TV show wise, thank goodness for Netflix and its automatic transfer to the country you are in (please take note spotify (I'm very disconnected from music right now) and Amazon Prime (to get the third season of Outlander on UK Amazon I had to try everything I had and much mucking around to sort it out as I was previously a Prime subscriber back home, and this was despite having a UK Amazon account for many years- before I had US and Australian ones in fact)). I'm not sure what UK prime time looks like nowadays (I have a TV at my AirBnB but I've not turned it on as yet) but my previous experience has been wall to wall soap operas and reality TV. I'm sure that isn't all that exists as I watch a lot of good British made TV and also this was coloured by my staying in hostels previously and therefore not having control of the TV. Maybe it is because this that I will be recommending a US made show which is on Netflix.
The show I have been watching recently dropped on UK and Australian Netflix. The show was on other channels earlier as the first season was aired in 2016 originally and Netflix just got the rights and dropped the first season in one hit along with debuting the first episode of the second season in September. The show is the newest sitcom from Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-nine creator Michael Schur, The Good Place. Check out the first season trailer...
That gives you the plot to a degree but just in case you didn't watch or the link messes up, the summary is as follows. Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) finds herself in a office setting where she is greeted by Michael (Ted Danson) who advises her that she has died and is now in the afterlife. Michael tells Eleanor that due to the good works she did whilst alive, she has been placed in "the good place" for her afterlife. As she is welcomed, Michael walks her through the neighbourhood of the good place in which she is to live, and to her very small and insanely quirky (for want of a better word) cottage in the neighbourhood. He puts on a video of the work she did in Africa for human rights and talks about her work as a death row lawyer, and introduces her to Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper) a Senegalese professor of ethics and moral philosophy who is supposed to Eleanor's soul mate (in the good place everyone has a soul mate). After Michael leaves them, Eleanor reveals to Chidi that the video of her life is not her life and that she was not a lawyer or that good a person at all. Eleanor is sure she is not supposed to be in the good place and asks Chidi to help her with this. In the course of the first episode, you are also introduced to Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil)- a wealthy British philanthropist of Pakstini descent, Tahani's soulmate Jianyu Li (Manny Jacinto)- Taiwanese Buddhist monk who has taken a vow of silence, and Janet (D'Arcy Carden)- the information system and assistant for those in the good place that takes human form.
I would strongly recommend not investigating the show at all online due to spoilers. Just start on it. I'm a big fan of Michael Schur's shows (the ones he created- he also wrote for the US version of The Office which I'm not a fan of due to my love of the original UK version but I know many folks are fans), and I love to see here like Brooklyn Nine-nine a diverse cast, and like both Brooklyn Nine-nine and Parks and Rec very cynical humour of the kind you don't often get in US sitcoms and some solid roles for women. I am also a long term fan of Kristen Bell and Ted Danson, and the presence of either on their own without Schur in the creator's chair would likely have resulted in my watching the show. Bell takes the sass she honed many moons ago as Veronica Mars and adds to that an adult cynicism and still manages to make the potentially unlikable and selfish Eleanor into a very likeable character. Danson in the element he has perfected over decades is amazing, and the continual cheerfulness and odd naivete he gives to the character of Michael is delightful- yes naivete despite Michael being a hundreds of years old being. The actors I was not familiar with (Harper, Jamil, Jacinto, and Carden) are also really amazing- Harper in making the straight man to the chaos not boring, Jamil in nailing the pretentiousness of Tahani, Jacinto for spoiler reasons I won't go into, and Carden for making Janet definitely more than the robot that she keeps being called, I feel like Janet is the public servant of the afterlife. The guest cast is also good especially Adam Scott who should be in everything and is very different here from Ben in Parks and Rec. In addition for guest cast, there was much confusion of me trying to place Amy Okuda who plays a background character late in the season (only super nerds will potentially twig to this and they will likely just recognise her but it took me a while to realise she was Tinkerballa from The Guild). The premise is also quite novel which adds to the quality of the show. The whole idea of someone who is in the good version of the afterlife trying to qualify for her position there is something I've definitely not seen before. The writing is hilarious and along with Schur one of the main writers is Drew Goddard who worked on Buffy among other things. The mechanics of the afterlife in the show will likely lead to many comments by folks of various religions who watch the show especially in terms of a merit based afterlife and what that suggests for the moral philosophy that Hollywood proposes. This show is definitely a new favourite for me, and makes me think of the words "fork", "shirt", and "bench" very differently.
Onto podcast land... I am a late comer to the whole podcast vibe only joining in just over a year ago, and cliche dictates there is no-one more zealous than a convert, I feel I'm always talking people's ears off about some podcast or another. From initially cautiously investigating one podcast about a beloved TV show (The West Wing Weekly if you are curious), I now listen to over twenty different ones. I listen to a bunch on US politics (all by the same media company), a few fiction based story ones, a bunch of comedy ones on various themes, a few on cults (though all of them do have a habit of hitting my bugbear of adding an 's' to the biblical book of Revelation which drives me a tad nuts), and a bunch on true crime. There are ones that I never get behind on (the previously mentioned West Wing Weekly, My Favorite Murder, and Pod Save America in particular) and some that I'm still trying to binge to catch up on (I think I listened to about twenty old episodes of The Guilty Feminist, a new favourite, on a recent speed trip to London) and some I binge every few weeks to catch up on. Now there are some podcasts that seem to oddly have a universality of appeal which a few years ago would have been unheard of, except for everyone's old back up This American Life. Then came Serial and I remember being at my job at the time and half the people I worked with were listening to it constantly, and then I'd catch up with friends and many of them were listening to it, suddenly podcasts were the norm and everyone seemed to be in on it (just to confirm, I have listened to the first season of Serial now- people told me not to bother with the second). Also fascinating was that Serial was true crime which many people don't warm to but here were people I knew would not normally be interesting in true crime listening along and talking about it with fascination. Suddenly podcasts were a thing everyone was into (except me for some reason) and then as everyone picked their particular poison and the Serial excitement died down, it seemed there weren't podcasts for everyone, there were just podcasts for certain groups. But then the suddenly another one emerged in S Town- I was on the podcast train when it came out and binged it in two days and ended up emotionally drained for about a week afterwards. I think S Town was helped by its connections to Serial and This American Life but it was very different from either of these so if it was just their drawing power I would have expected numbers to dip and people not to finish it, but I remember the weeks after when people I knew would walk up to me with a knowing look in their eyes and a look of emotional exhaustion and I knew S Town had claimed another victim. So that is the lead in to say my new recommendation appears in the last week (literally since I started typing this post last Tuesday and now (Monday night of the next week)) to have become the next one of these universal buzz podcasts.
That recommendation is Dirty John.
It starts with the description of a coroner's examination of a body and then shifts to the story of a woman called Debra who meets a man, John, through a dating site, and he seems to be exactly what she is looking for. Debra has been married four times previously and has three adult daughters from those marriages (Terra, Jacqueline and the middle daughter whose name is only mentioned a few times and therefore I cannot recall). Debra is a successful and wealthy interior designer living in Orange County California who the podcast mentions uses her business to help single mothers by seeking to hire them and train them. John tells her he is also divorced and has kids from that previous marriage and that he is a doctor who has recently been working for Doctors Without Borders in Iraq. John seems odd but after a failed first date, they give it a second try and the relationship speeds ahead at an insane rate and soon enough John meets Debra's daughters. Jacqueline, who is the eldest and lives and works with Debra, meets him first and takes an instant dislike to him and tells her mother that sometime is off about this man. Terra, the youngest, is more trusting of new people than her big sister gives him a chance but then she starts to be wary when a few odd events occur and John is very unpleasant to her boyfriend, and she ends up terrified of him. With all of her daughters (the one whose name I can't remember as well- I'm really sorry to this woman but unlike both her sisters she was not a large part of the podcast nor was she interviewed for it) warning her against a man with whom she has had a very fast moving relationship, Debra has to pick between her family and John.
Now obviously that is just the beginning and I did leave a few spoilers even from the first episode out intentionally. I know everyone is binging this podcast now or has in the last week. I actually listened to it as the episodes were still dropping a few weeks ago- they were released one every few days over a week and a half- so to those who binged the whole thing, imagine having to wait even just a few days on episodes (so stressful). I found it via another podcast, Sword and Scale (BIG warning that one isn't for the faint hearted as it includes audio recordings from crimes including emergency calls and other things). That said the intensity of the podcast I got the recommendation from should not deter you listening to Dirty John- it is true crime but not the same kind of true crime as most of the others in that vein, and it definitely isn't one to give you nightmares. You get sucked in by the mystery of it all- whose body is the coroner describing at the beginning of the first episode? who stabbed the body (not a spoiler- that is in the first couple of seconds of the first episode)? who will Debra listen to, her daughters or her boyfriend? what is the deal with John as clearly something is not above board with him? It is very fascinating and in my case it made me want to go back and watch a TV show I gave up on after a dud season several years ago (no mention as to which one as that would be a spoiler).
A few minor cautions before you start on it though. Firstly the narrator is clearly a great reporter but he does not have the best "voice for radio" so I found that annoying to begin with- bear with it and you should get past it. Secondly, not the podcast but the events may tend you to accidentally victim blame as you listen, be very careful with this and maybe try and empathise with the women as you listen even if what they are saying sounds off.
Anyhow Dirty John is on all the podcast places now and all the six episodes of it are up.
Moving on to a few words on a show that has recently returned for a new season, its third. Now I love musicals and I love cynical, offbeat, and at times inappropriate humour and I love unlikable characters, so this show would seem to tick all the boxes for me, and I do really like it but it also makes me at times deeply uncomfortable and as it returned in the week the world turned a small corner of its eye to mental health, it is worth a comment. That show is Crazy Ex Girlfriend. I know what you are thinking well it does have "crazy" in the title what did you expect but having "crazy" (which many with mental health issues consider a highly offensive term) in the title isn't a blank slate to say anything you want on mental health. The show is camp and hilarious and the cast is amazingly talented though I'm not sure I forgive it for writing out one of my two favourite characters in the second season. It is also full of strong female characters, is racially diverse, and its only strong and stable couple are two men. It gets so many things right, and if you want a sample of this, have some songs as it is a musical after all- I cannot find my favourite from season one which is about having large boobs on Youtube but here are some of my season 2 favourites. Firstly spoilers if you haven't seen the show and want to on this one- this one is about the relationship between my erstwhile favourite character and the lead character as he leaves the show...
Secondly this one is what the main character, who is Jewish, envisions every Jewish gathering is about. It shouldn't spoil anything for you:
Thirdly, probably my favourite from the second season and definitely zero spoilers here, this is the personification of a particular wind that is supposed to blow through town and make everyone act strange.
So you are seeing, it is good, right?- assuming you like musicals. All the songs are in different musical styles but all of them work, and the humour is dark and irreverent. It seems brilliant.
OK so let's go to the problematic context. The premise of the show is that a successful property lawyer from New York has a breakdown due to the stress of her workplace which triggers her existing tableau of mental health issues, and in the midst of this she runs into a man who was her boyfriend at a holiday school camp when they were teenagers, he is in the process of moving back his small Californian home town and she follows him. In song form, her moving is covered below (mainly because I haven't really featured the main character yet):
Now gradually the main character, Rebecca, finds friends, settles into her new job, and on a few occasions seems to be working things out. The problem is that she doesn't listen to the help she is given, she doesn't work things out, and the bulk of the surrounding characters only briefly call her out on these issues before essentially enabling her and that is if they notice at all that there is an issue- e.g the man she follows to California, Josh Chan, is literally one of the dumbest humans ever and it takes him almost all of the first season to notice that she has problems. Even though another character clearly identifies a mental health issue in themselves early in the second season and seeks help and moves in the right direction, no-one stops to think of this woman who is spiraling out of control as essentially the breakdown she has in the first episode continues without break over two seasons. This may all seem a bit too serious as it is a comedy show and it does clearly portray to the viewer that there is something wrong both in the way she interacts with the world and also in the therapy that she attends and ignores (depression has been suggested on the show as has borderline personality disorder and anxiety- I would lean to bipolar 1 or something similar with a side of other things were I to try and diagnose her but that hasn't been suggested yet). Also I understand the urge to deal with mental health with comedy in a positive non mocking tone (the show rarely directly mocks Rebeca's issues) but it just irks me a little that there is a show with a main character with a clear mental health issue who is so strongly in denial about this as the world seeks to fight mental health stigma. As I said I really like the show, but at times I just can't shake how deeply uncomfortable it makes me. Supposedly the diagnosis of Rebecca's condition is coming in season 3 and hopefully that moves the show out of the space that rattles me. Until then, my favourite season 2 moment from the one of my favourite characters who remains, speaks to where I sit with the show at times:
Beyond that during the week after Mental Health week, I encourage people out there to be honest about their mental health and not to be afraid to see a doctor (and listen to one) when it is less than stellar. Also friends of folks with mental health concerns, love them well, listen to them well, and don't be afraid to be the person who at times has to say the hard words about seeking medical advice.
That is it from me for now. I'm off to watch this week's Outlander and then to continue on Mindhunter (new on Netflix, partly directed by David Fincher, featuring Jonathan Groff (such a big fan of his and no not from Frozen), so far good 70s tunes, and a fictionalised account of the formation of the FBI psychological profiling department that works on serial killers (the real people in this department coined the term "serial killer")...two episodes in and I'm loving it so a post on it might be forthcoming). Laters folks!