TV: Adam Ruins Everything (season 2)
New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color, edited by Nisi Shawl
Like it says on the tin, this is a collection of sci-fi short stories all written by people of color.
I have no idea how to review this.
Which is not to say it was bad — it has some real gems. The stories vary between some that feel quite directly *about* ethnicity (say, "The Galactic Tourism Industrial Complex" or "Harvest") and some where it feels like more of a cultural setting for a different focus ("The Robots of Eden" struck me this way), but take together, they do generate a kind of cumulative power. The collection felt refreshing, and like a gentle reminder that so much of what I've read in sci-fi has been by and about and for white dudes.
It was generally pretty... far-flung, might be the word? Which is to be expected — if the purpose of a collection is to stop, just for one anthology, focusing on what the white people have to say, then definitionally you *can* (and even *should*) include just about anything. And it's a strength — if you don't like this story, you can rest assured the next one will be something completely different.
But it leaves me without much to say. Some of the stories were very good. "The Virtue of Unfaithful Translations", for example, is a wonderful false-document sort of story, a detailed historical reconstruction of how rival translators worked to avert a world war. Some of the stories bored me — "Three Variations on a Theme of Imperial Attire" was too meta and on-the-nose for my taste, without a real narrative to speak of. But there's not much I can say about the stories in aggregate, because the boundless variety is sort of the point.
I do recommend the anthology. I'm sure you won't like all of it, but if you're like me — sort of into sci-fi but not particularly well-read in it — it should be a pleasantly eye-opening experience.¹
This is the 2014 adaptation of the classic children's books about a young talking bear that is adopted by a family in London.
This was a much more emotional experience than I'd expected. I went into it thinking it was a children's movie that somehow turned out pretty decent. And I really like those sorts of films — a known property where the adaptation didn't *have* to be good, they could have just turned the crank and extruded another blob of product, but by luck and effort they ended up with a film people could really care about.
Usually that sort of thing doesn't move me emotionally.
But the basic theme of this movie is "Britain is not racist and accepts refugees". The movie says that yes, sometimes in the moment Britain can forget this, but the nation and its people always come back to these core principles.
I'm an American, and one who spent most of his many years on this earth believing that America was not racist², and that America accepted immigrants and refugees. And I suppose the years since the release of Paddington have demonstrated, nope, America is still super racist, and still super xenophobic. By the time the film showed me Jim Broadbent playing a man who'd come to Britain during the Kindertransport, yes I was crying.
So that longing theme of "lost and perhaps now-untenable virtues" accompanied the whole film for me, giving it a melancholy undertow that the filmmakers didn't intend.
Apart from that aspect, the movie is a fine, serviceable adventure comedy. As more perceptive critics have pointed out, the writers do a fine job structuring their movie around a basically good character who basically never changes. So since Paddington won't have an arc, they give arcs to the Brown family. The mother is won over immediately, the children have brief arcs where they join Team Paddington, and then the film-long arc goes to the father, Henry.
It's all solid, journeyman construction. Paddington gets into Mr. Bean-like catastrophes, and Henry is Very Annoyed, but he eventually learns to see the inherent value in the new member of his family, and remembers the basic British virtues that outrank whatever would be convenient for him in the moment. It's not rocket science, nor does it have to be.
The movie is more interesting in its tone.
This is the first kids' movie I've seen that draws extensively on the work of Wes Anderson. You see it all over the film, from the balanced compositions, to the exquisitely deliberate color palette, to the brisk expository voiceovers from Paddington himself, to even showing the Brown household as a literal dollhouse.
This calm, arch attitude permeates the film. Nicole Kidman, as the Paddington-hunting villain, is clearly on this wavelength — not exactly scenery-chewing, but clearly heightened, and clearly having a delightful time being so. (Similarly for Peter Capaldi as a lesser villain.) The movie is full of light background jokes, like having a wall of mounted animal heads in one room matched by a wall of mounted animal butts in the adjacent one — and quick throwaway moments like using five seconds of Lionel Ritchie's "Hello" to punctuate a (regrettably one-sided) love-at-first-sight moment. Every bit-part character seems to have a story that's just briefly and coincidentally intersecting with this film — like the guards who have a long-running game of guessing snack-food ingredient lists.
And there's a genial calypso band, put together by Damon Albarn, appearing at regular intervals playing songs and wearing brightly-colored-yet-tasteful suits. This is the sort of movie for that.
So: not a movie you need to drop everything and see, but still a pleasant diversion with a good (and increasingly necessary) message.
Adam Ruins Everything (season 2)
This is the 2017-2018 season of the TruTV series where comedian Adam Conover dispels cultural myths about a variety of subjects. I wrote about the first season here.
The second season proceeds more-or-less like the first. It's still funny. It's still sharply heightened at all times, like it's afraid of losing your attention. It's still a nice mishmash of things I knew and things I did not know, and the occasional "thing I know to be wrong".³
They build on the first season in some useful ways. They now have a nice bench of recurring characters that are always fun to see. They have their basic format down pat, so it's nice to see them experiment with some variations, like their cartoon parody of children's educational cartoons. And I love that they make time for tiny interviews with the experts they bring on the show — perhaps the influence of Mr. Conover's podcast, there.
I also appreciate that nearly every character they bring on is a person of color — their core cast is white, so it's nice to see some balance offered there.
And finally, they keep doing surprisingly fine work inching their story arc forward, as "Adam Conover" the character learns more about navigating the world — which is challenging, given that he's neuroatypcial and obsessed with debunking things. He starts a relationship, and it goes rockily, but it's a learning experience. His friendships deepen. And sure, by default he visits people who instantly hate him, but he also finds some kindred spirits, which is a nice change of pace.
So: still a pleasant and informative show. I'll be back eventually for season three.
For next week: I'm currently watching a season of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, reading Like Water for Chocolate (in Spanish) and listening to an audiocourse about psychology. Also watching God Help the Girl, a movie musical from Belle and Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch.
¹ I would absolutely kill to see a New Suns for the mystery genre.
² ... or at least was on the mend from being very, very racist.
³ Ironically, they overstate the power of the backfire effect — though their claims may have been accurate at the time of broadcast.