Issue #154: Miguel's TV Guide

It’s a busy week. The semester is getting back underway. I got a Clubhouse invite. I’m trying to get around to writing about a few of the films and TV I watched last month that I haven’t delved into yet.

This week, a focus on streaming television shows. If WandaVision (2021) is at all intellectually stimulating, I might write about it weekly.

Visiting Westview

What separates decent streaming television from the examples that are truly great is how much work they can do with the form of the episode. The truly great examples of "peak TV," or "prestige TV," — broadcast week to week — demonstrate the necessity to take the arc and thematic universe of a single episode very seriously. Mad Men (2007) and Westworld (2016) are two of the best examples, but every broadcast television show, I think, recognizes that it lives and dies from one episode to the next. Streaming television is a bit different. Because of the notion of the "binge-watch" and the fact that many shows are released in total rather than on a weekly schedule, the result is overlong, bloated, meandering films rather than great episodes of television. But as The Boys (2019) did this season, a streaming show with precisely this problem can bounce back through the combination of savvy writing and the embrace of the weekly release schedule.

As Marvel Studios and the Marvel Cinematic Universe make their attempt to tackle the television in earnest with WandaVision (2021) this past week, after the ABC, Netflix, and Freeform dry runs, one has to wonder where they will ultimately fall in this paradigm. Will the movie studios make long movies or exceptional TV? I had also hoped that perhaps the TV structure might grant the creators a wider creative berth to produce something one can really sink their teeth into. I like the MCU movies just fine, but they are hardly substantive and brutally formulaic.

Two episodes into WandaVision, it's clear that what we have is more entertainment of the caliber to which we have become accustomed as MCU consumers, but hardly groundbreaking work. The show, embracing the week to week release model, has been more comedy than action or mystery thus far and co-stars Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany are delivering phenomenal comedic performances. Bettany in particular is exceptional, acting, perhaps, with his MCU life on the line, as the plot dictates this will likely be his last appearance in any of the studio's work. An outstanding performance here might result in a stay of execution, or a poorly written (but welcome, in my view) character revival down the line.

How does each episode measure up as a meaningful stand-alone? Not well, I'm afraid. The show is more than the sum of its parts, and I was delighted watching the whole affair. But taking a wider view of things, neither of the episodes so far would sustain repeated viewings without watching the rest of the show — although "Episode 2" was quite funny. Strictly speaking, the episodes do have some elements that are self-contained and offer stand-alone plots. But can I, or anyone, really give WandaVision credit for their archetypal sitcom hijinks when the main attraction is so clearly the mystery to which the show infrequently alludes? Would Vision trying to impress his new boss or Wanda hoping to ingratiate herself to the neighborhood with a magic show really stack-up when compared to the great sitcom plots of history? I think not.

It is also clear that this is not a prestige TV product, not the work of an auteur, although there are some fascinating moments that suggest a series that will be at least as adventurous as Thor Ragnarok (2017). The rapid-fire popcorn-munching background noise of the MCU's typical comedy is what's evident here as well. The jokes are hardly high concept, but they largely hit their mark, which is nothing to sneeze at. While Bettany has not been called upon to do any serious dramatic acting just yet, Olsen writhes under the show’s foreboding atmosphere with appropriate pathos and intensity. It is within this uncertainty — the show's main attraction and deeply buried lede for better or for worse — that give viewers a framework to understand the possibly rewarding themes the franchise has traced for this pair of characters. For Wanda, the most important one is fear. The Scarlet Witch wants to be a hero, not a societal reject or an object of fright. And yet, Wanda herself is terrified of such an outcome, a mini-arc for her character in Captain America: Civil War (2016) that is being revisited in this topsy-turvy Pleasantville universe she finds herself in.

In WandaVision, she is desperate not to be found out as a powered person or superheroine and feels the equally urgent need to be accepted despite the contradicting urge to be herself.

Of course, she's not herself. In fact, it's clear even in the first few minutes of WandaVision's first episode, she doesn't even know who she is or what has brought her to Westview, the fiction-within-fiction that constitutes the show's setting. The sense of tension and even fear that builds — Lynchian in its aspiration — as the outside world intervenes on the fantasy in which Wanda lives. Evidently, it's not her's, as we hear the voice of Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) as he calls out to Wanda through a radio signal, "who's doing this to you?" Likewise, Vision's own incredulity about what his job is (he produces "computational forms" for no discernable purpose) drives his boss, Arthur Hart (played by the legend Fred Melamed) to furiously probe the couple about their indeterminate origin followed by an unceremonious choking scare at the end of the first episode.

Instead, Wanda seems to be trapped in a glamour of some sort. But she does exercise some agency. Her own unwillingness to be ejected from this delusion is what drives her anxiety, in part, regarding the discovery of her and Vision's powers. Likewise, in the wake of the ostensible intervention by an outside force, an emphatic "no" at the end of the series' second episode thrusts the couple out of the sitcom conventions of the 1960s and into those of the 70s.

What does it all mean? I can't say. Outside of the vaguely defined themes carried over from Wanda's earlier appearances, these episodes, enjoyable as they are, offer little to sink one's teeth into. And that's a bit frustrating, no question. But ultimately, I didn't expect truly exceptional television, although I did hope for it. What we got is more of the MCU, and so far that's just fine.

“Those Who Do Not Appreciate Life Do Not Deserve Life”: Alice in Borderland’s Death Game

Those Who Do Not Appreciate Life Do Not Deserve Life

It’s remarkable to consider the fact that the Saw franchise began in 2004, nearly two decades ago, and yet that still seems too recent for the bundle of genre tropes and philosophical preoccupations that have captured the imagination of a generation — and perhaps a nation. That nation is not the United States, but rather Japan, which likely produces more ‘death game’ style, Saw influenced, fiction than any other country by orders of magnitude. (I've also written about Saw as one of the progenitors of 'imprisonment horror'.)

To give Saw credit, of course, is a bit unfair, as Battle Royale, a Japanese novel-turned-film (released in 1999 and 2000 respectively), is a more culturally relevant origin point for this trope (and of course, we are omitting any discussion of The Most Dangerous Game [1924]). And yet, it really is Saw rather than Battle Royale that captures the essence of the ideas that are reexamined again and again. Namely, the preciousness of life and the measure by which we assign it value. I always misremember Jigsaw saying in his ominous voice, "you don't deserve the life you've been given" — but in reality the line is "those who do not appreciate life do not deserve life." In Saw II (2005) he says, "how much blood will you shed to stay alive?" The contradiction here is another variety of Lacan's forced choice in Seminar XI, which I have written about many timesbefore:

Your money or your life! If I choose the money, I lose both. If I choose life, I have life without the money, namely, a life deprived of something. I think I have made myself clear. (212)

Haro Aso's manga, Alice in Borderland (2010), in which a random assortment of people must survive in a seemingly-abandoned Tokyo called the Borderland while being forced to participate in sadistic 'games' by an unknown game master, makes its fixation on this theme clear with every panel.

Its live-action Netflix adaptation (released in December 2020), exceptional as it is, seems a little bit less investing in this particular theme although it is unquestionably important to the show. Perhaps because the ground is so well tread. But it's a minor character, Last Boss, who serves as the impetus to explore this thematic in the show's phenomenal penultimate episode. Seriously, the seventh episode is so much better than everything that came before it, it is astonishing — and the show was already good. But back to the point at hand. Last Boss has a showdown with Hikari Kuina, one of the show's most richly developed characters. In the course of their fight, both Last Boss and Kuina's pre-Borderland lives are explored through generous flashbacks.

Our Will to Survive Is Too Different

Before Last Boss was a badass sword-wielding creepy guy, he lived as a hikikomori, a shut-in, filling his unread blogs with musings on the nature of life and death.

He writes about Robert Edwin Peary:

Ordinary people wouldn't understand those like him, who embrace death. However, I can tell that they were shouting about their freedom of living, which includes such death. What about me now? ... Born in a land where I can't even eat raw liver through my own volition, I was raised in an environment that makes me unaware of death. How can I feel truly alive? Let me out of this temporary home. I want to live in the real world.

The semi-post-apocalyptic game in which Last Boss becomes trapped, then, constitutes for him the "real world" where he can feel "truly alive." Aso repeatedly affirms this point of view with every character and at every opportunity.

Why is Shinsuke Sato, writer and director of the 2020 adaptation, so different in his treatment of the idea? Why does he restrict the affect and sentiment only to Last Boss, rather than some of the most sympathetic characters? Sato calls into question the most essential thematic points of Aso's manga and adds a great deal of nuance and complexity to these repetitive ideas and tropes. Perhaps what Last Boss says in the show's seventh episode and Daikichi Karube says on the page above is all true. Life and death are interlinked. The very vitality of life is actually the structuring principle of not prolonging one's life, but ending it. This is a simplistic riff on the Freudian death drive. But Aso sets Last Boss against Kuina in a truly fascinating fashion, not necessarily lambasting his point of view, but suggesting that Last Boss, a seemingly privileged hikikomori, has yet to encounter the world's most harsh brutalities, those that don't require a raptured city but in fact come because of our relation to others.

Kuina is a karate practitioner who is kicked out of her home because of her gender identity. Though Sato's twisty revelation of Kuina's status as trans is a bit crass, he does tastefully depict her home life in a scene reminiscent of Pose's (2018) first episode. The discrimination and abuse that she suffered at the hands of her own father make Last Boss's naval-gazing seem laughable. Such a stark contrast drives the underlying irony of one of the show's best lines, with which Last Boss taunts Kuina, "our will to survive is too different."

Will to survive? Who but Kuina among the show's characters could lay claim to having such a thing. She was pushed to the brink trying to live as herself. The similarity she identified between herself and Last Boss — as two individuals transformed — evaporates. She says to him:

I've always thought that you and I were similar ... Both of us despise our past. I've finally decided because of you. You just keep turning your back on your past. But I will face my past once more in order to survive.

Kuina wasn't forced to practice karate. She clearly has a passion for it. But, it was taught to her by her father who abused and rejected her. And yet, in this moment, she is able to separate her love for martial arts from her rightful hostility toward her father in order to deliver one of Netflix's best-choreographed fight scenes.

The cleverness on display here, and the depth and nuance Sato brings to the source material, isn't limited to the showdown between Last Boss and Kuina.

The NEET Will Inherit the Earth

Arisu Ryohei (Kento Yamazaki), the show's main character, also has a lot in common with Last Boss. Although he's not an absolute shut-in, he's a game-addicted NEET (Not in Education, Employment, or Training). His gaming background and a seeming preternatural cleverness lead to success in this new world. This is not an unusual trope. The underappreciated, unloved loser, usually an anime enthusiast or video gamer, becomes a triumphant hero in some other world that values his talents that are either useless or unrecognized in contemporary society. The only talent Last Boss has is nihilism (and his writing is pretty good — zero views?!) but Arisu is truly exceptional.

Aso is far more interested in flattering NEETs than Sato, however. In the original manga, Arisu is basically super-powered. In Sato's adaptation, it's true, Arisu is not only exceptionally intelligent but also morally righteous and empathetic. He is the main character of a conventional adventure story, after all. But in Sato's version of the Borderland, Arisu is surrounded by peers who are capable of surpassing him in nearly every way other than empathy. Sato calls into question the persistent fantasy of the NEET inheriting the Earth, that they're simply screwed by circumstance. It's Arisu's inability to act that makes his life more challenging.

Sato in the Pantheon

Being a director who specializes in adaptations is tough. Before Alice in Borderland, Sato directed several live-action anime adaptations, including Gantz (2011), Bleach (2018), and Inuyashiki (2018). While the quality of these films varies wildly, they share the quality of being among the best live-action anime adaptations — for whatever that's worth. Sato doesn't just understand anime and manga, he understands science fiction, and can bring these worlds to life in an exceptionally compelling way on screen. With Alice in Borderland, he shows his talent for both adaptation and refinement of the original source material. Drawing out what is best about it while abandoning that which doesn't work and willing to question some of a work's fundamental assumptions. Borderland is Sato's capstone work, and is worthy of being discussed alongside 'death game' TV of any kind as well as films like Battle Royale and Saw.

Weekly Reading List

Early this year, Daigo Umehara and Shinya Onuki, two of the Five Gods of Fighting Games, got together to promo Street Fighter V: Champion Edition (2020) and discuss the early era of fighting game competition. Hearing about Daigo and Nuki’s competitive history is a treat, and anyone with any interest in video games or gaming competition should watch this video. But they dropped some truly fascinating lines throughout the interview.

Their comments are likely resonant for anyone who played a competitive game in the early aughts. I remember how exciting it would be, whether playing Magic: The Gathering or Soulcalibur II (1998), to travel to another city and dominate the competition there. Winning FNMs and PTQs in Orlando was always a lot of fun in the nascent age of the internet.

Between Daigo and Nuki, there aren’t just regional antagonisms but also a personal resentment that the pair look back upon with smiles and jokes, though in its time was quite serious.

You can see some older examples of their competition with one another at 2003’s Evo tournament playing Super Street Fighter II Turbo (1994):

As well as their triumphant team up for Super Battle Opera 2005 in Street Fighter III: Third Strike (1999):

But the game in which the two had the most memorable clashes is Street Fighter Alpha 3 (1998), footage of which is hard to come by.

At any rate, Daigo and Nuki’s interview here is fascinating viewing.

Looks like someone is making some Charli XCX and Playboi Carti mashups. This first one is pretty good.

Until next time.