a handful of evocative rhyming sessions, a few revelatory moments of discovery, and a whole lot of cliched storytelling and one-dimensional characterizations, in what amounts to an underwhelming adaptation of a quintessential American story.

Other thoughts/observations:

  • Dave East co-stars as a young Method Man, and holy shit, does he do a great Method imitation.
  • There’s so much dichotomy between the show’s performances: where as Sanders’ RZA is so artfully constructed with subtle looks and physical performance, Siddiq Saunderson’s Dennis (aka Ghostface) feels like a gangster caricature, showy and large in all the wrong ways.
  • There’s a speech given in a flashback about the “light” and the “dark” that is so laughably amateurish, one of a couple examples of Tse and RZA flimsily opining to the audience.
  • another subplot introduces and disposes of a flashy character in the span of an hour, a cheap dramatic cash-in I really wish the show would’ve avoided, because it falls flat and swallows most of the third episode whole.
  • Ultimately, these first three episodes are not very good – but I’m going to be sticking with the first season, because I’m curious if those few elements of promise can be drawn out into something powerful. I’ll check back in after the season finale.

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