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 contains spoilers for Slenderman (book by Kathleen Hale), Bad Sisters (TV series on Apple TV+), Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (movie on Hulu), It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (…if you can speak of spoiling that show), and Shipwreck Hunters Australia (TV series on Disney Plus)
What I’m reading for fun
Slenderman by Kathleen Hale: So this is one of the more disturbing books I’ve read in recent memory. I remember hearing about the Slenderman stabbings when they first happened in 2014, probably covered as a sensational news story on one of the morning news programs I tend to half-listen to while eating breakfast. If you’re not familiar, the incident involved two twelve year old girls who lured a friend from school out into the woods near their home and then stabbed her multiple times because they believed doing so would protect them from being murdered by Slenderman, a fictional character from an amateur horror site called creepypasta. The friend survived and the media spent a lot of time trying to figure out what exactly led to the crime. Unfortunately, it was easier to blame the internet than ask any real questions so the media version of the story kind of ended there. However, Hale has written extensively in venues like Vice about the role that mental illness played in the incident. Specifically, one of the girls who committed the crime had a family history of schizophrenia and had been showing signs of developing the disorder herself in the time leading up to the stabbing. Here, Hale goes even more in depth about what happened, exploring it as a tragedy from both sides. There is, admittedly, some discomfort with being made to sympathize with someone who committed such a horrific act but the book makes a good case that the girl in question really was just a kid who didn’t understand what was happening to her while her accomplice unknowingly and inadvertently fed into her delusions because she was also just a kid who didn’t really understand what was happening. What’s really interesting about this book, though, is the nature of the research involved, which Hale explains in a brief preface. As an exercise in information literacy, it’s important to know what information and people she did and didn’t have direct access to in writing this work. I think there are some important (and fully acknowledged) gaps that keep me from feeling that this version of events is truly complete but given the difficulties Hale ran into, including a lot of red tape around what should be public records, I think this is about as complete a picture as the public is likely to get—certainly much more complete than the one that was sensationalized in the media at the time.
What I’m watching for fun
Bad Sisters on Apple TV+: I tuned into Bad Sisters for two reasons. First, though I’m not as big of a fan of Sharon Horgan as the entertainment news sites I read seem to want me to be, I have in the past generally enjoyed TV series like This Way Up, which she produced and in which she appears as the older sister of the main character, who suffers from issues with mental illness. The second reason is Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, which featured Daryl McCormack in a very nice role as a male sex worker hired by Emma Thompson following the death of her husband. McCormack was very sweet in the part and this is literally one of the only other things he’s been in. Here, he plays an insurance guy who, along with his brother, is investigating the recent death of a man named JP Williams. Because they can’t afford the payout on his life insurance claim without bankrupting their family insurance business, they are basically hoping to find out that foul play or some other factor was involved in JP’s death that will help them avoid this particular fate. At first, it seems like there’s nothing there but they’re pretty determined and as the series goes on it becomes obvious that something fishy is going on. Flashbacks to earlier times show that JP was a despicable human being who emotionally abused and manipulated his wife and daughter and also enjoyed tormenting the people around him, especially his wife’s sisters. It’s really little wonder that someone in his life might have been driven to murder the guy. Honestly, JP is so despicable that I actually found the series hard to watch. It doesn’t help that while the abuse he inflicts on others is exaggerated for dramatic effect, it’s realistic enough that watching him made me think of some of the men I’ve known through various times in my life who unfortunately shared some of this guy’s characteristics. It helps a little knowing from the beginning that JP doesn’t exactly get away with it all but getting there is pretty frustrating. That’s partly because the show tries to draw comedy out of several failed attempts on JP’s life that happened prior to his actual death. At one point, one of the sisters jokes that it’s almost like trying to kill the Roadrunner and, unfortunately, that does become true. That said, the quality of the acting and the show’s insistence on allowing all of its characters to be complicated human beings (including, to an extent, JP himself) made it compelling enough for me to grit my teeth through all 10 episodes. The series is worth watching but it’s definitely not one I would rewatch, no matter how soulful Daryl McCormack’s eyes are.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia on Hulu: IASIP is another one of those shows that streaming service algorithms have been insisting for years that I will like, probably based on my history of watching (and rewatching) series like Letterkenny and its spinoff Shoresey. I never bothered with it for a few reasons. First, I’d heard it was a show that mined humor out of terrible people doing terrible (and often disgusting) things and after the Dumpster fire of the last few years that just didn’t sound entertaining to me. Second, the show has been on since 2005 and even though the average length of each season is only 10-12 episodes, each of which run about 20 minutes, that shit adds up. Who has time for that? I finally gave in due to a sort of roundabout game of association which involved reading some reviews/commentary about Welcome to Wrexham (a series I haven’t watched), realizing that the guy in that show who wasn’t Ryan Reynolds was the guy from Mythic Quest (aka Rob McElhenney), and then making the connection to It’s Always Sunny. Whatever. Here we are. I debated for a time about how exactly to break into this thing and even looked up rankings of the of the best seasons and the best episodes. In the end, I decided to dip my toe in first by watching some of the more recent seasons, starting with season 12. As expected, this is basically a stupid show about terrible people doing terrible and often disgusting things and yelling at each other about it a lot (so. much. yelling.). But I found myself weirdly intrigued both by the nature of the show’s stupidity and the nature of the characters’ terribleness. I’m still trying to figure out how these characters can be so very terrible…and yet I still like them…and still want to watch them. It’s kind of a neat trick especially given that this is not the type of show where the characters ever, like, learn their lesson or experience any sort of comeuppance that results in lasting change. They are clearly immune to such personal growth. And yet they do evolve. Sort of. In their way. It’s interesting to see a show like this tackle topics like sexual harassment and gender neutral bathrooms and sexual orientation in ways that are clearly filtered through the lens of awful people but are also strangely thoughtful, if not always entirely successful. The show never betrays who its characters fundamentally are and manages to stay true to itself while not seeming like it’s just adhering to a lazy formula.(1) After watching seasons 12-15, I went back and started watching the earlier seasons, starting from season 2.(2) I’m actually kind of glad I did it this way because I think knowing something about where the characters end up has made watching them in this earlier outings (I’m now up to season 6) more interesting than it might have been otherwise. All of this to say: score another win for streaming algorithms. Damn those robots.
Shipwreck Hunters Australia on Disney Plus: For creative research reasons, I’ve been interested lately in learning about old ships and shipwrecks. I found this series on Disney Plus through pure coincidence—it was mentioned in a recent Watching newsletter from New York Times. Given its relevance to my interests, I decided to check it out. The premise of the show is basically in the title: it’s a docuseries about a team of professional divers and archaeologists who search deep waters around the coast of Australia for old shipwrecks. My first impression of the show was that it was a bit dorky. Even though it’s a docuseries, it sometimes has more of a reality show feel in the sense that the “scenes” often feel more than a bit staged. Events and interactions that are meant to appear spontaneous are obviously reenactments of things that probably already happened. And exposition which only exists for the benefit of the audience is delivered in ways that are probably intended to feel organic but because of the (understandable) lack of acting skills among the team members feels anything but. In short: the seams are showing. But even given that, the show can be strangely absorbing even when all you’re doing is watching scenes of people standing on a boat monitoring a readout from an underwater sensor, waiting for telltale blips that indicate the possible presence of a shipwreck in a particular area. What’s really impressive about this is sometimes there are no blips. There are episodes where the shipwreck hunters go out looking for a particular wreck and never actually find anything. In one case, this happens while they’re searching for the wreck of the Koombana, which (they explain several times) is basically like the Australian version of the Titanic (it even sank the same year). I suspected all along that they wouldn’t actually find anything since it seems like it would have been big news if they did, but I still felt a certain level of suspense watching their search. I imagine it’s challenging to try to shape an episode of television out of a mission which ends with empty hands, but there are two things the show does very well that keeps something like this from feeling like a disappointing anticlimax. First, they do a good (if necessarily abbreviated) job of telling the stories of the wreck itself and the people who lost their lives(3) in a way that feels generally respectful. Second, even when there’s no wreck to explore, they still do dives in which they interact with some pretty wild marine life. I actually almost wish this underwater footage came with some kind of captions to explain what some of the marine life is just because so much of it seems so unusual (at least to me, someone who has never paid much attention to underwater animals). So even when there’s no wreck, the show still manages to fulfill its educational mission. More than once, I’ve even found myself looking up some of the stories it tells afterwards to learn about them in even more detail. Interesting stuff.
- The only real break in form is the dance scene in “Mac Finds His Pride,” which is one of the worst episodes of television I’ve ever seen right up until, in those last five minutes, it becomes one of the best. It seems like not everyone loved that episode, but a review on Vulture from the time talks about how, after 13 seasons, It’s Always Sunny had earned enough trust from its audience to be able to at least try something that felt so out of place in the larger fabric of the show. It’s funny now to read various commentaries from people speculating on how the show would change after that episode, knowing that afterward it basically just went back to being the same show it’s always been. Like I said, it’s a show that knows how to stay true to itself.
- My understanding from various reviews and internet searches is that season 1 is good but not essential. I’ll probably watch it at some point.
- Also survivors, if there were any. In the first episode, they discover the wreck of a ship that sank in a cyclone in the 1880s. In their research, they find out there was only one survivor, who managed not to drown in the storm and then spent three days stranded on a tiny sandbar island-type thing in a fairly deserted area of the ocean. At the end, the divers have a nice Zoom conversation with the survivor’s great grandson, who is in his eighties himself. It’s a touching moment!