David’s Watch Diary: September 2021

Thoughts on Ted Lasso, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Reservation Dogs, and much more.

Ted Lasso, Season 2 (Apple TV+)

The discourse can be exhausting. When a show like Ted Lasso comes along, born of low (if not mocking) expectations but somehow catching fire to become not only the most popular series on its streaming service but an unlikely Emmys juggernaut, the backlash can be swift, severe, and myopic. I enjoyed the first season greatly, and thought last week’s awards for Comedy Series and actors Jason Sudeikis, Hannah Waddingham, and Brett Goldstein were well deserved. I was also aware that a not-insubstantial swath of internet commentators have had their knives out for weeks, deriding the show’s perceived excellence by its fans, and the perceived flaws of the second season (which, as of this writing, has two episodes remaining, but I’m writing anyway). Ted Lasso had ceased to be about soccer, or fish-out-of-water comedy, or any conflict at all, it appeared, and seemed to be a show happy to coast on positive vibes and platitudes about belief and being “curious, not judgmental.”

This came to a head after the season’s fourth episode, an isolated Yuletide story that was too cloyingly sentimental for some viewers’ tastes. At that point in the season, the main source of plot conflict — Sam’s (Toheeb Jimoh) refusal to wear the sponsorship of an oil company that had wrecked his home country — had already been quickly and surprisingly swept aside; Keeley (Juno Temple) and undisputed Best Character on TV Roy Kent (Goldstein, who is not CGI) were happy together, and he would soon be returning to AFC Richmond as a coach. Everyone was just having a lovely time being around each other, to the point that a whole room of people joyfully shouted “Ted!” when Sudeikis’s mustached manager entered it. Where were the stakes? Where was the drama?

A fair question, but ultimately a short-sighted one. For one thing, that Christmas episode wasn’t originally planned, but a late add-in when Apple increased Lasso’s season order from 10 episodes to 12 (along with the strange and similarly insular “Beard After Hours”), so some basic understanding of the television business is required. But more important than that was patience, and trust that Sudeikis, Bill Lawrence, and the rest of the writing team (which includes Goldstein and Coach Beard Brendan Hunt) knew what they were doing, and that problems that seemed to be ignored for the sake of the show’s good vibes were going to resurface when the characters least expected it. We saw the storm clouds on the horizon before “Man City,” where Ted’s panic attack forced him out of a tournament match and to finally make himself vulnerable to new team psychologist Dr. Fieldstone (Sarah Niles), a role he had derided (in his folksy way) in what we now recognized as fear. His increasing rate of groan-worthy one-liners began to smack of sweaty desperation.

The truth — and what makes this season of Lasso so bold — is the reveal that Ted’s relentless positivity has been a way for him to mask the deep wound of his father’s suicide. We got hints of it earlier, when he suggested to Richmond prodigal son Jamie Tartt (Phil Dunster) that his father “was much harder on himself than he was on me,” and it was foreshadowed more obliquely when Dr. Fieldstone cited her favorite novel as The Prince of Tides. If the theme of Season 1 was in how empathy can stir others to become the best versions of themselves, Season 2 questions the show’s own conclusions: What good is positivity when it costs you the competitive fire you need to, you know, win matches? What are the consequences of using manufactured optimism to mask hurt and trauma?

Ted has presented himself as the father figure his team needed, but without real candor, and until he confronts his own issues, he can only take them so far — and, in the case of bringing Jamie back into the fold over Sam’s objections, even hurt them. Football is life, and death, and everything in between; a life lived hiding from the spectrum of the human experience is not a full one. Jamie has daddy issues, as well; as does Roy; as does Rebecca (Waddingham); as does Nate (Nick Mohammed), whose descent into martinethood, fueled by his own feelings of inadequacy, has yet to be addressed… but I expect it to be.

There’s a lot more I could write about this (I could do another 1000 words on Roy alone), but I need to move on. Suffice to say that my trust in the show has been paid off, with two episodes still to go; I will knock it a half-star because the (temporary?) Sam/Rebecca romance seems like a wild miscalculation, even if both characters grow as a result. Ted Lasso is a show that is often a warm blanket on Friday nights, but also unafraid to take the time getting to the real heart of its themes. There’s nothing wrong with it not being to everyone’s taste. There are hundreds of other shows to watch. But when it comes to accusations of pointlessness or plotlessness, I told you so.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Yeah, this was a blast. And I think the main reason why is because director Destin Daniel Cretton and his team cared deeply about the stuff they were emulating — not just doing their homework, but in bringing in certified masters to participate. It might be a Marvel-ized version of Wuxia — that balletic martial arts genre that includes Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, House of Flying Daggers, and many other hallowed classics — but the efforts of cinematographer Bill Pope (The Matrix), the stunt team led by the late, legendary Brad Allen, and a riveting Tony Leung in his first English-language role ensure that Shang-Chi is no kung-fu knock-off. Cretton himself had been exclusively known for intimate, humanist dramas like Short Term 12 and Just Mercy; there was a time where I’d call that an odd pick to take the reins of a superhero tentpole, but after the success of Ryan Coogler, Cate Shortland, and the upcoming Eternals‘ Chloe Zhao, it’s safe to say that Kevin Feige has made enough left-field choices that the landscape has been completely reoriented.

One great choice that Cretton makes with his co-writers, Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham, is to not go through the usual rigmarole of how Shang-Chi, or “Shaun” (Simu Liu) got his abilities; when we first meet him, he’s a parking lot attendant who appears to have no long-term goals for himself except having a good time with his friend Katy (Awkwafina). But when a group of Ten Rings goons sent by Shang-Chi’s father (Tony Leung!) attacks the pair on a bus, his martial arts prowess is suddenly on thrilling display. This is only the first of many fantastic setpieces which take us from San Francisco, to the half-constructed side of a Macao skyscraper, to the secret (and yes, magical) village at the heart of the film’s narrative. It’s just… so flippin’ cool to watch. And it’s naturally funny — not the banter-by-committee that we’re used to from the MCU, but humor that organically comes from characterization.

This is best exemplified by (spoilers, I guess) the return of Ben Kingsley as the washed-up stage actor Trevor Slattery, last seen as the fake Mandarin in Iron Man 3. For whatever reason, Feige & company seem particularly interested in redeeming lesser MCU entries (no one expected Endgame to hinge so much on Thor: The Dark World), and for whatever reason, it’s working. Kingsley, who plays Trevor without a lot of self-confidence and fewer remaining brain cells, is a hoot.

But there’s plenty of compelling drama here as well, particularly from Leung; Cretton uses strategically-placed flashbacks to illustrate how the death of his wife (Fala Chen) upended the warm family dynamic he shared with Shang-Chi and his sister Xialing (a fiercely compelling Meng’er Zhang), reverting him back to the pitiless warlord he was centuries before. Your mileage may vary on the escalating lore of the titular Ten Rings, the powers they grant, and the big, obligatory CGI monsters that appear in the third act; in fact, I don’t mind saying that the film is too FX-heavy overall. Nevertheless, I was wildly entertained throughout. Bring on Phase Four.

Reservation Dogs (FX on Hulu)

Atlanta is the first, and easiest, comparison to make. Both series have a similarly distinctive visual style, almost exclusively using locked-off, precisely composed images, tinted in earth tones. More pronounced are the similarities in storytelling. Like Atlanta’s, the world of Reservation Dogs is incredibly specific, and just to this side of magical realism; where Donald Glover’s series allows for invisible cars and spooky mansion residents, Sterlin Harjo’s conjures warrior spirits and Deer Ladies. But to continue to name-check the Emmy-winning Atlanta does a disservice to Reservation Dogs, which — superficials aside — is its own strange, funny, wonderful thing, and one of the very best pieces of television of the year. Alongside Peacock’s Rutherford Falls, with which Dogs shares a few writers, it’s a resurgent time for Native stories from Native filmmakers, and the TV landscape is better for it.

“Teens trying to get out of a dead-end town” is an evergreen storyline, from Broadway to Friday Night Lights to most of the Bruce Springsteen catalog. Reservation Dogs, a collaboration between Harjo and Taika Waititi, introduces us to a quartet of indigenous youths who are trying to scrounge enough money to get to California; when we first meet them, they’re stealing a chip delivery truck. The brooding, charismatic Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai) imagines himself the group leader, but faces a crisis of confidence after being haplessly ambushed by a rival “gang”. “You’ve tasted the white man’s lead,” remarks his delightfully dim spirit guide William Knifeman (Dallas Goldtooth) after Bear takes a paintball to the chest. (The warrior was at the Battle of Little Bighorn, he claims, but his horse stepped into a gopher hole, killing him before he could do anything meaningful.) Whether Knifeman is real or only in Bear’s head is as relevant as his advice is helpful; he is one of a number of characters and creatures lurking in the show’s margins that are smartly never explained.

Elora Danan (Devery Jacobs), coincidentally sharing a name with the baby from Willow in a fun running gag, is the brains of the group and the most eager to get out of Oklahoma. The maturely low-key Cheese (Lane Factor), is happy to go along with the others, while tomboy Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis, the show’s MVP) starts off the season as profane comic relief, but ends it as perhaps the wisest of the group. When they’re not tangling the reservation’s other miscreants, they’re keeping the local Lighthorseman, Big (the great Zahn McClarnon, finally getting to cut loose), at arm’s length as they try to sell off enough chip bags and copper wire to finally pull up stakes.

That’s how Reservation Dogs begins, anyway. But after the halfway point of the season, episodes shift their focus from the macro plot to an astonishing run of character-focused short stories, giving each teen a moment in the spotlight while fleshing out entertaining side characters like Uncle Brownie (Gary Farmer), the local medicine man, and Willie Jack’s kindhearted father (Jon Proudstar). Each of these episodes is one of the best installments of television this year; taken together, it’s one of the best debut seasons in recent memory.

Quick Hits:

  • Star Wars: Visions (Disney+) is a knockout. We’ve been long overdue for an experimental anthology like this, which delivers nine original shorts from seven anime studios. I didn’t love all of them, but collectively they push out the boundaries of the Star Wars sandbox in surprising and often beautiful ways. The standouts included Kamikaze Douga’s “The Duel,” which brings George Lucas’s Kurosawa influences full circle in a stunning tale of a ronin rescuing a village from a Sith; Trigger’s “The Twins,” featuring a dark inverse of Luke & Leia, and Production IG’s “The Ninth Jedi” also pack a powerful story punch in just twenty minutes or less. More, please!
  • Speaking of animated anthologies, What If…? (Disney+) has turned out to be a lot darker than I think anyone expected — most of the episodes have turned out to be total bummers. But there’s playfulness as well (especially in the most recent Thor-centric episode), and the returning actors are clearly having a great time whether they’re getting turned into zombies or accidentally destroying the universe through hubris. It’s not appointment viewing, but it’s always interesting.
  • Only Murders in the Building continues to be a breezy good time. The whole cast is aces, but I especially like Selena Gomez’s performance. My friend Chase called it “one-note” but, you know, I disagree. More next month, probably.
  • Netflix is going all-in on The Witcher, with the recent announcement that it’s already green-lit a third season for the fantasy series, as well as multiple spinoffs and something for “kids and family.” I have to chortle at that last one, because the entire conceit of Witchers involves many many dead children — as violently illustrated in the new, anime-inspired Nightmare of the Wolf prequel special. That focused on Vesimir (voiced by Theo James), the monster hunter who will become Geralt’s mentor. The special is entertaining enough, and well animated by Studio Mir, but I couldn’t help but conclude that Geralt is more fun simply because he’s not trying to be.
  • Results are inconclusive on FX on Hulu’s long-gestating adaptation of Y: The Last Man, which I refused to believe was really happening until it was actually on my screen. Developed by Eliza Clark from the seminal graphic novel from Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra, this Y has yet to really answer its most important question: not “why did everything on the planet with a Y chromosome suddenly die, except Yorick (Ben Schnetzer) and his monkey”, but “why this series, now?” The source material, while groundbreaking twenty years ago, hasn’t completely aged well… and then there’s global pandemic of it all, which I don’t think anyone is in the mood for at the moment. Nevertheless, The Last Man is well-crafted, engaging television, with an especially great performance from Ashley Romans as Yorick’s long-suffering minder, Agent 355.
  • Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series has long been assumed to be unadaptable, and David S. Goyer’s attempt for Apple TV+ hasn’t yet dissuaded me of that idea. What do you do with books that are almost entirely talky and philosophical? Invent action sequences! There are some good ideas here — gender-flipping a few characters, and establishing Lee Pace’s Galactic Emperor as a line of genetic clones — and Jared Harris (as psychohistorian Hari Seldon, whose dire prediction of the Empire’s fall sets the centuries-long plot in motion) is always welcome. There is a lot of money on the screen. Is it recognizably Foundation? Not really. But might it be worthwhile television? …Maybe!
  • I had even lower expectations for The Lost Symbol (Peacock), yet another Dan Brown puzzle hunt. This time, however, it’s not Tom Hanks in a wig, but Ashley Zuckerman (Manhattan, Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) as the younger, nerdier symbologist Robert Langdon. Basically, if you like this kind of thing, as I do — arcane trivia, mysterious catacombs, tattooed assassins, high-minded discussion of secret knowledge the world “isn’t ready for” — this will at least serve as quality background for laundry folding. Otherwise, stay away.
  • The Chair (Netflix) is an odd duck, the kind of thing that used to be a mid-budget film for adults but is now stretched out into a six-episode Netflix series. At roughly three hours altogether, the fairly straightforward story of a harried English professor (Sandra Oh, always great) trying to protect a colleague (Jay Duplass) from self-destruction during her fraught first term as department chair occupies an in-between space; not enough time to delve with great depth into the specifics and politics of its setting (which is worth doing!), but not enough story to justify a full series. It’s just kinda there. It’s fine.
  • I should say something about the Brooklyn Nine-Nine series finale, and that something is “it was fitting, and I enjoyed it very much.” I had wondered if they were going to bring back the Halloween Heist conceit one more time. I was not disappointed. I’m not sure how successful the season’s attempts were at engaging with the myriad issues surrounding policing in the past year, and the Nine-Nine’s solutions are by design idealistic and non-specific. But I appreciate the attempt all the same; as much as I will miss the show as a repository for deadpan Andre Braugher GIFs, it was time to go.
  • Happy to have What We Do in the Shadows back, though I can’t shake the feeling that without Jemaine Clement’s guiding hand, something feels a little bit off. On the other hand, the Atlantic City episode was hilarious, so I’m sure I’m just overreacting..
  • Finally, we completed our first-time watch of Justified. What a show. And what a final scene, which is one of if not the best final scenes in the history of television. Thanks to everyone who kept badgering me for years to watch it.

Looking ahead to… we’re finally getting to serious Movie Season! Up first is Daniel Craig’s long-delayed swan song as Bond, No Time to Die (10/8)… Damon, Affleck, Driver and Jodie Comer team up with Ridley Scott for medieval epic The Last Duel (10/15)… the spice will flow in Denis Villanueve’s Dune, coming to theaters and controversially to HBO Max (10/22)… I’m hoping to catch new work from two of my favorite filmmakers, Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch (10/22) and Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho (10/29)… in television, it’s the glorious return of Succession (10/17, HBO).

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