Monday, August 22, 2016

BSN Mini-Review: "Nicky"

“Nicky” is more dreamlike than any of the episodes before it, not just because of the music and editing—though the last two minutes lean hard into the dream-like music and editing—but because the entire narrative hangs together like a dream. Nicky floats in and out of different scenes, and people float in and out of her proximity, with little or no explanation. Her friends disappear in the blink of an eye. Puck pulls her away toward an unclear destination, for no reason they’re willing to say aloud. Awhina flags Puck down and then immediately moves on. Puck hands Nicky a set of pajamas and then leaves the room without saying goodbye. She passes by Bryn being sick in the garden, Poppy and Thea looking after Awhina in the bedroom, Puck laughing at Deme and Zander in the hall. More of the cast shows up in this episode than in any other, most of them for less than a minute.

The episode therefore works to the extent that you can deal with uncertainty. We’re entirely inside Nicky’s head. There’s no cheating—no camera angles or music or lingering shots that emphasize anything Nicky wouldn’t find important. The camera keeps its distance. We see only what Nicky sees, and by and large, we learn only what Nicky learns. Why is Awhina looking for Bryn? The answer isn’t in this episode. Why does Bryn blow up at Puck? You might be able to tell from information in “Puck” or “Bryn,” but nothing in “Nicky” will tell you. Why does Puck latch on to Nicky? Nicky herself has no idea, so the episode provides no obvious clues. These questions have answers, and they take only a little thought to figure out, but that little bit of thought is important. It aligns the initial viewing experience of “Nicky” with the experience of Nicky, who doesn’t know most of these people, and who has no context in which to understand Bryn or Puck or Awhina’s actions.

In contrast to the impenetrability of the plot, much of the dialogue in “Nicky” is pointed. Nicky and Puck basically speak in nothing but thematic statements (digressions on the fashion of rock stars excepted). Neither teenage nihilists nor teenage activists are known for keeping their life philosophies quiet, so the conversation doesn’t read as particularly forced or unrealistic, the way it might if two adults met at a party and immediately started arguing about the meaning of life. But we’ve already seen Nicky and Puck have this argument, in “Petra,” and their conversation here covers no new philosophical or personal ground. Nor is it as funny or tense as the conversation in “Petra.” In fact, it drags a little, something no other scene in Bright Summer Night has yet done.

Tellingly, the most interesting—and revealing—part of Nicky and Puck’s conversation has nothing to do with philosophy. Puck, trying to elicit a reaction from Nicky, steals a drink from a passerby and splashes it on Nicky’s shirt. Nicky leaves the room, and Puck follows her, saying, “Are you angry at me, Nicky? Tell me that you hate me.” “It’s okay, Puck,” Nicky says. “I forgive you.”

It’s been clear from the start that Puck intentionally alienates people to cover up their real desire for connection, and here’s a concrete example of that: Puck antagonizes Nicky, spills a drink on her, but also follows her from the room. And though Nicky’s speech in the wash room about kindness mattering more than being cool tells you something about her, her reply to Puck tells you the same thing much more convincingly. One character’s actions match their philosophy, and one’s don’t. Puck talks a lot about nothing mattering and no one watching, but when it comes down to it, they want to matter to others. But Nicky both speaks and performs kindness, and the giraffe pajamas prove pretty well that she doesn’t care about being cool. There’s no artifice to Nicky. She’s not covering for anything.

Nicky knows who she is, and she’s bursting with things to say, but she has no one to say them to. That’s the story of “Nicky”: a girl wandering through a confusing world, looking for someone who will listen to her. Perhaps that’s why the tone shifts when Puck disappears. For the first time in the episode, Nicky is alone, and the music turns “eerie” and “unnerving,” as the closed captioning accurately puts it. Then she stumbles across Awhina, who’s high out of her mind, and is perhaps the one person at the party who’s happy to sit and watch the girl in the giraffe pajamas rap about climate change. The music clears—still dream-like, but now pleasant, almost triumphant—and Nicky finally gives her performance. Now that Nicky’s story is resolved, the camera leaves her for the first time in the episode, pulling away in a series of jump cuts until she’s just a blur in the background. The music turns eerie again as Deme and Zander and Lena run by, Puck laughing behind them, heading straight toward the next episode.

It’s an incredibly effective sequence, of a kind with the endings of “Lena” and “Bryn,” with its moody, off-kilter open-endedness. Some of the most memorable endings in film and television are questions; they leave you in the middle of a thought, with the unsettling feeling of having run off a cliff. Think of the spinning top in Inception, or Jack and Ana Lucia staring at each other in Lost’s “Collision,” or Dawn’s hand reaching out to but not quite touching the cadaver in Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “The Body.” None of BSN’s endings are quite that good (“The Body” is in the running for the best episode of television ever made, so, y’know), but they’re in the same family. They stick in your mind the same way. The Candle Wasters know how to end an episode.

Random Bits

Still no water, hmm?

I laughed for a full minute when Nicky put on the giraffe pajamas. If TCW were really committed to transmedia, they’d have had a note thanking Beatrice Duke for her contributions to costuming. (Although I note that Harriett Maire and Jake McGregor are credited as Beatrice Duke and Benedick Hobbes, which is kind of hysterical in its own right.)

“And I shall sing that they shall hear, I am not afraid!”

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

BSN Review: First Five Episodes

The first five episodes of The Candle Wasters' Bright Summer Night, a webseries inspired by Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream set at a modern-day New Zealand house party, are sharp, funny, painful, and wildly inventive--and if trends continue, the next five will only improve.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

BSN Mini-Review: "Zander"

Like “Bryn,” “Zander” is a little hard to pin down. The basic story is fairly straightforward: Zander tries to have sex with Mia, but fails because of some inhibition; Deme needles Zander about his inhibitions, then takes a drug; so Zander takes the same drug, which loosens his inhibitions.

It takes a little more work to locate the source of those inhibitions. There are two possibilities that comply with what we see on screen. Either Zander’s trying to drink/hook up with Mia because other people want him to, and he fails because he doesn’t want to. Or he’s doing these things because he wants to, and he fails because he’s scared (or nervous or intimidated).

Either way, Zander’s arc aligns nicely with Lena’s. The lovers can be split into characters who are confident in themselves and their place in the world, and characters who aren’t. Deme and Mia are on one side, and Zander and Lena are on the other. Everything Zander does is just a little bit off, a little bit awkward, and like Lena, he finds the world of people who know what they’re doing to be intimidating. The difference is that Zander is more embedded in that world than Lena is; Lena fades into the wallpaper, while Zander stumbles his way through the center of the party.

All of this is new information, which goes to show that “Zander” has its share of detailed character work. We learn a lot about Zander from it. He’s kind of an undercover dork; he’s deeply in love with Mia; and Deme gets under his skin like no one and nothing else.

In particular, Zander and Deme’s relationship shines. They’re friends, but obviously friends who have never totally gotten along. Deme needles Zander relentlessly, and Zander lets it get to him every single time. Even when Deme tries to let up on him (“You don’t have to do it,” “You good?”) Zander keeps up the competition on his end. Despite that, Shane Murphy and Dani Yourukova have a wonderful, easy chemistry that keeps the characters’ friendship and obvious history present, even when they’re sniping at each other.

That said, there’s a vagueness at the center of Zander’s character that puts me on uncertain footing. It all comes back to the question of what it is, exactly, that he wants. Is he uninterested in drugs and sex, and just wants the approval of the people around him? Or does he actually want to try all the things that he’s scared of?

I tend to think that the latter is the more likely option (it makes the drug into something that loosens Zander’s inhibitions, rather than something that totally reinvents his desires, and it makes Puck’s little speech about worries and inhibitions relevant), but I’m not sure, and there’s something offputting about that. Not knowing a character’s backstory, not knowing what they need, not knowing where their story is heading—those are all manageable gaps in the audience’s knowledge. But when you’re not even sure what a character wants, it’s hard to access their story.

Random Bits

“I’m gonna pull your hair out.” “Don’t pull it out. Do pull it, though!”

Deme and Zander take drugs off of the Quince family photo. I do love a good visual juxtaposition.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

BSN Mini-Review: "Bryn"

“We all know a Bryn,” says the description of Bright Summer Night’s fourth episode, and it’s right. Bryn Alberich is a type. He’s personable and popular. He’s charming and charismatic. He’s a good guy, everyone’s friend, and always willing to help you out if you’ve got a problem—unless helping inconveniences him in any way. He might care about others, but he cares about himself more, and he’ll do just about anything to make his own life easier. And he mostly gets away with it, because of how personable and popular and charming and charismatic he is.

“Bryn” spends a lot of time demonstrating these things about its titular character, but these aspects of Bryn have been clear since the very first episode. Like the description says, Bryn is someone you’ve met before, in fiction and in life, so it doesn’t take much work to get across the broad strokes of his character. A little goes a long way, and in the 11 total minutes of Bryn’s screen time so far, BSN has given us more than a little. Bryn’s type has been well solidified.

But there are a few sequences in “Bryn” that seem to be complicating, or at least elaborating on, that type. The desperate, stumbling search for a quiet room; the total meltdown, after Awhina leaves; the runaway jump cuts and chaotic camera angles all point to the idea that something is off-kilter in Bryn’s life. He’s unhappy, he’s overwhelmed, he wants everything to just shut up and stop for a moment.

But in these all-important sequences, BSN’s generally searing character work suddenly becomes murky. Something is off with Bryn, something is making him unhappy, but anyone trying to figure out what that is has little to go on. (I have theories, but they’re mostly drawn from a general sense of where the theme of BSN is going, not from anything we’ve actually been shown about Bryn.) It’s possible—perhaps probable, given Awhina’s parting shot—that Bryn himself doesn’t even know, and that that revelation will be the culmination of his arc. Which is a reasonable story to tell, but I’m starting to get anxious to see beneath the surface of Bryn’s type. I don’t mind being a little ahead of the character on this one.

Both Bryn the character and “Bryn” the episode make me feel unsettled, like The Candle Wasters are trying to say something that I’m not quite hearing. His basic character type is so clear that when something works to complicate it—like his unhappiness, or his still frustratingly unclear relationship with Puck—I’m left to wonder whether TCW are hinting at something, whether there’s a mystery there, or whether I’m reading into things. Or, perhaps, not reading enough into them.

I suppose we’ll find out one way or another by the end of the series. In the meantime, though, the uncertainty undercuts the efficacy of “Bryn” as an episode. The final shot, with Bryn sitting in silence and just breathing after six minutes of chaos, is clearly designed to cut deep. And there’s a degree to which it does. But it would cut deeper if we understood more.

Random Bits

I have few expectations when it comes to game theory even on very good shows, but surprisingly and happily, Bryn and Awhina’s discussion of the prisoner’s dilemma is totally reasonable. (Not particularly nuanced—they are 19—but reasonable.)

The sequence where Bryn “accidentally” lets Awhina snort too much Idleness is so well executed. It’s a great example of how to tell a perfectly clear story with no dialogue.

It just felt right, hearing Sheepdog & Wolf at the end, there.

“I love you.” “What does that do?” Ouch.

Friday, July 29, 2016

BSN Mini-Review: "Petra"

“Petra” is not what you might call subtle writing, but then, the Mechanicals aren’t all that subtle of subjects. They don’t speak subtly, they don’t act subtly, they don’t think subtly, which lets the Candle Wasters ramp up both the comedy and the on-the-nose thematic dialogue to levels previously unseen in Bright Summer Night. The Mechanicals are BSN’s answer to Lovely Little Losers’ Costa McClure, which makes sense, since they fulfill similar roles in the Shakespeare plays the series are inspired by.

The Mechanicals are a joke—ridiculous, over-the-top, out-of-control—but they’re a joke the narrative demands that you take seriously.  Sure, Frankie can’t keep track of where she stands on what issues, and Taylor really needs to pee, and Nicky doesn’t know when to quit with the poetry (OH MY GOD, Nicky’s poetry), and Petra’s losing control of everything. Sure, they’re a mess. But they care. They care so much, they don’t even know what they care about yet. They try to take on everything: gun control and climate change, politics and peace in the Middle East. They don’t know much about any of those topics, they don’t really know how to make a difference, but they know that something’s wrong, and they want to do something about it. The Mechanicals are 14. They’ll grow up, they’ll learn the details of the world, they’ll focus their caring, they’ll figure out how to create real change. Or maybe they won’t; some people never do. But they’re starting from the right place.

We know this because of Puck, who is starting from the wrong place. Before Puck shows up, the Mechanicals are just comic relief; they’re likeable, but they’re ridiculous, and there’s no particular reason to root for them. But Puck’s arrival reminds the viewer that there’s something worse than being ridiculous: Being disaffected. Puck gives the Mechanicals a concrete problem to unite against, and Petra and Nicky the chance to step up and explain (with, again, no subtlety to be found) why the Mechanicals’ view of the world is useful, and Puck’s is not.

Puck is the antithesis of the Mechanicals: Where the Mechanicals care about everything, Puck tries very hard to care about nothing. It’s earnestness vs. irony, selflessness vs. self-consciousness. Puck and the Mechanicals both sense a wrongness in the world. The Mechanicals are trying to fix it; Puck is trying to protect themselves from it.

Which is not to say that Puck is a villain. They’re the antagonist of this episode, because this is Petra’s seven minutes in the spotlight. But looking at BSN as a whole, Puck is the closest thing we have to a central protagonist; they start off the series, and if A Midsummer Night’s Dream is any indication, they’ll likely end it. This is their story, which means, inevitably, that they have a lot to learn.

Random Bits

It’s cool how TCW use phones to keep track of time. We know from Lena’s phone check in “Lena” that she was hanging out on the dance floor at 12:47, which anchors “Petra” in time. Combined with Puck’s dialogue in “Puck,” we can deduce that they’ve been searching for the Idleness for a little under an hour. And Lena and Deme’s text messages at the end of “Lena” let us look a little bit into the future: Bryn still doesn’t have the drugs by 1:13. (Although Puck has now found Awhina’s purse.)

Yeah, the water problems are definitely leading up to something.

I’m gonna go ahead and guess that the next episode will be “Zander.”

I got a little caught up in the thematic talk (what else is new?), so I should make it clear that “Petra” is a really, really funny episode.

“I am a neo-Marxist libertarian, and I will not be labeled!” OH MY GOD.

“Fuck the patriarchy!” “I’m not the patriarchy!”

“That’s America, Frankie. New Zealand has different amendments. I think. Probably.”

“Palestine. What’s going on there?”

And, okay, the obligatory thematic quote: “Look. This is valuable, what we’re doing.”

Saturday, July 23, 2016

BSN Mini-Review: "Lena"

“Lena” gives us another deep dive on a character (no points for guessing which one), though it’s not quite as deep as the look “Puck” gave us at Puck. Or perhaps I should say that it’s not as broad; whereas “Puck” gave insight into at least three important areas of the titular character’s life, “Lena” focuses all of its attention on conveying Lena’s awkwardness and her crush on Deme and her awkwardness about her crush on Deme. It spends a minute or so moving plot, as Lena and Bryn’s conversation sets up future shenanigans. And it spends a little time establishing the outlines of the personalities of Mia, Deme, and Zander, with Mia getting the most attention and Zander the least. But the vast majority of Episode 2 is the Awkward Lena Show.

And what a show it is. We get to see only one narrow aspect of Lena’s life, but we see it in searing detail. From offering to hold Deme’s jacket, to dancing just outside the circle of people who know what they’re doing, to sending and then hurriedly retracting a kiss emoji, there’s not a minute of “Lena” that passes without a soul-killingly well-conceived example of how difficult Lena finds it to interact with the world. By the end of the episode, we don’t just know that Lena’s awkward, we know exactly how she’s awkward. We know that she wilts under pressure. We know that she’s fully aware of, and instantly apologetic for, her every social failing. We know that she has a crush on Deme, and that she wants to act on that crush, but that every time she tries, her courage fails her.

That lack of confidence is the root of all Lena’s awkwardness. Not a single one of her painful interactions in this episode—at the fridge, on the dance floor, over text messages—would have been nearly so bad if Lena had simply followed through on her intentions to ask Deme out, to dance, to send the kiss emoji. Lena’s problem is internal—which suggests a possible outline for her story arc.

So “Lena” sets up for its central character a goal (Deme), an obstacle (lack of confidence), and a potential self-inflicted stumbling block (whatever’s going to go down with the Idleness). And it does so without ever feeling rushed. In fact, “Lena” is full of pauses for breath, moments when the episode seems to sit still and let you simply wallow in Lena’s pain. The only conversation that moves quickly is Deme, Mia, and Zander’s at the beginning, which may be why it’s the least satisfying interaction of the episode; it’s almost entirely exposition, meant to establish certain bare-bones facts about the Lovers to hold you over until they can be fleshed out in more detail. (Deme’s into Mia; Mia’s dad doesn’t like Zander; Deme’s looking to get high tonight; Zander has the kind of image that makes it hard to imagine him doing drugs.) This is all important information, and it’s not as if the scene is a chore to get through, but it’s neither emotionally gripping nor dryly funny, the way that the rest of “Lena” and all of “Puck” are.

But if “Lena” starts slow, it finishes on fire. TCW banked on Kalisha Wasasala’s acting ability to carry the final text conversation between Lena and Deme, and Wasasala returns magnificently on their investment. She pulls Lena from relief to amusement to a kind of ecstatic hope in total silence, as Deme’s last line—“Never stop”—lingers on-screen, urging her onward. It embodies the deeply emotional, almost magical feeling that is so far the best thing about Bright Summer Night.

Random Bits

Wasasala carries the episode, of course, but Maddie Adams deserves a mention for her speech to Lena about how to flirt with Deme. The speech isn’t about Mia, but it’s a perfect encapsulation of her character, and Adams nails it.

Perhaps the only character motivation in “Lena” that isn’t fully clear is Bryn’s when he sits down with Lena. I can think of two reasons why Bryn might decide to talk to her. Either he’s playing the part of the good guy, being gregarious, talking to everyone—or he’s trying to hit on her, and backs off when it becomes clear she’s got her eye on someone else. Both of these possibilities are in line with what we know about Bryn so far, and though one interpretation is more flattering than the other, neither of them really involve Bryn actually caring about Lena’s feelings.

Food for thought: In this episode, Deme and Bryn both go up to complete strangers and introduce themselves. They share a certain confidence in their own belonging.

“I said ‘Kill me now, I want to die.’” What a killer music cue.

I wonder who Deme knows at this party.

“I will not be put in a bubble!” says Petra in passing, setting up what will presumably be the first scene of Episode 3.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

BSN Mini-Review: "Puck"

Hey guys, and welcome to my regular mini-reviews of Bright Summer Night. In the unlikely event that you’re coming to these reviews not knowing what that is, BSN is a webseries inspired by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, set in the modern day at a Wellington house party. It’s by The Candle Wasters, who previously produced the Shakespeare-inspired webseries Nothing Much to Do and Lovely Little Losers


“Puck” is our introduction to the world of Bright Summer Night, and as introductions go, it’s an efficient one. In six minutes, we meet most of the major characters (the Mechanicals being the sad exception); check in on two relationships that are going to drive a lot of plot (Bryn and Awhina’s fracturing romance and Puck’s desperate desire for Bryn’s attention); and get a sense of the mood of the party that we’ll be attending for the next ten episodes (sprawling and quiet enough for interpersonal drama; drunken enough to make the drama worse). We also get a fairly deep dive on the character of Puck: their insecurities, their troubles, their desires.

The Candle Wasters have a lot of practice, from Lovely Little Losers, at packing a great deal of information into a very few details, and it shows here: In only six minutes, Puck makes perfect sense as both an adaptation of the Shakespearian Puck and a person in their own right. Like the original, BSN’s Puck is an outsider who leans into that status, delighting in disturbing the peace. Like the original, they seem to sense a ridiculousness about their world that no one is willing to admit to. Like the original, they would do anything to please Oberon/Bryn. But with BSN’s Puck, we get to see possible reasons for why they’re an outsider (their gender) and why they’re so disdainful of the world (growing up in a home that that displays “dream” and “FAITH” figurines on the outside while being poisoned by anger and resentment on the inside). And we get to see why they hang so desperately on Bryn: Despite their nihilism, they desire connection and acceptance, and Bryn gives that to them, in tantalizingly small doses. In short, Puck is a teenager you might meet in any high school in the world.

There is one element of Puck’s life that I find myself unclear on, and that’s the specific nature of their relationship with Bryn. Puck and Bryn speak to each other as if they were siblings, and certainly their relationship makes much more sense if they’re siblings, but then Puck and a partygoer describe Puck as Bryn’s “friend” and his “buddy.” It makes you appreciate the opportunity that even a hyper-low-exposition vlogseries like Lovely Little Losers provides for characters to just stare at the camera and say, “This is my brother/friend/whatever.” (Not that TCW always availed themselves of that opportunity.) There may be good reasons for the confusion that have yet to be revealed, but if so, TCW haven’t made the job of revealing it easy on themselves; BSN has only the slightest bit more exposition than LoLiLo, and there’s no possibility of talking heads—and only nine short episodes left to work with.

Random Bits

It goes without saying that BSN looks and sounds fantastic. TCW are putting their budget to good use, going all out with evocative lighting, a well-timed soundtrack, and a nice thematic overhead shot that I can’t for the life of me figure out how they pulled off. (Is it computer-generated? Did they rent a freaking crane?)

The best line of “Puck” is Awhina’s, from the trailer: “Good news, everyone, climate change is over because Bryn took a class in English fucking Lit!” But my nose for theme makes me think that the most important line may be Thea’s: “The Dean’s List doesn’t mean anything, Bryn. It doesn’t help anyone except you.”

I assume Bryn and Awhina’s relationship is going to continue to get some of the spotlight going forward, which is why I haven’t discussed it in depth here, but I should at least say that so far, it’s just as efficiently and realistically laid out as Puck’s character.

Bryn clearly tells Puck that Awhina’s purse is flowered, yet Puck goes through every purse on the table and takes things from them. That’s perfectly in character, but there’s another weird purse-related moment earlier on: Puck gives a long loaded look to their mother’s purse before they leave the house. Possibly LoLiLo has just primed me to read too much into things, but the framing of the close-up on Puck’s mother’s purse certainly seems meaningful.

It must be such a relief for TCW to be able to just show text messages on screen.

The fairy lights falling down is a nice kicker for the episode.