Features \

What We’re Watching: July 2019

With a seemingly endless bevy of choices for things to watch online, it can seem exhausting and anxiety-inducing to find the right thing. This is What We’re Watching, in which the SPIN staff zero in on a few items that are worth considering amongst all of the noise. For this month, we discuss programs featuring the Bodega Boys, an introspective bit of public family therapy, a controversial English dubbed anime, an Elena Ferrante adaptation, and more.

Jerrod Carmichael: Sermon on the Mount

Television in the prestige age is constantly trying to push the boundaries of what we previously thought was allowed on the small screen. No place else has this been more apparent than in television comedy where a number of shows like Atlanta or Fleabag and comedy specials like Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette or Neal Brennan’s Three Mics have found new terrain in the melding of comedy and drama to create something wholly unique—a place where comedy isn’t funny anymore. 

Jerrod Carmichael, who is for my money, one of the best standups working, has always been fascinated with interrogating real-life behavior and personal relationships, not just for the purposes of exploring new facets of comedy but to gain insight about the way the world actually works. He did it to amusing effect when he had his own sitcom, The Carmichael Show, on NBC, and he’s doing it with even more precisely in his new special Sermon on the Mount, which follows Carmichael’s other recent project Home Videos. In both endeavors, Carmichael puts a camera to his own family and old neighborhood of Winston-Salem, North Carolina in an effort to explore the deeply personal relationships, feelings, beliefs, and behaviors in an effort to say something about families in general.

The main “story” at the heart of Sermon revolves around Jerrod Carmichael’s father and his infidelity, which lead to him having children outside of the immediate family. It’s a highly sensitive topic and the special investigates just how much it affects each of the different members of the Carmichael family, from Jerrod’s mom, who forgave his father and is still married to him, to the family pastor who often speaks like he’s a representative for Jerrod’s father, as well as Jerrod’s sister-in-law who preaches the importance of accountability. There’s even a segment where Jerrod has a heart-to-heart with his father, who’d very much rather think of the whole situation as “an affair” because it sounds better. While Sermon On The Mount doesn’t play as a comedy, it is very funny due to just how recognizable his family is, particularly as a black person: while the stories might not be relatable, the family dynamic certainly is. Sermon carefully displays the vulnerability and humanity of the people you share a bloodline with; they don’t always have the answers, but they do their best like the rest of us. Sermon on the Mount is a careful and considered reminder that for as much as your family can put you through, the love you have for them is genuine and hard-fought. This public form of familial therapy is just as helpful to those watching as it might be for the Carmichaels to share openly.  –ISRAEL DARAMOLA

Available on HBOGO.

My Brilliant Friend 

A co-production between HBO and two Italian networks that first aired last year, My Brilliant Friend gives a steadfastly faithful staging of Elena Ferrante’s modern-classic novel about an intense companionship between two girls in 1950s Naples. Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, a lifetime-spanning four-volume bildungsroman of which My Brilliant Friend is the first installment, would not seem to lend themselves to television: they derive much of their power from the boundless complexity of their characters’ inner lives, and, especially in later books, they often concern themselves with the thoroughly non-telegenic work of writing itself. (HBO has already confirmed a season based on the second volume, The Story of a New Name.) Young actors Margherita Mazzucco and Gaia Girace are tasked with conveying the richness of Ferrante’s prose in their performances as the adolescent Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo, and they handle this monumental task admirably. When the fiery and charismatic Lila delivers her final rebuke to a potentially dangerous unwanted suitor, she does it with her back turned, walking away, so he can’t see her smiling at her own audacity. The bookish and dutiful Elena is not yet ready to unleash the full force of her mind on the world, and you feel her reticence in every halting movement, every glance at Lila for approval. On the whole, the filmmaking is subtly stagy and expressionistic, unburdened with the drab faux-realism of much American prestige TV.

My Brilliant Friend succeeds because it recognizes that the source material needs no dramatic embellishments, nor could it possibly be surpassed in adaptation. The series focuses on the strengths of its medium, using them to draw out particular aspects of the novel—the tension, the desire, the emotional and physical brutality—rather than attempting to reproduce Ferrante’s virtues wholesale. It’s an appropriately humble tribute to one of the great books of our era. –ANDY CUSH

Available on HBOGO.

Desus & Mero

I didn’t hop onto the Desus and Mero bandwagon until they went to Showtime, and I’m kicking myself for sleeping on these guys for so long. Fortunately, a ton of their old Viceland clips are still on YouTube, which means I’ve watched each one at least two or three times by this point. My favorite clips are the ones where the Bronx’s own Bodega Boys are providing commentary to cable news clips, which has turned my life into The Newsroom, but instead of reliving events from two years ago through the lens of Aaron Sorkin’s sermonizing, my trip down political memory lane is enhanced by The Kid Mero making machine gun noises every time some talking head gets owned by CNN’s Jake Tapper. –MAGGIE SEROTA

Available on Showtime Now/YouTube.

Neon Genesis Evangelion 

Few Netflix acquisitions have been as hotly anticipated in nerd circles as Neon Genesis Evangelion. Since its debut on TV Tokyo nearly 25 years ago, the anime series has become one of Japan’s most celebrated cultural exports, helping revive the country’s stagnant animation industry and give new life to the explosive anime subgenre known as “mecha.” The series eventually earned a cult following in North America, despite the sheer frustration of accessing it legally in the states. But what was once limited comic shop testimonials and encyclopedic forum entries is now available on Netflix, where it’s received a new English-language dub commissioned specifically for the streaming service. 

Trying to explain the plot can turn even the calmest bedroom dweller into a bug-eyed, sweaty-palmed fanatic, and the series is by no means easy to condense. Set fifteen years after a global ecological disaster, the show follows a 14-year-old boy named Shinji Ikari who is summoned to pilot one of a number of giant bio-mechanical organisms known as Evangelions. Part robotic weapons, part biological offsprings—these “EVAs” help fight off intergalactic intruders known as Angels, whose cataclysmic arrival in the city of Tokyo-3 kickstarts the surrealist plot of the series.

Like its title might suggest, Evangelion is rife with religious symbolism, asking fundamental questions about man’s spiritual uniqueness in the face of robotic complexity. Throughout the series, these EVA organisms become increasingly uncanny biological appendages, symbiotically shaping their operators’ thoughts, feelings, and identities in ways that extend beyond mere technological assistance. What begins as an adolescent fantasy of robotic fist-fights evolves into a poignant exploration of the human cost of global violence, as man and machine grow inseparably close to their weapons of choice. It’s the kind of show that feels right for an era defined by the growing spectrum of human-computer interaction, even as true fans have long been aware of its significance. Now thanks to Netflix, even more fans will get that chance. –ROB ARCAND

Available on Netflix.

Univitellin 

All the hype around the Space Jam sequel’s NBA casting obscures the film’s most exciting choice: director Terence Nance. The blockbuster will be Nance’s first major project since his form-fucking and quite radical HBO sketch series, for lack of a better term, Random Acts of Flyness. (He also co-wrote and co-directed shorts this year for Earl Sweatshirt and Kamasi Washington.) Inspired by Space Jam 2’s production launch, I revisited Nance’s earlier work and discovered a gem: his 2016 short Univitellin, available on YouTube. Set in Marseille, France and starring a mechanic and a hairdresser who meet on the train, the 15-minute bit traces a rapid forbidden courtship between two outsiders, narrated by a wisecracking woman who at one point breaks to contemplate the story’s potential clichés. Unlike much of Nance’s filmography, the short doesn’t cut its naturalism with formal experimentation or abstraction, content to simply follow the couple in their daily life, on a path toward (probably gratuitous) tragedy. It’s intimate and visually beautiful, full of rich shades of blue, naturally lit nooks, and stolen glances. The romance peaks with a meta conversation in bed about how annoying it is for films to feature conversations about film, preceded by a suggestion that filming meaningful conversations bout hip-hop is an impossible task: “The information is legible but there is nothing of substance behind it.” I hope Nance’s next feature is a love story. –TOSTEN BURKS

Available on YouTube.

Last Year in Marienbad

Increasingly, it seems as if one has to retreat to YouTube to stream some of the best classic cult films. In the past week, I’ve had to go there to rent the original Wicker Man (in celebration of Midsommar) and Last Year in Marienbad—a movie which I have thought about regularly over the ten years since I saw it for the first time, even though I only saw it once. I rewatched Marienbad because I began to worry I had invented some of the rosy memories of it in my head, an appropriate problem that is also fundamental to the concept of the film. In Alain Resnais’ 1961 French New Wave classic, reality and memory become inseparable, and past and present are connected in an endless feedback loop—one in which the tape is slowly deteriorating.

It begins with an unforgettable sequence that takes the viewer on a dizzying tour of an overelaborate chalet. The camera traces every arch, gargoyle, and bannister as snippets of text are murmured over and over again behind it—losing their meaning in the repetition, becoming pure texture. Later, people seem to emerge out of the building, and function as parts of it, as if they are its own memories of itself. They move mostly when the camera turns away, seeming to be in multiple places at once. They become characters in a story the narrator is trying to tell but can’t quite remember—distortions and idealizations.

For everything that is ambiguous and frustrating about the movie, it has an overpowering mystique and enough indelible images to be undeniable; there’s almost nothing like it, though parts of David Lynch and Luis Buñuel’s catalogue have a similar appeal. It’s also emotionally as well as intellectually affecting; depending on how you read it, it might even be the weirdest breakup movie of all time. –WINSTON COOK-WILSON

Available on YouTube.