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The Funkhouser Situation E59: Lee Cruse speaks for first time since WLEX dismissal

Lee Cruse is back in front of a microphone with Chris Tomlin in a new episode of The Funkhouser Situation. In his first public comments since his dismissal from WLEX, Lee explains what happened, where he went wrong and what he’s done since the events unfolded.

The rest of the show is what you’ve come to know and love from KSR’s pop culture podcast.

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. 

The Twilight Zone (2019): Season Finale Review

The Twilight Zone (2019): Season Finale Review

[Spoilers for The Twilight Zone’s season finale “Blurryman” follow.]

I have largely stayed away from online discourse concerning The Twilight Zone. While I normally read reviews for movies before I watch them, I wanted to go into this show relatively blind as to what other critics and viewers were saying. Today I went back through some articles at various and found that  my frustrations with this show – that it is too unsubtly preachy and not nearly sci-fi enough – are frustrations that many other writers have had.  But with the show’s meta season finale “Blurryman,” the creative team behind The Twilight Zone retort the collective criticism against it by screaming “We made this season bad on purpose! We are actually smart, trust us!”

“Blurryman” opens with Seth Rogen writing the outline of a movie, kicking himself for being an imposter and a hack. His movie is a nuclear apocalypse piece where only midway through do mushroom clouds end society. Once Rogen’s character thinks to move the nuclear war to the beginning, he feels more at ease and accomplished with his work. He looks outside in joy, thinking about how cooped up he has been and wanting to get some fresh air. But when he opens the window he finds that his story has become reality and the world has become a desolate nuclear wasteland. Peele enters the screen espousing narration about how Rogen will soon learn the social responsibility of a writer, and that he needs to create more than simply “entertainment,” but rather he needs to create “art.” It is incredibly tacky and cringey, directly in line with the rest of this season’s episodes.

But midway through narration, Peele breaks character and says the narration needs to be written. “Blurryman” takes place on the production of The Twilight Zone, with Peele and Rogen playing themselves as they create a new Twilight Zone episode. Peele goes to his makeup room and talks to the episode’s writer and showrunner Sophie Gelson (a fictional character, played by Zazie Beetz) about the opening narration. Peele is turned off by the distinction between art and entertainment; they should not be separated because they are not mutually exclusive. Sophie thinks that the sci-fi story that Rogen’s character in the episode is “genre trash” and cannot be art. Genre fiction at all is just pulp nonsense. Art cannot be silly nonsense. It needs to say something, she believes, and the “slippery slope from superhero movies and sci-fi crap to idiocracy” is what episode being produced in “Blurryman” is all about. Peele replies “Our show is sci-fi, right?”

Jordan Peele in “Blurryman.”

Sophie retreats to her office to rewrite the narration.  When she submits it and watches the shooting of it on set, the cue cards have been replace with narration about “writer Sophie Gelson’s” refusal to “confront her fears.” She is convinced it is a prank and tries to track down the person who messed with the narration. In this process she finds out that in the background of every episode of season one there has been a blurry figure ominously standing (the blurry man is truly in every episode, and TV Guide found all of his appearances and put them in this list). On the crew’s lunch she wonders around the set and stumbles upon the Blurry Man. The episode turns into a cat-and-mouse chase with Sophie running across the production lot to ward of the Blurry Man, but she is never able to fully do so.

Sophie somehow knows the Blurry Man’s presence is connected to her hatred of genre fiction. “Jordan’s putting you up to this, isn’t he?” she screams at the figure. “Because horror is real? Because the genre stuff isn’t just bullshit.” There is a tension in Sophie’s mind between the fantastic and the intelligent. For her, sci-fi itself is not quite able to reach a profound level. What she believes Serling did was not give profound stories, but rather gave profound narration at the beginning and end of trashy sci-fi episodes because that was the only way to reach the masses. We know in this alternate reality that Sophie is one of the chief creative minds behind the new Twilight Zone, and her idea that the new show needs to shrug away its genre tendencies to deliver message is very much in-play in almost all of The Twilight Zone’s actual episodes. Very few of this new season resides in the supernatural, and “Blurryman” gives us a reason for that: Sophie hates the supernatural. The soapbox messaging of “Point of Origin” and “The Wunderkind” are a result of her reluctance to dive into genre storytelling and insistence that the show needs to bluntly say something insightful.

But after she figures out that the Blurry Man is in fact real and not some prank Peele has orchestrated, she decides to open herself up to him. He clouds her in smoke and she sees a vision of a young Sophie, eyes locked onto an old Twilight Zone episode. “These are make-believe stories,” her dad protests to her mother. “She needs to get out in the real world with real world.” “She could do both? Right, Soph?” her mom replies. Sophie sees in this vision not only her fear to reckon with the unknown, but also that the supernatural and the natural need not be dichotomized. Genre fiction can be art. Serling’s work on the original Twilight Zone proved this to be the case.

The episode ends with the Blurry Man revealing himself to be Ron Serling, CGI recreated like Peter Cushing in Rogue One.  He takes Sophie’s hand, claiming “we have a lot of work to do,” and walks her through a black-and-white door that presumably leads to… The Twilight Zone. It is a note that looks forward to the season two, a promise that the future episodes will be more in-line with the original series. “Blurryman” retroactively turns the new Twilight Zone into an essay that argues that sci-fi metaphors of the original series were necessary for its success, and by removing the sci-fi “entertainment” from the new episodes in favor of “artistic” messaging a new Twilight Zone can’t work. But of course what the original did, and what “Blurryman” realizes, is that the genre entertainment heightens the importance of the artistic marriage. Entertainment and art are married, not separated. The supernatural aspects of the original Twilight Zone are just as real and weighty as its themes.

Zazie Beatz in “Blurryman.”

Season one is an interesting exercise then, an ambitious effort to see if a bad season of television can still have a satisfying payoff. I appreciate the goal and the sentiment – it is a true celebration of Serling’s original series and displays a knowledge of why that show was so incredible – but I don’t think it quite works. “Blurryman” is a fascinating course-correction, but it doesn’t make watching nine episodes of bad television worth it just to find out in the tenth that the first nine were bad on purpose. In fact it may wind up being a damaging experiment. While “Blurryman” indicates a more adventurous second season will come, I don’t think that I will bother watching it because so much of season one – even though it was meant to – left such a sour taste in my mouth. I can’t imagine I am alone.

Creating an actively unentertaining reboot as a way to celebrate the genius of the original property is in its own way genius and subversive, but it works much better as an intellectual thought than it does as a legitimate show. While “Blurryman” is a terrific individual episode and makes me admire season one so much more, the test of The Twilight Zone’s first season doesn’t quite work for me. At the end of the day, no matter the intention and cleverness, if most of the episodes of a TV show is bad, then the show is bad. The Twilight Zone reboot, though it tried, could not overcome that truth.

Episodes of “The Twilight Zone” are available exclusively on CBS All Access. For more of Adrian’s rants concerning bad reboots (looking at you “The Lion King,” probably), follow him on Twitter @APBryant32.

Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein in "Booksmart."

Review: Booksmart

Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein in “Booksmart.”

Cinema was perfected when the party comedy was conceived. With the right talent behind them, party comedies like Neighbors and Blockers can transcend our common understanding of art and elevate us to a higher plane of cinematic enjoyment we never thought possible before. And even bad movies like Sisters and The Hangover trilogy are watchable at the very worst, because it is always a pleasure to see people chuggin’ booze and munchin’ shrooms. Although I am being slightly facetious about the importance of party comedies, if any pitch involves the phrases “high school party” or “middle aged people partying in an effort to be young again,” I am automatically and earnestly hooked.

Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut Booksmart is right up my alley. Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are their high school’s best two students. They have slaved away all of their K-12 career acing tests and swimming through endless extracurriculars so that they can glide into the nation’s Ivy League schools. Their efforts have worked, but once Molly finds out that many of her classmates who spend their days chuggin’ booze and munchin’ shrooms are also getting into top-notch colleges, Molly convinces herself that her and Amy’s efforts were all for naught. They decide that they will go to their classmate Nick’s (Mason Gooding) party on the night before graduation so they can say they didn’t spend all of high school not having any fun.

Their biggest stumbling block is the fact that, since they have mostly had their heads in the scholastic realm, they do not know Nick’s address nor do they know anyone with Nick’s address. The first 40 or so minutes of the film follow Molly and Amy’s efforts to get to Nick’s house, and these minutes are where Booksmart shine because it conveys the true oddity of high school. Eighties high school movies like The Breakfast Club or Pretty in Pink have their merits, but their depiction of all high schoolers as fitting into a very specific stereotype have always kept me at arm’s length from them emotionally. But Booksmart (and many other recent high school pieces like Netflix series American Vandal and young adult novel Me and Earl and The Dying Girl) refute that tendency by giving its supporting characters their own flavor of weirdness that is unique to them – something I saw much more often in high school than I saw people who were super stereotypically jock-ish or preppy.

Skylar Gisondo as Nick in “Booksmart.”

Highlights from the supporting cast include Gigi (Billie Lourde), who pops up in every destination that Amy and Molly find themselves in on the way to Nick’s as if some kind of drugged out North star. Gig knows how to get to Nick’s house, but rather than giving our duo the  address she gives out cryptic fortune-cookie clues that push them slightly farther to Nick’s right before she mysteriously backs into the shadows. Jared (Skylar Gisondo) is also a stand-out of the film as an awkward loner who tricks out his race-car and rents party yachts with his dad’s money in an effort to attract friends who are unwilling to hang out with him because they see him as (and granted, this is his literal license plate ID) a “fuk boi.” Even Nick, who is portrayed in the film’s opening moments as an ignorant ape, is quite charming and deceptively smart. All of the high school characters – jock, nerd, rich, prep, whatever labels we’re tempted to use – have complicated lives that aren’t waiting to be discovered, as a movie like The Breakfast Club would argue, but they are already presented openly in their day-to-day interactions with each other. And most of them are aware of each other’s complexities. It is Molly and Amy who have spent so much of their time doing homework and looking down upon their “dumber” cohort who need to open their eyes and catch-up to their classmates’ awareness.

The success of the supporting cast is only heightened by the seamless performances of Feldstein and Dever. Booksmart is a movie about their eyes opening to the high school they missed out on, but it is also a movie about their relationship. Molly is a more commanding force, and often seems to drag Amy into situations (like going to Nick’s party at all) that she does not want to be in. But Amy levels Molly at points by giving her heaps of uplifting encouragement that warms up her sometimes cold heart a bit. They both give and take quite a bit in their friendship and Dever and Feldstein sell that friendship effortlessly. In scenes where Amy and Molly are separated, their classmates make remarks like “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you without Amy/Molly,” and audiences have that seem feeling every time they are apart; the bond is so strong that it is hard to process them as individuals rather than a unit, which eventually becomes a conflict in their friendship in the movie’s third act. It takes a lot for two actors to create such a dense unity between characters, but Feldstein and Dever are incredibly successful in doing it.

The main reason I am incredibly susceptible to party comedies is that parties have a positive and wholesome undercurrent to them. Everyone is gathering just to have a good time. Things go awry at many, to be sure, but they are created simply for people to unify and have fun. The party setting bonds groups of people who often seem like they can’t have a bond. Booksmart uses that setting to show that people’s tendency to heap ill-informed perceptions and roles onto others is foolish, because at their core high schoolers are all scared but well-meaning people who are trying to find their identity. Molly and Amy have spent so much time assuming that their classmates are below them when in fact they are all on the same playing field, and without having gone to Nick’s party the duo would likely have never learned that. But at the same time Molly and Amy’s friendship, while very insular, is a remarkable one that is worth celebration and the party setting of Booksmart does exactly that. Olivia Wilde told NPR that she hoped Booksmart makes teens “celebrate being young,” and its love for its characters and their weirdness certainly shows that being young is a treasure rather than a burden.

“Booksmart” opened in theaters May 25th. See your local theater for showtimes and watch the trailer here. You can follow Adrian on Twitter @APBryant32 to hear more of his never-ending love for boozey party comedies.


Chris O'Dowd in "The Blue Scorpion."

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

Chris O’Dowd in “The Blue Scorpion.”

[Spoilers for “The Blue Scorpion” follow.]

At midnight this past Thursday, the comedy music troupe The Lonely Island dropped a visual rap album (think Beyonce’s Lemonade) called The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience. The “visual poem,” as they refer to it, centers on the eponymous Bash Brothers Mark McGuire (Akiva Schaffer) and Jose Canseco (Andy Samberg) and their use of steroids to propel their skill as Major League Baseball players. In the song “Focused AF,” Canseco engages in a question-and-answer breakdown with McGuire that reveals their true motivations for ‘roiding out: “Where is the limit? / There are no limits. / And what is the goal? / To make dad love me. / To make dad love me. / [In unison:] To make dad finally love me!”  One of the album’s latter songs “Daddy” is directed to both of the athlete’s dads: “Got much bigger, faster, stronger, Dad / Hit so long / But you always want it longer, Dad / ‘But therapy’s for losers, little boy / therapy’s for losers.'”

Oddly, the incredibly hilarious Bash Brothers is a much more successful portrait of obsession and daddy issues than The Twilight Zone’s newest episode “The Blue Scorpion.” But instead of focusing on steroids as a coping mechanism, the addiction that controls Jeff Storck’s (Chris O’Dowd) life is a gun. Jeff is at the lowest point in his life, staying with his dad while he goes through a divorce that he can barely afford. When he returns home one night, though, Jeff finds that his father has committed suicide. During the police investigation Jeff is presented with a gun and asked to confirm whether or not it was his dad’s gun. Jeff is confused at the sight, as his dad was a “hippie” that loathed guns his entire life.

The gun, gold-plated and stamped with rose-pedal imprints with an ivory grip featuring a blue scorpion, soon entrances Jeff. Once he sees the gun, he grows more paranoid and distrusting of the world. Every man he runs into is named Jeff, and even one of his students reports a feeling that the objects in her dorm are communicating with her. The gun itself (named The Blue Scorpion), Jeff finds out from a gun shop owner named Bob Jeff, was once owned by Che Guevara and has only been owned by six people before Jeff. “The legend is,” Bob says, “you don’t find [The Blue Scorpion], it finds you.” Any bullet that Jeff loads into The Blue Scorpion’s cartridge is engraved with his name. As the gun radiates some sort of mystic energy, Jeff begins to believe that he cannot trust anyone. All he can trust is The Blue Scorpion which came for him.

Jeff pointing at Jeff in “The Blue Scorpion.”

“The Blue Scorpion” seems to be leading its viewers to see Jeff’s sanity as crumbling due to the gun. Given the leftist politics of the show so far, it’s expected that the episode is going to condemn guns and advocate for either a ban on guns or further restrictions. And I think  the episode believes it is doing that. Peele’s closing narration bemoans human tendency to treasure objects more than human life, which is a not so subtle message that the U.S. is more caring about the rights of guns than people who die from them. But the ending of the episode’s plot shows Jeff using the gun to kill a neighborhood house-invader after the invader tries to break into Jeff’s car. Once the invader is killed, Jeff is praised in the newspapers as a hero and is granted a position as the Chair of his university’s Anthropology Department. Everything works out perfectly for him thanks to the gun, but Peele’s narration claims that the gun has led to great tragedy.

But where is this tragedy? My best guess is that “The Blue Scorpion” is saying that instead of everybody focusing on the death of the invader and mourning the loss of life, they are celebrating his demise at the hand of a gun. I could buy that if the show treated the invader with any amount of sympathy. He dies and the cops are like, “Oh, great job killing this dude,” and that is as much time as is spent on him. There is a large incongruity between Jeff’s ending as a character and Peele’s narration that I cannot square. Even though the episode claims to be anti-gun its plot delivers an oddly pro-gun story.

The Lonely Island’s Bash Brothers toes a similar line as it consistently refers to the players’ use of performance enhancing drugs. But McGuire and Canseco are portrayed as broken buffoons who retreat to baseball as a way to, albeit unhealthily, deal with their fathers’ rejection of them. While the piece ends with the Oakland Athletics winning the World Series, we know that their use of steroids is not being promoted as a means for success. “The Blue Scorpion” tries to do the same thing – showing Jeff’s rise and success because his obsession with the gun but not endorsing the gun as a path to success – but it fails tremendously.

If anything distinguishes “The Blue Scorpion” from the other political episodes of The Twilight Zone, it is that it drops the ball so hard in its messaging that it ends up romanticizing the very thing it means to attack. Its embellishment of the gun with mystical properties makes the gun come off like a well-meaning genie rather than the deceptive demon it is meant to be depicted as. It is hard to tackle to the anti-gun argument of the episode because it fails so hard at making that argument. The previous episodes of this show have been bad, but they have at least had a clear message; “The Blue Scorpion” cannot even make it to that low-bar.

Episodes of “The Twilight Zone” are available exclusively on CBS All Access. For more of Adrian’s piping hot-takes and foolish opinions on pop culture, follow him on Twitter @APBryant32. 

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.