Saturday, April 22, 2023

Finale Frontier Extravaganza!

This week brought us three season finales for three separate space-related series in genre franchises comprising the past, present, and future. I don't generally chime in for TV these days, mainly because the bulk of television I consume isn't new, or at least not "new enough" to warrant a review. But, as you may have guessed, this is an exception to that rule: all three of these are shows I was following, and all strike me as worthy of reflection for different reasons.

The Mandalorian: Season 3

My relationship with this show has grown a tad complicated over the past few years. Back in season one, it felt like a breath of fresh air. The production values were light-years ahead of its contemporaries, and the episodic format delivered weekly was a nice change of pace from the Netflix model which had become almost ubiquitous in streaming.

But by the second season, it felt like something had shifted. The focus moved from self-contained weekly stories to a larger narrative. To be fair, episodes in the first season had always been connected, and most of the individual chapters in season 2 continued to function as relatively complete stories, but the emphasis was now on a bigger picture. On its own, this isn't inherently bad, provided the larger arc is written well. But of course that was the rub: the writing in The Mandalorian was never the show's strong suit, so the whole thing became frustrating.

That issue carried through The Book of Boba Fett, which... we all understand that was the actual third season of The Mandalorian in all but name, right? Hell, I'm convinced it was supposed to be season three in name as well, at one point, with the implication being that the titular Mandalorian wasn't any specific character, but rather an ideal. They actually came out and announced this pertaining to Bo Katan's growing significance in season 3, but if it ever seemed weird they put their most popular show on hold for a year to make another show with a guy dressed basically the same way, then had their main characters from the previous show appear in the third act to resolve a lingering cliffhanger... yeah. Change "Book of Boba Fett" to a subtitle on season 2.5 of The Mandalorian, and it all makes a lot more sense, doesn't it?

Regardless, the issue persisted - and in my opinion escalated - in The Mandalorian season 3. The storyline felt like it was running in place, to the point the last two episodes could essentially be moved right after Fett, with only minor corrections to fix a few obstacles introduced at the end of season 2. The plot of season 3 largely felt contrived to pad out the episode count and set up future spin-offs. Meanwhile, as the amount of screen time given to characters compulsively wearing helmets increased, issues around the lack of facial expression did as well. I was mostly okay with the main character's face being hidden for almost the entire series, but there were episodes this season where that was the case with almost everyone. I know it was an artistic choice, but - in my opinion, at least - it was a bad one in a live-action visual medium. Sequences that should have been harrowing or tense felt silly.

However... there's a twist: this isn't a negative review. For all my issues with the season, several things redeemed the experience. First, the visual elements of the show continue to impress me. Every episode includes breathtaking sequences and creatures. At the risk of showing my age, when I was young I'd go see genre movies that couldn't match what this show delivers weekly in terms of design and execution. And, if I'm being honest, most of those movies weren't any better written. It's astonishing to me shows with these kinds of production values exist and are seldom discussed in this context.

In addition, the sixth episode (that's the one with Jack Black, Lizzo, and Christopher Lloyd) felt like a return to the episodic fun the show had been lacking. It was a huge improvement over the trajectory of the season and a reminder that Star Wars is at its best when it's weird, unexpected, and unconstrained by genre conventions.

In fact, my least favorite episode, the one spent chasing down a side story on Coruscant, deserves props for experimenting. I wish the outcome had been more interesting, but I do appreciate they tried. For all my problems with this installment, I kind of wish more episodes had operated under a similar philosophy (just preferably with characters we actually care about).

But all of that's appetizer, because the real reason I'm finishing season three with a positive impression comes down to that finale. Because... uh... it was awesome?

I don't have a lot of additional depth to add to that. It's not that the script brought everything full circle or anything. It's just the pacing of what amounted to an extended battle sequence delivered something energetic and immensely satisfying. It was a big, action-packed conclusion with some really sweet moments between Din Djarin and Grogu. I loved it.

I have no idea what the future holds for these characters. I'm hoping the show gets more room to play without having to worry about connecting dots and setting up spin-offs, but the truth is I'd stick around for the visuals and vibes alone. For better or worse, this franchise grabbed hold of me when I was five and never really let go. I'd love to see the writing improve closer to what we got in Andor and Kenobi, but even if it doesn't, I'll keep watching.

After all, even the frustrating stuff is still fun.

Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, Season 1

What concerns me about this show is that, due to its release strategy, subject matter, and young target demographic, it seems like the bulk of the population may not be aware that it's a goddamn masterpiece.

That's not hyperbole - this show is funny, emotional, and artistic, with catchy musical numbers and fantastic characters. It draws from the best animated works for inspiration - it's not hard to catch ideas and design elements reminiscent of Spider-Verse, Powerpuff Girls, and a host of other works - but they're all combined and remixed in ways that feel fresh and new. The series isn't afraid to alter its tone from episode to episode, either, with some feeling silly and light and others packing a punch.

On top of all that, this fits in some surprising guest stars from the MCU, to the point I find myself wondering (hoping, really) if it's secretly officially part of that world. How great would it be if Moon Girl and friends showed up in Secret War or something?

Regardless, this is a really exciting show combining music, animation, and great writing into something genuinely fantastic. It's one of the best new animated shows I've seen in ages and is absolutely worth checking out.

Star Trek: Picard: Season 3

I'm going to cut to the chase - this season of Picard is the best Star Trek I've seen since at least the original series, and that includes movies. This isn't merely good; it's phenomenally good. Inexplicably good. Weirdly good.

Weirdly, in part, because the first two seasons were nowhere near this level of quality. I say that as someone who enjoyed the first season of Picard quite a bit, too. Hell, I even mostly liked the second, despite it being a bit of a fiasco. But this is on a whole other level.

To put this in a little more context, I'm not actually a huge fan of The Next Generation. I've got some nostalgia for the characters, but when I rewatched the series about a decade ago, I thought it was fairly mediocre overall, with maybe a half-dozen great episodes spread out over the series. This wasn't going to be an automatic slam dunk with me.

But God, did this deliver. The show is broken into three arcs: two four-episodes long, then a 2-part finale. The first of these is the strongest, delivering what amounts to a movie-length adventure that incorporates the best aspects of the first two original series Trek movies. It lampshades its references, too - at times it feels like it's remaking those films with Next Gen characters, an idea that probably shouldn't work, and yet....

There are a couple reasons they get away with it. First, this looks and feels fantastic. Particularly the first four episodes are, start to finish, movie quality. Everything looks polished and planned out, the editing is on point, and the music choices are constantly inspired. The pace and tone deliver tension and suspense you rarely get from TV.

But all that can only take you so far. You also need writing, and that might be the season's strongest asset. I might quibble with some structural choices in the story, but the dialogue is pitch perfect. Every line feels like it's being written by people who spent decades obsessing over these characters. This isn't simply rehashing old relationships and character beats, either - we're exploring new facets of the bridge crew that emerged later in life. We're seeing aspects that have changed and curtains that have peeled away. And it's cathartic, funny, and touching. Early on, the show introduces a beat that any other series would have treated as a generic twist with a run-of-the-mill reveal. But instead, we're not treated like we're stupid, and neither are the characters. Rather than building to a cliché conversation, the key moment is handled with a silent exchange of expressions. And in no small part because these actors are fantastic, we're treated to something truly special. The twist is it's not a twist, but instead a touching moment of humanity and growth.

The second arc can't quite maintain the force of the first, but it's still fantastic. It's still tense, exciting, and funny, but you start occasionally remembering you're watching TV rather than a movie. The last two episodes swap out the new villain introduced for the season in favor of a returning nemesis, which is both a bit of a letdown and a testament to just how good this season is. When the return of a fan-favorite villain is less interesting than a new one... that's pretty high praise for the writing, acting, and directing that went into that new villain right?

But, yes, the last few episodes feel like the end of most big budget movie trilogies: technically well executed with great character moments, but a little light on emotional depth. Again, still good - very good, in fact - but best moments in the season aren't found there.

I also feel like I should mention the last couple episodes hinge on a potentially unfortunate plot device that could - and I suspect will - be read as an endorsement of right-wing politics. I don't think that was the intention, but it's far too easy to see the story as a sort of literal "woke" mind virus controlling the youth. While I think this was just an unintended side-effect of trying to write around the realities of the characters' ages and the story, it works way too well as a metaphor working against everything Star Trek stands for.

But I can't fault them too much for this misstep. The season, in its entirety, is the sort of achievement that raises the bar for the franchise and its competitors. It delivers everything fans of the characters could dream of, along with production values beyond anything I'd expected. This is absolutely fantastic stuff.

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