Last month for the second time we gave some much needed (and deserved) love to three under-recognized series, and today we continue that tradition. You might notice that I’ve changed the title of the series from “Reasons to Stay Inside” to “Tribute to Television”; I’ve done this because I think the ironic intention of the former has a pretty short expiration date before it turns sour and unironically depressing[i].
With the rise of independent distributors such as Netflix, we’re seeing an increase in creative freedom in televised media, and I think this is wonderful: even if all of the globe were charted in every sense, I feel a kind of mixed joy in knowing that I myself could never live long enough to finish discovering it, and that, if I stay open to them, its stories will keep surprising me. All kinds of people all over the world have so much to share, and so the broadening of such a platform of expression should be celebrated! Hence our celebration, the first edition of our fresh start, our series-redux, Tribute to Television.
Let shower some love on some hidden gems. Allons-y!
- Brèf (2011) – Khyan Kojandi (82 episodes, 2 minutes)
You read that right: as the name of this French series suggests, the running time of nearly every episode of this series amounts to no more than two minutes. In Brèf, an unnamed everyman[ii], played by Kojandi himself, narrates the details of his life, two minutes at a time. While a breakneck approach to everyday banality is a constant of the series, the tone nevertheless varies wildly skit to skit, with the themes of episodes ranging from whimsical – such as an unsuccessful attempt at flirting with “cette fille”[iii], learning to play the guitar, or being all-forgetful – to poignant – such as the ability to be children with the ones you love, or feeling your age, or burying an on-and-off fling’s cat together[iv]. These reasons, amongst many others (that I will deliberately not divulge here so you HAVE to watch it now) make Brèf a very fast and very clever must-see.
- Atlanta (2016) – Donald Glover (8 episodes, 25 minutes)
Anyone who has kept up with Donald Glover in the past few years will know that the man can do basically everything. He’s a successful actor, standup comedian, rapper, and – the latest in a long string of achievements – director. Yet as is often the case, such a resume-centric description rarely really captures a person, and the same goes for Glover: yes, he has done and been these things – but wait! There’s more.
Precisely this same “wait! There’s more”-ish quality is reflected in his new series, Atlanta. Described by Glover himself as “Twin Peaks with rappers”[v], the show follows the life of Earn (Glover), a meandering Princeton dropout with a one-year-old kid and without a clear plan for the future. When he takes up managing his aspiring rapper cousin Paper Boi, things start looking up – but wait! There’s more: while this description is true, such a functional summary doesn’t do justice to the things that make the series so good.
One such cool thing about Atlanta is how it consistently manages to subvert expectations. Whenever it seems apparent where an episode is going, the show will often take a turn for the bizarre and leave the viewer – indeed – in a Twin Peaks-esque limbo in which all possibilities are up for grabs: one episode has Paper Boi furiously wrestling with an unexpectedly racebent, Black version of Justin Bieber[vi] while Earn accidentally impersonates a music agent, and another episode consists almost entirely of a hilariously surreal televised panel-debate on identity politics. Armed with subtle, smart dialogue and sharp left turns, Atlanta never fails to leave the viewer something to mull over.
- Mushishi (2005) – Hiroshi Nagahama (26 episodes, 25 minutes)
If you are into either Japanese mythology, history, medicine, beautiful scenery, or perhaps all of these, Mushishi might be just your cup of tea. Taking place in a magical version of 19th century Japan, this anime follows traveling doctor Ginko as he wanders the country from patient to patient.
The hook of the show is that these patients are not sick in ordinary ways; their suffering is often the result of some ordeal concerning the eponymously mushishi, a strange species that can only be broadly defined as a “life-form” takes many different shapes. The series, then, uses this device – along with the main character of the traveling doctor – to tie several old, often Grimm-like, fairy-tales from Japanese mythology together. If there is a curse in the tale, in the series it has something to do with mushishi; if someone becomes plagued by visions of ghosts, it has something to do with mushishi – you get the drift.
Drawing on my superdeep philosophical insights into everything ever, I squint into my hipster coffee mug and predict that some of those reading this article will have skipped to the next paragraph after glancing the word “anime” – one of their more prominent arguments being that all emotion in anime is hyperbolic; that there are no medium-levels of sadness, anger, fear, #yougetthepoint. To them I shout (otherwise they may not hear me all the way over at paragraph four):
“You’re being silly, come back! Wait, I didn’t mean that, I love you!”
Dramatics aside, Mushishi is unusually low-key as far as anime and most live-action series go. As opposed to other many doctors on television[vii], Ginko actually believably feels like a good doctor, and the tone of his character is reflected in the tone of the series; he’s been in the business for a while now, and from the start of the series he treads a careful balance between a sensitive yet professionally distanced bedside manner. He is confident, mellow, yet never cocky, angsty or arrogant, as many anime-characters are wont to be. He is reliably low-key, and it allows the series to reserve most its focus on exploring the beautifully rich world around him.
[i] That, and I’m pretty sure the third show on the list will actually strongly motivate many viewers out there to get out the door and take a long walk along Amsterdam’s beautiful canals and lush parks.
[ii] In the cast-listings, the main character is only referred to as “Je”. Cute.
[iii] Who is also a mainstay on the series and who, much like the “Je”, is only credited as “Cette fille”
[iv] Equally brief and on point are the episode titles. Respectively, the ones mentioned here: “I flirted with that girl”, “I play the guitar”, “I have no memory”, “We were kids”, “I’m old” and “We buried Croquette”.
[vi] Stephen Glover, Donald’s brother, is a writer for the show, and actually came up with this idea. In an interview with Vulture he points out the merits of such a seemingly random subversion of expectations: “There’s a lot of reasons why it’s a good idea because it makes you ask yourself questions about the way you perceive Justin Bieber”(Full interview: http://www.vulture.com/2016/09/stephen-glover-atlanta-black-justin-bieber.html)
[vii] Looking at you, House MD, General Hospital, Strong Medicine, etcetera, etcetera