Tag Archive | TV

Over the Garden Wall: an autumnal masterpiece from Cartoon Network

Over the Garden Wall is so good, so successful at everything it sets out to accomplish, that it is something of a miracle. I cannot fathom a better TV show debuting this year.

Over the Garden Wall tells the story of two brothers- the teenage Wirt and the much younger Greg- who have gotten lost in a forest. They are trying to find their way home. Early on, they run into a talking bluebird named Beatrice. Yes, this all sounds familiar. This show’s roots are in the fables and folklore that we seem to absorb through osmosis as children. This is a show with singing, magic, talking animals, witches, and more than the occasional sinister creature in the shadows. It contains elements that will be familiar to anyone who was a child. It’s how it uses those elements that makes it so special.

Many reviewers have given in to the temptation to describe Over the Garden Wall as whimsical, but it rarely struck me as such. Yes, Wirt is inexplicably dressed like a gnome, and Greg has a teapot on his head, and yes Beatrice is a talking bluebird. But Wirt’s and Greg’s costumes are given rational explanations in due time and Beatrice is neither a friendly Disney-style sidekick nor a snarky Shrek knockoff. She’s blunt and critical in a big sisterly sort of way and we grow to like her because her story is as compelling as any in the show. And it never stops telling compelling stories.

There is precious little exposition in this show, both for the plot at large and episode to episode. Each episode is largely contained to a single-serving of a new setting. In the first episode, the brothers end up in the home of a strange man living in the woods, warning them of a sinister creature he calls the Beast. Other settings include a town populated by sapient pumpkins; a sprawling, apparently haunted mansion owned by a tea mogul; and a steamboat transporting some very well-dressed frogs to their annual mud hibernation. This narrative approach is extremely engaging, giving the plot a constant sense of headlong momentum, even as it takes it sweet time exploring each world in detail.

And lord, what detail.

Over the Garden Wall looks so good that you could choose just about any still and want to frame it. It is autumnal in the best ways, alive with color and character.

The show frequently uses old-fashioned motifs, but they rarely seem to be calling attention to themselves. Techniques like the iris lens above are a callback to silent movies, but it also gives the opening sequence of the show a dreamlike quality that sets the tone before the story starts.

Before each episode, I found myself looking forward to simply seeing where Wirt, Greg, and Beatrice would go next. Each location is cool on the surface, and only get cooler as their layers peel back. In one episode, they end up in a creepy cottage where a teenage girl is held captive by her fearsome Auntie Whispers. Auntie Whispers looks like how Yubaba from Spirited Away might appear after spending a few years bathing in formaldehyde. But she is not simply a grotesque. Auntie Whispers ends up being one of the most interesting of the show’s vast roster of side characters, and the episode’s story takes a turn that is surprising, scary, and incredibly satisfying.

Another episode features a schoolhouse full of animals, being taught by a lovelorn human schoolmarm. In this show’s style, there is almost no setup preparing us for this setting, but eventually there is an explanation for it that somehow ends up making sense. One of the show’s delights is how heedlessly it explores its settings, and how thorough that exploration is.

There are plenty of musical sequences in Over the Garden Wall, and they are just about all delightful. Well, if not delightful, then excellent. This scene is the sort that would have haunted my dreams a kid:

That is a gloriously creepy 30 seconds. I don’t intend to show too much more of this show out of context, but here’s another, completely different song from another episode:

Over the Garden Wall uses music to set the tone its episodes beautifully. The first song is as jarring and disturbing as the second is jolly and fun. The first song creates a sense of deep unease. It’s downright trippy. The second helps define Greg as a character: infectiously optimistic and fond of nonsensical, improvised wordplay. The show navigates between these tones (and many more in between) effortlessly. At times it is pure delight and others genuinely frightening and all the while we get to know its characters a little more at a time until we are completely invested in their journey.

For all the rightful plaudits Over the Garden Wall receives for its animation and music, it is as good as it is in the same ways that any good show succeeds: strong characters, quality writing, excellent performances. The show’s creator, Patrick McHale, is yet another graduate of the Adventure Time/Misadventures of Flapjack school of animators who continually churn out outstanding shows (see also: Gravity Falls, Steven Universe, and Bee and Puppycat). Over the Garden Wall’s writing team includes a number of the best Adventure Time alums, including AT creator Pendleton Ward and alums Natasha Allegri and Cole Sanchez.

Wirt, Greg, and Beatrice are brought to life with outstanding voice acting by Elijah Wood, Collin Dean, and Melanie Lynskey. Wood’s voice has a constant tremble of harried anxiety, warm towards his brother, defensive towards Beatrice, and always at his wits end. Dean is charming as Greg, who is one of the best written child characters I’ve seen on TV in a good long time. It’s difficult for adults to write convincing children. Greg is not simply a fount of energy. Like many young children, he is endlessly curious about the world around him and equally lost in his own imagination. \

Beatrice is the show’s biggest scene-stealer, a slightly amoral bluebird (I did enjoy writing that phrase) whose clashes with Wirt slowly evolve into the sort of affection that comes with deep mutual empathy. Lynskey’s performance is warm but not fuzzy. Beatrice is the show’s most conflicted character, and Lynskey’s voice seems naturally laden with gravity, buoyant as it can be.

Each character is quietly dynamic in their own ways. The show has no use for preachy moralizing; its characters’ revelations are deeply personal, rooted in their relationships with each other and how far they realize they are willing to go for each others’ sakes. And I was just as invested in them by the end.

Over the Garden Wall billed itself as a “5-night Mystery Adventure”, and that’s apt. The show’s sense of mystery is not a parlor crime novel, but something more childlike. It reminded me very much of Spirited Away, a film that observed a fantasy world from a outsider, child’s eye view, with every new and amazing sight raising a new set of mysteries. With 10, 11-minute episodes, you can easily watch this show in its entirety over the course of the week in 22 minute chunks. Or you can take it all in at once (since all the episodes add up to less than two hours), and have the best fantasy movie experience of the year. You can buy the whole show on iTunes for ten bucks, and it is worth every penny and then some. If you have cable, you can find it On Demand. However you watch Over the Garden Wall, just make damn sure you watch it.

Edit: While looking for other reviews of this show I realized that I gave this post almost the exact same title as this article on Bloody Disgusting. It was a coincidence, but something still worth rectifying as that article came out before I posted mine. I have now changed the title.

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Game of Thrones and the art of the monologue

Spoilers for Game of Thrones ahead.

Thinking back on the last two seasons of Game of Thrones, some of the most memorable scenes have been monologues. Monologues, hypothetically, are all tell and no show. To be effective, a monologue relies on both the writer and the actor for the speech to be more than just information to move the plot forward; they must tell us something about the person delivering the monologue, or shed new light on previous events, or otherwise do more than just pass the time. Done wrong, as The Walking Dead has done far too often, monologues become a lazy substitute for character building and drama, pretending that two characters engaging in extended whisper fights constitutes drama. But done right, as Game of Thrones does time and time again, a monologue can be as brutal or heartbreaking as any wordless action.

I’ve singled out three monologues from the show, each one delivered by a Lannister sibling, each telling a story about their father that ends up being much, much more than a simple tale.

The first is from the season one episode “Baelor”, the scene that likely won Peter Dinklage his well-deserved Emmy.

The information conveyed in this scene is important, yes. It tells us a cruel story from Tyrion’s childhood that helps us understand why he has embraced a sort of detached playboy mentality, and why he has such loathing for his father. One of the main criticisms of The Walking Dead is that it devotes so much dialogue, walls and walls of dialogue, to characters fighting about things we already know about without shedding new light on anything.

Here, in just a few minutes, a poisonous relationship is laid bare. It’s crucial for the show to establish just how far Tywin’s heartlessness extends. He is not just a bitter old man. He has no love lost for his own children, and the extent of his cruelty is frightening to imagine. This scene is a heartbreaking moment for Tyrion, but it also quietly establishes Tywin as an even more fearsome force than we could have known before. As expository dialogue goes, it’s hard to get more multi-purpose than this.

The second monologue is delivered by Jaime Lannister to Brienne of Tarth, his unlikely travelling companion with whom he develops an even more unlikely bond as she tries to deliver him back to the safety of King’s Landing.

In this scene, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau delivers perhaps the single best-acted moment in season 3, which is saying something. The show has become a murderer’s row of strong performers. Emilia Clarke earned a well-deserved Emmy nod this year, joining previous winner Dinklage, and nearly a dozen other actors in the show have an argument for consideration (Coster-Waldau, Michelle Fairley, Lena Headey, Charles Dance, and Natalie Dormer would be at the top of my personal list).

But his performance here tops all others, as I see it. Like Dinklage, Coster-Waldau delivers a personal anecdote, this one the first full account of the incident that gave him the title that haunts him to this day: Kingslayer.

There is a lot of history to parse through in this monologue. But Coster-Waldau delivers it with so much bitterness and regret that it feels like we’re intruding on his most deeply private thoughts, not listening to history lecture. This scene is heavy with catharsis: We’ve seen aloof Jaime, incestuous Jaime, attempted child-murderer Jaime, badass swordfighter Jaime, and most recently before this scene, suddenly one-handed Jaime.

But this scene peers a little deeper into the past of a man who has lived his whole life branded a traitor and coward. It finds that the act that defines him (to Westeros, at least; the viewers still know he tried to murder Bran Stark) is one that many others, perhaps almost all others, would have done in his situation; trading the life of a mad king for that of his father and an entire city.

Jaime is many things, and here we find that his devotion to his family exceeds most anything else. His glib line, “the things I’ll do for love,” when he pushed Bran out of a window seems less flippant now; here is a man who would kill a king and be branded a traitor rather than betray his own father. It doesn’t make Jaime a good man, but it makes him a much more complex one.

The third monologue is a quiet scene, so quiet that it could easily be lost in the chaos that surrounded it in season 3. The monologue is part of a conversation between Natalie Dormer’s Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey’s Cersei Lannister. Margaery has been slowly making inroads within the royal family leading to her marriage to Joffrey Baratheon. She has been a cunning, delightful character to watch, and the scene in which she flirts with her sadistic, psychopathic fiancee by feigning an interest in crossbows and hunting was one of the most nerve-wracking scenes of the season, and ultimately triumphant for her, as she won the most unstable character in Westeros to her side.

In this scene, she is trying to make sweet small talk with her future mother-in-law and sister-in-law (oh Tywin, you and your heartless marriage arrangements). Cersei replies with a story about the origins of the Lannister family’s signature song: “The Rains of Castamere”.

This is a brutal little verbal beatdown by Cersei. Functionally, she makes it clear that she wants nothing to do with Margaery, and will always view her as an adversary. It’s a setback for Margaery, who had seemingly been effortlessly charming over her new family. And yes, reminding us of this song in such a vivid way ends up being a nice bit of foreshadowing for its truly memorable use in the next episode, when a performance of the song directly precedes the now legendary “Red Wedding”.

But consider how deliberate this show is. A warning this sinister does not apply to just the Tyrells; look at how the Starks were reeling all season after Rob lost the support of the Karstarks and was forced to go grovelling to Walder Frey. Even if you didn’t see the Red Wedding coming, this scene sets it up beautifully. “Game of Thrones” tends to use its largest plot upheavals in its 9th, penultimate episodes; this scene comes at the end of the 8th. For those who didn’t know the Red Wedding was coming, this scene is like a warning written in stone.

It’s a beautifully efficient use of about 90 seconds of dialogue. Like The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones is a very talky show. Unlike The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones’s dialogue is rich, evocative, and constantly moves the story forward. It’s aided by the very, very good cast, of course, and writers who know that the right choice of words, delivered perfectly, can alter the mood and change the course of a story as vividly as any other scene.

Scenes from Mad Men: “A Tale of Two Cities”

I’ve been a very bad Mad Men recapper. This one’ll be short, but at least I got it in this week.

“A Tale of Two Cities” is one of those necessary gear-shifting episodes of Mad Men. This show tells so many stories, so intricately, that sometimes an entire episode is needed to set the table for bigger things. Such episodes are rarely bad (this one was quite good) but they never rise to the level of Mad Men’s finest hours.

That said, there are certain pairs of characters with too much electricity when paired together to make for uncompelling television. Peggy and Joan are two such characters. One of the pleasures of Mad Men has been observing how little the personality dynamics of the characters shift even as they rise and fall within the hierarchies of SCDP(CGC). Joan and Peggy are both risers of high degrees; Joan from queen bee secretary to partner, Peggy from worker bee secretary to head of creative. And yet these two just can’t help but spar, even if they have a grudging respect for each other. It’s episodes like this that remind us how in touch the show is with its own lineage. Joan pegged Peggy as a naive little thing from the first episode, unaware of the competitive beast Peggles had within the whole time. Peggy, like others have cruelly done so this season, weaponized the fact that Joan slept with head of Jaguar’s accounts (never mind that it wasn’t her idea, she was pressured into it, and the co-partnership with the company was thrown in as incentive; she wasn’t sleeping her way to the top, the partnership was the tradeoff for her). Both Peggy and Joan are capable of needling each other where it hurts most. But at the end of the day, they also both know just how hard it was for the other to get as far as they’ve gotten in this hyper-chauvinistic workplace.

Which is why Peggy bailing out Joan at the end of the episode was so damn satisfying. Peggy is not a spiteful person. In the end, she sympathizes with Joan, because she’s been there: looking for any opportunity to make a move into a world that had previously seemed impossible to approach.

And really, anything done at Pete Campbell’s expense is worth it.

Scenes from Mad Men: The Crash

Source: sheissoft-sheiswarm.tumblr.com/

I just realized that I never wrote an entry for this week. Then I realized that there was no purpose trying to make sense of a damn thing in this nutty episode. Also, writing one whilst attending Anime Boston would prove too strenuous a task than I an willing to undertake. So here’s a gif of Stan preparing to have his arm shish-kebabed by an exactoknife.

Scenes from Mad Men: “Man With a Plan”

Don Draper isn’t used to getting dumped. And when he is, he takes it more badly than most.

Even though his marriage to Betty had long fallen apart by the time she called it quits, but her leaving him sent him reeling, not stopping until he hit the lowest point we’ve ever seen Don reach. Other than that, Don has been far too aloof with his feelings to develop a romantic attachment that would wreck him like that again, Peggy’s departure from SCDP last season broke through his armor in a way that few things can. He hemmed and hawed and belittled her accomplishments at first, before finally accepting her resignation with mournful kiss on her hand.

With his many extramarital dalliances, Don has deliberately distanced himself from his partners. For Don, sex is a way to exert control over his life in ways he cannot in marriage and at work. After giving monogamy a try in season 5, Don has reverted back to his cheatin’ ways with Sylvia (Linda Cardellini, who has been superb in the role), his upstairs neighbor. But unlike his other mistresses, Sylvia seems much more on level terms with Don. In the game of infidelity, they’re on equal terms, with both Don’s and Sylvia’s spouses a floor away at any given coupling. We don’t know the origin of their meeting, and it’s entirely plausible that she initiated the affair. Like Don, she’s unhappy with a spouse who appears to otherwise be a perfectly swell human being. Her one difference from Don, however, is what she gets out of the affair. When Don, in a dominant sexual roleplay, tells her “you are in this room for my pleasure”, the line is ironic (and cringe-inducing, but mainly ironic). Sylvia is in this far more for pure pleasure than Don is. She enjoys master-servant game for a bit, clearly turned on at first. But when Don won’t let up on it, forcing her to remain a prisoner in a hotel room on his whims, she grows tired of it, his taking her copy of “The Last Picture Show” being the last straw. Tellingly, she isn’t disturbed or disgusted. She’s a grown up. She tells Don that playtime is over. She has more important things to do.

For Don, the roleplay seemed to be an extension of his battle for control in the workplace. For Don, work is as much a source for pleasure as sex, and the office has gotten far too complex for his tastes since his impromptu merger with ex-rival Cutler, Gleason and Chaough. Ted Chaough shows up as co-partner at the office and doesn’t even need a damn chair in Board of Director’s meeting. Don tries to pull the same power play on Ted that he pulled on Roger in season 1, drinking him into a stupor as a dick-measuring contest. Ted calls Don’s booze and raises him by flying them both to meet a client in his personal plane. Ted rocks the aviators while Don sheepishly holds on for dear life and reads the book he stole from Sylvia.

(source)

Don’s been in far lower, darker places than this, but he’d rather be perpetually high, and when the workplace doesn’t do the job, the bedroom has to double the order.

For Don, his dominant bravado in this episode was not just a fantasy. It was his trying to keep from slipping into another stupor. When Sylvia said she needed him, it energized him in a way we’ve only seen once more this season-  when he conjured the merger with Ted out of thin air and landed Chevy as a result. But Don needed Sylvia far more than she needed him. She’s had her fun with Don. She’s ready to move on with her life. Don had no plan B. He really had no plan at all. He couldn’t have expected his affair with Sylvia to last forever. But when she said goodbye, all he could do was kiss her hand, and disappear back into the haze of his own mind.

(featured photo source)

Scenes from Mad Men: “To Have and To Hold”

I had a lot of fun last year taking single scene from the latest “Mad Men” and picking it apart. Why not bring it back, while the season is still young?

There were a bunch of contenders this week, but none quite as potent for me as Don showing up at Megan’s soap opera shoot and tormenting her about her makeout scene.

Don has always been a blazing hypocrite when it comes to fidelity. He continually cheated on Betty, and then furiously called her a “whore” when she left him. After spending season 5 giving monogamy a try, he’s back to his wandering-dick ways this year, carrying on an affair with his neighbor Sylvia (played by Linda Cardinelli.

Mad Men has never been very subtle with its themes. Its pleasures are derived from Matthew Wiener’s immense creativity in implementing these themes in a way that’s consistently engrossing and very entertaining, even if the characters are often rather terrible people.

And while Don has worn every manner of mask on the show, rarely has he pulled so blatant a heel turn as when he shows up on the set of his wife’s soap opera, something he has apparently never done before, for the sole purpose of tearing her apart backstage for the sin of filming a love scene that she had warned him about already. He’s even about to drop the “Wh” bomb on his wife before she stops him. Of course, he then goes back home and has sex with Sylvia. Again, Mad Men is frequently anything but subtle.

Don’s tirade at Megan is not the sudden outburst it seems to her, however. He is reeling from a huge blow on the business side of his life. After an ad pitch for Heinz ketchup that bears all the hallmarks of a classic Draper sale (a bold design and some classic Don appeals to sentimentality that he doesn’t believe in himself for a second), his old protege Peggy swoops in with a pitch of her own that is even more classic Don than Don is capable of pulling off anymore. She lands the deal, a deal that the old suits and SCD (RIP, P) never saw coming. For Don (and Stan, who leaked that Heinz ketchup was open to new suitors to Peggy, never thinking she’d act on it) Peggy’s act is a betrayal. By business standards, it was common sense.

Perhaps this is what triggers Don’s fury at Megan. He had given her his hesitant assurance that he won’t complain about her kissing another man on camera. But in his anger, he says Megan’s biggest sin wasn’t the kiss, but that she enjoyed it.

And, well, she did. She’s an actress, and it was a big moment for her. And Peggy clearly enjoyed her stealth takedown of her own boss, if only because she’s so damn competitive, and she showed him just how good she’s gotten at this game. As a businessman, Don can’t take his rage out on Peggy, not anymore. So he turns the fire to Megan.

There’s a surprisingly poignant moment at the very end of the episode when Don and Sylvia are about to have sex, and Don notices her crucifix. He asks her to remove it. He’s not comfortable with the symbol of old-world morality, and the possibility that it means something to Sylvia, something that might become a distraction to her down the road perhaps. He asks if she prays for absolution. In earnest, she replies that she prays that he finds peace. Good luck with that, Don Draper.

Megan is as devoted to Don as any married person on this show is capable of being. But she’s not his confidant. The last person who could bring Don peace was Peggy. She had become his surrogate of confidence after the death of his beloved Anna. And with Peggy out of his life in that regard, he is lost again. And it’s poor Megan who bears the brunt of that disillusionment.

note: upon reading Alan Sepinwall’s review of the episode, it seems I was mistaken in saying that Peggy’s pitch was successful. I missed this somehow.

The best of “Cowboy Bebop”… and “Adventure Time”: Speak Like a Child and I Remember You

Spoilers for “Adventure Time” and “Cowboy Bebop” ahead.

It’s a gambit I never realized existed in television: lead the audience along in an episode that appears nonsensical, and then blindside them with an emotional revelation of massive magnitude. After seeing last week’s stellar Adventure Time episode “I Remember You”, easily one of the best the show has ever done, I realized I’ve seen it appear now on two of my favorite shows. I also realized how difficult it is to pull off well. A show like Adventure Time has an easier go of it, I imagine, because it can be so difficult to predict how its plots are going to resolve in a usual episode. But still, for the final emotional twist not to be cheap, the subsequent scenes of indeterminate significance need to also be elevated by the ending. That’s exactly how Adventure Time made “I Remember You” an instant classic.

The buildup to the end seemed like an excuse to have Marceline and The Ice King interact. They’re arguably the show’s two most prominent supporting players not named Bonnibel Bubblegum. The lead up seemed a tad gimmicky (two major characters who had never interacted coupled with singing), but with potential for something really funny, perhaps combining the Ice King’s lunacy with Marceline’s uber-chaotic neutrality.

The show found the perfect tone, however, as soon as it entered Marceline’s domain. Her annoyance with the Ice King wasn’t the typical reaction of, say, the many princesses he continually kidnaps. As soon as she made her weariness, but not contempt, for him clear, the episode began to show its hand. Or seemed to.

Yes, it became clear that Marceline knew the Ice King once, and the audience had to assume that this was before the Mushroom War (since these are the two oldest characters on the show, and the two we knew had lived before the war). Despite leading us in that direction, the ending was an emotional blindside, not a plot-based one. That’s a large part of why it worked so damn well. Adventure Time can’t really surprise us with plot developments, because almost nothing is a surprise on this show, which has had episodes end with Tree Trunks exploding, a giant worm mentally subjugating Finn and Jake, an angry squirrel assassinating them, and (my favorite) the apparent murder of Marceline’s dickish ex-boyfriend. However, it can catch us by surprise emotionally, by generating genuine pathos when we’ve come to expect plain ole’ laughs. The best comedies are able to balance the laughs by occasionally having episodes that are light on comedy but heavy on character development and, usually, heartstring tugging. These deepen the show, letting see the person behind the curtain, getting to know them a little bit better. The contrast between Marceline’s disarming vulnerability and genuine heartache and the Ice King’s oblivious drumming was pathos most sitcoms don’t dare go near, let alone a comedic cartoon. Few moments on TV this year will earn quite so many well-deserved tears as this one.

The flashback-as-emotional-wallop ending of this episode reminded me of one of the best episodes of my all-time favorite show: “Cowboy Bebop”.

I’m talking about the splendid “Speak Like a Child”, the episode that brought to the emotional forefront what had been something of a stealth arc to that point: the exploration of Faye Valentine’s past. Faye, who at a cynical glance might seem to exist to provide Bebop with a supply of fanservice, ends up being one of the show’s most endearing characters, and that is thanks largely to this episode. Like Marceline, she’s a detached, mildly amoral person who hides a deeply vulnerable side. And like Marceline, her past is mysterious to the audience, with many unanswered questions. The key difference with Faye is that she has no memory of her childhood. That fact is key to episode’s impact.

Like “I Remember You,” “Speak Like a Child’s” story seems off for the most part. The Bebop crew gets a tape. They need a beta player to play it. Jet and Spike explore ruins on earth to find one. It’s an amusing, dry episode for the most part, one that seems unusually aimless for a show that is normally so focused and lean, and especially unusual for a show that was just a few episodes from its end.

But the ending… good Lord. It completely alter’s Faye, in the audience’s eyes, in the Bebop crew’s eyes, and most importantly, in Faye’s own eyes. Her arc ends up delivering some of the most moving scenes in Bebop’s last few episodes, and those scenes tie directly back to the revelations in this Scene. It’s also beautiful and heartbreaking, like Marceline and the Ice King’s duet, and, well… I’ll let it speak for itself.

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