Good is good, no matter how hyped
As usual, we started off the week by surveying the OnlineSpiel staff to see what people have been watching — whether they’re on top of the latest cultural controversy about a virally popular Netflix series, discovering an animated gem ahead of the latest season, or educating themselves in older genre classics.
And as usual, the answers range widely, as some people check out what’s new and popular on streaming services, and some return to past favorites. Here are some thoughts on what we’re enjoying watching right now, and what you might enjoy watching as well.
CBS Presents Oprah with Meghan and Harry
Photo: Joe Pugliese/CBS
Royal weddings/babies/updates aren’t really my style, but I get why people are Royal Family gossip hounds: The photos are nice, and if the idea of royalty wasn’t alluring and powerful, I don’t really imagine the United Kingdom would bother maintaining it for so long. So I’ve only kind of been following the slowly-unfolding scandal of Prince Harry’s marriage to Meghan Markle, a mixed-race American actress, writer, and fashion designer who — based on reports over the last couple of years — has been subjected to a sustained hostile reception by some members of the royal family and its supporters. (Particularly those in the British press.)
Oprah’s CBS interview special on Sunday night was the climax of the latest development in this story: Harry and Meghan’s unprecedented and frankly shocking decision in March 2020 to step down from their position as senior members of the royal family and decamp to California — a rejection of an institution you do not reject. It’s the kind of earth-shaking shift in the status quo that’s compelling even to a casual observer like myself. In the interview, the couple finally, one year later, told the world why they did it.
I didn’t plan to watch the full two-hour interview — two hours seemed like a lot, to me — but after settling in with my partner, what unfolded was extraordinary television. Not because it was salacious — in fact it was the opposite. It was a polite, cordial interview with pleasant subjects discussing, with seemingly superhuman grace and poise, incredibly difficult subjects like self harm, mental health, and infuriating experiences of racism. It wasn’t gossip TV, it was empathy TV.
One of the difficult things about discussing big institutional problems like systemic racism is how these hostile attitudes have reconfigured themselves to squeak by in polite society. It’s often remarked upon that the only worse thing than being called a racist is calling someone a racist, making the project of working towards a more equitable society kind of impossible. And in this interview, two people spoke out about the issue plaguing one of the oldest Western institutions in existence, alleging that there were “concerns” over Meghan and Harry’s children and the potential color of their skin, that the Crown would break with tradition and not extend security to their children, that there was a vested interest in portraying Markle in a negative light. All from the prim and proper world of Buckingham palace, where most of our ideas of polite society come from in the first place.
There are many reasons to dismiss this: Even if they are estranged from the royals, they are still rich, still privileged, still part of a crusty old institution that has felt outdated for decades, a relic of empire and colonial violence. But the idea that these problems are too big to fix, or in an arena no one really cares about anyway, are assumptions that systemic problems thrive on. Justice isn’t about being cost-effective, and futility isn’t a reason to turn away from the truth. I don’t know if Harry and Meghan’s conversation with Oprah is one that will change anything about the royal family, but it’s out there, impossible to ignore. It’s reminder that, on every level, there is a steep personal cost to speaking truth to power, and a pain that no amount of money or privilege can entirely shield you from. —Joshua Rivera
Oprah with Meghan and Harry is streaming on CBS.com
And everything else we’re watching…
It’s a Sin
Photo: Ben Blackall/HBO Max
Even if you don’t know the name Russell T. Davies, you’re familiar with his work. The television producer and writer has contributed to a handful of the most iconic series in British television, having revived Doctor Who and created Queer as Folk. His latest show, the five-part miniseries It’s a Sin, follows a group of gay housemates and their friends in London during the rise of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. It’s arguably his finest creation yet.
The five hours of TV spans a decade of the group’s life and delivers the emotional gut punch you’d expect from the premise. But what separates It’s a Sin from its contemporaries is its vigor, humor, and passion. Davies and crew haven’t made a morality tale in which these young men are punished for their actions; the crisis is a tragic coincidence, one that allows bigots to misinterpret nature as taking their side. The first episode, set in 1981, when AIDS is still taken as a rumor, is kinetic and joyful, like being invited to a top secret party. In less than an hour, Davies had gotten me to fall in love with all these characters and their joyful lives.
This is brilliant and concise filmmaking, inviting us into the community that’s lost in the first episode, so that by the finale we may mourn both the dead and the moment taken from the living. —Chris Plante
It’s a Sin is streaming on HBO Max.
The Muppet Show
Photo: United Archives/Getty Images
My latest pandemic project is trying to watch The Muppet Show in the order it was made.
This is surprisingly tricky, as the show was not aired in the order its episodes were produced, and various DVD releases have further jumbled any hopes of finding an accurate order. But I’m curious about the evolution of the production. How many episodes did it take for Piggy to go from background character to resident diva? How many installments of Muppet Labs with only Bunsen and no Beaker? How many for them to figure out how to stage a non-comedic solo musical number for a human performer, without just throwing a kaleidoscope lens on Joel Grey doing “Razzle Dazzle?”
The last time I really dug into The Muppet Show was after its mid 2000s DVD release when I was in college, and I distinctly recall finding it less funny than it was when I was a kid. Now, I’m struck by how much of the show wasn’t meant to be comedy, but just an earnest celebration of theater and music with no punchline at all. —Susana Polo
The Muppet Show is streaming on Disney Plus.
Muppets! Muppets! Muppets!
We love to talk about the Muppets, so we did a bunch of that
A Nightmare on Elm Street
Image: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment
For most of my childhood, I was completely terrified of slashers. I’d never seen a horror movie, but when I pored over the Party City catalogues come Halloween looking for costumes (despite being a scaredy cat, Halloween was and still is my favorite holiday) the terrifying faces of Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, and Freddy Krueger stared into my soul. A few ill-advised late night Google searches revealed to me the plots of these movies and A Nightmare on Elm Street — where Freddy stalks his victims in their dreams — seemed like the scariest possible one to me. So even after I tentatively dipped my toe into horror, I avoided it.
But the other night, I had a dream about Freddy Kreuger and thought to myself, Well, if I was avoiding it because of nightmares, I guess I can try it now! The outdated special effects certainly made A Nightmare on Elm Street less terrifying than I anticipated, but overall it definitely scared me less than the sheer horror I’d built in my head. It was actually … kind of fun? There is something deeper to be said about reality never meeting expectations, but mostly I keep thinking about Johnny Depp’s character’s sick little crop top that he wears right before he explodes into a gushing waterfall of blood. —Petrana Radulovic
A Nightmare on Elm Street is streaming on HBO Max.
Image: The Criterion Collection
At the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, rentals for Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion skyrocketed out of morbid curiosity over what the worst-case scenario might look like. But I’m ready to declare Carol director Todd Haynes’ suburban horror film Safe the movie of the pandemic. Julianne Moore stars as Carol White, a stay-at-home mom whose suburban life in 1980s Los Angeles consists of jazzercise, fruit dieting with friends, and picking out the perfect couch for her remodeled home. Her world is aggressively mundane and affluent, but any sense of normalcy falls away when her health spirals out of control. Is it an allergic reaction? A deeper condition? Her doctors don’t have answers, and scoff at her insistence that something is wrong. Her husband wants to help, but also questions her condition — is it all psychosomatic? All Carol knows is that her nose is bleeding, and that she can’t take a drive on the freeway without hacking up a lung.
Carol’s world starts making a little more sense when she connects with a commune of chemical sensitive men and women. To escape the toxins that inhabit every corner of modern existence, she retreats into a bubble — at times, literally. But the leader of the cultish group takes his own advantages of the suffering, and Haynes raises open-ended questions about self-preservation. Whether Carol’s physical ailment is real or not, it’s a mental terror, squeezing the life out of her very existence. She has no support system, even when she does. The people who should be finding every way to prop her up devote their time to interrogating her integrity. Even at the New Age desert retreat, she’s told time and time again that the only reason this is happening is because of her, in some way.
When Safe hit theaters in 1995, there were obvious parallels to draw to the judgment and cultural failure surrounding the AIDS crisis. Haynes’ allegory remains as sturdy as ever, from the imagery of all-purpose masks and oxygen tanks to the idea of seeing our everyday toxins as cosmic threats that lurk in the shadows. The filmmaker confronted this notion more directly in 2019’s little-seen Dark Waters, which chronicled the case against DuPont’s use of poisonous chemicals in Teflon in legal-thriller fashion. But the surreal, detached nature of Safe puts it firmly in the horror genre, even while tackling urgent issues that haunt us all. Moore, as always, doesn’t flinch. It’s a movie and performance that will have you questioning everything. —Matt Patches
Safe is available to rent on Amazon, Apple, and Vudu.
Young Justice: Outsiders
I was so excited when the animated superhero series Young Justice was finally renewed for a third season for DC Universe back in 2016. I love the first two seasons, with their surprisingly complicated storytelling and character-building — this is the first animated series I’ve seen since Avatar: The Last Airbender that really feels like it’s trying to build a cast and a world on an epic scale, starting out simple and ending in a place where the audience can actually look at crowd scenes or major battles featuring 30 superheroes, and have strong story associations for every one of them.
And then season 3 debuted in 2019, and I never made time to watch it — it was just one more series on a service I didn’t subscribe to. But when it moved to HBO Max, it felt like an opportunity I was missing. I’ve been taking this one slow rather than binging it, because I want to enjoy it, and because season 4 has been greenlit, but will probably take a while. Besides, as of 10 episodes in (out of 26), Young Justice: Outsiders is still almost an anthology show, focusing on a vast cast scattered across worlds, all related to a central plot around meta human trafficking, but without such a strong central plotline that it creates a “must know what happens next” feeling. The familiar animation, voices, and character-building, plus the extremely strong sense of continuity, all make Young Justice season 3 feel like comfort viewing for me, like checking in on a big group of old friends I haven’t seen since 2013. It’s compelling superhero TV, but again, it has that epic sense of build, like all this is slowly coming together into something huge. —Tasha Robinson
Young Justice is streaming on HBO Max.