David’s Watch Diary: January/February 2020

Thoughts on The Witcher, The Good Place, BoJack Horseman, and more.

The Witcher (Netflix)

I suppose the first surprise is that I watched it. I have never read Polish author Andrej Sapkowski’s novels, played any of the Witcher games, or had much interest in the franchise despite its Thrones-ian trappings. When this Witcher dropped on Netflix in December to tepid reviews, I figured I could safely avoid having to cram yet another fantasy world into my head. But my steadfast refusal to ever Log Off kept me in the sights of a fairly steady stream of memes, jokes, and articles, including from a number of objectively savvy TV watchers, and I was worn down. “We’re gonna check out The Witcher,” I told my wife. “The what now?” she responded, temporarily setting down her copy of Wheel of Time. “Apparently it’s not bad if you know going in that it’s set on three different timelines.” “Oh.” We were excited, if you couldn’t tell.

And for the first couple episodes, we still weren’t sure. The Witcher doesn’t just not hold your hand, it seems to actively not care whether you’re keeping up. Not only are you hurled headlong into the usual morass of strange names and locations with nary a helpful map or chyron in sight, characters use terms like “the conjunction of the spheres” and “trial of the grasses” and don’t bother explaining them, and the ones they do, like the absolutely critical “Law of Surprise,” get half-hearted definitions at best. The sound mixing is slightly muddled, making it even harder to pick out key exposition. On top of everything, creator Lauren Schmidt Hissirch makes the curious decision to separate the show’s three main characters — the titular monster hunter Geralt (Henry Cavill), mage Yennefer (Anya Chalotra) and princess of destiny Ciri (Freya Allen) not just across space, but time, and you have to piece all of that together yourself.

It’s understandable, given all this, that TV critics with too much on their plate gave up partway through or couldn’t give it the focus it demanded. But we stuck with it anyway, and around the fourth episode, “Of Banquets, Bastards, and Burials,” the series’s labyrinthine plot turned the corner. By the fifth, it had gotten looser and funnier. By the sixth, we were hooked, and then the finale objectively rocked. Lo and behold, The Witcher is good. It toggles between the wide aperture of Thrones, with its massive battles and palace intrigue, to Mandalorian– (or Hercules: The Legendary Journeys-) style episodes focused on a single hunt that still develops its characters. I dig the production design and the strong performances, especially from Cavill, who single-mindedly hunted down the role for years, and Chalotra, whose Yenn is out to prove that the Continent’s greatest sorceress really can Have it All.

Even better, there are so many women credited as writers and directors that it sidesteps much of the ickiness that plagued early seasons of Thrones. It shares plenty of thematic ideas in common, namely in placing the damaged members of a soon-to-be makeshift family unit at its center, but it also avoids sinking under the weight of self-importance. The Witcher instead embraces its campier aspects, like the enjoyable meta commentary provided by the bard Jaskier (Joey Batey), the dementedness of Geralt’s many monster fights, or how a key character is literally named “Mousesack” and no one thought that should change. Though it ends thrillingly, with Yenn unleashing her full firepower in service of the realm and with Geralt and the perpetually-on-the-run Ciri finally crossing paths, it’s got room to grow. If the next season can ditch the needlessly non-linear plotting and make the Nilfgaardian villains more than cardboard cutouts, The Witcher can evolve from “mildly guilty pleasure” to the Westeros-sized hit Netflix desperately wants it to be.

The Good Place, Season 4 (NBC)

After four seasons of narrative curveballs and resets, I finally knew exactly where The Good Place was going. Team Cockroach had completely fixed the afterlife for all of eternity (and all of humanity) in the span of two episodes, either one of which could have served as a moving and satisfying series finale. But like every concept their show has introduced, Mike Schur and his pun-happy writing staff were going to see these characters’ journeys all the way to their logical conclusion — a conclusion heavily telegraphed by the final beats of “Patty” and by the final episode’s title, “Whenever You’re Ready.” If Janet creates a Chekhov’s gate that disperses your essence back into the universe, people are gonna use it. Of course, and to the immense credit of the most thought-provoking network comedy of our time, it still left me a tear-streaked mess.

Despite The Good Place’s nervy, liquid plotting, and its memorable and lovable characters, it was more than anything a show about the abstract — big, bold ideas about ethics, the society in which we live, and what is expected of us. The season’s early episodes struggled to make best use of the test subjects for Michael and Eleanor’s last-ditch experiment, but it turned out that it was never really about them — instead, that arc served to lay the groundwork for Chidi’s final brainwave, turning former enemies Vicky and Shawn into allies and rewriting the cosmic rules of the afterlife altogether. Instead of being sent to the Bad Place for all eternity, souls can now work their way up to respectability. When the endless pleasures of the Good Place finally get boring (when you play the perfect game of Madden, or have read every book, or just feel like its time), you can leave that too. These are questions that philosophers and undergrads alike have debated for centuries, so it’s kind of insane that a series this thematically dependent on the abstract ever worked at all, let alone was this entertaining.

The homestretch of episodes also showcased the talented ensemble at their best. Kristen Bell, who had a blast for four years playing an Arizona trash bag learning how to be good, gave Eleanor’s final scenes grace notes of pathos, especially alongside D’Arcy Carden’s Janet, who despite not being a person was the series’ beating heart all along. I’ll miss them all — Jason, Tahani, Mindy St. Clair, the Judge, and the unimpeachable Ted Danson — but I’ll also miss The Good Place’s mad dedication to its own central thesis, paired beautifully with the warmth and sincerity that has become a Mike Schur hallmark. Whatever your thoughts on spirituality or the afterlife, why we’re all here, or what we owe to each other, it was a show that made you want to be a better person. Not for points or even your own satisfaction, but so you can be that little point of light that can nudge even a complete stranger to do the same. With all the love in my heart and the wisdom of the universe… keep it sleazy.

BoJack Horseman, Season 6 (Netflix)

As a counterpoint, the final season of Netflix’s best show was painfully dark, even for BoJack Horseman. Too dark? I’m honestly not sure. Raphael Bob-Waksberg points an accusatory finger not just at his self-destructive protagonist, who never found a rock bottom he couldn’t sink beneath, but the culture that created him, and at ourselves, the viewers, for wanting him to find peace without a full, unvarnished, irrevocable accounting of his many misdeeds. After seemingly stabilizing his life through rehab, his relationship with his half-sister Hollyhock, and taking a teaching position at Wesleyan, BoJack could have ended at “The Face of Depression” with the actor’s path to redemption cleanly laid out.

But that’s not BoJack, even if that ending would have been closer to our celebrity-worshipping reality than actual justice. Instead, his past finally catches up with him — from incidents that were half-played for laughs in Season 1, to his more serious transgressions in New Mexico, with Sarah Lynn, and elsewhere. Does BoJack even deserve happiness after the decades of destruction he has left in his wake? He no longer thinks so, falling hard off the wagon when his insatiable thirst for the spotlight (the one thing he never addresses) causes his “redemption tour” to implode, eventually leaving him facedown in the pool he no longer owns. The penultimate episode, “The View From Halfway Down,” is in the tradition of experimental outings “Time’s Arrow” and “Free Churro” (though far bleaker than either), trapping BoJack in a purgatory of his own making.

Would the show kill him? I’m sure Bob-Waksberg and his team considered it, but even that would have been an easy way out, and would have also suggested that some people are irredeemably broken when the show’s handling of addiction, depression, and narcissism to this point is more like Todd’s interpretation of the Hokey-Pokey: “You turn yourself around. That’s what it’s all about.” You keep turning, keep working, keep apologizing, keep meaning it. You may never be forgiven, your mistakes may never leave you alone, but that’s not the point.

Those closest to BoJack are granted that peace — Diane as a successful writer, Todd with a new career and girlfriend, Princess Carolyn as a mother and now wife, Mr. Peanutbutter’s… never mind, he’s always the same — so this was ultimately as much their story as it was BoJack’s, of moving forward and setting healthy boundaries. Every character received the ending they had sown, which made for excellent, if not entirely satisfying, drama. There’s no telling how many Bearimies BoJack would need in the new Good Place to make up for it all, but I believe he would have gotten there eventually.

Oh, and the jokes were great, too.

Quick hits:

  • If you missed my Top Films of 2019 post, you can read my extended thoughts on 1917 there. The short version: I loved it.
  • I don’t quite know what The New Pope is up to, and I’m not sure it’s all working. Sections of it feel slow and provocative for the sake of it, not because Paulo Sorrentino has a real point to make with his collision of the sacred and the profane (nun rave!). But what is working is John Malkovich as Pope John Paul III; every delectable line reading sounds like it was aged in a barrel for a hundred years.
  • I’m also not sure what to make yet of Armando Iannucci’s Avenue 5, his sci-fi followup to Veep. Is it funny? I suppose, mildly, and not nearly at the level we’re used to seeing from the satirist — so far, it’s as aimless as the space-cruise ship at its center, wasting performances from Hugh Laurie, Zach Woods, and Lenora Crichlow as it figures out its comedic trajectory. I’m definitely sticking with it, though. Even Veep needed time to get the mix right, and it’s too good a concept for Iannucci not to eventually right the ship.
  • Doctor Who has been hit-or-miss, as usual, but also not without its charms: I enjoyed the Master reveal in “Spyfall,” the terrific guest turn from Goran Visnjic in “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror,” and the John Barrowman cameo / Jo Martin Secret Doctor in “Fugitive of the Judoon.” The storytelling, like Chris Chibnall’s run to date, has leaned on not-unwelcome social commentary and Jodie Whittaker is still dynamite. So why does it feel slightly…off? I’m wondering if the direction and cinematography, with its quick cutting and shallow-focus closeups, is cinematically too urgent for what has traditionally been an open-skied sci-fi romp. Or maybe it’s just the fuzziness of my broadcast signal.

Looking ahead to… The premieres of Fox’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Briarpatch on USA (2/6); High Fidelity on Hulu (2/14); Better Call Saul (2/24); Alex Garland’s Devs on Hulu; (3/5); Pixar’s Onward (3/6).

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