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 Glow Up, 9-1-1, 9-1-1 Lone Star, The Bridge (reality series on HBO Max), and the golden age of pirates.
What I’m reading for fun
Republic of Pirates by Colin Woodard: So over the summer I got into a bit of a pirate thing. It started with a viewing of Our Flag Means Death on HBO Max, followed shortly thereafter with Black Sails. Pirates are something I’ve never been particularly interested in before, even back during my childhood Muppet Treasure Island phase or my teenaged Pirates of the Caribbean phase. My ignorance was such that I didn’t even realize that some of the more famous pirates whose names I recognized (like Blackbeard) were real historical people. Oops. Anyway, after watching both series, I was curious to know more about historical figures like Blackbeard, Stede Bonnet, Charles Vane, Jack Rackham, Woodes Rogers, et al. Turns out the real story is a bit hard to figure out since real pirates in the Golden Age of Piracy didn’t exactly keep records of their activities or their life stories so all we really have to go on are propaganda and court records from the time which are…not accurate. Despite that, Woodard manages to piece together an interesting narrative that gives you at least some idea of who these people were, what they did, and (as much as possible) why they did it. Because of that lack of historical record, Woodard has to do a lot of speculation, which I was annoyed with at first, but I eventually learned to appreciate the way he at least attempts to tie his speculation to concrete research. What I didn’t expect is that based on what little is known about some of these people, Our Flag Means Death has maybe a little more basis in historical record than Black Sails, especially when it comes to Blackbeard. That’s not to suggest that it’s particularly accurate (in fact, it’s purposely ahistorical) but the show does take some of the established facts or more likely possibilities (like the fact that Blackbeard and Stede Bonnet knew each other, the possibility that Blackbeard was not white and how that affected people’s perceptions of him at the time, etc.) and use or rearrange them in interesting ways. Black Sails, meanwhile, is a grittier and more accurate depiction of piracy itself but is, I think, freer in its fictionalization of its main historical characters and events. Not that it matters. As a book like this shows, there’s really no way of knowing for sure who any of these people were or what motivated their actions so all we really have are myths. Still, this book makes for a pretty good primer if you’re interested in the real story behind the Golden Age of Piracy.
What I’m watching for fun
Glow Up on Netflix: It could be I’m just not spending time in the right corners of the internet, but Glow Up seems to be one of those reality competition shows that really flies under the radar. If that’s the case, it’s too bad because it’s easily one of my favorite ones out there. I can’t even explain how much I love this show, even as someone who knows nothing about makeup. The premise is that a set of (mostly) young make-up artists (MUAs) participate in a series of challenges to test their skills and creativity. The first challenge is always one that puts them in a professional situation that mimics the type of work they’d be doing and the type of people they’d be doing with if they were to do make-up professionally. The second challenge is more creative and allows them to express themselves through their make-up. The great thing about the show is how well both types of challenge work together. The professional challenges are especially interesting because the show doesn’t generally throw in any unnecessary twists to try to drum up drama or throw anyone off. The tasks the MUAs are asked to complete are real, professional tasks that they perform in real, professional settings and the emphasis is on whether they are capable of delivering what the client asks for in the time frame given while also exhibiting adequately professional behavior. Not surprisingly, this is the area where the younger MUAs who have mostly only done makeup on TikTok tend to struggle. This reality check can be kind of satisfying from a schadenfreude point of view but the show doesn’t generally encourage that. Instead, it just makes clear that these are kids who may not have quite learned yet how to work well in a professional setting. Meanwhile, the creative challenges are always just amazing. It really blows my mind what some of these people can do in just two and a half hours of time. It’s great to watch people who are good at what they do do it well. As an added bonus, while the judges do occasionally indulge in dumb catchphrases (on this show “ding dong” is the equivalent of the Paul Hollywood handshake), their criticism is always fair and honest but basically kind–they’re not here to humiliate anyone.(1) It’s really the best kind of criticism that helps you understand from an expert point of view not only what’s good about a particular makeup look but also where it might be lacking. Finally, the last thing I love about the show is that the winner is almost never surprising but it’s still satisfying to watch them win because, at least based on what’s shown on screen, they always pick the exact right person.
9-1-1: Lone Star and 9-1-1 (original flavor) on Hulu: Hulu’s algorithms have been pushing the 9-1-1 “universe” of shows on me a lot the last couple of months, probably because of my history of watching similar shows like Station 19 and Chicago Fire. I finally decided to check it out starting with the Lone Star version of the show (for no particular reason) and then getting pulled into the original version after a crossover episode (which is, after all, the whole point of crossover episodes). My impression so far, after watching nearly two seasons of Lone Star and half a season of the original show is that the original show is objectively better but the Lone Star version is also fun. Which is to say, both shows are super, super ridiculous. The action scenes are generally well-staged but the emergencies these characters deal with are like a Mad Libs of ridiculous disasters. In the Lone Star version, for example, there is a solar flare storm thing at the end of season 1 which causes exactly one (1) plane crash (you’d think all of the planes would crash), knocks out all cell phone communication, and messes with TV signals except, seemingly, the one news channel that is still broadcasting and works just long enough to explain to the characters (and the audience) what’s actually happening. There’s also a scene in that episode where an astronaut calls 9-1-1 for some reason and somehow gets connected with Grace, the 9-1-1 operator character, who connects him with his family so that he can say good-bye (because the space station he’s on is also being affected by the solar flare, I think). This is epic levels of stupid. And yet. I keep watching. I haven’t been able to figure out why except to say that I like the characters and I like some of the more personal storylines, especially Liv Tyler’s storyline in season 1. There’s nothing here that hasn’t already been done in other similar shows (the person dealing with PTSD after surviving a rescue-gone-wrong, the person questioning whether they really want to be a firefighter, the person who discovers they’re sick but decides to keep going with a physically demanding job because they love what they do, etc.) but these tropes work for a reason. Unfortunately, many of these storylines and characters are often under threat of being drowned out by the show’s Rob Lowe problem. I’ve enjoyed Rob Lowe in many of his other roles but there’s something about his character here that doesn’t work for me. It’s like Lowe is trying to be the Tom Cruise of television and, based on what I’ve seen so far, I’m guessing there’s something in his contract that dictates that his character can never be wrong or make a mistake about anything. It makes the whole thing feel a bit like a vanity project and the show would be better if Lowe ceded a bit more screen time and attention to the less well-known actors in the cast. This may be part of the reason why the original version is a bit stronger. The more well-known actors on that show, like Angela Bassett and Peter Krause don’t pull focus in quite the same way—they’re much better at sharing space with those around them, giving the show more of an ensemble feel, which I like. Time will tell if any of this holds up but for now I am entertained.
The Bridge Season 2 on HBO Max: When I first got HBO Max a year or so ago, The Bridge was one of the first series I watched on the platform because I’d read about in the Watching newsletter from the New York Times. The premise of the series, if you’re not familiar, is that a bunch of (mostly) British people with no relevant expertise or knowledge are sent to a remote location where they are tasked with building a 1000 foot bridge out of limited materials. If they succeed, then at the end they vote for one person to win a large cash prize. (If they don’t no one gets the money.) The first season was more like a social experiment than a reality show. There was only one team and, based on what was shown on screen, the people involved were given minimal direction about how to organize themselves, how to complete the task they’d been assigned, how to use their supplies, etc. There was no host–just narration provided by James McAvoy, which contributed to the overall “documentary” feel. Overall, it was interesting to watch the team work out what they were doing and how they were going to do it, often failing in the process. (Though they were ultimately successful, I got the sense as a viewer that there was probably some invisible producer interference going on in order to make that possible.) The second season, which premiered in late June/early July, is much more of a reality show. This time, there is a host who CONSTANTLY reminds you about the cash prize. There’s also two teams competing against each other. And there’s a survival expert who provides them with specific directions on how to build the bridge and other advice that will help them survive the twelve days they have to complete their task. On the one hand, I guess that was a good change because there really isn’t much “plot” going on other than that one team clearly has their shit together more or less from the start and the other one definitely does not. There’s also the one extremely tiresome guy (it’s always a guy) who does nothing but talk about his strategy and how he’s not here to make friends and he’s only in it for himself and the money blah blah blah. One thing I will say about this show that makes it worth watching is that it has some of the more devious twists I’ve ever seen in a competition reality show. These twists are framed as if they reveal something important or interesting about human nature. They kind of don’t, except maybe how absolutely stupid people can be sometimes but the results can be surprising and help add interest where there otherwise might not be any. Do I regret spending a portion of my recent vacation watching this show? Eh, not really. Would I watch a third season of it? Eh, maybe.
- As an example of this, there’s something that happens at the end of the first episode of the new season where one of the two contestants in the final “face off” (the last challenge that determines who will be going home that day–the show’s equivalent of RuPaul’s “Lip Sync for Your Life”) somewhat inexplicably takes a dive. Rather than doing the task they were asked to do, they write a bizarre message in lipstick on their model’s face. On any other show, this would have been milked for maximum drama. Here, it’s barely acknowledged. Because the contestant is never asked why they did this, it’s impossible to know what they were trying to achieve but if the goal was to get attention, it doesn’t seem to have worked, at least within the context of the show. No one gets angry. No one yells or cries. It just sort of happens and then it’s over. I liked that.