My goal this year was to expand my content variety to more than just books, the idea being to broaden my influences in order to widen my writing perspective. So far, I have added some graphic novels to my lineup, read several non-fiction books at my “regular” job, and made it through a couple of Netflix original series (as well as plowed through a huge backlog of their comedy specials - check out Sarah Silverman’s A Speck of Dust as one of the best examples). But I have not encountered a show worth pouring out a few words of my own until I viewed Charlie Brooker’s phenomenal, terrifying series Black Mirror.
(Readers will recognize this is technically the second in my Netflix series, the first having appeared almost two years ago - click here if you’d like to read my thoughts on their terrific animated program BoJack Horseman)
Black Mirror was a show conceived in the UK by the sardonic television critic almost a decade ago, but it didn’t really catch on across the pond until it was vacuumed up by Netflix, which commissioned another two series (the last of which came out last December). I have mostly known Brooker via a series he produced for the Beeb around the same time: How TV Ruined Your Life. A breakdown of the hidden manipulators behind most of what we watch on the small screen, it opened my eyes to the uses and misuses of propaganda and emotion in that medium, and has caused me to think about television in a different way ever since. This is why the salient dissection of our own current technological age strikes me as a continuation of what Brooker has been doing for his career: showing us the creepy possibilities of our world and where they might lead.
Approaching his latest effort provoked a challenge in me: how can one write about a show that is already so stunningly well-written and offers the best media critique of this nonsense I have ever seen? Since I can’t compete, I am merely going to speak about how this series works, at least from my own vantage point as a flogger of the written word. The show operates on roughly two different levels. There’s the basic plot of each, many of which take place in an indeterminate, bleak future in which eye implants have replaced the smartphone screen, or technology has mutated into an out-of-control form. I would argue that the first two series, originally done for Channel 4, remain the overall best and I want to take a quick look at a few of the episodes. The dystopian “Fifteen Million Merits” stuck with me for a long time. Ostensibly a tale of a bizarre, underground “power plant” that uses human stationary bicycle pedaling for some nefarious purpose, the episode devolves into a parable about our current obsession with celebrity and reality television, and points toward a future in which everyone is looking to cash in on the phenomenon. This episode cast a harsh light not only on possible future living arrangements (each person lived in a screen-embalmed cube, which is impossible to look away from without losing merits), but also upon our celebrity-obsessed current age and its sheer emptiness.
Probably more famously from the second series was “The Waldo Moment,” which Brooker himself has alluded to as eerily peering forth into our current worldwide political malaise. In this one, a conservative British MP stands against a cynical neophyte and a pretend, CGI rendered “puppet” that exists solely to point out the meaninglessness of the entire political exercise. The “real” politicians do their best to point out that adding more nihilism to the process won’t help anything, but in the end “Waldo” the profane creation ends up garnering a significant percentage of the vote without actually winning. The entire episode was at once a blistering commentary on the sorry state of political affairs pre-Brexit, but I also read it as a very broad commentary on the entire concept of critiquing the political moment anymore, especially in the age of TheDonald as our wonderful Commander-in-Chief.
I also want to give high marks to the “White Christmas” special, featuring a stellar and disturbing performance by Jon Hamm and possessing its own three dark, intertwined tales that lead to an incredible, emotional payoff.
The later, Netflix-commissioned series are almost as good, while in my opinion not quite reaching the heights of the initial episodes. But even among these twelve are many that I found to be quite phenomenal. “Playtest” from series three is a creepy dive into the world of brain-augmenting video games, and its multiple false endings really freaked me out. “Hated in the Nation,” the series three closer, was a dystopian tale about the use of drone bees that took over for the real creatures (killed off through climate change) to assassinate whoever the Internet hates the most each day, and also contained a few subtle call backs to earlier episodes. And I would say that “Crocodile,” covering the lengths someone goes to cover up a horrible crime as well as the technological misuses of memory, and “Black Museum” which contained multiple stories like the Christmas special, were two of my favorites.
In the best episodes, almost all of which are written by Brooker, these stories point out the misery and destruction lingering just underneath the “black mirror” of our screens. While each has its own internal plot and setting, the greatest part of this series is its ability to show us where technology is heading, and why we face such a dangerous course. I found this show to be a healthy corrective to the kind of jargon that emanates from Silicon Valley these days, especially in the age of companies such as Cambridge Analytica. I would highly recommend this show to anyone who enjoys science fiction and the way it can be used toward cultural and critical analysis.
(I should also mention that I did wrap-up another series before this one: LOVE, co-created by Judd Apatow, Paul Rust and Leslie Arfin that concluded its three-season run this year. That show hit too close to home for me to write about in-depth, but I may re-binge-watch it at some point and put something down.)
I still hope to write about some other Netflix original series (including Orange is the New Black and Stranger Things), but it may not be for a few months. This blog will primarily remain one about writing, books, the creative process, etc but I will continue broadening my influences and blogging about them. Until then, thanks for reading (and watching)!
Hello and welcome to this installment of the 2018 Reading List. Last time we explored the world of Mrs. Dalloway, and now I am turning toward an author I have long known but never read: Don DeLillo and his masterpiece 1985 novel White Noise.
As with Virginia Woolf’s excellent prose, this too was one of the best books I have ever read. It feels like this novel has seeped into the national consciousness since its publication over thirty years ago, but reading it in the age of social media it still felt incredibly relevant. The advent of technology, eco-disasters, family disorder, academic redundancy; all of these themes have not eluded American life and in fact I have seen many of them get much worse in my lifetime. I won’t delve into the plot (such as it is) in the hopes that this will inspire others to read this book, and will dive straight into a few lessons writers can extricate from this work.
Use of thematic elements. This alone could be the source of an entire essay, and thankfully the edition I had of the book did include quite a few of them to help me gather my thoughts. While I would say the obvious themes of the book are in plain sight (the “airborne toxic event,” “Dylar”) the way DeLillo presents them in the prose is brilliant. What first starts as television ad jingles interspersed throughout the Gladney home slowly becomes part of the text itself, and seem to literally be running through the mind of the protagonist by the end (“Visa, MasterCard, American Express”). But this is just one theme - I would argue the largest is death and how much it looms over the American consciousness. The protagonist’s wife searches (and debases herself) for a pill that will cure death, and by the end Gladney himself is convinced of a much darker way to prolong his life. Writers can attend a master class in how to approach thematic elements in literally every page of this novel.
Using the novel to show society. This is arguably the novel’s largest success, as DeLillo uses his characters’ perspectives to show the consumerism obsessed populace of the early Eighties. The supermarket becomes a religious experience, academic life has become a series of intricately developed specialities (“Department of Hitler Studies”), and we are assailed all around by toxins and other elements that are slowly killing us. I had to set it aside and ponder the relations to our current malaise at many junctures. (This book is also the first since Catch-22 to make me laugh out loud multiple times.)
Use of voice. This struck me in the sense that Jack Gladney is essentially DeLillo’s voice, and yet it is not. Gladney views the world through academic suspicion, and yet is swayed by another academic (Murray) into committing a horrific act of violence he supposes will set him free. All throughout the book we encounter Gladney’s personal experiences of the world, viewed through a more jaded author’s handiwork, to amazing effect. Writers looking to hone their voice can find few better works of such phenomenal example.
Again, these are but three lessons for writers in this monumental book, and I would encourage anyone who has not picked this one up to do so if you can. It’s that incredible of a novel, and is so well-written that each passage has miles of depths to explore critically. And I would welcome any comments from those who have read it as well.
Up next, I needed a bit of a breather, as White Noise hit me hard on several levels. Therefore I’m veering back into (British) commercial fiction and returning to an author I have not read in years - Nick Hornby and his first novel High Fidelity. I also plan on reading more female authors later in the year, and am always open to more suggestions on that front. As always, thanks for reading and writing.
I want to spend some time discussing another media-centric thing my wife and I have enjoyed over the last few years. Having cut the cord of the malefactors of the cable industry years ago, we have come to rely on the increasingly amazing source of entertainment to be found among the streaming networks. Netflix and Hulu have defined television for our modern era, and are now producing quality, serial shows the likes of which have never really been seen outside of HBO and some of the other premium cable channels. While it remains to be seen if Netflix’s growth can be sustained over the long haul, there can be no doubt that in a few short years the company has unleashed some of the best stories we’ve seen in the medium for a long time. For now I want to focus on an animated show from the streaming service that is a roaring success in various and deep ways.
And that show is BoJack Horseman.
What is this show, exactly? I could describe it simply as a pastiche of anthropomorphized animals and humans co-existing in a world of “Hollywoo” - but that’s not all that detailed or interesting. I could be boring and say read the Wiki. A better description would be this: a show that seems OK with the idea of being a screw-up, in life or in career or anything. And that is something our world desperately needs. Voiced by one of my all-time favorite television actors (Will Arnett), BoJack is the washed-up former star of “Horsin’ Around,” the type of banal sitcom that was populous in the alternate 1990’s of this (and our) world. After a glorious eight seasons, while he has become famous BoJack leads a desperate life of partying and drift. We first see him in season one working with a ghost writer (Alison Brie), who he first is fearful of getting his autobiography wrong and who he then becomes romantically attached - and that’s just getting started. But I can hardly do justice to the writing of this show - it is that freaking good. Arnett is surrounded by an amazing cast, including Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul, Amy Sedaris, and Paul F Tompkins.
In my lifetime, we have witnessed a fair amount of variation of animated television shows for adults. The Simpsons premiered just as I was turning 6 and my parents didn’t really let me watch it anyways; I was more lucky to be around during my formative and uh, substance-using years to enjoy a hefty dose of the reality-bending comedy coming out of the folks at Williams Street, adult swim (then known as the Cartoon Network’s evil, late-night twin). The intervening decades also brought new and highly original ideas like South Park, Futurama, and Archer. The chain of events leading to BoJack has led to something that is like a homage to all that has come before, and yet is very unique on its own. Creator Raphael Bob-Waksburg, who got a nice profile in the New York Times Magazine this July, stated that he pitched the show to his partner Lisa Hanawalt as being about a “Depressed Talking Horse.” That gets a lot closer to the center of it for me, and especially my wife Mary. Living with a mental illness is not easy, and being the partner of someone with that affliction can be tough. But I don’t know how hard she has it, most of the time. Late in the first season, Arnett gives a stunning voice performance, pleading with ghostwriter Diane to (in his words) “tell me I’m a good person.” It’s a poignant moment for many reasons, but it also speaks to a fundamental emptiness many of us have felt at one time or another in our lives.
I can speak to this as well. Moving to Minnesota in the summer of 2007, I had essentially zero reason for going other than my current life in Iowa was falling into a malaise of drugs and a general feeling of no direction. Not having much of an ability to change myself at this point in my life, this lifestyle unsurprisingly followed me up here. The results of which, while being helpful to mine for my in-progress third novel, led to a desperation that was only resolved by meeting the woman I was supposed to fall in love with and marry. But in the intervening years I indeed could be described as a “f*ck up,” having the desire to write a book but no motivation to see it through. This is the world BoJack inhabits all the time, and so it’s difficult viewing because of the raw nature of the portrayal of what very much is one of life itself. We’re not necessarily used to that from a show of this type, are we?
At the end of the first season, BoJack finds out that the autobiography he maligned has gotten him the role of a lifetime: playing the great racing horse Secretariat. Season two finds him acting in the movie and slowly, finally finding a way to gain happiness, only to find that it causes him to lose out in being in the film (to find out what I mean by that, you gotta watch!). This leads into the phenomenal season three, released this year, in which the creators found even more bizarre and experimental ways to toy with the medium and nature of the show itself, including what I thought was one of the best yet: a (mostly) silent, underwater episode that takes place under the ocean. Having some sort of pseudo-nostalgia about silent films dredged out of me after viewing The Artist years ago, this one particularly moved me. The entire three-season run covers a rapidly growing amount of ground, including celebrity culture in general and the shallowness of those people we put on pedestals in Hollywood. Season three even has a disturbing Cosby-esque allusion revolving around a supposedly “beloved” talk-show host and his treatment of women.
At its core, this show is about disappointment, and realizing that life is going to give you plenty of it. But for some people, this is about as good as it might get for them. Depression is a real disease, and it affects a lot of people. Just the fact that a streaming service was willing to take a chance on a show that caters to this very fact of our modern existence is a pretty big step forward, and is a start toward addressing larger issues about why so many people in today’s America feel this way. Sure, everyone feels like a screw-up once in awhile, but a lot of people can never escape that feeling. Those of us who can gain pleasure from a dive into a depressed talking horse’s alternate universe and still come away in one piece need to be there for those who may not find the return trip so easy.
Without diving too further into the dark territory, I have to conclude by saying that if you have the means and the time to watch this powerful show, I would highly recommend it. I will also say this - in our current era of “peak TV” (or whatever blithe description you want to throw on this First-World Problem) there seems to be an encouragement to binge-watch these kinds of shows. In this case, I would actually advise against it. While each episode is telling a part of the overall story they are each worth digesting on their own; even breaking it up to one or two episodes a week is worth it. But if you don’t give a hoot what I think, binge away! The important thing is to get more people viewing this incredible, moving show.
John Abraham-Watne is an author and freelance journalist located in the Twin Cities, where he lives with his wife Mary and their two cats. This blog is his attempt to catalog all the events that culminate a local writer's life.