Recommendations, 3/15

We like sci-fi shows, the Pope’s security guards, and of course, Taylor Swift.

Jonathan Gourlay

Fringe. Just, Fringe. You should watch Fringe.

Need more? You should binge Fringe — watch every episode, even if you have seen them before. Begin Fringe at the beginning. Slowly…. slowly… Fringe will become unhinged. You will cringe with delight at the body-horror. You will whinge with fear at the strange, delightful mad scientists. You will, um, syringe at the strange events tinged with love and sadness. Fringe is a needle inserted at the base of the skull. A shot of hallucinogenic delight.

But how will it end? Will it fizzle like Lost? Become a very special episode of Touched by an Angel like Battlestar Galactica? No, Fringe sticks the landing. In fact, Fringe ended satisfactorily three times — after seasons 3, 4, and 5. By the final ending, Fringe was juggling time paradoxes, multiple universes, a hostile takeover of the planet, genetic mutations, and the severed hand of Leonard Nimoy. (Like I said: unhinged.)

If you like Fringe, watch Ken Russell’s trippy 1980 film Altered States starring William Hurt and Fringe regular Blair Brown. I’m guessing the creators of Fringe stayed up past their bedtimes when they were kids and caught this on HBO. The DNA of Altered States has been spliced into Fringe.

Kevin Nguyen

Here’s a question I struggle with (because I am single): how do you judge a short story collection? Do you recommend it based on its consistency throughout, or simply the high points? Truthfully, outside of Raymond Carver and Alice Munro, I’ve never come across a book of short stories that I loved every page of. But in some ways, this is part of the thrill of short fiction: each story is able to take a new risk.

Anyway, this week I would recommend reading the first half of The Fun Parts: Stories by Sam Lipsyte. Those familiar with Lipsyte’s novels, which include Home Land and The Ask, will find the same darkly funny, self-deprecating characters inhabiting these stories. “The Dungeon Master,” naturally about Dungeons and Dragons players, is a terrific look at the attitude of nerd supremacy. “Deniers” is a particularly impressive story about the daughter of a Holocaust survivor who hooks up with a former skinhead. It also illustrates Lipsyte at his best, as he finds a way to infuse the absurd with a surprising amount of empathy.

But once you hit the 100-page mark, just stop reading. I appreciate some of the experimentation Lipsyte is doing, but it rarely works in the latter half of The Fun Parts. And strangely, many stories from that point have punch-line endings. Short fiction affords the ability to pull this off, because the investment from the reader has only been 15-20 pages, but despite all of Lipsyte’s crafty, literary maneuvering, those risks he takes remain deeply unsatisfying.

So I’m recommending The Fun Parts for its high points, which conveniently, are front-loaded in this collection, like he’s doing us a favor.

Jane Hu

Taylor Swift has made the most Taylor-Swifty music video ever in “22.” It’s shimmering, faded Instagram-filtered aesthetic casts a warm haze over the events of the video, all of which made me feel decidedly not 22, but beside the point. This is like the platonic ideal of what I imagine Swift imagines herself doing in her spare time, and apparently the whole thing was shot at her home with her real friends. There’s lots of k-pop influenced dancing, confetti and birthday cake, trampolines and headbands, hot red lipstick. Beyond being pretty dreamy, it feels like a big Fuck You to all those criticizing Taylor for being a little too in the clouds herself. Taylor’s hip strutting is a testament to the fact that she’s no longer 15, or even 22, but decidedly growing up and firmly in control of how she wants to be seen.

Nick Martens

The first three episodes of Penny Arcade’s new web reality show Strip Search are oddly fascinating. It’s a Top Chef-style competition show for cartoonists, and it tries to duplicate that genre’s familiar format almost entirely. But Penny Arcade has way less money than Bravo, so every element of their show is noticeably toned down. The contestants’ house is less extravagant,  their challenges are less elaborate, and the production is far less stylized. The simulacrum they’ve created is still quite impressive, but you can feel it hanging together with spit and duct tape.

In the fourth episode, though, the show breaks out of its mold. It features the first elimination segment, and it gives me something I’ve always wanted in a reality competition show: room to breathe. Two contestants enter the traditional “judgement zone,” where the Penny Arcade co-creators wait. Then the cartoonists get an hour-and-a-half to make a comic strip. But instead of fabricating as much tension as possible, the show settles into a relaxed pace. The cartoonists draw while chatting with the Penny Arcade guys, and for being in such a stressful situation, their conversation is lighthearted and revealing. The personalities of the contestants come through brilliantly; it was the first time a reality program ever made me feel like I was getting to know someone through their work.

This lack of artificial drama is the best reason to watch Strip Search. All of the contestants seem pretty cool, and the show doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the inherent awkwardness of their situation, which only makes them feel more human. The show aims for relatability over conflict, and so far it’s working.

Darryl Campbell

I’ve always been fascinated by the pageantry that surrounds big ceremonies, and there are few ceremonies as big as the one to announce a new Pope. In the hour or so leading up to the announcement, there was a parade that involved marching bands, Dixie hat-wearing marines, and a bunch of guys who looked like they’d just come from the nearest Ren Faire — the Swiss guards. (For those who are into the details of sword-and-sorcery RPGs: the Swiss guards were the ones wielding halberds and flamberges.)

Medieval weapon enthusiasm aside, I wonder what motivates these people, who occupy that grey area between actual soldier and trumped-up tour guide. So I was surprised to read an interview with a Swiss guard “hellebardier” in which he discussed his own training (including a stint as an officer in the real Swiss army), the selection process for the guards, barracks food, salary, and what he’ll do afterwards (spoiler alert: banking).

Apart from Papal security, the guards have to deal with the annoyances of regular tourism. The oddest question this particular guardsman has had to answer?

“I was standing guard at the entrance to St. Peter’s. A tourist went in, looked around for a while, and then came out and asked, “Where is St. Peter’s?’”