The Walking Dead Can’t Decide Whether It’s Real or a Cartoon in “New Best Friends”


Realism is always going to be a tricky needle to thread for The Walking Dead. On the one hand, a big part of the show’s claim to fame is the way it takes the well-worn idea of the zombie apocalypse and plays it seriously, sometimes overly seriously. That’s in its DNA. On the other hand, it’s also a show where corpses come back to life, civilians can use weapons like pros with minimal training, and the undead recur in some new obstacle course-like form on a weekly basis. The very premise of the show means that The Walking Dead can’t exactly be as down-to-earth or grounded as its naturalistic aesthetic might suggest, and that’s simply part of the deal.

But sometimes, the series just pushes things too far. The Junkyardigans (my name for the collective that congregates at the dump, at least until an official one is offered) read as silly from the word go. Our heroes have run into plenty of colorful groups before — The Terminites, The Wolves, and the dibs-based biker gang come to mind — but they tend to read as pulpy rather than cheesy. It’s a fine distinction, to be sure, but the difference is that as wild as those groups could seem at times, their outsized characteristics seemed to fit into a certain exaggerated, over the top quality that’s present throughout the series. The Walking Dead isn’t just real; it’s hyper-real, and its more extreme villains and antagonists fit well enough within that atmosphere.

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The Simpsons: Reinvention, Acceptance, and Why “Summer of 4 Ft. 2″ Is One of the Show’s Greatest Episodes


When The Simpsons parodied The Great Gatsby this season, it tapped into one of the novel’s major themes — the uniquely American desire for reinvention. For centuries, people have come to the United States, or sought unspoiled frontiers within it, in the hope that new surroundings would allow them to become new people. Regardless of whether that’s an attainable goal or a false fantasy, the impulse to start anew is buried deep within the American psyche.

But it’s also within an eight-year-old girl struggling to overcome her innate nerdiness and make a few friends. As I discussed on The Simpsons Show Podcast, “Summer of 4 ft. 2,” is one of the series’s best and most resonant episodes because it captures that universal desire to remake ourselves, and yet realizes that in the personal, affecting tones of a lonely kid with the simple want of friendship. Even in a family full of unusual people, Lisa Simpson is a misfit, and that makes her quest for her first real friend(…ship bracelet) an undeniably poignant one.

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The Walking Dead: Two Good Bits Stand Out in the Doldrums of “Rock in the Road”


The Walking Dead
is a frustrating show for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which is that even in an episode like this — one filled to the brim with dull speechifying, blatant wheel-spinning, and lame parables — there’s one or two moments of brilliance that make it hard to just give up on this ever-mercurial series. Even when the show is stalling for time, serving up weak dialogue, or leaning into its weakest tendencies, it sprinkles in a couple of great bits that manage to rise above the rest of the flotsam.

This week, it’s the zombie cheese slicer and Rick’s smile, two dissimilar but connected moments that demonstrate what The Walking Dead is capable of when it’s not tripping over its own bad lines and plot contrivances. Such faults are out in full force in “Rock in the Road,” an episode that sees Rick and the gang at The Hilltop and The Kingdom in an effort to rally forces sufficient to take on The Saviors. The forging of that coalition is inevitable, and the arguments over whether to unite and fight or cling to the status quo have already been turned over by dozens of people dozens of times, which leaves “Rock” with only the thrilling walker-slaying sequence and a brief but clever way to convey Rick’s state of mind to recommend it.

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Tim Burton’s Batman Is an Evolutionary Step Between Batman ’66 and The Dark Knight Trilogy


Someday, in the not too distant future, we’re going to get a raw, documentary-style Batman film, about a regular guy who just so happens to dress up like a bat and get into ugly fist fights with criminals. And when that happens, we’ll turn around and laugh at how cheesy and unrealistic the Christopher Nolan films seem by comparison. Today’s cultural sensation is tomorrow’s hokey relic. So it goes.

But until that happens, it behooves us to look at Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film, which scans as corny and even rudimentary relative to Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, with some perspective. After the semi-grounded approach to the character in recent years, it seems odd in hindsight that Burton’s take on the character was praised for its serious approach to the source material. But contemporary critics were comparing it to William Dozier’s Batman ‘66, the overtly comedic, Adam West incarnation of The Caped Crusader. So, as I discussed with Robbie Dorman on the Serial Fanaticist Podcast, while much of Burton’s tack in the 1989 Batman feels broader and even goofier than the Batman of today, his version fits into a wide spectrum of portrayals of the character, on the page and on the screen, that’s taken shape over the last eighty years.

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Hidden Figures Is a Typical Oscar Movie with an Atypical Focus

You’ve seen Hidden Figures before. Maybe you haven’t seen this exact movie — about how three unduly unheralded African American women helped NASA in the early 1960s — but if, like me, you dutifully watch the slate of Oscar-nominated films year after year, then within ten minutes you’ll already know this movie by heart.

It features a gutsy but unorthodox protagonist trying to make a dent in a system that marginalizes and ignores her. It’s a period piece, with enough obvious dialogue, details, and cameos from well-known historical figures to let the audience know exactly when the story is taking place, with plenty of opportunities for the viewer to say, “My, how far we’ve come.” It has supporting characters facing challenges that mirror the protagonist’s, shining more light on the ways in which the order of the day affected those who were quietly fighting to maintain their place in it. And it has the standard untold story/historical injustice angle, intended to imbue the film with an extra bit of triumph and tragedy, all unleashed with a heavy dose of Hollywood mythmaking.

The difference, and the thing that distinguishes Hidden Figures from the likes of The Imitation Game, Dallas Buyers Club, and other recent Oscar nominees that play in the same space is that it uses the power of that formula in support of a woman of color. At a time when the world of film is still lingering in the shadow of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, it’s encouraging that Taraji P. Henson is cast as the star of a movie that follows the Oscar-approved blueprint and succeeds at the box office and the awards table in the process. It’s just a shame that the film’s artistic merit can’t match its social merit.

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King of the Hill’s Top 20 Episodes


In honor of the 20th anniversary of King of the Hill‘s premiere, Andrew Bloom joins Dan Pfleegor and Zack Ruskin to rank the top 20 episodes of this superb and underrated show.

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Rogue One Fills in the Gaps of the Star Wars Universe, But Rarely Comes into its Own


A New Hope
, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi are the sacred texts of the Star Wars universe. Every bit of Star Wars that has emerged in the wake of those first three films – sequels, prequels, midquels, comics, T.V. shows, holiday specials, video games, trading cards, action figures, and commemorative plates – is indebted to the franchise’s holy trinity. And each of them no matter what their claim to originality or expansion, echoes, references, and yes, even rhymes with those instigating incidents. For as wide and wooly as the famed galaxy far far away has become over the years, the creators and collaborators who work in Star Wars are forever filling in the gaps left by those all-important lodestones of the franchise.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the peak of this gap-filling mentality brought to bear. The film is inextricably tied to Episode IV, taking great pains to connect the events depicted in this movie with those of its hallowed predecessor, even when it gets in the way of telling Rogue One’s own story. Because of that, Rogue One comes off more like pandering than as a novel extension of the Star Wars universe. It’s a film desperate to remind you of what comes next in the timeline, without regard for whether any of the harbingers it presents genuinely add anything to the story being told here and now or the story we already know.

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A Decade Before the Mall of America Did, Children’s Television Had a Black Santa Claus, and the World Didn’t End


Watch enough Star Wars in the lead up to the franchise’s recent resurgence, and you get to know the menace of James Earl Jones’s voice. His deep timbre and stentorian tones bring authority and fear when he gives orders to underlings or threatens a band of rebels. But that same big baritone, the same pitch that gives Jones gravitas when voicing the heavy, gives him a certain mirth and a tone of loving paternal authority when voicing Santa Claus.

This is the revelation that Recess, an animated show for kids, uncovered when casting Jones as the jolly old elf himself in the show’s 1998 Christmas special. Recess ran from 1997-2001 and was produced under the Disney umbrella (just as Jones’s Vader eventually would be). Part of ABC’s One Saturday Morning block, the show was an embryonic version of Community, centered on six distinct but close-knit friends, navigating the colorful and outsized ecosystem of their elementary school, where character stories and genre pastiches abound.

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The Walking Dead: The Division and Reunion in “Hearts Still Beating”


Since at least the middle of the show’s fourth season, The Walking Dead’s M.O. has been to divide and conquer. As the show’s cast of characters has grown, more and more often its episodes focus on just a handful of individuals, typically separated from the rest of the group. That makes the series’s season premieres and season finales (or mid-season finales), where everyone joins back together, feel almost like crossover episodes.

But it also makes them feel like reunions. The time apart for these characters doesn’t just give us a thrill when they link up once more, but makes us miss their interactions and shows us the value of their cooperation, and even their mere shared presence, through its absence. That fits the theme of “Hearts Still Beating,” which shows any number of survivors attempting to solve the season’s big problems on their own, trying to carry the entire load on their backs, only to realize that what they hope to achieve can only be accomplished by working together. “Hearts Still Beating” is not a great episode of The Walking Dead, but in this vein, it works for what show’s going for.

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The Walking Dead: “Sing Me a Song” Asks Whether Negan is a Hero or a Villian in his Own Mind


There’s an old saw that says the best villains are the ones who believe they’re the hero of the story. “Sing Me a Song” leaves the viewer wondering if that’s true for Negan in an episode that spends even more time acquainting the audience with him and his fiefdom. There are moments when it seems like Negan truly believes he’s doing good, bringing the progress and security of civilization back to an untamed world. There are others when it seems like he simply enjoying himself within his own twisted version of Disneyland. It’s unclear which of those things he really believes, or if he’s even aware of the distinction. But that ambiguity helps make him The Walking Dead’s most interesting villain yet.

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