Welcome to What’s the Buzz, 25YL’s feature where members of our staff provide you with recommendations on a weekly basis. In our internet age, there is so much out there to think about watching, reading, listening to, etc., that it can be hard to separate the wheat from the chaff, filter out the noise, or find those diamonds in the rough. But have no fear! We’re here to help you do that thing I just described with three different metaphors. Each week a rotating cast of writers will offer their recommendations based on things they have discovered. They won’t always be new to the world, but they’ll be new to us, or we hope new to you. This week, Nick Luciano finally watched Borat, Caemeron Crain recommends The Undoing on HBO, and Rachel Stewart is gaga for American Horror Story: Hotel.
Nick: I have a confession to make: I had never seen Borat (2006) until this week, when “mah wahfe” (I’m so sorry, I couldn’t help it) and I watched it for the first time. I figured that there was no better time than the present to finally check it out, especially with the release of its sequel, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, which has received a lot of buzz for allegedly capturing compromising footage of former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Going in, I was interested to see what it was like to see Borat in 2020. I thought that it might be a Bush-era relic which, while still a very serious, divided, and complicated time in its own right, seems almost quaint to me today—yes, it was the height of the Iraq War, but at least there wasn’t a global pandemic, economic collapse, worsening climate change, and a President potentially committing a coup if he isn’t reelected.
I didn’t anticipate seeing the undercurrents that would shape the 2016 election and America in the intervening years: rampant Islamophobia, frat boys saying they wished they had slaves, a gun dealer who would sell Borat a gun when he said he wanted to kill Jewish people and only refused because he wasn’t a citizen, a Civil War shop selling Confederate memorabilia to “honor our heritage,” and elected officials advocating against the separation of church and state. Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat character had a unique talent of exposing this increasingly problematic “silent majority” that the rest of America largely ignored for the better part of a decade.
There were several scenes when I thought the satire was particularly biting. My early favorite scene was when Borat went to a rodeo and got enthusiastic reactions from the crowd with increasingly ludicrous statements like “we support your war of terror” and “may George Bush drink the blood of every single man, woman, and child of Iraq” that didn’t reflect particularly well on the people cheering them on, before singing a nonsensical rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It wouldn’t be the last time Baron Cohen would use song to trick people, but I thought this scene’s satire was particularly satisfying. The dinner party scene, which skewers polite society and etiquette by pushing it to the brink, was another inspired scene. There was also a satisfied smile on my face when Borat wrecked hundreds of dollars of merchandise at the Civil War antique shop. I think that these kinds of scenes, when Baron Cohen “punches up” at privileged groups, are when the satire shines through the brightest.
Watching Borat for the first time in 2020 was an interesting experience. It’s definitely a movie with problems, and I cringed a lot during some of the more off-color moments, but the relevant themes, pointed satire, and genuinely hilarious moments are definitely worth revisiting, or if you’re like me, checking out for the first time. Great success!
Caemeron: The Undoing premiered on HBO last week and I’ve been instantly gripped by its mysteries. The show is something of a slow burn, but deeply compelling in its explorations of how we conceive ourselves and others—the kind of conceptions that form a “life” or a “world” in the sense of a narrative one tells to oneself about how things hang together. But, of course, it’s in the very name of the show that this limited series will be about how such things can come undone.
The Undoing is based on the 2014 novel You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz (which I have not read, for the record), who also has a writing credit on the series. David E. Kelley is involved, fresh off the success of Big Little Lies, which I will admit was part of the draw for me, along with the fact that Susanne Bier is on board directing.
Plus, the series has a heck of a cast: Nicole Kidman, Hugh Grant, Donald Sutherland…I’m not going to list everyone, but the supporting cast is brilliant as well. And actually, that might include Donald Sutherland. It’s not clear yet just how much his character will be involved as the narrative of The Undoing moves forward. One can only guess it will be more than he was in the first episode.
It is Nicole Kidman who really takes center stage, as the series dwells with her perspective as Grace Fraser. It is her world that is coming undone, and Kidman manages to portray Grace’s psychology through facial expressions and nonverbal cues in a way that I imagine might have fallen flat in less capable hands.
Again, The Undoing is a slow burn, at least at the outset. If you’re looking for gun fights and explosions, this is probably not the series for you. If on the other hand, you’re engaged by character drama and a mystery that promises to have a lot of small aspects beyond the overarching murder case, then I recommend that you give it a try, and stick with it.
I’m more intrigued by the small mysteries than the big one, personally, though this makes the things I really want to recommend about the show somewhat hard to discuss without giving too much away. Suffice to say that I’m not just wondering about the whodunit, but about the how and why. By giving us Grace’s perspective, The Undoing plays with the greater mystery that we all encounter as we live our lives—others, loved ones and husbands even, have lives of their own. Each of us behaves somewhat differently depending on the circumstances we’re in. This means that others know me in ways I do know myself, but further (and more troublingly) that there are aspects of those I know and love and I do not (and indeed cannot) know.
And so I want to know not just what happened when it comes to the narrative of The Undoing, but who these people are. Who is Grace? Who is Jonathan? Elena? Franklin? Episode 1 makes us think we know who these people are, but then begins to pull on a thread that we know will make things unravel because this is not only a TV program, but a program called “The Undoing” (which is also the name of the first episode).
I look forward to continuing to learn about these characters over the coming month, and you can catch my analysis of each episode here at 25YL after it airs on Sunday night. I hope you’ll join me. Here’s a trailer:
American Horror Story: Hotel Offers Stylish Escapism Over Substance
Rachel: Spooky season is sadly coming to an end. While I have a selection of favorites for this time of year, it’s nice to mix it up. Binge TV watching is my current hobby since I’ll most likely be in quarantine…well, forever? So American Horror Story: Hotel fits the bill right now. (Plus, it’s free on Amazon Prime.)
I’m pretty much a newbie when it comes to American Horror Story. I have friends who adore different seasons, and I love the idea of an interconnected legacy series with separate, self contained storylines. I’ll also admit that I tried to watch this season before because of one important reason: Lady Gaga.
I’m an old school Little Monster, so I’ve always been a big fan of her brand of extra-ness, and her campy yet glamorous performance doesn’t disappoint. (Hell, she won a Golden Globe for this, after all.)The Hotel Cortez is equally gorgeous and evocative with its art deco stylings, and Kathy Bates, Sarah Paulson and the fabulous Denis O’Hare flush out the rest of the hotel’s cast. I’m still early on in the season, and while the vampire plot seems light as The Countess’s runway sashay…honestly, that’s okay.
The outside world is a scary enough place these days, so if it means I get lost in the glittery goth-tinged soundtrack and blood-stained haute couture (much of which came from Gaga’s personal wardrobe), it’s a nice change of pace from my typical sci-fi and superhero fare. Please hold my calls.
Those are our recommendations this week! What are yours? Let us know in the comments!