The LIFE IS STRANGE games have been incredibly difficult for me to deal with, much less write about. They’re literally manufactured to trigger grief and sadness and re-invoke lived trauma and, while I know the developers meant well, it’s still brutal to confront matters.
I’ve always hated the ascribed name: ‘LIFE IS STRANGE’ because life isn’t strange at all and I feel like the game doesn’t even believe it as it has never invoked that phrase. This is just life. This is just living. Abuse and neglect and abandonment have been normalized, have been for a long time and fundamentally that’s what these games are about, as well as the coping mechanisms surrounding them. We tell ourselves it’s strange to justify the calamity of our lives, of exploitation, of unfairness and inequality, when it doesn’t need to be like this.
It is life. While I may be strange, this is not strange.
However: while these games do make me sob, they help me. There aren’t many games that are intentionally meant as therapeutic means but these are games about people feeling too hard, hurt by life and circumstance, but also about finding ways to mend and reach out. I’m shocked they even exist — because how do you even pitch that? — much less have become an actual franchise. As someone who has lived through a bit too much shit, I’m happy to see a game that portrays working through shit, and portrays people surviving it.
I love reading the YouTube comments for these games — well, 75% of the commenters, the other 25% can go fuck themselves — because they are all beaming and realizing that video games can help and heal in their own way. These games have made me feel like I’m not alone, just like those comments have made me feel like I’m not alone, and just like how I’m writing this: you are not alone.
Hey, remember Steph? No? It took me a little while to remember her as well.
I didn’t mention her in my initial write-up of LIFE IS STRANGE since she’s a very ancillary character. Hell, I didn’t even think of her being a callback character while I was playing TRUE COLORS and I was actively trying to romance her.
So much of the LIFE IS STRANGE series is about pretend and role-playing and escapism due to the trauma of reality, so it makes sense that they’d have a character who was fascinated with all of that, even if they existed on the out-skirts, and this bonus episode is all about that!
If you aren’t familiar with Steph, she’s a very queer Dungeons & Dragons role-player who will lead you through a game she penned. That’s it, that’s her only role in the first game. She usually plays with her best friend Alex, but is always eager to share with others.
One of my favorite things about LIFE IS STRANGE is that it’s absolutely gender neutral. Everyone loves what they love, and when you see the spark in their eyes when they’re conveying why they love it, you want to love it too. That’s the best thing a game can do; to transmit their love for gameplay and their audience.
However, there’s always a downside: one of the very stupid things I have said to my therapist is: “Danger always finds me,” because it has. So I couldn’t help but wince when Alex tells Steph “Adventure will always find you.” because I’m like “There’s a terrible side to that! And these games are completely all about that! That is not a comforting thought!”
But I digress. This is a perfect coda to the Arcadia Bay games, and it’s particularly poignant. LIFE IS STRANGE has always been exceptional with their scores and soundtracks — they’re brilliantly evocative and melancholy — and to shape one entire episode around serving up music is inspired, as WAVELENGTHS sees Steph as a local DJ, living her best life, but also realizing that it’s a transitional one.
We follow her through four seasons of a year, solely through her work and we watch her become more comfortable with her job. It also dovetails with the empathic emotions of TRUE COLORS as people reach out to her over-the-phone and she learns how to placate them.
It’s a fantastic little slice of life, one that more game developers should learn from.
While I said that LIFE IS STRANGE: BEFORE THE STORM is my favorite of the series I, somewhat intentionally, neglected to mention that LIFE IS STRANGE: TRUE COLORS (TRUE COLORS from here on forward) is the one I identify with most.
TRUE COLORS centers around Alex, a twenty-something who reunites with Gabe, her big brother, in the fictional town of Haven Springs, Oregon. Their mother died of cancer when they were teens, their father abandoned them shortly after, then her brother was locked up in juvie for carjacking, and Alex was scuttled from foster home to home, essentially until now.
(I’ll note that there’s a spoiler below, but it literally happens in the first chapter and it is a major part of Alex’s journey, and really not spoiler-y! But go forth, play it, then come back if you’re squeamish!)
Of course, LIFE IS STRANGE being LIFE IS STRANGE, her brother is killed under specious conditions.
Also, LIFE IS STRANGE being LIFE IS STRANGE, it’s revealed that Alex has superpowers: she’s an full-blown empath who can literally see how people are feeling, hurting, and intense emotions cause her to lash out.
All my life I’ve been called out as someone overly sensitive, someone overly emotional, someone too observant, and when I am emotionally overwhelmed, I too explode.
So, yeah. This hits a bit too close to home for me. When I described the game to my wife, she explicitly asked: “Are you sure you should be playing this?” and I replied “No! I definitely should not!” but proceeded to do so anyway, and proceeded to cry through the bulk of the first third of the game, and I’m a better person for doing so. For as much as the game underscores the trials and tribulations of being emotionally oversensitive, it also extolls them. Alex is not only finding the truth out about the death of her brother, but finding what she wants out of life.
It also serves as one of the best renditions of a rural town’s Main Street I’ve ever played. I’ve previously harped on how the LIFE IS STRANGE series mirrors my time growing up in Vermont and TRUE COLORS is the absolute pinnacle of that. Haven feels like I’m wandering through Church Street — downtown Burlington, Vermont — even down to the indie record store. (Shout out to Pure Pop!) The only thing missing are the gravy fries from Nectar’s.
(I’ll also note that TRUE COLORS features the following exchange: “Greatest Northwest band of all time? Go.” “Sleater-Kinney, if you were wondering.” and Sleater-Kinney is only one of my favorite bands ever, so thanks game for validating that you are solely for me.)
I’d be remiss to neglect to mention the glow-up imparted on TRUE COLORS. While the prior LIFE IS STRANGE games had striking visual character designs, TRUE COLORS is absolutely gorgeous, all rounded features, glossy and fluid animations, and even better: it imparts a sense of tactility that was lacking in the prior games. It’s not just that characters touch each other, it’s that they rub and wear and scrape against works around them. This is a world well-crafted.
This post contains mentions of familial death and psychological dissociation.
The LIFE IS STRANGE games are not what I would call a ‘fun time’ — practically every post I’ve made about the series has content warnings — but LIFE IS STRANGE 2 is especially tough. It opens with a mostly idyllic Hispanic family: two sons, one pre-teen — Daniel — one firmly a teenager — Sean — and a father. Their mother is mostly unknown to them, but the three of them have a happy life.
At least, until Daniel makes the mistake of playing zombie in their front yard.
Matters escalate. Police get involved. Their father is shot by a policeman. Daniel reacts impulsively, self-protectively, and sends out a kinetic blast, killing the policeman.
Sean grabs Daniel and they go on the run, leaving behind his teen love because he knows there’s no better option.
It may sound twisted, but my favorite part of LIFE IS STRANGE 2 simply consists of Sean and Daniel endlessly walking through the Pacific Northwest, solely because — despite the fact that I’ve never been to the Pacific Northwest — it feels like I lived part of this game. As I’ve mentioned in prior LIFE IS STRANGE posts: New England is not the Pacific Northwest. (Duh.) However, they’re basically kissing cousins. Very similar landscapes and remote culture. Tall trees, lush and vibrant greenery, and folks existing peacefully on the fringes of society.
There have been times in my life where I’ve been stranded, when I had no money and I had no one I felt I could confide in (although, truth be told, I did and probably should have) and so … I’d just walk hours on end, sometimes even overnight, through New England roads which are sparsely populated but the trees …make you feel protected. Insulated. Even though the woods also are home to predators, it felt …natural.
LIFE IS STRANGE 2 is a game centered around desertion and opt-ing out of society, because sometimes, that is absolutely necessary. As you venture through the game, you meet up with folks who are off-the-grid, including one face you might not expect from LIFE IS STRANGE 1. Whereas the prior games were all born of suburban trauma and feeling penned in, LIFE IS STRANGE 2 is a wild road trip adventure.
I’ll note that LIFE IS STRANGE 2 also features a small moment regarding an older journalist — a transient, basically — who helps them out in a time of need, and that’s it, and he drives off. Again, it’s small, but it makes an impact.
It sketches out how the world is different for so many people, and that there are so many different ways to live in it, which is essentially what LIFE IS STRANGE 2 is about.
LIFE IS STRANGE 2: THE AWESOME ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN SPIRIT (forward known as CAPTAIN SPIRIT) is a bit of an anomaly in the LIFE IS STRANGE series in that it’s centered around a very young boy but also: it was a free ‘demo’ for LIFE IS STRANGE 2 released prior to the game, and is only barely tangentially related to LIFE IS STRANGE 2.
Those caveats aside, CAPTAIN SPIRIT is still very much a LIFE IS STRANGE game: it is absolutely fixated on trauma and loss, escapism and the hope of overcoming what hell you’re living in, even if it means believing in superpowers.
In this case, it’s about yet another Pacific Northwestern person, a young boy named Chris Eriksen. He’s fashioned an alter-ego known as CAPTAIN SPIRIT in the days since his mother died in a car accident; an accident that his alcoholic father he lives with still blames him for.
(Obviously, this is the flip-side of the coin of LIFE IS STRANGE 1 and Chloe’s father’s death.)
It’s a very slight, but sensitive portrayal of a youth who isn’t quite cognizant of the turmoil around him, nor the turmoil he’ll have to work out in therapy in the future, but I found it to be a very sweet and heartfelt story, even though there’s very little gameplay.
It’s worth noting that there are a few iffy bugs with it and LIFE IS STRANGE 2 that can cause issues. I had to delete and re-install both in order to deal with ‘em.
This game contains details of familial death. To prevent spoilers, I side-step mentioning those details.
If you’ve been following along with the prior posts: LIFE IS STRANGE: FAREWELL (FAREWELL, going forward) is a very short prequel to LIFE IS STRANGE: BEFORE THE STORM (BEFORE THE STORM, going forward), which is the prequel to LIFE IS STRANGE.
In other words: you get to see Max and Chloe as very early youths, just as Max is about to leave for Seattle and just when Chloe’s life turns to shit.
BEFORE THE STORM was far smaller-scale than LIFE IS STRANGE, and FAREWELL is even more intimate. It details one of Max’s last days with Chloe before she moves to Seattle. She hasn’t told Chloe yet — she’s afraid of ruining the mood and just wants to hang out with her best friend and riff on the good times; all of their pirate games and treasure maps and blowing up shit and languid lounging sleepy days, hanging around Chloe’s room, occasionally popping out for a stack of her mother’s pancakes.
One of the most remarkable features of LIFE IS STRANGE is its indulgence in reminiscing and introspection. Each and every installment features a number of places to sit or lay down on and mull over feelings and revel in memories. For the majority of FAREWELL, it’s Max laying alongside Chloe on her bed as they idly listen to music, the breeze flowing through the windows, as she recounts her feelings about her best friend to herself. The camera cuts to specific areas of Chloe’s room, occasionally glimsping the outside, even after Max has completed her inner monologue.
It’s techniques such as that which makes LIFE IS STRANGE a game instead of an interactive novel. You can exit out of these vignettes at any point in time. Hell, you don’t even need to enact them. However, when you do it enriches the characters and the world that they inhabit.
FAREWELL is quietly brutal, with a gut-punch of an ending but, for a short period of time, you get to live in the idyllic world of their youth and see them simply having fun and enjoying life. As I’ve grown older, I’ve found myself opting out of works that unnecessarily put their characters through unrelenting traumatic circumstances and, while LIFE IS STRANGE most certainly does that — I realize it’s basic narrative necessity — it also finds time and space to give them joyful experiences, and I will miss them.
“Even when we’re apart, we’re still Max and Chloe.”
When dealing with teen-centric dramas, too many works have their point-of-view centered around the naive shy one who is drawn into the orbit of the nefarious, corrupting burr on society. The initial five chapters of LIFE IS STRANGE certainly took that approach; Max is the POV character, a smart, upright, mostly meek and non-rebellious person who just wants to pursue her art but is drawn back into the orbit of her prior best-friend Chloe, a fried drop-out, and calamity ensues, literally brewing a storm that entangles everyone.
Rewind a bit.
LIFE IS STRANGE: BEFORE THE STORM (BEFORE THE STORM from here on out) examines the other side of the coin by placing the focus on Chloe and how she (poorly) navigates life after Max moves from Arcadia Bay to Seattle with her family and — in more ways than one — writes Chloe out of her life for five years. In the meantime, Chloe — utterly floundering due to the sudden death of her father and the departure of her best friend — falls apart. She finds herself rudderless during a dark time at Blackwood Academy, Arcadia Bay’s school for gifted burgeoning artists and scientists.
Then Blackwood’s star student, a picture-perfect young woman named Rachel Amber, takes Chloe by her hand, saves her from a terribly shitty situation at a dirtbag club night, and everything changes; they become inseparable. They also get entangled in a lot of shit for, well, being out-spoken and for standing up for themselves, and if you’ve played the initial game you know where that gets them.
However, this game is about shining a spotlight on the time Chloe and Rachel had together, about them finding each other, trusting each other, and figuring out the world and what they want.
While you can play BEFORE THE STORM as straight, that’s not the Chloe I know; my Chloe is queer as hell and gives no shits, so that’s the tact I took, and the game doesn’t disappoint if you go down that route. It feels poignant in the way that few games do.
BEFORE THE STORM is far smaller-scale than the first game in more ways than one. It’s focused on characters and fleshing out the events that lead to the tragedy (or tragedies) of LIFE IS STRANGE. Chloe doesn’t have superpowers; she has barbed quips and a Sharpie. You just spend three episodes living through Chloe’s often-banal life.
Yet, it’s my favorite of the series. (At least, so far.) It’s not a love story per se, but it is a romance of sorts between two people who aren’t exactly good for each other, but they ultimately find themselves drawn to each other, then find the same frequency, and they ride that for as long as they can. Also, Chloe’s general trajectory is something I certainly relate to in many ways. (I was a real shitheel of a teen. Gave my parents a lot of grief. Lived a duplicitous life. Not that anyone asked, but we’re on better terms now.)
BEFORE THE STORM also features my favorite bonus episode — which has become a staple of the series — and rewinds even further back: LIFE IS STRANGE: FAREWELL. However, I’ll table that for tomorrow.
“Don’t be surprised if one day, I’m just out of here.”
This game contains depictions of abduction, abuse, familial death and suicide. To prevent spoilers, I side-step mentioning most of those details, but not all.
LIFE IS STRANGE is an interactive narrative-forward videogame from French developer DONTNOD (now known as Don’t Nod). The game will be eight years old around the time of publishing this post. In other words, a tad more than a full teenage generation, which is fitting for a work that focuses so much on the time between being a youth and being considered an adult. It’s a game that zeroes in on how every choice — and the results of your choices — feel amplified, how the choices ripple through your life, and how you may learn to regret or embrace it. It’s also a game about highlighting traumatic incidents you’ve lived through and whether you are willing to confront them or push them aside. Often, the choice is up to you, but also intractable.
LIFE IS STRANGE takes place in the sleepy town of Arcadia Bay, Oregon, a fictional burg that was once fine waters for fisherman, at least before an old-money family by the name of the Prescotts strip-mined the area. While doing so, they buy out the long-standing local elite school for gifted artists and scientists: Blackwell Academy. (It’s worth noting that Blackwell is a rather loaded name, given Shirley Jackson’s WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE.)
You play as Maxine Caulfield, an aspiring photographer who goes by the shorthand ‘Max’. Max previously lived in Arcadia Bay, spending most of her free time with best friend and science nerd Chloe Price, at least until Max’s family moved to Seattle when Max was was an early teen. Unfortunately, right around the same day Max moved to Seattle, Chloe’s father died in a car accident.
Max attended the funeral, left town, and never contacted Chloe the entire time she lived near the spire.
Five years later, Max is back in Arcadia Bay to attend classes at Blackwell taught by her favorite living photographer: Mark Jefferson. In the meantime, Chloe has dropped out of Blackwell, having become a quintessential burnout punk — all dyed hair and anger issues — but is also desperately in search for one Rachel Amber, a gregarious all-star Blackwell student, and the person that helped prop Chloe up after Max had left. Rachel has been missing for six months and, while her family and police assume she’s just jaunted off to Los Angeles to act or model, Chloe knows better, and plasters the town with MISSING flyers.
Inexplicably, Max becomes imbued with the ability to rewind time, which allows her to save her prior best friend from being shot in a Blackwell bathroom — despite not even recognizing Chloe, thanks to five years of passage, as well as her newly shorn and cyan-colored hair.
Matters escalate in a very neo-noir/VERONICA MARS sort of way that includes all sorts of teen high school drama, drugs, men taking terrible advantage of their positions and power, you have a number of romance options and oh, Arcadia Bay might be totalled by an F6 tornado that only Max can foresee, and very few folks believe her.
In other words, this is perfect teenage fodder: small decisions result in huge consequences, emotions are perpetually heightened, your protagonist is gifted and has superpowers, and everyone is thirsty.
While LIFE IS STRANGE is an interactive narrative work, it manages its gameplay elements better than similar story-first games: the time-rewind feature is perfectly honed for a game where the result of choices ripple, and the interface for newly discovered dialogue branches is far better than anything BioWare has come up with. The visual design is artfully simple while also being striking with its colorful hues and stylized environments — especially notable is how it portrays Oregon, all lush leaves and wind streaked. While it’s not my home state of Vermont, it evokes that same rustic, rural feeling.
However, the real appeal here is in the character work: Max is a shy, restrained nerd and surrounded herself by similar folks. Chloe is a problem in search of a solution, a frustrated youth who lashes out unpredictably and still lives with her mother who works at the local diner. When Max and Chloe reunite, the game crystalizes; if you were lucky enough to have a best-friend as a teen, especially if you two were weirdo misfits, this game will almost certainly hit amazingly close-to-home. If you weren’t, it’s such an earnest and honest and emotional depiction that you’ll still feel their bond, their strife, their push-and-pull.
I know a lot of folks feel like the game cribs from TWIN PEAKS. It’s literally spelled out on Chloe’s license plate, and it mimics a lot of the ‘small town with secrets’ vibe. However — thematically — I don’t feel it, even though it does indulge in abused/dead girl tropes. The game is about survival and confronting circumstances, as opposed to innocence lost, unheard pain and senseless death. Does it dovetail with TWIN PEAKS? Yes. But no one here is actually Laura Palmer, the crux of a town.
I first played LIFE IS STRANGE way back in 2015, as the episodes were slowly doled out. As such, I forgot a lot over time, but certain scenes you do not forget. To be blunt: the ending? Spoiler alert: there is no good ending, although you’re still forced to choose one.
It’s rare that I replay games. I often say it’s a time thing, but more often than not it’s about retaining my initial experience of the game, how I felt about the characters and environments and conflicts and obstacles and victories. Also, most videogames are narratively linear, even if they pretend they aren’t, and most videogame stories suck. Sure, you occasionally have a SILENT HILL 2 that upends everything, but more often than not, it’s just banal. And that’s fine and I find fun in it!
I did replay LIFE IS STRANGE a few weeks ago. (I’ll note that I haven’t played the remastered version.) The entire game came back to me as I advanced chapter-by-chapter, not unlike how memories would unfold for Max. I remembered the choices I made. I remembered the choices I wish I hadn’t been forced to make.
I made a few different choices this time around, but mostly skewed to trying to be a good friend like I did the first time. This time around, I did kiss Chloe, but then felt bad because they’re really only always going to be friends and Max — well, my Max — is pretty straight and it just felt weird and awkward, and the game plays it out that way. This isn’t a story about queer awakening — it’s a story about friendship.
However: that’s exactly why this game, this series exists: it recreates the awkwardness of becoming an young adult, and the culmination of everything and everyone that influences it, as well as everyone who supports — or exploits — you along the way.
Emotionally, it is a lot, and in more than a few ways I don’t love how the game ladles on momentous decisions as it didn’t need to push so hard. However, upon replaying, I slowly and sadly came to realize that this one game is firmly focused on reconciling losing close friendships and ties.
It’s a game I wish I had as a teen, but I’m so happy that it exists now, and so ecstatic to see what it inspires in the generations to come.
Welcome to LIFE IS STRANGE week. If you aren’t familiar with the DONTNOD videogame series, they’re choice-based narrative games where the decisions you make matter more than they ever did in your MASS EFFECTs, and they’re all centered around the traumas endured while navigating one’s tumultuous teen years.
First up will be LIFE IS STRANGE, followed by LIFE IS STRANGE: BEFORE THE STORM, then the ‘demo’ for LIFE IS STRANGE 2 — THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN SPIRIT — before diving into LIFE IS STRANGE 2. Then LIFE IS STRANGE: TRUE COLORS, followed by the TRUE COLORS prelude/coda: STEPH’S STORY.
It is worth noting that all of these games deal rather frankly with a range of unsavory and traumatic actions and conditions, such as abduction, abuse, familial death, suicidal thoughts, and more. I’ll be assigning content warnings to each post but, if you’re sensitive to such matters — believe me, I am and I really probably shouldn’t even be playing through these games right now — you may want to skip these entries.
If you want a primer, I’ve created a YouTube playlist:
The first post will be for LIFE IS STRANGE (2015) on Feb 20th! In the meantime, you can take bets on which is my fav.
This was a great year for TV, overstuffed with brilliant finales and new offerings. Sadly, I haven’t had time to watch all that I’ve wanted — I’m still sitting on UNDONE S2, ANDOR, PACHINKO, FOR ALL MANKIND, STATION ELEVEN as well as personal favorites EVIL and much much more — but if I waited to watch everything I wanted in order to pen this, this post would never see the light of day.
BARRY (Season Three)
BARRY so consistently delicately threads drama and action and dark comedy while also being one of the most emotionally draining and enthralling shows on television. Visually it has its own amazing language, which paid off major dividends in 710N and the striking season finale.
BETTER CALL SAUL (Season Six, Part Two)
If there’s any justice in the world, BETTER CALL SAUL will be more influential than BREAKING BAD. Its plotting, action, and character work takes everything they learned from BREAKING BAD (and THE X-FILES, don’t forget Gilligan’s on-the-job training) and finely hones it into a brutal deconstruction of two unconventional misfits.
While so much ink was spilled about the finale, the end of Jimmy’s arc, I found the penultimate episode to be far more affective, as it laser-focuses on how the fallout of Kim’s entanglement with Jimmy has affected her in a way you simply don’t often see portrayed.
BETTER THINGS (Season Five)
“[BETTER THINGS] 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.”
While I’ll be forever grateful that FX gave this show five seasons, it feels like a goddamn injustice that — apart from a handful of critics — it mostly came and went unnoticed. It’s such a vivid and singular depiction of home and family and aging that everyone should be exposed to.
DOOM PATROL (Season ?)
Yes, not one, but two DC TV shows on this list. (And, tellingly, no Marvel shows.) Unlike HARLEY QUINN, I was already in the bag for DOOM PATROL having read and loved Grant Morrison’s iconic run, albeit probably later in life than I should have.
However, I was skeptical that they could capture the wild wonder of their world. To some extent, they do not — while it has a far bigger budget than I would expect, it’s still difficult for the show to do justice to a sentient block mirroring Haight-Asbury — but they’re trying their damnedest.
And that’s okay, because the show leans in a different direction. Like HARLEY QUINN, this show doubles-down on the found misfit family facet, trauma-bonding, while adding savior complexes to the group. It also includes Cyborg who seems like a strange fit, but they work him in as well as possible.
Also like HARLEY QUINN, it is a voyage of trauma-exploration — it even features a similar ‘dissociative event/we have to enter their mind’ episode — however, where QUINN sees a light at the end of the tunnel, DOOM PATROL is far more dour, perhaps more than Morrison initially intended. These are castaways who have lived with too much for far too long and, consequently, feel rudderless.
I’ll note that this year’s season has barely kicked off, and I’m still working through the prior seasons, but as a show it really hit me in the gut and I couldn’t leave it off this list.
GIRLS5EVA (Season Two)
This season didn’t quite hit the highs of the first, but it still provided effortless laughs and brilliant performances.
HARLEY QUINN (Season Three)
Before I’d watched a single episode, I had written off HARLEY QUINN as a filthy lark — hyper-violent, intentionally offensive snark — but enough critics boosted it that I thought it’d be a fun comedic, mindless watch at a time when I desperately needed that midway through this year.
I was absolutely 100% wrong on all counts. (Well, not about it being filthy and hyper-violent because it most certainly is.) I also watched it at a time I most certainly shouldn’t have been watching it, during a period in my life when I was explicitly told to stay away from trauma-centeric works after a bout of enduring extremely difficult works and processing waaaay too much.
HARLEY QUINN is all about dealing with/confronting trauma and abusers and people-pleasing and recovery, but despite the fact that the show is so dirty that I of all people had to consult urbandictionary.com, it’s surprisingly healthy. Ultimately, it’s about Harley realizing herself, her potential, and growing as a person, as opposed to the standard misery porn most shows lean on.
This year’s season isn’t as concise as the prior two, nor is it as emotionally brutal, but it finally coupled-up Poison Ivy and Harley and portrayed the two as a very complicated, but fulfilling, relationship. The writers bend over backwards to underscore that their relationship doesn’t ‘solve’ Harley, that there’s still work to be done. The fact that they can do so while firing off lines like “I can’t listen to ya when you’re dressed like a 40s housewife who is fucking her husband’s boss.” is just an added bonus.
THE LAST MOVIE STARS
The story of two beautiful people with big beautiful problems, all extremely graciously handled by the ever-empathetic Ethan Hawke.
RESERVATION DOGS (Season Two)
I’m still working through the second season, however this show has such a taut command over its characters and tone and what they want to say that it has to be included. A heartfelt raw nerve of a show.
THE RIGHTEOUS GEMSTONES (Season Two)
On paper, every Green/Hill/McBride show should not be for me; immature, petulant male bravado is not my bag.
However, they are absolutely amazing at giving their mostly terrible characters nuance while still being hilariously quotable -and- instilling them with genuine humanity and pathos. Crazily enough, HBO has also given them a budget that allows them to create some shockingly JOHN WICK-worthy set-pieces.
THE REHEARSAL (Season One)
An absolute mindfuck of a reality show in all of the right and wrong ways. By the end I couldn’t help but feel like numerous crimes had been voluntarily committed.
WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS (Season Four)
An absolute joy of a humane comedy. The writers are restless and endlessly inventive, and the cast as always game for it. –Go Flip Yourself– is an instant classic.
A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN (Season One)
“[A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN is] about rewiring cultural attitudes and figuring out what’s best for yourself when you’re actively able to make said decisions.”
I LOVE THAT FOR YOU
The Home Shopping Network is an easy target to lampoon, but I LOVE THAT FOR YOU never punches down, opting instead to tell a serious-but-often-comedic character story about what happens when you get the spotlight you want, and what you’ll do to keep the spotlight on you.
KIDS IN THE HALL
I grew up in Vermont and I’m old, so I was part of a select few of those in the United States who actually saw KIDS IN THE HALL via antenna way back in the day.
If you haven’t seen the original run: I implore you to do so.
That said, I was a bit worried about this return, that it might feel a bit tired, but they still hit all of the right notes. Also, it was all worth it solely for Doomsday DJ.
MYTHIC QUEST (Season Three)
Given the history of all of the creators and writers of this series — notably from IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA folks — I expected MYTHIC QUEST to be an even filthier SILICON VALLEY and, while I’m sure so many folks would have been happy with that, instead it’s a surprisingly tender — though still barbed — workplace drama that I’m shocked exists, partially because it actually showcases how gaming culture and audiences have significantly changed.
It’s no longer about tech dudebros — although yes, they’re there — but the show isn’t so pre-occupied with that. It’s genuinely supportive.
It recalls WKRP and 30 ROCK, because with most workplace sitcoms you already know how the sausage is made, but with those, you really didn’t.
Also, Polly uses the exact same faceless, pitch-black mechanical keyboard I’ve used for years, which is a really, really nice touch.
OUR FLAGS MEAN DEATH (Season One)
The queer CABIN BOY/CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS TV show no one knew they wanted or needed.
SEVERANCE (Season One)
Finally, an emotional, character-centric high-concept show that fills the LOST-shaped hole in everyone’s heart. Immaculately designed, perfectly cast; it was a treat of a wintertime show.
SOMEBODY SOMEWHERE (Season One)
For the theatre nerd in all of us; an affecting homecoming story that reminded me of the sadly overlooked ONE MISSISSIPPI. It’s also one of the last performances from classic character actor Mike Hagerty, and he gives it his all here.
STRANGE NEW WORLDS (Season One)
An absolutely delightful sci-fi throwback that captures the wonder and excitement of exploration.
THREE BUSY DEBRAS (Season Two)
Some of the finest surrealism on TV, at least until it was canceled. At least it went out with a bang.