My Top 5 TV shows of 2017

This year had so many great TV shows. I still haven’t seen some of the newbies like The Handmaid’s Tale, and I heard that the final season of Halt and Catch Fire is worth watching. So I have plenty of shows in my backlog, but I loved each of the shows in my top 5. Honorable mentions at the top to the great, and flawed Sense8 season 2, Agents of Shield season 4, Narcos season 3, and Orphan Black’s, final season.

With that said, here are the top 5 shows I watched in 2017, and you should watch them too!

5. Mr. Robot (season 3)

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Mr.Robot’s second season was good, albeit uneven, season of TV. But season 3 was exceptional. It was so well paced, beautifully acted, and well produced over all. Everything from the cinematography to the excellent sound design totally pull you into the shows terrifying world. And it’s worth mentioning that season 3 new comer Irving (played by Bobby Cannavale) steals every scene he is in. The season is filled with major developments, with huge shakeups that leave you stunned at the end of each episode.

4. Better Call Saul (season 3)

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Better Call Saul keeps getting better and better. You’d think that the show would be less intense than Breaking Bad since it doesn’t involve a protagonist in constant mortal danger, who is also a danger, who is also making meth. But Better Call Saul had me holding my breath more times than I could count. And it had one of the best episodes of TV this year. I’m shocked more people are not watching it, but luckily AMC has renewed it for another season. It’s one of the best shows on TV right now, and I definitely thinks it rivals Breaking Bad, in terms of quality.

3. Stranger Things 2

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I watched the first season of Stranger Things just before it blew up, so I had no expectations going in and it blew me away. I loved it, adored the characters, and was excited for season 2. Season 2 took what I loved about season 1 and improved on so much. It gave me more time with these fun characters, gave me new interesting characters, and that soundtrack is too rad. It’s a second season that felt more like a sequel than a continuation and I loved it for that.

2. Billions (season 2)

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Billions was always on my watchlist, but I didn’t have Showtime. I caught up on season 1 during a free trial and I fell in love almost instantly. Sharp dialog, excellent characters, and a pulsing rad soundtrack by Eskmo, sucked me in immediately. Season 2 was even better, providing more excellent dialog, and fantastic character development. Also, Chuck and Wendy Rhodes win for my favorite on screen couple. They spent most of season 2 in conflict with each other, but even when their marriage struggles it feels adult, in ways I don’t usually see on TV shows. It was a depiction of a couple, of a marriage that didn’t feel stifling, and I appreciate the show for doing that. The rest of the cast is equally superb. It’s the show I can’t stop recommending to people. It’s so much sharper and smarter than it looks.

1. Master of None (season 2) 

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The second season of Master of None, had this effect of making the first season look so pedestrian in comparison. Season 2 is better in every way. Music choices, characters, individual episodes, drama, cinematography, it was all so well done. A lot of people (rightfully) fell in love with the Thanksgiving episode, but the episode following different groups of people around New York was my personal favorite. I’m glad that Master of None wasn’t afraid to pull back and take a look at culture. There were a few things that could use improvement. The Chef Jeff (also played by Bobby Cannavale) revelation in the season finale felt a bit tone deaf, and there’s one episode about eating pork that was pretty forgettable. But when the show was hitting, it was hitting. That a plotline about a love triangle didn’t have me rolling my eyes is a testament to the shows exceptional writing. If you haven’t already, watch it. It’s funny, sweet, devastating, and memorable.

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My Top 5 Films of 2017

I always feel a bit weird sharing my favorite films of a given year, just because the times I go to the movies it is usually for a blockbuster. And I always see movies super late. Like Moonlight, one of my favorite films ever wasn’t on my list last year just because I saw it in February of this year. But this year i actually saw a lot of great movies, and my number one film will probably be my number one film even when I see more films. I still haven’t seen The Shape of Water, or Lady Bird, or Coco. But I’m still comfortable sharing my list. A few honorable mentions include, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which is exceptional, and maybe upon a second viewing would place in the top 5, but right now it just missed it. Also, Spider-Man Homecoming is terrific. But anyway, here we go, top 5!
5. Power Rangers 

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Yes. The Power Rangers movie is on my list. I was not expecting to love this movie as much as I did. But Power Rangers is one of the best superhero movies to come out this year. To be honest, if this was a top 10 list it probably wouldn’t be number 5, but I need to give this movie its props. Critically speaking, are there things I would change? Yes. I wish we didn’t have to wait until the final 30 minutes for the team to morph. I wish some of the home drama for each of the teens came back a bit prominently. But overall I was incredibly endeared to the central 5 characters. They are so charming and fun. Unfortunately a sequel seems unlikely, but I really wanted to spend more time with these characters, and for a film that needs to balance 5 heroes, I think it is a step above most.

4. John Wick 2

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I love John Wick. There is an underlying darkness and a deeper reflection that is beneath the surface for this film, and it makes the violence and character development of John so satisfying. The assassin underground remains compelling, and I really did enjoy the slow build the film takes to its action. We see John prepare, we see it weigh on him. It’s surprisingly thoughtful and the action is undeniably incredible. I hope the inevitable third film doesn’t lose this vibe because it is a gorgeous and it holds the action together well.

3. Thor Ragnarok

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I have been a fan of most of the Marvel movies. Even Ant Man had some moments, but I can say with absolute clarity that the first two Thor movies were garbage. The first Thor was exhausting, but Thor 2 was just so boring. I cannot name the villain or…anything about it. And yet, Thor Ragnarok was exhilarating. It made me forget how much I hated those earlier movies. The villain is powerful, and frightening, the visuals are stunning, the characters are hilarious, and the soundtrack is unexpectedly rad. This movie is a blast and it is definitely in my top 5 films in the MCU.

2. Blade Runner 2049

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I waited a long time before I decided to watch the first Blade Runner. I didn’t know which version to watch first, and I didn’t know if the movie would be my style. Internally, there’s always something daunting about movies that are slow, and deliberate in its storytelling. I didn’t know if the slow pace would turn me off. And it didn’t. The soundtrack from Vangelis, gorgeous visuals, and slower pace really sucked me in. Blade Runner 2049 did the same thing. And like a lot of great follow ups to old films, it doesn’t wallow in nostalgia. The world is so detailed and cold. There is history and texture. It’s wet and dark, and gorgeous. The soundtrack grew on me, even though I would have loved something more synth heavy, it is this thumping powerful sound that flows through you. The film isn’t perfect, and there are definitely some problematic aspects that I thought Denis Villeneuve would have sidestepped due to his work on Arrival and Sicario. But I still found 2049 incredibly compelling, it’s a film I’m eager to watch again. It’s one I want to read more criticism about. It’s a film that I just want to talk about and experience again and again.

1. Get Out

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When I walked out of Get Out I liked it a lot, but at the time it probably would have placed at number 2 or 3 on this list. I loved it, but some of the hype took the wind out of my sails. But I rewatched it recently and I was blown away with its storytelling and how layered its themes were. Not only that, I found it much scarier on my second viewing for some reason, which is not something that normally happens with horror films I watch. It’s fantastically acted, the soundtrack is excellent, and it is so well paced. I only had one nitpick that nearly took me out of the film, but it’s one of those things that I learned to ignore. Get Out is an exceptional film that you should get ready to see get totally snubbed come awards season. It’s a film that I have already written about for a class, its a film that so many smarter people have already written about, and it’s a film we will continue to look at, analyze, and dissect for years to come. It’s a marvelous film and there is nothing else like it this year. If you still haven’t watched it yet, what are you waiting for? Get to it already!

Not So Dystopian

This week I began replaying one of my favorite narrative driven shooters, Wolfenstein: The New Order. With Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus releasing in October, I wanted to refresh my memory of the games events. For those unfamiliar with the game, Wolfenstein: The New Order, takes place in an alternate history. In this version of history the Nazi’s developed technology at an incredibly fast pace, which leads to them winning World War II. You play as BJ Blazkowicz, a soldier who has awaken from a coma, in the year 1960. From there you begin to trek across Europe building a resistance to stop the Nazi regime. It’s not the first piece of fiction to have this set up, but I still found myself invested in the games narrative. Developer, Machine Games, does not shy away from the brutality and grotesque nature of the Nazi’s, or what their regime would look like. But it also does not depict a typical, good versus evil, story. And given the context (psst, it’s Nazi’s) it would have been easy to do so. A lot of speculative fiction tends to forget that the world is already imperfect, even before whichever calamity, or uprising they introduce in order to tell their story. For many people, the world we live in is already threatening, and uninviting. And confronting those uncomfortable truths is something I hope is expanded on in, The New Colossus.

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Last night I found myself thinking about Wolfenstein’s main protagonist, BJ Blazkowicz. He really hates Nazi’s, as any reasonable person should. But his rage towards them is what informs the gameplay and the violent acts you commit. The message is clear, this is a violent revolt to free the people. In the trailer for, The New Colossus, we see Blazkowicz pleading with a resistance leader to join his cause. He has kids on the way and he does not want them growing up in a world ruled by Nazi scum. Uprising is already a compelling, and attractive theme in stories like this. And it is something we as audiences always romanticize. We want the oppressed to rise up and fight tyranny. In fiction at least. But what if his character had existed in the actual timeline we live in today? The New Colossus will take place in 1961. There’s a resistance  and a fight for freedom in BJ’s timeline, but the actual reality we experienced was not all, peace and love. In, The New Order, the player, depending on a decision made earlier in the game, can meet a character named J. Sidebar, J is Jimi Hendrix, they never actually say it out loud but it is definitely Jimi Hendrix. Anyway, there is a scene with him that does address the sins of America, sins that happened in an America unaffected by the Nazi’s. American’s introduced their own tyrannical hell all by themselves. And J calls out BJ’s whiteness, and how the fight for freedom isn’t freedom for all, and how there were ‘Nazi’s’ in the USA far before the conflict that would lead to World War 2 even began.

I remember my first time playing through Wolfenstein: The New Order. I was already impressed with the game’s narrative at that point in the game. But I was still very surprised that the conversation between J and BJ happened at all. And the interaction is not cleanly resolved. BJ is visibly uncomfortable, angry, and even violent at the thought of being compared to the Nazi’s. But he does not have a good answer. All he can do is try to distance himself from the bigotry J has faced. Up until that point in the game, the player has been empowered, you are stabbing Nazi’s in the throat, and making progress to stop the Nazi regime. And in an instant, reality sets in. The conversation between BJ and J ends with the two dropping acid, their differences still intact, but with both characters having a slightly clearer understanding of each other. It’s not perfect, it’s not clean, but J got to express his grievance, and BJ maybe learned a thing or two. The New Order, depicts a world run by Nazi’s, filled with cruelty. But it is not used as a substitute for bigotry and inequality that already exists. It adds to it, it is one more layer of truth. The version of America we currently experience, or that J experienced, is not painted as a paradise. In a world rule by Nazi’s, or any form of totalitarian government, what does freedom look like to a white man, or a black woman? What does fairness look like to them? A white rebel and a black rebel will have different experiences. And the black rebel will have certainly been fighting for freedom a lot longer than their white counterpart. Those questions enrich the fiction, and it is what made the narrative, The New Order, tells more compelling. These real questions exist, and it does not shy away from them. It doesn’t pretend to have all the answers either. And I appreciated the game for bothering to raise them at all.

The challenge for Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, is to address these realities on a deeper level. Judging from the announcement trailer there will certainly be more characters who are marginalized that the player will be interacting with. In some of the features Bethesda has released about the sequel, the developers spoke about the new setting. The sequel takes place in America versus, The New Order, which took place in Europe. They spoke about the notion of freedom and American patriotism and how inverting those concepts was an interesting challenge for them. Freedom is a part of the American narrative, so warping that presents a lot of potential. This is a good setup but it does worry me. I am a black man, so concepts of freedom as they actually exist in America mean nothing to me. To me, they are already lies. But I do think there is an opportunity to use that unease, and to have marginalized characters fight back against the notion of freedom, whether it is being framed by Patriotic Americans or the Nazi’s.  I want to see how characters of color view that framing.

It would feel like a missed opportunity if these themes are not explored. Especially since the game takes place in 1961. This is a time period in the United States that is particularly tumultuous. In 1961 there was Jim Crow and lynchings. These dystopian themes exist in our actual reality. The Nazi’s didn’t introduce Jim Crow, so how will the game approach this?  BJ Blazkowicz is a white man. Nazi characters in, The New Order and in the trailer for, The New Colossus, even comment on his, “Aryan,” features. Our protagonist fits the Aryan ideal, exactly! One of the resistance leaders in the trailer is a black woman, will there be any conflict between the two of them? I hope there is a conversation at least. In the trailer there is a brief moment where we see Ku Klux Klan members speaking with a Nazi patrol officer, the Nazi asks the KKK members in a friendly tone, “Have you been practicing your German?” It’s a chilling interaction, so I am curious to see how the existing bigotry that has shaped America’s history will play into the game’s overall narrative. More importantly, I hope the bigotry of America is not loaded onto the KKK exclusively.

I know it seems like my expectations for the narrative in, The New Colossus, seems high, but I think anything less would be a waste of potential. Anyone can look at the alternate reality of a Nazi controlled world and see it as evil. But that is too easy. Speculative fiction should not make its reader feel comfortable. It should shine a light on the imperfections of the world, and serve as a warning that things can become even more dire. If current realities aren’t challenged, there is no move to actually change anything. It becomes a story that only says, “what if this bad thing happened, good thing it won’t.” And the reader gets to leave, feeling satisfied and safe. It’s why I (and many others) have a huge issue with depicting fictional civil rights conflicts. Often, we get stories where a fictional group is discriminated against, but real instances of sexism, racism, and homophobia no longer exist. It’s like the X-Men films (I won’t speak for the comics since I haven’t read them) , no one is racist, unless you’re a mutant. Black mutant, white mutant, doesn’t matter. They just hate mutants. Although, they do give one mutant motivation rooted in their identity outside of being a mutant. Magneto, who is a holocaust survivor. But for the most part it is ignored, with the civil rights being made palatable, and entertaining for a wide audience.

In Quantic Dream’s upcoming title, Detroit: Become Human, android’s are rising up, revolting, and fighting back against humans. That is what was presented in the most recent trailer anyway. Android’s are depicted as second class citizens. Because they are androids, and built to do that. The analogue on its face is already problematic. Depicting a disposable, synthetic work force as slaves is wrong. Since androids are created, and actual slaves are humans who are enslaved. But whatever, that is the setup in, Detroit: Become Human. If the game discusses issues of race, class, and gender, honestly, it could be compelling and affecting. The games director, David Cage was asked about the levels of intersectionality players should expect in the full game, and Cage promised some nuance in the narrative. In an answer he gave to Waypoint’s editor in chief, Austin Walker, he stated that, “There is really a social background to the game. That was really a point of focus in the writing, and in how we want to present the world. This is not just a fantasy. The work we’re trying to do is to imagine, for real, the world 20 years from now.” As an answer it is slightly encouraging, pretending that the game exists in a vacuum where there is no bigotry does not add anything. How is a black Android’s experience different from a white Android? How is a black human’s experience different from a white Android? A failure to at least address these nuances would hurt the game. How can you operate in a realistic setting if you cannot address very real realties actual humans are facing?  I cannot find your android uprising story compelling if you’re too scared to go even further.

 

The trap that a lot of speculative dystopian fiction falls into is that it makes everyone oppressed. It’s color blind, everyone gets beaten by the evil police, or The Hunger Games, Peacekeepers. Everyone gets to beg for food. Everyone gets to get beaten for disobeying orders. Everyone gets to give a rousing speech, or sing a negro spiritual, or suffer quietly. Even white people! And don’t worry, everyone gets to be an oppressor too. Hooray!  Trust me, there is nothing compelling about that. It is dishonest and it doesn’t provide commentary on anything, since it is already whitewashing so much historical context.  I am excited for Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, but I hope it does not romanticize America or concepts of freedom too heavily. I do remain hopeful, since The New Order makes it a point to remind its audience that the world was far from peaceful before the Nazi’s reign began. That reminder needs to be constant.

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“What would the world look like if the Nazi’s had won?,” should not be the question that drives you through Wolfenstein. What if white people were oppressed, should not be the question that drives your speculative science fiction novel. The actual question is a little more obvious. What if the Nazi’s lost? That answer seems obvious, since that is what actually happened. But when you begin to think about the freedom being fought for by the resistance in these stories ask yourself what is the ideal alternative to that struggle? Because it is not the history that actually played out. I hope the New Colossus engages with  these uncomfortable ideas, on some level at least. I’m excited for the game, but I am keeping my expectations in check. But I remain hopeful. As J pointed out in, The New Order, for some groups of people, the Nazi’s were already in control. Having to go in through the “Colored Entrance,” was already like living under a Nazi regime.  That framing creates a narrative worth sharing, because it doesn’t make the privileged less privileged. It just creates a new context for that privilege, and it makes the dystopia marginalized people experience, that much more terrifying. If Wolfenstein II does not deliver on that, I’ll at least get to stab a few Nazi’s along the way anyway, but still, I’m hoping they don’t shy away from the real. It’s already plenty ugly.