Deadshirt Is Watching…is a weekly feature in which Deadshirt staff, contributors, and guests sound off on the television shows we’re tuned into, from intense dramas to clever sitcoms to the most insane reality shows. This week: Westworld, The Good Place and You’re the Worst!
Max Robinson is watching…
Season 1, Episode 1 “The Original”
Sundays at 9/8c on HBO
HBO’s long-gestating Westworld pilot dropped last Sunday and the finished product is a buggy but intriguing piece of hardware. Michael Crichton’s original Westworld movie has always been an interesting if incomplete prototype (it’s essentially a rough first pass at Jurassic Park), so expanding the concept into a TV show with an ensemble cast really opens up avenues to explore. Showrunner/pilot director Jonathan Nolan (co-writer of The Dark Knight Rises, creator of CBS’ Person of Interest and brother of Christopher) dives right into the possibilities of an expensive high tech theme park where rich tourists and androids who are functionally human play Cowboys and Indians.
The most intriguing angle the pilot throws at us is the way in which the guests at Westworld approach this faux-reality like it’s a video game. Westworld itself is a kind of IRL open world AAA title, complete with storylines arranged by a smarmy in-house scriptwriter. Westworld asks you to consider: what if the NPCs in your favorite Rockstar game had sentience and real emotions? What if they were capable of seeing that they’re trapped in an endless loop of cheap pathos for our entertainment and unable to do anything about it?
While Westworld boasts a strong cast, the clear standout is Ed Harris’ unnamed Man in Black, a human “Newcomer” at the park who apparently tortures its robotic inhabitants in search of a higher level “game.” Aesthetically, it’s a beautiful looking show: the patented Nolan Aesthetic of people standing in front of sterile hardware juxtaposed with a sunny and sandy artificial old west.
The pilot’s flaws really lie in the fact that…well, it’s an HBO show for better or for worse. The gratuitous nudity and violence that are a network hallmark at this point feel almost mundane, it’s not shocking anymore. There’s an implied robot rape sequence with no explanation of what that means for either character involved. And while I don’t expect that much to happen in a pilot, at least the first episode of Game of Thrones threw a kid out a window.
This first trip to Westworld is a fairly tame for what it is but, like the ever-evolving mechanoids that make up the cast, there’s plenty of promise here.
Episode Highlight: We take Anthony Hopkins for granted these days in worldweary old man parts but the scene between Hopkins’ Dr. Ford and early Westworld robot “Old Bill” (an almost unrecognizable Michael Wincott) is somehow both charming and eerie. The visual poetry of two “older models” conversing like friends (to the confusion of Westworld’s security personnel) is undeniable.
Andrew Niemann is watching…
The Good Place
Season 1, Episode 4 “Jason Mendoza”
Thursdays at 8:30/7:30c on NBC
I was pretty much was always going to commit to another sitcom from Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine scribe Michael Schur, especially with Kristen Bell and Ted Danson along to seal the deal. So of course it follows that this high concept “afterlife” sitcom is delightfully turning into this season’s best new comedy.
Episode 4 peels back the layers on one of the residents, a seemingly silent Buddhist monk named Jianyu, and reveals him to be a fraudulent member of “the good place” who’s actually named Jason Mendoza. A flashback reveals Mendoza as a hokey drug dealer named DJ Music who fronts as a substitute for DeadMau5 parody AcidCat. Meanwhile, back in the afterlife, Michael (Danson) and Mendoza’s socialite soul mate Tahani plan the opening of a new restaurant in the good place which can serve anyone’s favorite meal at will. The humor in The Good Place frequently starts from a mundane place but gradually blossoms into surreal, dark humor. Bell’s character, another impostor, seems to have a supernatural power over “the good place” as her actions directly affect the environment. In this episode’s case, she smashes a cake which causes a massive sinkhole to appear.
The Good Place is a great satire on the nature of morality and ethics, and I already have theories that almost every character has flaws that would normally prevent them from being there. Or, perhaps they really are meant to be there find each other. After all, we feel like impostors in our own lives, so why not the afterlife?
Episode Highlight: Eleanor (Bell), who is posing as a human rights activist, is served her favorite meal: a hunger strike she took part in. Bell’s facial expression upon seeing nothing on her plate is priceless.
Chuck Winters is watching…
You’re the Worst
Season 3, Episode 5, “Twenty-Two”
Wednesdays at 10/9c on FXX
Stephen Falk threw down the god damn gauntlet with this one. It’s not only among the best episodes that this show’s ever produced, it’s an early contender for one of the best episodes of television this year and a flat-out dare to the Emmys to leave Desmond Borges out of the nominee pool this year.
This episode covers the same timeframe of the last episode from Edgar’s point of view, as the effects of his PTSD medication withdrawal are starting to hit him hard. Certain scenes from last week are reinterpreted from his perspective; last week, when Jimmy made a crack about soldiers with PTSD being branded as deserters and shot, it was a dark, funny joke. Through the lens of this episode, it’s a complete asshole statement that snaps a few more threads of the thin rope that’s keeping Edgar from going over the cliff.
Falk directs this episode (as he did the last one), and turns the show’s usual visual plan on its ear, favoring overcranked, handheld cinematography with occasionally washed-out colors and lots of uncomfortable close-ups to reflect Edgar’s fragile emotional state. His mind starts to turn on him; a mysterious man keeps staring at him, with others occasionally following his lead, and it’s all taking a toll. We learn that he lied to Jimmy about not being able to get food from the British specialty shop because he literally can’t stand to be in there, and now he’s starting to scare his girlfriend with his violent mood swings. But he’s meeting with the VA, and he’s hopeful that his last best chance for help will come through.
Julie White plays the local VA’s top psychiatrist with a sort of patronizing empathy, somewhere between a genuine respect for what Edgar is going through and a shocking cluelessness on how to best speak to that, which she covers up with unnervingly gentle humor. When Edgar admits to being prescribed 11 medications, she admits to taking 15 despite never going to war, and makes a joke about getting old. She offers him ten sessions in a state-of-the-art virtual reality trainer: “They actually build a video game out of your trauma, it’s really quite fun!…but, scary, of course.” Between things like that and the backlighting casting her mostly in shadow, it’s not clear that the doctor can really help Edgar. Sure enough, once he admits that he’s not taking his medication, any empathy she may have had dries up fast. Where we see desperation and fear, the doctor sees hostility. There’s no sitting him down to explain why it’s important for him to go back on his meds, or any effort to understand why he went off them in the first place. He’s simply treated as a child who won’t eat his veggies, which in turn causes him to throw a temper tantrum like said child would.
It snaps the rest of the series into frightening relief: most of the people around Edgar keep doormatting him because he likes to be helpful, which they take for granted, which suggests that it’s the only reason they put up with him, which causes him to keep doing it. His whole life, ever since Jimmy took him in, has been this vicious circle that his cocktail of medication left him somewhat numb to. Now that he’s off it, the stress of that is starting to build exponentially, to a point where the few comforts he has in life, such as the cassette tapes his brother gave him, start to fail him.
Last time, we got a single shot of him drinking outside somewhere, and it was heartbreaking enough. In context, however, it’s fucking devastating, as it highlights just how easily we, the audience, take Edgar’s pain for granted. Last time, Jimmy’s “ZERO STARS” text seemed like a funny, if mean addition to the running joke of Edgar being Jimmy and Gretchen’s personal Uber driver. This time, we find out that text nearly sent him walking into traffic.
The arrival of a tow-truck driver who happened to be a fellow vet may have been too great of a narrative convenience—even if that came long after a douchey film student accidentally saved Edgar’s life by distracting him with a symbolic-looking paper boat. But without the tow-truck driver to provide the perspective that Edgar is so desperate for, to remind him so bluntly that the only person who can help him is himself, we’d be headed for Lars Von Trier territory. Anyway, as Edgar is whisked off through the night, hitching a ride on his fellow vet’s truck, it’s not entirely clear how okay he is.
The moment where Edgar considers suicide-by-car could only be so suspenseful; we know from last week that not only is Edgar still around, but he eventually got Jimmy the snacks he asked for. But he also told Jimmy and Gretchen that his appointment went “fine,” the same way any dark, personal journey would go “fine.” But the way he acts in his car, the way he breaks down into hysterical laughter upon seeing the face of the man that kept following him through the day in his favorite cassette tape, suggests that he’s got a long road ahead before he can learn to cope.
And I wonder if he won’t burn down a few bridges on his way there.
Episode Highlight: When FX renewed the show for season 4 because they knew if they didn’t, people would watch the episode and ask them “Why the FUCK haven’t you renewed this yet?”