The Anarchic Beauty of Taskmaster

If there’s one thing I love on this earth, it’s game shows. I’m kind of a connoisseur.

A great game show combines luck, risk-taking and some kind of skill or knowledge. Deal or No Deal was just luck and risk-taking, but they always pretended as if there was all this strategy where none could exist, it was bizarre. Winning Streak is the worst because it doesn’t even test risk-taking, just luck, so it effectively just throws money at people with the only variant being how much. Shows that have the potential to lapse into being just a dry test of skill usually have a time constraint to force the risk-taking element. But my favourites combine genuine difficulty with being a ton of fun to watch. Way too many shows are stupidly dramatic: every time someone gives an answer on Tenable, there’s probably a full thirty seconds of dramatic reaction shots and lights going up the answer board. It tries to be “fun” by having Warwick Davis deliver terrible pun after terrible pun, instead of striving towards a fun tone overall.

My favourite has long been Pointless: its reverse Family Fortunes format that rewards the most obscure correct answer makes it incredibly fun to play along with, whether you know a lot or very little about the category. The banter between its hosts, Alexander Armstrong and Richard Osman, is charming and makes the tone of the whole thing light and fun, in sharp contrast with the most self-serious quiz shows (Mastermind, mostly). I love Only Connect, the hardest show in the world, both because host Victoria Coren-Mitchell is delightful and because I feel elated if I get an answer right. I am kind of obsessed with Richard Osman’s House of Games, and love following the throughline of each week, rooting for my favourite contestants and waiting with bated breath for the day someone wins all five shows.

But there is one game show that is more fun to watch than basically anything on television, and that’s Taskmaster. Pitched perfectly between a light-hearted “normal” game show and Shooting Stars surrealism, it’s both one of the best game shows I’ve ever seen and such a weird, inventive thing that to even classify it by genre feels wrong. It’s glorious.

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Wrestling for Sceptics: Ten Matches to Whet Your Whistle

Wrestling is in a weird place right now. In some ways, it’s going through a bit of a golden age, with a massive international independent scene that’s no longer dependent purely on local interest for support. I’ve never been to Germany – apart from a nightmarish layover in Munich Airport – but I’ve enjoyed dozens of matches from the German Wrestling Federation thanks to their availability online. I know lots of people with video-on-demand and streaming subscriptions for companies all over the world, from Mexico’s Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre to Japan’s DDT Pro-Wrestling to my home promotion, Ireland’s Over the Top Wrestling. You can watch high-quality wrestling with solid production values every week on YouTube for free from NWA Powerrr and China’s Oriental Wrestling Entertainment. WWE, the largest wrestling company in the world, is facing serious competition from a rival for the first time in years courtesy of All Elite Wrestling and its weekly TV show, Dynamite. There’s even a pretty good women’s wrestling show from GLOW founder David McLane called WOW that I’ve reviewed over at Bell to Belles. More great wrestlers are working today than you could ever imagine and with so much variety, there really is something for everyone.

But, in other ways, it’s a scary time for wrestling fans. WWE might have a new rival, but it’s not a rival really capable of breaking their effective monopoly on wrestling in the US. AEW is showing WWE up regularly in terms of the quality of its programming, but WWE is such a big company, and has such deep pockets, that its mere existence distorts the entire industry. It can outbid any competitor when offering contracts and constantly signs new wrestlers while rarely releasing anyone or doing anything to encourage retirement, which shrinks the pool of talent available to other companies. Unlike most companies, it demands complete exclusivity from most of its employees (sorry, “independent contractors”) and even the rare few on its British brand, NXT UK, who are allowed to perform in other companies do so under heavy restrictions and with the constant risk of being pulled from shows at the last minute. The vast majority of independent wrestling companies run on very thin margins, supported entirely by ticket and merch sales, with virtually no cushion if financial disaster strikes. There may be more companies than ever before, reaching more people than ever before, but it’s not clear whether the wrestling audience is actually expanding or if fans are just spending more and more on wrestling. I kind of suspect it’s the latter and that most of the industry is built on a foundation of fan support and audience goodwill that’s not sustainable unless more people get into wrestling. When the next big financial crisis hits and pocketbooks shrink, it’s likely it will be the end of many independent companies, not to mention the careers of the wrestlers they employ.

I’m not writing this article to save wrestling or anything, though if I did, that’d be neat. But as someone who got into wrestling in just the last couple of years, I understand a lot of what the wrestling-sceptical and even the wrestling-curious can find off-putting about it. I want to talk about some of these issues and point those who are open to wrestling, but not yet convinced, in the direction of some matches that represent the various shades of what wrestling has to offer right now. It’s not at all exhaustive. I’ve left some really weird shit on the drawing board, and it’s limited to a handful of mostly English-language companies, but, with a little help from my friends, I’ve put together a list of matches that, in my personal opinion, (1) slap hard and (2) can and should be enjoyed by people coming to wrestling with fresh eyes, whether you’re interested in hard-hitting technical wrestling, operatic emotional storytelling or silly nonsense (the three things that make wrestling great).

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Check out Ciara’s article on TV preservation! [Current Affairs]

I’m not much given to ranking such things, but if you put a gun to my head and asked me to rank my favourite sitcoms, The Likely Lads would easily make the top tier. It aired three seasons on BBC between 1964 and 1966—which, because it’s British television, means twenty episodes and a Christmas sketch—following Terry and Bob, two young men working in a factory in the north-east of England. It was commissioned because The Beatles were big and that made someone at the BBC want a show about young northerners, even if they ended up in Newcastle instead of Liverpool.

Terry and Bob are instantly, vividly realized: they are united in their shared ambitions of getting drunk, picking up girls, and watching football, but there is always a tension between Terry’s pride in being working-class and Bob’s ambitions for social mobility. Bob will always blame Terry for his bad behavior, but the phrase “pushing an open door” was invented specifically to describe Bob. While many 1960s sitcoms are warm, wholesome and full of wacky misunderstandings, The Likely Lads is vulgar, realistic and incredibly modern. Season one’s “Older Women Are More Experienced”—in which Terry dates an older woman and Bob dates a younger one—ends on a punchline that wouldn’t feel out of place in Peep Show. It’s a show I adore, that I will evangelise for any chance I get.

Of the twenty episodes produced, only ten survive.

I wrote an essay for the new issue of Current Affairs. It’s about TV wiping, the inaccessibility of popular art and the precarious archival implications of streaming. You can subscribe to read it here, or buy a copy of the issue here.

You Should Watch Wallace and Gromit

Unlike some other people on this very website, I am a sceptic when it comes to short films. It’s not that I have anything against it as a form inherently – it’s just that a lot of short films are bad. I would go as far as to say that most short films are bad. There are a lot of bad features, too, but their length requires a level of commitment that does at least a little weeding out. Of all the shorts I’ve seen, most have one idea, or one twist, or one – God forbid – lesson to be learnt. Too many shorts feel like the very first idea someone thought of. Way too many seem like a single idea stretched to breaking, and feel much too long even as that should be definitionally impossible.

These problems are a trend, not a rule, and there are a few categories that bypass these problems entirely, that feel naturally suited to the form. One of them is experimental films – like those of Maya Deren or David Lynch – which aren’t bound by traditional narrative and can pack their short running time with strange, affecting visuals. But the main exception is animated shorts: the short film feels like the platonic ideal for a cartoon. Maybe it’s because the commitment necessitated by a feature’s length is there in a cartoon regardless of its length, just because animation is hard and takes a long time. Maybe it’s that cartoons are the short films I grew up on, like old Looney Tunes shorts repackaged for television, while live action shorts were virtually absent. Maybe it’s just animation’s greater respect for the importance of colours. But my short film scepticism retreats to the background when the short happens to be animated.

Case in point: Wallace and Gromit.

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No Harm, No Foul: the Bobby Hicks Story

The Florida Project is one of the best films of the last decade and one of my favourite films of all time. It’s also a movie whose name makes me wince when I hear almost anyone else mention it, because so many people – even people who like it – end up saying truly horrible things about its lead characters, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and Halley (Bria Vinaite). Halley is the young mother of Moonee, and they’re part of the invisible homeless, living out of a single room in a motel called the Magic Castle in Kissimmee, Florida, near Disney World. The two main strands of the film are Moonee’s adventures with her friends Scooty, Dicky and Jancey, inspired by the Our Gang short films popular in Depression-era America, and Halley’s struggles to keep them off the street. There’s no real narrative throughline for Moonee, but Halley’s story is one of steadily escalating peril as the exploitation and indifference of others – and some bad decisions of her own – make it harder and harder for her to get by. She loses her job at a strip club because she refuses to have sex with a client. She loses her benefits because she loses her job (the circumstances were not considered extenuating). Unable to find work elsewhere, she starts selling stolen perfume to tourists and babysits Scooty in exchange for his mother, Ashley, giving her and Moonee stolen food from the diner where she works. When they fall out and Ashley cuts ties with her, Halley ends up, ironically, doing the exact sex work she lost her job over to pay rent. It’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen about how poor people are punished for being poor (along with Wendy and Lucy) and it moved me more deeply than I can ever express.

I’ve been aware some people hate these characters since I saw The Florida Project in the cinema. I was homeless at the time, all alone in the smallest screen until five minutes through the ads, when a large contingent of very posh-looking older people joined me. When we reached the climactic scene, where Moonee finds out she’s going to be taken from Halley by child services and runs away so she can say goodbye to her friends, I was sobbing very hard. There’s a particular moment where the realisation sets in for Moonee. She’s trying to tell her friend Jancey that they’ll probably never see each other again and Jancey asks why. Moonee bursts into tears and starts wailing in pain and fear and sorrow because she can’t bring herself to say what’s happened. For reasons I will wonder about until the day I die, the rest of the people in my screening laughed. I was prepared to write it off as one of weird group of people with empathy problems, but then I sat through this horrible review of the film where Ben Mankiewicz calls Halley “the worst mother in the history of movies” and talks about how he spent most of the film wanting Moonee to be taken from her, and a dozen like it besides.

I don’t go in for casting aspersions on the morality or motives of people based on how they react to a work of art, but, I’m not gonna lie, it was very hard not to do it with a lot of people’s responses to The Florida Project. People would say Halley is an unfit mother and that, even if it was sad, Moonee would be better off in foster care and it just baffled me. Halley is kind of obnoxious, sure, and not all her choices are the best choices. She perhaps doesn’t monitor the children enough sometimes and she assaults Ashley in front of Scooty when Ashley criticises her for doing sex work. But, despite the poverty they live in, Halley keeps Moonee fed and sheltered and happy and safe. They live in awful conditions, but Moonee is happy, she’s a sweet, joyful, adventurous child whose mother lets her live in blissful ignorance of the world’s shittiness. No, she doesn’t have great prospects in life, but that’s because she’s a homeless child, not because Halley is “the worst mother in the history of movies”. And the idea that she’ll definitely, or even probably, be better off in foster care is absurd if you know even a little bit about it. It’s not just the horror stories – though God knows there are plenty of them – it’s the simple fact that, in most circumstances, separating a child from their parents is a harm in itself.

But that’s not what baffled me. I know people look down on homeless people, single mothers and sex workers. I know that poor people are villainised for doing things our society ignores or even lauds when rich people do them: one of the foundational principles of neoliberalism is that it’s bad for poor people to passively receive income for unemployment, but extremely good for the rich to passively receive income for already being rich. I know people think of child separation as a miracle solution to poverty, neglect and abuse. What baffled me is there’s a character in the film with these kinds of attitudes and he’s not the hero of the story.

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Dirty Harry Is and/or Isn’t Fascist Propaganda

In 1971, Dirty Harry set out the blueprint for pretty much all cop movies that followed. Clint Eastwood plays a cynical detective – a loose cannon who doesn’t play by the rules – who gets teamed up with a rookie cop even though he prefers to work alone. Its reputation is more or less as an entertaining action film and a nasty piece of fascist propaganda: Harry couldn’t give less of a shit about your civil rights, and the film is emphatically not about him learning the error of his ways.

Harry is an extraordinary piece of shit. A guy is about to jump off a building, and they send Harry up to talk him down: Harry punches him in the face. Another cop explains to the rookie why they call him Dirty Harry, saying Harry hates everyone, including a whole list of racial slurs. In the famous “are you feeling lucky?” scene, Harry’s so fucking cold-blooded, reciting his memorised cool-guy speech while he threatens to kill someone, and it’s chilling. But also: it is a cool speech, and he is a cool guy. Like his spaghetti westerns, Eastwood plays an essentially monstrous character with such rock-solid charisma that you find yourself drawn in. The way he speaks through his teeth, the way he squares his jaw, the way he holds a gun: he’s magnetic. This is the essential dilemma of Dirty Harry: are his coolness and his monstrosity in tension with one another, or are they one and the same? Does the film think all the awful shit Harry does is cool? Is it part of what makes him cool?

Roger Ebert called the film fascist (he gave it three stars out of four). Gene Siskel called it dangerous. And Dirty Harry is definitely not one of those films where its point of view on its immoral characters is so obvious and forthright that I find debate about it vaguely exhausting: like, there are real people in the world who think The Wolf of Wall Street is pro-Jordan Belfort because even though it’s an incomparable descent into hell, it’s also funny, and those people are geniuses next to the people who think Starship Troopers is fascist. But Dirty Harry is not a misunderstood satire, not really. I think seeing it as fascist makes a lot of sense: if Harry is cool, if you like him and root for him, if you take the ticking time bomb torture scenario the film sets up at face value, then Dirty Harry is an argument for extrajudicial torture, violence as first resort, and a police state.

But Dirty Harry isn’t an “argument”. It’s a film.

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Double Features #5: Here We Go Again

This article is part of the Double Features series, which pairs great films that go great together. Check out previous installments here, herehere and here.


Double features are great. You watch one film, and then you watch another? Sign me up! Every time I’ve seen two movies right after another in a cinema, it’s been great. (Except when I had to sprint from The Handmaiden to Raw. I am not a man made for sprinting.) But I find they’re even better when there’s a throughline connecting the two films, so, y’know, here we are.

Check these double features out if you like movies. If not, suggest them to your friends who do like movies as a power move. Either way, read on.

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The Sundae Film Awards 2020

This was a really, really great year for film. It was full of reflective elegies by aging masters; sophomore features that delivered on their predecessors’ promise in spades; and at least one or two blockbusters with some guts. There were so many films that could have been contenders any other year – the sweetness of Paddleton, the daring weirdness of Velvet Buzzsaw, the meditative exploration of masculinity in Ad Astra – that just ended up getting squeezed out. I mean, Happy Death 2 U was a masterpiece. Some years it’s hard to scrape together enough nominations in some categories – this year it was heart-breaking to make cuts. This is one of those years that we’ll remember.

The film year, for the record, we define as “films that came out in 2019 in Ireland unless they were eligible for the Oscars last year as well as films that came out in 2020 in Ireland if they were eligible for this year’s Oscars.” Perils of being a film fan outside of North America.

We can’t really claim that these are what we think should have been nominated at the Oscars, or should win, since we can’t even be sure if any film that wasn’t nominated was eligible. But if we were the only two members of the Academy, and we only cared about the eight major awards – we care about most of the others (except for the fake awards like Best Original Song) but this post would be absurdly long if we picked those too – this is what you’d get: the Sundae Film Awards 2020.

We each did out our personal nominees and then selected the winner by consensus, so the winners only come from films that both of us have seen and nominated, but we’ve each picked a personal runner-up regardless of whether the other has seen or nominated it. We also each picked a Special Achievement Award for something not covered in the major categories. You can see each of our full slates of nominees at the bottom of this post, which we strongly encourage you to check out if you’re looking for recommendations. There were so many brilliant films this year, and we only got to award a small fraction of them.

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You Should Watch Big Business

Jordan Peele’s Us was one of the best films of 2019: the scale of its ambition dwarfed Get Out, Peele’s directorial debut, and it hits all its marks. It’s one of those horror films that I can imagine watching over and over, becoming richer without ever becoming less scary. The best comparison I can make is that it made me feel kind of like how The Shining makes me feel, and The Shining might be my favourite horror film ever, so.

Us is incredibly dense with allusion and multiplicity of meaning. Even something as simple as its title can be read two ways: us and US. Much has been said about its many references to other films, from Jaws to The Goonies to CHUD. But no-one has said anything about how it’s basically a horror version of the 1988 Bette Midler/Lily Tomlin farce Big Business, which it totally is. This is not least because no-one remembers the 1988 Bette Midler/Lily Tomlin farce Big Business – except for maybe Jordan Peele – but they should, because Big Business is great: a tightly constructed, very funny comedy of errors about class and corporate America.

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