Why Pretty-Good Shows Are So Hard To Write About

Plus: I’m Thinking Of Ending Things, the VMAs, and Mulan

by Linda Holmes
Welcome! It was the week when we all wished the best to The Rock and the Rock family. It was the week when BTS continued to be everywhere. And it was the week when we learned more about Susan Orlean’s book club. Let’s get to it.

Opening Argument: Why Pretty-Good Shows Are So Hard To Write About

Netflix has a new show this weekend called Away. It stars Hilary Swank as Emma Green, the commander of the first manned mission to Mars. And when someone asked me about it after I’d started on the screeners, I said, «The dreaded B/B-Plus.» 

Now by «dreaded,» I didn’t mean anyone should dread the show. I kept watching it, even after I’d decided I probably wouldn’t do a full review of it. I enjoy it. I’m going to finish all ten episodes this weekend. People with a serious interest in space travel might enjoy it even more than I did. I just meant … boy, it can be hard to review those, which is part of why I decided not to. 

As the trailer explains, the show is both the story of the mission and the story of Emma’s husband and daughter back on Earth, from whom she will be separated for three years (gulp). You might like the at-home story more; you might like the space story more; I think both are … fine! The space stuff looks good but not amazing, the international crew is played by talented actors, and I think Swank is good in this, even though her character is often so stoic that she’s a little flat by design.

A couple things about it drove me crazy: For one, there’s a sick person dramatically shaking and whispering at one point, and the shaking and whispering is so dramatic and full of acting that I couldn’t understand a word. 

One or two of the images of zero gravity are really pretty and inventive and moving. The rest looked entirely plausible to me, even though they were filmed with the actors hanging from wires that were erased in post-production. 

The thing is … the hardest review to write, in a lot of ways, is «This is what you would think it is.» From the marketing, from the trailer, from the music in the trailer, from the fact that it comes from Jason Katims (Friday Night Lights), it’s what you’d think it is. Heartfelt, earnest, well-executed. Filled with decency.

Did I immediately want to tell everyone how good it is? Not really. Can I put my finger on a lot of really special elements it brings to the table? Not really. If you like this kind of thing, do I recommend it? Yes, actually! I do! Josh Charles is one of my favorite solid-guy actors, and this husband, Matt, is a solid guy. Space is always a good setting for suspenseful challenges — there’s a reason “Houston, we have a problem” was instantly a catch phrase. 

Give it a try. 

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We Recommend:

If you love making order out of chaos, you might enjoy the new Netflix series Get Organized With The Home Edit, which premieres on September 9 (that’s Wednesday). Clea and Joanna of The Home Edit are basically organization influencers, and on each episode, they organize a space for one regular person and one celebrity. So if you’ve always wanted to know how much stuff is in Khloe Kardashian’s garage (one of her garages?), this is your chance to find out. 

My friend Joe Reid wrote a fascinating, thoughtful, poignant piece over at Vulture on what might have happened in movies in 2020 if the pandemic hadn’t come. It’s interesting to think about whether these things would have happened, of course, but for people who follow movies, it’s also a moment to reflect on this tiny slice of the experiences that we’ve missed. 

The death of Chadwick Boseman is one of the most wrenching deaths of an artist I can remember — for me, but especially for a lot of Black writers and critics who have written about him recently. Just one example is Soraya McDonald’s piece at The Undefeated. 

What We Did This Week:

Lady Gaga wore a lot of masks Sunday night, but this is the one with tusks. Yay, tusks!
Kevin Winter/MTV VMAs 2020/Getty Images for MTV
Glen reviewed Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking Of Ending Things, which is now available on Netflix. We’ll also be covering it on the show next week, if you want to catch up with it before then. 

I reviewed the Showtime series Love Fraud, which debuted last weekend and is pretty entertaining as con-man stories go.

Stephen’s been guest hosting New Music Friday over at NPR Music, so give that a listen. He also contributed to their look back at the best music of August.

On Monday morning, we had a wrap-up of the VMAs from Stephen and our panelists Margaret Willison and Christina Tucker, and Stephen wrote up some takeaways.

And on our Friday show, the delightful Mallory Yu and Kathy Tu joined us to talk about the new live-action Mulan, which is the biggest theatrical film so far to make the pandemic-driven leap to home viewing. 

What’s Making Us Happy

Every week on the show, we talk about some other things out in the world that have been giving us joy lately. Here they are:
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