Hot Takes

Now that we're fully immersed into the fall television season, I need to get into gear and mention all those shows that helped fill the summer doldrums. Summer TV has the reputation of being awful, but thanks to the rise of streaming, it's become a season of debuting interesting experimental shows, and for catching up on all those shows we missed over the previous year. I had a healthy mix of both of these types of programming, and for the most part, everything was pretty good! There is one internet sensation that needs a little air let out of its balloon, but otherwise, it was an entertaining season.

First up was the new version of Voltron: Legendary Defender. I never watched the '80s show, so I came in with zero expectations and zero nostalgia to live up to. Maybe that's why I wound up liking it more than the general population. Five teenagers discover an affinity with five mechanical lions, each with their own special powers. When the lions combine, they form Voltron, a mega-robot who comes to the defense of helpless citizens of the universe. The bad guys are your run-of-the-mill imperialistic overlords trying to seize control of Voltron themselves, while the teens are mentored by Princess Allura, who directs them to wherever they're needed. It was a perfectly decent inaugural season, that did a lot more with interpersonal relationships than you'd expect in a show about battle robots. None of the episodes left me doing cartwheels, but as far as lore-based cartoons go, you could do a lot worse, and I'm looking forward to seeing if a second season is being planned.

Next up was the sophomore season of Steven Universe. You may remember my strong feelings about Season 1, and I was itching to see if it would maintain its firm grip on my heartstrings. Long story short: Yes, to an extent. Season 2 continues to build on the town and its denizens, with detours into stories about Onion's family and Connie's family. The real expansion, though, comes with a long story arc about Peridot. In Season 1, Peridot was just a slightly-villainous nuisance. In Season 2, she reluctantly joins forces with the Crystal Gems to track down the potentially Earth-destroying Cluster. The episodes are as warm and emotional as in the previous season, but none of them hit me in the gut as much as the Season 1 episodes did. It remains a hugely compelling show, though, and if Cartoon Network ever gets their act together when it comes to making their shows more widely available to cord-cutters, I'll willingly dive into Season 3.

The most pleasant surprise of the summer was Man Seeking Woman, an FXX show that I was able to stream through Hulu. The book this show is based on was my second-favorite read of 2013, and the television version does a great job of adapting the absurdity and surrealism of the stories. Jay Baruchel stars as Josh, a guy who can't seem to make anything about his life work, from his near invisibility at his temp job to his lack of skill in relating to women. All of the woes Josh goes through in his dating life are taken to their extreme. If you're forced to attend a wedding at which your ex-girlfriend is seated at the same table with her perfect new man, you feel like you're in Hell, which is exactly where the reception is. Having wandering thoughts when you're supposed to be devoted to your girlfriend feels like being hauled into court, and so Josh is. And of course, no matter how nice someone's personality is, she can still be...shall we say "not your type"? So Josh is set up on a date with a literal troll.

It takes a certain kind of personality to hook into this type of storytelling device, and I am definitely on board. I've always been a fan of magical realism, and using it to wryly comment on the challenges of modern dating is all kinds of genius.

OK, I've been putting it off, but it's time to talk about Stranger Things. If you haven't heard about this show, please allow me to congratulate you on finally escaping that rock you were living under. Stranger Things is a throwback love letter to the sci-fi of the '80s. A group of nerdy kids stumble across an young escapee from a military installation who has creepy powers, and with her help, begin to untangle the dark designs the agents have for their town and the monster that lurks beneath it. Everyone has been collectively having spontaneous orgasms over this show. It's the biggest hit of the summer, if not the year. I've already seen Stranger Things cosplay and Halloween costume ideas. All of this for a show that was...fine, I guess?

I have absolutely no complaints about the production design. Everything from the sets to the costumes to the hair is perfectly '80s. The story premise works, too. Mix ET, The Goonies, Super 8, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and you'll have a good idea of the aesthetic this show successfully achieves. So what's the problem? The writing, mostly. All of the dialogue is completely unnatural. People react to things in ways they never would in real life. The action beats work, but whenever those stop and people start talking, I found myself losing interest rapidly. And while I tend to like Winona Ryder, she's at a level 11 of hysteria throughout the season, which got grating.

I didn't dislike this show. It was worth the watch, and I'll be tuning in when Season 2 is released. But when a gazillion articles are written about a character who has seventeen lines and four minutes of screentime, I get rankled. I tend to treat things more harshly when they're getting praise I don't think they deserve, but I'm trying to fight against that urge here. Stranger Things was an eminently watchable show. But it'll inevitably be added to those best-of-the-year lists you see in December, and it shouldn't be.

Voltron: Legendary Defender - Season 1: B
Steven Universe - Season 2: B+
Man Seeking Woman - Season 1: A-
Stranger Things - Season 1: B
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