What to watch: Vivo Bad Man
Hey there! The Pop Culture Brain newsletter is currently on holiday hiatus. It’ll be back soon with regular news, trailers, and recommendation emails — but for now please enjoy highlights from the what to watch segment! And watch any of these if you missed ‘em!
What if the Underground Railroad was an actual underground railroad? What if Lindbergh beat FDR? What if the Allies lost the war? What if Russia got to the moon first? At this moment in time, popular culture seems obsessed with the “what if?” Hell, Marvel is about to have a show called What If. The multiverses are everywhere. Maybe because the world grows more complicated every day, we turn to the comfort of rebooting, remaking, and remixing. We imagine alternate version of our favorite stories, both fictional and historical, as a new but still safe balm.
Apple’s brilliant and surprising For All Mankind is the latter, an alternate history that starts with the question above (What if Russia got to the moon first) and then plays out every theorized choice our presidents, NASA administrators, and astronauts would make after. The series gives us an entirely new lens by which to view the Cold War, mid-century racial and gender issues, and of course, the triumphs and failures of the United States of America. Imagine the setting and ensemble work of Mad Men plus the thrills of Apollo 13 and Gravity.
If that sounds like big picture stuff, it very much is, but creator Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica) brilliantly makes the show an intimate character drama. Yes, it’s about space and tensions with Russia. For All Mankind often has the highest of stakes and provides some of the most tense and thrilling television in years. In fact, some of its twists and surprises are on a level with Game of Thrones. But all of that works so well because it’s really about the people and their choices. Love and family and friendship and ego and sacrifice power the rocket ships on For All Mankind. The show has about two dozen richly drawn characters with fascinating and captivating interior lives, each played passionately by a cast of what-do-I-know-that-person-from TV vets.
But this alternate history show really stands above because it is thematically about alternate histories and our own “what ifs”. It forces us to look inward at the decisions we make and where they have taken us. Every choice we make comes with a choice we didn’t take, creating an infinitely expanding branching path. Besides being a branching path in and of itself, For All Mankind digs into this concept by constantly testing its heroes and then letting the ripples of their choices play out for better or worse. It reveals that though we can imagine the what if, we must look inward and show up to the what is. The show reveals that choice, not fate, will lead us to the promised land or take us even further away.
I probably don’t need to be recommending a Star Wars show, and yet The Bad Batch, about to air its season one finale on Disney+ Friday, deserves a bit of a special shoutout. For 15 weeks, the animated follow up to The Clone Wars has been consistently excellent, better than it has any right to be really. I kept expecting there to be a weak episode or filler installment (the previous Star Wars animated series had plenty) and it never showed up. If you watch The Mandalorian, you’re probably familiar with Dave Filoni’s force hold on what makes Star Wars tick and his mastery of crafting multi-episode arcs. He along with Jennifer Corbett and Brad Rau bring everything they’ve learned up to this point to Bad Batch. Though most of the ensemble cast is voiced by Dee Bradley Baker, each character has a deep and rich inner life. Their journey reflects and intersects with the greater Star Wars universe both literally and figuratively. On a thematic level, Filoni and company again revisit the grizzled veteran(s) apprenticing a young wide-eyed prodigy. It shows up in every Star War prior and is tweaked just slightly here to feel familiar but fresh. On a literal level, this series fills in canon background between the prequels and original trilogy while also crossing over with Rebels and Mandalorian. All of that has been very exciting for diehard fans, but as a more casual Star Wars goer I can confirm that the series works just as well if you don’t have every droid, creature, and planet memorized. It’s not just for completists. What it boils down to is superb science fiction-action storytelling and well-drawn (forgive the pun), relatable characters — you know, the reasons so many were drawn to Star Wars in the first place.
Vivo, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s second of four movie musicals this year, dropped on Friday to not much fanfare — and yet this Sony-produced animated feature quickly climbed the Netflix charts, landing in the top 10. Audiences caught on to what film Twitter missed: It’s a heartwarming, vivid romp that borrows from the best of Pixar while infusing Miranda’s predictably powerful music.
Imagine Up crossed with Finding Nemo by way of Cuba and you start to understand the essence of Vivo. The emotional first act and third act work wonders, while the sillier middle part, driven mostly by talking animals, drags just a bit. Thankfully, the handful of tuneful new Lin-Manuel Miranda songs keeps the river raft afloat the entire run time. Fans of Miranda’s work will recognize his rapping techniques, Latin musical influences, intricate rhyme schemes, and catchy melodies — but will be surprised to hear it filtered through a more pop production sensibility.
Miranda also voices the titular kinkajou, adding “nuanced voice actor” to his never-ending list of hyphens. And speaking of voice actors, 13-year-old newcomer Ynairaly Simo does a remarkable job grounding Gabi, our absurdly exaggerated young heroine. Vivo doesn’t do much reinventing but with its charming beat and surprisingly deep core, you’ll hardly notice.