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Gennifer Goodwin in "Point of Origin."

“The Twilight Zone” (2019): Episode Eight Review

Gennifer Goodwin in “Point of Origin.”

The majority of The Twilight Zone’s  episodes have dealt with hot-button political topics in 2019 ­– police brutality, Donald Trump’s presidency, toxic masculinity, etc. – and have made taken very clear stances on them. Which is fine. Great, even. All art is political and is a response to its cultural environment, sometimes as a direct allegory or sometimes a subtle allusion. I want television that is about 2019, especially since 2019 is a trainwreck and I could use all of the help I can get making sense of the world.

But The Twilight Zone isn’t cutting it. Even the strongest episodes lie “Replay” and “Not All Men” boil down to annoyingly simple theses: “Police brutality is bad,” in the case of “Replay”; and “toxic masculinity is bad and men should fight against it” in the case of “Not All Men.” I concur. I even concur with the messages of the bad episodes. Yes, “The Wunderkind,” I agree that Donald Trump is a petulant child. Yes, “A Traveler,” I think fake news is a problem. I am down with all of these sentiments, but they aren’t teaching me anything. I haven’t learned anything from any of the series’ episodes so far.

On the most recent episode of The Funkhouser Situation, Chris and Lee discussed who the best late-night hosts currently working are. Chris praised John Oliver for a few reasons, but the chief among them is that Chris always learns something after an episode of Oliver’s show “Last Week Tonight.” Oliver spend twenty minutes of the show’s thirty minute run-time doing a deep-dive into some current issue of national debate (the first season’s episode on standardized testing stands out as one of the show’s highlights for me) and comes down to some conclusion, usually calling his audience to action by having them troll whatever government organization he is covering. As a liberal, he takes generally leftist stances on the topics at hand; as a liberal, I am inclined to agree with what he says. But by presenting his stances using incredibly strong journalism and research, Oliver ensures that his audience – those who side with him and those who don’t – have a more holistic, nuanced understanding of the episode’s subject.

Zabryna Guevera in “Point of Origin.”

The Twilight Zone is not an informative comedy show, sure. But fiction has just as much, if not more, potential to shed light on the complexities of an issue. The Twilight Zone has flubbed so hard on providing any insight into any of its political issues because it opts to take the most milquetoast stance it can. It feels so safe to simply say X thing is bad without delving into any underlying aspects of X thing.

The show’s eighth episode “Point of Origin” is perhaps the most vanilla of this season. It follows Eve Martin (Gennifer Goodwin), a rich white lady who is detained by the U.S. government alongside her Guatemalan maid Anna Fuentes (Zabryna Guevera). Eve is treated just like many the undocumented immigrants  she is kept with: she is separated from her children, given inadequate food and living arrangements, and the only explanation she receives as to why she is being held is that her presence in the U.S. is a “matter of national security.”

In the most Twilight Zone 2019 plot development yet – because every episode of this damn show has to involve some lame space shit – Eve learns that she is suspected of being a (gasp) alien from another dimension. When she was a child, the people of her dimension immigrated to her current dimension in hope of finding a better life. By coming in, Eve and her alien-cohort have spoiled the once great genetic pool of this dimension. Therefore she must be detained.

Does that sound familiar? Does it sound rhetoric you have heard before, say, from advocates for stronger border control? Does it sound like points you have heard made by someone with extreme governmental authority? Huh? Does it? Of course it does, because we’re not the fucking morons the show thinks we are.  We get it. The U.S. government is treating undocumented immigrants like trash, and those with racial and financial privilege like Eve are complicit by being willfully unaware of immigrants’ experiences. We have heard it all before in more succinct and intelligent ways.

The writers of “The Twilight Zone” bashing its audience over the head with The Thematic Hammer.

The heavy-handedness not only makes for poor storytelling, but it makes the episode’s audience unclear. If “Point of Origin” is trying to make border-hawk conservatives change their attitudes toward immigration, they are failing. Eve, her family, and friends are treated with active disdain by the episode.  Anna has been with the Eve’s family for over ten years, but Eve cannot name any of Anna’s children, nor does she know that Anna is from Guatemala and not Mexico (likely, Eve doesn’t know the difference between the two). Eve and her friends remark about how illegal immigrants should know the risks of crossing the border; they are, after all, breaking the law, so they argue. If the show wants to connect conservative audiences to Eve, making Eve one of the more repulsive characters the show has dealt with will not accomplish that. Viewers can point to Eve’s repeated self-centeredness and say “She’s nothing like me!” because her behavior is so extreme that no one would be willing to identify themselves with her. Even fucking Green Book, for all of the massive racial issues it had, was more deliberate in targeting its older white audience to teach them a lesson on race.

And maybe she shouldn’t be sympathetic. People who hold such disdain for illegal immigrants based on their race probably aren’t deserving of loving depictions onscreen. However, if The Twilight Zone wants to make a case to conservatives that they are perpetuating the torture of thousands of humans, making the lead of the character a snooty aristocrat may not be the best approach. Showing how a middle-class person, who seemingly does good for their community through school programs or whatever, is capable of great evil through their oppression of immigrants would do much more to swing the tides. As “Point of Origin” stands, though, it seems the writers are more interested in appeasing their liberal viewership by feeding safe and unsubtle truths to them.

Stories like “Point of Origin” should be told. We should have more fictional shows with the massive platform of The Twilight Zone highlighting the incredible harm that the U.S. is causing immigrants who are simply looking for a better life. And perhaps I am being cynical. Maybe a white middle-class mother watched this episode and was genuinely moved by it. I hope that is the case. But this episode and many others in the series seem so thin in their depiction of progressive causes; they highlight the issue but give very little in the way of cause or solution. We don’t walk away from “Point of Origin” knowing how racial and nationalist bias forms, or how we can combat. We simply learn it is bad. I suppose for some people that is a step, but for a show as politically self-serious as The Twilight Zone, we should expect more than an already well-trodden diagnosis of social ills.

The Funkhouser Situation E58: Kylie Baby 4 Lyfe

One week before The Funkhouser Situation hits the road for a live show at Jake’s Cigar Bar on May 20 at 8:30 p.m., Chris Tomlin and Lee Cruse talk about the latest in the world of pop culture, including the end of two popular HBO shows, Veep and Game of Thrones. Highlights:

— A look back at the careers of Doris Day and Tim Conway.

— Do we need another Maleficent? How many people have actually seen Sleeping Beauty?

— The Nanny is going to Broadway.

— Josh Gad is rebooting Honey I Shrunk the Kids; are Chris and Lee interested?

— Conan O’Brien’s must-listen podcast with Bill Hader.

— Ranking the current late night TV hosts.

— America’s favorite segment, HOT GOSS!

You can easily listen on the KSR App, available on iTunes and Google Play. Streaming online is simple through Pod Paradise. You can also get it directly to your phone by subscribing to The Funkhouser Situation podcast feed on iTunes or via Android’s Podcast Addict app.

Today’s episode is brought to you by Jake’s Cigar Bar. 

How Game of Thrones Lost Its Way

How Game of Thrones Lost Its Way

Alright, lets talk about it. And by “it” I of course mean how what was arguably the greatest show ever made turned into a mere CGI spectacle without any real substance.

First off, since Season 8 is literally the most divisive thing in pop culture since “The Last Jedi”, so let me make my opinion on the entire series very clear. For its first four seasons, GOT was as about as close to perfect as it could be. Amazing character development fueled by pitch-perfect writing? Check. Political intrigue that was fascinating to watch? Check. Plus, the fact entertaining spectacle that we have never seen on TV before? Absolutely!

Then season 5 happened. It was still great television, but this was mostly a meandering season where nothing all that great happened, a “filler” season if you will. “Hardhome” was great, but then it was ruined by a hilariously forced season finale of “killing” Jon Snow when everyone knew it was a ploy just to have a shocking cliffhanger.

Season 6 was a comeback story for the ages. After Jon’s return, 5 was an entire season where each episode built upon itself with great writing until we got to the last two episodes of the season – “The Battle of the Bastards” and “The Winds of Winter.” I’ll be honest, outside of a couple of episodes of Breaking Bad, these were the two best episodes of TV I’ve ever witnessed.

Season 7, my friends, is where things started to be….different. For some reason the two last two seasons of probably the best show ever were squeezed down into just 13 episodes instead of 20. I’m sure the makers and everyone at HBO had their reasons, but they just aren’t good ones considering what we got has been a letdown after the peak of season 6.

Let me explain.


Ryan Reynolds's Pikachu in "Detective Pikachu."

Review: “Detective Pikachu”

Ryan Reynolds’s Pikachu in “Detective Pikachu.”

The Pokémon  franchise, which was birthed in the late nineties as a card game with supplemental video games, has remained incredibly ubiquitous in pop-culture. Pokémon are creatures that can be captured and trained for battle against other Pokémon as sport, with large championships being held regularly across the Poké-globe. Essentially, it is cock fighting but with cuter creatures who are somehow  complicit in this system of slavery. The late-nineties and early aughts were riddled with an absurd amount of monster-battle properties, such as Yuh-Gi-Oh, Beyblade, and Digimon, but only Pokémon – likely due to all of its 800+ creatures being absolutely adorable – has held attention in the consciousness of the American youth.

The 1997 Pokémon anime series placed certain characters on the expansive Mount Rushmore of iconic Pokémon creatures (Bulbasaur, Charizard, and Squirtle come to mind). But the breakout star of the  series was certainly Pikachu, an adorable yellow rat-like Pokémon with the ability to conjure electricity and use it for attack. Pikachu’s cuteness and his placement as the central Pokémon of the series made him the face of the franchise, in a way. All Pokémon have some level of iconography, but Pikachu is certainly the most recognizable among the general public.

What the general public does not recognize is the Pikachu we are given in the first live-action feature of the franchise, Detective Pikachu. Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) is a manic, caffeine-addicted, wisecracking fur-ball who is dead-set on finding his former partner Harry Goodman – whose death, Pikachu believes, has been faked. Pikachu teams up with Harry’s reluctant son Tim (Justice Smith) to crack the case after learning that Tim can understand him; all other Pokémon can say only their names, but Harry alone can understand in English what Pikachu is trying to say. Files are opened, coffee is guzzled, and conspiratorial yarn boards are built by our duo as they delve through the seedy underbelly of Ryme City to uncover the whereabouts of Harry.

Detective Pikachu‘s central mystery is quite compelling, and could serve as a strong introduction to noir film tropes for many of the children watching it. Pikachu and Tim uncover mass corruption in Ryme City’s government by picking up clues from leads in locations common to noir films, such as seaport docks, underground fighting clubs (involving Pokémon in this case), and scientific testing labs. They are aided in their effort by news intern Lucy Stevens (Katherine Newton), who has picked up the case work the Harry left in the wake of his death and is anxious to use the story to springboard into a career as a hardboiled journalist.

Back: Psyduck and Pikachu. Front: Kathryn Newton as Lucy Stevens and Justice Smith as Tim Goodman. “Detective Pikachu.”

Placing the generally melancholy elements of noir film stories in a children’s film should not work, but director Rob Letterman treats the story beats with such levity that it hardly ever seems incongruous. He blends noir-storytelling with light-hearted children’s fare not only through the character of Pikachu, who is essentially a PG-rated Deadpool, but through the production design and cinematography. The night scenes in Ryme City are dark and foggy, but the light sources present in the city are largely neon pinks and blues, making for a city that looks like a beautifully elaborate laser tag arena. No film in 2019 so far has been as gorgeously composed as Detective Pikachu¸ and its visual design serves as a means through which younger audiences can digest the contrast of mystery and merriment.

Given the noir-ish nature of the story’s premise, Detective Pikachu shoves aside much of what we understand about the Pokémon world. Ryme City’s mayor Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy) has created a Zootopia-esque city where Pokémon and humans cohabitate as friends and neighbors. There are no Pokémon arenas, no Pokémon trainers, and no Pokéballs to catch the creatures with.  Many Ryme City residents still own Pokémon, but they are more pets than prized fighters.

The civility of Ryme City allows the film to fit in even more Pokémon cameos than a standard battle film might. Many Pokémon are seen working civilian jobs: a Ludicolo bartends, a Machamp directs traffic, a Loudred DJs, a Pikachu detects. Director Rob Letterman furnishes Detective Pikachu with an incredible amount of creatures to show how integrated they are in society. They are still pets, technically, but pets who can pour Pikachu a cup of Joe if he needs to relieve stress.

It is a shame that the world building and story beats in the film are so strong given that the film’s biggest weak point is Detective Pikachu himself. Ryan Reynolds is a fantastic actor, but his post-Deadpool success has funneled him into a 2010s career of only being Deadpool. Pikachu’s quips feel a little bit too self-aware, and in some cases a bit too mature for a an adorable figure like Pikachu. Not that Pikachu has to be snuggly the whole movie – he is Ryme City’s greatest detective, after all – but Ryan Reynolds doing kid-friendly Deadpool does not mesh with the uncynical tone that the rest of the movie bathes in.

Machamp directing traffic in “Detective Pikachu.”

The character is further crippled by a truly bizarre twist in the final twenty minutes that explains why he and Tim have been able to understand each other. The twist undercuts what is so fun about the idea of a Detective Pikachu; I want to see a cuddly Pikachu acting like a hard-shelled investigator, similar to how I want to watch three stacked-up boys in a trench coat try to sneak into a R-rated movie. It is adorable to see children playing tough, and Pikachu should be doing the same. But Pikachu in the movie is so adult-like that he ends up being a distraction from the rest of the film’s more compelling Pokémon world.

The other characters’ stories more or less work. Tim wrestles with the idea of finding his father, as the two have not spoken since Tim’s mother died when he was a child. He is suffering hard from What-Could’ve-Been Syndrome.  As a child he wanted to become a Pokémon trainer (the film is unclear on this, but it seems that Pokémon battles are legal in places outside of Ryme City), but he has resigned to working as an insurance agent. Pikachu brings him out of his disappointing cubicle lifestyle and makes him reconsider whether the things he used to think were impossible – training Pokémon and connecting emotionally with his father – ever actually were impossible. By the end of the film he is given hope that he can be whoever he wants to be, which is a common but strong message to distill in a film for children.

Even though its eponymous hero is a bit of a misfire, Detective Pikachu is a strong introduction to Pokémon-as-citizens world that promises much potential for future installments. If every blockbuster was made with as much attention as care for its source material as Detective Pikachu is, then perhaps the prospect of endless franchise blockbusters in Hollywood wouldn’t be so troublesome. In 2019, the year of our franchises, Detective Pikachu will likely stand out among similar features like The Lion King and Sonic The Hedgehog (ugh) as not just another soulless cash-grab, but a film that imbues its IP with a lot of heart.

Rhea Seehorn and Taissa Farmiga in "Not All Men."

“The Twilight Zone” (2019): Episode Seven Review

Rhea Seehorn and Taissa Farmiga in “Not All Men.”

[Spoilers for “Not All Men” follow.]

When I was a young boy,  I went on a fourwheeler ride through the woods with a number of family members. Fourwheeler rides were frequent amongst the Bryant family. We would spend hours traversing the woods and mountains of eastern Kentucky, sinking our ATVs into pond-size mudholes to see whose vehicle was the strongest. Vehicles – trucks, cars, or those made for all terrains – are often a symbol of power. The obsession with whose vehicle is the most powerful is expressed in NASCAR, monster truck rallies, and even high school parking lots where Grizzly dip scented boys brag about their respective trucks’ lift kits. Fourwheelers are no exception to this Kentucky trend.

I was following my dad on a Kawasaki Prairie 360, a musky green, 600 pound behemoth. There are much larger fourwheelers of course, but as a prepubescent child I may as well have been driving Mount Everest. I felt like a man riding something so oversized.

That confidence dissipated rather quickly. I turned a corner a bit too quickly and drove the right side of my body into a thorn bush, scraping my arm. The tears were quaint. Hardly deep enough to create a scab. But being a child, I began to cry. Dad turned around, and after seeing my tears he brought his fourwheeler to a screeching halt. He limped over to me – his limp is far more pronounced when he is angry – and leaned into my face.

“What the hell is wrong with you?”

“I just got scraped by I bunch of thorns,” I quietly replied.

He pulled my face into his. Red was the defining feature of his veneer. His eyes, his cheeks, even his shirt, all red with rage. “A man never, ever cries,” he said to me. “If I see you ever cry again, I’ll give you something real to cry about.”

That day was a defining moment in my upbringing. His thesis was perfect rubric for which I could gauge myself against: men don’t cry; if I cry, I’m not a man. It was a simple rule, and unfortunately I am not alone in having learned it. Michael Ian Black wrote last year about the same issue for the New York Times.  “Too many boys are trapped in the same suffocating, outdated model of masculinity,” he writes, “where manhood is measured in strength, where there is no way to be vulnerable without being emasculated, where manliness is about having power over others.”

Power is key to toxic masculinity. Power through violence. Power through strength. Power through skill. Power through vehicles. Men are taught at far too young an age that only power, brutally earned, gains them respect. Expressing vulnerability at any level risks the acquisition of power, so men must bottle it in. And all emotions, when bottled, morph into resentment and rage.

Taissa Farmiga in “Not All Men.”

In The Twilight Zone’s seventh episode “Not All Men,” Annie (Taissa Farmiga) tells her nephew Cole (Percy Hynes White) about a date she had last night with a man suffering from masculine aggression. After she and her co-worker Dylan (Luke Kirby) watched the much anticipated meteor shower, he attempted to force Annie into sex with him. Annie, fed up with Dylan ignoring her repeated and polite requests to stop making moves on her, pushes him off and rushes out of the house. Dylan gets offended not only at her refusal to fulfill his wishes but also the accusation that he is forcing himself on her. His demeanor is embedded with toxic expressions of aggression and sexism.  “I wish there was a way to figure out which guys were gonna be assholes,” Cole says to Annie. “I wish I could kick his ass.”

Dylan’s penchant for aggression, though already common in the real world and the Twilight Zone, has begun spreading over city. The meteors, it turns out, are infecting the men of the town. Men are obsessed with these stones – dropping them into glasses and taking shots with them, tying them to a chain attached to their wallet – because they make the men feel powerful. This power leads to an onslaught of violence. Bar fights become gladiatorial brawls to the death. Minor disputes between men and women turn into murderous wars. The town quickly turns into a fairground for the Paternal Purge.

Annie and her sister Martha (Rhea Seehorn, one of television’s finest actors) realize that the stone is affecting all men when Martha’s husband Mike (Ike Barinholtz, who is using this episode to audition for the inevitable remake of The Shining and proving that he is well-equipped for the project) murders a man who followed the two women home. He is a good man, they say to themselves. But they know he is sick, suffering from the stone’s curse just as all the other men are. Mike eventually moves to attack Annie, but they are able to incapacitate him. They realize they must traverse the town to rescue young Cole, who is currently having a boat party on the seaport.

After fending off numerous men, both familiar and strangers, Annie and Martha find Cole relatively safe and sound. The three enter one last battle with a bloodthirsty man that results in Cole coming into contact with a stone. His face puffs up and his eyes turn red – all symptoms of the meteors’ curse – but he stops it. He chooses to fight off the stone. After an episode where all men have become ravenous beasts, the title “Not All Men” turns out to be true.

Gun toting madman in “Not All Men.”

Medical examiners test the blood of many men after the town is quarantined by the military. But the blood is clean. No man is infected with any sort of disease to be cured. The stones gave them an excuse to act so barbaric. “There’s no cure because it’ll always be inside me,” Cole says to Annie and Martha. “I chose to [stop turning evil].”

“Not All Men” are monsters, the episode concludes, but truly being good requires choice. It requires men to not succumb to the brutish impulses that toxic masculinity celebrates. Suppression of emotion is expected in men, with only rage being acceptable if it can be used to gain power over others. Society promotes men to behave in such reprehensible ways. Men must actively fight against the wave of masculinity that threatens to corrupt them. It is a fight to be good.

Melanie Hamlet wrote an article for Harpers Bazaar on how men rarely have other male friends to confide in. Heterosexual men, unable to express their emotions to other men (if they can express them at all), treat their female partners as therapists. Women are often unequipped to bear the emotional burden of being men’s only emotional support, and they should not be expected to.

Many men, realizing their inability to talk to other men, have taken action to become good to themselves and their wives by developing secret support groups just for men. Scott Shepherd, an interview subject in Hamlet’s piece, summarizes the need for such a group perfectly. He says, “Men are taught the remedy to heartbreak is to get drunk with your buddies, objectify women, and go out and get laid; to basically distance yourself from your feelings and channel them into an aggressive outlet. We use sports as an excuse to bump up against each other… But this kind of closeness is based in camaraderie and aggression, not vulnerability and trust.” The support group is an outlet for which Shepherd and others can unlearn the singular idea of ferocious masculinity, and learn to be emotionally open.

My dad would never attend a support  group of that kind, or likely any support group ever. The exposure would terrify him. But over the last ten years he has made his own efforts to rid himself of toxic masculinity’s shackles, small moves but meaningful. Once on the way to a college tour across the state he told me he was afraid of me moving. “I know you love us, but I also know I have been hard on you and.. maybe not the best dad. I am fine with you moving away if you chose to go to WKU. I just am worried you won’t visit us. I don’t wanna have scared you off.”

It was the first time I had seen my dad express remorse. It was the first time I had heard him say sorry. That car ride was the first of many changes he has undertaken to become a better dad. I never doubted that he loved me, but over the last decade he has become much better at showing us the great kindness hidden under his shell. Sometimes he even gives me a full-body hug instead of a side hug (readers who are like or know someone like my dad will know that is no small gesture). It is not a support group, but it is a step. “Not All Men” shows a path forward that myself, my dad, and many others are beginning to follow.

Episodes of “The Twilight Zone” are available exclusively at CBS All Access.

Lucinda Dryzek, DeWanda Wise, Jessica Williams, and Jonathan Whitesell in "Six Degrees of Freedom."

“The Twilight Zone” (2019): Episode Six Review

Lucinda Dryzek, DeWanda Wise, Jessica Williams, and Jonathan Whitesell in “Six Degrees of Freedom.”

The Great Filter theory, developed by economist Robin Hanson, posits that the reason humans have failed to find extraterrestrial life is that all advanced forms of life destroy themselves before expanding habitation beyond their original home. If an alien race ever lived on Pluto, we would not know of them because they killed each other before making it off Pluto and towards Earth. The Great Filter challenges any species’ existence. Can advance life overcome existential hurdles – whether created by a natural force or themselves – to extend its reach across multiple planets?

That question is central to The Twilight Zone’s sixth episode “Six Degrees of Freedom.” As a group of five astronauts are preparing launch for a round-trip to the red rock of Mars, humanity enacts its Great Filter via nuclear war. North Korea launches missiles at a number of the United State’s largest cities, and the United States aptly retaliates. Global warfare ensues just as the team is celebrating the beginning of their historic mission. The crew’s space center is among North Korea’s targets, so they hurriedly launch the ship into the galactic abyss and reckon with the fact they are likely the last humans left.

Their coping mechanisms – a generous phrase, given the gravity of the situation – are varied. Crew leader Alexa Brandt (DeWanda Wise) is an ardent supporter of detachment. She orders the ship’s AI assistant, a.k.a. Space Alexa, to block all communications to Earth as a protest to Rei Tanaka’s (Jessica Williams) repeated calls to her parents’s home. Flight surgeon Katherine Langford (Lucinda Dryzek) tries to ease the tension between the two of them by embodying the things the whole crew cherishes from civilization; she sings songs to the crew, creates birthday parties, and consoles the crew through their apocalyptic nightmares. Jerry Pierson (Jefferson White) mansplains the situation to all of the crew, bringing up the Great Filter Theory to explain the severity of their mission’s implication, as if the severity of nuclear annihilation isn’t apparent enough. Jerry also makes sophomoric remarks about the differences in everybody’s reality. “In your reality, those tomatoes taste real but in mine? No way.” The crew collectively rolls their eyes at his faux-intellectual garbage.

Jefferson White in “Six Degrees of Freedom.”

But Jerry’s penchant for institutional skepticism is the linchpin of the episode. He decides at one point that the whole mission is a simulation. At some point before launching, the crew was transported to a Six Degrees of Freedom simulation that allows for space-like motion. His 200-day long experiments have proved that none of this is real, man. It’s all a test to see if humanity is capable of passing through The Great Filter and expanding its life reach to other habitats. Jerry, sans suit, releases himself into the great black vacuum to prove his hypothesis.

The ship has no windows, so the crew is unable to see what happens of Jerry’s body, or if they indeed are not floating through space. Their only vision of the outside comes through cameras – cameras that could be manipulated by the system, bro. While they think Jerry was likely going mad from the shock of Armageddon, maybe he was onto something. His conspiracy has the power to corrupt the whole mission. The burden the crew carries as the last human life in existence, though, is far too heavy to be risked by Jerry’s potential mindless rambling.

“Six Degrees of Freedom” attempts to answer the question of humanity’s ability to survive despite its worst tendencies by embedding various broad traits in its crew. Captain Brandt is goal oriented and determined, unwilling to let the grief of Earth’s demise hold her back from the mission. Rei is angry at the world, but her anger stems from sentimentality. Rei wants to believe in the strength of the human race. Now that optimism has been wholly corrupted, and every effort she makes to contact people at home proves that hope is essentially dead. Katherine is the loving mother of the crew. And Jerry, of course, is not trusting of institutions nor accepted cultural narratives.

Jefferson White, Lucinda Dryzek, DeWanda Wise, Jessica Williams, and Jonathan Whitesell in “Six Degrees of Freedom.”

What happens when you put all of these people together and give them the knowledge that they are the only of their kind? Essentially you get the same dynamics that Earth is familiar with. Optimism in the good of humanity is usurped by “rational” progress toward a scientific goal that leaves the interests of society behind (think of Deep Fake videos; they are technological achievements that will certainly ruin massive aspects of national and international relations). We try to reconcile those heartless failings with care and tenderness, which works for awhile until personal interests conflict yet again.

While acknowledging the toxic tendencies society leans toward, “Six Degrees of Freedom” ends on a largely hopeful note that seems to suggest humanity can pass through The Great Filter. The potential for that success, though, depends on trust not only in one another as individuals but the alliances we share as groups. It is an oddly pro-government stance from a show that has depicted the darker sides of governmental bodies (see “Replay” and “The Wunderkind”). Of course, we can work passed corruption if we cling to what makes humanity worth fighting for. The crew of “Six Degrees of Freedom” successfully keeps our virtues at the forefront of their minds, and through that focus they are able to keep out species alive – if just for a small moment.

Episodes of “The Twilight Zone” are available exclusively at CBS All Access.

Endgame + Game of Thrones = Girl Power?

Endgame + Game of Thrones = Girl Power?

So, last weekend was a bit of a big deal.  Between the release of Avengers: Endgame and the Game of Thrones episode “The Long Night”, the Sci-Fi/Fantasy genre just experienced one of the best weekends in genre history.  Endgame shattered opening weekend box office records.  GoT hit 17.8 million viewers, HBO’s highest viewing total in its history.  Endgame was the culmination of 21 movies and 10+ years of storytelling, arguably (only for the most argumentative) the most ambitious film project in cinematic history.  GoT, on the other hand, was hurtling toward a potential conclusion to the storyline that’s been in the making since the first scene kicked off the show over eight years ago.  So yeah, last weekend was a huge deal.  As a big fan of the Sci-Fi/Fantasy genre I was naturally excited to experience it all.  Yet on Monday morning as I was catching up on group texts and discussing things at the office I kept circling back to one thing: women played a massive part in creating the biggest weekend in this genre.  This realization hit me in two big ways.  First, the female characters I’m referring to were not just secondary characters with big moments, but major franchise characters who greatly impact the story.  Second, the execution of that was so natural that it didn’t even dawn on me until much later.

When you consider the Sci-Fi/Fantasy genre there is not a shortage of significant female characters.  Ripley (Alien), Katniss Everdeen (Hunger Games), and Buffy (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) are examples of female leads who were the face of their respective franchises.  When you look at the historically great movies and TV shows in the genre, though, female involvement is still present but with significantly less star and narrative power.  Star Wars featured a prominent female character, Leia, but the story was still Luke’s story.  The second trilogy had Padmé, but not much female representation beyond that.  Battlestar Galactica had a number of prominent female characters, but at the end of the day the storylines were driven mostly by an Adama or Gaius Baltar.  The Harry Potter franchise had Hermione and a host of other major female characters, but Harry and Ron were still the bigger focal point.  Lord of the Rings had Arwen, Eowyn, and Galadriel which were important to the story, but outside of only a few key moments that story was definitely driven by the male characters.  The list goes on to include other big franchises like The Matrix, Avatar, Lost, and others.  Even the earliest movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe had minimal female involvement.  This is not an indictment of those franchises, in fact I love them all, but the significance of the female characters in those franchises didn’t seem nearly as noticeable when compared to Endgame and “The Long Night”.

That brings me to the other point.  The storytelling which got us to last weekend’s big moments has been leading us there for several years.  Game of Thrones has been building its female characters since the beginning of the series.  Cersei and Daenerys have been main characters since the first episode.  Sansa, Arya, and Brienne have grown throughout the series to the point that they are main characters as well.  Going into this final season Arya and Sansa had been added to that upper echelon of main characters formerly reserved for Jon, Dany, Tyrion, Cersei, and Jamie.  As the events unfolded in “The Long Night” there were some narrative surprises including almost all of the aforementioned female characters, but they were 100% believable.  Those characters had become so multidimensional that it didn’t seem out of character for a normally diplomatic character to pick up a sword and start stabbing, or for a battle hardened killer to show signs of doubt and resort to running away.  A big part of what made “The Long Night” such a big event was that natural progression of those characters.

The path to prominent female inclusivity for Endgame was a little less organic than Game of Thrones, at least for the first half of the MCU.  Women have been involved in most every MCU movie, but outside of Black Widow, those female roles were mostly limited to non-superhero support roles.  There became a slow influx of female hero characters like Scarlet Witch, Okoye, Wasp, Gamora and Nebula, among others.  That culminated in this year’s Captain Marvel, the first MCU movie to feature a female lead.  By the time of Endgame, many of those characters are no longer around due to Thanos, but there’s still a prominent crew of female superheroes which impact the events of the movie.  I won’t say more than that with regards to characters and events; but like “The Long Night”, the female characters significantly affect key sequences which impact the story.  Those characters are such an ingrained part of the story at this point, though, that those moments felt natural and not forced.

While I’m heaping praise all over these two franchises I do want to acknowledge some of the franchises which laid the groundwork that helped bring more female inclusivity to the Sci-Fi/Fantasy genre.  As I mentioned above, Aliens, Buffy, and Hunger Games were big in promoting female star power in the genre.  In recent years Wonder Woman, Star Wars VII/VIII, and Rogue One have been instrumental in pushing women to the forefront of Sci-Fi/Fantasy films.  Women are also becoming bigger characters in other traditionally male-dominated forms of entertainment.  This year’s Wrestlemania was main-evented by a Women’s Triple Threat Match.  At the time of that event it wasn’t a stretch to say that the three participants in the match were near-consensus top five superstars among ALL wrestlers, not just women.  Becky Lynch was considered by most to be the top star in the business, which was unheard of in the wrestling world.

Also, while this post is overwhelmingly positive toward the MCU and Game of Thrones, this is not to say that everything those franchises have done with female characters has been perfect.  Both have given in to stereotypes and genre tropes which marginalize groups of people, not just women.  I also don’t want this post to be some sort of declaration that women have taken over Sci-Fi/Fantasy and climbed the mountaintop or broken a glass ceiling or whatever cliché you want to use.  Despite the fact that these characters were allowed to organically grow into this level of prominence and that it took me a while to recognize the difference of those moments versus the genre expectation, the fact is that I did notice it and it did stick out, which means it’s still not normal.  As a guy I don’t feel remotely qualified to talk about representation, or lack thereof, for women or any group, but as a Sci-Fi/Fantasy fan it was really cool to see these characters get big moments on the biggest stage.

I’d love to hear what you thought of Endgame and “The Long Night”, be sure to leave your comments below.

The Funkhouser Situation E57: Endgame CPR *Spoiler Free*

Chris Tomlin and Lee Cruse can’t wait to discuss Avengers: Endgame and they’re prepared to talk about it all without giving The Funkhouser Situation audience any spoilers. Listen to them tap around the topic and talk about a few other things around the world of pop culture, like…

— Adventures at the grocery store.

— The enormous pressure the writers faced to finish the Marvel series properly.

— The final season of Big Bang Theory.

— Taylor Swift has a new music video.

— A look back at John Singleton’s best movies.

— Will the new Seth Rogen-Charlize Theron movie be any good?

— A little Game of Thrones discussion.

— A royal rumor in Hot Goss!

You can easily listen on the KSR App, available on iTunes and Google Play. Streaming online is simple through Pod Paradise. You can also get it directly to your phone by subscribing to The Funkhouser Situation podcast feed on iTunes or via Android’s Podcast Addict app.

Today’s episode is brought to you by Jake’s Cigar Bar. 

Jacob Tremblay as President Oliver Foley in "The Wunderkind"

“The Twilight Zone” (2019): Episode Five Review

Jacob Tremblay as President Oliver Foley in “The Wunderkind.”

Andy Samberg’s comedic opus Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping – a spoof on modern pop music stardom – features a scene in which Samberg’s character Conner4Real shits in the bathroom of the Anne Frank House. The scene is a riff on Justin Bieber’s infamous note left in the Anne Frank House’s guestbook: “Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber.” David Ehrlich wrote in his review that Popstar‘s satire is not quite as absurd as the real-life event it criticizes. “There’s no getting around one stubborn truth about this frequently hilarious movie,” he writes. “The incident that may have inspired it was also the incident that rendered it unnecessary.”

The same can be said of The Twilight Zone’s newest episode “The Wunderkind,” in which an eleven-year-old child is elected President of the United States. The episode takes this premise to very heavy-handed and obvious places, offering nothing new to our already frantic discourse concerning the White House. “Huh, doesn’t this childlike behavior remind us of a certain orange-faced Oval Office occupant?” asks the episode’s writer, as if they are the first to deem Trump’s conduct childlike.

Local cute boy Oliver Foley (Jacob Tremblay) initially rises to moderate fame as a lets-play YouTuber who pwns the noobz in Fortnite – he makes a point to say his first content endeavors centered on Minecraft, but he is too old for that “little boy” game now – but shoots to viral stardom when he announces his candidacy for President. Disgraced campaign manager Raff Hanks (John Cho) sees Oliver’s video and immediately pounces on him as a serious candidate. Raff ran his previous campaign into the ground, but Oliver is a chance at a new beginning.

John Cho as Raff Hanks and Jacob Tremblay as President Oliver Foley in “The Wunderkind.”

Oliver clicks with the American public instantly. His statements bestowing the virtues of “being nice to other people” and “having more Star Wars movies” seep into the citizenship’s hearts. His apparent goodness makes him a strong enough candidate as any, so the public believes, and he skyrockets to the top of the polls instantly. Despite several poor debate performances displaying no true knowledge of public policy – sound bites include “taxes are good except when they’re bad, but they’re mostly good, right?” – Oliver utilizes his innocent charm to cement his throne as America’s Sweetheart, climbing his way to the American Presidency.

Oliver’s brattiness is teased throughout the episode through screaming matches with is parents or refusal to participate in debate prep, but only when he ascends to the Oval Office does his character truly sour. His demands as Commander-in-Chief turn quite extreme. He calls for Nintendo to give all American’s a free Gameboy or he will impose a million-dollar-per-Gameboy tax, burying the company in a pit of financial failure. He wants to “fire” all of Congress when they request his medical report. The aides, rather than pushing against Oliver’s demands, follow his wishes blindly. Any confrontation leads to an immediate firing.

The Trump allegory is painfully hamfisted. Stories of Trump’s inadequate knowledge of governmental functions and refusal to consider other’s points-of-view are far too numerous for me to mention. But the attempt at political commentary in “The Wunderkind” proves useless as it is preaching to the choir. No Trump supporter will see “The Wunderkind” and think, “Oh gee, maybe Trump really is bad.” Nor will any Trump nay-sayers come away with new insights on his Presidency. The episode regurgitates familiar rhetoric surrounding the Trump era with no new perspective to offer. “The Wunderkind” is not trying to make an argument; it is inviting already like-minded viewers to join in on beating its dead horse. Trump is a petulant child! We get it!

We have seen a lot of incredible Trump Era art that insightfully examines what led to his Presidency and his failings as a leader (BlackKlansman, Sorry to Bother You, The Death of Stalin, and The Favourite are four examples from 2018 alone). But those films are adding to the conversation and try to point out toxic aspects of the United States that were already thriving before Trump took office. “The Wunderkind” has no similar ambition. It is content to say “Trump is bad” and leave it at that. In a show as hellbent on confronting questions of American identity as this new Twilight Zone revival is, “The Wunderkind” single-layered identity as an anti-Trump narrative does not bravely enough consider what it is about Trump that is so troubling. It is more comforting to point and mock than it is to look inward.

Episodes of “The Twilight Zone” are available exclusively at CBS All Access.