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Black Mirror Saves the Best for Last With “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too”

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Black Mirror‘s abbreviated fifth season is akin to a remix album, rearranging the sounds and rhythms of familiar ideas, often to lesser emotional impact. Both “Striking Vipers” and “Smithereens” feel like old hat for Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology, misguided attempts to revisit old ideas in some new packaging, hoping some strong lead performances can disguise the disappointing feeling of deja vu at both episode’s cores.

“Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too,” Black Mirror‘s fifth season finale, certainly falls in this boat: from “One Million Merits” to “Arkangel” and even “Be Right Back,” the thematic explorations of what will inevitably be remember as “the Miley episode” are abundantly familiar – but thanks to genius shift in the third act, it easily solidifies itself as the best episode of this thoroughly underwhelming season.

The third act of “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too” is abundantly ludicrous, a Jenga stack of ridiculous plot twists and convenient moments… and yet, it is an absolute blast to watch, easily the best entry in Black Mirror‘s fifth season.

Admittedly, the first 20-30 minutes of “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” are a bit rough: as it sketches out the family life of sisters Rachel and Jack (Angourie Rice and Madison Davenport, respectively) and their widowed father Kevin takes a bit of time to find its footing. In a surprising move, Charlie Brooker spends the first act mostly focused on the teenage girls of the story, which leads to some of the more leaden, one-dimensional writing of the episode. Rachel is a pop-obsessed tween, and Jack is the slightly too self-aware older sister who likes punk; to call these two characters “archetypes” is an understatement, though to its credit, “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” puts these saturated stereotypes to good use as the hour progresses.

Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too Black Mirror

Most of the early scenes of “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too” are intensely focused on Rachel, detailing the typical arc of a grieving family of teens moving to a new town: one turns rebellious, while the other struggles to be “cool” so she can fit in at school. The dichotomy between Rachel and Jack early on is very bad, especially when the script puts the two in direct conflict: Jack is idealized for her rejection of popular culture, while the criticism of Rachel’s adulation of pop icon Ashley O (Miley Cyrus) is overt and heavy-handed, at moments almost feeling like Brooker talking down to an entire gender.

To be fair, the point “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” is trying to make about empowerment culture, and how it gets packaged and marketed to a very vulnerable audience of young females, is perhaps the season’s most cogent rumination, a rather scathing critique of how the one-size-fits-all encouragement of self-expression is a double-edged sword poorly wielded by the corporations of the world. Ashley O’s brand is one of constant reaffirmation and positivity – and once Rachel gets an Ashley Too (a little robot channeling Ashley O’s personality), “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too” begins to channel its stronger thoughts on capitalism and the heartless nature of its very calculated “good intentions”.

In one of the episode’s many tonal shifts, “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” suddenly begins telling the story of Ashley O herself, played so convincingly by Miley Cyrus, the character becomes frighteningly authentic. The heightened atmosphere of Black Mirror only makes her depiction of an increasingly isolated teen idol even more harrowing – a rare example of the show’s lack of subtlety enhancing the emotional elements of its story, as it lays out Ashley O’s increasingly fragile state of mind and the true villain of its story, her aunt and manager Catherine (a terrifying Susan Pourfar).

Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too Black Mirror

Taken in their individual pieces, Rachel and Ashley’s stories in the first half of “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” are the typical Black Mirror mix of enthralling and frustrating (Rachel and Jack’s father is a disappointing non-character the whole time), engaging with any number of interesting ideas about self perception, toxic teenager culture, the plight of popular music. And initially, it appears Miley’s presence would swallow the angsty suburban tale preceding her official entrance into the narrative.

But as the episode slowly (sloooowly) develops, it begins to twist both narratives in on themselves: technology begins to fail and deceive them both, in a number of disturbing ways. And as the episode begins to take darker and darker turns, “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” transforms itself into a teen caper, a satirical take on the thoroughly ludicrous Disney teen movies of the early-aughts complete with a self-aware, vulgar version of the Ashley Too doll.

Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too Black Mirror

The third act of “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” is abundantly ludicrous, one illogical moment after another, a Jenga stack of ridiculous plot twists and convenient moments. Yet it is an absolute blast to watch, weaving the story of two sisters finding each other again in the wake of personal tragedy with the more pointed tale of Ashley O’s plight – all while still keeping enough room to comment on things like streaming culture, the disturbing endgame of “hologram concerts” we’ve seen in recent years – and most importantly, the dissonant power of family, a force of untold good and evil we see play out in the contrasted family structures.

But that third act is the most effortless Black Mirror‘s felt in a long time; it’s just having fun, turning a languid family drama into a rather moving little character piece, complete with an uninhibited sense of humor that infects every climactic scene, even as the narrative drills down to darker and darker places. It’s not the most ingenious episode of the series, nor the most visually inventive (though competently shot by Norwegian director Anne Sewitsky) – but “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” is endearingly self-aware, and just silly enough to cover for the juvenile plot at the episode’s core.

Black Mirror Season 5

“Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” won’t be remembered as one of Black Mirror‘s finest hours, no matter how hard it tries, with Nine Inch Nails covers and Cyrus’s enigmatic, hauntingly semi-autobiographical performance. But it’s far and away the most entertaining episode of the show’s fifth season, ever so slightly removed from the rampant defeatism coursing through the veins of the first two hours.

Technology may doom us all – but if we’re with the people we love when the robots take over, there’s still hope for humanity to save itself, if we can ever remember how to find each other in the physical world. It’s a simple, but evocative, point, and one “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” takes to heart – after two episodes of unadulterated cynicism, it ends this truncated season of Black Mirror on an unexpected (but welcome) note of hope.

 

A TV critic since the pre-Peak TV days of 2011, Randy is a critic and editor formerly of Sound on Sight, Processed Media, TVOvermind, Pop Optiq, and many, many others.

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Watchmen Season 1 Episode Four Review: “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own”

A thick metatextual layer coats an episode of enigmatic introductions and underwhelming mystery building.

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Watchmen If You Don't Like My Story, Write Your Own

Near the end of “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own,” trillionaire Lady Trieu accuses Will Reeves of employing “passive-aggressive exposition” and tells him he’s being “too cute by a half-measure” teasing out his identity to his granddaughter. It is one of many meta moments in a Watchmen episode where Damon Lindelof’s anxieties and fears constantly bleed through the text of dystopian superheroes; and while that certainly makes for fascinating television to dissect and theorize about, it doesn’t exactly make for a neat, satisfying hour of television. In fact, much of it feels like its explicitly doubling down on its most esoteric qualities, drowning out much of its interesting character work and world building, with an ungodly amount of narrative winking and hand gesturing in the place of a coherent, driven plot.

Watchmen‘s density appears to be coming into conflict with its narrative momentum more often than it should, which could prove troublesome in its climactic moments.

It’s not necessarily bad television; but many of the bread crumbs it drops throughout the hour make “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own” feel both bloated and empty through most of the episode. Even Lady Trieu, whose introduction is unsurprisingly strange and intriguing, falls victim to this by the end of the hour, becoming the author’s overt mouthpiece in perhaps the most strained exchange of the young series. After a fascinating introduction, where she convinces a couple to sell their house and land by bringing them a test tube baby (one she had made from their DNA), Trieu’s later scenes are a bit more grating, the farther they move away from defining her character, and closer to becoming a sounding board for self-critique.

Watchmen If You Don't Like My Story, Write Your Own

Lady Trieu’s arc through “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own” is emblematic of the entire hour: rich subtext obfuscated by an unwieldy amount of foreshadowing and stalling. This is obviously by design – Will establishes we’re three days away from whatever event is coming, and Veidt’s timeline reveals his scenes are three years from the present – but instead of leaning on character and theme to pass the time, the fourth episode of Watchmen doubles down on objects nodding towards what’s to come. An object falling from the sky, a mention of a horseshow Veidt “doesn’t need yet,” the direct mention of nothing being able to take down the Milennium Clock, “save for a direct hit from a nuclear blast”; every object and line in “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own” is a nod towards what’s to come – which, in retrospect, may make this the most important episode of the series.

But in the present, it just makes the whole affair feel a bit clumsy in its deliberate, straightforward delivery; to borrow from the episode’s symbolism, we never see any of the acorns grow into trees in this hour. We learn facts like Looking Glass is a conspiracy theorist, and Trieu’s daughter is probably some kind of lab creation who has her mother’s memories of Vietnam, and Veidt pull babies out of the water to make his clone servants in a steampunk machine; all enthralling imagery, all stepped in some of the show’s deeper thematic material about identity and purpose – but it feels laborious, and hollow, in the isolated context of “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own.”

Watchmen If You Don't Like My Story, Write Your Own

At some point, all of this will mean something; even the vigilante who lubes himself up to slide through sewer grates will hold some significance in this world, even if it’s only a cheeky side note across this hour. I just wish I felt more emotional purpose to this episode: in those terms, most of “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own” is just inert, a middle-chapter episode that makes no qualms about its position as the episode positioned between the series’ beginning, and the start of its climb to the season’s dramatic apex; but that honesty comes at the cost of everything feeling just a bit trite.

The most interesting parts of “If You Don’t Like My Story” end up being in the margins; details like Angela and Lady’s shared Vietnamese heritage (and language), Will’s fears about what’s to come, and Looking Glass’s questionable living quarters stand out among the episode’s always-lush aesthetics. Even more interesting are the metatextual connotations; Lindelof as “master and not the maker,” the cheeky episode titles and closing conversations, and the synchronicity between timelines, as the episode ends three days from whatever is about to happen on Earth, while Ozymandias’ escape is clearly nearing its own apex (and with each episode suggesting another year interned, suggests he’s three years away from his own release).

Watchmen If You Don't Like My Story, Write Your Own

It all amounts to a collection of interesting moments, stranded in a forgettable episode unable to mark any important narrative shifts; it’s all intrigue and ominous language, muting the impact of Lady Trieu’s showy introduction. Piles of bloody clone bodies and Will’s pointed disappointment in “betraying” Angela makes for fascinating images and moments, but as a part of Watchmen‘s whole, feels a lot more weightless than what came before it, and what appears to be coming on the horizon.

It’s a small misstep, but an important one: Watchmen‘s density appears to be coming into conflict with its narrative momentum more often than it should, which could prove troublesome in its climactic moments. Tick tock, tick tock, I suppose – hopefully next week’s episode offers a bit more clarity and cohesion than what “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own” has to offer.

Other thoughts/observations:

Who would’ve thought Watchmen would challenge Mom for the title of “most engaging, mature female lead characters on the same show”?

Lot to pull from the meaning of the episode’s title: it could hint to characters taking control of their own narratives (Ozymandias reframing his imprisonment as a challenge, Angela learning about her family’s history and grandfather’s mission, Laurie’s legacy running around “yahoos”in her past), or it is a middle finger to Lindelof’s critics. Or it is what Lindelof probably told himself every day that Alan Moore would tell him if they ever got to speak to each other.

Few scenes on TV are more disturbing than watching Veidt casually discarding infants around in the open water. Or making them into very nude adults in his steampunk magic machine.

“So you’re building the eighth wonder of the world?” “No, we’re building the first wonder of the new world.” THAT’S NOT OMINOUS OR ANYTHING.

Senator Keane clearly knows he shouldn’t be naming Angela while she’s in her Sister Night uniform… and yet he keeps doing it. Almost like he’s making a point about it… it is most certainly too clever, by at least a half-measure.

So if Ances-Tree was able to trace the “unknown” Will to his parents, why would the program think the whole family died in the fire? If Will died, he wouldn’t be a grandfather – and since her family tree shows no siblings for him, it would seem natural that he, in fact, did not die in the fire. Not a big thing, but it’s a point of logic that stuck out in the moment.

So either Lady Trieu is trying to kill Dr. Manhattan or create time travel? Those are my best two guesses, as if I have any clue what the fuck is actually going on here.

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‘Sesame Street’ at 50: A one-of-a-Kind Tradition

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Sesame Street, as of this weekend, has been on the air for 50 years. Like no other work of popular culture, with the possible exception of Pixar Animation Studios, the show has cracked the very difficult task of appealing to the sensibilities of both adults and children, with the same bit of entertainment. 

Between the Sesame Street 50th anniversary – occasioned this weekend with a somewhat underwhelming TV special– and the arrival of the new biopic of Mr. Rogers, this is a big month for nostalgia about beloved, long-running children’s entertainment of the past. 

An educational show that’s also entertaining, having created indelible characters human and Muppet alike, Sesame Street occupies a place unlike anything else America has ever produced. 

Many people experience Sesame Street exactly twice: When they first watch it as children, and then again, decades later when they watch it with their own children. This is due largely to the show’s style, underlying values and general sensibility being so timeless, but also because the show re-uses old material so often. It doesn’t hurt that, in the modern era, many of the best Sesame Street moments live on YouTube. 

At its best, the series’ scenes have the timing of the very best comedy sketches, such as “mystery box” bit with Kermit the Frog and Cookie Monster: 

And of course, there’s also stuff to make you cry. Most notably, of course, the Mr. Hooper scene: 

And the famous Snuffy reveal from 1985: 

The 50th anniversary, of course, means that Sesame Street began in 1969, and yes, this show that nearly universally found its way into the homes all over the world was very much a creation of the counterculture- one of its most enduring, in fact.

Street Gang, Michael Davis’ 2008 book, is the definitive history of the show, depicting how Jim Henson, Joan Ganz Cooney and the rest of the original crew developed and sustained the show. There was also the 2015 documentary I Am Big Bird, in which Spinney told the stories of his years in the Big Bird suit, his sometimes contentious relationship with Henson, and the episode in which he was considered for a spot on the doomed Challenger space shuttle. 

And while Sesame Street has been much parodied, no one has ever done it better than the Broadway musical Avenue Q, which debuted in 2003. Featuring Muppet-like puppets and a Sesame Street-like setting, the show may have been uncommonly raunchy, but its underlying values of acceptance and friendship ultimately weren’t that different from those of its inspiration. 

'Sesame Street' at 50

While Sesame Street has endured for a half-century, its future is somewhat in flux. In 2016, the show’s first-run episodes moved from their longtime home of PBS to the premium channel HBO, although PBS still shows the second run, arriving there nine months after the first. 

This led to some hand-wringing back when it was first announced, although it’s pretty clear the show’s main target audience of preschoolers doesn’t know from first-run and second-run episodes,  the series always includes lots of vintage material even in its “new” episodes. Also, the new Sesame Street material that goes viral – most notably, its frequent kid-friendly TV parodies- always go up on YouTube immediately, along with so much of the classic stuff. And the HBO deal gave Children’s Television Workshop a cash infusion that allowed them to produce more episodes per season. 

Next year, another change is planned, per an announcement last month: The first-run Sesame Street episodes will debut not on HBO proper but rather on HBO Max, AT&T and Warner Media’s new streaming service that will launch next May. For those who care about seeing first-run episodes, this puts the new shows not only on a streaming service, but the most expensive one. 

'Sesame Street' at 50

On the bright side, the HBO Max deal includes streaming access to the entire 50 years of Sesame Street’s back catalog. Plus, the service is planning spin-offs of Sesame Street including, per The Verge, “a live-action late-night parody hosted by Elmo.”

However it’s consumed in the future, Sesame Street occupies a place that’s all by itself in the history of children’s entertainment, one enjoyed now by three generations of children, along with their parents.

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Sesame Street Celebrates 50 Years with an Underwhelming Special

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Sesame Street 50 Year Anniversary

Sesame Street turns 50 years old this week, and for the occasion the show’s current home, HBO, showed a special Saturday night, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and the show’s human and puppet casts of the past and present. 

The anniversary show, while it contains some decent nostalgia moments, feels somewhat underwhelming. It was barely promoted, feels thrown together and doesn’t really have the ambitious scale that’s worthy of the magnitude of the show’s half-century anniversary. 

The gimmick of the anniversary special, which runs just under 50 minutes, is that Gordon-Levitt, a longtime fan, is visiting Sesame Street, and really wants to get his picture taken with the characters, under the Sesame Street sign. The sign, however, has gone missing, and Elmo and friends must distract him to keep him from discovering that it’s gone. They all reach the honorable but not-so-earth-shattering conclusion that Sesame Street is less a physical place than a state of mind. 

sesame-street-50th-anniversary-special

Throughout, we get some surprise appearances by Sesame Street‘s human characters of old such as Luis (Emilio Delgado), Gordon (Roscoe Orman) and Maria (Sonia Manzano), and also long-absent muppets like Guy Smiley and even Kermit the Frog, who was a mainstay of Sesame Street‘s early days but has mostly been absent from the show since the 1980s. 

Kermit duets his signature Sesame Street tune “Bein’ Green'” with Elvis Costello, one of several musical numbers in the special. Norah Jones shows up to sing a song, and is visited by the talking letter “Y,” a callback to the time she remixed her song “Don’t Know Why” as “Don’t Know Y,” and there’s also a montage of famous Sesame Street songs. Patti LaBelle also shows up, as do Nile Rodgers and Meghan Trainor, and the show’s longtime mainstay Itzhak Perlman plays his violin on the show again as well. 

Non-musical cameos include Sterling K. Brown (from This is Us) eating cookies with Cookie Monster, as well as an appearance by Whoopi Goldberg. 

One of the more underwhelming aspects of the special is the relative lack of classic footage. The 50th anniversary could have occasioned an hour-long clip show, featuring some of the show’s most significant moments, celebrity cameos, and other Sesame Street touchstones, in a way that tells the story of the history of the show. 

Instead, we get Joseph Gordon-Levitt spliced into footage of classic Sesame Street moments, such as the Mr. Snuffleupagus reveal from 1985 and Grover’s “This is near/this is far” routine. 

The show chooses not to address the incongruity of young-seeming characters like Elmo and Big Bird not actually being 50 years old. And while it’s understood that the characters’ voices aren’t going to say consistent as different performers cycled through the roles, whoever is currently voicing Big Bird sounds nothing whatsoever like the recently retired Carroll Spinney. 

SesameStreet-50-Years

Those who are longtime Sesame Street devotees, whatever their age, will likely find some elements to enjoy in the new anniversary spell. But the special doesn’t feel anything close to definitive. 

The special will head to PBS on the 17th, the same day the show debuts its 50th season. 

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