Some bite-sized thoughts and reflections on the items I’ve been reading, listening to, or watching this month.
Also: Did you read, watch, listen to, play something this month that you particularly enjoyed? Feel free to share in the comments! I’m always looking for recommendations.
Note: The following post contains spoilers for Monument Valley, In Treatment, Love, Victor, All That Glitters, Never Have I Ever, and an old episode of The New Girl.
What I’m reading for work
Full disclosure: I had some time off recently, so not a lot of work reading has been happening. I’ve been doing some reading for fun but haven’t made it far enough in any of that stuff to write about it here. So, um, the “what I’m reading” part of “what I’m reading” will return next month, I guess?
What I’m playing for fun
FitOn: I’ve been using various online fitness platforms like FitnessBlender and DailyBurn for a while but the “workout at home” trend that happened during the pandemic (which happened out of necessity, of course) led me to a couple of new ones, my favorite of which so far has been FitOn. When I first logged on to FitOn, I was a little disappointed at first because the workouts they had were so short–most are between 10 and 20 minutes. My personal sweet spot when it comes to working out is 45 minutes (long enough to feel like I’ve done something, but short enough to be doable). What I discovered once I started doing the app was that the shortness of the workouts was intentional and strategic. Individual workouts may be short but they are easily stackable so that if you want a longer workout, it’s easy to find a 15 or 20 minute cardio workout that goes well with a 15 or 20 minute strength workout that goes well with a 5 or 10 minute cool down. The app actually includes “playlists” that stack the workouts for you but a big part of the fun of using the app for me has been in choosing workouts to group together.(1) The workouts themselves are mostly pretty great and adequately challenging–similar to some of FitnessBlender’s beginner and intermediate workouts. I also enjoy a lot of the trainers. Kenta Sekai is particularly friendly and fun (and popular, I assume, based on the number of videos that feature him). That said, I don’t love everything about the app. The effort to build a community of users is nice but I prefer to keep my exercise life private so the fact that the app shares your activity with other users as the default nearly turned me off of it early on (until I figured out how I could change this in the privacy settings). There’s also some clunkiness with the app’s functionality but nothing annoying enough to put me off using it. Honestly, the FitOn app is free and they seem determined to stay that way (except for some paid programs that they’ve started doing) but if they suddenly went to a paid model, I would still use it. It’s that good.
Monument Valley on Apple iPhone: The description for Monument Valley in the App store touts an award the game won for something like “Best Game of 2014.” So you could say I’m a little behind when it comes to discovering this little puzzle game about a silent princess who needs to find her way through various mind-bending landscapes. I’m not usually a huge fan of puzzle games, especially ones that play with spatial relations the way this one does (usually they just give me a headache). So even though I’d heard of Monument Valley in the past, I was pretty sure it was not a game for me. I was wrong. I’m not the type of person who usually finds video games absorbing in a relaxing way. I’m usually gnashing my teeth and showing off my vocabulary of curse words as I fail my way through whatever puzzle or mission a game has set for me. This game was different. Partly that had to do with the dreamy music of the soundtrack but I think this “relaxing” quality can be attributed to the fact that, in the game, the character cannot die (at least not that I saw). If you mess up. nothing terrible happens. She doesn’t break her neck falling off a cliff (as in the Uncharted games, my introduction to violent video game deaths) or get ripped apart by zombies (which is what keeps happening to me in Days Gone). The worst thing that happens is that you try to get her to move to a part of the screen where she can’t go and she…stays where she is. And waits for you to figure out something she can do. This feeling of “safety” made it easy and fun to experiment with manipulating the various puzzles and landscapes so that getting something wrong just kind of absorbed me in the puzzle more rather than making me tense or annoyed. I lost time playing this game in what felt like a good way. But not that much time. If I have one criticism of the game, it’s that it’s so short. That’s to be expected from a $5 game you play on your phone or tablet but I finished all 10 levels in maybe a little over 2 hours. True, I could buy the extra “standalone” levels or the sequel game. But honestly, this “purchasing add-ons” thing is a big part of what I don’t like about phone games and why I usually avoid them. I know regular video games have this too but usually the basic game is robust enough that I’m not left feeling unsatisfied or slightly duped. I don’t necessarily feel that way with Monument Valley, either. It’s a beautiful little game that does exactly what it tells you it’s going to do. I just wish there was a little more to it.
What I’m watching for fun
In Treatment on HBO Max: So when the fourth season/reboot of In Treatment got released a month or so ago, HBO Max’s algorithms got really aggressive about recommending it to me. I resisted, mostly because I resent aggressive algorithms but also because I found the structure of the show confusing. Were you supposed to watch straight through? Or could I watch all of the episodes focusing on one patient without having to sit through the episodes with the other patients and still understand what was happening? This second question was particularly relevant because the reason I gave in to watching In Treatment was that I’d just read an article about Anthony Ramos in The New York Times after seeing In the Heights and I was compelled enough by his performance in that movie to be curious about his performance on In Treatment. It turns out I probably could have watched only the episodes focused on Ramos’s character (Eladio) without missing anything that would have helped me understand his story, but I’m glad I didn’t do that. Which is to say, Eladio was by far my favorite of the featured patients: the character is sweet and sad and funny(2) and listening to his story unfold is genuinely suspenseful. You can’t help but care about this guy and what happens to him. The other patients (and Brooke’s own story) are a little harder to warm up to, especially at first, but the unexpected paths their stories take was intriguing enough that I didn’t mind focusing on them rather than Eladio for a little while. So even though I still wish these recommendation algorithms that seem to follow me everywhere would back the eff off every now and then, I can’t pretend they weren’t right, at least in this case.
Love, Victor on Hulu: Last year, when Love, Victor was first released on Hulu, I watched it mostly out of idle curiosity and boredom. I’d read the book that the movie Love, Simon is based on twice and basically liked the film version but not enough to feel drawn to a TV series spinoff which was getting somewhat mixed reviews. I ended up liking the first season of Love, Victor well enough but the main sticking point for me, if I’m being really honest, was Benji. Throughout the whole series, I hoped against hope that Benji was a red herring love interest and that Victor was going to end up with someone else at the end of the season. I don’t know why I felt this way. In the first season, Benji seemed perfectly cute and nice but he was also kind of a bore. So when the second season came along, my reasons for watching were similar to what they’d been the first season but I wasn’t expecting much since I didn’t really care about Victor and Benji as a couple. Having now seen the second season, I’m worried that if there isn’t a third one, I might actually die a little. That’s because the second season kind of gives Benji a little more of a personality (mostly, he’s kind of a dick but some of his dickishness is justified) and also gives Victor a much more compelling potential love interest: Rahim, who’s introduced about halfway through the season. I adore Rahim. Adore him. More importantly, when Victor is with him, I actually care about Victor in a way that I frankly kind of don’t when Victor is with Benji (or by himself). It’s probably a little weird for a straight woman my age to be this involved in a gay love triangle on a teen-focused family show but at this point I don’t care. It’s been a long year and apparently this kind of thing was exactly what I needed right now.
All That Glitters on HBO Max: Like The Great Pottery Throwdown, All That Glitters is a sort of cousin to the Great British Bake-Off. Also like GPTD (and probably GBBO), the first season of All That Glitters is a bit…rough. Like, there’s a good idea there (jewelers competing in tasks that show off both their style and imagination as a jeweler as well as their skills) but it doesn’t quite live up to its potential. To be fair, a big part of that is due to some awkwardness around COVID. This awkwardness has a particularly noticeable effect on judging because due to social distancing, the contestants have to stand in a completely different room while their work is being critiqued. So, unlike in GBBO or GPTD (even the most recent seasons where COVID was a factor), that means the judges’ feedback is limited to the quality of the finished piece without any sort of mentoring advice that generally makes that feedback meaningful. The show also suffers a bit from having two judges who come across as a bit flat onscreen. No doubt it must be difficult to have a competition like this where the judges are both experts in the skills and techniques being tested (which these two clearly are) but also have TV-ready personalities. GBBO and GPTD have really gotten lucky in this respect. The judges on All That Glitters pale in comparison to someone like Keith Brymer-Jones, whose often emotional reactions to potters’ finished works somehow makes great television while also seeming utterly sincere (rather than played for the cameras). Then again, who wouldn’t? It could be that this is a bug that will work itself out as the judges get more used to being on TV and interacting with a (sometimes overly) kooky host. This all probably makes it sound like I didn’t like All That Glitters, but I actually did, though I think I enjoyed it more for its potential than what was actually on screen. I particularly liked that the second challenge in each episode (equivalent to a “Showstopper” challenge in GBBO) was a Bespoke challenge where the jewelers were asked to make a custom piece of jewelry for an actual customer. The customers’ stories were always interesting and seeing the different jewelers’ interpretations of the briefs they were given helped bring out some of the differences in their styles and approaches to jewelry-making. The one downside to this type of challenge is that it sometimes undermined or confused the judging and elimination process, especially when the customer (who is a regular person, not a jewelry expert) chooses a piece the judges obviously didn’t like. Another place the show did well this season was in its choice of contestants. For some of them, the jewelry they made was just kind of blah but that was easy to forgive because so many of them made good “characters” in an authentic-seeming way (meaning it didn’t feel like they were just mugging for the camera to get more screen time). So I think the first season of All That Glitters was maybe just kind of okay but I thought the same thing about the first season of GPTD too and it’s now one of my favorite reality series. If GPTD managed to work out some of its early kinks to become what it now is (and hopefully avoid turning into what GBBO has become), I think All That Glitters can too.
Never Have I Ever on Netflix: I wasn’t sure I was going to watch the second season of Never Have I Ever when it came out in July. Not because I didn’t like the first season but because with the exception of one episode of New Girl,(3) I have never ugly cried so hard at an episode of supposedly comedic television as I did at the last episode of this series last year. Also, I accidentally found out via an article on Buzzfeed that the actor who plays Paxton (a 16 year old boy) is 30 in real life and even though I wasn’t mad that this meant I didn’t have to feel like being a perv for thinking he was cute, I still felt kind of weird about it if for no other reason than the actress who plays Devi really is quite young in real life. So the knowledge of their real-life age difference inevitably changed my perception of the kissing/flirting scenes between them in a way that I knew was going to be very distracting. And it was. But I still enjoyed the new season. In particular, I kind of like how this show is able to graft rom-com elements onto a story about a female character who, objectively speaking, is fairly unlikable and still make you care about what happens to her. The Mindy Project had some of that too but I think it was less successful because the behaviors that make Devi sometimes less than likable is much easier to accept in a teenager who is still learning than they were in a grown woman who is also still learning (as we all do throughout our lives) but still seems like she should know better. Anyway, John McEnroe is my favorite character on this show and I will hear no arguments trying to convince me otherwise.
(1) To be fair, the whole original concept behind FitnessBlender was, as far as I can tell, exactly this: stacking shorter workouts together to make longer, custom workouts. (Hence the name FitnessBlender.) They haven’t gotten away from this model completely but in recent years they’ve tended more toward making videos that are complete workouts of varying lengths. I feel like this model works better with the structure of their platform.
(2) I’m still laughing at the story he tells about the time he was at a summer camp and all the white people started singing Bon Jovi and he thought they were going to sacrifice him to their sun god.
(3) It was the episode near the end of the series where Winston’s cat dies. The episode was supposed to be funny because they were having an elaborate funeral for a cat so the joke is on me but seriously: I started sobbing as soon as they revealed who the funeral was for and when Winston described how the cat actually died, I cried so hard I almost had to turn off the TV. To be clear, I would not have cried nearly as hard (or probably at all) if they had killed off one of the show’s human characters. I cannot handle sad pet stories.