AFTERPARTY (2019)

Talk your way out of Hell.

Flirt your way out of Hell.

Cheat your way out of Hell.

Dance your way out of Hell.

Party your way out of Hell.

(PC/macOS/PS4/PS5/Switch/Xboxes) AFTERPARTY is another narrative-forward videogame from OXENFREE developers Night School Games. Unlike OXENFREE, a deft interactive teen horror adventure, AFTERPARTY focuses on two platonic 20-something best friends — Milo (Khoi Dao) and Lola (Janina Gavankar) — just about to graduate from college.

Then they die and go to Hell and, in order to escape they need not only outdrink Satan, but also come to terms with each other, their past, and their future.

What follows is an extremely visually striking and darkly comedic game, perhaps containing some of the filthiest, well-crafted jokes I’ve ever encountered in a game. AFTERPARTY is also brilliant with its character work — not just its honest and complicated portrayal of a platonic friendship between a man and a woman — but also with its ancillary characters, including psychopomp ferrier Sam (HORIZON: ZERO DAWN’s Ashly Burch) whose life/death is both over-shared and enigmatic at the same time.

It is worth noting that, while OXENFREE featured some intriguing interface tools apart from dialogue trees, AFTERPARTY’s non-dialogue interactivity is reduced to a number of routine mini-games. While thematically that makes sense — beer pong and rhythm mini-games make perfect sense for the material — they often feel like they emptily get in the way of what you’d rather be doing: advancing the story and learning more about the characters.

Nonetheless, it’s perfect for playing over the Halloween weekend with a friend. AFTERPARTY doesn’t overstay its welcome, and while it actually takes place in Hell, it’s more emotionally substantive than scarring.

SHE-HULK: ATTORNEY AT LAW (2022)

(Disney+) John Byrne’s SHE-HULK run absolutely blew my mind when it was initially published, and was particularly formative for me. It was one of those rare times where you encounter a work that opens your eyes, that makes you say: “Wait, you can do that?” It was unlike any Marvel comic I’d previously read; it focused more on Jen reconciling her personas and how she presented herself to the world, and repeatedly broke the fourth wall in smart, funny, sexy ways. There’s one moment early on in his run where She-Hulk literally tears through the page and traverses through a comic book buyer guide, and it was littered with in-jokes which still feels fresh even today (even if most young comic book readers wouldn’t know what a comic book buyer guide is).

My main qualm with most Marvel film/TV works is: it feels like they’re trying to re-invent the wheel, instead of working off and improving on prior narrative formats. With the exception of THOR: RAGNAROCK, they all feel extraordinarily clumsy to me, even WANDAVISION, an extended meta-riff on the history of TV that -should- know how to handle TV tropes, often felt like folks writing off of Cliffnotes.

SHE-HULK: ATTORNEY AT LAW feels like Marvel’s stab at ALLY MCBEAL. That’s not a complaint at all, as ALLY MCBEAL doesn’t get enough credit for being a 90s version of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and, you know what? We don’t have enough of those shows. It’s fun, quippy, but also often confronts the issue of being a single woman navigating a male-centric workplace, and nothing has changed.

So, while I do gripe a bit to myself about Disney+’s SHE-HULK: ATTORNEY AT LAW not being as much fun as it could be, not as inventive as it could be — after all, I doubt we’ll get a scene where she bursts through the Disney+ interface — I do sincerely love it. Every Wednesday I wish it were Thursday because I could really use the lift it provides halfway through my week. Do I wish they had dispensed with the CGI and just put Tatiana Maslany in green and lifts, because she can do anything? Yes, yes I do, and the CGI is distracting, and also: she could have retained her curls, because She-Hulk is unbridled. However, I will take what I can get, because it’s a thoughtful and comedic take on a somewhat horrific turn in life, and we need more of that in our cultural diet.

MAGGIE (2022-)

(Hulu) Within the first ten minutes of Hulu’s MAGGIE I thought: “Oh, the jokes are smart! And there’s SUPERSTORE’s Nichole Sakura! This feels pretty cozy and winsome, albeit a bit basic.”

As if in response, the show then started laying into folks named “Glenn with two N’s” which, if you haven’t read the About section of this site, is my first name. I did not react well:

“Well fuck you too, show. I didn’t want to like you in the first place.”

(I’ve had a hard past few months and had hoped this would be a slice of escapism, but apparently not!)

That said, I didn’t turn it off in anger, but let it wash over me and I’m glad I did because this rom-com has a quick wit and is far deeper than it may first appear to be.

MAGGIE, created by LIFE IN PIECES co-creator Justin Adler and alum Maggie Mull, centers around the titular Maggie (Rebecca Rittenhouse), a 30-something who has been psychic her entire life; she sees her visions via touch. It took a long time for her father, Jack (Chris Elliot) and mother Maria (Kerri Kenney) — those are some quality gets, folks — to believe that she truly could see the future, but they finally accept her, and she currently resides in half of the bungalow her parents own.

While her parents may have been skeptics during Maggie’s youth, her best friend Louise (the previously mentioned Nichole Sakura) was mostly there for her through high school, at least when she wasn’t studying night-and-day to get into med school.

In the first episode, Maggie is giving psychic readings at a party and one of the partygoers, Ben (David Del Rio), takes a shining to her, asks for a reading. Maggie obliges and sees a vision of herself marrying him, gets frightened and runs off.

The next night, while consoling Louise after a bad date, she runs into Ben, and Louise eggs her on to roll with it and Maggie does, right into bed with him.

The morning after, as Ben makes breakfast for her, Maggie sees another vision of him marrying someone else, and she rushes out.

Fast-forward a bit. Louise and Maggie are heading back to Maggie’s bungalow and they run into Ben. He explains that he and his on-again-off-again girlfriend Jessie (Chloe Bridges) are moving into the same bungalow as Maggie’s. Along the way, we meet Ben’s off-kilter sister Amy (UNDONE’s Angelique Cabral), who got married to people-pleasing partner Dave (WESTWORLD’s Leonardo Nam) at Burning Man.

The first half of the season is primarily concerned with Maggie and her love life in a way that recalls GILMORE GIRLS (Maggie :: Lorelai, Ben :: Luke) and, like GILMORE GIRLS, Maggie gets involved with bearded Daniel who is basically Max Medina in this situation, and it feels very formulaic, albeit with wildly vacillating tones; one ep in particular feels like a 90s three-camera sitcom.

Then the second half of the season kicks in and the show snaps into view. You realize that the psychic gimmick meant to individuate the show is essentially a stand-in for neurodivergent brains. The show fully leans into that and matters turns serious, without dialing down the jokes.

Without spoiling much, there is one moment where Maggie realizes that an important person in her life doesn’t believe that she is psychic, and she is absolutely crushed. It’s not just that she doesn’t feel seen, it’s not just that she feels this person doesn’t believe her, it’s not just that this person is utterly dismissive towards this foundational aspect of herself and her history, it’s also that she — an actual psychic — is blindsided by the news.

Anyone who lives with any kind of invisible issues can identify with the fear that you won’t be understood or believed. MAGGIE’s writers know it, and they are fully putting it on display.

One more example, although this has major spoilers for Episode 11 – ‘You Will Experience a Loss’:

Spoiler

Maggie is at a bachelorette party. She’s had an abnormal number of visions all day and immediately feels like she shouldn’t be there, feeling extra-sensitive. Nonetheless, she’s dragged onto the dance floor and bounced around like a pinball. As she pings off each tightly packed partygoer, every hit induces a vision until her world goes white, as if a flashbang has gone off in front of her. When her sight returns, she immediately grabs Louise and demands to ‘read’ her:

“What happened to no readings for friends?”

“NOW!”

Maggie drags her from the dance floor and presses Louise’s hands.

“What do you see?”

“…nothing.”

Yes, the classic ‘powerless’ trope. While this is a tried-and-true superhero trope — for the first half of the season I mused to myself: you could have saved yourself so much trouble if you’d learn from X-MEN’s Rogue and just wear a thick pair of long sleeve leather gloves — it’s surprising to see the device deployed in a rom-com.

The rest of the season deals with the fallout of her loss of her mystic foresight, of her grappling with being normal, of no longer being the one looked to for answers, to problem solve, to shoulder it all, while lamenting the perks of being psychic.

[collapse]

While the show tackles mental matters in a surprisingly far more interesting way than most, it does have a number of issues, such as the shifting tone, spotty ground rules of Maggie’s abilities, and the fact that Maggie’s voracious Black psychic mentor self-named Angel (DON’T TRUST THE B— IN APT. 23’s Ray Ford) seems to be the sole queer representation on the show.* While Ford knows how to calibrate his performance, this approach feels very dated, and hard to overlook.

If there’s a second season — and that’s a big if — I could see this show really coming together and become something special. The end of the first season raises more questions than it answers, and exploring the potentials of its mysticism could open up a whole new world.

  • It’s possible that there are passing mentions regarding other characters, but if so, I missed them or they weren’t prominent enough to count.

THREE BUSY DEBRAS (2020-)

(adult swim/HBO MAX/VOD) Three housewives, each named Debra, get together for brunch and occasionally other activities in their vibrant suburban town of Lemoncurd. When together, they’re often passively-aggressively acting out against each other, indulging themselves in hedonistic activities, or partaking of bursts of violence, all while often adorned in white clothing and surrounded by similarly stark interior design.

These are the antics of adult swim‘s- THREE BUSY DEBRAS, aired in a half-hour block featuring two ten minute tales to bewilder and amuse. While THREE BUSY DEBRAS, the vision of Sandy Honig, Mitra Jouhari and Alyssa Stonoha, clearly comes from their improvisational roots, it feels like it has a self-imposed set of absurdist rules that gives the show a more mythic air.

Its reliance on often immature behavior, neediness, and willful oblivion to the wants of the more grounded folks around them reminds me of the extraordinarily silly character comedy STELLA, although unlike STELLA — which was delightfully nihilistic with its messaging — THREE BUSY DEBRAS is often unabashedly feminist, albeit often rendered through a very skewed sense of humor. For example, one episode in the second, current season, details several stories of Lemoncurd women in history, including the advent of ‘smoky eye’ when a woman in ‘one billion BCE’ (Before the Curded Era) garners two black eyes when she trips and falls face-first on a stone-built fire. The second tale in that episode celebrates Susan B. Shoppin’, who ‘bravely’ fought for the right of the women of Lemoncurd to be refused the right to vote.

The second season of THREE BUSY DEBRAS concludes this Sunday (May 22nd) at 10pm EST on adult swim/Cartoon Network, just enough time to catch up from beginning. However, if you’re pressed for time, I suggest jumping into the second season, as it feels sharper and wilder and well-honed. Or you can just watch at your leisure via HBO MAX, whichever suits your needs.

BETTER THINGS (2016-2022)

(Hulu) While I’m well-aware that I occasionally describe a work as a dramedy, it’s simply meant as shorthand rather than for any love of the term. While I use it, it means: this work isn’t wall-to-wall empty laughs or overwrought heartbreak. Real human drama is often funny ha-ha, and sometimes comedically tragic; I believe that great dramas generously sprinkle in comedy, and great comedies are built on dramatic tension. A spoonful of sugar, etc. — one way or the other — so to say. Yet, I don’t think I’ve seen a show that so perfectly balances the two as Pamela Adlon’s BETTER THINGS.

BETTER THINGS centers around Sam Fox (Pamela Adlon, who has been a very hard-working character/voice actor for years), an L.A.-based middle-aged screen-and-voice-actor and the single mother of three daughters: teenage Max (Mikey Madison from SCREAM (2022) and ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD), pre-teen Frankie (Hannah Riley), and youth Duke (Olivia Edward, who occasionally popped up in CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND). Living next-door to her is her willful, very passive-aggressive British mother named Phyllis, but Sam solely calls her Phil. (You may sense a naming trend here.)

(I need to note: Louis C.K. — who admitted to sexual misconduct, and who did fictionally sexually assault Adlon’s character on LOUIE — was a credited writer, producer and co-creator for the show, but while he is no longer a writer or producer, he is still credited as co-creator. It’s also worth noting that Adlon was the best part of the greatest episodes of LOUIE, as well as his short-lived show LUCKY LOUIE. In other words, they have history and it’s complicated, and she isn’t discussing it. As far as I’ve read, he’s had no input on the show for some time.)

Initially, the show is about Sam navigating her life as she feels her age and feels those around her react to her age, all while she juggles the needs of motherhood. However, with each subsequent season, the show expands, and it becomes far more about maintaining family bonds as your brethren move forward and change.

Additionally, as the show progressed, it became far more experimental, indulging Adlon’s delightfully fanciful filmic flights, often through local trips, or through another character’s POV. It feels like a true exploration of life, of aging, of self-acceptance, self-discovery, self-improvement, and reckoning.

It makes time to luxuriate in life and the little joys: the tranquility of cooking, a brief nap in the park, people-watching, while never turning a blind eye to the harder parts of living, especially when you have to tend to the ever-changing needs of your children and yourself.

No, the show is not a gut-buster; it’s not meant to be. However, it always makes me laugh, and then two minutes later my eyes are welling up.

I’ve seen all but the finale — which airs tonight (April 25th) — but I wanted to boost it now because I’m impatient.

Season 1 Trailer:

Final Season Trailer (for the brave):

PROJECT A-KO (1986)

(Blu-Ray/Roku/tubi) As one might suspect, I was a gigantic nerd in my youth, enough of one that I was part of a group in high-school that would pool our lunch money to order LaserDiscs of late 80s anime and we’d then, err, find ways to ‘happen upon’ ways to duplicate copies for all involved. Let me tell you: bootlegging works were far more difficult, but far more enthralling, back then.

Apart from the soundtrack occasionally popping up in my playlists over the years, I’d mostly forgotten about PROJECT A-KO (despite still having a proper VHS copy of it)! At least, until this post popped up in my feeds.

The immediate flashback this post induced was: “oh, now that I think about it, this anime wasn’t just fan-service, it was super gay.” And, yup:

“The basic plot of PROJECT A-KO is: one dumbass lesbian fighting another dumbass lesbian to win the heart of the dumbest lesbian in the lands.”

I forgot how funny, how comic, PROJECT A-KO was, even though I know I didn’t get the bulk of the in-jokes and parodies and references back-in-the-day, and probably still don’t. However, it features a ton of hilariously universal kinetic physical comedic moments, while still often feeling grounded despite, you know, someone using numerous missiles as stepping stones during combat. Additionally, while the characters do a lot of punching, there’s not much in the way of punching down. Everyone here is flawed and messy and definitely either queer or over-protective found family, and you’re meant to identify with their flaws, rather than scorn them.

I rarely recommend any YouTube film-centric commentary video that runs for over an hour because I often don’t have the patience for watching them, but I highly recommend the one linked in the MeFi post above. I learned a lot, and it brought back a lot of memories.

Lastly, the OST is well-worth your time. Spaceship in the Dark is still a banger with all of its orchestral hits.

Maria Bamford – THE LATE LATE SHOW – March 11th 2022

(CONTENT WARNING: DEATH)

Maria Bamford is well-known (well, among comedy nerds) as being a major figure of 90s alt-comedy, but also for being a comedian’s comedian. Part of it has to do with her command over her voice — if you’ve watched anything animated over the past fifteen or so years, you have heard her extremely versatile voice — but also over her command of tone. She knows how to balance serious material with absurdity through little more than a lilt or twitch.

She also had a semi-autobiographical two-season Netflix show — LADY DYNAMITE — which was a deep dive into her reckoning with mental illness. It was brilliant and laugh-out-loud funny and featured a lot of pugs.

In the before-times, I even managed to catch a performance of hers at Chicago’s Den Theatre and walked away dazed, half-drunk on laughs and self-reflection. After the show, I hung around the bar, reading a book in a cushy chair, listening to a fantastic DJ, and I watched as she spent time with everyone that approached her. She was at her merch table for well over an hour, listening to people, joking with them, making sure they felt seen and cared for.

She’s a goddamn comedic saint, and every one of her works deserve to be in the limelight. She filmed a stand-up special entitled THE SPECIAL SPECIAL SPECIAL where the only audience members were her very supportive mother and father, which I implore you to seek out. It’s an astoundingly awkward, but yet heartfelt work, partially because of Bamford’s mimicry regarding her parents — especially her mother.

Consequently, I was stunned to hear that her mother recently died of lung cancer, and that Bamford did a tight five of it on the March 11th, 2022 THE LATE LATE SHOW.

Here’s where I hand matters off to Vulture’s Jesse David Fox, who is both extremely empathic and brilliant at dissecting comedy. Read his post, watch the piece, and be prepared to laugh and cry:

https://www.vulture.com/article/maria-bamford-corden-stand-up-set-about-her-mom.html

Favorites of 2021: Films

Here are my favorite — note, not what I feel are the best — films of 2021, in alphabetical, non-prioritized, order:

BARB & STAR GO TO VISTA DEL RAY

“I miss this sort of comedy, the kind of comedy that doesn’t call attention to its jokes, the kind that’s sharply written and doesn’t meander or rely on extended improvised riffs. It’s tightly wound silliness with a ton of great talent”

“It was a real tit-flapper!”

BENEDETTA

“[U]ltimately this is a human drama, one which showcases how very little has changed over hundreds of years.”

CENSOR

“[A]n extremely mannered film until, well, until it isn’t. Stick with it and it will fuck you up.”

THE FRENCH DISPATCH

A surprisingly sincere triptych from Wes Anderson.

JOY RIDE

“We’re all healing as we (hopefully) come to the end of this awful era, and seeing JOY RIDE under these circumstances was such an immensely enjoyable time, and I’m so happy I could see it with such giving artists.”

THE SOUVENIR PART II

“I can’t recommend these two films enough, but I would suggest watching them relatively close together. I hadn’t seen PART I since it screened in theaters in 2019, and felt like I was missing out on a lot in PART II because, uh, my memory, and the past two years have been particularly harrowing.”

SPENCER

I’ve had the goddamn hardest time getting people to watch this film, solely because of Kristen Stewart, but hell, the way she casts her eyes … I wish folks would just watch the trailer and see her transformation.

“You are your own weapon.”

[…]

“Will they kill me, do you think?”

TITANE

“I can’t remember the last time I so extensively averted my eyes from watching a film. However, those moments are not exploitative — they are meant to be uncomfortable, they are there for a reason. I simply felt that I was able to glean that reason by listening, instead of watching.”

Missed:

  • ANNETTE
  • CANDYMAN
  • CYRANO
  • DRIVE MY CAR
  • MEMORIA
  • NIGHTMARE ALLEY
  • NINE DAYS
  • PASSING
  • PLAN B
  • RED ROCKET
  • SHIVA BABY
  • TEST PATTERN
  • THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH
  • ZOLA

Favorites of 2021: TV

I didn’t write as much about TV as I’d like to this year, so some of these entries will unfortunately be perfunctory capsule reviews:

A.P. BIO

“[A] gag machine firing on all cylinders.”

IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA

Not gonna lie; IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA runs hot-or-cold for folks. It’s an extremely acerbic show that you either love or hate, and I happen to fucking love it. While it’s often extremely distasteful, it also has a surprisingly sweet side.

The latest season was a bit off-kilter, but the trip to Ireland was chef kiss and, while it was shorter than I would have liked, it did lean into a bit more emotion and sensitivity, which PHILLY has become surprisingly good at for a show that’s so unabashedly unapologetic for how awful their characters are.

GIRLS5EVA

“[One] of the few shows I had to relegate to only watching during the daytime and while I wasn’t working, because it was so fucking hilarious that it was distracting and my laughter was prone to waking folks up.”

THE GREAT

Hilariously filthy and horny on Tverskaya, while still being emotionally and historically insightful, while still being completely irreverent. Completely unlike anything else on the air right now.

HACKS

While the Jean Smart-renaissance contines, I’m far more interested in Hannah Einbinder and her journey. A fantastic scrutinization on women in comedy and their personal endeavors.

JOE PERA TALKS WITH YOU

“[G]oddamn hilarious when it’s not pulling at your heartstrings.”

HOW TO WITH JOHN WILSON

“[F]unny, warm, smart, and occasionally scary. The season one finale, which saw him documenting the spread of COVID-19 via his Greek landlord was so heartwarming, while also being heartbreaking.”

ONLY MURDERS IN THE BUILDING

“It’s a legitimately thrillingly suspenseful tale that, honestly? Didn’t need to be.“

RESERVATION DOGS

An astounding work of the trials and tribulations indigenous folks have to live with in America, while still being amazingly funny.

STAR TREK: DISCOVERY S3 (one ep in 2021, so I’m counting it.)

““This is my kind of STAR TREK!” [I exclaimed,] as there were more than a few eps that focused on discovering new worlds with kind intent, recreating the wonder that drew me into the STAR TREK universe in the first place. While not all of the characters are terribly complex, their motives and Federation-centric willfulness to be as helpful as they can be was refreshing, comforting, and familiar. It felt like the show realized what it needed to do to recapture the original series’ magic, all while gamely moving matters forward.”

https://mediaclature.com/2021/08/27/star-trek-discovery-season-three-2020/

SUCCESSION

“Catching up with SUCCESSION. Just how many layers was Adrian Brody wearing on that walk? 15? 20? searches Oh look, Vanity Fair asked him about it: https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2021/11/adrien-brody-succession-still-watching

WE ARE LADY PARTS

“A confused mix of hash anthems and sour girl power. […] It was kind of like therapy, but with a lot of screaming.”

“I’m the lamb, by the way.”

WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS S3

While S3 didn’t hit the highs of Jackie Daytona, it was still far more hilarious and heartfelt and inventive than practically any other high-concept comedy out there.

THE WHITE LOTUS

Mike White is exceptional at not only writing the plights of privileged white folks, but also in managing your expectations when it comes to those set-pieces. This is his case of having his cake and eating it too.

WYNONNA EARP

WYONNA EARP was caught in Canadian finance limbo for far too long, but the final season delivered. It was always an underrated genre show, and sadly it appears that it’ll remain that way.

YELLOWJACKETS

YELLOWJACKETS’ pilot is perhaps the best genre pilot since LOST, and you can watch it for free!

YELLOWJACKETS is best described as teen girl LORD OF THE FLIES meets LOST, but frankly, it’s better, at least so far. The characters are more complex, the circumstances more interesting, and they (so far) aren’t drawing out paranatural circumstances.

Missed:

  • DICKENSON S3 (missed S2, too)
  • EVIL S2
  • THE FLIGHT ATTENDENT
  • IN THE DARK S2
  • I THINK YOU SHOULD LEAVE
  • MAID
  • MYTHIC QUEST (S2, but need to watch S1 first)
  • THE OTHER TWO S2
  • PEN15 S2
  • POSE S3
  • THE SEX LIVES OF COLLEGE GIRLS
  • SQUID GAME
  • THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD
  • YOU S3

HOW TO WITH JOHN WILSON (2020+)

(HBO/HBO MAX) HOW TO WITH JOHN WILSON just wrapped its second season, but for the purposes of this recommendation, I will stick to the first season, solely because I’m a bit behind on the second season. (That said, the second season enlisted the skills of one of the best writerly documentarian of the current generation, Susan Orlean, so take that as a full-throated recommendation for skipping ahead if you’re impatient.)

John Wilson is an obsessive documentarian. He always has a camera in his hand and he’s always looking out for some oddity, searching for thirty-seconds of visual intrigue in New York City. However, he’s also capable of a meandering weaver of cultural insight.

Each episode of HOW TO WITH JOHN WILSON starts off with an innocuous ideal: “How to Make Small Talk”; “How to Improve Your Memory”; “How to Cover Your Furniture” but each episode is like a strange stream-of-consciousness/exquisite corpse-like tale where he wanders to a larger humanist insight. It’s funny, warm, smart, and occasionally scary. The season one finale, which saw him documenting the spread of COVID-19 via his Greek landlord was so heartwarming, while also being heartbreaking.

My wife asked me: “Is there a name for this sort of genre? Overly-sincere dudes examine the lives they witness around them?” I wish I could lay a name to the genre, but shows like these — NATHAN FOR YOU, JOE PERA TALKS WITH YOU, and HOW TO WITH JOHN WILSON, escape classification. We’re simply used to dude-based TV works as being meditations about cruelty, and I’m happy to see that we’re finally rounding the curve, that we’re seeing works about men questioning their world, reaching out, being empathic. It gives me hope and warms my cynical heart.

“You don’t always realize you’re in the middle of history until it’s over.”