Saturday, November 12, 2016

Webseries Review: Edgar Allan Poe's Murder Mystery Dinner Party

Screenshot from Edgar Allan Poe's Murder Mystery Dinner Party, "The Bells"

A slightly spoilery review of Shipwrecked Comedy's very funny, very clever, slightly flawed murder mystery comedy. (Also contains small spoilers for And Then There Were None.)

Thursday, September 15, 2016

BSN Mini-Review: "Finale"

The finale of Bright Summer Night is more hopeful than it might appear at first glance. The Mechanicals reconcile and play their hearts out. The Lovers giggle and tweak each other’s noses. Awhina ends a bad night on a good note. And Puck… well, Puck breaks down.

Puck’s ending is unhappy, but not unhopeful. They’re in a bad place right now, and there was never any chance of fixing that in a single night. Puck went to the party a deeply unhappy person; they’re leaving the party a deeply unhappy person. (Not to armchair diagnose, but what they describe to Bryn certainly sounds like depression, and that can’t be fixed in a night.) The difference is that now, Puck is willing to show that unhappiness to someone who cares.

Puck has spent the night aggressively, often cheerfully, insisting that nothing and no one matters, scoffing at offers of friendship and concern. In “Finale,” they admit, at long last, that not caring isn’t grand, and it isn’t inevitable—it’s terrifying. And when Nicky, for the third time in the series, reaches out, Puck finally sheds their shell of nihilism, lets her in, and cries. They’re not happy. But they’re honest, and they’re not alone. That’s better off than they were at the beginning of the night.

Nearly everyone leaves BSN better off than they entered. Lena and Deme found someone they like to kiss. Petra put together a kick-ass musical protest piece with her band, which is now slightly more functional. Zander and Mia worked some kinks out of their relationship (in more than one sense). Nicky got to sing her song. Awhina freed herself of a stifling relationship. The only person who doesn’t benefit from BSN is Bryn. He starts the night selfish, lonely, and unhappy, and that’s how he ends it, brushing off Puck and heading off to nurse his wounds alone.

Bryn is not a villain. We’ve been inside his head just like everyone else’s, and we’ve seen that as much as his selfishness has hurt Puck and Awhina, it’s hurt Bryn himself as well. For all of Bryn’s charm and all of his friends, he is desperately lonely. His life is full of sound and fury and parties, but it lacks meaningful connections. Bryn could have stayed and really listened to Puck, and it would have helped them both. But instead he leaves insisting he’s okay. Not honest, and even more alone than he was to start with. And because Bryn is not a villain, that counts as a loss—perhaps the largest in the whole series.

That dichotomy—Puck’s honest break-down, and Bryn’s callous brush-off—gives the final episode of BSN an open-ended, bittersweet feeling, one that the (very fun, very funny) Mechanicals show in the middle only partially cuts. As lovely as it is to see the characters enjoying each other, to get a cap on all of the characters’ various subplots, to experience the glory of “Relationship Problems and the Environment,” Bryn’s and Puck’s stories bookend the episode. Bryn’s dismissive exit and Puck’s ongoing distress are what linger after the credits. And they do linger; one of BSN’s hallmarks has been its moody, memorable endings, and the finale is no exception.

It feels honest. As a whole, BSN does not feel rushed, but the endings of some of its subplots have felt that way—inevitably, perhaps, since most of those subplots have had to play out over less than 12 hours of story time and less than 12 minutes of real time. Funny and lovely as it is, even the Mechanicals’ part of the finale falls into that trap. (When exactly did the rest of the group learn to play Nicky’s song?) But some problems really are too big to resolve in one night. Sometimes the only change we can hope for is incremental. Sometimes, hope as we might, change never comes at all. A series that uses environmentalism as its binding metaphor should acknowledge that.

But as I said at the beginning, the note that BSN ends on is hopeful as well as bittersweet—fitting for a series that has been dark and funny by turns, but always, always humane. Relationship problems, like the environment, can’t be fixed in a single night. But progress is progress, and BSN insists to the very end that change is possible, if we care. If we do things for others. If we look outside ourselves. If we make connections.

Random Bits

“Relationship Problems and the Environment.” Oh my god. Sometimes it’s the simplest things that make me laugh the hardest.

The lighting on that final bit is gorgeous. It feels just like the early morning after a party.

Okay, but how do Puck and Bryn know each other, damn it?

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

BSN Mini-Review: "Awhina"

If “Deme” was an exercise in translating the experience of a pleasant high into video, “Awhina” attempts the same thing for an unpleasant high. The first half of the episode is (almost) all about conveying the feeling of being lost, out of control, and not knowing how to fight your way back to sobriety. As they’ve done throughout Bright Summer Night, the Candle Wasters use light and music and editing to great effect here, but Neenah Dekkers-Reihana’s acting deserves a lot of credit as well; the episode wouldn’t be half so effective if she weren’t able to let us right into Awhina’s head.

But mimicking the experience of a bad trip isn’t the point of the episode. The point is Awhina and Bryn’s relationship. When Awhina is at her lowest and most out-of-control, she wants Bryn. She dreams of him; she asks for him; she looks for him. But Bryn is nowhere to be found. And when she finally starts to come back to her senses, she realizes that being abandoned by Bryn isn’t the worst thing in the world.

Bryn and Awhina’s break-up has been inevitable from the beginning of BSN. From their very first conversation in “Puck,” it’s been clear how dysfunctional their relationship is. Since they graduated high school, their priorities and interests have wildly diverged, with Awhina diving deeper into Kaitiaki while Bryn focuses on his academic career. Awhina desperately wants Bryn to be more present, and Bryn desperately wants Awhina to be less demanding. But Bryn wants space to focus on the things he’s really interested in, and while he’s been away, Awhina has gained too much confidence to simply concede to what he wants. Awhina is blossoming, and Bryn doesn’t support her. If there was ever a time when they were a good fit, it’s long past.

All of this has been present in Bryn and Awhina’s relationship since “Puck,” and all of it is present in “Awhina.” But the best part of “Awhina” is that it doesn’t just focus on the dysfunction; for the first time in the series, it shows us why the relationship once worked. From Awhina’s visions and her monologue, we can see why she cares about Bryn, what he’s given to her, why she’s stayed with him so long. Which means that when she breaks things off, there’s a real sense of loss. Their break-up is necessary, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt.

Support and loss and moving on: That’s the major story of “Awhina.” But there are a few moments in the episode that are only tangentially related to that story. Poppy and Thea introducing themselves to Nicky, for instance, or Mia introducing herself to Awhina. Those moments are glaring in their straightforwardness; after nine episodes of atmosphere and mystery, of only catching stories out of the corner of your eye, it’s almost shocking to see someone simply walk up to someone else and say, essentially, “Hi, I’m Mia. Here’s what’s up with me.”

These moments aren’t really part of Awhina’s story; they’re a set-up for the endgame of the series as a whole. In “Awhina,” all of the characters start to come together. People who’ve been brushing past each other all night, dancing in and out of each other’s stories, are finally meeting and making connections. They’re congregating in a single place for a single purpose.

It’s thematic, of course, but I suspect that it’s also strategic. With all these people in one place at one time, we could be in for a really excellent final episode.

Random Bits

Let’s go ahead and call “Awhina” the “ACCOSTED” of BSN: On-the-nose monologues, painful realizations about one’s own life, and plenty of thematic parallels. (See Fairy Bianca’s quote, below.)

Fairy Bianca, talking about her old job, I think: “I kind of want to go back though, because, like, it was good before. But when I’m there, it is so soul-sucking. I don’t feel supported, and the service just isn’t that good.”

“Oh, yup, I see him.” I love you, Nicky.

“Where’s Puck?” 

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

BSN Mini-Review: "Mia"

“Mia” isn’t entirely devoid of an episodic story, but it’s far less focused on its central character than any other episode so far. Not only do we occasionally step out of Mia’s head (as when Mia leaves the room, and the camera stays with Lena), but also the second half of the episode wraps up or furthers several narratives that have little to do with Mia at all.

Which is not to say that Mia doesn’t have a story. She does; it’s just a very small and subtle one, and in some ways, it wraps up halfway through the episode. Mia has spent this whole party—in “Lena,” in “Zander,” and in the first half of “Mia”—trying to cut loose and forget about her troubles. One gets the sense that Mia is a person who generally tries to forget her worries and focus on fun. But forgetting only takes you so far. Sooner or later, you have to reconnect with the world. For Mia, the tipping point happens when she sees Bryn trying desperately to hang on to a couple of people he barely knows. Thwarted, he turns to Mia—and Mia decides it’s time to find her friends, even if that means wading back into the awkward waters of her relationship with Zander.

Mia’s story works partially because it’s very simple, and partially because so much of it has been released in dribs and drabs through other people’s episodes. It doesn’t take much work in “Mia” to establish the troubles that Mia’s running from, because we got a good long look at one of the big ones in “Zander.” Similarly, the resolution to Mia and Zander’s relationship issues works because we’ve had plenty of chances both to see their problems and their love. Mia’s speech to Zander makes sense of a dozen moments that precede it; it doesn’t bring any new information to the table, only clarifies and resolves what’s already there.

Deme and Lena’s resolution does not benefit from the same groundwork. To be fair, their story is really too big to resolve in the series. They can’t hook up or even make meaningful promises to each other, because Deme’s high. The most they can do is what they do in “Mia”: say what they’re feeling right now, and plan to talk about it in the morning.

Which would be fine, except that in resolving Deme and Lena’s story, “Mia” introduces an entirely new element: Lena’s desire not to be in a monogamous relationship. That’s a perfectly valid choice on Lena’s part, but it’s neither referenced nor implied anywhere else in the series. In “Lena,” Lena is laser-focused on Deme, and nowhere else in Bright Summer Night does she express any sort of discomfort with being limited or boxed in. Lena’s emphasis on remaining non-monogamous in “Mia” makes it seem as though it’s a major part of the story between her and Deme—but if that’s the case, why are we only hearing about it now? And if it’s not the case, why distract from the story from making it such a central part of Deme and Lena’s resolution? No matter what The Candle Wasters were going for, it would have been better served by setting up Lena’s feelings on monogamy earlier in the series.

All of that said, the fact that the resolution to the Lovers’ problems is sudden works better than it has any right to, and that’s down to Puck. Given the short run-time of BSN and the number of characters with major storylines, some stories were always going to have to get a quick wrap-up. The Lovers are the obvious choice—their problems are considerably simpler than Puck’s or Bryn’s or (one suspects) Awhina’s—but their resolution still feels a little overly pat.

Rather than run away from that, TCW use it. The Lovers’ easy resolution becomes a challenge to Puck. Puck, we’ve seen, has a lot invested in their nihilism. The idea that people could just forgive each other—that they could simply love each other enough to screw up and argue and then let it go—is entirely foreign to Puck’s experience and their worldview. It’s almost an insult. Moving out of Mia’s head and into Puck’s turns the Lovers’ sickly-sweet resolution into something just a little bit sour.

Random Bits

I love the way the lighting in the bathroom changes between “Deme” and “Mia,” and the way that details like the watermelon soap have faded, signaling the shift out of Deme’s drug-addled vision.

I finally, FINALLY know what’s going on with Bryn. Thank GOD. (Although if we don’t get a solid answer about the specifics of his relationship with Puck, I’m not going to be happy.)

I’ve been wondering for a while now if the lack of water is a symbolic/thematic thing, rather than a plot thing. Time will tell, I guess.

“I like other people too. Not you, Zander.” Heh.

Monday, August 29, 2016

BSN Mini-Review: "Deme"

There’s characterization in “Deme,” there’s plot in “Deme,” and there’s certainly plenty of humor in “Deme,” but the primary aim of the episode seems to have been to convey the subjective experience of being a particular kind of high. As in “Bryn” and “Nicky,” we spend the entire episode in the titular character’s head. Unlike Bryn and Nicky, Deme is “off [their] face,” as they put it, so getting inside their head isn’t in any way a cerebral experience. Every moment we spend with Deme in this episode is immediate; we’re not learning about their past or their relationships so much as we’re feeling what they feel.

Unsurprisingly, The Candle Wasters are extremely successful in that endeavor. The feeling you get watching “Deme” is probably as close to the feeling of being pleasantly drunk as you can get without actually consuming alcohol.  The swaying close-ups, the fuzzy pink light, the wandering music, the way certain sounds and sights suddenly overwhelm everything else. Even the way Puck suddenly appears in the background of the shot, with no fanfare announcing their presence, while Mia appears with a thunderclap. It all feels right.

Of course, because Deme is high, we have to take everything with a grain of salt. Being high can feel like being in love, but it’s not the same thing. We feel what Deme feels, in this episode, but Deme’s feelings can’t be trusted. Only time will tell if they’re truly in love with Lena. (If you’ve read a plot description of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, you probably have an idea, but there’s nothing in Bright Summer Night to tell you.)

Which also means that, although we get inside Deme’s head, we don’t learn very much new about them. Every other episode that Deme’s been in has given the sense that, with the exception of their infatuation with Mia, they have their life pretty much together. They’re both confident of and happy with their place in the world. They know what they want, and they have no qualms about declaring and pursuing that. “Deme” doesn’t alter that idea at all. It gives Deme a different person to pursue, but it neither challenges nor changes anything else about them. Which is fine, because Deme’s doing okay for themselves.

Zander, on the other hand, gets some development here. The Idleness actually makes Deme feel like they’re in love with Lena, but it’s pretty clear that it doesn’t do the same for Zander. He feels affection for Lena—who’s quietly taking care of him—but his declarations of love are driven by his competition with Deme and his unhappiness with Mia. The exact nature of that unhappiness remains somewhat unclear, but this episode repeats and expands upon Zander’s claim in “Zander” that Mia is “too much” for him. Combined with his breathing exercises, you start to get the idea that Zander’s an anxious person, and that Mia touches that anxiety off somehow. With the Idleness breaking down some of his inhibitions, he fixates on Lena because she’s quiet and kind and she doesn’t push. Mia pushes.

It’s a good thing Mia’s episode is next up. After an episode’s worth of people talking about her, worrying about her, reacting to her, I’m ready to get inside her head.

Random Bits

As far as I can tell, there’s no particular plot or thematic reason to put Puck in this episode, but Puck accounts for about 97 percent of the best moments, so who cares? (It also lets Puck do some pointing and laughing, as called for by the source material.)

What is it with TCW and bathtubs?

That bathroom must have been a nightmare to shoot in: Confined space, four characters, tricky lighting, and there’s a mirror that I imagine prevented filming from certain angles, lest the crew’s reflection show up on-screen.  They did a good job with it, though.


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.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic Reviewers by Gender: Angry, Neighborly, Nice Edition

The box office is finally moving out of the shadow of Captain America, and this week we have three new releases: The Angry Birds Movie, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, and The Nice Guys. Full numbers are below the cut, but two things jumped out at me. First, The Nice Guys has the lowest percentage of female critics I've yet seen, on both Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. And second, the largely-female-cast Neighbors 2 has the largest disparity between male and female Rotten Tomatoes scores I've yet seen, with female critics rating the movie positively 18 percent more often than male critics.

Also, it turns out no one particularly liked The Angry Birds Movie. Who'd have thought?

Friday, May 13, 2016

Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic Reviewers by Gender: Monstrous Money Edition

Captain America: Civil War continues to clear a path, with only one film willing to debut the week after it. (Well, two, but it doesn't look like literally anyone is reviewing The Darkness.) Here are the critic statistics for Money Monster as of about 7 pm Thursday.

Money Monster

Rotten Tomatoes

Rating: 65

Rating (Female Critics): 78

Number of Critics Counted: 62

Number of Female Critics Counted: 9 (14.5%)


Rating: 58

Rating (Female Critics Average): 67

Number of Critics Counted: 27

Number of Female Critics Counted: 3 (11.1%)

* Rotten Tomatoes gives a simple overall rating that is the percentage of all reviews that are "fresh" (that is, positive). Metacritic assigns a numerical value to each critic's review, and determines its ratings via an unknown weighting system of those values. So it's impossible to get the true female Metacritic score. Instead, I've simply averaged the individual scores of the female critics.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic Reviewers by Gender: Captain America Edition

All other films have fled in fear of Captain America: Civil War this week, so there's only one film to tally up the critics for. The percentage of female critics is lower this week than for any of last week's films, though of course the total numbers are higher, since everyone in the world is reviewing Civil War. (I bet those two facts are related, too -- though stuff like that will have to wait until I've collected enough data to analyze.)

Captain America: Civil War

Rotten Tomatoes

Rating: 92

Rating (Female Critics): 97

Number of Critics Counted: 223

Number of Female Critics Counted: 38 (17%)


Rating: 75

Rating (Female Critics Average): 77.4

Number of Critics Counted: 50

Number of Female Critics Counted: 5 (10%)

* Rotten Tomatoes gives a simple overall rating that is the percentage of all reviews that are "fresh" (that is, positive). Metacritic assigns a numerical value to each critic's review, and determines its ratings via an unknown weighting system of those values. So it's impossible to get the true female Metacritic score. Instead, I've simply averaged the individual scores of the female critics.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic Reviewers by Gender: April 29 Releases

As important as it is to have women on screen and behind the scenes, it's also important to have women critiquing movies and television. A while back, I started recording the number of female critics counted by Rotten Tomatoes toward their score for each new release. I dropped the project pretty quickly, but I've decided to pick it back up and expand it into a weekly feature. So, without further ado, here are the numbers for Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic for each of this week's wide releases, as of about 7 p.m. tonight. (They're not great. If you check back weekly, you should probably get used to that.)

Monday, April 25, 2016

Who's Watching Webseries: A Case Study

Photo credit: Personal Space

I thought it would be cool to know how the audience for webseries differs from the audience for traditional television. There are a lot of things that prevent me from doing a real statistical study on that, so in the mean time, I looked at an interesting case study involving Battlestar Galactica and an upcoming webseries called Personal Space.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

About That Thing That Just Happened on The 100

SPOILERS below for the most recent episode of The 100.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Thank You, Steven Moffat

Steven Moffat is leaving Doctor Who. I can’t--and don’t want to--deny that I’ve been looking forward to this day for a while. It would be one thing if Moffat were merely making a show I didn’t like, but he’s gone so far out of his way to undo the things I liked about Russell T. Davies’ show that it’s hard for me to take a live-and-let-live approach. I do not like Moffat’s Doctor Who. I’m glad he’s leaving. I’m looking forward to seeing what Chris Chibnall does with the thing.

That said, I try not to be relentlessly negative, when it comes to stories. Nearly every story is loved by someone. Nearly every story has something in it I can love. I would much prefer to find the one thing I love about a show than list everything I hate. Obviously, I don’t mind giving criticism--that’s kind of the point of this blog--but I want my criticism to come from a place of affection, from a love of stories in general and this story in particular. I want my criticism to be driven by a desire to fortify the positive potential of a story, rather than to tear anything down. That’s why I eventually stopped watching Doctor Who. I was starting to root for it to fail, and that’s not fun, or informative, or constructive.

But now, with Moffat’s tenure coming to an end, I find myself wanting to see what good I can find in his years. Moffat’s Who is built on the shoulders of--and sometimes in the ruins of--a show I love like few others. Surely, in all of that, there’s a thing or two I’d rather keep than forget. Surely, there’s something I can love.

So, against all odds, this is a post to express my gratitude.