Top 7 Films of 2017

2017 continues to prove itself excellent as we move into the realm of cinema; I’ve seen about 50 films this year, so not everything, but not a shabby amount either, and there’s a lot to recommend. You might notice that this list is in alphabetical order; that’s because I was, in fact, having such a difficult time deciding on the order of films that I just gave up entirely. Like last year it’s worth reminding you that because I live in the UK there’s quite a few films that have released overseas, but not over here; Lady Bird and The Shape of Water and The Third Murder are three that spring to mind as potential omissions from this list. This also means that films released in 2016 in America, but in 2017 over here are applicable for my list, seeing as they were left off last time. So, without further aideu,

Honourable Mentions

As I said, this year has been excellent for films, and this meant that even picking the honourable mentions involved a whole lot of tough decision making. I think some films that came out early in the year and that I have yet to rewatch suffered the cost. Manchester By the Sea and Moonlight were both fantastic dramas, and Moonlight especially deserves to be lauded for its importance and the beautiful way it told its story. The three more recent films I would like to also mention are Blade Runner 2049; The Florida Project and The Disaster Artist, the former two of which narrowly missed out a place on this list.

Baby Driver

Screen Shot 2017-12-12 at 21.24.25

The last film made by director Edgar Wright before this was 2013’s The World’s End, probably the weakest of the ‘Cornetto Trilogy’. But before that he directed Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim vs the World, three of my favourite films. So to see him back on form is a treat. Baby Driver is exactly the film the premise describes; a car chase/heist movie literally set to music. The best scenes in the film exemplify this vision. The initial set piece of a car chase set to Bellbottoms is the perfect opening statement, while a gun fight where each shot fires to the beat of Tequila is sublime. There are flaws here; the central romance is undercooked and the final act runs a little long. But I think the most telling thing about Baby Driver is that I went to see it in the cinema 4 times, twice as much as any other film on this list.

Colossal

Screen Shot 2017-12-31 at 17.23.51

There were, amazingly, two subversive Kaiju films that released in the UK in 2017, but while I have every respect and love for the Iannucci-style comedy of Shin GodzillaColossal is the clear choice as the better film. To just describe the plot of Colossal would be doing it a disservice, because written down it becomes silly. But yes, this is a film in which Anne Hathaway ends up controlling a giant monster in Korea whenever she goes to a certain park at a certain time.

It’s an extremely strange plot, but that the film manages to make it work so well would already be a marvel. That the film also tackles subjects such as alcoholism and abusive relationships through the lens of this plot is even more remarkable. However, Colossal is not just a gimmick – it’s a truly great film, and one I urge you to seek out, because judging by the box office results; you haven’t yet.

Get Out

Screen Shot 2017-12-12 at 21.01.48

At a certain moment during the climactic scene of Get Out, the audience at the cinema I was at burst into applause and cheers. It was a moment of huge relief, to be sure, but in no other movie I’ve seen in the cinema, horror or otherwise, has that sort of spontaneous reaction been elicited from the audience. That speaks to the power of Get Out; a satirical horror-comedy in the vein of The Stepford Wives; a black guy visits his white girlfriend’s parent’s house and finds that not all is as it seems.

Where Get Out finds such great success is in its target. Not content to go after the standard “hillbilly” racist, Get Out reaches for a subtler target; something much more prevalent in modern liberal society, and thus much scarier for it. This is a film for 2017, but to restrict its influence would be unfair, because even without the backdrop of the current political climate, this film is smart, funny and extremely creepy.

La La Land

Screen Shot 2017-12-31 at 17.00.39

Damien Chazelle’s first film; Whiplash, shot up my ranking of favourite films quicker than almost anything I’ve seen before. La La Land, while continuing the jazz theme, seemed like such a departure from the thriller genre that defined Whiplash, that I was skeptical I’d love it quite as much. I was a fool to be skeptical, though, because La La Land is something extremely special.

The musical numbers are all instant winners and shining examples of filmmaking at its most visually impressive. The plot is something that initially seems like a simple love story; a vehicle for these musical interludes, but quickly reveals its depth, leading to an utterly heartbreaking epilogue that I can’t even think about without tearing up. A stunning achievement.

mother!

Screen Shot 2017-12-31 at 17.07.09

mother! is a film that courts controversy, but I think it’s too easy to get lost in the discourse surrounding the film and forget that what’s being discussed is a truly amazing piece of horror filmmaking. Basing its story on an allegory that becomes pretty obvious around 20 minutes into the film (but which I still won’t spoil here), mother! uses this base storyline in order to explore more complex themes such as human destruction of the environment; the creative mind and abusive relationships.

So much can be read into the strange and surreal visuals and characters of mother!, that some may regard this as a weakness; that the film is too vague to say anything of any note, but I regard it as a strength; the film is made to be discussed, and hopefully will be for quite a while longer. Even scraping back those layers of subtextual storytelling, the basic filmmaking skill on display is to be marvelled at. Everything, from the camera’s close claustrophobic focus on Jennifer Lawrence to the emphasis placed on certain sound effects, racket up the tension and make for a horrifying; unforgettable and truly unique cinematic experience.

The Death of Stalin

Screen Shot 2017-12-12 at 20.52.03

The Death of Stalin is much funnier than a film about the struggle for control over Russia after Stalin’s demise has any right to be. It is, however, a clear perfect fit for the writing talents of Armando Iannucci, who specialises in the political farce. Free from the suffocating terror of Stalin, the film documents the struggle for power over those who worked directly underneath him. The Death of Stalin could have easily worked as simply a clever political farcical comedy like The Thick of It, and certainly it includes a lot of that.

However, what elevates it is the ability to infuse the comic with the tragic; to reduce the leaders of the Soviet Union to clowns while also reminding us of the tragic consequences of their power. In the opening scene, a radio producer has to struggle to find a replacement conductor for a re-performance of a piano concerto, specially requested by Stalin himself. The farce elements of the producer trying to find a conductor for his impromptu performance is offset by the way the conductor is found; armed guards storming buildings and carrying people off in the night. It’s this delicate balance of comedy and horror that The Death of Stalin plays off to great success.

The Handmaiden

Screen Shot 2017-12-31 at 17.22.34

The Handmaiden is an extremely clever erotic thriller, as you might expect from director Park Chan-Wook; based on a novel set in Victorian England, the action is transposed to Korea under Japanese colonial rule. There, the film follows three individuals; a wealthy Japanese heiress; her Korean handmaiden and a faux Japanese count. The interplay between these three characters fuels The Handmaiden, with each of their different goals and schemes leading to a multitude of complex twists that shift the focus between characters, as well as the audience’s sympathies.

If that weren’t enough, the film takes the time to comment on class, porn and sexuality, as each of those things becomes an integral part of how the characters play off one another. The Handmaiden also provides a showcase for one of the best pieces of cinematic architecture I’ve ever seen; a half Victorian half Japanese mansion that holds various tricks and secrets among its sliding doors and imposing bookcases.

So that’s 2017 all wrapped up. Here’s to an even better 2018 for pop culture (and hopefully for global affairs as well (although that might be too much to ask))

 

Advertisements

Top 5 Video Games of 2017

Because of their nature as more time consuming and expensive than films and tv shows, I didn’t get the chance to play too many games in 2017 (something further complicated by me moving somewhere without a TV in September). But the games I did manage to play were almost all at a higher standard than what I normally consume, further proving the strength of 2017 as a year for pop culture.

Honourable Mentions

I have three games I wanted to shout out this year, although I can only give one of them an unqualified recommendation. That one game is Gorogoa, a puzzle game that is unlike any other I’ve played in its central puzzle mechanic, which involves the manipulation of painstakingly drawn illustrations in order to guide the central character to his goal. With a subtle story playing out in the background, and amazingly detailed visuals populating the foreground, this game narrowly missed out on a spot on my list, because its short length meant that I was left a little unsatisfied.

I also want to shout out the two 90+ hour JPRGS I played this year, mainly so I don’t feel that my time was wasted on them. I completed Persona 5, and wrote an extensive review of it on this site, which I’d encourage you all to read if you feel it deserved a place on my list this year.

The other stupidly long JPRG Xenoblade Chronicles 2, I have yet to come close to finishing, but while it lacks the polish of P5, it makes up for it in sheer campy fun. I can’t recommend XB2 to anyone, but it comes the closest out of any game I’ve played to being “The Room” of video games; with its abysmal and stilted English voice acting, ludicrous semi-parodic JRPG plot and hilariously complex battle system, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 really manages to live up to the rare adage of ‘so bad it’s good’.

With that out of the way, let’s move on to talking about the games that are so good they’re good. (Hooray for another year of clunky segues).

5. Metroid: Samus Returns

Screen Shot 2017-12-21 at 11.44.28

Yes, in truth much of the reason for this game’s spot on the list is that it’s been so long since the last Nintendo published Metroid game, and Metroid is a series near and dear to my heart. It’s also true that this game is not without major flaws as an adaptation, and both Mark Brown and ShayMay have made excellent videos as to how and why it falls slightly flat when remaking Metroid II.

However, I don’t really care. I had a lot of fun with Samus Returns. Samus feels absolutely fantastic to control; simultaneously light on her feet when leaping around SR388, and grounded when she plants her feet to allow for free range aiming. I was also extremely fond of the counter mechanic, despite the controversy. There’s an immense satisfaction to countering bosses and enemies, and while it slows the pace in the early game, by the late game your beam is powerful enough the it stops being a necessity.

The structure is perhaps a little odd for a Metroid game, bearing closer to the Fusion model of linearity than the classic “Metroidvania” model of games like Super Metroid. However, as a return to prominence for Samus, it strikes a perfect balance by introducing players new to the genre to the non linear paths of many Metroid games in bitesize areas, which connect to each other in a linear fashion.

Samus Returns is a welcome return to form for a long dormant series, and I can only hope we don’t have to wait another 15 years for the next 2D Metroid game.

4. Nier Automata

Screen Shot 2017-12-21 at 12.00.25

Nier Automata‘s place on this list just proves how stupid the system of ranking is, and that I’m only doing it because I misguidedly think it’ll stir up some discussion and add to my view count. Anyway, full disclosure, I have yet to finish Nier Automata, and I have no doubt that when I’ve finished the Route I’m currently on (Route C), I will feel moved to bump this game up my list a couple of places.

That’s because Nier seems to direct itself towards my tastes; rich sense of atmosphere; hack-and-slash Platinum games gameplay; intriguing pseudo-philosophy and a great sense of humour. All these things combined made my first play through of Automata an absolute delight. It’s been a while since I’ve played a game like this that speaks so strongly to my sensibilities. I can’t say that Automata does any of those things the best, but that it combines them all into one discreet package was a wonder.

However, I do have a bit of a problem with games that don’t value my time, and making me play through the same campaign twice was an annoyance that seemed unnecessary to me. It was an indulgence that served to artificially elongate the play time for reasons that could have been dealt with a hundred more time effective ways.

It’s not just that Automata didn’t value my time, however, it’s also that on replaying a game the faults always become more glaring. Combat in Nier lacks some of the depth of other Platinum games, and the game will occasionally throw you in combat scenarios that its systems feel unprepared to deal with. Endings that come out of nowhere appear clever when first encountered, but can become an annoyance when triggered unintentionally. The atmosphere of areas such as the Amusement Park are fantastic, but these areas are criminally under-utilised, and going through the same motions in them twice is not a fix for this.

Those problems aside, Nier Automata deserves to be celebrated for everything it does right, because there’s not only a lot of it, but the way it puts it together serves for something that may lack a bit of polish, but is wholly original and satisfies most of my personal desires for what I want in a video game.

3. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Screen Shot 2017-12-21 at 12.13.44

The game that’s topping most end of the year lists lands here on mine, but not for lack of trying. In fact, releasing the second DLC pack for the game at the end of the year really made me reconsider not putting this game at #1, because the world of Breath of the Wild really is something special.

I don’t think I’ve had a game impress me this much in its first couple of hours as Breath of the Wild; Hyrule is for sure the best open world I’ve ever played in a video game, and it’s almost enough to justify this game as my favourite of the year. The amount of things to do is immense, so much so that you’ll often find yourself distracted from the central Legend of Zelda quest in order to find things hidden away that would be main events in lesser games. Dragons are simply optional events hinted at by NPCs, waiting to be fought for their treasure. Important weapons, items and shops are stumbled across by accident or read about in rumour columns. And almost everything is left in the hands of the player; how you want to approach the deepest combat system in a Zelda game to date; how you want to tackle the bosses; how many of the oft-ingenious puzzle shrines you want to seek out. The best dungeon in the game, if not the entire series, Hyrule Castle, takes advantage of this freedom and condenses it into one compact space with a central end goal of the final boss.

However, play enough of the game and some of the novelty wears thin. While Hyrule Castle may be the best dungeon in the series, the Divine Beasts are some of the worst, and their challenge becomes laughable once you’re far enough into the game. Shrines and Korok seeds wear out their novelty as well, and since they become the only reward for exploration at a certain point in the game, so much emphasis is placed on the journey as opposed to the destination that even a fantastic open world like Hyrule can’t quite bear the burden of it.

It’s for this reason that I can’t wait for whatever the sequel that expands on this game to come out. Because Breath of the Wild comes very close to perfection, but falls apart when it has to be played for so long. However, the problems can be fixed, and Breath of the Wild will, I imagine, continue to be influential for not just the Zelda series, but for every open world game for years to come.

(If you want to read more of my thoughts on BotW, I wrote a full review of it here).

2. Night in the Woods

Screen Shot 2017-12-21 at 12.27.30

It’s pretty rare that games make me cry. It’s not that I’m some sort of macho man who never cries at anything; films and tv manage it too often for me to be comfortable to admit it. But games don’t, and I think that’s for a variety of reasons; their subject matter often revolves around topics that don’t lend themselves to tugging many heartstrings and the writing often takes a backseat to gameplay.

In Night in the Woods, the opposite is true; gameplay here takes a backseat to the truly excellent writing. But to discount the game as a cartoon where you have to press buttons to move the story along really sells the game short, because a lot of Night in the Woods’ emotional engagement requires it to be a game. Choosing who to spend time with puts a lot of impact when they eventually reveal their problems to you, and the player involvement in certain mini-games and events does make a difference in getting you to care more easily about the characters.

But what struck me most about Night in the Woods; what earns it this high spot, is that the writing in the game is astoundingly good. It’s incredibly natural for a video game about talking animals finding dead bodies and investigating ghosts, although where it really shines is in the smaller character moments and anecdotes; it wasn’t the slightly overly dramatic ending that induced tears from me, it was talking to a friend after her emotional breakdown in a party. Those small moments are what fuel this game, and what propel it to such heights.

1. Super Mario Odyssey

Screen Shot 2017-12-21 at 15.59.34

I talked in the last entry about games eliciting sadness, but I think that pure joy is underrated. Lots more emphasis is often placed on the creative endeavour of making people sad, downtrodden; you’re more likely to get my critical praise if you can make me cry or think about how shit the world is than if you can make me happy. And yet, I think it might be harder to make me joyfully happy. Like, giddy with happiness. And Super Mario Odyssey is the only game this year to make me feel that way.

Odyssey‘s campaign zips along in a breezy 9 hours, and pretty much every minute of that is a wonder. Bursting with creativity, Super Mario Odyssey never lets up, always providing you with something new to do; somewhere new to go and someone new to capture. I think quite a few games this year (Persona 5, BotW, Nier (to an extent)) suffer from going on for too long; where all the discovery of the game’s strengths are front-loaded into the first 15 hours, and then the game struggles to find ways to amuse the player. Odyssey‘s tightly controlled campaign never lets that happen to you. It introduces the central mechanic in the first stage, then goes on to building a 9 hour campaign where you get new chances to use that simple, satisfying mechanic of the hat throw every minute.

And when the game is finished, once the credits have rolled, the game continues to parcel out its surprises; each stage is given a whole bunch of new collectables, and new stages are added after you scour the inventively made miniature sandboxes for moons. I think those seeking to find all 900+ Moons might wear out the game beyond its breaking point, but I don’t think it was ever built to be played that way; the secret final level unlocks after only 500.

But even those who purposefully stretch the game have been rewarded; pulling off difficult secret techniques is recognised by hidden rewards from the developers, and those who are content to see only as much as they need will still be able to enjoy that joyful campaign. I seriously can’t think of any complaints to levy at this game; it’s that good, and a deserving recipient of my game of the year.

Just an FYI that today marks the two year anniversary of Toatali Reviews! Hope you’ve all enjoyed this year of content, and here’s to another year of annoyingly long reviews about pop culture! (PS. make sure to check my twitter for more of my ramblings about the past year and other shit).

Top 5 TV Shows of 2017

It’s December, which means it’s the season to reflect on the year and assign an arbitrary number to the things you liked over the past 12 months. This year, I’m splitting up my lists in order to tantalise my readers, and give me more things to post this month. (I’m still working on my review of Danganronpa V3, which should hopefully be out sometime next week). I’ve decided to start with TV shows, because no new TV shows are coming out or ending this month that will bump anything off this list. If Black Mirror Series 4 ends up surprise dropping just after I post this, then so be it, but other than that, the TV season is over for this year. I’ve also extended the boundary to mean that old shows can now appear on this list, meaning I’m ranking it by season, not simply first season, which I thought was a bit limiting. Anyway, with that rambling out of the way, let’s continue.

Honourable Mentions

I didn’t have any of these last year, but 2017 has been so fantastic for media (perhaps compensating for other deficiencies) that all my lists now need this. I guess I’ll start by shouting out the last thing to be bumped off my list – Nirvanna The Band The Show, which aired two excellent seasons this year despite not even being on my radar until it was half way through the second season. It’s notable for its semi-documentary stylings, wherein the majority of the show is scripted, but chance encounters with ordinary people often change the direction of the episode’s plot. It’s also got a really nice relaxed and unique style of comedy that comes with the improvised nature of the show. It’s hard to find to watch, but worth seeking out. I think Crashing also deserves a mention on here; even though it’s another “comedian makes semi-autobiographical semi-comedy show”, it really worked for me, and since we can’t watch Louie anymore, this fills in the void nicely.

There are loads more shows I’d want to talk about in detail, but because that’d make this way too long, here’s a list of what to check out for you; Lady Dynamite Series 2 (the first season made my list last year, this season is more of the same in a very good way); Curb Your Enthusiasm Series 9 (the worst season of Curb is still good TV, and it’s just nice to have Larry back); Back (basically Peep Show with beards, but who doesn’t love Peep Show?); Big Mouth (Nick Kroll and John Mulaney cartoon about puberty… somehow surprisingly touching); The Good Place (The best network show everyone is talking about); The Mick (The best network show no one is talking about) and Vice Principals, which finished its short run to become an excellent dark comedy, even if the ending didn’t blow me away.

5. On Cinema: The Trial of Tim Heidecker

Screen Shot 2017-12-06 at 00.01.44

Part of what makes me love the trial season of On Cinema so much is that it’s really ambitious television. On Cinema, for those who aren’t aware, is a web series hosted by Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington where they review films on a scale of 1 to 5 (or is it 6?) bags of popcorn. As the series progresses, hints as to the two’s personal lives are revealed and the show becomes a mini soap opera that plays out on the set of a film review show. The On Cinema universe has even expanded to take over the twitter handles of both Tim and Gregg, as well as the creation of the band Dekkar, and a whole separate TV show Decker, created by Tim and Gregg (in character). The show’s fanbase are also an integral part of the experience, continuously in character when interacting on social media. It’s an amazing experimental miniature universe, which was bought to some kind of a culmination this year in the trial of Tim Heidecker, broadcast live over 6 days, and played amazingly straight by a cast of On Cinema regulars and some lawyers. I’m not sure if the trial itself was more captivating than watching it with the On Cinema Facebook page open, but On Cinema has only ever partly been about the show, and has grown to encapsulate the fan base. Even so, the trial stands out as great television, with some classic courtroom drama and pretty hilarious cringe comedy. Without the fans, this might land only in my honourable mentions of the year, but On Cinema wouldn’t exist without its fanbase. Now, if you’ll excuse me…

Even putting aside my bias as a Gregghead, this trial was a total SHAM and a mockery of the legal system. It’s obvious to everyone with half a brain that Tim meddled behind the scenes here – he paid off witnesses for fuck’s sake! Also, that Star Trek writer was completely misguided, and Tim was leading the witness anyway. What a disgrace…. but at least we can now focus back on what matters, the movies.

4. Trial and Error

Screen Shot 2017-12-06 at 00.15.12

I talked in my Office post, as well as in my review of The Good Place, how much of a Michael Schur fan I am. In Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine Nine and The Good Place, he’s crafted three worlds that are a pleasure to inhabit, with extremely likeable characters and comedy that is relaxing and laugh out loud funny. Many shows have attempted to crib his style, but the one that comes the closest is for sure sure this year’s Trial and Error. I think it succeeds in aping Schur’s style mainly by not trying. The town of East Peck bares a passing resemblance to Pawnee, but its local customs have more of the absurdist comedy of a Fey/Carlock show. The show also has much more of a running plot than any of Schur’s shows, even The Good Place. Because of its courtroom setting (I’m sensing a trend), the show has much more of a narrative thrust, which gives it a great sense of pacing and light tension to the comedy. But although the comedy of the background is absurdist, and the narrative is pushed to the forefront, the character comedy that defines a Schur show is replicated brilliantly here – even though each character is a joke, they’re a joke with real heart, and that’s the essence of a truly great single cam ensemble comedy. I hope I’m not diminishing the show’s unique charms by constantly comparing it to Schur’s shows, but given that Schur is my favourite comedy tv show creator working at the moment, it’s high praise indeed.

3. Review: The Final Season

Screen Shot 2017-12-06 at 16.45.29

I’ve written extensively about this season of Review already, and its place as only #3 on this list should give you an idea of how amazing this year was for television. Review, is, after all, still my favourite TV show… ever. And this final season, despite its short length, wrapped it up admirably. I think the final episode ranks among this year’s best episodes of TV, but the preceding two episodes felt slightly as if they were in service of setting up for that finale, and as such they make the whole season a little worse. (To continue the courtroom theme, while justifiable, I found the way the trial wrapped up a little disappointing). Still, two mediocre episodes of Review are still two incredible episodes of television. Andy Daly’s show tracks the fall of Forrest MacNeil with the kind of dark comedy that most comedians would be terrified to touch with a ten foot pole. And he does this while still managing to craft a show that’s amazingly funny and explores ideas about criticism and what it means to have an unwavering dedication to your work. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a TV show quite like Review, and this final season, and most importantly, this final episode, ends it perfectly.

2. Master of None 

Screen Shot 2017-12-06 at 16.52.24

The first season of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None was pretty good. Although Aziz Ansari isn’t a perfect actor, he’s a great comedian, and much of his best material translated well to a tv show. Some episodes in the first season went above and beyond, but often they were a bit meandering, a bit unmemorable – not funny enough to make the mundane watchable, but with not enough to say that the comedy wouldn’t be missed. The second season immediately injects the show with a bit of energy by constructing a loving ode to Italian cinema – beautifully shot and lightly funny, with a plot that sets up perfectly Dev’s struggle in love during the second season. As it progresses, each episode does something unique and memorable, and even the more “mundane” of the episodes are bolstered by a strong ongoing plot. Episodes like “Thanksgiving”; “First Date” and “New York, I Love You” distract from the central love affair between Dev and Francesca, but are strong enough to work on their own right. Meanwhile, the pivotal romance, explored in the Italy episodes, “The Dinner Party” and the two final episodes, is absolutely heartbreaking and brilliantly real. Even if Ansari isn’t the greatest actor out there, the script seems to be tailored to make his (to be generous) “naturalistic” performance shine. What’s more, the series’ signature sense of style is played up to the fullest, with an excellent soundtrack and visual direction. A jump in quality and confidence this severe is always heartening to see, and even if Master of None doesn’t return for a third season (which, given the ambiguity of the final shot, I hope it doesn’t), it makes me anxious to see Ansari’s next project.

1. Nathan For You

Screen Shot 2017-12-07 at 00.32.31

Nathan For You has always had a special place in my heart as the counterpart to Review that I found delivered more laughs out loud, but was, at least in my eyes, always in the shadow of its Comedy Central companion (I do realise how arbitrary the comparison is, but I’m not the only one to have made it). Finally, with the fourth season, it has surpassed it. To be more precise, two episodes really make this season shine above the rest. That’s not to say other episodes weren’t great; they played out as “standard” Nathan For You episodes, meaning they delivered lots of laughs and great moments, but weren’t quite groundbreaking. However, “The Anecdote” and “Finding Frances” rank as two of the best episodes of television I’ve seen in a long time – good enough to catapult this season of Nathan For You to the top of an excellent year for TV. I can’t say much about “The Anecdote”, because to do so would be to ruin the surprise, but it is the perfect blend of hilarity and really clever humour, capitalising on the pre-release hype of the fans in a genius way. “Finding Frances”, the series finale, turns from classic laugh-out-loud Nathan For You schemes into a touching exploration of love that plays with the boundaries of the show’s reality TV format to genuinely profound effect. The final shot, which uses a drone to reveal the cameras that have been filming the entire show, is lent a huge poignancy by the people on whom it focuses. Again, I don’t want to spoil anything about this episode, but I don’t really see any way Nathan For You could improve on it. If this ends up being the show’s final season, it will have gone out not only on a personal high, but on a high for all reality TV.

So that’s my favourite TV of the year. The other two lists (films and games) will come out over the course of December, but before that will be the V3 review, so look forward to that!

The Best Games on the 3DS

I wasn’t expecting this to be the post for this month, but Persona 5 has ended up taking much longer than I expected to play through and gather my notes on, so this will have to serve to tide me over until then. Despite the success of Nintendo’s most recent portable console, the Switch, I find myself still being drawn to my 3DS. This might be because of the lack of games on the Switch now that I’ve finished saving Hyrule, but it’s also because of the remarkable staying power of the 3DS, which might be the greatest portable console ever made. So, to reflect on the 3DS’ remarkable lifespan, here is a short list of my favourite exclusive games for the console, in no particular order.

Screen Shot 2017-06-05 at 22.58.51
Attack of the Friday Monsters

You might never have heard of this game, and that’s a damn shame, but probably completely reasonable. Released as part of a compilation of experimental games on the e-shop by Level 5, Attack of the Friday Monsters puts you in the shoes of the young boy Sohta, who lives in a small Japanese town. There, every Friday, giant monsters battle it out while the residents look on. Or do they? The game never deigns to answer this question, because it doesn’t matter. It provides a variety of interpretations to its titular question, but never wants to distract you too much from the meat of the game. This is a day in the life of Sohta, running errands throughout the Ghibli-esque town, meeting its residents and solving their various problems. It’s a game fuelled by Sohta’s childlike imagination, which makes him a somewhat unreliable narrator, but allowing yourself to get swept into his world creates the sort of nostalgic feelings for someone else’s childhood that only a few rare games and films manage to achieve. There’s also some vague tacked on gameplay in the form of a clever little card game, but it never outstays it’s welcome. The same cannot be said for the game itself, which could really do with a bit more meat on its bones. It humbly finishes up its story within a few hours, but it needn’t. The amount of times I’ve replayed this game speaks volumes to the amount of time that we could have spent in Sohta’s world.

Screen Shot 2017-06-05 at 22.53.52

Shin Megami Tensei IV

The contrast between the tone of AotFM and SMTIV couldn’t be starker. AotFM plays out in a small, idyllic Japanese suburb. SMTIV spends half of its time in the feudal land of Mikado, controlled by a strange religious leader and populated by subjugated masses who long for their slim chance to join the upper classes. The other half takes place in the somehow even more depressing post-apocalyptic Tokyo, where most of the population has moved underground in order to escape a ravenous demon horde who are only partly controlled by a faction of the Yakuza. You play as a Samurai of Mikado, a warrior trained to battle demons, but your quest to find the mysterious ‘Black Samurai’, who is corrupting the minds of the Mikado peasants leads you to some unfortunate realisations about the world you live in. Like other games in the Shin Megami Tensei series, the story splits into three routes; Law, Chaos and Neutral, and none of them here have much of an uplifting ending. But SMTIV remains engaging despite this, although the plot is only half the fun.

I’ve seen some people criticise the ‘shallow’ characters of SMTIV, but I don’t think that gives them enough credit. I wasn’t ever blown away by the writing, but it has a certain subtlety to it (at least as subtle as SMT can get), and the plot itself, while slow paced, has enough intrigue in it to carry you through. What makes SMT games really stand out, however, is the turn based battle system. SMTIII pioneered the ‘press-turn’ system, which Persona players will be familiar with, which allows you to exploit enemy weaknesses for an extra turn in battle. Of course, enemies can exploit this as well, which can turn battles into either satisfying chains of attacks that don’t allow the enemy to get a move in edgeways, or frustratingly watching as you watch your team get decimated by a threatening boss. The enemies you fight in SMT are demons, who you can collect Pokemon style through an annoyingly obtuse and random negotiation system, and fuse together to make stronger demons. SMTIV offers the best fusing method of the series, giving you helpful recommendations while still allowing customization.

I don’t think SMTIV is a perfect experience, but the benefits of it being on a handheld, combined with an engaging story and refined battle system make it my favourite SMT game that I’ve played (although Persona 5 is certainly edging closer), and I thoroughly recommend it as a starting point for the series.

Screen Shot 2017-06-05 at 22.55.27

Spirit of Justice/DGS

I’m a huge fan of the Ace Attorney franchise, and while I would love to put the amazing Ace Attorney Trilogy on this list (which is better than both of these games), it’s not a 3DS exclusive, and I have standards while making these lists (I can only assume). I’ve written full reviews of both Spirit of Justice and Dai Gyakuten Saiban, so I won’t go into too much detail here, but I will provide a brief spoiler free rundown of what to expect. Ace Attorney is a series about crime solving lawyers, and Spirit of Justice is simply the sixth game in the series, this one involving the spikey haired protagonist Phoenix Wright travelling to the mysterious land of Khura’in for more crime solving adventures. I would recommend playing the previous 5 games in the series before this one, and I’m sure you’ll not regret playing four of them.

Dai Gyakuten Saiban has much less baggage to it, but at the moment is sadly only available in Japanese. This spin-off title takes place in Victorian London, and is notably written by the author of the original trilogy. Most people will have to wait for the upcoming fan translation to get a taste of this one, but for those who speak Japanese, or don’t mind watching a subtitled play through on Youtube, those options are also available.

Basically this entry was a cheat to tell you to play the Ace Attorney Trilogy on 3DS/DS, but my over-reliance on arbitrary rules that I imposed on myself prevents me from doing that.

Screen Shot 2017-06-05 at 22.56.33
A Link Between Worlds

This and the next entry are the only two non-eshop exclusive titles on this list, although what this says about my taste in games you’ll have to work out for myself. Link Between Worlds is one of the best Zelda games out there, and certainly the best top down Zelda there is. Purists might argue in favour of the original Link to the Past, but those that do are clearly stuck in said past. A Link Between Worlds revisits the Hyrule of A Link to the Past, but adds an extremely clever new puzzle solving mechanic in wall merging. The way this changes up the game is staggering – it allows for so much free form exploration and puzzle solving that it’s almost comparable to the introduction of climbing in Breath of the Wild.

The other way in which this game influenced Breath of the Wild is in its non-linearity. Where A Link to the Past gave you numbered checklists of dungeons to visit, Link Between Worlds lets you rent out items to access specific dungeons and tackle them in whatever order you want, while still being able to stagger the difficulty through splitting up the dungeons into sets. It’s also a lot faster paced than any 3D Zelda, and perhaps any 2D Zelda, with item swapping on the fly thanks to the 3DS touchscreen, combat and exploration are all seamless and feels natural. Think of this as the proto-Breath of the Wild for those who want a top-down Zelda experience.

Screen Shot 2017-06-05 at 22.57.35

Kid Icarus Uprising

 Remember how maligned the controls in this game were when it first released? Sakurai himself clearly had so little faith in them that he had to include a stand with boxed copies of the game. I really hope that didn’t put anyone off Kid Icarus Uprising, because it’s such a joy to play that it’d be a real shame to miss. Freed from the shackles of Smash Bros, game director Sakurai was able to create a game that’s half incredibly entertaining on-rails shooter and half slightly less entertaining but still fun 3rd Person Action Adventure game. What bolsters the game past simply entertaining is a quality story with great voice acting and writing, and a fuck ton of content.

The writing present in KI:U is surprisingly good. It has the annoying traits of being self-aware, but never reaches the actual point of annoyance by carefully treading the line. Some characters are obvious stand-outs, such as Hades, but the core cast is an enjoyable group of people to have whisper sweet one-liners into your ear while you play. Much like Smash Bros, Sakurai has stuffed the game to the brim with optional extra modes, some of which are pointless, yet amusing (such as a mode where you pay money to have a character walk slowly towards you), and some are extremely complex, such as the weapon fusing system. The game also employs one of the cleverest approaches to difficulty I’ve ever seen; asking you to gamble more currency on higher difficulties for the chance of greater rewards and treasure. One of the stand outs of the 3DS’ early library that continues to stand tall.

Screen Shot 2017-06-05 at 22.58.14

Box Boy

I don’t really have much to say about BoxBoy, the small title from Hal Laboratory, creators of Kirby. It’s extremely simple; you are a Box, who can produce more boxes from his body. You then have to use those boxes to solve simple puzzles. It’s sort of like if you crossed a standard 2D platformer with Tetris, and it’s absolutely genius. It’s one of those rare games that I feel will be used to teach the basics of good game design for years to come. An extremely simple mechanic pushed to its limits during the course of the campaign, and then pushed even further in bonus levels, some of which become properly difficult to solve. Two sequels would add on a few extra boxes and mechanics, but the original remains a brilliant example of pure game design at its best.

Happy 1 Year Anniversary

960

Well, it’s been a tough year for the world, but there has been some good in 2016 at least. Clearly the best thing though was the continuation of Toatali Reviews, which started one year ago today. There’s been a lot to write about, from long searching reviews of Ace Attorney games to shorter reviews of Pokemon games that I wish I hadn’t made myself do. As well as video games, I’ve made some brief forays into film criticism and made a guide to modern TV comedy , while also reviewing some comedy shows as stand alone pieces.

Yeah, it’s been an alright year blog wise, but I do have some plans going into our second year. I’d like to write more about comedy, with some longer reviews, covering both individual seasons of a show and whole shows. I think while Quick Reviews take less time and enable me to get a higher volume of posts, they are also less satisfying to read and write, so let me know whether you want more of those or not. In terms of upcoming reviews, I will be doing some for The Last Guardian and Pokemon Sun and Moon, as well as for The Good Place’s first season and People of Earth. That’s all I have planned for now, but of course, all suggestions are welcomed.

Just to finish, here are a few of my favourite posts from the last year, please do have a read, and here’s to a great 2nd year for Toatali Reviews!

ERASED vs The Whodunit

Review: The Grinder

Review: Zero Time Dilemma 

Review: Pokemon Platinum

Review: Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney: Spirit of Justice

Review: Dai Gyakuten Saiban

Backlog Review: Bored to Death Season Two

Top 16 of 2016

10creat-wilderpeople-2

This time of the year is when everyone and their mum comes up with their best things of the year, but you should listen to me because… um, I write it down I guess? In all seriousness, this year has been pretty good for entertainment, even if it hasn’t been so good for the rest of the world. This post will focus on the stuff that takes your mind off of it all though; Films, Video Games and TV. So without further adieu…

Best Films of the Year

Before I get into this; no, obviously I haven’t seen every good film this year. In fact, some films I’ve heard are great haven’t even come to the UK yet (see; La La Land). Also, the order is pretty arbitrary.

6) Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

Spinal Tap will never be topped as musical mockumentary, but this film comes pretty damn close. Much like the David Brent movie, the songs are one of the best things about this film, but even outside the Lonely Island’s usual musical comedy genius is a nifty little film that starts as a modern pop-star parody and ends in a glorious and over the top musical number starring the power of friendship and Michael Bolton. The film’s genius comes in hiding perhaps a rather standard plot in a guise of flashy songs and surreal humour, much as how it’s star Conner4Real masks a simple personality behind the veil of his superstardom. Perhaps the funniest gag in the film though is when Nas says of the song Karate Guy; ‘that song changed my life’, in the most deadpan tone he can manage when talking about a song who’s lyrics contain ‘We’re rolling with our friends, All over town, But we’re all in the car, We’re not rolling on the ground’. Brilliant.

5) Train to Busan

screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-21-21-28

I don’t watch many zombie films, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know a good one when I see it. Train to Busan takes a simple premise (zombies, but on a train) and extends it to its natural conclusion. The zombies move around in a thrillingly creepy way, their bodies twisting in a way that makes them seem like they were filmed in stop motion. The train itself is a fantastic setting, and it makes sense that the film is reluctant to move far away from it; it condenses the action into tight corridors and spaces, and makes the horde of zombies piling over each other an ever more terrifying sight as there’s only one way to run. The traditional zombie movie clichés may all be present, but the setting helps make them feel fresh, as does the acting and cinematography. These things come together in a surprisingly effective little package that breathes a little bit more life into the genre. (I could have made a zombie joke there, but that would be dead stupid)

4) Hell or High Water

hell-or-high-water

I don’t have much to say about this one to be really honest. A really solid film that harkens back to old Westerns while revolving around a modern day series of heists. Great performances from the main cast, and fantastic direction. Not necessarily the easiest film to watch, but well worth seeking out.

3) When Marnie was There

screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-21-37-56

No, this might not end up being Ghibli’s final film, but if it was it wouldn’t be a tragedy. In fact, When Marnie was There ends up a touching mini masterpiece that shies away from grand narratives and focuses on a small town and a relationship between two people, one of whom’s existence is called into question by the viewer and the protagonist herself. Really, however, the crux of the film rests on the protagonist. Throughout the film we question her sanity and reliability but she remains a fascinating lens to which to see the beautifully animated world through. As a Ghibli swan song, this may be a whimper rather than a bang, but in this case, that isn’t a negative.

2) 10 Cloverfield Lane

10cloverfield4-0

You really shouldn’t know anything about this film before going in, but suffice to say while my expectations going in were low, this film blew me away. Sharing a similar dynamic to last year’s Ex Machina (three people alone in a remote location), 10 Cloverfield Lane feels more like an indie experiment than a sequel to a blockbuster monster movie, but it’s all the better for it. Claustrophobic direction courtesy of Dan Trachtenberg, combined with the masterful performance of John Goodman are what makes this film click as a tense psychological thriller. The ending has proved controversial but I rather liked it, and if you don’t, just forget it happened and enjoy the rest of one of the best films of the year.

1) Hunt for the Wilderpeople

I said the ratings for this were arbitrary, but for this entry they aren’t. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is my film of the year, hands down. The art of directing comedy seems to be lost on most mainstream comedy films, but a few directors still have the knack. One of these directors is Taika Waititi, and this is on full display here, even more so than in his last film What We Do In The Shadows. While that film had a premise that perhaps didn’t quite deserve the run time, Hunt for the Wilderpeople has both the heart and comedy to sustain a full film length. The humour is the gentle kind that Flight of the Conchords (another New Zealand comedy) mined brilliantly, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople has some lines that are up to par with that show’s comic genius (“You’re more like Sarah Connor. And in the first film, before she could do chin-ups.”). Julian Dennison, who plays Ricky, is a talented child actor of the kind any director would be lucky to find, and his chemistry with the gruff Sam Neill is pitch perfect. A real treat, and my unrivalled best film of the year.

Best Video Games of the Year

Another arbitrarily ranked list. Don’t expect any AAA titles on here, I didn’t play many of those this year. Instead, treat this as a list of quirky games you may have missed otherwise (but only if you own a 3DS)

N/A) The Last Guardian

screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-22-00-10

I can’t give this a ranking yet, because I haven’t finished it and I plan to write a full and comprehensive review when I have. However, The Last Guardian has completely won me over. It’s a broken game in parts, with a messy camera and an unstable frame rate. However, I simply found myself not caring. The coup this game pulled off was to get me to care about Trico, the giant dog/bird monster who guides you through the game’s mysterious world, and it did this successfully through every means available; cutscene, gameplay, animations and scripted sequences. This one’s shaping up to be a true classic.

4) Pocket Card Jockey

screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-22-06-45

Mobile games are a difficult thing to do well. They tend to be shallow little experiences, fun for a few minutes before becoming mind numbingly tedious. Pocket Card Jockey avoids this by taking the classic card game of solitaire, the ultimate boredom killer, and attaching it to fast fun horse racing with enough skill that winning feels like an achievement and enough luck that anyone can pick it up and play. Plus the game has a whole host of other little side options that make it feel well worth the price tag.

3) Rhythm Paradise Megamix

screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-22-11-35

Strange surreal mini-games played to the beat off catchy J-pop tunes. This one contains all the mini games from past Rhythm Paradise games as well as a host of catchy new ones. It’s fun, it’s addictive, but its ultimately bogged down on an initial play-through by a needlessly inserted story. Luckily forcing your way through that opens up a treasure trove of mini treats. Enjoy!

2) Kirby: Planet Robobot

screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-22-15-38

Occasionally, you have to celebrate a game for having not much more than really good level design. Kirby: Planet Robobot has that in abundance and I would have never even played it had it not been for a sale at a game shop I stumbled into. I’m not the biggest fan of the game’s steampunk aesthetic, but it solidifies it into a cohesive experience and links to the game’s new core mechanic. Unlike other gimmick Kirby power-ups, the Robobot armour isn’t used to solve obvious puzzles, but as a new way to traverse the level, sometimes even cutting off valuable collectables in exchange for a quicker path through. It has it’s own copy abilities, and it’s fun to control through the tightly designed corridor levels traditional to the Kirby series. Even the story is a step up from usual, a weird little muse on the ethics of colonialism. Well worth a play.

1) Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney: Spirit of Justice

pwaa_spirit_of_justice_screens_05_bmp_jpgcopy_thumb

You can read my spoilerific review here, but for those yet to play it: the best addition to a fantastic series since Trials and Tribulations back in 2004.

Best New TV shows of the Year

Comedy dominates this list because it’s what I’m a specialist in, but I’ve heard there were lots of good drama shows as well. I’m just not the guy for that. Also, this is just new stuff, so no second series here (sorry Crazy Ex Girlfriend, It’s Always Sunny, Brooklyn Nine Nine and many more).

4) The Good Place

the-good-place-points-1

Mike Schur is one of the most reliable names in comedy, so I had little doubt that The Good Place would be, well, good. What I didn’t expect was that this comedy would be so great even in its first season. Sure, there’s room for improvement but even as the series went on the quality of episodes kept increasing. Set in the afterlife, Kirsten Bell plays a woman who has been sent there mistakenly, while Ted Danson plays the afterlife’s oddball ‘architect’. Like Schur’s other comedies, the show rests on a balance between main and supporting cast both pulling their weight, and luckily they do. What’s different about The Good Place is that it feels less like a traditional sitcom – it’s much more structured and planned, each episode ending in a cliff hanger. For that reason, I’m excited for each new episode not just for the comedy, but also to see where the plot goes next.

3) Lady Dynamite

I already wrote about this one, and here’s what I said; With shows like Master of None; Love; Grace and Frankie; Bojack Horseman, as well as non-Netflix shows in a similar vein, this genre has become the new big thing. As a comedy fan and a Netflix user, I’m glad to see this uptick in odd comedies supported by a major streaming service. However, not all of these really hit the spot in what I’m looking for. Master of None probably came the closest (perhaps because of my innate Aziz Ansari bias), but I don’t know if it would have deserved a spot on this list. Then along came Lady Dynamite, created by Mitch Hurwitz of Arrested Development fame (another show you should really check out), and Maria Bamford, of strange stand-up semi-fame. Lady Dynamite edges out those other shows because its actually really funny, as well as building a convincing character portrait thorough a clever structural device of three timelines that chart Bamford’s fall into mental illness to her recovery. Lady Dynamite is extremely surreal, with buildings having names on them (Maria’s house has ‘Maria’s House’ written on it), and talking pugs, but this fits with Bamford’s often manic personality and surrealist humour. The show mainly focuses on Maria’s attempts to work her way into Hollywood fame, first by trying to capitalize on her eccentricities, then, after her breakdown, by trying to avoid this. In a way, the show itself provides an epilogue to the events that take place inside the show; in making Lady Dynamite, Bamford has manged to make the perfect show the fictionalized version of her dreams of creating. Thanks, Netflix.

2) Search Party

screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-23-09-32

This one was a real surprise to me; I had no real idea about it until it aired, but I binged the entire show in two nights. This is an almost perfect package of a show, a fascinating psychological study of Dory (played brilliantly by Alia Shawkat), a woman struggling to find purpose in her dull life until she gets swept up in a missing persons case involving an old acquaintance from University. Some see this show as a critique of so-called millennials, others shun that interpretation. In my opinion this show acts more as a reflection on contemporary characters; it’s too loving towards some of its key players and too engaged in their culture to be a simple critique, but too damning of their efforts to be a celebration of it. Whatever it is, I’m sure everyone can agree that this is smart, funny television that can exist even without social context as it’s own thing.

1) The People vs OJ Simpson

screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-23-19-56

Like many viewers of The People vs OJ Simpson, I was not alive to witness the original trial. However, the cultural memory has lingered in the imagination long enough for lines like ‘if the gloves don’t fit, you must acquit’ to exist apart from the original tragedy. FX’s show The People vs OJ Simpson brings back the trial to TV screens and is every bit as gripping as what I’ve heard of the original. The cast playing the roles are all superb, even David Schwimmer surprises as Rob Kardashian (more like Ross Kardashian), but Sarah Paulson is the undeniable best performance of the show as Marcia Clark. The show looks at the case from multiple angles, each as intriguing as the last, and slowly guides you into understanding how the shock verdict came to be. This one stands at the top of many a ‘year’s best’ list and for good reason. I wish I could write for longer about this one but I feel I’ve already gone on long enough. This is one of the best TV shows not only of this year, but that I’ve ever seen, and it deserves to be remembered as a faithful and telling depiction of tragedy and the role of law in public life.

So that was my top 16 of 2016. Obviously I’ve not seen everything, and if you disagree with any of my suggestions, or want to recommend me something to review, please say in the comments. Additionally, if you want to hear my full thoughts on any of these, drop a comment and I’ll try and write a longer review. Thanks, and here’s to a better 2017!

The Toatali Guide to Modern TV Comedy

If there’s one thing I know a lot about, it’s modern TV comedies. I’ve spent way too much of my life watching 20-30 minute TV sitcoms, and while I haven’t seen them all, my knowledge is pretty extensive. So, today I present a small guide to what you should be watching if you want to get into the now flourishing world of (mostly American, I admit) TV comedies. Before we begin, though, a few ground rules.

  • No rankings – This isn’t me telling you what the best and worst shows are, it’s more of a series of recommendations, depending on what you want to watch. Obviously, all of these shows are great, or I wouldn’t be recommending them, but don’t take the order I put them in as some sort of ranking system.
  • What is modern? – Any show that finished post 2013. This is pretty arbitrary, but such is life.
  • My favourite show isn’t on here… – Tough. Maybe I haven’t seen it, or maybe I didn’t like it. If you want, put a show recommendation in the comments, and I’ll try and get round to watching it.

What to watch if you want awkward comedy.

the-christ-nail-01-1024

Maybe putting Curb your Enthusiasm under the label of awkward comedy is a disservice to the show so let me calm your fears – if you hated Meet the Parents, there’s still a good chance you’ll like this. Curb is often called one of the best TV comedies of all time, and while I don’t think that’s the case, there’s still a lot to be said for it. The show hinges on the performance of Larry David, who plays a fictionalized version of himself. Each episode sees him getting into another dilemma, that he handles (mostly) extremely badly. Where the show succeeds is in the relatability of these problems. While most of them you won’t run into unless you’re a successful Jewish comedian living in L.A., you almost always side with Larry, and that makes the situations he gets himself into even funnier than they might otherwise be. Larry is an annoying guy, but seeing everything from his perspective is seeing a different Larry to the rest of the characters in the show.

The supporting cast also excel; Jeff Garlin is perhaps my favourite of them, but Cheryl Hines also pulls her weight as Larry’s exasperated wife. The semi-improvised nature of the script allows more more natural conversations than any fully scripted show would give. I talked in my review of The Grinder about how characters didn’t speak like normal people, but here they do, and it was the right choice for this style of comedy. The show may too often divulge into screaming, but this isn’t really noticeable if you don’t binge watch, and instead take your time. Curb Your Enthusiasm was recently renewed for a ninth season, 5 years after the last episode aired (which just makes it eligible for a spot in this list), and if you haven’t already seen it, I highly recommend watching all 8 brilliant seasons to prepare.

What to watch if you want a Netfilx dramedy

960

Yes, Netflix dramedy gets a spot on this list. With shows like Master of None; Love; Grace and Frankie; Bojack Horseman, as well as non-Netflix shows in a similar vein, this genre has become the new big thing. As a comedy fan and a Netflix user, I’m glad to see this uptick in odd comedies supported by a major streaming service. However, not all of these really hit the spot in what I’m looking for. Master of None probably came the closest (perhaps because of my innate Aziz Ansari bias), but I don’t know if it would have deserved a spot on this list. Then along came Lady Dynamite, created by Mitch Hurwitz of Arrested Development fame (another show you should really check out), and Maria Bamford, of strange stand-up semi-fame. Lady Dynamite edges out those other shows because its actually really funny, as well as building a convincing character portrait thorough a clever structural device of three timelines that chart Bamford’s fall into mental illness to her recovery.

Lady Dynamite is extremely surreal, with buildings having names on them (Maria’s house has ‘Maria’s House’ written on it), and talking pugs, but this fits with Bamford’s often manic personality and surrealist humour. The show mainly focuses on Maria’s attempts to work her way into Hollywood fame, first by trying to capitalize on her eccentricities, then, after her breakdown, by trying to avoid this. In a way, the show itself provides an epilogue to the events that take place inside the show; in making Lady Dynamite, Bamford has manged to make the perfect show the fictionalized version of her dreams of creating. Thanks, Netflix.

What to watch if you want to laugh

9601

Unfortunately, TV comedy these days isn’t primarily concerned with making you laugh. It wants you to think, to cry, maybe to chuckle inwardly at the strangeness or the awkwardness of a situation, but very few shows simply put the jokes first. Then there’s Angie Tribeca, which puts the jokes before everything else. The plot is paper thin; it’s a spoof of cop shows, and the characters are one line stereotypes. But it doesn’t matter. At all. Because Angie Tribeca is really, really, funny. It succeeds in creating what one reviewer called ‘an atmosphere of comedy’; not every joke is funny on its own, but the sheer volume and speed means that by the end of each episode, you’ll be belly laughing. (It’s worth noting here that the second series is much better than the first). Rashida Jones plays the title character, and while her deadpan tone might lead you to believe that she plays a ‘straight man’ role, you’d be mistaken. Angie is just as silly as the rest of the cast, but like them, she doesn’t take any notice of the absurdities that are going on around her. Because of the joke based nature of the show, it’s hard to write much about, so please, just watch it.

What to watch if you want a musical

9602

A lot of the shows on this list are ‘character studies’. This is a natural consequence of TV shows that take themselves more seriously, and are usually headed up by one main comedian/comedienne. Ensemble casts seem to have, for the most part, disappeared. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is another ‘character study’ show, but this one has a big difference; it’s a musical. Really, it’s the songs that carry this one into a place on this list. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend follows Rebecca Bunch (played by Youtube star Rachel Bloom), as she moves to West Covina (California (Only two hours from the beach (four in traffic))), in order to win back her summer camp love, Josh Chan.

Vulture called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend their best show on TV right now, and while I don’t agree with that (you’ll see what mine is later), it’s pretty damn good. Rebecca Bunch is an amazing comic creation, a product of Disney films who imagines musical numbers in her head that spring off from songs and genres we all recognize (much like Flight of the Conchords, which sadly missed this list by about 4 years), and reveal a fascinating look into her psyche. The supporting cast, much like the viewer, is drawn into Rebecca’s quest to win back Josh, including her new best friend Paula, who reveals herself even more damaged than Rebecca in her mad-cap schemes to get Josh. But perhaps the best thing about CEG, is that it doesn’t rely on you reading too much into it. It throws everything to the surface in its musical numbers, which even without a knowledge of the plot are simply enjoyable. It’s not the best show on TV, but it comes close.

What to watch if you can’t stand dips in quality

9603

These titles are getting a bit crazy now… Anyway, with most long running shows, there’s often a noticeable dip in quality towards the end (see Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, Friends etc). It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has been going for 11 seasons now and each season has at least a few classic episodes. Even in its latest season, where you can see the show runners following one of their character’s advice (“Well, I don’t know how many years on this earth I got left. I’m gonna get real weird with it”), it still had some really great episodes.

I said that the ensemble comedy was slowly dying, and this show is the only real one on my list. Luckily, it takes the ensemble cast model, which is often used for ‘cosy’, friends living together type shows, and makes it a dark comedy about a group of friends who run a bar together, and the various despicable schemes they get up to, all funded by Danny DeVito’s Frank Renyolds, who supports the strange ideas of Charlie Day, Rob McElhenney and Glenn Howerton’s characters, who drag along and abuse Kaitlin Olson’s birdlike Dee Renyolds. The various schemes would be funny by themselves, but the way the cast play off each other and the way various rifts between them pull their ideas apart really makes each episode click. The other good thing about IASIP is that none of the characters change, or become better people. This may seem like a downside from a story-telling perspective, but IASIP only works because of the character dynamics, and the writers know that old adage ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. The character’s various flaws become more exaggerated, but only to expand on pre-existing traits and mine them for comedy. Plus it’s all on Netflix, and perfect for binging. So there’s that!

What to watch if you want something British

35b740eb-47a1-4903-915f-7b131829275c

As an Englishman, I should really be more supportive of modern British comedies, but aside from a few stand out shows (Toast of London, The IT Crowd), America seems to be dominating the sitcom right now. The best British comedies tend to be panel shows; I love Would I Lie to You, and Have I Got News For You is great satire in the British tradition. But the one British sitcom that really stands out among the crowd is Peep Show. Known for its unique first person view, the show is much more than a visual gimmick. In a way, Peep Show functions as a combination of many of the shows I’ve talked about here; it borrows some of the awkward comedy from Curb your Enthusiasm (although that’s probably a side effect of David Mitchell’s exaggerated British-ness), the dark schemes of IASIP, and the deep character studies of awful people from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

Dream team David Mitchell and Robert Webb play Mark and Jeremy, two mates who live together, but whose lives are mostly failures. Mark works at a dead-end job and is always trying to win the affections of some women he creepily stalks, and Jeremy is a wannabe musician whose endeavors are mostly failures. Sometimes it hurts to see the odd couple fail in such spectacular ways, in a similar way to the UK version of The Office (I still find it hard to watch the book launch for Business Secrets of the Pharaohs), but the show so rarely misses the balance between horrifically unwatchable and funny, that it often manages to reach the heights of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s masterclass of comedy. Anyone who liked that show or wants to check out something that encapsulates what many people think of as ‘British’ comedy should definitely check out Peep Show.

What to watch if you are a human being

9604

It’s ReviewReview is not just my favourite modern TV comedy, it’s my favourite TV show, full stop. If you haven’t seen Review, read this at your own risk, because what I would advise is to leave this blog post right now, and go and watch both seasons. If your life isn’t changed for the better having watched a spectacular piece of television whose ambitions seems to rival that of a groundbreaking drama like Mad Men, but told in the form of small sketches rather than hour long mood setting smoke-a-thons, then I’ll forfeit my job as a critic.

For those who still need convincing (really?), Review centers around Forrest MacNeil, played by comedic genius Andy Daly, a man who reviews various life experiences for his TV show, from eating 15 pancakes to blackmailing a person. The show’s genius revolves around how each review (there are usually three an episode) changes and shapes a part of Forrest’s personality – try as he might, he cannot separate his life from his reviews, or his reviews from his life. Gradually, they start to destroy him and the lives of the people around him, but without him really ever noticing. The menace of the show Forrest runs creeps up on him as it creeps up on the viewer, but it never becomes another omnipresent character like Veridian Dynamics in Better Off Ted, because the show is so tied up in Forrest himself, even when he tries to convince himself there’s a true bad guy behind the operation. Review deals with a multitude of topics, from the problems with being a critic, to the problems of being Batman, but the show links each little thread back to the quilt that is Forrest’s messed up life, and if that sounds too dark for you, don’t worry, because it still manages to be funny. Some reviews go so over the top or deal with such silly things, that even at it’s darkest it still reminds you that this is a comedy. Andy Daly has always explored unassuming characters with seriously dark sides, but here he buries it so deep and plays it so perfectly that it’s no wonder Forrest is his only character to make it to a full TV show, instead of just a guest appearance on Comedy Bang Bang! I love Review, and I’m sure anyone who watches it will too.

So there it is. My guide to modern comedy. I wish I could have written for longer on each of these shows, but then this post will have really overstayed its welcome, and I don’t want that. Thanks for reading, and I hope anyone who did got something out of it.