Please enjoy this abbreviated Screen Time. I presume you’re too busy scooping up cinema-quality OLED TVs this Black Friday, having been persuaded by Tony Davis that it’s time to upgrade your home theater, to read this anyway. Still, I wanted to share a few things that I’m thankful for after a weirdly tumultuous year, both in the world of politics and in my own personal life.
I am, first and foremost profoundly thankful for the good folks at The Bulwark for scooping me out of the water following a rather, ah, eventful end to my previous professional voyage. Jonathan V. Last and Sarah Longwell are good people and I’ve always been glad to count them as friends and allies. And I’m glad they allowed me to peddle my specific brand of nonsense to you all; I hope you’re getting as much out of this newsletter (and podcast!) as I’m putting into it. (And if there are any typos in this newsletter, I beg your indulgence, as I chose not to bother my vacationing coworkers by asking them to take a second look at this before I sent it to you.)
Speaking of podcasts, I’m thankful that Across the Movie Aisle has returned! There was a minor technical snafu when we published the first episode, so many Bulwark+ readers haven’t seen it pop in their inbox. But it’s there! Check it out. We’re going to have some great members-only bonus episodes each and every week in addition to the flagship show.
I’m thankful that movie theaters are innovating to try and survive the current Coronavirus-related crisis they’ve found themselves in. Between private watch parties, computer-programmed spacing of assigned seating, and retro lineups designed to appeal to film fans of all ages, they’re making a real go of it at a difficult time. (I’ll be even more thankful when studios decide to help them out a bit by offering up new content again.)
I’m thankful for the proliferation of smart and interesting writers who have taken a sideways glance at the press releases offered up by participants in the streaming wars, folks like Richard Rushfeld and The Entertainment Strategy Guy. If you’re not reading them, you don’t have any idea what’s really going on in the world of entertainment.
And I’m thankful, finally, for the streaming wars. Sure, it can be annoying trying to figure out which movie is on what streamer or juggling seven different subscriptions, trying to ascertain what to keep and what to drop in any given week. But during a particularly difficult time in the world when we’ve been asked to give up so much and spend such a large amount of time holed up at home, Netflix, Disney+, HBO Max, AppleTV+, The Criterion Channel, and every other service we have the chance to subscribe to has been an enormous boon.
It’s been a weird year. But it could’ve been worse! We all have much to be thankful for.
Review: The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special and The Mandalorian Season Two (Disney+)
Star Wars is both the best it’s been in years and the worst it’s been in years.
Worst first: The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special, which pays homage to its infamous predecessor by being bafflingly bad. Unfunny and overlong, even at a scant 45 minutes, the whole thing is a reminder that Star Wars has really gone off the rails in recent years. That said, it does do us the favor of helping to crystalize what, exactly, went wrong with the sequels. Or, at least, one of the things that went wrong with the sequels.
The plot, such as it is, follows Rey on her journey to learn how to be a better teacher. She must educate Finn in the ways of the force, since apparently he’s a Jedi now. (I honestly can’t remember if this happened at the end of The Rise of Skywalker; I seem to have blacked all that out.) But she’s bad at teaching! It’s so frustrating! Fortunately, during Life Day, she can travel through time to see all of the other Jedi masters in the series hard at work.
And here’s where we see just why the sequels never quite worked: Rey’s just not that interesting, at least in comparison to Star Wars heroes past like Luke and Anakin and Leia and Yoda and Vader. Kylo Ren was interesting, insofar as he had an actual internal struggle to deal with regarding his family and his fate, and Rey has always been at her best when up against Adam Driver’s wannabe Sith Lord. But Rey’s just … kind of there. Poe Dameron and Finn, too. Just: kind of there. Taking up space on the screen.
This is not a knock on Daisy Ridley or John Boyega or Oscar Isaac, mind you. (Nota bene: none of the principal actors voice their characters in this animated special. This is not terribly surprising, considering how glad they seem to have been to wash their hands of this whole mess.) It’s not really their fault. They were caught between the push and pull of J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson and Kathleen Kennedy. There was no one on hand saying “Okay, this is where the story is going. This is what we’re doing. Here’s the through line.”
Allow me to suggest that this is why The Mandalorian is the best thing about Star Wars, arguably since Return of the Jedibut certainly since Revenge of the Sith. Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni have a good sense of what they’re doing, where they’re going, and what the show is. And what it has is something that’s been missing a bit in this, the new golden age of television: an episodic quality.
I’ve seen a few folks complain that the show is taking too long to get to the point, the point being, I guess, getting Baby Yoda back to his people. That we’re engaging in what amount to a series of standalone one-off adventures rather than moving things along. This strikes me as more or less incorrect just on a factual level, as we’ve had bits and pieces here and there, new characters like Space Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) and the Mandaladyians (the leader of whom is BSG alum Katee Sackhoff), as well as fan-favorites from last season like Cara Dune (Gina Carano) returning and menacing figures such as Moff Gideon (Giancarlo Esposito) rearing their ugly heads. Plus: clone tanks! One imagines it’ll all come together at the end.
But there’s certainly an episodic quality to the shows, a sort of A-Team or Bounty Law nature to them: a mysterious stranger rolls into town; he sets things right; and then he goes on his way. And that’s what I kind of love about The Mandalorian, the “weekly adventure” angle. What Favreau and Filoni are doing thematically—and what Disney+ is allowing them to do by rolling out a new episode every week instead of dumping the show on the Internet all at once for people to fuss over for 10 days before moving onto the next thing—is both structured and coherent.
And coherently structured storytelling is something the Star Wars universe has been sorely lacking for some time.
Assigned Viewing: The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978, YouTube)
I’m not going to sit here and lie to you: I haven’t watched this. At least, not all of it. But I have watched 12 minutes of it and I have listened to JVL talk about everything that happens in the program. And let me tell you: it is bananas. And at least it’s bad-interesting, as opposed to the new Holiday Special, which is simply bad-boring.