I Saw James Acaster but Maybe Not His Show? (It Was Weird) – Comedy Review (#33)

A few months ago, I went to Gotham comedy club with my sister. The line-up was, as to be expected, of varying quality. But there was one guy in particular who was having a very bad night. In the audience’s defense, he really wasn’t that funny. His joke framing device was weird and the punchlines themselves contradictory. A drunk woman in the back asked for (well, demanded) some clarification. It got personal. The energy got real weird, and when his time was up, he just sort of shrugged and handed the mic back to the host.

I thought about this during James Acaster’s late-night performance of his show Cold Lasagna Hate Myself 1999 at Littlefield in Brooklyn last week.

Like Daniel Sloss, whose show X I reviewed here some number of weeks back, Acaster is a comedian from the UK (though English rather than Scottish) who I first saw thanks to the simultaneous release of multiple specials on Netflix. And, like Daniel Sloss, it was specifically a recommendation by Phillip DeFranco that pushed me to check them out.

The shows, collectively titled Repertoire, are very funny and I highly recommend checking them out. I hope this one ends up on Netflix too. But not, as with X, because I think everyone else needs to see the show; it’s more selfish than that: I want to see it. Because what I saw at Littlefield was not actually Cold Lasagna Hate Myself 1999. I’m still not entirely sure what it was.

Hi, by the way. Welcome to The Week I Review. My name is Mid-Tier Comedy Fan, and today I’m talking about… that show.

It was Acaster’s second show of the night. The first one ended less than thirty minutes before the doors of the second opened. And though the show didn’t start until 10:30, he came out onstage at 10 anyway.

He sat there in an iredescent jacket and sunglasses, holding his phone and a black iPod classic, changing the music wildly and frequently.

A gift and head of cabbage were placed on the stage. He opened a gift. It looked like Robitussin. He removed the head of cabbage. My companion, an Acaster super-fan, told me later that that was A Thing.

He played the first half of the song Euroleague by Paul Williams five times over that half hour, on each the lights would change and he would look out into the crowd and we’d wonder if it was starting early, but no. He’d go back to the stool and check his phone some more. He replied to a tweet my super-fan friend tagged him in.

As the starting time drew closer, the gaps between plays shrank; eventually he was literally cutting the song off mid-way to start it again.

Euroleague – at least in its first half; I haven’t listened to the second – is about having a not-so-great 2017 but pushing past it: getting back on the grind in 2018. While in 2019, it seems a little dated, it wouldn’t have felt so when he started doing this a year ago.

Eventually, we would learn the thematic connection to the song: that the 1999 in the show’s name really meant nothing and it was actually about 2017. He was going to tell us the story of his dirty rotten no good very bad year. A year where he lost a girlfriend, an agent, and… I think there was a third thing, but I don’t actually know, because we never heard the story. We never really heard any of the stories.

After the first extended bit of the show, a 20-minute-or-so run about a breakup he had in 2013, he did something interesting: he addressed us directly and asked us please not tweet about it. I’ve heard this before, and it’s pretty much always the same reason: because people tend to miss the point because most of us just… aren’t funny. He mentioned Twitter specifically, but I imagine he’d find it at least as frustrating for me to relay it here, so I won’t. Because I wouldn’t be able to do justice to his threading of that needle. Suffice it to say it’s a great story.

I don’t know if that line about Twitter was an official part of the show or a diss at Brooklyn (or maybe American audiences more generally), but it set a new tone with this particular audience, one that ultimately overtook the entire set.

Littlefield is a small venue, but it was crowded – being a sold-out show and all that. I was right up at the front of the standing-room-only crowd, probably 30 feet from the stage. About fifteen feet to my left were a trio of girls who couldn’t have been older than 22. Maybe they were even younger but had quality fakes. In any case, they were drunk. And they were talking. Not heckling or anything, like that woman at Gotham had been. Just… talking. To each other. Like no one else was even there, and there wasn’t a show going on.

This happened for a long time before anyone said anything, and it was ultimately James Acaster himself who did so. As he geared up to reenact a mental breakdown he had on a telephone call in 2017, he paused and asked them to stop. The worst offender attempted to explain herself: “I was putting on lipstick,” she said.

And, of course, there was disbelief. “It seems to me that that’s one of those activities that is made significantly harder by talking.” She said something else. He told her that he hated her. Then it got weird.

I was in full agreement, but apparently the crowd wasn’t. Or, that was the impression that he had gotten, because he immediately felt compelled to justify himself. He talked about differences between American and British audiences, and about the fact that he likes being in a job where can tell garbage people that he hates them and couldn’t we all be so lucky, and he was confused about why people were on her side when she was *still freaking talking* during this whole rant! And suddenly we’re fifteen minutes past the point where he was supposed to have started that phone call.

He tried to get back into the headspace, but then a bottle fell at the bar and the moment was lost. He gave up and decided to just skip the bit entirely. “We’ll go back to it at the end,” he promised.

We didn’t.

I assume that what followed, a bit about his home town of Kettering, was part of the show that we had tickets to see. But then, with half an hour left to go, he said that he was so glad the show was almost over before realizing there was a full third of the performance left to go. He then apologized for not sounding more excited that there was half an hour left. (I found this hilarious.)

But then, instead of going back to the bit that he cut off mid-thought, he thought for a few moments and said “I know what I’ll do. I’m gonna talk about Bake Off” – or, as Netflix has decided to call it state-side, The Great British Baking Show.

This… was new. James Acaster’s appearance on the Great Celebrity Bake Off aired just a few weeks ago, so an extended sequence about his experience behind the scenes couldn’t have been part of this show he had been performing for the past year.

What it actually felt like was something he was working out for his next special. And it was very funny. Sad, too – tonally fitting right in with the rest of the set – but as someone who is a big fan of the show, there was some interesting insight into it alongside all the humor and pathos. Still, it wasn’t totally ironed out: literally the last thing he said – the last joke of the entire show – was immediately recanted as an uncalled-for ad lib: a bit of Paul Hollywood body shaming.

At the very beginning of the performance, he made a bunch of remarks about quoteunquote Edgy comedians, folks like Ricky Gervais who have given up on trying to be clever, instead doubling down on lazily insulting marginalized groups. He did so while saying that he was not going to be one of them. Between the audience insults and the body-shaming, he admitted, he kinda was.

Which is funny.

I hadn’t watched the Bake Off episode yet. And doing so afterwards was fascinating. The context that Acaster gave for his genuinely bizarre appearance really adds to the whole thing. My favorite fact? He was stirring that crème pat for 45 minutes.

But perhaps just as interesting were the inconsistencies between his stories and the show itself: the specific details he added to certain moments were just straight-up wrong: he said that he was asked for six “Identical” cream horns during the technical but the host said no such thing; he was asked for Identical flapjacks in the Signature. He described a bit that the hosts did as they called for 30 minutes when that bit actually came at the half-way point.

Of course, these little details don’t matter. But they serve as a fascinating example of two things:

  1. How memory is unreliable. Every time a story is retold, it goes back into memory anew. So over time, as something is repeated, the details shift. It’s why eyewitness accounts are really rather unreliable in court proceedings. This fits with the bit about the hosts and their marshmallow gun, since the timing of that is irrelevant to the joke itself; and
  2. How little tweaks make a story more compelling. Here’s a fun fact: I intentionally fudged one part of the pre-show timeline that I discussed at the beginning of this video. While it is true that James Acaster did respond to a photo my friend tagged him in on Twitter before the show began, he actually did it while we were waiting outside for the doors to open. He was on his phone while he sat up on the stage, just not doing the thing I said he did. But the story flows better the way that I told it. Just as the “identical” thing does the way Acaster did.

When he finally left the stage, he restarted Paul Williams’ Euroleague. After a rough 2017, he’d be back on his grind the following year.

Its irrelevance to the performance that we had just seen felt like its own kind of joke, a coda to the show that we were supposed to see but never did.

James Acaster told us that, though it may have seemed like a uniquely memorable performance, he was going to have forgotten it by Friday. I don’t really doubt him. By the time this video goes up, he’ll have performed it at least a dozen more times. Those shows probably went better… or maybe they were worse. Regardless, they’ll all just blur together.

But you know who is never going to forget this show?


Eight Point Zero out of Ten

Mack Weldon’s Silver Underwear Makes Me Feel Fancy — Review #32

It may or may not surprise you to learn that I am the type of person who sees a Kickstarter for sheets with silver threading and then immediately backs it even though I didn’t actually have a mattress at the time. When the same company made a Kickstarter for silver towels a few years later, I was all up on too. You see, silver is naturally anti-microbial and anti-odor, and I both hate doing laundry and live in an apartment building that doesn’t have a washing machine in the first place.

So I like to buy things that have silver in them, even if they cost a little bit more.

A few years ago, I made a clothing change that few people would ever notice: I stopped wearing boxers. But a girl I met on tinder told me they looked bad on me and so I immediately threw away every single pair, because at that point in my life that seemed like a rational reaction to such criticism.

Being not even vaguely confident enough for briefs proper, I decided to go for that nice middle ground. This was the heyday of MeUndies sponsoring every single podcast that I listened to, so I figured it was time to give some internet underwear a shot. The pairs I ordered were both too small and, much to my chagrin, did not have a fly. My first day wearing them, I got, uh, caught in my zipper and yelped in pain in my literally at-capacity office bathroom. I was so mortified that I never wore them again. I got some generic ones at Macy’s and went on with my life.

A few months later, at the Wirecutter’s recommendation, I got a few pairs of Uniqlo Airisms. And I liked them immediately. For a year or so, that was enough.

But then I started getting daily Facebook ads for Mack Weldon’s Vesper Polo. I had heard of the company because they advertised on The Flop House podcast, which was the only one that went with them instead of MeUndies. And I really did like the way that Polo looked, inspired as it was by James Bond. So I checked out their website.

And lo and behold: Silver.

This was last May.

Mack Weldon has a loyalty program called Weldon Blue. You don’t have to sign up for a credit card or give up the contents of your genetic code; you just need to buy things. After your first order, you are instantly a part of level one: free shipping on any order, rather than just those over $50. You also get 10% off orders above $100.

If you spend over $200 within a year, you get upgraded to Level 2, giving you a 20% discount on all others as well as some other things that are less meaningful.

I like this. I also realize that I’m getting played.

Because this means that everything that Mack Weldon sells has a 20% markup on top of the typical retail markup, because their business model must be built to be sustainable even if every customer were Weldon Blue Level Two.

To go deeper into the cynicism, there’s a psychological factor to discounts. The famous JC Penny experiment where the company stopped lying about everything being on sale and instead posting the “sale” price as the real price was a total failure. Shoppers didn’t care about the actual price of the item; it was the relationship between that price and the arbitrarily higher number posted beside it People love to feel like they’re getting a deal.

Let’s be real, Mack Weldon products aren’t cheap, and hitting that initial $200 benchmark isn’t hard. I did it on literally my first order. Hell, even with my discount, those two pairs of boxer briefs still cost $54. And sure, there’s literal silver in them – the non-silver options, which I also have a few pairs of – are quite a bit cheaper, but… you can get two pairs of Uniqlo Airisms for less than the cheapest Mack Weldon underwear, and that’s after a discount. But I’m at the point in my life where I’m okay spending a bit more than I historically would have when something is higher quality.

I mean, the old adage is that you get what you pay for, and it is true – up to a point. Expensive things typically cost more to make. Of course, it’s a question of proportion. For example, my colleague’s wife worked for a high-end swimwear company, the kind that charges literally hundreds of dollars for a bathing suit. And their swimsuits were objectively higher quality than your typical one, costing several times as much to make. Except we’re actually talking about a total cost of around $18 as opposed to, like, $2. It’s a better product but a markup that is out of reach for most people. Certainly including myself.

I wouldn’t spend several hundred dollars on a bathing suit, regardless of the wholesale cost… but I did spend $70ish twice on pairs from Mack Weldon for my trip to Mexico, and I don’t regret having done so. They’re great. The best bathing suits I own. They fit well, which is pretty important for clothing, and I think look good too.

But I also wouldn’t have spent the $90ish per suit that they cost without my 20% discount. And seeing the number in the cart all crossed out with what I viewed as an ultimtely more reasonable below made me feel better about what was still a fairly big expense on something I don’t use all that much. And there’s a pressure to keep spending money there to stay in that Level Two tier, because I want to keep getting those discounts because I really don’t have any desire to pay the “actual” prices.

But, it’s also not like I’m not getting some really great clothing out of the whole thing. I have been impressed by the quality of every piece of Mack Weldon clothing I own. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t keep buying new ones. I would end up wearing something of theirs almost every single day.

And that really speaks to my appreciation of the brand more than any of the words you have just heard or could hear. Tbh, this could have been like 85 words long. But I just really, really like typing.


Eight Point Four out of Ten

Us Metaphor and Ending NOT Explained – Review #31.2

The instant that Jordan Peele’s second feature, Us, hit theaters, a thousand publications published articles and Youtubers posted videos with titles promising variations on “US ENDING EXPLAINED.” I haven’t read any of those articles; I’m not going to watch any of the videos. Because that claim is absurd. Dan Olson of Folding Ideas did a much better video about this than I ever could, which I’ll link to down below, but let’s be clear: Anyone who says that they can “explain” any piece of art to you is lying.

All they can do is consider it. Which is what I’m doing here, and now that I’m saying it out loud… well, it sounds kinda pretentious. Oops.

Hello, by the way, and Welcome to The Week I Review. My name is Sorta Tethered, and this video is a spoilerific companion to the regular ol’ review I posted of Us earlier today. If you haven’t seen this movie, I’d recommend watching that other video, going to see the movie (it’s quite good), and then coming back to this one.

And now: an abridged reading of Jeremiah chapter 11 – New International Version:

‘Obey me and do everything I command you, and you will be my people, and I will be your God. Then I will fulfill the oath I swore to your ancestors, to give them a land flowing with milk and honey’—the land you possess today. But they did not listen or pay attention; instead, they followed the stubbornness of their evil hearts. They have returned to the sins of their ancestors, who refused to listen to my words. They have followed other gods to serve them. *Therefore this is what the Lord says: ‘I will bring on them a disaster they cannot escape. Although they cry out to me, I will not listen to them.* The people will go and cry out to the gods to whom they burn incense, but they will not help them at all when disaster strikes. Do not pray for these people or offer any plea or petition for them. The Lord Almighty has decreed disaster.’

Oh boy.

I should have known from Us’s opening shot what it was really about, with the first onscreen image being a commercial for the 1986 Hands Across America charity event and all. That event, which happened only once, was supposed to be a powerful symbol in the fight against poverty and homelessness, where people across the country linked hands in an unbroken line from coast to coast for fifteen minutes. Of course, it failed, but it surely would have been a statement had it succeeded.

And that’s why The Tethered are set to recreate it.

(It’s interesting that Santa Cruz, where Us’s new Hands Across America demonstration starts, was not actually on the original route, though it seems appropriate in 2019, since the Bay Area is having a rather public reckoning with its housing and poverty crises.)

But even without all that context, I should have realized it for a very simple reason: Us is, at least in part, a home invasion film, and every single home invasion film ever made – don’t @ me – is, at least in part, about class and inequality. By their very nature. Wealthyish protagonists have homes – typically very nice, secluded ones. Then less affluent folks go to those homes and make them pay for their extravagance.

As a result, these films are pretty much always about white people – because white people have all the wealth. Even in Us, which focuses on a clearly comfortable black family, there’s a notable disparity in that level of comfort. The Wilsons are doing fine, but their vacation home ain’t got nothing on the Tylers. When the power goes out, the Wilsons are plunged into darkness. They can run to their boat, but that boat is only semi-functional. They feel they can call the police, but aren’t taken all that seriously and given far too long a wait.

And, of course, Adelaide is put in handcuffs in her own home. By the shadow that wants her and her family to suffer.

Not so with the Tylers. There is only a momentary blip as the power is cut and the generator kicks in – even their smart assistant keeps on keeping on. And when their doppelgangers come, it’s quick and nearly painless – except for Elizabeth Moss, because women always have it worse in horror movies, don’t they?

But it’s not the racial wealth gap specifically that drives Us’s narrative; it’s this country’s as a whole. Before handing over those cuffs, Red tells the Wilsons who they are: “Americans.” The film’s title is often stylized with both letters capitalized, and so it should be: the United States itself is the thread that binds everyone together, the one that the Tethered have come to sever.

And to finally escape the cramped, crowded tunnels long since forgotten by the people who built them; the Tethered see no sun or trees; breathe no fresh air. They eat nothing but raw rabbit. They are always underneath: out of sight and out of mind.

Growing up, both of my parents worked in organizations dedicated to helping those in poverty or the homeless. As such, our dinner conversations often focused on these issues. But even so, I often just forgot about those people when I was living my generally middle-class lifestyle in a town that had some absurd wealth of its own.

Jeremiah 11 foretells violence against the people who have turned their back on the god who gave them the land flowing with milk and honey – that followed false idols who will do nothing to save them from the coming calamity. And what are these gods? America itself, for one; that image that we have of ourselves as compassionate or caring, or had before November 2016.

Money in general and capitalism in particular are often considered false idols, and certainly the economic system that makes it damn near impossible for people at the bottom of the ladder to rise up seems that it must come to an inflection point. Will that be a revolution? Will it require the mass slaughter of elites? Jeremiah may have felt so.

And the violence that he foretold is as brutal as promised.

Us’s big twist, that the Adelaide Wilson we have been following since the shift to present day was not the same Adelaide Wilson we saw in 1986 but her shadow, is metaphorically effective while being literally nonsensical. It isn’t like the reveal comes entirely out of nowhere; there are moments where her behavior is much closer to the one demonstrated by the shadows, which raised the question long before it was answered.

But Red’s monologues about both the nature of The Tethered and also their relationship don’t really make sense when Red/real Adelaide was not actually born into that life. I have wrestled with this since literally the montage reveal, because it felt like Us was trying to have its cake and eat it too. It had intentionally misdirected me where the rest of the film had seemed honest. Look, the mechanics of the Tethered as demonstrated in that carnival sequence are confusing enough as it is and fall apart with the slightest questioning, but the scene itself to be effective enough that I didn’t care.

However, if the link is between the original and its tether – and it’s a one-way link, by what system does a shadow going aboveground suddenly take control? The Tethered do more depressing versions of the things that their real iterations are doing. They appear to know in real time the thoughts of their counterparts and therefore share their memories. Is that just a result of whomever is belowground? How does actually real Adelaide still know where actually fake Adelaide is going to be in order to block her way with that burning car *after* the Tethered have left their tunnels?

There are a hundred questions you can use to poke holes in all of this, and I understand the impulse to do so. I did it. But really, what we should do is consider the metaphor. And what it means that the Tethered’s prophet, the one who was able to bring the downtrodden to the surface to take on the elites was herself an elite stolen by one of the downtrodden who was then able to exist as an elite.

And so it becomes a question of nature vs nurture. Are people in an upper caste by their very existence better than the people in a lower one? Or is it the environment that they grow up in that makes them succeed (or fail)? Us falls unequivocally on nurture… but in a way that almost both-sides-y way.

Nurture is obvious: after the initial treatment period, Shadow Adelaide was able to become Adelaide proper. She becomes a functional member of society. There are, of course, moments where her past self comes out, as the lasting effects of her early trauma will never fully recede – and the impact of that trauma on the Tethered as a whole is deeply relevant to this conversation about upward mobility but is not something I am going to delve into here.

But even more than that, it took someone from the aboveground to come and teach the underground how to rise up. Shadow Adelaide steals a spot in the sun instead of helping the people around her. And the Tethered knew quickly that her counterpart was special, even if they didn’t know why. She had seemingly innate talents that those born Tethered lacked. She could survive there without being completely consumed.

Which, ya know, sounds a bit like “nature.”

But I think, to give Peele the benefit of the doubt – as I must we do share an alma mater, after all – that this is saying those formative years aboveground were enough to create a foundation that couldn’t be broken by poverty – though Adelaide was still young, she was old enough.

So what is this saying about the social ladder? Perhaps that society is zero sum. That one person can only get ahead if another person is made to suffer in their stead? Certainly there are people who feel that way, though they do so in service of those empty deities.

Or maybe that everyone just needs to be given opportunity to do great things.

That one person can change the world.

All of them. None of them.

The final confrontation between the two Adelaides feels a bit like Roy Batty’s bizzare battle with Rick Deckard, full of monologuing at and toying with our protagonist until it’s time for them to die.

But though she fails to bring her shadow family to the world that she was born into she succeeds in her larger plan of showing the world the strength of the people she was forced to join but chose to save.

That final helicopter shot is reminiscent of the ending of Karyn Kusama’s cult-horror film The Invitation, as the survivors of the Jonestown-style poisoning look out onto the hills and see them lit up by the red that signals a successful sacrifice. But that moment never worked for me; what could have been powerful is instead completely absurd.

On its face, all the now-untethered in their red outfits, hand in hand over the hills beyond the horizon should be equally absurd… but it’s not. It is so powerful. To see these people, these humans, Americans, long since forgotten. They have shown themselves in a literally biblical display of violence.

The world will know them, and it can never go back to the way that it was.

Jordan Peele’s Us Works Until It Doesn’t – Review #31.1

In the center of the opening shot of Jordan Peele’s second feature, Us, is a CRT TV. A clearly current commercial about the 1986 Hands Across America charity event plays, then one about the Santa Cruz beach and boardwalk. Cut to: a carnival.

Years of making basic associations led me to the conclusion that we were in 1986 Santa Cruz. And just as I started to feel good about having understood this obvious transition, and the film trusting me to have understood said transition, a location title showed up on screen: 1986, Santa Cruz.

I audibly groaned.

Hello and welcome to The Week I Review. My name is An American, and today I’m splitting up my duties in order to properly talk about Jordan Peele’s following up to his smash-hit Get Out. This video that you’re watching right now is a review – and a spoiler-free one at that. Regular viewers may notice that it’s atypically short for this channel; that’s because I’m also posting a second video: a deeper dive that grapples with the things that Us is saying and also wants to say. Anyone can watch this one; only those who have seen it through should watch that one.

So. Us.

The only thing I knew going in was what I heard from the theatrical trailer, during which I was able to close my eyes but not my ears: there is a family, and then another family that looks just like that family shows up to, like, Funny Games them or something. That’s not necessarily wrong, though it’s certainly incomplete. But I’m glad that I looked away when the trailers came on, because the images that accompanied that bit of explanatory dialogue contained a shocking amount of very-late-in-the-film footage. In fact, there’s less in the trailer from Us’s first twenty minutes than there is from its last.

Plus, the way the trailer’s cut together just doesn’t do a great job of conveying what Us really is. I went in expecting a straight-up horror film, as did my two movie-going companions. The woman who would have been our fourth decided not to come, because it seemed too scary.

But I knew something was off from the spread of trailers that played before the film. I actually commented out loud about this at the time; you can learn a lot about what theaters expect a film’s audience to be based on the associated marketing. A typical horror movie shows trailers for horror movies, possibly some sci-fi/action stuff too.

But not Us. Sure, there were three of those: Pet Sematary, Midsommar, and Ma, but the others went in some radically different directions: Olivia Wilde’s coming-of-age comedy Booksmart. That movie about a KKK member becoming friends with a black activist. The Natalie Portman-led space drama Lucy in the Sky. The teaser for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

This points to a genuine confusion on the part of the person selecting trailers for who exactly Us is for. And it led me to recalibrate a little bit. Maybe it wasn’t going to be really scary after all. And… I was right. As it turns out, the trailer actually has more jump scares than the movie does. There is only one big NOISE-AND-MOVEMENT-EVENT in the entirety of Us, which is the exact number that I’m okay with. Instead, the film prefers quieter, more unnerving moments. And it is *much* more effective for that.

But it’s also really funny – in a more consistent way than its predecessor. Get Out’s incredible opening shot blended both horror and comedy in just a tour-de-force introduction to Peele as a filmmaker, but after that the tone becomes segmented: When Lil Rel Howery’s Rod is onscreen, it’s comedy; when he’s not, it’s drama.

Us makes good on the promise of Get Out’s opening by integrating comedy into the horror. Rather than having a single comic relief as the B-Plot, the Wilson family itself is funny, cracking jokes even as awful things are happening. Much more often than not, the jokes land, and even when they didn’t I deeply respected the commitment to threading humor so deeply into such a dark narrative.

Which is to say that Us is bolder and more confident than Get Out – an already bold and confident movie. And that permeates the film, particularly in its visuals, which are an absolute treat. Get Out’s aesthetic worked for its story, but Us is so much more… alive. Camera, lighting, production design, costuming – everything is so on point. I loved every frame.

But I’m conflicted, because the film takes a turn that I think doesn’t work on the terms that it has set out for itself with its revelations about the nature of the doppelgangers. The metaphorical meaning is clear and powerful… but if you try to take basically anything from the last, like, fifteen minutes literally, you’re just going to give yourself a migraine.

And it’s particularly frustrating because I feel like I had a handle on things the whole film. I got the call backs, figured out the set ups, and was thoroughly satisfied by the pay-offs. Even those revelations themselves are set up in ways that answer questions I had had within the film. And yet I still felt cheated – like it was actively hiding things from me just so it could get a “!!!” before the rapid turn to “???”

And it made me mad. Because this movie should be better than that. And so I’ve half-convinced myself that it is better than that, resulting in me spending most waking minutes – and some sleeping, if my nightmares are to be believed – between then and now trying to explain it to myself, to convince myself that I’m being dumb and not the movie. Because I want that to be the case. I just… don’t think it is. The best I can hope for, then, is that on subsequent watches, I’ll just be okay with it. That happened with Get Out, actually, which I also felt overextended itself with some of the sci-fi elements… but maybe I won’t.

So what am I supposed to say? On so many levels, Us is a triumph, yet it left a bad taste in my mouth. So I can’t love it the way I feel I should…

But I can still like it a heckuva lot. And that I definitely do.

Seven Point Nine out of Ten

Spring Breakers Was (Five Years) Ahead of Its Time – Review #30

“After four college girls rob a restaurant to fund their spring break in Florida, they get entangled with a weird dude with his own criminal agenda.”

Comedies, Dark Comedies


Look, I get it. Some films are difficult to describe – let alone with just 26 words. And we all know that accurate synopses are not Netflix’s highest priority… but this one is pretty bad. Both because it misleadingly connects two entirely unrelated events in the movie, and because it seems to have been written by someone who thinks that flippancy is inherently clever.

It’s not.

“comedies, dark comedies”

Maybe whomever it was who wrote that description just deeply, deeply misunderstood what they had seen.

In this hypothetical Netflix synopsizer’s defense, it’s not hard to misunderstand Spring Breakers, a movie that follows four young women who spend more time in bikinis than not. A movie that opens with topless men and women living their best lives on a spring break beach, as Skrillex’s Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites wub wubs over it all.

A power fantasy where guns never run out of bullets.

A few months ago, I showed Spring Breakers to my currently-in-college sister, and she really fixated on that last bit in the same way that the film is fixated on guns in general.

There are a lot of guns, real and fake, in Spring Breakers. At first, they’re impressions of suicidal imagery. The girls are locked into their boring college lives; they point finger guns at their heads and pull imaginary triggers. Brit drinks from the barrel of a loaded squirt gun.

Scenes transition with the sounds of guns cocking. They echo across the soundscape. Even when you don’t see them, you feel them. And then all of a sudden, they’re everywhere. And they are everything.

Spring Breakers understands the truly fetishistic relationship that America has with guns – the way that their killing power has been sexualized by our culture. And the camera loves the guns just as much as it loves the girls holding them. What starts off feeling like a lost Girls Gone Wild tape ends up a fever dream symphony of sex and violence just daring you, the viewer, to get swept up.

But the actual construction of the film makes it very difficult to do that. I haven’t seen many genuinely good films that were more clearly formed in the edit than Spring Breakers. Of course, every film is made three times: on the page, on set, in the edit, but a movie like this can only exist with hindsight. No one, not even Harmony Korine, could have known what Spring Breakers would become.

And I’m not just saying that in some pathetic attempt to sound insightful; I know it for an actual fact, because I read the script. You can too; A24’s original link is gone but I’ll point you in the proper direction down below. I highly recommend it if you have seen the film, because it really does show just how much can change. The imagery, by and large, is intact – I would call Korine’s descriptions “grotesquely evocative” – but the context is oh so different.

Scenes are in different order, or even on top of each other. There are flashes forward and backward. Dialogue is repeated, but with different inflections – pulled, I assume, from multiple takes given different direction. These are not in the script; indeed, most of the dialogue in the film appears to have been improvised, because there’s a whole lot less on the page and the stuff that is there feels a lot less… human? I dunno, it’s pretty awkward. It’s good they were allowed to riff.

But that doesn’t really come across. Those strange edits sometimes feel almost arbitrary in the moment, but taken collectively they are so goshdarn impactful, because they serve the broader purpose that makes Spring Breakers so unforgettable: It is telling you a lie while showing you the truth.

This is not unique to Spring Breakers, but Spring Breakers does it uniquely well. It’s worth noting that there was a metatextual aspect to Spring Breakers at the time of its release that is lost now. Back then, putting Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, and Vanessa Hudgens in roles like this was scandalous. To some, it might have felt like they were overcompensating for kid-friendly images by taking part in this very-not-kid-friendly film. Indeed, them and Rachel Korine, wife of the writer/director

– which, I just want to take a moment to acknowledge is so freaking strange –

were co-nominated for the Alliance of Women Film Journalist’s “Actress Most in Need of a New Agent” award that year, though they ultimately lost to Cameron Diaz for The Counselor.

Time has now passed, and images have changed. It’s not so strange that these actors would play these roles. Let’s be honest: they’re flawless casting choices. Every one of the four characters is perfectly realized, with Vanessa Hudgens as Candy I think being the particular standout.

Spring Breakers takes these four attractive young women, puts them in bikinis, and then lets them loose into debauchery. It is objectifying them in the context of their own story. And if you turned the sound off, you might think that was all it was doing.

But then you listen to Gomez’s Faith calling her grandmother and talking about how beautiful the thing you’re seeing is, how she wishes they could go together – what a wonderful time. In the script, there’s a knowing smile but it is played perfectly straight onscreen, and it’s far more effective for that change. Because it’s Faith’s own conviction in the magic of the Florida beaches that shows how horrific everything is. The sound both adds the necessary drama to make the scene function and makes clear that the celebratory imagery itself is not so celebratory at all. It’s gross, and it knows it. All that ogling the camera is doing starts to feel more like an attack on the audience, again, a dare to get caught up in everything before it all comes crashing down.

The spell begins to break even before the introduction of James Franco’s Alien, a genuinely terrible rapper whose actual business is drugs and murder. He bails the girls out from prison after they’re arrested alongside two of his own posse at a particularly crazy Spring Break party, which had nothing to do with a chicken shop robbery, and he just wants them to be with him. They’re attractive and in need; he wants to be their knight in shining armor. And in return, they get Spring Break… Forever. But the reality of that is terrifying and dangerous.

One gets scared. Another gets hurt; they go back to their old lives, despite Alien’s protests. The remaining girls hug them goodbye, and then they board a bus and and watch the world go by from what I can only assume is I-95.

In the end, there are only the true believers, and they herald in a new kind of truth. A “Future is Female” kind of truth, as Brit and Candy show the world that nothing will stop them from living in Spring Break Forever. The film becomes their dream, as they ascend to power using the tools at their disposal, both natural and man-made. And it’s glorious. Which is why I think Spring Breakers’ biggest problem was its release date. Had this film come out in, say, 2017 instead of 2013, I think the conversation around it would have been very, very different. And much more interesting.

Because Spring Breakers feels like a movie of the current age, one that feeds into the chaotic and angry world that we are living in now – one that points a literal gun at the male gaze while still fully embracing it. It’s a big, beautiful mess of a film that demands and rewards repeat viewings.

And I love it. I love it so much.

9.5 out of 10.

Climax is Gaspar Noe’s Best Since Irreversible (I Hated It!) – Review #29

“Well, that was crap,” said a middle-aged man wearing what appeared to be full-on goggles as the lights came up in the theater. It’s odd that we’re still there at that point. One would typically have headed out as soon as the credits began… but this is a Gaspar Noe film. Those closing credits are the opening credits, seamlessly flowed to from the minutes-long opening shot of a bleeding woman crawling through perfect white snow.

There are actual opening credits too, but they take place about an hour in. So fun.

Gaspar Noe is one of the most interesting directors working today. He’s hardly prolific – having only made five features in 20 years, with some shorts in between – but every release feels like an event. For him, style is substance, and he’s got style to spare, all of which is used to push the boundaries of acceptibility.

His first film, I Stand Alone, feels like a warm-up, clearing his throat with some almost comedically nihilistic philosophy. It was the next, Irreversible, that shot him into the collective consciousness by depicting a nine-minute-long rape with an unbroken, unmoving camera – among other horrors. Seven years later, Enter the Void meditated on life and death in a DMT-fueled psychosexual nightmare full of unforgettable imagery. His next, Love, had a quarter of the budget, and so went in a more, um, intimate direction with scenes of actual, as in unsimulated, sex, including a moment of ejaculation straight at the screen.

Also, it’s in 3D.

Climax, fittingly, is a culmination of everything that has come before. Eighteen dancers come to an isolated location to work on a performance that they will then travel beyond France’s borders. Perhaps even to America.

The bulk of the film takes place a few days into their stay. After a routine run through, they have a party. Someone spikes the celebratory sangria with LSD. All hell breaks loose.

But where Enter the Void takes you along for the trip, Climax keeps you out of it.

I’ve been sober for… 27 years; I have never intentionally ingested alcohol or anything else of that sort. But I have been around intoxicated people – perhaps not on LSD, at least to my knowledge, but I can say that Climax captures the discomfort of being someone who’s just a bit more aware of a situation than everyone else. I don’t think this was intentional, to be honest; I don’t know if Gaspar Noe knows what it’s like to be the sober one, and it seems to me that the disorienting camerawork was intended to bring the viewer into the experience, but there’s a clear line between the way Enter the Void depicts DMT and Climax does LSD. Now, Quora tells me that this is because DMT is a whole other level of hallucinogen

– and Google probably now thinks I’m looking to start checking out alternate planes of consciousness –

but the Irreversible-esque camerawork in constant motion better represents the overall uneasiness of the situation than it does any given person’s experience. This is more appropriate, though, as the camera moves throughout the characters, not all of whom had the sangria, while trying to keep you up to date on their statuses in a movie that barely passes the 90-minute mark. This section of the film appears as a single take, eventually resulting in an intimate familiarity with the space. This is the area where the light changes colors. That is where you hear the screaming child locked in a room. You start to remember where characters are only to be shocked when they appear elsewhere.

And this is where Climax is at its most effective, because it feels as though the camera could have just as easily given its primary focus to other characters without really compromising the overall impact of the narrative. Despite having so many characters, they’ve all got clearly defined personalities and feel like people who are doing actual things even when they’re not onscreen. Everyone is introduced in a series of interviews, presented on an on-screen television surrounded by reading and viewing materials. To the left are books; the right are VHS tapes.

The tapes include Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, Hara Kiri, Possession, Suspiria, and the like. I wasn’t really able to see what the books said, because the film is in French and I was trying to pay attention to the subtitles and couldn’t do both – but the word “Suicide” stuck out, as did the name Fritz Lang. Watching the trailer, you can see some of this. However, the aspect ratio is wrong, and much of the sides are cut off. I guess he doesn’t want you to see his Salo-esque “Essential Bibliography” until you get into the theater.

But these gave me a lot to think about during the slower portions of Climax, and there are many. That interview section feels like an eternity even if it is probably closer to ten minutes long. Following the big dance number – which is very impressive – is an exhausting amount of singles dancing and then a bunch of two-shots ripped straight from Love as characters talk about whatever gross or dumb thing they’re interested in amidst jarring cuts to black.

Fortunately, this is Noe’s first time in 16 years working with competent actors. The biggest failings of both Enter the Void and Love are that its performers are genuinely bad – especially the protagonist in whose head you spend… most of each film (the former more literally than the latter). You can tell that he’s working with professionals here solely by the amount of clothing that the majority of the characters keep wearing throughout. There are a couple of folks willing to sign nudity clauses, but far more who won’t; that would have been a deal-breaker for Love, but Noe clearly cared more about performance here. And good, because it is all about the performance. Unfortunately, I just didn’t care about at least two-thirds of them.

So while they were keeping on keeping on, I thought about other things: like Suspiria, and mother!, his earlier films, but the oddest one I kept coming back to was the music video for Sia’s “The Greatest.” If you haven’t seen it, you really, really should; it’s a great song inspired by the Pulse night club shooting in Orlando, and it has a video to match – one full of dancing and emotion and, of course, death. I don’t watch that much dance, so my points of reference are pretty limited, but if you told me that the choreographer of Climax was the same person who puts together Maddy Ziegler’s little Sia dances, I’d believe it. Here that feels particularly true, as so many others are involved. And hell, that video’s final group scene takes place in a room lit in green and red.

Honestly, if you watch the video for The Greatest, you’ve seen like 80% of what Climax has to offer. Maybe more.

Which is perhaps the oddest thing of all about this movie: it doesn’t really stand out. Even though it is overtly a Gaspar Noe film, it has none of that unique or interesting transgression that defined his earlier work. Other people could have made this movie – and indeed have made movies much like it. Climax instead turns inward, reflecting on his ouvre, pulling direct inspiration from his own earlier styles and attempting to fit them into one film. It doesn’t work. The nauseating, seemingly unbroken camera of Irreversible mixes as well with the frankly boring conversational style of Love as oil with water. Juxtaposing them highlights this incompatibility. Climax, then, feels like a series of shorts starring the same actors that have been grafted onto each other.

It may be new for the director that the closest thing Climax has to a protagonist is a woman, but that hardly feels like a revelation. His male characters are still pigs, and they’re given so much time to spout their piggishness. It made me wish that I was watching this at home, where I could fast forward through the nonsense before getting into that last thirty minutes or so.

Still, I don’t really agree with the man in the goggles who sat behind me. When he came into the theater during that same dumb trailer for The Curse of La Llorona that I’ve seen fifteen times, he loudly proclaimed “You’re in my seat” to whomever was already there. Clearly, not a man who cared much about the people around him. I bet he would have been even louder if the movie had already started.

But I understand both why he felt that way and why he needed to verbalize it to this room of strangers, because there is no way to not have a visceral reaction to this movie – also evidenced by the multiple walkouts. And no two reactions will be quite the same: there are so many reasons to hate this movie, though each could just as easily be a reason to love it for a certain type of person. I’m not one of them, but I get it.

Because I have a genuine appreciation for some of what Climax does. It has flashes of brilliance that, though they are overshadowed by the much longer spells of aggressively anti-audience blather, I can’t help but respect.

And so for the hilarity of it:

Six Point Nine out of Ten.

Google Ads lets you decide a viewer’s worth

Hello anyone, everyone, and welcome to the week I review. My name is, uh, Amateur Analytics… Analyst, because today I want to talk about Google Ads – the other side of the equation that more popular folks on this platform use to pay their bills.

Note: This is going to be very specific to my experience using Google Ads as a way to expand the potential reach of my channel. If you’re looking for a comprehensive evaluation, this ain’t it.

Hundreds of hours of video are being uploaded to YouTube every single minute. And even though it is one of the most popular websites in the entire world, it’s oh-so easy to just get buried. And I don’t really like promoting myself all that much. I don’t even post every one – or even most – of these videos on Facebook, because I don’t want to inundate my pretend friends with the nonsense my subscribers at least actively signed up for. I tweet about them, but literally zero people click on the links I post on Twitter, so…

A few months back, I was talking with a colleague about this whole thing. He told me that I should buy fake subscribers to boost numbers and he would find me a service that would do it. I was genuinely offended by the suggestion. On both a practical and a moral level: hell no.

But around the same time, a new button appeared in the YouTube Studio: Promote. I had never really considered the possibility of advertising my videos, but the appearance of this button coincided with an email offering me $100 in ad credit if I spent $50 in real money – which seemed like a pretty good deal.

So I thought, Even though I won’t actively promote my videos, I do think they are worth people’s time, so I’ll buy a few ads and see if I can’t get people to agree. Worst case scenario: I’ll get a video out of it.

I planned to start with my review of the game GRIS, but unfortunately I made a big dumb error there that left me much too embarrassed to promote it. Instead, I went with my breakdown of a few royalty-free music subscription services, which is a pretty good video that took me a helluva lot of time to make.

And if we take a look at that video’s analytics… yep, that’s the start.

This ad was the most expensive I’ve done so far and also the worst in terms of folks actually clicking on it – both things I’ve learned useful lessons from.

On YouTube, there are two types of ads: video (the pre- or mid-roll that you might have seen on this video if I had 5 times the subscribers) or Discovery, which are the highly visible videos that show up in search as an ad.

Because I don’t think these videos in their entirety are conducive to the former – and the joke 5- and 15-second options I made were definitely not as funny in practice as they were in my head – I have gone exclusively with Discovery.

What made that initial video so expensive was a lack of understanding on my part of how the payment system works. There is a bidding system, where you determine how much you are willing to spend on a given action: either cost per view – CPV – or cost per (thousand) impression(s) – CPM. I assume on the other end, folks can do the minimum they’ll accept for an ad to be run against their video.

I have stuck with CPV, because I like the guarantee that it comes with. General awareness of the existence of this channel is less meaningful than someone actually checking it out… but it also fixes the cost. A well-run ad could have a high click rate, ultimately resulting in an overall cheaper ad. Or it could be terrible. Higher risk. Maybe higher reward. Perhaps I’ll try it out sometime.

Ad targeting is kind of fascinating for someone who has absolutely no background in advertising or marketing. The number of options you have to select potential viewers is kind of exhausting, particularly since I don’t know what my target demo actually is. So, I typically ignore that kind of stuff and focus on interests and search keywords, which is even lengthier but at least I feel like I understand. I like to get that click rate as high as possible, which doesn’t matter, per se, with CPV but gives a sense of how well I’ve aimed the ad.

Indeed, that first video had the worst of them all, with a measly 1%. And I know why it happened, because I targeted “music” as an interest, which resulted in a creator-focused video comparing licensing services being placed against, like, music videos. Now I’m more careful, but it is easier with something like my review of the very bad Netflix movie Bird Box. If I target “Movies” as a general interest and tag the keyword “Netflix,” I’m pretty much set.

I actually posted videos and ran ads on Bird Box and Black Mirror: Bandersnatch simultaneously – ya know, in attempt to be on trend. The ads resulted in decent numbers of views even though I went for an CPV of only 2 cents, vs the 6 cents default on the music subscription – 2 cents is now my go-to CPV. But the thing is, as soon as the ads ended, those views flat-lined and have barely moved since. They might be two of the highest-viewed videos on the channel, but not meaningfully.

My discussion of the competing Fyre documentaries, on the other hand, is not too far off in view count, but only 257 came from the ad. The other 1300 came organically. What does that tell me? I dunno. Maybe I shouldn’t have done the Birdbox review three weeks after the fact.

In any case, I have also stopped putting nearly as much money into ads as I did when Google’s credits were doing the heavy lifting. Now that it’s just me footing the bill, I am typically more in the $5-10 range – which is just a little boost in visibility without breaking the bank.

Plus, that little boost can be enough to trigger the psychological component to this whole thing: take the Music Subscription video. It’s not like post-ad viewership has spiked, but it has consistently grown, and I think that the fact that it had passed 1000 views is at least partly responsible. If you’re searching through videos on YouTube for something specific, would you choose the thing with 100 views or 1000? I’m typically going to go with the latter, and the ad was the differential there. So running ads that give myself a new, slightly higher base line, can make the channel seem a bit more popular to the people who care about that kind of thing.

This is, however, fundamentally different from “buying views” on some unscrupulous internet marketplace because I am really just paying for premium placement of my thumbnails. Folks who otherwise might not be subjected to my dumb face will now be forcibly confronted with it. They can then decide of their own volition if it’s the way they want to pass their time. It’s definitely a small, almost insignificant advantage, but the video is also clearly marked as an ad, so it seems like a fair one to me.

I changed some things about the way I start my videos at the beginning of 2019 in direct response to an ad that I ran. It was on the Netflix anime Aggretsuko’s Christmas special. Fewer than half of the viewers made it through the nine seconds of intro. And I’ll admit that it wasn’t my best “clickbait title,” but that was a pretty rough awakening. And so I removed that entire thing, replacing it with testing out my potential thumbnail faces.

And then I went even further by cutting the first second of the opening drum fill. The intro is now four seconds long.

And then I pushed my initial thoughts to the video title, which I think is honestly the bigger deal. Would my Fyre video have gotten the views it did without a clicky name? Not a chance! Would some of my earlier videos have done better if I had been a bit more creative in my naming? I’m sure.

Oh well.

My video on Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom definitely benefitted from its title. I didn’t run an ad on it, and yet it has just this past weekend dethroned the Netflix-hating videos in terms of views, and it has long since destroyed them in terms of Watch Time.

Another metric it has beaten any other video in: subscribers gained. More than 11% of my subscribers have come from folks who, I would assume, liked what I had to say about Salo. Another 10% were from  one of my first four videos, actually, which had started strong but fell off when Moviepass finally left the public consciousness. That Bandersnatch review did alright there, too, which leads to a question: because almost every view on that video was ultimately paid for… does that mean I “bought” those subscribers? If so, how much did they cost?

And here’s where we get into the question of practical value, for me, of running ads.

Views are nice, I guess – we talked about the psychological benefit of that already – but it’s actually kind of depressing on my end, because most people who click the ads don’t stick with the video, resulting in hella low watch time for a video, which also isn’t great algorithmically – and may be part of why my Netflix ads tanked after the fact.

This harsh reality could be offset by a growth in subscribers, hopefully the start of a beautiful viewership, but we’ll have to break out the calculator app on my phone and Excel on my laptop to figure out the average Cost Per Subscription across the ads I’ve run so far to find out.

To start, we need to look at the number of subscribers I received from each of the videos during the time the ad ran. I was actually a little surprised to learn that this comes to only 28 – or about 13% of my total count, and only a few more than Salo has gotten me on its own. So, we’re already starting off pretty low.

I then need to factor in that not every person who saw the video came from an ad, so we determine that percentage – number of views resulting from the ad divided by the total number of views for the duration – and multiply its count by that. Round down and we get 26. Then we divide that by the overall cost of ads thus far – $149 – which equates to… uh,

Five dollars and fifty six cents.


Even if you factor in that I got $75 in credit from Google (dunno what happened to the last $25) and so didn’t really pay for half of the ads, that’s still $2.81 for the ones I did buy.

Not a great return on investment, if that was indeed how I was thinking of it.

Particularly considering that taking my colleague up on the offer for some fake subs would have gotten me a whole lot more for a whole lot less. While writing this script, I looked up the going rate for a subscriber these days. Seems to be about 10 cents on the high end, with other options running well below a penny.

Whole lot less than what I’m doing… but oh so much grosser.

Look, my subscriber count is small enough that I get actually excited when I see it tick up. There’s a genuine satisfaction in knowing that someone decided that they wanted to see when, for example, this video was going to come out and took a couple of seconds to press a button saying so. They almost definitely weren’t expecting this video in particular, but… life is more exciting that way! For them and for me.

I get that YouTube is a job for a lot of people and many, many more would like it to be that… and that you need a certain number of subscribers and engagements and etc. in order to get that underway, but cheating one’s way to legitimacy is a bad thing done by bad people who, on a platform built largely on perceived honesty, are proving they don’t deserve success.

So, what have we figured out here? Running ads doesn’t give me a particularly good return, and also is a sometimes frustrating experience – I called technical support due to an issue and was told that there are known problems with view counts in ads and the youtube studio not matching up; and I had to dispute a block placed on the Daniel Sloss video because machines don’t understand context – but I think I’ll keep running them where it feels appropriate to do so.

For example, there is a 100% chance I’m going to run this one as an ad, because I think that’s funny. And in general, there are much worse things I could spend $5ish dollars on. To someone who’s struggling financially, this doesn’t seem to be a great way to really expand your channel… but let’s be honest: the entire foundation of The Week I Review is my ability to burn small amounts of money week after week. So, running largely useless ads fits with my MO.

Also, the genuine confusion in this comment is hilarious and something I want more people to feel.

Six Point One out of Ten

Dear Evan Hansen has great music but a Horrible Message

Content Warning: Frank Discussion of Suicidal Ideation

Though I saw it on Broadway and it was all fancy and good, I think the ideal location for a Dear Evan Hansen production is in a high school auditorium. This largely because professional casting agents often seem to misunderstand how critical apparent age is to the performance of a teenage character.

I remember watching the Tony’s a few years back and cringing as fully grown adults sang West Side Story at each other.

Having been in West Side Story as a high school theater kid —
 did you know that Tony is described in the show as a “sandy-haired Polack”? — I felt particularly invested in this travesty. Sure, the actual-Broadway actor was massively more talented than I, but the sheer function of my age meant I embodied the part better than he ever could have. You can accept romantic stupidity in a teenager that you can’t in someone clearly pushing 30.

Case in point: the female lead of Dear Evan Hanson in the original cast was a full decade out of high school, and you can hear it on the OBC; it’s off-putting to hear a matured voice say immature things. The current cast is actually on the young side, which I appreciated. Their voices aren’t as polished, but their youthful idiocy feels more natural. More forgivable.

Oh, and the show’s milquetoast depictions of issues feel like the sort of Very Special Episode production that a high school administration would be all over.

Back in college, an ex-girlfriend started me on what she called Five Things. Each night before going to sleep, we had to verbally state five good things about the day. They could be small but affirming – “I made it through” – or celebratory – “I finally saw Dear Evan Hansen.” That gets pretty easy after you’ve been doing it for a while. Harder is the capper: something good about ourselves.

I thought about this when I was introduced to the show’s namesake: a letter that Evan Hansen’s therapist has tasked him with writing to himself about the day he is set to have, saying that it will be good and things will turn out okay. It’s a hard thing for someone with social anxiety so severe he can’t order food because he would have to interact with a delivery person.

When Evan finally produces something, it’s a bleaker appraisal – that no, the day wasn’t great. The letter is found by Connor Murphy, an outcast with a “school shooter” aesthetic who, due to a wacky misunderstanding, kills himself that night with it in his pocket. His parents then have a wacky misunderstanding of their own, thinking that this letter was a suicide note written to Evan by Connor, and his initial protestations to the contrary fall on deaf ears. So, he goes with it. Hilarity ensues.

There’s a lot to unpack here, because this show is bleak as hell, and it genuinely doesn’t seem to know it.

Despite centering on a mentally ill kid and being spurred on by a suicide, Dear Evan Hansen definitely isn’t about mental illness. Evan’s whole therapy thing is dropped once the story gets underway, and the Connor Murphy that we see for most of the play is… not Connor Murphy. Or even like a phantom version of him. That whole song, Disappear, about how important it is to not let people be forgotten… that “Connor” sings? Where “Connor” says “If you can somehow keep them thinking of me, and make more than an abandoned memory.”

That dude is explicitly – in. the. text. – not Connor. He is Evan’s inner monologue being played by the other actor, while the actual Connor is being erased literally line by line. And yet it’s presented as some meaningful act? What?

Look at the show’s poster. It’s certainly eye catching – iconic, even, but is missing something important. Boom. Fixed it for you. Seriously: Why the actual hell is that cast clean? It spends far more time with Connor’s name on it than it does without, and it’s so fundamental to the show that it’s there. The fact that Connor did sign it, one of the most complicatedly human moments of the entire show, becomes tangible evidence of friendship that the Murphy’s latch onto. But no. He is disappeared.

Related topic: Why’d he do it? Really? Why, exactly, did Connor Murphy commit suicide? Guess no one actually cares, huh? Because no one ever asks that question.

The truth is that Connor is nothing more than an inconvenience. Hell, the point of “Requiem” is that most of his family doesn’t really think he’s worth remembering. But now they are being faced with something different. Zoe doesn’t know how to cope, singing: “After all you put me through; don’t say it wasn’t true; that you were not the monster that I knew.” Connor traumatized her, and now she is faced with the possibility that he actually did care, and maybe he did – his final onstage action could charitably be read that way – but the thing telling her that maybe she *should* play the grieving girl is the real thing that isn’t true.

What are we the audience supposed to take from all that?

What are we to take from You Will Be Found, a wonderful song that is completely meaningless. It’s predicated on two lies: that Connor was Evan’s friend, and that someone came to Evan’s rescue when he fell from the tree. If those two things are not true – and they are not – then what is it saying? Instead, the whole song reads as this incredibly bleak look at the culture of virality.

Disembodied voices start liking and sharing and reposting – random people latching onto this random video of this awkward guy on the internet talking about this person that they had never heard of and do not actually care about. But none of it is real. The video is a lie, and so is their inane ramblings in support of it. Everyone is living in fantasyland. Some more actively or maliciously than others, but each equally fake.

And this could have been an extremely effective commentary in a dark social satire about the lies that we have to tell ourselves to just get through the day, let alone actual tragedies.

But that’s not what Dear Evan Hansen is doing.

What about how the opening number in Act 2 is undermined by its finale, or how the underlying class stuff leads only to the conclusion that, sure, poor parents are bad, but rich parents are… also bad in a different way, sort of?

Dear Evan Hansen wants to have its cake and eat it too – to bring up a lot of capital-I Important issues and put them to catchy-as-hell songs to make you think that it has thematic depth. It doesn’t. Again, this is a show catalyzed by a suicide that treats the dead character and his final action as a prop.

That’s not okay.

I was never quite Connor Murphy.


When I was in high school, I slapped a girl in the face. Not hard. Not even really with intention, but I did it.

The next day, I was called into the vice principal’s office and told I was being suspended. I started punching myself in the head – trying to, I guess, crush my own skull with my fist. If I had had something sharp in my hand, I would probably be dead.

That impulse – to stop living – wasn’t a new one. About a month earlier, I stood at the top of a staircase, weighing the odds that diving down headfirst would actually kill and not just cripple me. It might seem like an accident. That wasn’t the first either. Crying in that office would not be the last.

I sucked in high school. A few more left turns and I could have easily ended up in the same place Connor did.

So I take it fucking personally that he was cast aside like that in a show that is supposed to be about giving every person their due.

I am still here, obviously. Most days, I know that’s a good thing. Some days, I have to actively remind myself. I still do those Five Things every night, though coming up with something good about myself day after day is as hard as ever.

I have tried on multiple occasions and spent thousands of dollars of my own money trying to put together various media projects about suicide, but I have always scrapped them because in the end I realized that they were not helpful – that the message they were actually conveying rather than the one I wanted to convey was more harmful than helpful. And I wasn’t okay with that. Without something worthwhile to say there, it’s really better to say nothing.

What makes all this bizarre is that, in the vacuum of the Original Broadway Cast recording, you wouldn’t know any of this. In the music, it is only clear that Connor is dead and not really why. And so you can listen to it wih just the barest amount of cognitive disoonance, knowing that it is part of a larger, problematic project while belting it out just the same. And I have been ever since curtain call, because I genuinely love the music in Dear Evan Hansen. I like every single song, and I crank up the volume and sing along while doing, well, pretty much anything – much to the chagrin of my neighbors.

If Dear Evan Hansen was nothing but its songs, this would be a cut-and-dried slam dunk success of a concept album. (The Grammy was well deserved.) But it’s not that. It’s an incredibly bleak story that feigns optimism. And it completely fails its characters at every turn.

It didn’t have to be this way. None of it was inevitable. And yet, here it is.

Five Point Zero Out of Ten.

Daniel Sloss: X Needs to Be on Netflix

I found Daniel Sloss the same way I imagine most people did: Netflix. The pair of specials – Dark and Jigsaw – that went up there last year were deep and, well, dark; they got at some really interesting truths about society and humanity; love and relationships. I became a fan. And so did the 177 others in the sold-out show I attended last week. And he knows where all that support has come from. Literally the first word out of his mouth was “Netflix” followed by, “It’s life-changing.” Nope. Not going to do an accent. I’m sorry.

The Netflix comedy scene is huge and, I think, one of the biggest draws its sticker price keeps increasing – especially as it’s gone international. From collections of fifteens-to-half half hours to solo hour-plus specials from names big and small alike, there’s not a better service for comedy fans – sorry, HBO. Of course, it’s not always great or even good, but there’s also some genuinely amazing stuff; heck, it’s home to arguably my favorite comedy special of all time, Bo Burnham’s Make Happy, a show I almost went to the taping of but that it’s ultimately good I didn’t for a variety of reasons mostly related to emotional stability.

Arguably the most significant special released last year was Hannah Gadsby’s Nannette, a poignant and timely hour that spawned more mainstream think pieces than any set not done by an admitted sexual harasser who has learned all the wrong lessons, stopped being funny, and really just needs to go away. Fittingly, Nanette was a response to all that. And every event like it.

So is X. Sloss’s latest is kind of like Nanette by way of Anthony Jeselnik – featuring the righteous sincerity of the former with the gleeful viscousness of the latter. But, like Jeselnik himself, I would say that the last few years has moderated Sloss’s punchlines. Offensiveness has never been as core to his comedy as it is to Jeselnik’s – or, really, anyone else’s – but Dark and Jigsaw both are far more antagonistic than this.

Which is to say, the 51.3% of people who disliked my review of Jeselnik’s Fire in the Maternity Ward special will hate X, and so will anyone insecure and-slash-or problematic enough to feel attacked by an ad for a razor company.

X is about being a man in 2019 – both in the literal sense of maleness and also the societal sense of masculinity. It is a complicated, layered performance that gets at some very fundamental truths, not all of which can or should be laughed off.

He refers to his format – used at least in Dark, Jigsaw, and an unnamed show mentioned in X that he explicitly noted Netflix didn’t pick up but sounded pretty darn interesting – 60 to 70 minutes of jokes followed by a 15-minute TED talk. This because at some point he stops searching for punchlines in order to say what he wants to say. It isn’t necessarily that the topics can’t be made funny but that what he wants to convey is better expressed during moments of that “tension” Hannah Gadsby is always talking about – sorry, last time.

What makes X so effective as a cohesive entity is how cleanly it transitions from jokes to non jokes – at least as far as the material is concerned (put a pin in that). You can draw a straight line from the first joke to that conclusion, because it was always building to an inevitable moment where he needs to talk about something that isn’t funny. The seeds were planted right after that Netflix aside, when he introduced everything by saying that we the audience were in for some serious discomfort. I thought at the time that that was going to be about the jokes he would be telling. Turns out… it wasn’t. They are very funny, and I laughed a lot. And there was some shock-for-the-sake-of-shock, but much less than I had expected.

So it was the inevitable turn that was going to make us squirm in our seats; that’s what he was preparing us for. For this ending, when his attention turned squarely onto the only thing one human could do to another that could never under any circumstances ever be justified.

And if you don’t know what that is… you should see this show. And also reassess a lot of things about your life.

If you do, then you’re probably already a little uncomfortable about the prospect of listening to another straight white man talk about rape. And Sloss is well aware of that – pin removed – as he breaks the flow of his storytelling to impress upon us that what is coming is not a joke, he is not joking, and that we need to trust him when he says that. He is not trying to pull a fast one; he is extremely serious.

This is centered around the story of an assault – not his own but one he inadvertently facilitated. It’s horrible. Awful. Infuriating. And only about him insofar as he is the one talking about it in his self-obsessed comedy special… so a fair amount, I guess, but all of this is part of The Point.

It’s interesting to see this show with that Liam Neeson controversy still in the headlines. For those unaware, the actor admitted during an interview with The Independent that many decades ago, he literally walked the streets in a black neighborhood waiting for someone to jump him so that he could then beat that person to death. This to quote-unquote avenge the rape of a close friend of his by a black man. He was mad at a black man and wanted to take it out on all of them in response – ya know, white hoods aren’t a great look.

But I think the thing about this that everyone is ignoring is the thing that’s always ignored: her perspective, whoever she is. Right now, that feels almost appropriate because it was so long ago. But let’s not pretend that if it had somehow become a story at the time we wouldn’t be focusing on him and not the survivor. It wouldn’t have ever been how his friend was dealing with it. Because even though it happened to her, that experience isn’t valued. It becomes about the angry white man who wanted to be the hero. As though that could have ever made it better.

But… do you know how many times I have thought about that? Not the walking through a neighborhood looking for an excuse to enact random killings, but how I would absolutely destroy a person who hurt someone close to me like that? Dozens at bare minimum, with disturbingly detailed plans considering there’s no actual situation to base it all on. It’s absurd. It’s awful. Awful that our society is such that it’s even the kind of thing I might want to mentally prepare for, but also awful that my reaction is not “I Will Be There For That Person” but rather “I Will Literally Cut Out Their Attacker’s Tongue And Watch Them Drown In Their Own Blood” (it’s dark up here).

And it gets to the critical reason why there needs to be a male version of Nanette, because even though Hannah Gadsby is speaking from the survivor’s perspective and that’s the only one we should really be caring about, it’s Daniel Sloss’s telling that triggers the realization that that thing I was just talking about is not good in any scenario. That I am preemptively making something about me that isn’t and never was. I do not, on the whole, relate to Gadsby’s experience. Her life has been full of trauma that I cannot even fathom.

Sloss I can get. He too is a straight white dude in his late 20s raised in a society that puts men at the center of all of these narratives. He has the same external view of all this horror that I do, that I can relate to in a way I can’t really relate to people who have been underneath the horror this whole time.

At the end of 2015, reeling from a genuinely horrible breakup that I had initiated, I wrote a twelve-thousand-word story about my relationships with women – and not just romantic ones. It became a very self-indulgent and masochistic one-man show; the only image of which is right here. It was cathartic – unexpectedly so – for me to sit mostly naked underneath a bright light, having just shaved my head for the first time in my life, and listen to an audio recording I had made of this story for the very first time in a room of other people also hearing it for the very first time – again, weird place to be.

That was me trying to grapple with some of the same questions that are now central to this conversation we’re all having. Men, on the whole, aren’t great at expressing their emotions. So we tend to do it in weird, showy ways if we do it at all. For me, that could be movies or one man shows or strange asides here on this channel – not always the most relatable methods of expression but maybe someone still gets something from it.

For many more, though, it’s comedy. Certainly that’s the case for Daniel Sloss. Too many men have actively misunderstood Me Too and Times Up and made it about them. Here is a guy who gets them both and is trying to wrestle with how to not make it about him in the context of a show written and performed by him. And that’s important to see. Because his onstage self-sparring is the catalyst for internal reflections about the same conversations we’ve had with ourselves. What have we done; what could we have done; what can we still do.

X should be required viewing for all men. But really, it should be required viewing for all boys – and not just for those final minutes. This whole show is about righting the wrongs of a 15-year-old’s perspective, one put in place by a society that just didn’t care about anyone else’s… and probably still doesn’t.

It is powerful. It is timely. And Netflix better fucking buy it.

Nine-Point-Zero out of Ten.

Watching The Good Place Should Give You College Credit

I grew up going to a Unitarian Universalist church in Rhode Island. I now go to one (on and off) in New York City; it was actually in that church that I decided to start this YouTube channel. Like many UUs, I do not believe in God or an afterlife. It is a religion without a creed – just seven core principles.

The Good Place feels pretty UU to me. In it, no earthly religion was “right” – and all of them were wrong. There is no “God” deity watching over benevolently or maliciously. To the extent that any eternal beings are watching, it is with detached amusement. Some of them enjoy humanity’s TV shows, but humans? Meh.

In The Good Place, a person is judged by math, clinically objective arbiter that people feel it to be. Every action they take over the course of their lives is given a numerical value by impartial accountants in a neutral zone. Hold the door for someone and get a few points. Write a mean comment on this video and lose a lot of them. After a person dies, that sum total must reach a certain threshold. If it does, they go to The Good Place. If not, off to the Bad Place.

(Now, the rules as presented in Season One are not quite the same as they are in Season Three, and late revelations make the presence of Mindy St Clair’s Medium Place seem to break the show’s internal logic, but rules change as shows evolves and ultimately the changes here were for the better, so whatever… Had I not binged the entire thing over the course of four days last week, I likely wouldn’t have even considered that.)

Critically, these counts are weighted by intent.

My girlfriend, who was raised Catholic, told me about a sermon her pastor once gave concerning good deeds wherein he mentioned atheists. Specifically, the fact that atheists have a purity of intent that no one who believes in an afterlife can have. If an irreligious person does something good, it must be because they feel compelled to do good, not because they’re concerned about eternal damnation.

This is, of course, an oversimplification and not really correct; Tahani raised billions of dollars for charity but not because she cared about the causes so much as the fact that she could raise a lot of money for charity. Her religious beliefs or lack thereof (no one in The Good Place has a religion) play no part in the selfishness of her motivations.

But the pastor’s broader point is something I have spent a fair amount of time thinking about. For example, when I hear the disconcerting admission that people believe atheists are incapable of morality, which says so much more about that person’s fundamental values than it does about mine. Because I do consider myself a generally moral and ethical person – at least, I try to be. And that trying is not driven by what happens after I die but by a fervent belief that not being awful will make the time we do all have generally more pleasant. But, of course, trying to figure out what that even means can be exhausting and I’m frequently unsuccessful. We’ll get to that.

Within a few years, college seminars will teach The Good Place. But not as, like, a one-off class in larger study of primary sources – no, its take on the philosophy of ethics and morality will be the focus of the curriculum. A bunch of 18 to 22 year olds will sit around a table with the coolest professor in school and not just discuss Kierkegaard and Kant and Hume and etc. but the way their philosophies function in the show.

It is perfectly suited to this, as each season has seen the scope of its ethical explorations expand. First, it is narrowly focused on four individuals; then it looks at how a group forms individuals, using those same four and their captor-turned-compatriot as the case in point; and now it’s blown the whole thing wide open, as it attempts to reckon with society as a whole – particularly in 20-ex-teen. Presumably the next season will take that baton and run with it. And I can imagine a few places where it could go from there. This sort of layered approach is perfect for pedagogy.

To be honest, just watching The Good Place at all feels like it should get you a certification from ClemsonX (a Clemson professor vets the show).

While season one gives some fundamentals and cute ways to incorporate moral thinking into your life, it’s season 2 that really gets into it by offering more realistic, practical discussions. I particularly enjoyed Chidi’s forced attempts to solve the ethical conundrum that is the Trolley Problem, brought to “life” with all the gore that a broadcast comedy can provide. This lays the groundwork for a more invigorating discussion later in the semester – one that those dumb 18- to 22-year-olds can bring to their dumb college parties while holding hands and drinking boxed wine. Or whatever.

Season 3, particularly in its final episodes, is The Good Place at its most optimistic and metatextually pessimistic. The revelation that the accounting system considers not just direct intent but also the unintended repercussions of, say, the decision to buy some flowers for your grandmother completely upends everything, destroying any hope anyone could have of being good. This is a dark timeline indeed, but the show rejects that conclusion, leading into what will surely be a fascinating fourth season; but it also speaks to a larger real-world concern for anyone who would really like to be ethical.

When the judge goes down to earth and sees how impossible it is to know if the profits from a tomato are actually funding dictatorships while the system continues to knock them for doing just that, her feelings change. The bar lowers, because it has to. They all see this as an opportunity to change the way their society values (in a literal sense) goodness to one that more closely aligns with, I would think, the way most actual humans do.

They believe that in a vacuum – represented metaphorically by a deliberately constructed afterlife – even not-so-good people have the ability to be good. That the reason people are not so good is because life is bad, and taking life away and adding a basic curriculum on morality and ethics to the proceedings will result in a better class of people.

But where does this stop? Because, taken at face value, this bar lowering makes the case that taking steps to mitigate one’s adverse side effects has no real value. And I don’t think that’s right. But, of course, nothing is simple.

When Chidi is given the initial revelation that he is in the bad place, he leaps to the very wrong conclusion that it is a result of his decision to ingest almonds despite their environmental impact. Because a single almond takes a heckuva lot of water to produce… though so do most other foods. And, if you were to compare almondmilk, to, say, dairy milk? No comparison, and you have all of the other environmental impacts beyond just water use that come from dairy farming.

Of course, dairy has far more nutritional benefit than almondmilk. Soy milk comes closer, but none of the altmilks can match it. These are all side effects, unintended consequences of individual decisions. The math will inevitably fail us.

Which is where the philosophy comes in. Because these questions being complicated doesn’t mean they should just be ignored. In the past few years, I have radically changed certain things about how I shop and eat and etc. in order to reduce various negative impacts of my lifestyle on, like, the environment or whatever. But it’s also true that I am not, for example, vegan. Or even vegetarian – though I guess I’m closer than not at this point. Does knowing that factory farming is genuinely horrific while still eating meat with every meal mean someone is bad? Probably. Does me knowing that but still having it periodically mean I am? Sure. Chickens suffer far more than cows but have much less environmental impact. How do you weigh those against each other? Trick question: we should probably all be vegan.

But then there’s the rub that no single person’s decisions mean a damn thing. My decision to eat and/or shop differently doesn’t affect anyone’s anything – it just makes me feel like I’m a better person than people who don’t do those things, despite the fact that what I do inevitably has myriad problems of its own – non-GMO food is bad as heck for the environment and we need to stop lionizing it based on junk science by making any snack food that’s low in sugar also high in pretension.

Everything becomes about trade-offs. But no two people will see the trade in the same way. And Season 3’s brief digression seeing the life of the only man who ever figured out how he would be judged and adjusted his behavior to match shows an awful and miserable life that is *still not enough.*

Look, if there were a Good Place, then 80something years of general unhappiness caused by as purely moral a life as possible is probably worth it for an eternity of bliss. But when there isn’t a Good Place or any other Place and this is all we’ve got, how much sacrifice is it even fair to ask someone to make? And fairness is as fundamental a philosophical problem as we’ve got, now mixed with the literal worth of a pleasant life against all the bad things that must exist in order to make that life possible.

And to follow that nightmarish spiral results in nothing less than you staring at two hats for 80 minutes trying to understand the moral repercussions of a wrong selection. And that’s why everyone hates philosophy professors.

Ha ha. Show references. This is a review.

I spent a lot of the nearly 900 minutes of The Good Place laughing. A whole lot of them just sort of feeling, with the last few straight-up crying. But in all of that, I was thinking. I was thinking about my own morals and ethics, about the life I have lived and the plan I have for keeping that whole thing going. And when the credits rolled on season three, I didn’t stop thinking. And that’s the sign of something truly special, that this unassuming fantasy comedy on NBC has pushed me wrestle with these fundamental questions. I’m not sure what answers I’m going to find on the other end, but I’m grateful for the show that got the gears turning.

Nine-Point-One out of Ten