South Park S20 still relevant.

South Park Season 20.

South Park Season 20.

The Simpsons are in their 28th season, and the last time they were even remotely funny was around season 13 or 14. So for the last ten years they’ve been painting by numbers, and a once cutting edge show has rendered itself completely irrelevant. And Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park, have clearly been thinking about this very carefully.

At the moment we’re up to episode 5 of the current season (20) on Comedy Central and it’s clear that it’s become a noticeably different beast to the South Park of five or six years ago. The main difference being, that instead of having neat, individual episodes that exist in their own bubble, independently of any episodes that come before or after, there are now three main story arcs that link each of the episodes across the whole season.

The yawn Simpsons.

The yawn Simpsons.

Inevitably, the main story arc gives us their take on the seemingly unsatirizable election, with the girls and the boys at the school divided into two factions hell bent on mutual destruction. Then there’s the internet troll story, which gets increasingly interesting the more it unfolds. And finally, there’s the Member Berries dig at J.J. Abrams and co and the never-ending stream of nostalgia-fuelled tedium we’re being subjected to because of their reliance on pre-existing franchises instead of ever coming up with anything actually original.

Much more riskily, as ever, they are reacting in real time to the events of the week which then get incorporated into that week’s episode. So last week they had Mr. Garrison – as the Trump stand-in – spewing forth a torrent of anti-female bile at his crowd of supporters. But when then a number of women get up to leave in protest, he quite reasonably asks them, so that’s where you draw the line? It’s fine for me to say all that stuff about all Mexicans being rapists and all Muslims being terrorists, but as soon as I start insulting women, well that’s when I’ve crossed the line?

That was the week that was.

That was the week that was.

They are down to ten episodes a season now, so inevitably you’re occasionally going to get the sense that they are just trying to jam too much into each episode. But taken as a whole, this is easily the funniest and the most relevant commentary on what’s going on at the moment in the US anywhere on television. You can follow it on Friday nights at 10pm on Comedy Central. But if you can, you should really try and see it from the beginning of the season. In the meantime, here’s a taster of what the debate looked like.

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Transparent, yet another perfect US dramedy.

Transparent.

Transparent.

Transparent sounds for all the world like one of those punchlines from an early Simpsons episode, one of the ones when, God be with the days, they were still funny. A California family have to deal with the emotional havoc caused when the family patriarch comes out and decides to live out the autumn of his years as the woman he’s always known he really was.

Written, directed and mostly starring women, all it needed was to be set in a hippy commune at the Joshua Tree run by a latter day Janis Joplin figure, played of course by Holly Hunter, who takes under her wing the emotionally lost stray waif played by the blondie one from Girls.

transparent03

Jeffrey Tambor, right.

When the show’s creator and showrunner Jill Solloway gave an interview in the New Yorker with Ariel Levy here, and she mentioned her cameo as a gender studies professor in one of the episodes, she seemed to be discussing those kind of views with fervour rather than the hint of irony one might have been hoping for.

Happily, Transparent is nothing like that. It’s about a completely normal family, that is to say a gloriously dysfunctional one, who just happen to be financially comfortable and fantastically Jewish – it makes Curb Your Enthusiasm look positively preppy.

Gaby Hoffman and Jay Duplass as two of the three siblings.

Gaby Hoffman and Jay Duplass as two of the three siblings.

The three grown up children are all apparently successful if secretly rudderless and quietly lost. So when their father decides to come out in episode one, yes that emotional turmoil is to some degree explained. But more to the point, it’s yet another complication that they all have to deal with.

What makes Transparent so good, and it really is very, very good indeed, is that like Girls and Louie before it, it is first and foremost a drama, out of which the comedy evolves.

With a sitcom, even ones as sophisticated as Curb Your Enthusiasm or the late great Larry Sanders Show, their primary, indeed their sole duty is to make you laugh. But a comedy drama has to involve you emotionally, so that the laughter that arises from the mess the characters make of their lives is tinged with sadness and recognition.

Lena Dunham, Jemima Kirke, Zosia Mamet, Allison Williams.

Lena Dunham, Jemima Kirke, Zosia Mamet, Allison Williams, those crazy Girls.

Of course you have to care about the characters in your sitcom for the jokes to have their full effect. But that’s not the same thing as being moved by them.

What makes Transparent so powerful is the forceful way that it engages you emotionally in the lives of its protagonists. So that by the time you get to the finale of season one, you’re left an emotional wreck after the carnage they wreak upon one another, in a way that only families can.

The genuinely great and now late Gary Shandling.

The genuinely great and now late Garry Shandling.

The writing, acting and production are almost painfully spot on, and the series glides confidently from the present day to the recent past and back again giving the whole family portrait an added poignancy.

If you were wondering what to do with your evenings, now that you’ve got through seasons one and two of Girls, look no further.

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A Death Row Tale; making a storyteller.

Making A Murderer.

Making A Murderer.

Of the many, many depressing things about the deeply disturbing Making A Murderer, the most troubling is the idea that not one but two juries of twelve men and women good and true managed to find Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey guilty.

As is the procedure with every jury, their duty was explained to them both plainly and repeatedly. They needed to be sure of the defendant’s guilt beyond all reasonable doubt.

To see him so obviously framed, couldn't help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land where justice is a game" Bob Dylan, Hurricane.

“To see him so obviously framed,
couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land
where justice is a game.”
Bob Dylan, Hurricane.

And yet, these juries were able to hear how two men of significantly lower than average intelligence were able to violently murder a woman in their own home, before chopping her up and burning her in their back yard, without leaving a shred of evidence or a single drop of blood behind in the house as evidence, without having any doubt whatsoever as to their guilt.

I’m ignoring obviously the ludicrously placed car key that magically turns up in the middle of the floor in Steven’s bedroom, in an area that had already been searched six times.

Michael Peterson, astonishingly, behind bars.

Michael Peterson, astonishingly, behind bars.

That a jury could hear the evidence in the Avery and Dassey trial, Making a Murderer, in the Michael Peterson case, The Staircase, in the Adnan Syed case, Serial season 1, and in the Tim Cole case, from Paul Kix’s recent New Yorker piece ‘Recognition’, and not see in front of them a mountain of doubt forming before their very eyes is quite simply hard to credit.

Which is not to say that they were all necessarily innocent, just that there was some doubt as to their guilt. That anyone could have heard any of those trials and not come away with at least a few, reasonable doubts almost defies belief.

The most charitable thing that can be said, and I’m clutching at straws here, is that it is no longer reasonable to expect ordinary people to be able to ignore the media circus that inevitably springs up around the more lurid cases. And that the sort of uninformed, gutter, tabloid journalism that that produces is impossible for a jury to steer clear of in this age of twenty-four hour “news” coverage.

Adnan Syed, whose story is told in Serial.

Adnan Syed, whose story is told in Serial.

Perhaps it is time to dispense with the jury system when it comes to murder trials. At least then, all we would have to deal with is the gross ineptitude of the judicial system, and the blind prejudices of some of its practitioners determined to profit by it.

So it was with a heavy heart that I sat down to watch A Death Row Tale: The Fear of 13. After watching Making A Murderer, The Staircase, and listening to Serial, all of which are captivating if incredibly depressing, and Serial season 2 by the bye, is every bit as good as season 1 though in a somewhat different way, the prospect of witnessing yet another unimaginable miscarriage of justice really didn’t appeal to me.

I’ll not give any of the details of Nick Yarris’ extraordinary story away, except to say that eventually, and mercifully, it has a happy ending.

Masterful storyteller David Yarris.

Masterful storyteller Nick Yarris.

I’m almost embarrassed to have to confess that this is yet another Storyville documentary that I’m recommending (reviewed earlier here). But then I remember all those over-produced, idea-free franchise films, all those pedestrianly produced television programmes and all those needlessly published books that get foisted on us every week, and I remind myself that the likes of Storyville need to be celebrated loudly from the tops of every and all available rooftops.

But the last word has to go to Nick Yarris. It was incredibly brave of film maker David Sington to make a film made up almost entirely of one man sitting in a chair and talking to us. But then again, what a man.

When Nick Yarris went to gaol at the age of 22, he arrived there as an anti-social drug addict who was barely able to read and write. And yet, through nothing than his his own force of will, he re-made himself as a thoughtful, educated and deeply intelligent man, who would eventually be transformed into a dazzlingly brilliant storyteller. And what a tale he has to tell.

You can see the trailer for A Death Row Tale here, for Making a Murderer here, and The Staircase here.

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Storyville and this golden age of documentary film making.

Muscle Shoals.

Muscle Shoals.

The BBC4 documentary strand Storyville isn’t part of what is clearly a golden age of documentary film making, it’s the principle driving force responsible for bringing this age into being.

Since kicking off in 2007-08, Storyville has helped fund over one hundred documentaries, each one even more impressive than the last.

In the 2013-14 season there was The Gatekeepers where we heard from the last six heads of the Israeli secret service, the Shin Bet, reviewed earlier here. Plus the mythic Muscle Shoals: The Greatest Recording studio in the World, reviewed earlier here, and the fascinating Google and the World Brain on Google’s attempt to digitize the world’s books, and what that might mean for the rest of us. And then there was the absolutely riveting The House I Live In, on America’s doomed war on drugs, and the way that their whole penal system has become little more than an elaborate excuse for institutionalised racism, reviewed earlier here.

The remarkable Rodriguez.

The remarkable Rodriguez.

Then in 2014-15 there was Mugabe and the Democrats, the surprisingly moving Particle Fever: The Hunt for the Higgs Boson, and the majestic Searching For Sugar Man about the genuinely extraordinary singer Rodriguez, reviewed earlier here.

Here, very briefly, are four from the current 2015-16 season:

Cartel Land.

Cartel Land.

Cartel Land brings vividly to life quite how unimaginable life in Mexico has become. When his three neighbours are beheaded by one of the local drug cartels, the local doctor Jose Mireles decides it’s time to take the law into his own hands. So he and a few of his similarly desperate neighbours take up arms and set up the autodefensas.

And within a few weeks, he and his civic minded vigilantes are moving through the state, convincing citizens from village to village to join them, take up arms, and defend themselves against the marauding cartels.

Without wishing in any way to spoil the story, what happens next is all too predictable. It is staggering to witness quite how corrupt Mexico has become, at every conceivable level, from top to bottom. And quite how impossible it seems to be to free yourself from it. And although on the surface this isn’t a depressing film, the more you think about it, and you will think about it, the more dispiriting a place the world seems to have become.

A sobre Amos Oz listens to his younger self.

A sober Amos Oz listens to his younger self.

The six-day war: Censored Voices is very much a companion piece to The Gatekeepers above. When the celebrated novelist Amos Oz came back to the Kibbutz where he lived for so much of his life after fighting in the 6 day war, he and his fellow soldiers were so conflicted by what they had just been a part of, that they each recorded a series of interviews with one another so that they could air and explore that unease.

The basic question they asked themselves was, how can what was supposed to have been a defensive war result in the mass deportation of tens of thousands of people from their land?

Nearly half a century later, we watch as the elderly men listen to what their thoughts had been barely ten days after what many people at the time were celebrating as Israel’s finest hour.

The remarkable Brenda Myers-Powell.

The remarkable Brenda Myers-Powell.

FBI Undercover seems like an innocuous enough tale. We follow one of the many very ordinary, and completely unqualified people recruited by the FBI after September 11th to root out terrorism. And then we follow the Muslim man he has been sent to trap. And suddenly, without anything actually happening, a young man’s life has been completely ruined.

If you’ve ever wondered how Daesh manages to attract its recruits, this will go some way to help explaining it.

And finally, Dreamcatcher: Surviving Chicago’s Streets follows a reformed prostitute as she walks the streets of Chicago bringing life-saving succour to her former colleagues. Which sounds hopelessly earnest and horribly dull, but is in fact incredibly moving. Brenda Myers-Powell is quite simply a living saint.

So often documentaries feel like something you ought to watch rather than something you’d like to watch. In reality, all of the above are unmissable. And if you can’t access the BBC iPlayer, get yourself a VPN.

It will take about 10 minutes to set up, but once it’s done you’re set. I use SaturnVPN. It’ll cost you no more than about $20 a year. It’s like Netflix for the intellectually curious. It’s the best investment you’ll make all year.

You can see the trailer for The Six-day War:Censored Voices here.

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David Simon’s latest TV series “Show Me A Hero”.

Winona Ryder, Oscar Isaac. photo credit: Paul Schiraldi/courtesy of HBO.

Winona Ryder, Oscar Isaac. photo credit: Paul Schiraldi/courtesy of HBO.

David Simon read Show Me A Hero by New York Times journalist Lisa Belkin in 2001, and immediately approached HBO about adapting it for television. But he got sidetracked with the phenomenally successful and justly lauded The Wire, and then by Generation Kill and Treme. So it’s only now that Show Me a Hero has finally made it to our screens.

As soon as he heard it was going ahead, Paul Haggis signed on as director without having to see any of the scripts beforehand. And it’s not hard to see what might have drawn him to it, apart of course from the obvious fact that it was Simon’s latest venture.

Haggis wrote and directed Crash in 2004, which explores the complexities of race and colour brilliantly, and could have been a masterpiece if only they’d held out against tacking happy endings on to three of its stories, those of the detective’s mother, the shop keeper and the TV director.

Crash.

Crash.

One of the first things that leaps out at you when you start watching Show Me A Hero is its apparent artlessness. A great deal of time and effort has been invested in rendering it entirely transparent. So that instead of using the medium to mirror the subject matter, as they did with the amphetamine fuelled fidgeting of The Wire, and the laid back languid southern rhythms of Treme, what we get here is Strindberg’s dream of being presented with something as if we were the fourth wall.

So the late 80s that the story is set in is seen not as the sort of stylized, immaculately dressed era that something like Mad Men would have presented it as. Rather, it looks and feels exactly as it did when you were actually living in it. Utterly, unforgivably vile, and cheap in a somehow expensive way. That hair, those shoulder pads, and the way that everything, even the architecture, all looks thin, insubstantial and devoid of any real depth.

The Wire.

The Wire.

The story centres around Nick Wasicsko who became the youngest mayor in America when taking up the reins at Yonkers, a suburb of New York City and a city in its own right within the larger state. For 5 or 6 years in the late 80s, its residents were up in arms over the social housing development that was being forced upon them against their wishes.

What’s so great about Simon is that he manages to keep his liberal sympathies in check without ever letting you lose sight of them. He focuses instead on showing us the multifaceted complexities that lie behind all apparently black and white issues.

There’s a reason the residents of Yonkers are so dead set against allowing public housing units allocated to black families into their area. Wherever that had been done before, the buildings that resulted all too quickly developed into Stygian centres for drugs and prostitution, and the organizational fulcrum for a network of petty, and not so petty crime.

Proponents of the scheme, which Wasiscko inadvertently came to front, said that that was only because of the way that those kinds of things had been handled in the past. That this scheme would be different (which, unusually, it was), and that in any case, they were only talking about a paltry 200 housing units.

Treme.

Treme.

I’ll not say anything more, other than that I just about managed to avoid looking up what the actual outcome was, so drawn in was I with the story, and so should you. But if you recognize the Fitzgerald quote, or know the book, you’ll know that the full quote is Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.

The one thing I can say is, and forgive me for sounding a little smug, but the whole sorry story is a dreadful reflection on that era and, dare I say it, America. Happily, the idea that the good people in the larger community might shun a minority to such a degree that they refuse to let them even live amongst them is, happily, not something that could possibly happen in this day and age. And certainly not in Ireland. Obviously.

You can see the trailer to Show Me A Hero here.

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