Going to try my best to keep in the format of “post more often with fewer words,” because honesty it makes me feel more accomplished. That’s an ironic thing, by the way, given one of the two topics we’re touching on. This isn’t, by any means, an exhaustive list of excellent Netflix shows (like, at all. Orange is the New Black, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt represent a small sample of the hot sauce slathered about that streaming pile of delicious), but these are a few new entries that really stand out for a number of interesting reasons.
Let’s start with Voltron: Legendary Defender, which is inconceivably good. I mean, honestly, there’s no reason it should be as good as it is. The voice casting balls like hell – we got Tyler Labine (Deadbeat, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, Reaper, a bunch of other stuff), Cree Summer (everything ever animated that’s any good and needs a female antagonist. Literally) Josh Keaton (Hercules, Green Lantern animated, Batman: Arkham games), and a number of other really good ones. One of the reasons the voice cast is so incredibly awesome is because we’re back to good ol serious houses of animation: DreamWorks, which, frankly, voice casting has always been their strongest work, and Studio Mir. Don’t know Studio Mir? Well, fans of the blog will know I’ve roundly praised Mir and the showrunners of The Legend of Korra because of its fantastic portrayal of a lead female that demonstrates uniquely female strength and doesn’t have a crap voice over.
Voltron has a special place in my heart – capitalized as opposed to capped and italicized because I’m talking about both the larger property and the mighty robot warrior of the same name. Voltron was one of the first cyberpunk/raw sci-fantasy -esque things that I really got into (I’m gonna get guff for that characterization, but there’s magical high technology semi sentient lion robots and at least one witch in the show that legitimately casts spells, so you know, I’m going to go with it). It was also fundamental to my “giant fighting robot” education as a relatively new ongoing property in my formative years. A couple of efforts at various kinds of reboots have been attempted over the years, sometimes through full CGI animation (which never looked good on TV until the Star Wars shows, and even the, not always great), and sometimes through hybrids, which Voltron: Legendary Defender is. Hybrid here meaning it’s sometimes traditional “2d” drawn animation, and sometimes it’s “3d” rendered animation, kinda depending on whether or not the action in frame involve a giant robot lion.
Mir and the Showrunners for V:LD have done a great job of fleshing the world of Voltron out with a ton of lore and a ton of thought. Our characters have distinct motivations and arcs, each of which in the ensemble is treated with uniqueness and due attention. No one proves a one-hit wonder, save maybe Lance and Keith, (Blue and Red, for those keeping score) but their ongoing bromantic rivalry will suffice. Also, just kiss, you know? Enough foreplay. But, honestly, our heroes are realistic-ish people. Whisked away to an alien world and called to serve as guardians of all free life in the universe, most of them are still thinking about their own agendas – at least, those with agendas left. They’re thinking about Earth, going home, getting to their families (though, that’s complicated sometimes by their families being held captive by an intergalactic overlord). They have to slowly come to terms with Voltron not just as a job they’re doing right now but as a calling that they can’t really afford to ignore. We see their humanity and selflessness start to come out, and it’s really cool watching them evolve over the course of the show. That said, it ends on a spectacularly large cliffhanger, which I found upsetting for the usual intended reason of I wanted very much more, please.
What’s to note about this isn’t just that it’s a pretty good animated show, it’s that it’s a pretty good animated show still constructed and delivered in this Netflix format of deeply engaging, multi-episode arcs, stories that sort of rely on you having just watched the last episode, stories that can’t afford commercial breaks. It makes the writing very different, and the “down” or light moments in the scripts are somehow less annoying because they don’t feel artifically canned in there – by the time we get to a “Fat guy makes a mess in the kitchen joke” something like 7 episodes in, I am emotionally tired from all the stuff I’ve learned and experienced with the team. The fact that the show is treated with every bit of sincerity and care that they’re treating their adult targeted shows I think is a testament to a company culture that says “All TV can be great, filmic entertainment divided over pieces to make it more digestable.”
So, Voltron: Legendary Defender is good. That’s the crux of my review. If you’re adverse to a thing that looks like, uses, and borrows some from eastern animation, its look might annoy you at first, but how well they move will impress you pretty quickly.
Also, comedy. For the past, oh, I don’t know, 20 years, my exposure to stand up comedy has largely been through Comedy Central. CC had this kind of format for granting comedians half-hour specials within the same series, and then they might wiggle a breakout star into a full hour suit. These tended toward formulaic expressions, if not in the jokes, then at least in the nature of the art being presented – these guys and gals were going to make you laugh, if at all possible, for every minute of the 51 minutes they had to do so. There was no eye toward pacing, toward making artistic statements. It’s not that they were afraid to experiment – Bo Burnham got his first stand up show on Comedy Central, but even then he was sort of still comfortably in the “musical comedian” slot.
But the specials coming to Netflix are sometimes animals with altogether different stripes. Mike Birbiglia’s My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend is probably one of the best one-man shows I’ve seen in a long time, and I do not know how else to categorize it. The guy lays it out pretty raw and astutely, and he controls the emotional pace of the platform with incredibly precision. The Trevor Noah documentary does likewise, as does the Hannibal Burress comedimentary about Hannibal’s 30-day sprint through Scottish standup at Fringe festival. Hannibal chucks us some inside baseball comedy stuff, as does Noah in his show (he even makes a cameo in Hannibal’s), and they relate on a very real level not just to their camera operator but outloud to their own persons. Birbiglia’s examination of love and commitment in relationships is so raw and personal that it’s hard to believe it can be just that funny and just that beautiful at the same time. And then there are your traditionalists like John Mulaney. His “Comeback Kid” standup was absolutely on-point, even if it didn’t play with the same emotional roller coasters.
I just finished watching Bo Burnham’s latest offering, also on Netflix, and again, I’m struck by how insightful the guy can be while functionally singing some melodies about hating everything around him. He has a great moment where he drops all pretense (seemingly) and speaks to the audience as a person with a legitimate appeal to their higher functions. He said something like “it’s not the me generation; it’s not arrogance, or if it is, it was taught and learned arrogance from everyone telling us how amazing we could be. It’s not selfish, it’s self-conscious, it’s deeply, endlessly conscious of self. That’s all social media really is, it’s the market’s response to our need to view ourselves as a great story. Because who among us, at the end of a hard day of doing whatever it is you do doesn’t want to climb into bed and be able to review an episode of ‘my success life’ with your adoring audience. Except they don’t really adore you, they kind of hate you and you hate them, but they also love you and you love them for that too.”
He more or less says “I want to do a good job because you came here tonight for me to make you happy, but I don’t want to compromise who I am or what I’m trying to say or accomplish just to make you happy, and I’m hoping you don’t want me to.” He even points out that part of him loves his audience, part of him hates his audience. He says “there’s a point where I’m supposed to tell you all that your dreams can come true too because I made it, to preserve the facade that this is somehow a meritocracy, but it’s not. I had an easy life, was privileged, and I still got lucky.”
Burnham is always quick with a clever punchline and a self-deprecating thought, but I think when you dig deeper it’s a deprecation not of himself but of the self-serving realities of his job and his position. He constantly has to be a beacon of entertainment but also, it looks like he maybe hates that he’s not allowed to have an off-switch in public, or that this hour of his life and his musical commentary grossly under represents that full battery of thought that’s constantly kicking and whirring inside of the jail he calls a mind.
Basically, if you have time for some of the newest cards in Netflix’s nimble stable, I can highly recommend “Mike Birbiglia: My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, the Hannibal Burress documentary, and, much to my happy surprise, Voltron: Legendary Defender.