Case Study 71: Mother Up, Episode 3–“Double D Moms”

Original Airdate: November 13th, 2013 on Hulu

Thanks to Netflix, it’s become de rigueur for streaming services to produce their own original programming, and Netflix hasn’t made it easy on its competitors, churning out critically-acclaimed hits like Orange is the New Black and Master of None. Amazon Prime comes in at a distant second for original fare, most notably due to the success of Transparent. But whither Hulu? If Amazon Prime is lagging behind, Hulu has died of a heart attack and is slowly decomposing in a heap somewhere. They had exactly zero shows in AV Club’s top 40 last year and the only Emmy nomination they received was for an election special helmed by the timeless and relevant Triumph, the Insult Comedy Dog. Honestly, the highlight might very well be The Wrong Mans. A network in this position is going to desperately try all kinds of crazy things in the search for the next big hit, including giving Eva Longoria money to star in an “edgy” animated sitcom described in Variety as being like “Family Guy for women.” Gulp.

Strengths

  • Periodically funny. If that sounds like I’m damning Mother with faint praise, it’s because I am. But it’s better than a joyless slog! Most of the jokes that work in this episode center around the near-critical levels of self-centeredness displayed by our protagonist, Rudi Wilson (Longoria, Desperate Housewives.) Here, Rudi tries to get her friend Sarah (Gabrielle Miller, Corner Gas) to loosen up, but after her first day-drinking bender, Sarah professes a desire to “buy drugs, burn things down and hurt people! Hurt them so much!” Without so much as a pause, Rudi cheerfully replies, “Okay! See ya tomorrow.” We get more along these lines from the episode’s subplot, which has Rudi’s ten-year-old son Dick (Jesse Camacho, Less Than Kind) unwittingly imprisoned when he tries to get close to an incarcerated father figure. The prison figures out their mistake before Rudi realizes Dick’s gone. This is exacerbated when she mistakes Sarah’s son for her own. Sarah corrects her, only to get a brusque “I don’t think so.”
  • Breaking up a boy’s club. Look, there’s no good reason for anyone to try and bring more versions of Family Guy into the world. Seth MacFarlane is a cancerous growth on the taint of comedy. But there’s something to be said for an animated series where the morally deficient and hijinks-prone protagonist is a woman, unlike MacFarlane’s crap, or The Simpsons, or Futurama, or Bojack Horseman, or Archer, or that shitty Bill Burr vehicle on Netflix. And many of the other characters are tightass suburban moms! Sure, it may be a hoary cliche to make fun of soccer moms, but at least we’re dealing with a story by and about women. Of course, passing the Bechdel Test doesn’t guarantee quality in and of itself—but Leslie Knope would be proud.
  • Turning around a derivative storyline. South Park famously lampshaded their own piss-poor creative skills by making a big deal about how The Simpsons had supposedly already tackled every good storyline, and Mother had me ready to compare Rudi and Sarah to Homer Simpson and Ned Flanders in Las Vegas. While Mother does retain the device of the milquetoast character going way too far in their indulgence, Rudi proves to be an unlikely voice of reason and moderation. She ultimately brings Sarah back from the edge of total insanity, though she still has to engage in some kind of death-match with cobra venom coursing through her veins. You know, edgy, etc. But this is promising. Rudi reluctantly stepping in to do the right thing shows the possibility of a well-rounded character who isn’t just wacky for wackiness’ sake. Of course, Mother didn’t survive past 13 episodes, so it was all a big waste of everyone’s time.

Weaknesses

  • Tasteless. This is my big problem with “edgy.” “Edgy” could mean that something is interesting, experimental, attempting the never-before-seen. Unfortunately, it usually means “let’s see if we can get away with jokes about children masturbating in public and giving their bullies blood-borne hepatitis.” It can be hard to draw the line between jokes about negligent parenting that play on our insights and observations of the characters and jokes that are just supposed to shock us into laughs of discomfort, because normally people frown on child endangerment. But this is a constant challenge for comedies relying on despicable characters—when do we stop laughing at them and start laughing at their victims?
  • Unlikable protagonist. The protagonists of those male-driven animated comedies I listed above all exist on some continuity between well-intentioned idiocy and petty maliciousness. The further you get down that continuum, the more you’re forced to appreciate the show in spite of its hero, in the spirit of Archer. Mother Up was always going to struggle, but the fact that Rudi’s an asshole doesn’t help. I’ve never understood the TV writer’s penchant for assholes. Don’t we already have enough assholes in our day to day lives?

Final Judgment: 6/10. It’s not very good, but it’s head and shoulders above Family Guy. Have I mentioned how much I fucking hate Family Guy?

NEXT TIME: Hey, I liked it when Gundam had giant flying death robots, so I’m sure every anime with giant flying death robots is also awesome, right? RIGHT?! I review Zoids: Chaotic Century!

Case Study 71: Mother Up, Episode 3–“Double D Moms”

Case Study 20: Marco Polo, Episode 2–“The Wolf and The Deer”

Original Airdate: December 12th, 2014 on Netflix

Ah, yes, here’s another genre that’s mostly new for us–the historical drama. I say mostly because Hindsight is technically a period piece, but it’s depressing for me to think that 1995 now counts as a “period.” Unlike Hindsight, most of these shows are big-budget, prestigious affairs–all those costumes, period appropriate props, sets and location shoots get pricey, so you’re more likely to see them on pay cable, although there are occasional outliers like Mad Men on AMC or Downton Abbey on PBS. Since Netflix is clearly trying to position themselves as an outlet for the kind of prestige content usually found on pay cable, it was inevitable that they’d throw their hat into this ring, and the outcome is Marco Polo. It’s also worth noting that they’ve chosen to include period pieces like Peaky Blinders and Borgia in the slate of shows aired overseas that they distribute in the States.

It’s also come in for an intense and unilateral critical drubbing, which I find somewhat puzzling. The capsule summary tends to be “a pale imitation of Game of Thrones,” which is both unfair and inaccurate. The cynical part of me wonders if this is something like what you traditionally see played out in video game “criticism.” The hot new title in the tired old franchise that’s guaranteed to sell millions of copies to millions of slavering manchildren receives universal acclaim because the critics are afraid to a) step outside the zeitgeist b) anger their corporate overlords c) get SWATted by the aforementioned slavering hordes or d) all of the above. So even if it’s tired, bland and lazy, Gears of Duty: Destiny Effect Syndicate 19 gets 10/10 across the board, and when some other thing that’s an unknown property but is as tired, bland and lazy as the big ticket items gets eviscerated in a form of cathartic release. Thrones is not the hot shit that people seem to think it is. Like most things in life, it is flawed, and in some ways those flaws are critical. Of course, that also applies to Polo–see below–but it’s really about on par with Thrones. In some ways Thrones is better, in some ways it’s worse, but it’s also somewhat different seeing as how it’s fantasy and there are magic and dragons and Polo is allegedly based on actual history. Thrones  is slightly above average; it’s entertaining but not groundbreaking with occasional transcendent, spellbinding moments. And not to spoil my final judgment or anything, but Polo is much the same. For this review, I watched both this episode and the pilot. Let’s take a look.

Strengths

  • Transporting. This is what a period piece banks on, and Polo executes it well. I felt like I had opened a window onto the 13th century. The imagery of Marco (Lorenzo Richelmy) traipsing in a caravan across a vast desert, hiding from bandits in fear for his life, contracting deathly illness in an unforgiving tundra, walking the streets of Khanbaliq, witnessing a standoff between two great armies–it casts an undeniable spell, and in this respect at least Polo’s big budget pays off.
  • Kublai & Marco. Hands down, the best scenes in this show involve conversations between Marco and Kublai Khan (Benedict Wong, Prometheus.) That makes sense, because this is the beating heart of the Marco Polo story–a chronicling adventurer meets one of the most powerful man in the world and tries to make sense of what he finds despite a gaping cultural gulf. In the world of the show, Marco and Kublai peer at each other across that gulf, and on opposite sides of a huge power differential–Marco and his party literally enter the court of the Khan crawling on hands and knees. Despite all this, the show makes the case that they’re essentially the same kind of person. They’re both attuned to diplomacy, curious, fearless and eager to reach across cultural divides. They yearn for adventure–Marco never would have wound up in Khanbaliq otherwise, and Kublai lives vicariously through Marco’s gift with words and language. He summons Marco so he can regale the Khan with detailed and keenly observed stories of his travels. The art direction on this show is fabulous and there are many visually striking moments, but the scenes in the court do a great job at conveying Kublai’s larger-than-life status and the hushed magic of a seat of global power. The remarkable symmetries between Marco and Kublai and the tensions caused by their differences as Marco teeters between survival, flourishment or escape from his servitude to the Khan are this show’s greatest strength.
  • Thematic cohesiveness. This brings us to the subject of why Marco’s in servitude in the first place. One of the many liberties Polo takes with history (see below) has Marco’s father Niccolo (Pierfrancesco Favino, Rush) bargaining with a displeased Khan. He exchanges Marco’s enslavement for Silk Road trading rights. In real life, Marco stayed voluntarily and was treated as a guest of honor, holding prestigious positions in the Khan’s court. Of course, the dramatic stakes are raised if Marco starts from the inside of a prison cell and rises to a position as a trusted confidante of the Khan. Regardless of the cheerful disposal of actual facts, it works well for the story. Marco is stung by his father’s move, and feels deeply betrayed by him–for the second time. In the show, Niccolo was a stranger to Marco. He didn’t marry his now dead mother and spent his time as an itinerant merchant, and when he returns from his grand journey to the east, Marco wants a chance to adventure, to satisfy his wanderlust, and to get to know his father and find some way to forgive him.  At one point during their journey east, Niccolo advises Marco that he can stave off fear and uncertainty by remembering where his home is, and that if he follows the stars in Orion’s belt they’ll always lead him home. Marco gazes longingly up at those stars early in this episode, and he’s clearly conflicted because with a dead mom and a dad who literally sold him out, he may not have a home there any longer. The main plot of this episode deals with the fallout of a failed strike on Wuchang, the key supplier of food for Xiangyang, the defensive bulwark of the Southern Song dynasty. The strike failed because a key contingent sent by Ariq Böke (Baljinnyamyn Amarsaikhan, Thief of the Mind,) Kublai’s younger brother, did not arrive. The entire Ariq plotline is another aggressive digression from history–instead of Ariq seizing power in Karakorum and inciting all-out civil war, Kublai appears to have granted Ariq control of the Mongolian homeland willingly. The end result remains the same, though–Ariq dies after the failed attack on Wuchang when Kublai’s army arrives to confront him for his treachery. The two face off in a very dramatic duel while their armies look on, but the night before the brothers sit with one another last time to say goodbye. They reminisce about their childhood, they explore their differences and they make peace with what’s about to come. The bounds of family and political obligation constrict them as they do Marco. Rounding out the hour, we have a subplot involving another fantastic character, Mei Lin (Olivia Cheng.) She’s a concubine in an awkward and tenuous position in the Southern Song dynasty–she has no official power, but she has favor with the emperor and other well-placed politicians because of her sexual prowess. She’s also deeply devoted to her small child, the bastard product of her union with the emperor. Of course, the emperor is very old and sick and promptly dies. Seeing as his successor is a toddler, a power struggle is inevitable, but Mei Lin has been deprived of her patron. Her brother Jia Sidao (Chin Han) is the arrogant chancellor, and he takes the opportunity to get her out of the way while possibly gaining valuable intelligence–he sends her to infiltrate Kublai’s harem and spy on his court. Thus Mei Lin’s worst nightmare comes to pass–she’s separated from her daughter and may never see her again. Once again, the interplay between family and politics leads to a toxic brew, and much like Marco, Mei Lin will be trapped in a foreign culture with ample danger and no easy means of escape.

Weaknesses

  • Historical inaccuracy in service of racist tropes. I don’t penalize this kind of show for being historically inaccurate in general–it’s meant to be entertainment, not a documentary, and dramatic license is often necessary to tell a well-crafted story. It’s more fun to watch Marco claw his way up from the bottom. It’s exciting to watch Kublai decapitate his brother in one-on-one combat. It’s intriguing to watch Mei Lin attempt to infiltrate the court, although in actuality an unknown foreigner being admitted as a concubine into the Khan’s harem was laughably impossible. But when you start distorting history in the service of racist tropes, it gets tired very quickly. Not only because racism is corrosive, but because these tropes are incredibly lazy and don’t make for very good television. Oh, look, here comes a white guy we can “identify” with–even though 13th century Venice is just as baffling to me as 13th century Mongolia. Oh, and here he is immediately enmeshed in danger and sinister intrigue, when in reality he was a welcomed guest. Oh, and here he is being the real driving force behind all of Kublai’s remarkable accomplishments, because someone as exceptional as Kublai couldn’t have existed without a brainy white guy in his corner. This all reaches the apogee of ridiculousness when Marco is introduced to his kung fu tutor. Are you fucking kidding me. I can only imagine TV and movie producers hearing about any drama set anywhere in Asia or featuring Asians in any major aspect and then immediately asking what the martial arts angle is going to be. Marco Polo doesn’t need to know kung fu! He’s a charismatic diplomat! Aren’t the power games enough? The show explains this away by rationalizing that Marco needs to know these skills to survive, but once again, he was venerated and respected in the court in real life, and even within the show’s twisted logic, this doesn’t make any sense. When Marco contradicts Kublai’s heir Jingim (Remy Hii, Neighbours) in open court and comes to confront Marco, Marco’s tutor Hundred Eyes (Tom Wu) remarks that Jingim is the Prince and is welcome to kill Marco where he stands. Oh, and let’s talk about Hundred Eyes for a minute. Not only is he a Wise Old Kung Fu Master, he’s also blind. Jesus. In real life, Marco Polo’s writings did speak of an actual person named Hundred Eyes. Of course, the real Hundred Eyes wasn’t a blind kung fu master because that’s ridiculous racist nonsense. Instead, he was a major general in Kublai’s army, and a sighted one to boot. So he totally could have played a major role in this series, as Hundred Eyes does. Alas, it was not to be. This show also takes Thrones’ lead in indulging in constant gratuitous naked women, best demonstrated in the laughably bad orgy scene at the end of the pilot. You know we’d never get through a drama set in Asia without a literal heap of writhing, naked, objectified Asian women serving some muddied metaphorical purpose. This episode wasn’t as bad about the wildly unnecessary nudity–there is a nude scene, which for once I won’t spoil except to say that Polo earned the hell out of that one.
  • Dumb romance plotline. Isn’t a pivotal moment in the unification of China enough!? What about a historic meeting between the East and the West?! Nope. We have to have an idiotic, moon-eyed love story thrown in for some godforsaken reason. And even in the annals of stupid tacked on romance plots, this one’s a doozy because of course it’s love at first sight. As soon as Marco locks eyes on Kokachin (Zhu Zhu,) there are little pink cartoon hearts everywhere. Of course, she’s a kept woman in the service of a powerful man. Of course, this is all completely ahistorical. There was a real Kokachin, and the real Polo describes the circumstances behind her arrival in the court with bland neutrality in one paragraph, a paragraph that’s as boring to read as this subplot is to watch. Boo.

Motivation: Like many well-thought out television shows, Polo touches on many different motivations–as I mentioned, family is of particular thematic relevance for this installment–but each episode of this show is so overwhelmingly concerned with power struggles that it’s hard for anything else to take precedence over that.

Final Episode Judgment: Despite the thorough critical beating that Polo’s received and some undeniably major flaws, fans of political intrigue and soapy historical drama will enjoy this. 8/10. The pilot only merits a 6/10, but hopefully that’s bad pilot syndrome and not a sign of deep inconsistency.

NEXT TIME: Barring technical difficulties, I check into Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew.

Case Study 20: Marco Polo, Episode 2–“The Wolf and The Deer”

Case Study 15: Mobile Suit Gundam SEED C.E. 73: Stargazer, Episode 3–“Stage 03”

Original “Airdate:” September 29th, 2006 on Bandai Channel

In the last installment of my sporadic coverage of the world of anime, I discussed Lupin The Third, a sprawling multimedia franchise that first appeared on TV in the 1970s and which subsequently grew like kudzu. The Gundam franchise makes Lupin look like a deep cut. Gundam also arose out of humble circumstances in the 1970s and basically took over the damn world. TVTropes calls Gundam “the Japanese equivalent of Star Trek.Trek is probably the closest comparison possible, but it still doesn’t do Gundam justice, since Gundam is about twenty times more successful. Looking at TV alone, the Gundam-verse has spawned 19 series. That count doesn’t even include today’s offering, because Stargazer is a companion web series to Gundam’s 11th TV reincarnation, Mobile Suit Gundam SEED Destiny. In addition to TV, Gundam has spawned feature films, direct-to-dvd offerings, manga, video games, model kits and a garbage barge full of toys and other merchandise. Tokyo even plays host to a Gundam theme park. With 19 different shows, I somehow doubt this will be the last you’ll hear from me on this franchise.

It’s also worth noting the fact that this is a web-series. With Netflix, Hulu and Amazon offering critically acclaimed programming, it’s impossible to ignore web platforms in my quest for great TV, but I will have to apply some holistic metrics to determine whether or not any given web series is worth a review. There are a few factors working in Stargazer’s favor–it’s intimately connected to a traditional TV offering while standing on its own as a discrete story, it’s high-profile enough to merit coverage, it was distributed through an established, non-YouTube platform and the entire show gets in and out in less than an hour. It’s three 15-minute “episodes” long, and for the purposes of this review I watched all three. It also helps that it turned out to be really damn good–and sadly topical.

Strengths

  • Giant flying robots. Well, I don’t care about these so much, but I suspect that if you’re sniffing around the perimeter of Gundam you’ve got a vested interest in seeing super-cool giant flying robots, and here they are. It’s actually a pretty canny innovation on Gundam’s part. You want to create a space opera with a focus on war and internecine political conflict, but how do you set yourself apart from the pack? The answer turned out to be 86ing spacecraft-based combat and inserting giant flying robots piloted by vulnerable fleshy humans. Seems like it worked!
  • Probing, elegant, multi-faceted exploration of war. Now, to Gundam fans Stargazer might be old hat. The series has long focused on war and conflict, since its titular draw is in fact war machines. It’s possible the franchise’s writers have been running out of fresh insights on the topic, since they’ve been covering that beat for 36 years. But to someone with absolutely no prior experience with Gundam, this was an unexpectedly insightful tour de force. The main theme here is the potential costs of the military-industrial complex’s encroachment on supposedly neutral scientific endeavor, but the show manages to touch on many evils in what amounts to a scathing indictment of warmongering. In this iteration of the Gundamverse, we’re presented with a scenario where genetically engineered superhumans known as Coordinators have established themselves on extraplanetary colonies, while Earth remains the domain of non-engineered humans, known as Naturals. Stargazer takes place in the immediate aftermath of the outbreak of a second brutal war between Earth and the colonies. The overarching story of this war is told in Destiny, while Stargazer focuses on the experience of two new characters during the conflict. Selene McGriff (Sayaka Ohara, XXXHOLiC) is a hotshot scientist at DSSD, a politically neutral space agency hoping to survey and develop areas beyond Mars. She’s working on a cutting-edge Gundam called Stargazer. It’s designed to explore space unaccompanied by humans thanks to advanced AI technology. The first 20 minutes of Stargazer chronicle the immediate aftermath of a cataclysmic attack from the colonial military that destroys, among other things, Beijing. Selene narrowly manages to get to an Earth-based DSSD launch-site to escort Stargazer to a DSSD space station. Meanwhile, we’re introduced to Sven Cal Bayang (Daisuke Ono, K), a soldier in an elite unit of the Earth military which is rapidly being mobilized. Ultimately, Sven leads an operation to claim Stargazer for the Earth army. It’s horrifying to see earnest, geeky, apolitical scientists get gunned down in cold blood, but we only reach this climax after running a gauntlet of similar horrors. During the opening attack, Selene is accompanied by her mentor/implicit lover, Edmond Du Clos (Jouji Nakata, Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works.) Just as we’re starting to get a feel for who he is and the groove of his relationship with Selene, he dies horribly in a fight with an attacking Gundam so that Selene has enough cover to get to the launch site. When that Gundam finally gets brought down, it turns out it was being piloted by…child soldiers. In a video message, the children announce that their parents were all killed in the war by Naturals, and with dead eyes they swear vengeance. Seeing this, Sven’s colleague Mudie Holcroft (Rina Satou, Negima!?) parrots what she’s been taught: “The only good Coordinator is a dead Coordinator.” Before long, we’re seeing her terrified screams when she dies horribly. The child soldiers also mirror Sven’s history—he was once a happy and enthusiastic child with a fascination for astronomy and all things space related, but then his parents died in a terrorist attack and he became a ward of the state. After some A Clockwork Orange style brainwashing and reeducation, he’s turned into a dead-eyed soldier with no qualms about murdering the astronomers he didn’t get to become. When Sven’s normally gung-ho colleague Shams Couza (Hiroshi Kamiya, Angel Beats!) tells Sven of the plans to seize Stargazer, regardless of how many civilian personnel have to be killed, Sven’s only response is “I see.” A frustrated Shams bitterly replies, “You’re always like that…making that ‘It has nothing to do with me’ expression.” Indeed, earlier in the episode we saw Sven unblinkingly raze a refugee camp packed with civilians. He mildly asks his commanding officer if he’s to restrict himself to just killing terrorists. His CO replies, “Can you tell the terrorists apart from the refugees?” Sven replies that he can’t. “Well, that’s how it is.” And where does this all lead? The climactic battle ends with Selene and Sven improbably confined together in Stargazer, which is slowly heading back to Earth. It’s not entirely clear, but at the end of the episode it’s strongly implied they didn’t survive the trip home. This is the nature of war: a vicious cycle of humanity’s worst instincts cutting a swath of destruction through everything in its path. Regardless of the politics—regardless even of the outcome—nobody wins. All of the people we’re given any understanding of in this hour are destroyed. Humans get turned into cruel fighting machines, even when humans are trying to turn cruel fighting machines into benign space exploration tools. Stargazer may be the only “character” that really walks away from the fray, but what has it learned? Selene tries to teach it what she learned from Edmond—don’t look to the side to enviously compare and compete with those around you. Don’t look down for the purposes of self-aggrandizement. Look up. Look for the better nature. Look for hope. Look towards the stars. What else did the humans teach Stargazer?

Weaknesses

  • Opaque battle sequences. I’ve never been a fan of the action genre and especially not the war genre. It’s not necessarily because of any particular aversion to the content or the stories—though I’m not exactly a fan of the good old ultraviolence. A big factor, however, is that I hate not knowing what’s going on in a story. I don’t mean because of artsy surrealism or obfuscation. I get the sense that in the final battle scene here, I’m supposed to know exactly what’s going on. But I haven’t memorized which ships are on each side, because I’m not a hardcore Gundam nerd. I don’t know who’s speaking when their faces are mostly obscured by battle helmets, because I haven’t memorized the sounds of everyone’s voices. I understand what the outcome is when the hurlyburly’s done, but they might as well not show me the battle itself because it’s just a big chaotic mess. And from what I understand, that can be true of the fog of war as well—yelling and screaming and bullets ripping by and complete and utter disorientation. I gather that this is a feature and not a bug for some folks, but it actively gets in the way of my enjoyment because I can’t tell what the fuck is happening. Why not just skip the battle altogether if it’s only going to make sense after close study of the Gundam wiki, which for the record is perhaps the geekiest document on the planet?

Motivation: Survival. Unfortunately, everyone loses.

Final Series Judgment: 9/10. This was searingly on point and also had giant flying robots. What’s not to love? I’m not sure how it measures up to the rest of Gundam-–after 11 preceding TV shows, this might be well-covered ground—but as a newcomer, I was blown away. They really accomplish quite a bit in less than an hour.

NEXT TIME: I’ll struggle to turn in a review of Community that isn’t covered with biased fanboy slobber.

Case Study 15: Mobile Suit Gundam SEED C.E. 73: Stargazer, Episode 3–“Stage 03”