TV: Humans (Season 1)

humans-premiere-announcement-1200For a show with so much going for it, Humans unfortunately doesn’t amount to much. Based on a Swedish series called Real Humans, this one paints a world in which lifelike synthetic robots (“synths”) have become a ubiquitous underclass revolutionizing industries ranging from domestic assistance to home healthcare to prostitution. After years without one, the Hawkins family acquires its own synth when overwhelmed stay-at-home dad Joe (Tom Goodman-Hill) finally gets fed up with the workaholism of his lawyer wife Laura (Katherine Parkinson). The synth, Anita (Gemma Chan), seems at first the solution to all the family’s problems — while also exposing several new ones. Meanwhile, Anita isn’t exactly what she seems: there’s something off about her, and her plight is tied into the motivations of several encroaching players destined to converge on the Hawkins household.

At its best, Humans is polished and professional, an attractive production generally well performed. The show is particularly good at selling the creepy, Uncanny Valley vibe of the synths. For a role necessarily flat and affectless, Chan is exceptional at walking the line between robot and human, and while the Hawkins family is painfully generic, Parkinson and Carless, at least, show sparks of personality. The support is adequate, if unremarkable, on all fronts; most likeable, perhaps, is William Hurt as an aging pioneer technologist, although his role is sadly inessential.

In a world swamped with excellent viewing options, though, I’m looking for more than polished and professional, so I probably won’t continue with this show. Humans lacks that certain something. It has all the earmarks of being the next Orphan Black, without any of the heart, charm, or structural ambition. But chief among its problems is that its take on the premise is superficial and unsurprising. Not only doesn’t it look deeply enough at the surface world-building of its synth-transformed landscape, but it fails to leverage that premise to deeper thematic impact. And this, despite ripe opportunity, for certainly the callous and inhumane abuses heaped on the synths in the show parallel the unjust political conditions and power dynamics of the real world. Alas, Humans has precious little to say about that.

The result is reasonably watchable, but not nearly as interesting as it thinks it is. The science fictional ideas here are more effectively and succinctly explored elsewhere (Blade Runner, Ex Machina, and the Black Mirror episode “Be Right Back,” among others), and more engaging drama can easily be found elsewhere.

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Album: Breaking Brain by Panzerballett

Panzerballett-Breaking-Brain-460x460With its latest wild release Breaking Brain (2015), Panzerballett retains its dubious distinction as my favorite band. This complex German jazz-funk-metal quintet refuses to show any signs of jumping the shark after five studio albums; it continues to win my heart by laying down intense, Zappaesque melodies over swinging jazz walks, comical funk grooves, and chugging math-metal intricacy.

If their previous release, Tank Goodness, herky-jerks around with random-seeming rhythmic perversity, Breaking Brain reins in that inaccessible streak a smidge and re-finds a steadier pulse — albeit a polyrhythmic, djent-inspired one. It’s also not as cover-happy as the last several releases. On that score they go way off the map with a deeply weird, comic reinterpreation of “Mah Nà Mah Nà” (here called “Mahna Mahna”) and a scorching rendition of Trilok Gurtu’s “Shunyai.” The only over-familiar cover is a case of self-cannibalization: an even darker, grungier cover of their own cover of Henry Mancini’s “Pink Panther,” which is interesting but inessential.

There’s plenty of fresh, inventive, and technically ambitious original material on display, though, from the opening aggresion of “Euroblast” to the heavy jazz-metal of “Der Saxdiktator” and “Frantik Nervesaw Massacre.” My favorite tracks, though, are the dark metallic beats of “Smoochy Borg Funk,” in which a rare four-four time signature is complexified by orchestrated guitar-sax interplay, and the insanely dense “Typewriter II,” which is…well, see for yourself, in a music video so nonsensical it might have been made during the early days of MTV:

Overall, it’s another mindblowing collection from one of the funniest, heaviest, and most technically accomplished bands out there. The fact that a band this bizarre and unique actually exists still makes me a little giddy.

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Novel: Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

In Aurora (2015) the ever-impressive Kim Stanley Robinson tackles the generation ship story. His spin on this common trope begins in expected ways, rife with Robinson’s familiar characteristics — epic scope, detailed scientific speculation, intense environmentalism — but ultimately it takes surprising turns. The result is dark but mind-expanding, and it possesses a remarkable quality: it feels like more than a novel somehow. It’s like a metanovel, with several additional layers of reflection beyond its surface story, probing inward at the mysteries of the human condition and outward at the mind-blowing vastness of the universe. Of course, I suppose science fiction novels do this all the time, or strive for it, but I never feel it quite so strongly as I do in Robinson’s best work.

As Aurora begins, a starship makes its final approach to the Tau Ceti system, after generations adrift. Their goal is to colonize the vaguely Earth-like world of Aurora. Largely through the eyes of Freya, daughter of the chief engineer Devi, the final years of the journey show just how difficult it’s been for them, the ship’s connected biomes in a tenuous state of balance right up the moment of landfall. But the ship’s passengers have even more tough challenges ahead as they face the hardships of a precarious new environment, and unexpected conflict and political strife over what to do now that they’ve arrived at the new world.

Although it doesn’t scrimp on eye-widening sense of wonder, Aurora steps back from Robinson’s frequent utopian idealism, instead focusing on the sheer, astronomical challenges of such an ambitious undertaking, if not the near impossibility of its success. As a result it lacks the fanciful exuberance that often characterizes Robinson’s work, in favor of an even more serious, Mundane-adjacent message. The takeaway is bleaker and more grounded, then, but not at the expense of amazing, perspective-shifting depictions of the universe’s brain-exploding majesty. If this means several of the novella-sized chapters, particularly late in the book, feel like more of a slog, it’s a strategic slog, servicing the novel’s message.

Readers in search of escapist science fictional fare about a starfaring humanity will probably find Aurora wanting for comforting optimism. But that doesn’t make it any less powerful or awe-inspiring a vision, another breathtaking accomplishment from Robinson.

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TV: Master of None (Season 1)

monBy greenlighting interesting projects and taking new chances, Netflix has become the new HBO, transforming the landscape of TV much as HBO did back before its success ossified them into making over-produced, underwhelming product. The new Aziz Ansari series Master of None is another quirky, different project from the Netflix stable: a breezy one-camera sitcom on the surface, that turns out to also be a charming examination of modern society through the eyes of a refreshingly self-aware comedian.

Ansari plays Dev, a cavalier young actor in New York City, looking for love while muddling through life on odd-job roles and commercial royalties. An early hookup with music PR rep Rachel (Noël Wells) turns out to be the awkward start of an important relationship in Dev’s life, as he transitions from the aimless hedonism of his twenties to a pre-midlife search for his calling.

Master of None has some rocky patches: an awkward pace here, an amateur performance there, a misguided joke or two. But overlooking these minor glitches is easy enough, because the show is otherwise such a joy. Ansari steps beyond his fast-talking Parks and Rec persona to prove he can be an unconventional leading man, and while Dev is clearly an Aziz analogue, it doesn’t matter, nor does that fact that the lines occasionally exchange like stand-up monologue ricocheting between multiple characters. Ansari has a keen eye for observation, and he trains it unflinchingly on relevant issues: everything from relationships and family to racism and rape culture. The results are often hilarious, but also true and earnest. And if Ansari occasionally displays his sociopolitical blind spots, he also seems the type of guy to take himself for task for it; indeed, much of the material stems from his own failings and personal growth as he tries to see past his perspective and figure it all out. And that, perhaps, is the most winning thing about the series. The world needs more shows like this, where people examine their perspectives, adapt and learn, and grow to be better people. For a series that could easily have been light, throwaway comedy, that’s an unexpectedly uplifting takeaway. Highly recommended.

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Film: Bridge of Spies

bosI’m more or less contractually obligated to watch a film titled Bridge of Spies (2015). The product of an unlikely collaboration between Steven Spielberg and the Coen Brothers, this one is certainly good enough to climb onto the lower ranks of a hypothetically revised Spy 100 list, but make no mistake: it’s a Spielberg movie first, a spy movie second, and a Coen Brothers script at a distant third.

In 1957, when the FBI apprehends Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), the government needs a competent defense attorney to legitimize their show trial. This no-win task falls to Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks), a slick but principled insurance lawyer, who does almost too good a job defending Abel before the guilty verdict — a foregone conclusion — lands. He’s so tenacious, though, that when the pilot of an American spy plane is shot down over Soviet soil, both sides want him to negotiate a clandestine prisoner exchange: the American pilot for Abel. This sends Donovan to a hostile, newly divided Berlin, an amateur spy in enemy territory, trying to keep everyone alive — including himself.

Based on actual events, Bridge of Spies is a gripping enough tale of intrigue, and like most Spielberg product it’s finely rendered. The Cold War backdrop is vivid and convincing, particularly when the action shifts to Berlin, where the desperation of an ideologically divided world is writ large. It’s classic spy fare, and the plot has plenty of murky motives and requisite twists of fate. Hanks holds the stage adeptly, in a familiar noble scoundrel role, and Rylance brings a dry, winning touch to his supporting role.

Alas, the Spielberg-Coen flavors interact weirdly. The script only winks at the quirky, dark genius of the Coens, which is anyway at cross purposes with Spielberg’s broad-appeal patriotism and emotional manipulation . The result is off-balance: the subject matter’s naturally cynical foundation built high with obvious Hollywood hero worship.  This isn’t to say the film is unsatisfying; indeed, Spielberg’s sensibility provides a varied tone in a genre that often feels repetitive. But it does feel overly finessed, its physical realism and historic verisimilitude undercut by a veneer of emotional falseness.

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TV: Barney Miller

barneymillerIt’s a rare sitcom that stands the test of time for me, but Barney Miller (1974-1982) is one of them, a solid, old-school workplace comedy carried by terrific ensemble cast and a amusingly bleak, deadpan style. It has its share of issues, but its unique low-key sensibility is infectious.

Set in New York City, the show revolves around Captain Barney Miller (Hal Linden), the precinct commander of a squad full of quirky detectives. Although early episodes focus on Barney, the show quickly reorients on the squad and their interactions — with Barney, with each other, and with the many madcap perps and victims who stumble through their little corner of the legal system.

It’s classic ensemble comedy, dry and cynical in keeping with the squad’s grubby working conditions, and while it’s clumsy at first it eventually finds a quiet, likeable stride. The cast is solid from the get-go, but the early stand-outs are decrepit old-timer Phil Fish (Abe Vigoda) and the disaffected Nick Yemana (Jack Soo), both of whose droll line deliveries quickly define the series’ trademark style. Unfortunately, despite Vigoda’s brilliant performance, Fish’s misogyny quickly grows long in the tooth, and Soo’s unique voice is rarely given enough to do. More crucial in the long-term are Stan Wojohowiecz (Max Gail) and Ron Harris (Ron Glass), characters who take a while to develop but eventually become the show’s backbone. At first, Wojo is merely dim and lowbrow, but later develops into the squad’s conscience, struggling to understand things beyond his intellectual comfort zone; Gail’s performance becomes increasingly adroit as his character gains depth. Similarly, Harris’ early traits are somewhat nebulous, but he evolves into something memorable: a natty, conceited Republican with writing career aspirations and an arrogant, too-cool-for-school attitude. As Wojo becomes more likeable and Harris less so, they both become better, more crucial characters.

The season’s best years are in the middle, probably seasons three through six, when the cast is at its most robust and the writers find their sweet spots. Greatly aiding the ensemble chemistry is Steve Landesberg, who works his way into the rotation as the pedantic Det. Arthur Dietrich, whose flat baritone delivery of obscure knowledge soon paints him as the squad’s deadpan intellectual: an early nuisance for Fish, and a contentious rival for Harris. Also appearing on the scene is Officer Carl Leavitt (Ron Carey); sadly, Leavitt begins as a tiresome, one-note Short Joke, which plagues him for a while before he develops into a frustrated career climber, by turns obsequious and eye-rollingly sarcastic about his promotion prospects. Like Wojo and Harris, Leavitt gets better as he goes.

During these solid middle years, Barney Miller serves as an interesting window on the sociopolitics of its era, in good ways and bad. The parade of scumbags, misanthropes, and kooks who come through the precinct frequently deliver timely rants and raves about the grim urban realities of the day, occasionally spinning the comical proceedings into more serious territory. This leads to occasional Very Special Episode over-reaches, but usually the squad’s dry reactions undercut any heavy-handedness. Beneath all the witty banter is a world of bureacratic indifference and societal decay, which gives the show a refreshing cynicism and dark edge compared to standard sitcom fare.

Alas, ahead of its time as it may be in some ways, it’s also definitely of its time in others. Fish’s misogyny sometimes infects other characters, probably emblematic of a male-only writer’s room writing for a male-dominated cast. Indeed, the only credited regular female cast member is Barbara Barrie as Barney’s wife Liz, who appears rarely and is quickly written out. A handful of part-time female detectives turn up, but never last, which in one case — Linda Lavin’s scene-stealing Detective Janice Wentworth — is a real shame. On a guess, the cast may well be 90-95% male, which seems unrealistically skewed even for forty years ago. The show does better with racial diversity, at least, although that often plays as set-up for on-the-nose racial jokes. The show wrestles with other sociopolitical subject matter — bigotry, homosexuality in the workplace, etc. — in a manner simultaneously progressive and clumsy, with Barney usually serving as the voice of decency and compassion while the rest of the squad leans back toward a crass majority view. This creates some surprisingly sensitive episodes, but also some shamefully dated ones. (The less said about the year four episode “Rape,” for example, the better.)

As the series winds down in seasons seven and eight, the show starts to feel sleepier and perhaps a bit more forced, but the characters remain engaging throughout, right up to its imperfect, but moving, finale. It’s easy to overlook through it all how well Hal Linden handles his straight guy leadership role; with the supporting cast’s material frequently tailored to upstage him, he more than holds his own, a terrific anchoring presence. His sustained performance reminds me of Gary Sandy’s on WKRP:  an underwritten character who nonetheless patiently achieves an impressive comedic persona.

Barney Miller’s style probably won’t resonate with modern viewers as much as old-timers, and it definitely wears some of the clumsy earmarks of its time, but there’s also a lot going for it — particularly its peculiar sideways view of the world, and the laconic, winning chemistry of its players. (Not to mention one of the best theme songs of all time!)

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TV: Orange is the New Black (Season 3)


In its third year Orange is the New Black continues to deliver solid entertainment, and if the material doesn’t seem quite as fresh as it used to be, it’s mostly because it’s walking on ground it already broke. It’s a compulsively watchable series, thanks largely to its cast of well defined characters, its great performers, and its ambitious subject matter.

While the series still loosely orbits the transforming prison experience of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), the events of this season break further from her point of view, spreading the love to the series’ many breakout supporting characters. Indeed, Piper’s storylines this year — her tired relationship sparring with Alex Voss (Laura Prepon), and her steady climb into more villainous activities — are some of the weakest aspects of the year. Instead, the show’s political mission seems broader, with the writers turning the pressure cooker of Litchfield into a microcosm, a window onto the world’s wider problems.

Perhaps the most interesting and successful plot angle in this regard is a major plot point: the prison’s privatization. In order to avoid shutdown, Litchfield is sold to a money-grubbing corporation that may well represent western capitalism at its worst. The new regime’s callous excesses bring new workplace challenges for quasi-heroic warden Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow), who becomes a thankless punching bag between undervalued guards below him and thoughtless corporate overlords above. This throughline generates plenty of entertaining friction, particularly when one of their initiatives — co-opting the inmates into a sweatshop-like lingerie business — leads to Piper’s descent into entrepreneurial organized crime. Her illicit side business is ludicrous,  with the flavor of standard Jenji Kohan shock tactics, but as an experimental, small-scale reflection on corporate greed and labor exploitation, it’s an effective enough device.

Its other forays into metacommentary are successful to varying degrees. The mindless religious zealotry that develops around the mute, reserved Norma (Annie Golden) is unconvincing, if amusingly scathing. More effective is the surge of transphobic conflict that grows around Sophia (Laverne Cox), and the descent of Soso (Kimiko Glenn) into pitch-black depression. Then there’s a bold storyline that leans into frank depiction of rape and its after-effects; it takes the series down the risky, troubling pathways Kohan is known for exploring. The results are shattering without being exploitative, attempting to be sensitive, I think, to the tricky ground it walks on.

The overall results are uneven: powerful, riveting, funny, and affecting, but frequently also undercut by tonal inconsistency and edgy over-reaching. Then again, even mishandled reaching suggests ambition; I’ll take that over bland safeness any day. Orange is the New Black still has plenty of gas in the tank.

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Film: Young Frankenstein

I’ve seen so many fragments of Young Frankenstein (1974) over the years that I think I just assumed I’d watched it. Even worse, because it’s a Mel Brooks film, I think I even assumed I didn’t like it much. But wow, based on last night’s screening, I’ve either never seen it, or I just wasn’t paying attention. It’s brilliantly funny.

Gene Wilder stars as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, an intense young scientist living in the shadow of his famously deranged grandfather, whose experiments terrorized the countryside. When Frankenstein inherits the family’s Transylvania estate, he journeys to the property only to find himself — along with buxom young lab assistant Ilsa (Teri Garr) and bizarre manservant Igor (Marty Feldman) — drawn inexorably, and hilariously, into his family’s horrific legacy.

Brooks’ sense of humor is often too on-the-nose for my tastes, but Young Frankenstein distills the style to perfection. This is a fantastic creature-feature parody that craftily mimics classic film-making tropes, and soars on the strength of its superb performances. Wilder is a comic genius, but the support is also perfect, with the scene-stealing Feldman standing out, but also great performances from Garr, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, Kenneth Mars, and especially Peter Boyle (whose performance gets funnier the more I think about it). Highly recommended.

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100 Stories

My rejection slips, from back when you got paper rejection slips
My rejection slips, from back when you got paper rejection slips

For some reason, I’ve always been a compulsive list-maker. Since I’m also a writer with a masochistic streak (is there a different kind?), one of the things I’ve always tracked is rejections. My rejection slips date back to 1985, when my clueless teenaged self submitted “Who Cares About Apathy?” to The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Turns out Edward L. Ferman didn’t care about apathy — who could blame him? — and it would be eight more years before I made another short story submission.

But after that I never stopped, and here we are, thirty years later. And for the last few of those years, I’ve been dreading a slowly approaching milestone: Rejection #700.

I’m not entirely certain why I’ve been dreading #700, especially when Rejection #500 came and went without fanfare, and surely Rejection #1000 is a more impressive target to get gloomy about. My guess, though? It’s simply that Rejection #700 has recently felt like the last achievable Big Round Number Rejection Milestone I’m likely to achieve in my life. My once-passionate drive to be a short storyist has been on life support for so long, the idea of slogging through another 100 short story bounces — let alone 300 — sometimes seems inconceivable. Surely, my subconscious whispered muddily into my mind’s ear, when that rejection clock ticks to 700 I will expire in a puff of smoke, or flounce dramatically from the writing life, or the planet will explode or something.

Well, last week rejection 700 came and went, and of course none of that happened. Indeed, I packaged the story off and shipped it right out again, and started the long, slow crawl to 800. I suspect I did it mostly out of habit. But I’m also heartened by the fact that without quite noticing, I rather quietly and simultaneously reached a more positive milestone: Story #100.

Actually I’ve written well over 100 stories, if you include all the exploratory crap I wrote as a kid — not to mention novels, which I track differently. But if you go back to 1993, and start counting from the first just-before-Clarion, taking-writing-seriously story I submitted to Amazing Stories (cheerfully entitled “Like a Beetle on its Back”), then I have written exactly ninety-nine stories with the intent to get them published.

But of course there’s also “Who Cares About Apathy?,” which I’ve always listed as Story #0, because that seemed thematically appropriate, and of course it’s the first rejection. If you count that — and dangit, I do care about apathy, I spent most of the eighties attempting to practice it like a religion! — that means I hit an even 100 when I finished story #99 a couple of months ago.

Let’s face it, 100 is a cooler number than 700. And, more importantly, “stories written” is a cooler benchmark than “stories rejected.” You can’t control what sells, you can only control what you put out there. Why commemorate a milestone beyond your control? External validation is nice when it happens, but for some of us it’s vanishingly rare, so we need other metrics. And frankly I’m happier when I focus on the shit I can control. This is a lesson I forget constantly, so consider this blog post a proactive, public reminder. (Something else I can control…ha!)

So here it is: this post is dedicated to my first 100 short stories. And not just the ones that sold, but the ones that didn’t, including:

  • My favorite failed Clarion story, “Deathless Horsie”
  • The notorious “Cyberdude,” my only collaboration ever (hey Dave!), which Howard Waldrop described as “the kind of stuff we used to put up with from Bruce Sterling when he was 18”
  • My first conscious speculative/spy-fi mash-up, “Cold Warpage”
  • The profoundly awful, recursive, gonzo skiffiness of “Johnny Fahrenheit,” “Hey, Houston, Like What’s Up?,” and “Marooned off Zappafrank”
  • The story that immortalized my favorite imagined futuristic Satanic prog-metal band, “Spasmodeus”
  • My twice sold-and-unsold space opera spy novelette “The Cull”
  • “The Final Divination,” a novelette in which John le Carré spy paranoia finds its way into…high fantasy?
  • My first fucking novella, “Maceo’s Gig,” and the two fucking novellas that followed it, “Testing Ground” and “The Machine Storms” (there are no novellas, there are only fucking novellas)
  • And many more too unremarkable to mention (there’s a reason these things don’t sell!)

These are the abject failures, quirky misfires, wonky experiments, learning experiences, and beloved near-misses that I had to write to get to the next thing, and a lot of the next things were a little bit better, and some of them even sold. This is my process, and this is my progress, slow and brutal but, damn it, it adds up. I’ll beat myself up about it, but I’m also proud. Writing is hard.

The hell with Rejection #800. I’m shooting for Story #200.

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Spy 100, #74: An Englishman Abroad

englishmanThe subdued, talky An Englishman Abroad (1983) isn’t the list’s most electrifying entry, but it does serve as an amusing and unique curiosity. What happens to the spy once the betrayal is exposed and the spying career is done? A smart Alan Bennett script considers this question in examining the post-defection life of noted British traitor Guy Burgess (Alan Bates). When a touring British theater company visits Soviet-era Moscow, Burgess makes a brazenly drunken approach to Shakespearean actress Coral Browne (playing herself). What precisely Burgess is up to isn’t clear at first, but Browne is determined to find out, and visits Burgess in his dingy Moscow apartment — catching a glimpse of the modest fate that befell one of history’s most notorious double agents.

Based on Browne’s actual experience, An Englishman Abroad is an interesting little piece. The political subtext will probably have more impact to those steeped in the context of British life; even without that, though, it’s a striking and incisive oddity that slyly deglamorizes the intelligence game. Grubby production values actually contribute to the oppressive Soviet atmosphere, and emphasize Burgess’ sad post-spying life, well after the thrill and idealism of his betrayal have faded. Not for a broad audience, perhaps, but it worked for me as a sad, quirky coda for the Spy 100 list, cleverly calling the game’s players on the folly of their exploits.

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