Harry Potter and the Magic That Fades – Wonder, Escapism, and Adulthood 20 Years Later


Twenty years ago, Harry Potter, and all that comes with him, made its debut. His is the newest “universe” to become an indelible part of our cultural firmament, on par with Star Wars and comic heroes and the other cultural objects that have practically ascended into myth. There are plenty of reasons for that quick ascension: characters who grew up with their audience, the way the novels’ mythology deepened as the saga went on, and scads of merch-able items derived from the work that helped make the property marketable and omnipresent.

But one of the biggest is that J.K. Rowling forged such an inviting and exciting world, one that evinced a sense of wonder and, importantly, escapism, among those who visited it. The greatest fantasy in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is in the idea that there’s an incredible hidden world, just waiting for us to find it. If we can only find the key, if only we were admitted entrance, there waits a realm of wonders to be discovered and adored.

Rowling knew how to adorn that mythic land. She filled it with the sorts of inventive tricks and treats that seem blasé to locals but wondrous to us muggles. She created an imaginative ecosystem of places and spaces much like our own, but with just enough of a magical twist to spur the imagination. Who wouldn’t want to become lost in the Wizarding World, a place filled to brim with surprises and thrills and adventures around every corner?

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Better Call Saul: The Winding Road between Jimmy McGill and Saul Goodman in “Lantern”


If you graphed Walter White’s transition from mild-mannered chemistry teacher to meth-dealing kingpin, there would be a few bumps here and there, but the line would mostly run straight. Breaking Bad always gave him these inciting events, these decision points, that would push him further and further toward becoming Heisenberg.

But the line that runs between Jimmy McGill and Saul Goodman isn’t that neat or that clear. It’s more of a series of deepening, parabolic arcs. Time and again, Jimmy stumbles close to the brink of giving in, of becoming the shyster who runs cheesy ads on daytime television and joins up with criminals. But time and again, he pulls back.

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Better Call Saul: the Inevitable Hard Landings in “Fall”


There is no show on television that threads the needle between symbolism and literalism better than Better Call Saul. A major part of the show’s success (and that of its predecessor) comes from the fact that the series works equally well as a well-told story as it does a commentary on human nature and what relationships with rough-edged individuals do to us. No character represents that balance better than Kim Wexler.

The scene with her close scrape near the Texas-New Mexico border works well as plot-focused  foreshadowing. When her car gets stuck in the dirt, there is so much happening in Kim’s life — yet another tight deadline taken on to make up for Jimmy’s probable financial shortfall — that she tries to take care of the immediate problem all by herself. She find a nearby board, heaves and pushes on the car until it budges, and panics when it starts heading toward a nearby oil derrick.

Only racing into the driver’s seat and slamming on the brakes allows her to avoid a grisly wreck at the last second. The scene functions as a sign that Kim is juggling too many balls, that she’s letting small but important details slip or threaten to overwhelm her (with her car as a particular conduit for this idea) in a way that comes back to bite her later. It’s an indication Kim is trying to take on too much by herself and coming all too close to paying the price for it.

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Better Call Saul: Everyone Takes an Extra Step in “Slip”


The opening of “Slip” is a little more direct than episodes of Better Call Saul usually are when filling in some gaps Jimmy’s backstory and philosophy. When Marco presses Jimmy about his parents’ shop, about how they worked hard and everyone liked them, Jimmy admits that’s true, but questions the value of it. He protests that it got them nowhere; he characterizes his own dad as a sucker, and he takes the coin his father once planned to put in the poor box for use in yet another scam.

With that, Jimmy’s perspective on life becomes a little clearer, aligning with the prior flashback to his parents’ store. Papa McGill was someone who refused to bend the rules even a little, who wouldn’t take so much as a moderately-valuable coin for himself, let alone sell cigarettes to the kids from the local religious school to make ends meet. In Jimmy’s eyes, that approach got him nowhere. It’s a little too tidy and pat to account for Jimmy’s actions in the present day, but the man himself sums it up nicely — Papa McGill wasn’t willing to “do what he had to do,” and Jimmy assuredly is.

That’s the thrust of “Slip,” which is as much of an ensemble piece as any episode of Better Call Saul so far. Not only Jimmy, but also Mike, Chuck, Kim, and Nacho, are each willing to go the extra mile, to do the difficult or painful thing, not because they wish to or because it’s easy, but because each believe it’s what they simply need to do to go on. It’s what unites these disparate individuals and their very different challenges here — each of them strains a bit more, goes a little farther, in the name of biting the bullet and doing what needs doing.

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Wonder Woman Is a Big Step Forward for the DCEU and Superhero Movies


To call Wonder Woman the best DCEU film is to damn it with faint praise. It’s certainly a true statement, but limiting it to those terms does a disservice not only to how the film stands on its own, but how it represents a notable achievement (and hopefully turning point) for the representation of women in superhero cinema.

But even on its own merits, the film succeeds when it breaks away from the conventions cemented by its Bat- and Super-brethren, and stumbles when it gets caught in the same muck that has hobbled the movies of Wonder Woman’s D.C. Comics stablemates. The end result is the DC Extended Universe’s first legitimately good film, but one still weighed down by the cinematic baggage of its predecessors.

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Better Call Saul: The Small Interactions that Cause Big Ripples in “Expenses”


One of the best qualities of The Sopranos was how it would frequently depict a character having a small but meaningful interaction with another person, and then show how that moment could change their emotional state or plant some idea in their head that would stick with them throughout the episode. Often, the character would then take out those feelings on someone entirely removed from the original incident. It was part of the show’s deft emotional calculus, that captured the way thoughts and feelings flit around in the background of one’s mind, popping up at unexpected times or in surprising ways.

As much as the aptly titled “Expenses” is devoted to the tough financial situation Jimmy McGill finds himself in while suspended from the practice of law, it’s also devoted to that same idea — that one interaction, one exchange with another person, can reframe how you feel about someone or something, in a way that carries with you and cannot be easily erased.

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Trading Heroes for Ghosts: Revisiting Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”


“Wish You Were Here” opens with a riff that sounds as though it’s from an old recording, crackling out of a weathered car radio. Then the cleaner tones of an acoustic guitar emerge on the track, playing along with that A.M. sound. The interplay between the two conjures the image of a man listening to those sounds from long ago and trying to complement them in the present day. From the very beginning of the track, before a single lyric is uttered, “Wish You Were Here” evokes a sense of reflection, of lingering on something lost that the musician’s trying to recreate, recall, and summon once more back into the here and now.

That is the crux of Pink Floyd’s arguably most famous song — the combination of what was and what is and the contemplation of where you are in relation to where you used to be. The title track off the band’s seminal 1975 release, “Wish You Were Here” is rooted in a specific event and specific figure in the group’s past, one who seems to symbolize the turning point from when the band was young and hungry to when its members became part of the rock and roll machine, wondering how they had arrived at that point and how much it had changed them.

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The Simpsons: “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” Is the Perfect Showbiz Satire with Just Enough Heart


In “Homer the Smithers” Mr. Burns apologizes to his mother for pulling the plug on her, adding “Who could have known you’d pull through and…live for another five decades.” There’s a similar vibe in “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show,” an episode that seems to be contemplating a looming end to The Simpsons way back in Season 8, little realizing that the show would be renewed for twenty-two more seasons and counting. Showrunners Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein believed the series was winding down at the time, and true to that perspective, this episode seems to ask how much longer the show could reasonably continue until the network, the fans, and the creators themselves were simply too exhausted to go on.

As I discussed on The Simpsons Show Podcast, the irony of an episode devoted to that type of reflection airing less than a third of the way through The Simpsons’s run inevitably colors any look back at “I&S&P.” But the episode still works as an epitaph for the show’s classic years (with “Homer’s Enemy” serving as a coda) and presents a prescient view of the inherent difficulties that would make it harder and harder for The Simpsons to flourish as it aged, even before the quality of the show started to wane. And yet, what makes this installment of the show still so salient — despite the ways in which it both guessed wrong and eerily predicted The Simpsons’s future — is that it offers a universal satire of the issues that plague any long-running T.V. show, and of television as a whole.

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Amber Nash talks Archer Season 8, The Golden Girls, and Pam Poovey Spin-offs


Archer
is an outrageous show, full of spy-fueled action, liquor-fueled shenanigans, and libido-fueled insanity, on top of the show’s tightly-written dialogue and surprisingly deep character work. But even in such an over-the-top series, Pam Poovey, the drift-racing, hard-charging, HR director-turned-field agent manages to stand out.

Amber Nash is the award-winning actress who’s brought Pam to life over the last eight seasons of the show. I had the pleasure of chatting with Amber about the new direction Pam’s taken in the noir-inspired Archer: Dreamland, her inspirations and influences, and what the future holds for the inimitable Ms. Poovey.

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Better Call Saul: Everyone Gets an Unexpected Push in “Off Brand”


There’s a sense in “Off Brand” that many of Better Call Saul’s major figures have not been doing the things they’d really like to. The demands of finances, family, and the intersection of the two have kept the likes of Jimmy, Chuck, Mike, and Nacho reluctant or bitter or scarred by the efforts each has been immersed in over the past couple seasons. But for each of them, there is now something pushing them, almost against their will, to move closer to new activities, to different lives, that might be better for their souls.

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