David’s Watch Diary: August 2020

Quick thoughts on a whole lot of stuff, including Perry Mason, Connected, I Used to Go Here, and more.

This one will be a little more scattershot than usual, as this month has mostly seen smaller releases and a few debuts I want to sink more into in September.

Perry Mason (HBO)

I actually bailed on this “gritty” reboot/origin story after the third episode, because I simply wasn’t enjoying myself. I’m not sure how many did, honestly. For its excellent ensemble cast and lush cinematography, Perry Mason began as decidedly grim and not-fun and seemed to relish that. But, prompted by a few critical voices who had come around, I decided to catch up in time for the finale. Surprise: I liked it! Turns out Perry Mason, Underdog Lawyer, is a lot more entertaining than Perry Mason, Sad Sack Private Eye. With all respect to Matthew Rhys, TV’s reigning King of Sadness, I much prefer watching him cut loose in a courtroom than stare mournfully at a dead baby in a morgue, and I would bet that most of you do, too.

Shouts also to Tatiana Maslany, who makes everything she’s in better, and castmates Chris Chalk (whose character is smartly rewritten as a black man), Juliet Rylance (reframed as Mason’s intellectual equal, if not superior), Gayle Rankin, and Shea Whigham. They were riveting, even when the storytelling wasn’t. I can’t help but be skeptical of future seasons’ ability to stretch these cases out to fill eight hours, or of my own appetite for more tales of a corrupt justice system where “no one confesses on the stand” (what? That’s Perry’s signature move!), but hey, I’ve been won over before.

Connected (Netflix)

If I’m unequivocally recommending anything this month, it’s this nonfiction science series from veteran Radiolab producer Latif Nasser. Nasser recently gained national attention for his “The Other Latif” series on the podcast, where he spent months studying the case of a man in Guantanamo Bay who happened to bear his name. Now he brings all of his curiosity, enthusiasm, and dogged research skills to Connected, which he has described as “basically if Bill Nye and Anthony Bourdain had an awkward Muslim baby;” each of the series’s six episodes (too few!) blew my mind in different ways.

In “Surveillance,” he draws a line from birds who can predict the strength of a year’s hurricane season to how dating apps collect all of our information. In “Poop,” we learn how the medications we take (including the recreational ones) affect the fauna & flora living downstream. And my favorite episode, “Digits,” completely changed the way I thought about everything from sports to music to income taxes. It’s really heady stuff, but Nasser is so entertaining, and in complete control of the stories he tells as he trots around the world, that anyone can keep up with it. Check it out, and learn something new.

I Used to Go Here

Available on demand, Kris Rey’s first feature since 2015’s Unexpected is a quintessentially small-scale indie about thirtysomething ennui, a genre that has returned to relevance now that it’s Millennials telling those stories. I Used to Go Here is… fine; fleeting, uncomfortable, but not mean-spirited, and I really appreciated that the night I rented it.

Gillian Jacobs (Community; Easy) brings a likable energy to the familiar part of Kate, a “struggling author”; with sales for her newest novel in the tank and her tour cancelled, she accepts an invitation from her former creative writing professor (Jemaine Clement, amiably scummy) to speak at her alma mater. Awkward situations ensue — and that’s where you can feel the Lonely Island influence the most — but the indignities and self-doubts that Kate faces are universal. While I Used to Go Here isn’t quite memorable for its dialogue or incidents, the feelings it engenders linger. For a bit, anyway.

We Are Freestyle Love Supreme (Hulu)

How you feel about this breezy documentary depends on how you feel about Lin-Manuel Miranda; as I wrote last month upon the release of Hamilton on Disney+, over-exposure can breed antipathy, so if 90 minutes on the history of the hip-hop-improv group he co-founded is a hard pass for you, stop reading now.

But for the rest of you who just want to luxuriate in the good vibes and good humor, Andrew Fried’s We Are Freestyle Love Supreme is a fascinating document. Threading footage from their recent, post-Ham reunion tour with archive footage and interviews Fried collected 15 years ago, it’s a story of underdog artistic triumph as well as a window into a group of brilliant, lightning-fast minds. It’s also something of a lovefest, with all of the core members — Miranda, Anthony “Two Touch” Veneziale, Chris Jackson, producer/wrangler Thomas Kail, and more — largely singing each others’ praises; the most interesting moments of conflict, like the falling-out between core members while Miranda’s star ascended, or the past substance abuse of the extraordinarily gifted Utkarsh “UTK” Ambudkar (to the point that he lost the role of Aaron Burr!), are given only light attention, the better to keep focus on the positivity they endeavor to bring to the stage every night.

Even quicker hits:

  • After the dope pilot of HBO’s Lovecraft Country, I am way, way in. Jonathan Majors, Jurnee Smollett, and Courtney B. Vance are awesome, and Misha Green’s show looks like it could go just about anywhere with confidence. Will write more in the future.
  • Muppets Now (Disney+) is the umpteenth attempt — after ABC’s disastrous The Muppets and a slate of goofy YouTube videos — to bring the felted friends back to their strengths, and this Internet Show-themed series is a pretty decent effort. It’s never really going to feel the same, but my kids have been watching old DVDs of the original show and laugh just as hard at this. What’s not to love about the Swedish Chef in a cooking competition, or Dr. Honeydew & Beaker doing Mythbusters-style experiments?
  • As someone with fond memories of the Al Trautwig-narrated Ironman broadcasts on NBC, the awkwardly-titled World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji (Amazon) scratches a similar itch. It’s dramatic, and Bear Grylls is the right man to host. There’s also an accidental resonance in watching Kiwis, Aussies, Canadians, etc. dominate the grueling course while every American team has collapsed under the weight of hubris, but I don’t need to belabor that point.
  • After we finished Avatar: The Last Airbender last month, we took a breath then dove into Netflix’s The Dragon Prince, created by ATIA alum Aaron Ehasz with Jason Richmond. And despite its similar setup — warring kingdoms, different types of magic, the voice of Jack de Sena, it’s basically Avatar meets Game of Thrones — by the end of its most recent third season it becomes its own special thing. The animation, done by Wonderstorm, is jaw-droppingly beautiful, elevating the occasionally weak dialogue.
  • My thoughts on the first season of The Legend of Korra are more mixed. Though everyone I knew warned me to lower my expectations going in, I was still surprised by how rushed and muddled the storytelling was, how unclear its characters’ motivations were, and how much it neuters its own attempts to surprise. That said, there are moments you can feel it reaching for greatness (particularly with Lin Beifong’s arc, unique among the next-gen characters in not “earning” audience affection just for existing), and I’ve heard that the series ends well, at least, so we’re in for the duration.
  • We also got caught up on the first five seasons Schitt’s Creek (waiting for the last one to drop on Netflix in October!), and, I have to say, it’s just been a delight. I can also claim some credit for hopping on the Stevie train long before she performed in Cabaret. To repeat myself, what a delight.

Looking ahead to… Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield comes to theaters on 8/28, but who is actually ready to go back?… Mulan hits Disney+ on 9/4, but you’ll have to pay extra… Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things looks wild and I can’t wait (9/4, Netflix)… After getting delayed all summer, Season 4 of Fargo finally premieres (9/27, FX)congrats to those of you who will actually get to see Tenet, please don’t spoil it.

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