Saturday, July 29, 2017

Idiot Boxing: Black Mirror, season 1 (2011-2012); GLOW, season 1 (2017)

Bing - the central character in the second episode of the first
season. Bing is one of seemingly thousands or perhaps
millions of young people literally trapped within a massive,
endless network of  reality Internet shows and advertisements.
Black Mirror, season 1 (2011-2012)

The Twilight Zone grew up into a really, truly frightening adult of the 21st century.

The speculative fiction TV anthology series from the BBC seems to have only one central them - how could modern technology negatively impact human society? It's a basic notion which has driven speculative fiction for well over a century, dating back even to H.G. Wells, if not earlier. However, it has been a while since an actual TV show has tackled the subject in such a way. Each show (the seasons range thus far from three to six episodes) is a completely self-contained story that incorporates some aspect of modern technology, often social media, and imagines how it could exacerbate our absolute worst human impulses. As with the very best speculative fiction, it is far too often frighteningly easy to see how we are closer to these alternative realities or possible futures than we might like to believe.

This first season comes out of the gate charging hard. The story centers around the British Prime Minister getting coerced, through a kidnapping of a royal family member, into having sex with a pig on live television. What seems almost comical at first rapidly develops into a look at the nasty side of vindictive voyeurism. The second episode, in an even more "alternative reality" plunge, presents a world in which legions of young people are imprisoned and forced to power and support a range of online advertisements, avatars, and celebrity. They do this my spending most of their waking hours on stationary bicycles which provide electricity - electricity which in turn powers the non-stop assault of online reality shows and advertisements to which these slaves are bombarded. The only way to possibly escape their drudgery is to build up enough points, obtained through work, to buy a chance to try out on a reality show and become an online star, as rated by other viewers. If this seems frighteningly close to current reality, that is exactly as it should be. The third focuses on a couple who live in a future where our very memories are retained by devices embedded behind out ears. While this might initially sound brilliant, we quickly see how the inability to forget some of what we see and hear can actually be devastating.

This show is very much the kind of speculative fiction that we need right now. It will not surprise me if, in ten or twenty years, some of these episodes are cited in the same ways that George Orwell's 1984 has been cited as being terrifyingly prescient for its time. The three stories presented here are highly unnerving, and they are meant to be. I doubt that I will ever binge watch this show, as there is too much to absorb and the themes demand far more time than the 10 seconds it takes for Netflix to autoplay into the next episode. Still, I'm totally on board with this series.

GLOW, season 1 (2017)

A solid first season for this retro, feminist jam.

Those of my generation are likely to remember GLOW - the acronym for the Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling league that existed between 1986 and 1990. While I never watched the taped-for-TV shows when they originally aired, I was aware of it and even knew a few names of the bigger stars. This Netflix series takes the general story of GLOW's creation to tell the story of fourteen young women who, in mid-1980s Los Angeles, sign on to become performers in this novel idea of a show focused on female wrestlers who adopt characters and put on fighting shows like the then immensely popular World Wrestling Federation. This first season focuses mostly on Ruth (Alison Brie), a struggling actress just trying to break into the business, and her friend Debbie (Betty Gilpin), who was a soap opera semi-star who has stepped away from acting in order to raise her newborn child. These two have a massive falling out when Ruth sleeps with Debbie's husband, sending both of their lives into no small amount of turmoil. An odd form of salvation emerges in a newly-conceived ladies' professional wrestling TV show, dreamed up and overseen by a run-down B-movie director (Marc Maron). Ruth, Debbie, and a dozen other social misfits join the cast, attempting to learn how to wrestle, create memorable wrestling personas, and deal with various personal demons.

The show is a lot of fun, even if it doesn't always hit with every gag or attempt at poignancy. Still, there's more than enough to make it compelling. The dramas with the wrestlers is, while often comic, genuine enough to add some depth. And issues that at first seem glossed over or ignored, such as the racial and ethnic stereotyping of the wrestling characters, do get addressed eventually, if incompletely. As with so many "sports" movies, we get the fun of watching people attempt to learn something with which they have no experience. Seeing the inner workings of professional wrestling can be a fascinating eye-opener to viewers like me, who have a passing knowledge of the skill demanded by pro wrestling, without knowing exactly how the pros master such a deceptively taxing and physically punishing job.

A lot of the comic weight comes from the veteran pro, Marc Maron. His turn as the beaten down director Sam Sylvia is award-winning stuff. Anyone who knows a little bit about the angsty comic knows that this character wasn't a tremendous stretch for him, but he absolutely nails it with every cynical glance and snide observation. While Sylvia is not the main attraction, he steals nearly every scene he's in. This is not the lessen what Brie, Gilpin, and the supporting players contribute. They're all excellent, offering hints at some deeper story lines to come in any potential future seasons.

I was happy with where this rookie season ended up, and I'll look forward to what the talented creators and cast do for an encore, should they be given the chance.