A Pandemic Media Diet

Aside from occasional walks in the neighborhood, I haven’t left the apartment in over a year now. Yes, I’ve kept at my creative work, more or less, but that’s still left me with a lot of time to kill as I’ve tried to keep alive. So I thought I’d compile a list of shows, movies, and video games that have made enough of an impression on me this year to think to recommend them to some of you now.

These aren’t critiques, they aren’t even reviews. It’s just a list, and some of my thoughts on who might enjoy them. We’re not through this thing yet, try to stay safe out there. (Not included here: the podcasts, audiobooks and music videos I’ve been mainlining).

Peaky Blinders — 1920s-30s crime drama. Incredibly stylized, but the content and acting lives up to those pretenses. Walks the line between glamorizing and critiquing violence, with varying results, but the observations about ww1 and cycle of trauma is spot on, and Cillian Murphy is mesmerizing. A number of good supporting performances — Tom Hardy as Alfie Solomons is out of this world.

Mindhunter — fictionalization about the turn by the FBI to profile mass murderers through psychology, and the struggle to formalize and legitimize that process. Despite that description, it’s actually quite good, if a bit uneven (often the curse of “television” even under the best circumstances). I’ve seen mixed critique of the production design, they certainly take some liberties where historical accuracy is concerned. But on the other hand, relax — it’s a TV show. Some chilling performances.

Wormwood — a good follow up to Mindhunter, mixed doc / drama about CIA / MK-Ultra. The hybrid fiction / documentary format is effective, and quite meta if you consider the manipulative nature of the documentary format.

Miles Davis, Birth of Cool — fewer “motherfuckers” than his autobiography, but… enough of them. It’s hard to tackle a personality and talent like his successfully, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a biography that fully manages to balance his abuses and acts of violence against his talent and heart. But, you know. It makes the attempt. Especially if you’re unfamiliar with his work, it’s worth a watch.

Also Chasing Train is another fairly solid jazz doc that you should catch if you don’t know much about his life and work. I hope we get one on McCoy Tyner soon. (Also, the Monk documentary named after his album Straight No Chaser is a classic).

Deep Space 9 — (also on Hulu and Prime currently). Unlike almost every other TV show shot in the 90s, (even my beloved TNG), DS9 actually seems to have aged in a mostly positive way. It maintains the “why is everyone wearing a couch” aesthetic of other 90s ST properties, but even despite Rick Berman’s efforts it was probably the most queer prime time show of the era. You do get some pretty funny artifacts however, like the insistence that changelings — a race of literal blobs that reproduce asexually and can take any shape — have “male” and “female” types. Or the rapid backpedaling on “oh no what if the O’Briens are poly?” But mostly its idiosyncrasies read as endearing to me now. And who doesn’t like watching a plucky terrorist, an 800 year old trans worm, an interrogation specialist turned tailor, and a literal bag of goo get into hijinx together?

The Haunting of Hill House — this show, and its successor, both get super theatrical, you could see it working as a stage production. This likely results in a very mixed reaction: you either are going to love it or hate it. I’m on the “love it” side, for my part, even though I fully see how you might hate it. If you are willing to meet the premise halfway, you might just find yourself misting up despite yourselves. “The ghost was family all along.”

Dark Matter — a cheesy but increasingly entertaining sci fi / adventure, especially if you’re a sucker for space RPGs. I’ll put it this way — The Expanse is what all of us want our space RPGs to be, but Dark Matter is probably a much more realistic target. (If only syfy didn’t cancel it after the 3rd season, it was a good cliffhanger, and was really starting to catch its stride.)

The Vietnam War / Ken Burns — Have you always wanted a thorough look at the Vietnam war, with a soundtrack by Trent Reznor? Then I’ve got some good news for you.

Bojack Horseman — I’m not even going to try to explain this show but it’s hands down one of my favorites. And after watching it all the way through at least 4 times I’m still not entitling sure how it’s possible to give animal cartoon characters so much pathos. Give it at least a few episodes.

The Good Place — (I think Hulu has the final season). Philosophy 101 just got a whole lot more fun. This is another show that has a lot more going on than is immediately apparent… I honestly was very unsure for the first couple episodes, and it wasn’t until the end of the first season that I felt like I was really in for the ride. Some highlights — “The time knife”, Jeremy Beremy, Chidi becomes a nihilist.

Better Call Saul — plenty about Breaking Bad was great, but I felt they often went over the top in lieu of exploring the characters more closely. Well… this is basically that. I honestly think it might have surpassed its predecessor in many ways, although of course it wouldn’t work without it, in more ways than one.

Turn — a historical drama about the Culper spy ring during the revolutionary war. More historically accurate than most dramas, though that’s not saying much. Some uneven writing is compensated for by solid performances of many of the leads. I feel that it kind of lost the thread a bit after the first couple seasons.

Lucifer — this show is dumb on so many levels. It’s kinda the Gaiman Lucifer character but it’s also kind of a buddy cop show? Yet somehow it also works. A recommendation for mostly mindless viewing. The world feels like it’s ending on the daily, sometimes we all need that.

Castlevania — Warren Ellis wrote this animated series and it really shows for well or ill depending. It very much makes me want to play D&D or dark ages WoD so I consider that a win. It has an anime-fantasy illustration style that I enjoy.

Russian Doll — another one of those shows like Bojack that’s better watched than explained, because it’s not really “about” its plot. In fact, the plot might even be considered a red herring.

The Umbrella Academy — I really wasn’t sure if I was onboard the first episode or two, I was feeling pretty “comic booked out” at the time. But it pulled me in. Darkly funny. And the second season manages to pay off on one upping an ending that seems like it would be one-uppable.

Halt and Catch Fire — an AMC show that falls a bit into the Mad Men niche “but for tech startups”, and had its absurdities, but the moments it connected, are really strong. (Also, most of the actors are pretty easy on the eyes. It’s a little distracting, really.)

Spider Man / Into The Spiderverse — probably the only straight-forward superhero comic movie I’ll recommend here. Many others are cool and all, but I assume you know about them already. I first saw it in the theaters without knowing anything about it, like that it was an animated film. My hopes were not particularly high… and it blew me away. Best fusion of comic book format and motion animation I’ve ever seen.

Ozark. One of the best crime dramas in years. It couldn’t have happened without Breaking Bad, most likely, and yet I think this is another one that exceeds it at least on account of the subtlety thing. Jason Bateman is his usual understated self, Laurie Linney and Julia Garner are phenomenal. (I won’t lie, I have way too much of a pandemic show crush on Ruth, it’s unseemly).

The Mandalorian — finally, someone actually understands what Star Wars is about. Yes, I’m including George Lucas in that. Space fantasy styled partly on western / samurai movie tropes, there’s nothing heady here: the label matches the contents on the tin, nothing more or less. If you’re a fan of the Star Wars RPG this will be particularly appealing, I think.

Wandavision — I didn’t think it was as brilliant as some of my friends did, but I also didn’t hate it. The last act (so last 2–3 episodes) was somewhat disappointing compared to the build up, but it was an interesting enough concept, executed well. I feel like if you’re a fan of the rest of the MCU content, it sets up something that we’ve all been curious about — Marvel Studios / Disney’s foray into the X-Men.

Although I haven’t watched it the past year, on this note, Logan deserves a note here as being the best out of the many attempts to bring that universe to live in movie format.

Winter Soldier / Falcon — In some ways this show seems a much less edgy attempt to touch on the “veterans issues” raised in The Punisher. Of course, we’re only at episode 4 when I write this, but my take so far is that the writing is occasionally clumsy, but I also get the sense they’re trying to pull off something a bit more subtle than they have with the other MCU content. (Of course, if the MCU is “just CIA propaganda” as many people claim, then most of that subtlety is just an attempt to distance from what they’re espousing. Maybe. Although this isn’t actually a form of aesthetic criticism.) Like most of the MCU, my take is that it’s not quite as smart as it seems to think it is, but they do mostly know how to entertain and put character dead center, where it should be.

The Expanse — Literally why are you not watching The Expanse already? Overall, this is one of my favorite sci fi series, (the books are also good). A truly lived-in world that arose first as an attempt at a sci fi MMORPG and then became an online, written RPG, and then finally a book and television show — all that world building is earned too, and used for the plot rather than window trapping. Nothing about it is conceptually groundbreaking and yet it’s all executed with a kind of economy and thoughtfulness that makes it groundbreaking all the same. This is part of what I mean when I say “originality is overrated”. They do take the time to really establish the world and characters, so don’t expect everything to be explained up front or delivered with a bow. It’s worth the time.

Hunters. Stylized like a comic, some of the humor was terrific. The reversal ending was a bit ridiculous, but that’s also in keeping with comic book style I suppose. Pacino was Pacino, which is to say good. And shouty.

The Boys. Some loved it, some hated it. I was closer to the former category, though there’s no denying they lay it on a bit thick. My understanding is they actually toned it down from the comics. (It’s Ennis, so… yeah.) “A bit on the nose” is a more valid criticism than being pro-fascism as some people have claimed, thereby demonstrating that even the most obvious satire can still fly under the radar these days. A lot of it is laugh out loud funny, also, which doesn’t hurt. I found it to be a really pleasant palette cleanser after re/watching through all the MCU movies when we picked up Disney+. (It wasn’t useful for the same with DC movies because, with a handful of exceptions, they are best not watched in the first place.)

Hanna — I just can’t get enough of “chicks beating the shit out of government agents” type shows I guess. I wouldn’t say this is the best in the genre, but it has enough moments to be worth the watch if it’s your type of deal.

Patriot — One of the most sadly funny and true-feeling spy dramas I think I’ve ever seen. Laugh-Cry-React.gif for hours.

Undone — A kind of updated Waking Life style roto/animation that delves into shamanism and mental illness. My kind of jam, to be sure. Rosa Salazar is terrific, (she also “is” Alita, which will get a mention here.) Alsoalso… can’t to wrong with Odenkirk.

Hollow Crown — if you like Shakespeare, a number of the Plantagenet/ “history” plays were produced for TV with a number of famous leads. I’m not sure if this is free on Prime anymore, but it’s worth the $ if you’re a fan.

Picard — As one would expect, this has gotten mixed reviews. People want it to be everything. If Picard going rogue shadowrunner to plumb a Romulan plot sounds like a good time to you, though… this should do it. In the action-adventure vein of the movies and recent shows, sadly the “Convention on the space Marriot” style of TNG is probably behind us.

Discovery — Strongly mixed feelings. While I’m willing to accept that all Star Trek properties are interesting and flawed in their unique ways, Discovery seems to take that to the next level. If you can roll with giant space tardigrades and pre TNG tech that allows instantaneous transport via mushrooms / mycelium, then you’ll probably find something to enjoy.

Chernobyl — One of the best historical dramas of the year. (It’s a miniseries). Harris and Skarsgard are almost always good, but doubly so here.

Bladerunner 2047 — this is yet another divisive topic, but I simply can’t get enough of the aesthetic of this movie, production design, soundtrack, ambiance, everything… even if the writing was less than stellar in some regards. After having seen it in the theater several times, I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve watched the movie on silent with the soundtrack looping.

The Terror (AMC) — I think it’s on Hulu now. Atmospheric AF, super creepy historical fiction about the failed north pole mission. Season 2 was possibly even better, primarily because I love kaidan (Japanese “ghost” stories).

Justice League — Either cut. I’m actually mentioning it here strictly for how unwatchable and terrible both movies were, albeit for different reasons.

Barry — actually hilarious dark comedy, with some insight into the conundrums of artificial/fake, acting/ reality.

Westworld — I wrote a full review about my strongly mixed feelings about the premise (excellent) and execution (mixed). I’ll post in comments. But it goes to some interesting places, even if they seem to repeatedly lose the thread whenever they get there.

Alita(Movie) — This live action remake of the 90s anime has a certain “what if cyberpunk but produced on the CW” / YA flair (which the originals didn’t) but managed to have enough heart and consistent aesthetic to get me through that.

Lovecraft Country — Lovecraftian horror that takes on Lovecraft’s racism head on. Something about the execution felt a little too “pat” to me, but there’s a whole lot of twists and turns and some poignant commentary on race relations, even if the devices used to get there often seem to be a bit overly literal for my taste.

True Detective — I really enjoyed the return with season 3 to the format of season 1. Still lacking the same hysterical nihilistic comments we came to expect from Rust, but it’s again a show about the detectives characters far more than it’s a show about “the case”.

Mad Max Fury Road — This is another one of those movies that is so beautifully shot and staged that I could probably just watch it with music playing and get almost as much out of the experience. Bleak, brutal, beautiful.

Raised By Wolves — I’m a sucker for aesthetic so I’m keeping it on the list, but it is with reservations. What a promising disappointment. I’m still putting it here, because the production design and execution is just that stellar. And the concept has a ton of promise — a mithraic, dark gnostic futuristic myth, that is SO my speed. But especially in the second half of season 1, they fall prey to the “LOST phenomenon”. It meanders more and more until I found myself not really caring how it all turns out, if it goes anywhere at all. But what promise.

The Wire, Sopranos, the first 3 seasons of Game of Thrones, etc. I’m guessing you’ve already seen these but they are classics for a reason. The Wire and Sopranos start out strong and only get better, GoT is kind of the opposite. But I’m not going to pretend I don’t still watch it from time to time. Like The West Wing, you’re better off pretending the show ended around the 5th season.

Legion — Best X Men on screen… except maybe Logan. Gets super weird (in a good way!) and doesn’t reveal what it’s “about” for quite some time from the open. Hang in there. (A friend pointed out numerous overlaps between Legion and my Fallen Cycle and in particular Party At The World’s End. Well, obviously it wasn’t intentional since I’m not a time traveling mutant, but I can see it too. I think they all have some common DNA with The Invisibles, as well.)

Killing Eve — If you like spy stories and hot psychopaths, and are also super, super, super queer, then this is the show for you.

Vikings — Another show that in my estimation kind of lost its way as it grew, the production and costume design remained good throughout. Maybe it is on account of them having some pretense of historic accuracy that there are so many complaints about the inaccuracies. For my part, the soap operatic absurdities were more of the complaint, it’s a fictional television show after all.

The Division 2 — I mean, right up front let’s be honest, TD2 is a Boomer power fantasy. But it’s also a fucking blast once you get a hang of it. How much fun is it to jog into an intersection where a public execution is taking place, tossing an auto turret onto the hood of a shot up police cruiser, taking out the gang without breaking stride, popping a thumbs up to the civilians and jogging onward to your drop-point? Ah, video games.

I do find myself really missing the “wall physics” of 2077 — in TD2 a thin wood table is almost as good as a concrete pillar where taking cover is concerned. And I’ve discovered no difference in penetration power between calibers (which is another fun 2077 feature). This is especially true considering that they put in the time to calculate the variant reductions of both power and accuracy between different calibers and types of guns, and yet a plank of wood will stop a high caliber sniper rifle round just as surely as a small sidearm. It is true that there are cover variations between the type of cover you can crouch behind, but this had an appreciable effect on my style of play. I’m just saying, being able to shoot through walls would really change up this game mostly for the better.

Cyberpunk 2077 — I wrote a full-ish review elsewhere that I’m not going to repeat here, but the bottom line is that at its best, this game was like playing an active role in a cinematic cyberpunk movie. At other times, you could see the wires holding things up and the rails guiding you along to the same outcomes and that was disappointing to me. But it didn’t cancel out what they did get right. I have played through each of the 3 main endings… currently waiting a bit for a full playthrough after more updates are rolled out. I hear 1.2 was good.

Balders Gate 3 — I played through the early access version with much enthusiasm when it was first released, and am now holding off on playing again until we get the full game. I am so excited for it — this is as close to “D&D the video game” that I’ve experienced… and I’ve pretty much played them all.

Battletech — Probably the most accurate port of the tabletop game out of the many video games that have been made, and that isn’t necessarily all good depending on how you feel about its quirks. The “roll of the dice” is still very much a factor, as are the attrition economics of trying to keep a Dropshop crew afloat. Overall I love this game despite its frustrations, but I’ve also set it aside for long periods because of this. There are also major spikes in difficulty between different regions, and $ death spirals that can make you have to backtrack significant amounts of play if you don’t catch the signs early.

Jedi Fallen Order — Here’s another one that really succeeds on the cinematic end. When you get into a roll it’s just like being in the action sequence of a Star Wars movie. My complaint with this game is the same as many other action games, where there is one way to solve X and if there’s a particular sequence of jumps or a puzzle you can’t get past, it seems like you’re just SOL. I’m currently stuck about 4 hours of play in, where I can’t figure out how to navigate a certain area. Every now and then I load it again, grow frustrated, and log out. It was fun while it lasted I guess.

Marvel’s Avengers — This is another game I was enjoying for a hot minute, and then I hit a section where you have to evade a ton of drones that are hunting you and after weeks of failing at the same point I just stopped. I really, really, really wish games just let you skip points you get stuck on if you want to. Maybe there are gamers who only care about challenge but personally I’d like to be able to actually enjoy the games I buy.

Squadrons (+ VR). Do you want to fly a tie fighter or an x wing? Here’s your chance. In many ways, this is the game we’ve been waiting for years for. My biggest issue is that, as it turns out, I’m incredibly bad at piloting space ships when there are 100 enemy ships on your tail. I also found the joystick control a little lax, there were dead areas which is especially tough with x box style thumb controls, even with extenders to increase the fulcrum of the sticks.

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla — One of my favorite AC games so far. I’m about 15 hours in, but lost momentum a little when the game went open world because it is really a massive game (so is the Ancient Greece one, fwiw) and I got distracted. I’m fickle like that I guess. Solid plot development, fun combat. I find the lack of RP options a little bit of a straightjacket but even with the depth of the lore, AC are fundamentally action games not RPGs so it’s understandable.

XCOM — an older game but I still open it up from time to time and enjoy myself. Mostly recommended if you’re into small team tactics. (I play a lot of RPGs, so obviously I do.)

Wolfenstein Youngblood — The concept and play style of this shooter is really to my taste, at least when I’m in the mood for a fast paced FPS. Unfortunately, the difficulty curve is way too quick for my aging reflexes. I’ve been unable to beat the level one boss even on Easy mode, after about a week of trying I gave up. Seeing a pattern? I love modern games but they’re by and large really too difficult for me. I don’t want to have to invest 40 hours just to develop the muscle memory to be able to play your game.

Project Wingman — I haven’t tried the VR support yet, but in regular mode I found this very uneven in the specific way that indie games often are, parts of it feel incomplete. But it is very pretty and the actual play experience is kind of exactly what I want sometimes — less reductive / unrealistic than After Burner but far from an actual flight sim.

Alyx VR — I want to play it so bad. I have it. But I am also intimidated by the VR interactivity requirements and my office is really too small for VR games that you’re not basically standing in place for. Hopefully one day I can say whether it’s any good. :p

A useful fiction: Fiction is philosophy. Philosophy is fiction. www.JamesCurcio.com

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