Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you,
1. The “Star Wars” Prequels Don’t Deserve Your Hatred. In 1999, a little movie called “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace,” the first installment in the “Star Wars” prequel trilogy, entered theaters to decidedly mixed reviews. Sixteen years and two subsequent prequel installments later, the “Star Wars” prequels have garnered widespread derision from many fans and critics. But is all of this deserved? For The A.V. Club’s “Star Wars” week, Jesse Hassenger argues that the “Star Wars” prequels are imaginative space operas worthy of the originals and don’t deserve your hatred.
Beyond its status as the first “Star Wars” movie in more than a decade, beyond its promised revival of characters unseen in new filmed adventures for over three decades, this December’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” will be seen as a new chance for the series to shake off its status as a nostalgia object and reclaim its place as a producer of beloved, crowd-pleasing movies. This was something the 1999-2005 prequel trilogy did not accomplish — at least not universally (talk to anyone who actually experienced their childhood during that time about whether it was ruined by “The Phantom Menace”). Even given the amplified negativity of the internet echo chamber, there is a sizable gap between a trilogy that made more than a billion dollars domestic and said trilogy’s reputation as a colossal disappointment. Mixed reviews for “The Phantom Menace” and initially positive reactions to “Attack Of The Clones” and especially “Revenge Of The Sith” have melted down into a puddle of faint praise and definitive derision. Some of this is understandable. The very best sequels and prequels earn comparisons with their predecessors, and it would be difficult to argue that the “Star Wars” prequels are better than the original trilogy; at minimum, they’re less novel and fresh, and their story by design holds fewer surprises. At their worst, the prequels signal a troubling lack of interest from writer-director George Lucas in the apparently tedious business of writing and directing — or at least directing actors. The series was never built on witty banter, but the awkward phrasings stick out more when Lucas seems to focus on digitally pasting together bits of footage into “perfect” compilation takes that don’t always give his actors the space they need to transcend the B-movie dialogue. But movies are not just writing, and the “Star Wars” prequels are accomplished without Joss Whedon-esque zingers. They’re far better, far more fun space operas than their damaged reputations suggest, and in many ways fulfill the potential, hanging in the air for 16 years after “Return Of The Jedi,” for old-fashioned “Star Wars” adventures made with ever-advancing technology. For that matter, they’re also better written than they’re given credit for, setting aside Lucas’ sometimes hilarious fumbling with the English language. The actual story told across the three movies, wherein the fall of Anakin Skywalker is part of a larger plan by Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) to realign the Galactic Republic into a Galactic Empire, brings shading to the vast “Star Wars” universe. The original trilogy positions the Empire right away as a tyrannical evil; the prequel trilogy exposes, in an offhand way, the ills of the Republic it replaced. It begins in the more lighthearted “Phantom Menace,” which nonetheless puts forth the idea that the Republic turns away from its underclass on planets like Tatooine. Anakin’s home planet turns out to not be so different under democracy, and when the future Darth Vader (Jake Lloyd, very much a child actor but likable in his gee-whiz way) is freed from slavery, there’s sadness in his inability to free his mother, or anyone else stuck in the dregs of the desert planet.
2. TV’s Obsession With Police Violence and Black Lives Matter. Since television is a mass cultural medium, it often assumes, addresses, and responds to current events and the culture at large. In the last year or so, police brutality has become a prominent issue in the culture, especially the responsive Black Lives Matter protests. But when television tackles these topics, what responsibility does it have to educate or to simply not trivialize or offend? Flavorwire’s Pilot Viruet explores TV’s obsession with police violence and Black Lives Matter and how various shows have handled the issues.
Television is a form of entertainment above all else. It can be used to educate, to enlighten, to prompt discussion, and so on, but the majority of Americans view TV as a way to relax at the end of a work day, to get sucked into someone’s fictional drama or comedic mishaps. While these episodes [about police violence] can certainly remain entertaining — “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” is one of the funniest shows on television, “The Carmichael Show” packed more laughs per minute into an episode about police brutality than its summer NBC counterpart “Mr. Robinson” had in an entire season, and no drama is faster-paced than “Scandal” — some viewers may still find them off-putting and a departure from what they’re used to watching. But what’s worse is that when the episodes come off pandering or even offensive. Last season, “The Good Wife’s” “The Debate” had trouble struggling to join the conversation. The episode begins with a title card that explained it was “written and filmed prior to the grand jury decisions in Ferguson and Staten Island,” and then shows cell phone footage of a man who died at the hands of police officers. It gets worse from there, the awful centerpiece being a conversation in which Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) and Frank Prady (David Hyde Pierce) talk about race and brutality while the only people of color around are the kitchen staff. It is literally a scene of two white people discussing race in the presence of the help, unnamed characters of color who are nothing more than a plot device shoved in because the rest of the screen looked too white. The episode was gross, for lack of a better word, and it didn’t add anything to the discussion. As David Sims of “The Atlantic” succinctly put it, “It felt patronizing, to say the very least, and like the show was trying to acknowledge recent events while admitting it lacks the authority to really dig into them.” But there is something important to be learned from the disastrous “Good Wife” episode: In order to address diverse issues, television needs diverse writers and cast members. “The Debate” was written by two white people, directed by a white woman, and featured mainly white characters in the major speaking roles. It’s no surprise that it was so clumsy — there was no one around with a personal connection to the issue to prove some much-needed nuance and direction. “These shows are so overwhelmingly white and typically male that when you even consider touching on something like this, that affects other cultures predominantly or disproportionately, now you’re in a losing position before you even start,” says [Eric Haywood, writer and producer for “Empire”]. “Maybe your intention is literally to grab the hot story — the headline — service it for one hour and then check off your box that says, ‘Well, we did a #BlackLivesMatter episode here so we’re good for another eight seasons of [not] doing anything black.'”
3. Why Won’t the Dead Stay Dead on TV? Television has a history of “killing” characters and then bringing them back to life whenever it’s narratively convenient. From soap operas to prime time dramas, it’s a good way of goosing audience sympathies only to shock them with another, more positive reveal. However, many critics believe this is a cheap ploy that trivializes the characters and the series as a whole. The Hollywood Reporter’s Tim Goodman explores why characters on TV never stay dead in a spoiler-filled column.
Glenn, “The Walking Dead”: Only Jon Snow and Glenn are truly getting heated reactions via social media. That’s a sign that viewers are torn and they’re annoyed but at least involved. That might be the bottom-most level of validation a writer/showrunner can get, but hey — maybe that’s enough. In any case, Glenn’s apparent death is a very, very big deal for the critical fallout of “The Walking Dead” — the veracity of the death has by far the most riding on it for the series. That’s because “The Walking Dead” has been criticized before (many times) about people surviving what look like impossible odds. But in this case, these really are impossible odds. If Glenn survives this, no other death on “The Walking Dead” can be believed, and that robs from the writers of the show their most powerful tool. If Glenn survives, any future death will have to be so patently obvious as to the outcome that there can be no doubt. And, if Glenn survives, there will be doubt on those future deaths no matter how obvious. No one will ever believe or be fooled again.
Verdict: For me, Glenn needs to be dead. Even though “The Walking Dead” is a genre series, the show is rooted in its own kind of realism. That realism, in fact, is what makes the series work and when the disparate elements are clicking, it’s one of television’s very best shows (not only one of its most popular shows). However, if Glenn manages to live — and I can’t imagine a scenario that executive producer Scott Gimple could come up with where I buy the fact that Glenn survived — all of that realism is lost. All of it. Like “Homeland” and so many other shows before it, “The Walking Dead” can’t use a gimmick that bends reason and plausibility and still expect to be taken seriously.
4. Sickness and Health: “Getting On” and “Master of None.” The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum’s TV column consistently features some of the best writing around today. She tackles many different types of show, responding to them with an honest, empathetic open mind. In the most recent column, Nussbaum writes about “Getting On” and “Master of None,” two small indie shows about sickness and health respectively.
Even in an age of downer comedies, “Getting On” is a hard sell. It’s set in a failing extended-care ward, whose patients are elderly women. The caretakers do a saintly job, but their own lives are stunted: the doctors are solipsists, the nurses are martyrs, and every patient is going to die. Both aesthetically and in its style of humor, the show leans hard into ugliness, with shit jokes, dementia jokes, and enough aging-vagina jokes to make Charlie Sheen blush. In other words, it’s a humiliation comedy, set in one of the more actively humiliating realms of life; a medical show with few of the healing truisms of “Grey’s Anatomy” or “Call the Midwife”; and a female-ensemble show stripped of illusions of empowerment. Yet “Getting On,” which is based on the acclaimed British original, and which is now in its final season on HBO, lingers in my mind as much as, if not more than, almost any other dark comedy, even in this era of exceptionally good options. (“Review,” “BoJack Horseman,” “Girls,” “Veep,” “Louie,” “Doll & Em,” “You’re the Worst,” “Rick and Morty” — I could go on. Why do people even talk about the drama on cable when the comedy field is so much stronger?) “Getting On’s” signature is a pungent blend of compassion and nihilism, a sensibility that may be recognizable to anyone who has floated in the miasmic half-life of a hospital — the definition of “You had to be there.” Its best jokes work as a magnifying lens for people the world usually prefers to keep invisible. Only you know if this is your kind of thing. If it is, please go back and watch the excellent first two seasons, which, with only six episodes each, are easy to catch up on. Many of the show’s strongest bits are moments of slapstick that are hard to imagine on any other show; they mine the foulest aspects of aging and medical distress for “Jackass”-level hilarity. In one of the standout episodes in Season 2, Varla — a bigoted, manic old crone, played by the great June Squibb — is scheduled to check out of the ward, only to have the process degenerate into racial slurs and ball-grabbing. Eventually, Varla strips down and gets caught in an automatic door, her squat naked body squashed and flapping, while she howls as if she were Queen Lear. In the new season, an addled elderly woman gets stapled repeatedly in the head as part of a medical procedure, and smiles blankly as her family looks on in horror. The scene goes on for so long that it begins to feel like too long — and then it goes on for one beat more, rounding the corner from punishing to hilarious.
5. A Most Personal Conversation With a Most Public Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. A legendary basketball player and a fixture of pop culture for many, many years, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar spoke about what it was like to convert to Islam when he was an active player in the NBA as a part of the Muslim-Cultural Students Association keynote event at Northwestern University. This event took place one week before the tragic terrorist attacks in Paris. In light of recent events, Criticwire would like to highlight the personal conversation with a most public figure. RogerEbert.com’s Omer M. Mozaffar converses with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar about life as a public Muslim American.
Once, Islam in America was Muhammad Ali. His boxing earned our national applause, his politics earned national disgust, and his perseverance earned global reverence. On the other hand, Islam in America was and is geopolitics. In the 1970s, we positioned Islam through the four events that dominate the entire conversation today: the OPEC Oil Embargo, the assassination of Israeli Olympic athletes, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the Ayatollah Khomenei. We trace everything back through those narratives: 9/11, ISIS, the War on Terror, Palestinian Self-Determination, the Iranian Nuclear Deal, the Taliban, and for the Right-wing, all-things Barack “Hussein” Obama. But through it all, for this Pakistani kid from the South Side of Chicago, as well as so many Muslims across the country, so much of Islam was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Meaning, Islam was all those other things, like piety, politics, and activism, but, through Kareem’s example, Islam was a persistent determination to be the best. As Muhammad Ali went into retirement, Kareem was winning NBA championships and breaking records. He followed a career less like the boxer and more like the late tennis great Arthur Ashe, transitioning from premier athlete to respected social critic and author. This November 6th night, however, at Northwestern University, in an event entitled sponsored by their Muslim Cultural Students Association, entitled “Champion. Scholar. Believer.,” his goal was to speak about Islam. First, however, we sat together, letting him relax as we planned out the evening. Because he carries such a polite slouch, as lanky as he always was, it is easier to overlook his presence. I have the same thing in my own behavior: it is not merely a slouch, but a polite slouch, to speak eye to eye to people when they are shorter, as they usually are. In his case, they always are. He is definitely quiet. He has those moments of abrasiveness that we feel when we hope for generous attention from someone shy, especially from a celebrity. But it is not abrasiveness. It is a modesty that comes from carrying a burden in the mind and heart. I wonder if the gravity I project on to him is the simple prison of celebrity, never being given — in his case for half a century — the privilege of anonymity. Or is it the weight of Race? Every African American I have met from his generation, nearly 70 years old, carries it in posture and facial expression. When you are a Person of Color you are not permitted to not be a Person of Color. More than that, Race is not the concern that Whites will hurt you. Race is the burden of keeping yourself standing straight, glued together in an environment that shows in discourse and institution that it wants to crush and shred you.
Tweet of the Day:
“The Walking Dead” takes place in an alternate reality in which no one has heard the word “zombie” but the name “Negan” exists
— patrick (@pattymo) November 16, 2015