Hmm...anything cool on the docket? Any upcoming pop culture events that fill me with simultaneous delight and dread? Not as much as in past years. I’m still waiting around for a lot of stuff, and in the meantime, there aren’t a lot of Obduction-level game announcements or Hobbit-esque film franchise events that I haven’t written about already. Yeah, there’s Neal Stephenson’s next novel, but I can’t put THAT on a Cautious Enthusiasm list because I am one hundred percent confident it will be amazing and I’ll love it. Sometimes you just know.
Eh. Don’t worry. I won’t let the year pass without doing this. I’ve got a few things to look forward to with trepidation; haven’t run outta steam quite yet! Read on.
CAUTIOUS ENTHUSIASM: THE FINAL CHAPTER UNTIL THE NEXT CHAPTER
American Horror Story: Hotel...With Lady Gaga
WHAT IT IS: What? You mean the show I’ve been recapping for the past three years? No idea. To remind everyone, AHS: Freak Show was fun but a lot of folks, myself included, feel the series is in danger of slipping into a creative rut. Same old cast, similar pacing and story arcs. Season Five needs to be the season of reinvention. The hotel setting ain’t as outside-the-box as I’d like, but nobody was expecting the news to be broken on Twitter by Lady Gaga, batshit chanteuse extraordinaire -- who also revealed she’s been cast in a lead role. Thanks, Obama.
WHY I’M EXCITED: I can’t deny it’s quite a coup to feature somebody like Lady Gaga on this show. But it makes a certain sense when you think about it. She’s kooky. She’s no stranger to horrific costume/makeup jobs. Her act has often drawn upon scary themes, from the meat dress to the murdered models in her “Paparazzi” video to her overall knack for writhing and twitching. I can give her the benefit of the doubt! Plus, it seems she’s leading a squad of refreshing talent; other revealed cast members include Matt Bomer, Cheyenne Jackson, Wes Bentley, and Chloë Sevigny, none of whom are members of the usual AHS brat pack. That, plus Jessica Lange confirming she’s definitely out, makes me think this could be the gore-drenched Second Coming I crave.
WHY I’M SKEPTICAL: Is Lady Gaga an actress? I have no goddamn idea. I can’t judge her by her music videos, where she’s just playing versions of herself. You KNOW a lot of people hate her by default, and perhaps their “I-told-you-sos” will be ringing in our ears as she delivers a performance that’s monstrous in all the wrong ways. Everyone’s weighing the positives (she went to school for musical theater!) and negatives (she was terrible in Machete Kills!), and the casting of Mother Monster can’t help but seem like a whopping stunt designed to get people talking about AHS again. Which ain’t a bad thing. But with more and more anthology shows on the docket, AHS needs to prove it can rise above gimmickry as well as redundancy.
SQUEE FACTOR: 7
DANGER LEVEL: 6
UPDATE: My semi-coherent recaps of AHS: Hotel begin here!
Kung Fu Panda 3
WHAT IT IS: The continuing escapades of Po the Dragon Warrior, pleasingly plump panda protagonist of DreamWorks’ franchise. In previous entries, we’ve seen Po go from fat doofus to...fat doofus with Kung Fu powers...and also seen him tackle the mysteries of his past. The threequel reunites Po with his birth father, and features the same old crowd of voice talent, plus Mads Mikkelsen as the villain and Rebel Wilson as the usual annoying Rebel Wilson character.
WHY I’M EXCITED: DreamWorks Animation is hit or miss. At best, they’re a delight. At worst, they’re forgettable or insulting. But the Kung Fu Panda series is a winner with its mix of gorgeous art design, snark, and lovingly depicted Kung Fu battles. KFP 2 surprised the shit out of me by being about as good as the first one, and Po’s personal baggage and relationship with his adopted dad, Mr. Ping, are super touching. One scene in the sequel actually made me cry a little. So I’m more than ready for more Po, more Tigress (definitely one of the most subtle female characters in animation history), more Master Shifu (cranky Duston Hoffman, yay!), more compelling villains, more Chinese scenery, more of everything the series excels at!
WHY I’M SKEPTICAL: Name me an animated series (besides Toy Story) that remained good past the second installment. Shrek? Ice Age? The Land Before Time? Don’t make me laugh. Diminishing quality seems inevitable, and the problems that have plagued the KFP series, most notably the lack of attention given to the supporting cast (hey, maybe Jackie Chan will get four lines instead of three!) are still gonna be there. KFP 2 dealt with Po being torn between love for Mr. Ping and a desire to find where he truly belongs. KFP 3 looks to be the exact same goddamn story. Have we run out of steam, perhaps? I’m most worried by the future. DreamWorks wants to make six Kung Fu Panda movies. SIX! No one’s gonna be interested for that long, least of all the voice actors! Why must we always inflate a franchise to tedious proportions?
SQUEE FACTOR: 5
DANGER LEVEL: 8
UPDATE: I watched it! Read my reaction here.
WHAT IT IS: A quiet little movie in the midst of all the megablockbusters, Mr. Holmes stars Ian McKellen as, yes, Sherlock Holmes. Ahh, but this is more contemplative drama than action-packed thriller. The heavily aged Holmes, retired and waiting for death, contemplates his unusual life and, perhaps, is offered one last chance to put his remarkable mind to work solving a mystery.
WHY I’M EXCITED: Don’t you get a lovely tingle from hearing “Ian McKellen as Sherlock Holmes”? I know I do. Sir Ian has been imprisoned in the CGI- and makeup-heavy worlds of Lord of the Rings and X-Men for long enough. Mr. Holmes looks like the tour de force of subtle acting he deserves, a chance for him to strip away all caricature -- ironic, considering he’s playing one of the most famous characters in history. But after all the recent Sherlock-mania, after the modernizations and Hollywoodizations of the legendary detective...well, doesn’t it sound pleasant to just watch him quietly crime-solving in his twilight years?
WHY I’M SKEPTICAL: The previous collaboration between Ian McKellen and director Bill Condon did little for me. That’d be 1998’s Gods and Monsters, about the last days of flamboyant horror director James Whale, and while it provides all the male nudity you could ask for (hellooooo, young Brendan Fraser!), I found it kind of dreary overall. Now these two guys are once again studying the swansong of a legendary man, and it’s hard to imagine they could suck the joy out of Sherlock Holmes, but I wouldn’t put it past them. I believe that Holmes, even an aging and melancholy Holmes, should retain a certain spark of delicious madness; without it, he’s lacking. That’s why he’s so beloved. But, then, so is Sir Ian, so I retain good hopes.
SQUEE FACTOR: 4
DANGER LEVEL: 2
UPDATE: I watched it! Read my reaction here.
Season Three of Hannibal
WHAT IT IS: My favorite TV show currently airing (yes, it tops AHS) is taking itself to a new level. Up until now, Hannibal has been an artsy police procedural, with everyone believing Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) is a good guy as opposed to an insidious serial killer. No more! Season Two ended with Lecter dropping his cover, leaving most of the main cast mortally wounded, and jetting off to Italy with his mysterious sidekick, Dr. Bedelia du Maurier (Gillian Anderson). To Be Continued...this summer.
WHY I’M EXCITED: I’d be grateful for a new season of Hannibal no matter what (it’s one of those shows with niche appeal, which means it’s perpetually in danger of cancellation), but its third season will really push the boundaries, methinks. Italy, a gorgeous nation in its own right, should look breathtaking when filtered through this show’s dreamlike aesthetic. I can’t wait to see them do a manhunt storyline, and I’m so happy Dr. du Maurier is now a main character because Anderson is astounding in the role. As if that weren’t cool enough, the back half of the season will dive into the first Hannibal Lecter novel, Red Dragon, and the creepy killer known as the Tooth Fairy will be played by Richard “Thorin Oakenshield” Armitage, who I have a huge crush on. Hannibal is like a particularly fucked-up Christmas morning for Dang-Blasted.
WHY I’M SKEPTICAL: First off, NBC bumping Hannibal to the summer worries me, because it implies they’re struggling to boost its ratings, and may give up on it. Beyond that, I’m a little anxious that the show will lose something once it reaches this particular point in the Hannibal Lecter timeline. Yes, Hannibal has thus far provided its own mesmerizing take on the mythos, but it hasn’t had to adapt one of the actual, original Thomas Harris novels...until now. We’ve already seen two film versions of Red Dragon; can the show avoid redundancy? And how will they tackle Silence of the Lambs without the legal rights to Clarice Starling? And can they make Lecter’s backstory less stupid than Hannibal Rising? (Probably.) Considering how well the show avoided a sophomore slump, I’m confident it’ll continue to rock my world. But it faces a new set of narrative challenges. I hope it doesn’t lose its unique, eerie vibe.
SQUEE FACTOR: 9
DANGER LEVEL: 5
UPDATE: I discuss the first half of the season (Florence) here.
UPDATE 2: The second arc (Red Dragon) and my final(?) eulogy to the show can be read here.
Conker’s Big Reunion
WHAT IT IS: A brand-new game* starring Conker the Squirrel, star of 2001’s M-rated, irreverent, violent, scatological cartoon platformer, Conker’s Bad Fur Day. This sequel* will be part of Microsoft’s Project Spark and will entail Conker trying to regain some of the good old platforming glory ten years after his previous adventure.
WHY I’M EXCITED: Ask a gamer for a list of games that desperately need sequels, and many will include Conker’s BFD on the list. I know I would. Now we’re finally getting a sequel* that takes advantage of the latest gaming hardware while still retaining the nostalgic feel of the old N64 era. They even got Chris Seavor, the original Conker-voicer, to return! And it’s not just another revamp of Conker’s BFD, nope nope nope. It’s a sequel*. A bona fide second entry* in the series. Just like we always wanted! All the poop jokes, fourth wall breaking, and soon-to-be-dated pop culture references a Conker fan could wish for*! This should be great****!
WHY I’M SKEPTICAL: Sigh. Follow the trail of asterisks and you’ll come upon the huge, glaring, hellfire-drenched catch. This isn’t a new Conker game at all. It’s a content pack for the aforementioned Project Spark, which is a...game-like thing...that will revolve entirely around user-generated content. Basically, it sounds like Conker’s Big Reunion will set up a premise, then hand players a big wheelbarrow full of scenery, textures, models, sound and music files, and A.I. routines, and say, “Okay, now make it yourself! Remember, quality will be entirely up to you guys!” I’m not saying a UGC-based gameworld is bad per se, but...well, I can’t get excited about this when the professionals seem too lazy to make it themselves. My prediction is that older fans, disgusted with this lame excuse for a “new” Conker game, will ignore it, leaving the iGeneration brats to turn it into something retarded. Also, the new graphics remind me of Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, a game I wish I could banish back to the ballsack of Hades from whence it came. Remember when Rare wasn’t a shitbog of a company?
SQUEE FACTOR: 1
DANGER LEVEL: Ugh.
The X-Files: The New Season
WHAT IT IS: I didn’t even realize how much I adored Gillian Anderson until I put her on a Cautious Enthusiasm list twice. So, thanks to the new wave of moves as TV shows, comics as TV shows, and older TV shows as TV shows, Chris Carter is bringing back that beloved 1990s geek staple, The X-Files, for a six-episode “event series” with Anderson and David Duchovny back onboard as Dana Scully and Fox Mulder. Aliens? Ghosts? Lamprey men? Oh, my.
WHY I’M EXCITED: I must confess that I’m not a huge fan of The X-Files. But I’ve still watched a ton of it and like it a lot, so its return is very intriguing. Everybody’s hope is that they’ll return to form and do some strong one-shot stories, maybe with a recurring mystery running beneath. Y’know, like Sherlock! But who can resist the good old chemistry between Mulder and Scully, or the promise of cameos from fan-favorite characters, or the glory of modern special effects? This could be a sweet treat for the long-term fans, and if it attracts enough attention from younguns as well, who knows? Maybe a full-blown series revival is not out of the question. I’d enjoy seeing Mulder and Scully doing their thang in the post-9/11 Internet Age.
WHY I’M SKEPTICAL: Here’s an article, obviously written by a fan, laying out the ways in which the new X-Files is a bad idea that will suck. I don’t agree with its entirety -- I try to be more optimistic -- but I can’t deny that it’ll be hard to recapture exactly what made the early seasons of The X-Files so special. The new eps must operate under the crushing weight of the entire franchise, so how could they feel fresh? I also agree that The X-Files: I Want to Believe was a shitty and half-assed offering overall, in part because it abandoned the meat of the original show in favor of a generic “monster of the week.” So what do fans want, exactly? More aliens and black oil mythology? Going that route would alienate newcomers. I sure do hope they can make Mulder and Scully as watchable as they once were. And that they find interesting new ground to break instead of digging up a bunch of moldering old bones they already buried.
SQUEE FACTOR: 4
DANGER LEVEL: 8
It’s nice to make a list like this and know with confidence that most if not all of these things will be available reasonably soon. With actual release dates and junk. Unlike, say, The Last Guardian. Or...oh, God, the humanity...The Winds of Winter. My soul hurts just thinking about it. But keep watching anyway.