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Viva the episode! Viva Offerman and Bartlett!
Celebrating a 'Last of Us' instant classic, plus 'Cunk on Earth,' 'Poker Face,' and more
This week’s What’s Alan Watching? newsletter coming up just as soon as we're in an Iceland/Greenland scenario…
A post-apocalyptic love story
We have the early contender for Episode of the Year — if not for Episode of the Decade — in The Last of Us’s gorgeous, heartbreaking “Long, Long Time.” I wrote at length about it here, and I’m happy to keep talking about the genius of Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett in the comments. (As a reminder, the comment section is a spoiler-acceptable zone for episodes that have already aired and are being discussed in this here newsletter.) But it also seems like two TV nerd discussion points have come back up again as a result of the overwhelming response to it.
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The first is that I got invited on CNN earlier this week to revisit the age-old debate about binge-releases versus shows that still do weekly episode drops. You can watch me looking my prettiest right here:
It’s a five-minute segment, so there wasn’t time to get to everything. I didn’t, for instance, get to talk about how binge releases can often feel like homework, especially if you are Very Online and thus at risk of being spoiled before you finish. On the flip side, I believe Chloe Melas mentioned The Bear, and that’s a classic case of a show that I don’t think would have become a phenomenon if it was weekly, because I don’t know that anyone would have come back after the first or second episode if they had to wait for them. There’s also the question of whether a binge-release show would have been willing to do such an off-format, non-serialized episode at all, let alone this early. It does happen with some streaming shows — Amazon’s otherwise-forgettable Maya Rudolph/Fred Armisen show Forever had an utterly fantastic episode focusing on a couple of new characters (one played by Hong Chau) — but it’s more rare. And the infamous Chicago episode from Stranger Things Season Two seems to have unfortunately scared Netflix off of the idea altogether.
Second, there’s the fact that so many people — including Last of Us co-creator Neil Druckmann on the official HBO podcast — have referred to this as a bottle episode. No. Just no.
My friend Kathryn VanArendonk, who is similarly pedantic on this issue, has argued that we should instead try calling them “departure episodes,” which has the added bonus of evoking The Leftovers, a series that was both about departures and featured some of the greatest departure episodes of them all. When she tweeted about this, BoJack Horseman creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg, replied that this is already a term that comes up in some TV writers rooms. Will it catch on? Probably not. I fear the Chris Traeger-esque horse is already out of the barn on this one, and people will continue to use the term incorrectly. But I can still keep arguing otherwise, dammit.
She’s Cunk! She’s Cunk! What’s in her head?
My editor Marlow Stern encouraged me to sample Cunk on Earth, a British mockumentary limited series produced by Black Mirror’s Charle Brooker, and — as I say in my review — I am very glad he did. Brooker, actor Diane Morgan, and others have been working with this character — a confident idiot who gets nearly everything wrong as she tries to survey the history of the world — for a decade now. I haven’t seen the previous Cunk appearances, but this one (now streaming on Netflix) is hysterical.
Look! Up in the sky! It’s… Amanda Waller?!?!
I interviewed James Gunn twice last year: the first time about the wonderful/hilarious Peacemaker opening credits dance number, the second a post-mortem chat after the Season One finale. I suspect it will be much harder for me to chat with him in the future, now that he has been promoted into the Kevin Feige equivalent role for DC’s film and TV adaptations. Earlier this week, Gunn and Peter Safran announced an ambitious slate of movies and shows. I’ll leave the movie analysis to others. On the series side, the two things that most intrigue me are Waller, featuring Viola Davis reprising her role from the Suicide Squad films and Peacemaker; and Booster Gold, a series based on a time-traveling hero introduced when I was coming of age as a comics fan in the Eighties. Waller, it seems, is a way for DC to do another season in this corner for their fictional universe without Gunn being available to write and direct it, which is why we’re not simply getting Peacemaker Season Two right now. I hope at some point, his schedule frees up enough, but it sounds like some or all of the Peacemaker cast will be back for this, even if the focus shifts over to Amanda Waller. (Another great mid-Eighties creation, from John Ostrander’s definitive Suicide Squad run.) Booster Gold, meanwhile, is a character who’s been used as blatant comic relief — in the Eighties Justice League International, he and Blue Beetle were basically the Abbott and Costello of superheroics — at other times as an admirable and straightforward hero, and at still other times a mix of both. I suspect the HBO Max series is going to lean on the comedy side, given both Gunn’s sensibilities and a way to differentiate it from the grim ‘n gritty of, say, The Batman(*). Anyway, we’re quite a ways from seeing most of it (other than a Creature Commandos animated show that’s already in production), but it’s fun to speculate in the meantime.
(*) Whenever I see that title, I instantly flash on Derry Murbles from Parks and Rec explaining Batman to his public radio listeners.
Odds and/or ends
Couple of quick hitters:
In my review of Peacock’s Paul T. Goldman, I noted that we had only been given the first five episodes, and that my uneasy feelings about the whole thing could swing wildly in various directions after watching the finale. Well, the finale was more or less of a piece with everything that came before, simultaneously making Paul seem like a sad and delusional man while making Jason Woliner look like someone exploiting a sad and delusional man who had no business being put on television. So… yeah. Even when I was laughing in earlier installments, I felt deeply uncomfortable doing so.
I had planned to review Apple TV+’s new Jason Katims drama, Dear Edward, which debuted today, but then some long-term assignments got in the way. So to avoid having watched all 10 episodes for nothing, I will say that I’m largely in line with. my old buddy Dan Fienberg’s review. The show, based on an Ann Napolitano novel about the grieving loved ones of people killed in a plane crash, plus the one boy who improbably survives, is all over the place in both tone and execution. It repeats certain beats over and over in ways that may be true to this level of PTSD, but which makes for very bad drama, and it rarely seems to have a full grasp on its very large ensemble of characters. But it’s also a Jason Katims show featuring Connie Britton (along with Taylor Schilling and several other actors you’ll recognize), about very emotionally fraught material, which means you will basically have to be made of stone to get through the whole thing without reaching for tissues at one point or other. Definitely not in the stratosphere of Katims’ best stuff (Friday Night Lights, Parenthood, Amazon’s unfortunately short-lived As We See It), but also much better than some of the weird stuff he’s produced in recent years like Almost Family and Pure Genius.
Poker Face recaplet: “The Time of the Monkey”
Finally, it’s time for our weekly Poker Face conversation, this time for the fifth episode, “The Time of the Monkey.”
What I appreciate about this show is that even while the overall formula is the same from one episode to the next, individual installments find ways to play around with said formula. This one gets to the murder much more quickly this time, in part because it then spends more time than usual on Charlie getting to know the guest stars — the great Judith Light and the great S. Epatha Merkerson — in the flashback segment. For that matter, usually Charlie is presented as friends with the victim, where here she’s pals with these two retirement community mean girls, and barely knows the man they plotted revenge on. As a result of this scrambling of the usual timeline, we also wind up learning more about the victim and the killers after the murder has been committed than before, along with flashbacks to Joyce and Irene’s days as Seventies radicals that feel pretty different from the usual tone of the show. (And, perhaps as a result, feel a bit out of place.) This is also another episode where Charlie’s superpower has minimal value — her ability to recognize the same huge cock multiple times proves more useful this time around, though it’s funny to have her recognize that Joyce and Irene are bullshitting about shitting.
It all leads up to this delightful climax where Natasha Lyonne is beating up a couple of old ladies. I don’t quite understand the arrangement Charlie has made with Simon Helberg’s FBI agent that prevents law enforcement from coming in until Charlie’s life is in serious danger, nor why Charlie doesn’t attempt to secure Helberg’s help with her Sterling Frost Sr. problem. It’s a much messier episode than the previous ones, but the spectacle of Lyonne mixing it up with Merkerson, Light, and/or their stuntwomen was more than enough payoff for an episode that featured the show’s most entertaining villains to date.
That’s it for this week! Don’t forget to share this with all your closest friends and family!