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everything I've binge-watched recently, part something
everybody wants the moon to be their wife
This is part of an ongoing series on this newsletter. You can read the other parts here, here, here, here, here, and here. You can also read my thoughts about how binge-watching doesn’t just apply to television here.
I’ve binge-watched some stuff recently. Maybe you have too. Here are some of my thoughts about it.
For All Mankind: For All Mankind—Apple TV’s intended flagship show about an alternate history of the global space race—is a TV show about people watching television.
Over and over again, the story pivots on space shuttle launches and landings, and on characters watching them on television in their homes and offices, in bars and at parties, across a heavily fictionalized America. Human feelings about space exploration are given expression in long cross-country and cross-generational montages. It’s the raucous party where the music stops so everyone can gather around the television set, the bar where patrons crane their necks towards the wall-mounted TV showing breaking news, the suburban living room where the TV light casts slack-jawed faces into blue and silver relief, and the cathedral-like control room at NASA where engineers stare at huge screens and white-knuckle the backs of their chairs. Even when it isn’t actually showing one of these slow-crawl reaction sequences, every beat of the story exists in this same key: people gazing upward, watching history occur. For All Mankind is a show about people watching a show, which is to say it’s about American history and how people live within and against it.
If this makes it sound like a very long fan-fiction riff on the Mad Men moon landing episode well, yes, exactly. For All Mankind is kind of like if somebody showed 1000000 hours of Mad Men and The Americans to an alien/a monkey/a neural network and had them replicate it. That’s not a complaint, though. There’s something pleasantly and unintentionally campy about just how much TELEVISION capital T capital every letter this show’s premise and initial execution is.
But there’s something campy about the midcentury, about the moon landing, about the broad-shouldered, old-fashioned optimism that once believed in science, miracles, and the government. There is something campy about space travel; there’s something campy about the twentieth century, and there’s something campy about prestige television itself, its obsessive relationship to history and to dads, and how it understands history as just another, bigger dad. The sentimentality on this show is dialed up so high that it isn’t actually sentimental at all, but something else: a car show, a themed karaoke night, a costume party. I don’t think the show means to do any of this. I think it just wants to be Mad Men. But its over-boiled quality is what I think is so fun about it, and probably part of why I keep watching it.
Alternate history is always a popular genre. It’s not hard to see why a version of reality a little to the left of the real one would be appealing to most people. A whole lot of us want forgiveness, redemption, and second chances, and alternate histories hook into both that fantasy and the animating regret beneath it. All of this could have been different, you know. For All Mankind sits just at the edge of science fiction, where scientific curiosity meets adult regret.
The longing inherent in an alternate history is, I think, of a piece with the longing that drives space travel, or once drove it, the thing my Gen X husband calls “space feelings.” It’s the idea that there is something other than here and now, that despite the way our choices have narrowed our lives again and again into the present moment. Space travel, time travel, and television about the impossible wish to have known our own parents when they were young, are all expressions of this same feeling. Somewhere, something else is bigger than here; somewhere there is a version of all this that makes sense. For some people that’s the moon, and for other people it’s the midcentury, and for a lot of us it’s the TV droning on about beautiful people soundtracked by Fleetwood Mac and the Smashing Pumpkins.
It’s also the music cues. I bet for a lot of people the go-to television gimmick of a big recognizable needle-drop got old a long time ago. But I always love it, and it always gets me. A narrative music video is exactly the way I want to be manipulated. A lot of very serious TV shows—even ones that I think are significantly better than For All Mankind—are really just enormously extended music videos, and work specifically on those of us who are the right age to already have big feelings about the songs used in them.
Maybe this isn’t the best or most rigorous way to experience narrative art, as merely a vehicle for my own thwarted, window-scratching nostalgia for both the past and the future, but sometimes I think that’s all TV like this ever means to do, to offer an access door to those feelings for the viewer, a way to go visit the moon, and a way to watch your dad watch the moon landing.
The Bear: Your friend who works in a restaurant has shown up at what was supposed to be the last stop of your night and he has just gotten off his shift and he has done so so much cocaine and he is going to tell you everything about his industry and what it means right now and he is buying everyone a round of drinks without asking if you actually want another round of drinks and what even is this that he ordered for all of you and why does he know like ten different guys at this bar when there weren’t even ten different guys in here a second ago and anyway it is very important that you drink whatever it is he just ordered for everybody including the two different friends of yours he has hooked up with who didn’t know he was going to show up tonight and anyway anyway he has done so much cocaine and did you know about family meal and did you know about found families and did you know that I hate my dad and hey these three guys hate their dads too but we can all be each other’s dads and did you know about how brunch is bullshit and do you want to hear a story about a famous person who is a bad tipper and do you want to hear a story about this time we all blacked out drinking and the story is very long and not exactly funny but you are gonna laugh anyway because this friend has definitely bailed you out of a bad situation at some point in your long friendship and anyway did you know about this small batch liquor company and this story about Jacques Pepin and this weird traditional way to make this one type of sausage and did you know about dads and how they’re the worst and how sometimes your friends can be your family and hey do you guys want to go to another bar because he knows a place that is still open and oh hey look shots of Fernet time to do shots of Fernet time to do shots of Fernet with everyone at this bar (complimentary) (both the shots of Fernet and this review).
The Bear is like what if the internet’s collective desire to fuck Anthony Bourdain gained sentience and became a TV show but it is also very good. I don’t wanna bang sweaty Gene Wilder but I understand why everybody else does.
Everything Everywhere All at Once: Everything Everywhere isn’t television, but a lot of things that aren’t television can still be binge-watching. Binge-watching is whatever replicates the exquisite permission of having a hangover on a Sunday and nothing else to do. It is whatever blocks out the light and buzzes out the noise of life to static and hum. I watched Everything Everywhere in the middle of a Saturday afternoon, at home, and used up the whole day on it. I pulled the ancient wooden shutters on the living-room windows shut to block out the daylight, and cranked the AC up high. I did my best to replicate a movie theater at the mall, the only place where the movies are real.
Like For All Mankind, Everything Everywhere is about alternate realities, which is to say that it’s about aging. Every story about alternate realities, about time travel, about inflection points and butterfly effects and sliding doors and other selves in other versions of the world, is about aging. Time travel is the most profoundly middle-aged form of science fiction. A midlife crisis is what it looks like when a person in non-fictional reality attempts time travel. Everything Everywhere knows that science fiction is about longing, that stories about magic are about the times when we do not know how to fix it, and that alternate timelines are a way to talk about what it feels like to get older without having done all the things we meant to do when we were young.
The movies love a midlife crisis, and Everything Everywhere is just such a movie. For all its futuristic combat sequences and googly eyes and wild costumes and hot-dog fingers, it’s just a gigantically old-fashioned Movie. Everything Everywhere is The Movies because it’s big and loud and in love with its own cleverness, because it likes violence and glitter and family and architecturally symmetrical office spaces and when a beautiful woman wears a big expensive dress, and it’s The Movies because it is just so swooningly sentimental, willing to be naive if being naive means getting to have a big feeling. Its apex-tearjerker line—In another life, I would have really liked just doing laundry and taxes with you—offers the particular pleasure of crying while knowing that the thing that made you cry was specifically trying to make you cry, and that feeling more than any other is The Movies. Everything Everywhere loves movies and can’t help talking about them, in its visual quotations and language and even its plot devices, and The Movies are always obsessed with other movies. Nothing is more The Movies than somebody who won’t shut up about Wong Kar-wai.
But perhaps more than anything, this movie is The Movies because it believes so hard in romance, and believes that everything is romance—tax audits, laundromats, small dogs, car crashes, office buildings, supply closets, hot dog fingers, googly eyes, back alleyways, regrets, family trauma, vape pens, middle age, martial arts—and coats its landscape in romance so thoroughly that even nihilism becomes romance. Since nothing matters, we can do whatever we want is the philosophical realization of a stoned fourteen year old, but the philosophical realizations of a stoned fourteen year old are also, by and large, the movies.
I didn’t feel any better about any of my own longings for a different timeline after watching this movie about aging people’s longings for other timelines made manifest as science fiction, but perhaps I wasn’t supposed to. The Movies aren’t interested in answers or in fixing anything. The point of The Movies is to feel something, and to feel it as big and as loud and as much as you can. Even the characters in the seemingly more glamorous timeline in Everything Everywhere yearn for a different version of their lives. That’s where The Movies want to take you, straight into the heart of your own yearnings, technicolor and one hundred feet tall, where every single thing is romance and all of it lasts forever, where we never get anything we want, but we also never lose anything if we love it enough.
Persuasion: Every Jane Austen novel is like “you know when a stupid guy tries to sell his house but he prices it all wrong haha anyway the most romantic thing in the world is how love makes us unable to perceive one another correctly.” Love in Austen’s novels is at once foolishness and the grace that that foolishness allows us to experience, and it is also that thing where your friends buy a house and you’re so happy for them and then you do a bunch of gossipy internet detective work to find out how much they paid for it. Jane Austen is like if the hour you spend fantasy-browsing Zillow listings and checking your bank account every day were also the most devastatingly tender thing ever written about how sometimes we manage to love one another despite our complete determination for self-sabotage. An Austen novel is like what if sometimes a mortgage rate calculator spit out a Mary Oliver poem. Persuasion, Austen’s last novel, is also her best one, the most concentrated dose of exactly this thing, pure longing and human fallibility, love as foolishness and grace and gossip about other people’s money. I re-read Persuasion because everyone was talking about the Netflix movie for a couple days online, but there is no bad reason to read Persuasion, and you should read it right now if you are looking for something to read, and you should especially read it if you think you don’t like Jane Austen.
the air-conditioner in my apartment, set between 69 and 74 degrees: Air-conditioning is drugs, and air-conditioning is the way that money buys happiness. I mistrust artificial fixes, but every fix is in the end artificial. Exercise and waking up early in morning and believing in yourself and allowing yourself to be loved and having a good support system: All of these wear off, too. Eventually you end up unhappy again, whether your temporary escape from it was doing a good deed for an elderly relative, or taking the anti-depressant a doctor prescribed to you, or eating a whole handful of edibles and lying down inside of the couch. Living is a process of temporary fixes, strung together to make a rickety bridge, with wide spaces where planks are missing and a long windy drop below. Nothing that feels good lasts, which makes it difficult to trust it when anything feels good, or to allow it to matter. All technological triumphs, from medicine to social media to space travel to the artificial cool air with which I filled my living room during the heatwaves over the last few weeks, are a little bit suspect, and a little bit nerve-wracking. Every good thing feels like it will eventually cost too much; everything that feels good costs something.
Our air-conditioner cost $479 at Best Buy in the summer of 2019. It replaced the old one that I took to the curb with all the energy of a civilian exorcizing an evil spirit from their home in a horror movie, after Thomas split his face open taking it out of the window the year before. Our friend Sean came over and I paid him in beers and compliments and dinner to install the new air-conditioner with metal screws and a drill, so that it stays in place all year, whether or not we’re using it.
I turn on the air-conditioner and it transforms the room, and the world, and the day, and my own body. My heart rate slows. My breath comes easier. Outside, the weather continues, but it means no more to me than a light show; the physical circumstances of the world have become a choice rather than an imposition. Air conditioning means having a body is optional. Enough money makes every uncomfortable or unpleasant thing optional, and air conditioning is money rendered into the form of indoor weather.
It’s no surprise and no secret that mercy can be purchased with money, which is maybe why air-conditioning, more than apple pie or state fairs or big hats or neoliberalism or hot dogs or the Fourth of July, is the most American thing there is. Often when there’s a particularly bad shooting in the news, that poem about “America is a Gun” goes around. If the poem is facile, it certainly isn’t wrong; of course America is a gun, if places are objects, if we have to pick one. But if places are objects, America might also be an air-conditioner. This technology is more prevalent in the US than anywhere else in the world. This country is both obsessed with and predicated on the things money allows us to escape, and the bunkers that it builds, all of which are air-conditioned. At the end of the world, when the rich retreat underground or into the sky or onto their yachts and the rest of us burn, their air-conditioning will be perfect, the uninterrupted cool that slows down every panicking heart, smoothing the room into calm silence.
The Good Fight: I just love every time Bernadette Peters gets more money so she can help more dogs.
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