Frasier and His 11 Most Memorable Episodes

If the mid-1990s to early-2000s could be defined by one single comedy series, it’s not a stretch to say that most people would pick Friends as the one that illustrated a generation. But for me, the 1993-2004 sitcom known as Frasier was the one that kept my eyeballs glued to the screen.

At the time I wouldn’t have been able to adequately explain why I preferred the Café Nervosa’s of Seattle over the Central Perk’s of New York. But looking back I think it was because, while the inhabitants of Friends were popular and at the centre of their respective social circles, Frasier felt more like an outsider. While he had his own developed brand of social beliefs, he spent all his time trying to fit into a sub-culture that was either far more elitist than he was, or far more grounded than he could ever hope to be.

It meant that, while Frasier and myself had very little in common on the surface, it was easy to relate to a man that was constantly trying to fit in, but ultimately always failing. And of course, when you add in the wonderful supporting characters and elegant writing, it’s no wonder the show created 264 episodes across 11 amazing seasons. With the possibility there may be a continuation of the series; it felt like a good time to look back at a few episodes that really stood out to me.


Give Him The Chair! (Season 1, Episode 19)

Synopsis: Frasier throws away Martin’s armchair, convinced that his father will love the new one he has purchased. However, he is sorely mistaken and Frasier must search the city to try and track it down. 

While most first seasons may be a little uneven, with its characters not fully formed; Frasier arguably has the distinction of pretty much coming out of the gate guns blazing. Perhaps this was because it was a spinoff from the popular Cheers; or maybe just the brilliant chemistry between the actors.

Whatever the reason, the comedic genius of the previous 18 episodes was undeniable. But it wasn’t until Give Him The Chair! that Frasier showed it could have heart too. It may have been down to an old tatty chair; but what John Mahoney does in those few sentences mark the beginnings of how effortlessly this show could blend comedy with tragedy.


Author, Author (Season 1, Episode 22)

Synopsis: After Fraiser successfully co-hosts an episode of his radio show with Niles, the two brothers decide to collaborate in order to write a book about their life experiences.

Up until this point, the Crane brothers had generally led separate lives that happened to intertwine at various points. Author, Author was the first of many “collaboration” episodes. A chance for the two brothers to prove the old adage “Two heads are better than one.” But like the inevitable rise of the sun, their attempts would always descend into a childlike battle of wills.

Indeed, this episode in particular would be the first to take on many stage-like qualities seen in later episodes, with a single eight minute scene set entirely inside one room. It’s one hell of a risk, considering it takes up over one third of the episode. But with two fabulous physical performances from David Hyde Pierce and Kelsey Grammer, it becomes an utter classic.


The Matchmaker (Season 2, Episode 3)

Synopsis: Feeling sorry for Daphne, Frasier decides to invite his station manager, Tom, for dinner in an attempt to set them both up. It soon becomes clear though that Daphne’s not the one Tom is interested in. 

The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” military policy had just been signed into law by President Clinton only 8 months before The Matchmaker was broadcast. In this day and age, it’s hard to imagine how resonant this episode must have been to the gay community. A chance to see themselves living as openly as any straight person, as opposed to the secret lives that American society had literally just codified into law. Just watch this amazing Youtube video from Matt Baume that really highlights just how important this episode is.

Fortunately the episode could never be thought to be out of date, and that’s mostly down to the incredible writing from Joe Keenan, who would go on to win five Emmys for his work on the series. The Matchmaker is absolutely an episode for the ages.


Agents in America Part III (Season 2, Episode 22)

Synopsis: In an attempt to renegotiate his contract, Frasier turns to his longtime agent, Bebe, for help. Alas, the naive doctor vastly underestimates just how far she’ll go to get him a good deal.

Considering he was a medical professional, it was no wonder that ethics featured heavily in Frasier’s actions throughout the series. I think that was part of the reason why Bebe Glazer ended up becoming such a brilliant character. Yes, there was a fantastic performance from Harriet Sansom Harris. But Bebe’s constant challenging of Frasier’s ethics meant that she essentially acted as an unofficial foil/rival to Fraiser, at least until the introduction of Cam Winston (which was far too late in the series’ run to be truly effective.)

It’s true that this wasn’t her first or last appearance, but considering this episode has Bebe getting to the point of faking a suicide attempt (and it still being one of the funniest moments of the series); this has to be the episode that solidifies her as one of the best supporting characters in the Frasier universe.

agents in america


The Innkeepers (Season 2, Episode 23)

Synopsis: Not wanting one of their favourite dining haunts to close, Frasier and Niles decide to purchase the establishment for themselves. But as opening night proves, running a restaurant is no easy task.

David Lloyd was easily one of the most established writers in American TV, having done lengthy stints on Taxi, Cheers and Wings. But his first two entries in the Frasier universe, You Can’t Tell A Crook By His Cover and Burying a Grudge, could be seen to be merely adequate pieces of writing.

Not so when it comes to The Innkeepers, which blows the preceding two episodes out of the water. Like Author, Author it’s another of the Crane brothers collaboration episodes. But while Author, Author had the brothers at each other’s throats, here Frasier and Niles manage to stick by each other for the entire episode’s runtime. In fact the most significant success The Innkeepers has over Author, Author is its ability to properly utilise the entire main cast.

But more importantly, The Innkeepers utterly destroys the preceding 44 episodes in its approach to “plant and pay-off.” For example, the introduction of the senile Otto or the constant pouring of liqueur into the cherry jubliee. All of it builds up into an explosion of comedy that results in one of the best episodes of the series.


Moon Dance (Season 3, Episode 13)

Synopsis: Wanting to get back in the dating game after his divorce from Maris, Niles decides to attend a country club function. In order to maximise his impact, he asks Daphne to teach him how to dance.

While notable for being the first episode of Frasier directed by Kelsey Grammer (out of an eventual total of 36), Moon Dance holds a special place in the Frasier pantheon for being a significant milestone in the Niles and Daphne relationship.

But it’s a credit to David Hyde Pierce’s performance that he manages to mine so much pathos in that ending scene. Up until this moment, Niles had just about managed to straddle that line between creepy and loveable.  But it’s here you realise that this isn’t mere infatuation, but true unrequited love.


Ham Radio (Season 4, Episode 18)

Synopsis: With the 50th anniversary of radio station KACL approaching, Frasier decides to put on an old-fashioned radio drama. Despite his best efforts, almost nothing goes according to plan.

With a total of 264 episodes across 11 seasons, you might think it would be difficult to decide which is the best one. Not so, ladies and gents. Ham Radio is the single greatest episode of Frasier ever made. While the previously mentioned “Author Author” does a decent job in echoing the farces seen upon the traditional stage, Ham Radio essentially slaps it in the face and calls it a bitch.

An utter rollercoaster from beginning to end; Ham Radio’s brilliant utilisation, not just of the main cast, but also of three popular recurring characters; is a magnificent testament to the fast-paced direction by David Lee.

But the real star here is the intricate writing by David Lloyd. As much as I adore Author, Author and The Innkeepers; both those episodes find success through a mixture of wordplay and slapstick. Not here though. Ham Radio relies entirely on the written word, and it’s not surprising that it is officially Kelsey Grammer’s favourite episode of the entire series.


The Ski Lodge (Season 5, Episode 14)

Synopsis: Frasier, Niles, Martin, Daphne and two friends take a holiday break in the mountains; not realising that passion and confusion awaits.

Misunderstandings are at the heart of any farce and The Ski Lodge is no exception. There is, however, an argument to be made that, unlike The Matchmaker, some of the situations in The Ski Lodge are a little contrived. (And the less said about a certain someone with a rather weak English accent, the better!)

Ultimately though, it’s best to analyse the final product as a whole, and from that prospective it is undeniably a success. With echoes of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it’s almost unfathomable that Joe Keenan could have written a script that engineered so many ridiculous situations; and yet comes together with screenwriting elegance. The resulting Emmy nomination that the episode received was well-deserved. 


Dr. Nora (Season 6, Episode 20)

Synopsis: Frasier hires a new psychiatrist to help him in his radio show, but is surprised by her barbarous wit.

Admittedly Dr. Nora (Christine Baranski) isn’t usually brought up when people talk about the most memorable recurring characters in Frasier history. But the snide brutality that Baranski brings when doling out her “relationship advice” absolutely lights up the screen. While the character itself seems to be based on 90s relationship advisor, Dr. Laura Schlessinger; it’s hard not to see shades of the modern day shock-jock, Alex Jones.

Regardless of her origins, the episode’s introduction of a female foil is a great chance to truly explore Frasier and his style of psychiatry, much like Agents of America Part III did through the character of Bebe Glazer. All of it building up to an absolutely out-of-left-field ending that resulted in Emmy nominations for multiple actors involved.


The Show Must Go Off (Season 8, Episode 12)

Synopsis: Wanting to revive the career of one of their favourite childhood actors, Frasier and Niles decide to produce a one-man show; not realising that their memories may have been a little idyllic.

Amazingly his very first appearance on American television and one for which he won an Emmy, Derek Jacobi is an absolute master. (Pun intended, Doctor Who fans!)

Some Americans might have missed this, but Jacobi was nationally known in the U.K. as a die-hard devotee of Shakespeare’s work. With significant stints upon the London stage, it was almost impossible to imagine him in a comedy. And yet, Jacobi makes it clear here that he has no problem poking fun at his own image. An absolute class act and one of the funniest performances of the entire series.



Rooms With A View (Part 2) (Season 10, Episode 8)

Synopsis: As Niles undergoes heart surgery, his family and friends reminisce about their life-changing visits to the hospital.

It’s admittedly a little odd to think that the best part of a trilogy is its middle chapter. After all, the engaging beginning has already taken place, while the climatic ending is yet to come. But Rooms With A View Part 2 seems to buck that trend.

In fact, the reason for the episode’s success is that it leaves its comedic pedigree behind and moves into a realm that is far more drama-comedy. Just like Deep Space Nine’s “In The Pale Moon Light” or Futurama’s “Jurassic Bark”, sometimes going against the grain of what’s already established can lead to astounding results. Seeing how our favourite characters have dealt with some of the toughest moments of their lives leads to some incredibly touching moments. This episode may not resonate with everyone, but it’s definitely memorable.


All images and video © NBCUniversal Inc

The Short View – Alien: Night Shift (2019) / Alien: Ore (2019)

For a look at the previous two shorts, Alien: Containment and Alien: Specimen, click here.


alien nightshift

Synopsis:
When a missing space trucker (Tanner Rittenhouse) is discovered hungover and disoriented, his co-worker (Terrance Keith Richardson) suggests a nightcap as a remedy. Near closing time, they are reluctantly allowed inside the colony supply depot where the trucker’s condition worsens, leaving a young supply worker (Ambar Gaston) alone to take matters into her own hands.

Running Time:
9 minutes

Directed and Written by: 
Aidan Brezonick


Alien ore

Synopsis:
Lorraine (Mikela Jay) longs to make a better life for her daughter and grandchildren. When her shift uncovers the death of a colleague under mysterious circumstances, Lorraine is forced to choose between escape or fighting for the safety of her family.

Running Time:
10 minutes

Directed and Written by:
Kailey Spear and Sam Spear


After watching four of these new Alien-related shorts, it’s clear that there is a lot to appreciate. But it has become increasingly noticeable that the shorts are insanely similar in their approaches. A female protagonist, trapped in a small space, facing off against some aspect of the alien life-cycle. Perhaps these elements were forced edicts from the folks at 20th Century Fox. If so, it’s disappointing the studio did not consider selecting shorts that stepped away from the Alien formula.

But, as previously mentioned, there is still a lot to appreciate. Ore, in particular, is quite refreshing in relation to its type of protagonist. While the previous three shorts (as well as Prometheus and Alien: Covenant) cast relatively young women, Ore chooses a much older actress as its leading-lady. Though seemingly a simple change, such a choice ably drives home the long-term oppression that Weyland-Yutani (the infamous “company” from the Alien Saga) delivers upon its helpless employees.

But “helpless” is also not a description that could be considered accurate when considering the complexity of Jay’s performance in the lead role. With the grime of long working hours streaked across her weathered face, her unbreakable sense of hope throughout the short is a testament to the actresses’ ability to create a believable life, despite our limited time with her.

In addition to this excellent performance, Ore also has the added benefit of presenting its protagonist as making one rather unique choice compared to the previous shorts. To reveal more would be too much of a spoiler, but its refreshing to see an attempt to do something different, despite the (assumed) restrictions.

Night Shift, however, doesn’t succeed in quite the same way. Though it possesses an astoundingly lit opening shot, the short overall has a bit of a pacing issue. The first act, for example, is a little meandering; especially considering it takes at least a third of its running time until all the characters are trapped in the mandatory “small space.”

The short also ends up being quite weak on the character front, with very little to differentiate the protagonist from the previous shorts. Also, while I appreciate it can be quite difficult to avoid cliches with such a brief running time; did we really need a street-wise-talking black guy who steals? (Though Richardson’s performance itself was very commendable.)

Overall, it’s clear that Ore comes out on top as the superior short, not just when compared to Night Shift; but also with all three previous shorts. Here’s hoping the best was saved till last with Alien: Harvest and Alien: Alone.

The Short View – Alien: Containment (2019) / Alien: Specimen (2019)

I love this.

Say what you will about the now defunct 20th Century Fox and their past treatment of the Alien franchise; but the way they’ve chosen to celebrate the 40th anniversary of 1979’s Alien deserves much praise.

For those wondering how on earth they’ve missed two new Alien feature films, I actually speak of six short films, selected from 550 pitches, and all designed as a loving tribute to a sci-fi universe that has defined horror for a generation. After all, short films are an art unto themselves, allowing filmmakers to tell minuscule stories that (somewhat ironically) make the world much bigger. It’s a shame that more movie franchises don’t approach their slices of pop culture in the same way. (Looking at you Marvel!)

With one short being released online every week, I thought I’d save some time by “doubling up.” So, without further ado…

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Synopsis:
Four survivors find themselves stranded aboard a small escape pod in deep space. Trying to piece together the details around the outbreak that led to their ship’s destruction, they find themselves unsure to trust whether or not one of them might be infected.

Running Time:
10 minutes

Directed and Written by: 
Chris Reading

Alien specimen

Synopsis:
It’s the night shift in a colony greenhouse, and Julie (Jolene Anderson), a botanist, does her best to contain suspicious soil samples that have triggered her sensitive lab dog. Despite her best efforts the lab unexpectedly goes into full shutdown and she is trapped inside.

Running Time:
10 minutes

Directed by: 
Kelsey Taylor

Written by:
Frederico Fracchia


Of the two shorts, Containment is the one that is (slightly) more epic in scope. Much like 1984’s The Terminator, the opening and close of said short is a masterclass in using a minimal budget to portray a CGI-infused landscape. And like the aforementioned sci-fi titan, the bulk of the short is a stripped-down character piece that doesn’t hold back on relentless splashes of claret.

But such similarities also end up being Containment’s downfall. Not in comparison to The Terminator, of course; but rather the original Alien. If you were to boil said feature film down to its component parts, you wouldn’t be too far off the mark if you came up with the following: Infected Human + Psycho Scientist = Flesh Eating Monster vs The Final Girl. Containment, unfortunately, is basically the same thing in a 10 minute chunk.

That’s not to say there aren’t some positive aspects to this low-budget facsimile, with Sharon Duncan Brewster as the scientist Albrecht, giving an incredibly complex performance in the vein of Ian Holm’s Ash. The short also toys with the idea of mystery, refusing to give away exactly which of the foursome is the doomed carrier. It’s only a shame the building of that central mystery is nonexistent, essentially being answered literally moments after being introduced.

Specimen, on the other hand, eschews the specific repetition of the Alien installments and instead is a much broader depiction of girl vs monster. And for that approach it ends up being a stronger piece of filmmaking. Such superiority is most dazzlingly shown by the incredible sound design work done by Eric Wegener. Mixed with the strong cinematography from Adam Lee; and you have a product that oozes the same spine-chilling atmosphere from Alien. It’s even more commendable that, in spite of its short running time, Specimen does contribute something very unique to the Alien domain (which I won’t spoil here).

Overall, it’s hard not to admit that “ground-breaking” is not a particularly good descriptor for Containment and Specimen’s approach to the Alien franchise. But it’s still great to see what first-time and aspiring filmmakers can do when given the chance to play in such a classic universe.

Review: Captain Marvel (2019) – Spectacular Space Adventure With A Subpar Story

Minor spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy and Memento


True be told, I think Captain Marvel might be the first female-led superhero film I’ve seen since 1984’s Supergirl. To be fair though, it’s not as if there’s been a lot of choice. Out of the dozens of live-action Marvel and DC films theatrically released since 1944, a grand total of four have been led by women (five if you want to include V for Vendetta).

So it’s obvious that the 21st entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has a lot riding on it, at least from a political and sociological point-of-view. Whether that’s fair or not, I’ll leave it to people far more educated that I am. Thus the question that remains is whether or not Captain Marvel is in fact a good film. The answer, however, is a little more complicated.

captain-marvel-poster

As a member of a Kree taskforce, Vers (Brie Larson) is fighting the good fight against Skrull terrorists led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn). Though she does her best, with suitable encouragement from taskforce leader, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law); and the leader of the Kree Empire, the Supreme Intelligence (Annette Bening); Vers’ lack of emotional control always threatens to upend the situation.

During a mission to rescue a Kree informant, Vers is separated from her team and crash-lands on the planet designated C-53 (i.e. Earth). But the Skrull threat is not eliminated; and Vers is forced to team up with a two-eyed Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson); an Earth fighter pilot (Lashana Lynch); and an acronym-acclimated Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg). Only together can they defeat the Skrull threat and save the planet.


Back in 2012, when Kevin Feige announced at San Diego Comic-Con that Guardians of the Galaxy would be the 10th installment in the MCU; I confidently assured myself that this would be the moment where the the overall Marvel franchise had gone too far. Of course, I said the exact same thing about Thor, The Avengers and Captain America: Civil War. So really, what the hell do I know? But my hesitancy to the Guardians franchise came from a belief that the concept would be too difficult. That the need to introduce bizarre ideas and unfamiliar concepts would ultimately stop audiences from connecting with the story or the characters.

That lack of connection ends up being a major stumbling block in Captain Marvel; and unfortunately it all happens in the opening moments. Unlike the beautiful emotional moment between young Peter Quill and his mother in the first Guardians; Captain Marvel throws us into a world we know (almost) nothing about. By spending nearly 20 minutes delving into multiple alien concepts with minimal explanation; it’s hard not to miss that broad sense of inclusion that Marvel traditionally excel at. It may not be impossible to follow, but when you need to spend a good hour on Wikipedia to fully get to grips with the plot and backstory; you know Marvel could have done better.

That said, once Vers arrives on Earth, there is a strong improvement on the situation. The introduction (or is that re-introduction?) of fan favourites such as Nick Fury and Agent Coulson; and their interactions with the marooneed Vers, helps the film start to imbue a more traditional sense of Marvel fun. In fact some of the best scenes in this movie echo the simplicity of the party scene in Age of Ultron. Sometimes just watching likable characters merely talk to each other around a table can be far more entertaining than the most intense of action scenes.

Not that said action scenes are anything to be sniffed at. Though directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck don’t have the same visual signature or distinct voice as James Gunn or Taika Waititi; there’s still a sense of epic wonder, especially in the film’s climatic moments of Vers fully embracing her Captain Marvel identity.

But the intricacies of the visual effects sometimes only shine through due to the unsatisfactory aspects in other areas of the film. For example, the choice of the 1990s setting means that narrative and stakes are minimal at best for several of the characters. You know Nick Fury is going to be fine. As is Coulson and an oddly underused Ronan (Lee Pace). Likewise, the nature of being a prequel means that much time is spent on explaining future events. Indeed, it’s hard not to think of last year’s Solo and its grand obsession with giving answers to questions no one in their right mind had ever asked.

Ironically that approach to storytelling doesn’t extend to the lead character. While Brie Larson does amazingly with the script she’s been given, believably presenting us with a women whose beliefs are torn asunder in the face of male oppression; the choice to keep most of her backstory secret until the third act prevents her from portraying a fully formed character. Sure, that style of storytelling works in a movie like Memento; but here, being that Captain Marvel isn’t a mystery film, it doesn’t quite work.


In terms of cosmic balance, Captain Marvel does not succeed on the same level as the first Guardians of the Galaxy. But to say the film fails or is bad would be highly misleading. Rather it plays it “safe”; never truly doing anything particularly amazing or egregious. For a film whose tagline is “Higher. Further. Faster”; Captain Marvel probably should have done exactly that.

Overall Score:

three-stars

Review: How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (2019) – A Scattered, But Respectable Finale

Minor Spoilers for How To Train Your Dragon 1 & 2


Though it might be a stretch for some, I don’t think it would be too far off the mark to say that the How To Train Your Dragon (HTTYD) series is Dreamwork’s magnum opus. Much like Pixar and their acclaimed Toy Story, the first HTTYD burst onto the scene to much critical acclaim, winning multiple awards in the process.

But the Toy Story comparison doesn’t stop there, as said success meant that a sequel quickly appeared, followed by an extended wait until the third and final installment. Considering HTTYD is a franchise that overcame the shackles of its child-focused imagery, managing to resonate with a cross section of movie-goers; it’s difficult not to have high expectations with the release of The Hidden World. Can it reach the heights of the heart-breaking Toy Story 3?

how to train your dragon poster

A year has passed since the events of HTTYD 2. Our hero, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), has ascended to village chieftain. Though still reeling from the death of his father, Stoick (Gerard Butler), Hiccup has turned his village into a nirvana for dragons.

But said bliss is threatened by the arrival of Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham), a brutal dragon-slayer who believes that the flying beasts are inferior creatures and must be eliminated. Meanwhile, Hiccup’s dragon, Toothless, has become entranced with the discovery of a “Light-Fury”, a female Night-Fury.

As such Hiccup faces his greatest challenge yet. To protect the dragons under his care and save his village, all the while knowing that he might lose his best friend.


Say what you will about the HTTYD series, but ugly they are not. Like the preceding two entries, The Hidden World is a beautiful smorgasbord of colour and imagination. From the opening epic battle scene to the ethereal beauty of the Hidden World itself, there has clearly been an attempt to, not only match the vibrant heights of the first two entries, but to elevate the world of dragons into an ocular extravaganza rarely seen in animated cinema.

Of course, the MVP of the HTTYD series has always been composer John Powell and his rousing score. To Powell’s credit, he doesn’t rely on the bombastic Test Drive piece from the first HTTYD (though fortunately it does make the occasional glimpse in The Hidden World.) Instead Powell keeps trying to build on what came before, with The Hidden World (the song title, not the film) being an especially grand example of how one piece can blend romance, epic wonder and tragedy into a towering crescendo.

Plot-wise though, there is much to be desired. It’s true that threequels can come in all shapes and sizes. On the one hand, you might have something like Return of the King, which actively picks up the plot threads laid out in the preceding two films. Others might be far closer to films like Logan; essentially a stand-alone entry. The Hidden World hews towards the latter, mostly ignoring the natural plot-threads that were begging to be picked up at the close of the first sequel. While this is understandable, considering the 5 years that have passed since the previous entry; it’s hard not to be disappointed that more effort wasn’t made into making this film the true “climax” of the trilogy.

Furthermore, The Hidden World seems rather lacking in its ability to balance the numerous characters from the previous two films. A sort of “too many cooks spoil the broth” situation. While characters like Hiccup and Astrid (America Ferrera) are expected to have significant roles; individuals like Valka (Cate Blanchett) are painfully underused, seemingly only here because they appeared in a previous installment.

Despite these failings, the poignancy of the film’s final 10 or so minutes is utterly undeniable. To reveal more would be far too much of a spoiler, but considering that we started our HTTYD journey nearly ten years ago; it is one hell of an ending for Hiccup and Toothless.

Overall Score:

three-stars

Game Review: Alien: Blackout (2019) – An Engaging and Spine-Tingling Mobile Followup [iOS]

Over the past couple of years there have been an innumerable number of storylines that could be said to have been abandoned too soon. The space-faring TV show Firefly or the ever meme-worthy Half-Life 3 are just some that spring to mind.

But for this writer there really have been only two pieces of media for which hope for a followup still holds out. The first being the colourful TV show Pushing Daisies, which ran from 2007-2009, and whose cancellation left my 19-year-old-self wallowing in tears. The second, and one far more relevant to this review, is 2014’s Alien Isolation.

While the critical response was somewhat mixed (though leaning towards the positive), and total sales were reasonable; it wasn’t quite enough to greenlight a sequel. For a game that, I honestly felt, did for the Alien Universe what Batman: Arkham Asylum did for the Batman universe, this was a bitter pill to swallow.

It was therefore hard not to have a level of apprehension when hearing about Alien: Blackout. Not only was it a mobile followup to the console brilliance of Isolation, but one that was developed by a completely different studio. That said, the final result actually ends up being a somewhat worthy follow up to the claustrophobic classic.

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Screenshot / © 2019 D3 Go!

Events kick off with the arrival of the USCSS Haldin at the Mendal Research Station. Four passengers come aboard only to realise that the space station has fallen to a roaming Xenomorph. Fortunately for them, Amanda Ripley, survivor of the events of Isolation, is also trapped on board.

Holed up in the Mendal’s air ducts, Amanda has used rudimentary technology to hack into the station’s holographic maps, motion trackers and surveillance cameras. With said technology she is able to guide the four trapped passengers to complete various mission objectives.

But there’s a catch. The various systems only have enough power to last 8 minutes before shutting down and plunging the entire area into darkness (hence the titular subtitle.) As such, a layered cat-and-mouse game begins, with the outcome being survival or becoming another tasty treat for the terrifying nightmare.

Despite the downsizing in scale, one significant carry-over from Isolation is the brilliant sound design. The hiss of the steam pipes, the slamming of metallic doors, and of course, the panic-inducing roar of the Xenomorph itself. Throw in the chilling musical accompaniment by Tommi Hartikainen, and you have a game that, in terms of fear-factor, does stand tall among the numerous entries in the Alien franchise.

Fair warning though, this is not a game that can be experienced like other “pick up and play” mobile titles. To really experience the game as it was meant to, it would be worth investing in a decent pair of headphones. Do so, and you’ll be treated to some heart-pounding sequences.

Along with the sound, the visuals also punch above the traditional weight of a mobile title. While what little we see on cameras is a clear invoking of Isolation, it’s still great to see the same love and affection in paying homage to the design styles of the original Alien movie.

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Screenshot / © 2019 D3 Go!

The gameplay is relatively simple, as you guide the characters to their various mission objectives by drawing a path with your finger. But the cameras and motion senses only cover certain parts of the station, meaning you can never be 100% sure where the Xenomorph might be. As such you can also order each character to either “stop”, “hide” or “hurry up.”

Along with the visual barriers, Blackout also institutes a power limitation; meaning that only a maximum of five objects (either doors, cameras or motion senses) can be active at any one time. With the eight minute limitation mentioned above, each level can become incredibly tense as you try to outwit the rampaging monster.

While there are a few bugs here and there, the biggest issue is that, unlike most games on either console or mobile, Blackout makes no real attempt to institute a learning curve. While the game does gradually increase in difficulty, the first level still more or less throws you into the deep end with only a minimum of direction as to how to do anything. While those that power through will eventually arrive at the engaging gameplay mentioned above, it’s easy to imagine a great many players being turned off before even properly getting out the door.


Clocking in at seven levels spread across 1-2 hours of gameplay, Alien: Blackout isn’t exactly the longest of mobile titles. But with shortness comes intensity and a strong attempt to, not only give us a worthy follow-up to Isolation, but also to present an engaging addition to the Alien gaming universe.

Overall Score:

four-stars

Alien: Blackout is currently available for iOS and Android (£4.99 on both platforms)

 

My Top 10 Most Notable Films of 2018

Apologies folks. While I am a little late in posting my list of movies for 2018, that’s pretty much what comes about when this entire blogging thing is technically a hobby and doesn’t actually put food on the table!

Regardless of the financial funk I currently find myself in, when looking back through my silver screen memories, it somewhat feels like 2018 has ended up being rather similar to the cinematic landscape of 2017.

  • Yet another controversial Star Wars film was released (The Last Jedi / Solo)
  • The ultimate superhero team-up imagined by millions over the past few decades was finally seen on the big screen. (Justice League / Infinity War)
  • A belated sequel to a classic movie based on a children’s book is released and thought to be quite good by critics and the masses alike. (Jumanji 2 / Mary Poppins Returns)
  • A musical adaptation of a real life figure(s) grossly misrepresents the historical record, but no one gives a damn because the music is so good. (The Greatest Showman / Bohemian Rhapsody)
  • A director that most people had written off makes a massive return to form with a low-budget crowdpleaser (M. Night Shymalan’s Split / Peter Farrelly’s Green Book)
  • A heavily Chinese-influenced movie starring a white man who’s way over his head, but still manages to save the world from monsters (The Great Wall / The Meg)

Despite the déjà vu, 2018 still had some gems. So, as is tradition for those of us in the film loving community, what follows is a list of films that I have found especially notable in the preceding 12 months of cinema.

As always, when trying to come to a decision my only rule was that the film had to have been released in UK cinemas between 1st January 2018 and 31st December 2018. So tough luck to films like Mary Queen of Scots, The Favourite, Beautiful Boy, Vice, and all the other awards favourites.

Special mentions: The Shape of Water, Journeyman, Darkest Hour, American Animals, Overlord, Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, Mary Poppins Returns, The Mercy, The Final Year, Lady Bird, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Teen Titans Go To The Movies, A Star is Born, First Man, Bohemian Rhapsody.

Guilty Pleasures: Rampage, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Tag, Mama Mia: Here We Go Again, Venom, Truth or Dare.


1) Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

woody-harrelson-sam-rockwell-three-billboards-outside-ebbing-missouri
© 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved

From my original review:

(Director) McDonagh hits many of the same heights of his previous films. Dark and funny dialogue permeates almost every scene, with each actor managing to tread that fine line such a script would require. Without a doubt McDormand pulls this off best, with her character mostly earning the audience’s sympathy, even when her actions sometimes cross the line into more villainous territory.


2) Coco

coco_new
© 2017 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

From my original review:

Said journey is essentially a tale of culture clash, the unmovable traditions of old fighting to contain the burgeoning excitement and dreams of the young. It’s a story, not just familiar to those cultures with strong family ties, but also to anyone that has tried to fight the desire within to choose personal fulfillment over family commitment. As such, Coco doesn’t come off as a film just for families, but also a film about families. The struggles, the pain, the tears; but also the laughs, the hugs and the moments you treasure for years to come.


3) The Post

the-post-tom-hanks
© 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation and Storyteller Distribution Co. LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Despite Ready Player One making far more money, of the two Steven Spielberg films released this year, The Post stands as the superior piece of filmmaking. True, this is in part due to how resonant the topic of media outlets fighting against a dismissive government regime is in this day and age. But with sterling turns from both Hanks and Streep, The Post is a timely reminder how important it is to speak truth to power.


4) Avengers: Infinity War

thanos
© 2018 Marvel Studios. All Rights Reserved.

From my original review:

But do not fear, Marvel haven’t just made Schindler’s List. There are still jokes aplenty. Indeed one of the most joyful aspects of the movie is watching characters that have never met before interact with each other. As such seeing Iron-Man verbally spar with Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch); Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) fighting back to back with Okoye (Danai Gurira); or even Thor (Chris Hemsworth) sharing a moment with Groot (Vin Diseal) and Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) make up some of the most thrilling moments of the movie.


5) Game Night

game night
© 2017 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.

On the surface Game Night looks like the usual piss-poor excuse to get a bunch of celebrities together in an inane attempt to try and pull off a comedy. Even the trailer (with the exception of one rib-tickling Rachel McAdams’ reaction) doesn’t really inspire much hope.

But when watching the movie, that low expectation gives way to what is actually a mad-cap adventure that brilliantly blends together a multitude of genres; all the while keeping the laughs at the forefront. Add in a heartfelt relationship within each of the three main couples, and you have one of the best comedies of the year.


6) A Quiet Place

a quiet place
© 2017 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.

From my original review:

But, of course, sound is the most notable aspect of this feature; and it’s here that supervising sound editors, Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn, have absolutely outdone anything released so far this year, and likely for the remainder of 2018. From the quietude of footsteps, breathing and panting, to the thunder of screams and monster roars; each sound has been appropriated to wring the maximum amount of tension. It is an absolute masterclass of sound editing and a guaranteed Oscar nomination come 2019.


7) Searching

searching
© 2018 Sundance Institute. All Rights Reserved.

From my original review:

Rather than the racial subversion in that Jordan Peele classic, Chaganty instead explores the more widely identifiable struggle of parental helplessness in the face of teenage rebellion. And much of the heavy lifting in portraying that struggle lies with who he has cast in the lead role. Without a doubt this is one of John Cho’s strongest performances to date; his role as a panicked father drawing us along with every painful minute he must suffer. Despite the film not technically being a one-man show, it’s hard not to compare what he does to similarly brilliant solo outings, such as Tom Hardy in Locke, or Ryan Reynolds in Buried.


8) A Simple Favour

A Simple Favour
© 2018 Lionsgate. All Rights Reserved.

From my original review:

Of course such friendship is only so mesmerising due to the brilliant chemistry between its leading ladies. Though both do well, it’s Lively that comes out on top. Foul-mouthed and straight-up not giving a fuck, Lively dominates like no other, tearing through each of her scenes with reckless abandon. If anything she could easily give her real-life husband, Ryan Reynolds, a run for his Deadpool money.


9) Ralph Breaks The Internet

Ralph_Breaks_The_Internet_50
© 2018 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

Despite my minor disappointment in the move away from videogaming, the sequel to 2015’s Wreck-It-Ralph makes up for said move by becoming a love letter to the internet and all its pop-culture relevance. Not only is the concept of the internet brilliantly brought to life, mainly through an assortment of Mii-lookalikes pottering around multiple real-life tech organisations. But the filmmakers take great pains to push forward and develop the core duo, thus avoiding the trap most sequels fall into by merely putting their characters in a new location, repeating the beats of the original, and then calling it a day.


10) One Cut of the Dead

one cut of the dead
CREDIT: Courtesy of Frightfest Film Festival 2018.

From my original review:

Though mostly an intense death spree, writer/director Shin’ichirô Ueda also injects a strong thread of comedy throughout, especially through Hamatsu’s onscreen director, whose rants and raves makes David O. Russell look sane. But it’s not just the zombie genre that the film pokes fun at. The overbearing director, the demanding movie star, the bored crew member. The film almost acts as a social commentary on the stresses and strains of movie-making.


Hope everyone has a good 2019!

happy-year-3848864_1920
Licenced under Creative Commons CC0 / Pixabay

 

Creed II And The Perils of A Too Sympathetic Antagonist

Spoilers for Rocky III & IV, Journeyman (2017), Southpaw (2015), Creed (2015) and Creed II (2018)


When we talk about equality or diversification, we generally use said phrases in reference to aspects such as the job market, politics, criminal justice, etc. The big picture areas so to speak. However, it’s a shame that we don’t make the same effort to diversify our sportsmen and women. Specifically I speak mainly of class differences (though I won’t deny there are racial and gender issues as well).

Take the sport of golf for instance. While there are a few golfers that have come from poorer environments (such as Vijay Singh or Lee Trevino); the large majority are individuals who were raised in middle to upper class backgrounds.

The reason for this is quite simple: The higher the financial investment needed to train, the more affluent the sportsperson has to be. So if we were to take a look at sports such as tennis, polo, sailing or dressage (which apparently is a sport!); it’s easy to see why a healthy bank account is generally necessary for beginners.

On the flip side of this are the sports for the disadvantaged and the poor. The sports that don’t require massive amounts of upfront investment. Football, basketball, wrestling, and of course, boxing are all the usual suspects. But, at least in popular culture, it’s not too far off the mark to say that boxing is the epitome of “coming from nothing.”

The Rocky series, The Fighter (2010), Cinderella Man (2005) and many, many more have taken the “rags to riches” storytelling path. While it’s true we occasionally get a movie about a boxer at the top of his game, the story will often find a way to bring the character back down to his (metaphorical) knees. For example, Journeyman (2017) had Paddy Considine’s character suffer a serious head injury; while Jake Gyllenhaal’s Southpaw (2015) had him lose both his wife and child.

While the Rocky series has illustrated this underdog aspect to various degrees over six movies (and a semi-reboot in 2015’s Creed); the most recent entry in the series, Creed II, seems to have somewhat done an about-turn. Rather than the elevation of the underprivileged, Creed II is instead about the domination of the rich and how they deserve to stay in power or at the top of their sport.

creed II
© 2018 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.

2015’s Creed is quite obviously a tale of the little guy. Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), who has spent much of his childhood in youth detention centres, needs to make something of himself and wants to prove to the world that he is just as good as his father, Apollo (Carl Weathers). And even though Adonis fails to win against his opponent, Ricky Colan (Anthony Bellew); the announcer in the film makes it clear that “Conlan won the fight, but Creed won the night.”

Three years later however, Creed II starts with Adonis at the top of his game, having just won the World Heavyweight Championship. He is clearly a famed and wealthy man, able to easily purchase an expensive living space in Los Angeles. As such Creed II needs to topple the tower of Adonis in order to build him back up again; and this is capably illustrated by his first loss to Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu).

This, by itself, isn’t that unusual of a storytelling technique. After all, the exact same thing happens in Rocky III when Rocky has to take on Clubber Lang (Mr. T). The problem is that Viktor and his father, Ivan (a returning Dolph Lundgren) are presented to us as clear underdogs with absolutely nothing to their name. Not only has the family name taken a dive after the events of Rocky IV; but wider Russian society has shunned them to such an extent that the family’s matriarch, Ludmila (Brigitte Nielsen), has abandoned them.

Because of such a drastic fall from grace, it’s totally understandable that Viktor and Ivan would want to take on Adonis and Rocky. Not only would such a fight earn them enough money to move out of their dilapidated home; but it would increase theirs chances of being accepted by their neighbours, their country, and perhaps even allow Viktor to rekindle a relationship with his mother.

In what world are these bad people? In what world could this duo be considered antagonists? Sure, the film tries to make Viktor seem “bad” when he cheats in the first fight against Adonis. But you know what? If my mother’s love for me was entirely dependent on winning a boxing match, I sure as hell would be cheating left, right and centre to make sure I win! In other words, Viktor is just too damn sympathetic to stand as an effective antagonist.

Don’t get me wrong, lots of movies have sympathetic antagonists. In fact, to be a truly great movie, an antagonist usually has to be sympathetic because we as an audience must understand why they commit terrible acts to achieve their goals. Magneto in the X-men movies or Koba from the Planet of the Apes franchise are grand examples of sympathetic antagonists that you understand, but would never support because the crimes they commit (murder and attempted genocide) are so beyond the pale.

But Viktor? What crime has he committed? What dreadful sin is he guilty of? He was born into a world that, pretty much from birth, identified him as the son of a failure; and by association he was a failure too. How can we, as human beings, not identify with that? Haven’t we all felt like failures and outcasts at some point in our lives? Are we not all Viktor?

creed ii 2
© 2018 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.

It is amazing that Creed II, the eighth installment in the Rocky franchise, fails in such a spectacular fashion. For lack of a better description, Adonis has become the undeserving and prideful rich boy that traditionally would be the antagonist. It ends up being impossible to emphasise with him. Even worse is that Adonis never truly has any good reason to go through with the fight with Viktor. He clearly doesn’t need the money and he already has the fame and prestige. Even if he were to lose the fight (as Ivan did 30 years earlier), Adonis won’t lose his partner (Tessa Thompson), his home, or the respect of his friends and country.

That’s why the final fight is so heartbreaking. On one side we have a wealthy man who won’t give up because of his pride; while on the other we have poverty-stricken and emotionally hurt person trying to make something of himself. And who loses? The poor guy! All of the above could have been acceptable if Viktor had won. But no. The film ends with the rich prideful man remaining rich and prideful (and celebrated for it!); while the downtrodden individual is forced back to the shithole from whence he came.

For a film series that’s meant to inspire hope, Creed II instead enforces the idea that the browbeaten and the oppressed deserve nothing better. That those who struggle the most have no right to improve themselves at the expense of their “betters.”

And if that isn’t a metaphor for 2018, I don’t know what is.

 

 

Review – I Used To Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story (2018)

Author’s Note: I contributed to this film’s Kickstarter.


A few years ago, during the sparkle of the Twilight books and the erotic stylings of the 50 Shades of Grey series, a male colleague of mine wondered out loud how women and girls could enjoy such stupid and pointless books.

I didn’t say anything at the time (which I do regret a little). But I found his comments to be rather closed-minded. Don’t get me wrong, I am in no way saying that either series should have won the Man Booker prize. But why is it that cultural experiences popular with women are thought to be so much less important than those enjoyed by men? Is there really that much difference between 50,000 women/girls screaming at a boyband concert; and 50,000 men/boys screaming at 22 guys in shorts chasing a ball?

That widely held dismissive attitude towards female activities is part of the reason why I Used To Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story caught my attention on Kickstarter. Led by director Jessica Leski and producer Rita Walsh, here was a film that was determined to explore the passion for boybands from a place of love and appreciation.

While (according to their Kickstarter) Leski and Walsh originally planned to explore this phenomena through the eyes and words of music theorists, songwriters, educators, adolescent psychologists and neurologists; the final onscreen product is one that is far more human in its approach. As such we investigate the world of boybands through the eyes of a foursome: Elfi, a die-hard One-Direction lover; Sadia, a Backstreet Boys devotee; Dara, a Take That obsessive; and Susan, an old-school Beatles fan.


I Used To Be Normal is, at its heart, a celebration. Not just of girls and women, but also of passion and dedication. Through the words and actions of the four main women interviewed in the project, we get to see the intricacies of fangirl culture, their relationship to music and how it has developed and changed over the past six decades.

In fact, that decision by the filmmakers to take a more historical approach ends up being the most successful aspect of the movie. It would have been easy to focus exclusively on modern boybands and their fans. But by throwing us back to the mid-20th Century with Susan, and illustrating the heights of Beatlemania intertwined with the advance of feminism; we get to see how boyband music has become almost inseparable from the daily fight for equality that women have experienced over the past half century.

However, the focus on the 1960s and the 1990s onwards means there is a little bit of a gap in the film’s musical history. To be fair, the popularity of punk and metal during the 70s & 80s probably meant that there wasn’t a lot of choice in terms of boybands, but it would have been nice to meet someone who appreciated New Kids on the Block!

But that really is a minor quibble as the foursome that we do follow are some of the most engaging representations of fangirls today. More importantly though, Leski and Walsh show us how the individual’s love for a specific boyband has helped them struggle through emotional and social obstacles that they might otherwise have had to face alone. Dara, the 33-year-old brand strategist from Australia finds help in the self-discovery of her sexuality; while Sadia, a 25 year old writer from America, uses her love for the Backstreet Boys to help overcome the culture clash of family and society. They may all have very different life paths, but it’s a beautiful example of how boyband music can be used as a force for good.

Of the four stories it’s teenager Elfi that really tugs at the heartstrings. When we’re first introduced to her at the age of 15/16, she’s easily the most typical portrayal of a screaming fangirl. Over the next two years we witness how that love for One Direction eventually blossoms into deeply ingrained knowledge of multiple types of music. But unlike the other three participants, who to various degrees have mostly overcome societies’ dismissal of their tastes; Elfi is still held down by tradition and patriarchal forces. In essence she ends up being a physical representation of how much further women still have to go for their hopes and desires to be taken seriously.

But don’t take that as a sign that the film is secretly a tearjerker. Instead I Used To Be Normal is a heartwarming and elegant depiction of a world that has given hope and joy to millions of girls and women around the globe. In an era where anonymous internet dwellers are willing to tear apart any type of female enjoyment; this film stands as tribute that even the most musically persecuted can survive when we share the things we love.

Overall Score:

five-stars

My Attempt To Write A Simpsons Episode And A Few Other Experiences

You know, looking back it’s kind of laughable that my original intention for this blog was to write about my screenwriting career. In two years I’ve written a grand total of three articles about my chosen career path. Hopefully the other 236 posts I’ve published weren’t too much of a distraction!

So I suppose a little catch up is required. Previous posts told of the shooting of my first ever short film, The Right Choice; as well as its world premiere at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Overall The Right Choice has done pretty well on the festival circuit, having played at four Oscar-qualifying festivals, and been accepted into 30 further festivals across the world.

Truth be told, 2018 has been a little slower than I though it would be in terms of screenwriting career progress. While I’ve pumped out 6 short scripts, most of the year has been spent paying back the debts I accrued in order to complete The Right Choice. No regrets of course.

Still, there have been two bright spots, one of which is that a small production company called Upwall Pictures has read some of my work and have expressed an interest in producing a few scripts. (It’s a terrible photo, I know!)

The second bright spot… Well, it’s a long story.

For those of you not up to date with The Simpsons TV show, last year there was a bit of a commotion over the character of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. An American comedian called Hari Kondabolu released a 45 minute documentary called “The Problem With Apu“; in which he criticised the portrayal of the Kwik-E-Mart owner.

Though I wrote an article about it at the time and stated my intention to view the documentary as soon as possible; residing in the U.K. unfortunately makes it impossible to access, even a year later.

One of the many reactions to the documentary was that movie producer Adi Shanker (of Dredd and the “Bootleg Universe” fame) decided to launch an unofficial screenwriting competition in an attempt to crowdsource a script that would take Apu in a new direction. He offered to take the winning script to The Simpsons writers; but if they refused it he would make it himself as part of his Bootleg Universe.

Now I’m going to be honest here, but I don’t agree with Shanker that “The Simpsons is sick” or that the portrayal of Apu is a “mean-spirited mockery.” And from the various clips I’ve seen of The Problem With Apu, I strongly anticipate that I wouldn’t agree with Kondabolu’s opinion of the character either. I like Apu and consider him to be a beloved character that I’ve enjoyed watching for many years.

Apu coverfly2

But as an aspiring screenwriter how could I not take advantage of this opportunity? After all, all good writers should be able to write for subjects they don’t personally agree with. I’m pretty sure Thomas Harris isn’t a secret lover of human flesh, despite him creating the world’s most famous cannibal in Hannibal Lector!

So I took a chance and spent a few weeks writing “Life of Apu” (LoA). And though it took quite a while, LoA was eventually selected as a finalist (and in turn became the above mentioned second bright spot!) I’m not entirely sure how big of an achievement becoming a finalist was, especially since I have no idea how many finalists were selected, or even how many total entries were received. But at least it was an acknowledgement that I had written something worth reading.

Alas the script did not progress to actually win the competition, which now leaves me with a Simpsons script gathering dust. So I thought I would throw it out to all of you to enjoy. Below is a little more about how I came up with the idea and my process of writing, but if you’d just like to read the script here’s the link: Life of Apu

(In fact, what’s written below might make a hell of a lot more sense after you’ve read the script. Also, when you click on the link, you don’t have to sign up for Dropbox. Just click the No Thanks button at the bottom of the popup)

apu post


The seed of LoA was planted sometime in 2012/2013 while I was reading Apu’s Wikipedia page. Specifically I focused on the following line:

He graduated first in his class of seven million at ‘Caltech’ — Calcutta Technical Institute — going on to earn his doctorate at the Springfield Heights Institute of Technology.

I ended up misunderstanding the above line as it gave me the impression that these were two separate events. Basically Apu had come top of his class, came to America for some undisclosed reason, and only then decided to study for a Ph.D.

However, I now know that the episode Homer and Apu (Season 5, Episode 13) makes it clear that these events are connected, in that Apu specifically came to America to study for his doctorate. Yet being that the episode was broadcast in 1994, and I hadn’t seen a repeat in years, I assumed for far too long that there was some kind of untold story about Apu’s journey to America.

To be fair to myself that is technically true, as no episode has focused specifically on said journey. But I would spend the next 5-6 years checking the synopsis of each new Simpsons episode, wondering when the writers would tell this undisclosed tale.

That said, this desire to see Apu’s journey was nowhere near the forefront of my mind when Shankar launched the contest. Instead I planned to approach the screenplay according to the stated objectives given in the description of the competition:

“We are looking for a screenplay centering on the character “Apu” set in the world and cannon of The Simpsons that takes the character of Apu and in a clever way subverts him, pivots him, intelligently writes him out, or evolves him in a way that takes a mean spirited mockery and transforms him into a kernel of truth wrapped in funny insight aka actual satire.”

In other words they were looking for the actual character of Apu to permanently change for future episodes. But this fundamentally goes against the very core of The Simpsons in that once an episode ends, everything resets. I won’t deny that some changes have been set in stone (usually with character deaths). But for the most part, attempts to make major changes to the core of a character or to continuity is usually met with derision from fans. I still remember the public uproar when Seymour Skinner was discovered to actually be Armin Tamzarian in Season 9’s The Principal and the Pauper; or when a failed attempt was made to move Homer and Marge’s romance to the 1990s in Season 19’s That ’90s Show.

So my dilemma was this: How do I change the character of Apu without changing the character of Apu?

I quickly realised that the best way to do this was not to change the character, BUT instead change audience’s perception of the character. That may sound like it’s the same thing, but there are huge differences between the two. The former is a purposeful change, moving the character from one depiction to another. But the latter is done by presenting previously unknown information in order to influence the audience’s perspective; all the while keeping the character exactly the same.

The natural fallout of this decision meant that I couldn’t tell a story in the present day. Instead I had to set the story somewhere in the past. And that was my eureka moment. Here was a chance to tell that story I wanted about Apu’s journey to America, and yet still evolve the character in some positive way.

This may be surprising to some, but I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about what South Asians or Indian-Americans would think. When writing the screenplay the main priority were Simpsons fans. You may wonder why, considering the reasons why this entire endeavour kicked off. Nonetheless I realised that, even if by some miracle my script become a finalist, won the competition, was accepted by The Simpsons writers, and became a critically and publicly acclaimed episode; none of this would lead to an increase in Indian-American viewers. Sure they would watch for that one episode, but there is no way that there would be a significant increase of people watching the show. (Especially considering Indian-Americans only make up just over 1% of the American population.) But the 2-6 million people that watch The Simpsons every week? They’re the ones who are spending their time and money supporting the show.

Because of this somewhat skewed priority, mixed in with my own beliefs, it meant that LoA purposely did not address many of the issues that Kondabolu or Shankar had a problem with. For example, I made no mention of Apu’s accent or his name. Neither did I address the idea of characters being voiced by actors who are of a different race. In fact, Apu barely changes at all. He’s still a simple Kwik-E-Mart owner when the credits roll. Considering the contest objectives clearly stated they wanted Apu to change, it’s somewhat surprising (hell, a borderline miracle) that I even became a finalist.

(I suppose this technically makes me a terrible screenwriter as I ended up writing something that completely ignored the stated stipulations.)

Instead I focused on one issue that I definitely agreed with: that the success of Apu had a negative effect on how Hollywood and the U.K. chose to portray South Asians over the last 30 years. But I don’t believe this is the fault of The Simpsons. This is the fault of numerous writers, directors and casting directors outside of The Simpsons who have chosen to rely only on that one cartoon portrayal. As a result, the insane difficulty that South Asian actors and actresses must overcome ended up becoming the emotional centre of the story. To illustrate the South Asian desire to have new experiences and to stretch yourself in an acting world that is satisfied to merely pigeonhole you.

With all that said, there was still one other aspect that was crucial. It was important to me for Apu to remain a Kwik-E-Mart owner and not suddenly become a wealthy or successful man.

“Sacrilege!” I hear you cry. “Racist!” I hear you roar. But there is a method to my madness. There’s a reason why Forbes’ “The World’s Billionaires” list is one of the most widely anticipated publications every year. It’s because, unfortunately, we live in a world where the accumulation of wealth trumps everything else. Where being a good person or being a great family man is not considered a sign of being a “success”.

While it was important to me to show that it was okay to spend your life being a shop owner (as I’ve known many real life people to do so); it was also essential that Apu was considered a success because of how he treated his family. It wasn’t about the number of shops he owns or the number of buildings that have his name on them (as Kondabolu has stated he would like to see). Instead I wanted to show that true success is about looking after those you love and making sure you do everything you can to make them a success. Just like my grandparents did for my parents. Just like my parents did for me. And, maybe one day, what I will do for my children. It’s why, along with the South Asian actor problems I mentioned above, LoA very heavily focuses on family and the sacrifices we make to ensure that those we love can lead better lives than we did. The true definition of “success.”

I am, however, still in two minds about the script’s comedy. I am not a comedian. I can’t tell a joke to save my life, so just imagine how bad I am at writing one. So I’ll leave it up to much wiser people than I to determine whether or not I was successful. (Again, here’s the link: Life of Apu)

Still, LoA ended up being a most enjoyable pitstop on that long windy road to screenwriting success and I hope to do it again sometime.

Until next time, my screenwriting fellows.

Vijay 🙂