Now it’s dark. The winter is upon us even if it technically isn’t yet by the solstice. Surely this means we’re looking for things to watch, to listen to, to consume…though of course we always are doing that anyway around here.
Each week you’ll find in this space a set of recommendations from our writers, ranging from TV and film to music and podcasts, or whatever else we might be into at the moment. These things may or may not be new to the world, but that’s not the point. What matters is what’s interesting, and what’s worth your time.
This week’s entries include: The Last Man on Earth; a scene from Curb Your Enthusiasm; some award winning photography; a revisit to The Matrix; “Vienna” by Ultravox; and Handsome Jack.
TV Recommendation: The Last Man on Earth
Annie Flowers: The Last Man on Earth was hardly a blip on the public consciousness throughout its four seasons on the Fox Network. And if you don’t remember it, I don’t blame you. Most people don’t recall the post-apocalyptic show, which is unfortunate because it left such a deep impression on me that, to this day, the cancellation of the show still smarts.
Too soon for a pandemic-based show, you say? It first premiered back in March of 2015 to positive reviews. This strange, dark comedy of a lone man-child left standing after a killer virus wipes out the entire global population was unfortunately ahead of its time.
Long before masks were the norm, long before coughs were viewed as deadly, and farewells were said without any real closure, The Last Man on Earth tackled all of those topics in its own twisted way.
The pilot opens with Phil Tandy Miller (Will Forte), said man-child, living his lonely existence to its fullest, as he searches for any possible signs of remaining life in the United States, swims in margarita pools, dates mannequins, and befriends a bunch of sports balls of different varieties (not unlike Tom Hanks in Cast Away). Phil, having orchestrated every idiotic fantasy he can conjure, eventually gives up. Lonely and depressed, he is ready to join his loved ones. But as he is about to commit one final lonely deed, he spots the thing for which he has been searching: hope.
There is smoke on the horizon. And with smoke, life.
As Phil meets Carol Pilbasian (Kristen Schaal), not only is true love just around the corner (uh… sort of), but we understand the structure of the show. Nearly each episode brings in new characters in a revolving door of big-star names, and a few regulars and supporting cast members that infuse life and heart into Phil and the series.
Sadly, the show ended on a massive cliffhanger. But don’t let that deter you from venturing on this journey. During a recent rewatch, I found myself comforted by the strength of these loveable characters who survived the killer virus and are now managing to navigate the desolate world and mold a better future. As dark as the show gets, there is also real heart. The characters search, and sometimes find, love, family, and the closure they’ve been seeking.
Landscape Photographer of the Year
Christopher Pilbeam: As anyone else who frequents London Bridge station will have noticed, the gallery for Landscape Photographer of the Year 2021 is on display. I always find these collections a source of inspiration—not only are they beautiful to look at, but they all seem to tell a story in all manner of genres. The Historic Britain category, for example, evokes epic fantasy, and in Lucie Averill’s ‘Remains of the Day’, a touch of dystopia. The Urban Life category will move you with its amusing and poignant depictions of human life; it makes me proud to go ‘I’ve been there!’ or ‘I live in that city!’. My personal favourites include ‘Comet Neowise over StoneHenge’, ‘Elf Storage’, and ‘The Birds’. Congratulations to all the winners—I hope you find their works as evocative as I do.
“They can’t middle!”
Clay Dockery: It is amazing that, over 30 years after Seinfeld debuted, Larry David can still single out moments of life that are universally true and hilarious. Those are the things I find funniest in both Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Not the most awkward moments, when George or Larry are most heinous, but the little things. Those amazing observations just feel real but have maybe never been articulated by anyone previously. And Larry’s version of this almost always has a sharper edge than Jerry Seinfeld’s observational humor, which makes it much more entertaining for me.
The latest season of Curb Your Enthusiasm has actually had some really great examples of this so far. (I would say overall that these last couple of “revival” seasons have been significantly less funny as a whole than the show at its height, but it can still bring it from time to time.) Among the keys to the current season has been Vince Vaughn’s contribution in the Freddie Funkhouser role. Vaughn has been a hilarious friend/foil to Larry and a worthy successor to the dear departed Marty Funkhouser (the late Bob Einstein).
The moment that had me snorting with laughter the most so far this season was the combination of those two things in S11E3, “The Mini Bar,” when Freddy and David attend a dinner party put on by the greatest of all of Larry’s foils, Susie (Susie Essman). At Susie’s party, Freddy and Larry are shoved to the ends of the table while Larry’s boring and obnoxious (though hilarious to us) Cousin Andy (Richard Kind) is seated in the middle of the table. Which makes the dinner table conversation, the only good thing about having to attend a dinner party, an awful experience for everyone else.
When Larry and Susie head to the kitchen to regroup he spells it out in his direct and unforgettable way, “They can’t middle!” It absolutely cracked me up, because it is so true. Any dinner conversation has to have a middle. One person dominates the whole thing, disaster. A quiet grump. You have to have someone in there who is funny, who is willing to stir things up, and of course, who won’t ask Cheryl (Cheryl Hines), “Do you like fishing?” In that case, you need Larry David and Freddie Funkhouser, who are both “great middlers,” to save the day. Which they do. By turning the conversation to death and cancer. OK, so maybe the show still does have a bit of an edge.
Revisiting The Matrix
Alix Turner: Every morning this week, I’ve woken up excited about this day arriving: tonight, I’m taking my teen son to see The Matrix at the cinema, its twentieth anniversary presentation. The original release of The Matrix and its two sequels were major date nights with his Dad, but of course my boy has only seen them on a TV screen until now, and I can’t wait. I kind of hope he feels the same!
I remember turning up to the cinema for that date completely in the dark about what to expect. This was a period when teaser trailers did just that (not telling us almost everything to expect like trailers seem to nowadays) and the WhatIsTheMatrix.com (which now points to information about the latest sequel) internet campaign was radical and intriguing. When Neo (Keanu Reeves) made the choice to have his eyes opened and seemingly slid down a mesmerising tunnel, our eyes as audience members were opened up too and cinema was never again the same: cyberpunk arrived in the wide popular consciousness, “bullet time” fight sequences became so famous that they were parodied, and the idea of a simulated reality (which also featured in Koji Suzuki’s Loop a little earlier) became a regular water-cooler topic.
Since The Matrix was released, film fans have also learned that the Wachowskis are not brothers but sisters, and that the steps towards freedom that Neo and his comrades made (including the choice of red or blue pill) can be seen as an allegory for a transgender identity journey. It will be fascinating to watch the film again tonight, this time through the “lens of transness”.
Music Recommendation: Handsome Jack
Steve Swift: When you call a band Handsome Jack, your music had better be blooming good. Fortunately, this adjacent to New York band who play, they say, Boogie Soul, have a sound that’s full of fruity horns, Country Rock and sassy Soul.
Their fourth full length album, Get Humble, has just been released and it’s a massive step up. Their other albums are already great, so you can see what we’re dealing with this one.
No need to be humble about this album. If Handsome Jack gives you his card, keep it safe.
Another Music Recommendation: “Vienna” by Ultravox
Caemeron Crain: Television may well be a visual medium (it’s in the name, after all!) but I’ve always been of the mind that the sound is just as important. Sometimes the music fits so perfectly that it raises a scene to transcendence, or provides just the right kind of landing place as the closing credits hit. And sometimes I am so taken with the use of a song in an episode of TV (or in a film) that I find myself listening to it over and over again, seeking out the music video to see how its themes resonate, and perhaps other music by the same artist.
This week I’ve had “Vienna” by Ultravox stuck in my head all week for this reason, and I’ve been loving it. The song brings the third episode of Yellowjackets to a close, and it wouldn’t be right for me to describe that scene here (you can read what I have to say about the episode in full if you’re so inclined), but you also don’t need the scene to enjoy the song. It just takes that enjoyment up a notch.
The song offers a slow build of chunky electronic beats that climaxes when the chorus hits. I always love a good climax. Almost as much as I love a good bridge, and the one in “Vienna” is absolutely wonderful. I haven’t been quite as lucky poking around for other Ultravox songs to listen to, so if you’re a fan let me know what songs I should check out.
I always wonder if I would have been into this kind of music when it came out if I’d been older, or what my tastes might have looked like if I’d been an adult in the early ‘80s (instead of an infant). There’s no way to know that, of course. But I do feel like there remain unfound treasures for me in these previous eras of music, sitting just outside the mainstream, and I find this thrilling.
Also, you should watch Yellowjackets. Buzz!
What have you been into this week? Let us know in the comments!