While coronavirus threatens our lives and livelihoods, social distancing, isolation, and quarantine have become the new norm. Suddenly, our nation is filled with people asked to stay home and cut off most casual interactions with the world outside. In this environment, the art, hobbies, rituals, and entertainments we love have become ever more vital to our mental wellbeing. As a new, and (hopefully) limited new series on Lewton Bus, Isolation Nation aims to give our editors and contributors space to talk about the things that are giving them a little comfort in this isolated world, for your social distancing entertainment.
This week features a super-sized contribution from our own Brannon Moore!
Alfredo Marquez – Monster Hunter Cats
Monster Hunter is supposedly a movie that is going to come out in September, from the hands of Paul W. S. Anderson and the Resident Evil people (starring Milla Jovovich). And while I am not the biggest fan of the Resident Evil series, and I am skeptic about a few details of the movie (like the fact that it is gonna be half set in the real world), I am the biggest fan of the Monster Hunter games, and the hope of surviving ‘til September to watch it is what I need to get out of bed some days.
Monster Hunter is also a long series of games that started as a nigh-unplayable title on Playstation 2. The latest entry, Monster Hunter World, seems to have shifted gears in order to be more accessible. The games are all about conveying a sense of realistic fantasy ecosystems where dragons and creatures of all kinds have their own messy food chain, and your task is to kill a few of them to protect settlements and control their populations. It’s about communion with nature, you see? The kind that is achieved by hammering a dragon in the face until it’s knocked out.
It’s good escapism. You kill a few dragons, make yourself some gear out of their parts, go kill bigger dragons, repeat. You do it alone or with friends, but most importantly, you do it with the help of cat people. The cat people cook and help with your house, much like the house elves of Harry Potter, but not repulsive to look at. They also fiercely go into battle with you, and sometimes you find wild ones, prone to stealing your stuff. You know; they’re cats, but they’re people.
2020 has been a disaster. We probably won’t get cat people in the Monster Hunter movie, and we did get cat people from Cats. Our world is a flawed one, but still, we can jump out into the virtual wilderness and whack dragons therapeutically, so not everything is shit.
David Hoh – Monster Factory
Laughing really hard feels good. And one thing that’ll consistently do it to me is Monster Factory, the long-running series created by Justin and Griffin McElroy when they were at Polygon. The premise is simple: the brothers start playing a video game with a character creator, and push the capabilities of said creator to its extremes: “No middle sliders” is their guiding principle. Hence, they manufacture many grotesque, yet powerful Monster designs, and play with them in the game to great amusement to both themselves and the audience. Even with an episode I’ve seen many times, Griffin doing something that causes Justin to wheeze, which causes Griffin to wheeze, never fails to make me laugh along. They riff along the way and come up with an internal mythos for their beautiful freaks.
A lot of episodes have more than one part: where it takes them a whole video creating the Monster, they’ll unleash it into the gameplay in the following. Some are all contained in one. It depends on the complexity of the character creator, but also on how quickly they achieve ‘perfection.’ Sometimes the episodes are many videos long, when things really get cooking. Their Fallout 4 series is practically infamous at this point. Some of my all-time favorite episodes are multi-video too: the rise and rise of The Boy-Mayor of Second Life is frankly incredible, and their run on distorting Sims based on famous sitcoms in The Sims 4 is one that most recently had me gasping for air. Pick any episode and dive in, if you haven’t.
Ryan Roch – Ken Andrews’ YouTube Channel
It’s no secret that I’m a massive fan of the band Failure. In the pantheon of 90s alt-rock influencers, there are few groups who can boast the sublime sway on some of our biggest acts1 that is often attributed to Failure. And yet, they’re mostly unknown outside of specific circles. Having broken up in 1996 right as their most revered album (Fantastic Planet) was dropped into our stratosphere, these space-rockers gradually found their way back together for some reunion shows, and have since recorded 2 incredible albums that continue to push their ethereal, layered, pop-inflected sound ever further.
But this isn’t a piece about the band. In the intervening years between their dissolution and reformation, co-frontman Ken Andrews used his experience producing, mixing, and layering Failure’s latter two original albums to launch his own career as a highly sought-after sound engineer and producer for acts like Beck, Chris Cornell, A Perfect Circle, Nine Inch Nails, Stone Temple Pilots, Underoath, and Pete Yorn, just to name a handful. Andrews has become to digital production something akin to what Steve Albini2 is and has been to analog. His passion for layering techniques and mixing has put him on the radar for artists who came up during the years in which the legacy of Failure continued to quietly grow in musician circles. The best part about all of this is that Andrews loves to talk about the work. At the end of 2019, he launched his own YouTube channel where he regularly posts content focused on his approach to sound-mixing, as well as his ongoing music projects. For someone like me, who has lovingly pored over the sonic textures of his records for two decades, this stuff is catnip. But luckily, a familiarity with Andrews’ own catalog is absolutely unnecessary if you just want to learn how an actual audio engineer goes about their work.
I don’t know how to explain it, but my appreciation for this content goes a lot further than my particular affinity for his music. I think the closest approximation for why this is hitting the spot is that hit of dopamine we get from watching someone hyper-competent in a field explain their process mid-execution. When you’re watching a painter explain the technique while the brush is working across the canvas, there’s a real sense of peace and appreciation that helps to cut through the stress and anxiety of our current moment in time.
Brannon Moore Deluxe Feature – Kim’s Convenience
In a time of social distancing, sometimes all you really need is a big hug. The Canadian sitcom Kim’s Convenience, now available to a wide audience on Netflix, wants to give it to you.
Made and set in Toronto, Kim’s Convenience is a family sitcom in a classical sense. A situation is established, with a family unit at its center, and comedy scenarios are spun from it. Here, the situation is the family’s ownership of a corner quick-mart. Laughs are found in the challenges of running the business, in the tension between the traditional parents and their modern-minded children, and in the various neighborhood oddballs who drop by the store and orbit the family.
Each episode is centered on a simple comedy-generating hook (the photographer daughter discovers her father is selling her work in the store without telling her; the mother wins a neighborhood business award the father has been coveting; the father tries to steal the neighbor’s wi-fi; etc.), which is wrung out for laughs and then more or less resolved by the end of each half hour. The father is a prototypical sitcom patriarch, stern and stubborn and sometimes clueless, but ultimately loving and supportive; the mother is scattered and eccentric, but smarter about her husband and family than she lets on; and so forth.
It’s all very conventional, almost old-fashioned in its structure and sensibilities, but don’t let that dissuade you, for several reasons.
First, it’s familiar in a way that’s comfortable and comforting, rather than being dated. It’s a very Canadian show, with a persistent niceness and open-heartedness that feels warm and genuine instead of cloying. The writers are very smart in recognizing that nobody drives you crazy like a family member who knows you inside and out and knows how to push your buttons, but it never tips over into being mean. As much as these people might needle each other, in ways you’ll recognize from your own life, you don’t worry they’ll ever go in for the kill. It’s very reassuring.
Second, it’s genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. In one episode, two roommates are arguing about laundry habits. In a fit of pique, one roommate pulls off his pants, throws them into the washing machine, and stalks to his room. Then he returns a few seconds later and sheepishly opens the machine, because he forgot to take out his wallet. This is a simple but solid comedy bit, and the show nails it.
In another episode, the father buys a stock of canned pasta for the convenience store, heavily discounted because it’s expired. The daughter chides him, and he eats a can to demonstrate that the expiration date doesn’t matter. When he begins suffering digestive problems, the daughter is greatly amused — until she starts having similar discomfort. Having characters make surprised faces and walk funny as they try not to crap their pants is incredibly cheap comedy, but it works here because it’s actually about character, as the father and daughter stubbornly try to hide their distress from one another in order to prove their original point.
Third, and best of all, it breaks ground by putting a Korean family at the center of the show.
The American series Fresh Off the Boat might have been first to air with a mostly Asian cast, but that show sands off the edges, presenting characters that have more fully assimilated and taking a simplified view of the Asian-American experience (to the point that the show’s original co-creator, on whose memoir the series was based, got frustrated and left after one season). Kim’s Convenience, by contrast, never loses sight of the fact that the parents, Mr. and Mrs. Kim, aka “Appa” and “Umma” (“dad” and “mom” respectively), immigrated as adults and have had to work hard to adjust to their new home. The show gets enormous mileage out of the cultural gap between the locally raised children and their frequently befuddled parents, making it a key focal point for conflict and running jokes. Younger daughter Janet speaks almost no Korean, for example, and elder son Jung is estranged because, as a teenager, his emotional distance from family, culture, and country led to his getting in trouble with the law.
Because the majority of the characters are Korean, we get a much wider range of personalities than we normally see in a sitcom setting, where the “token Asian supporting role” fits into one of a limited set of archetypes. Jung isn’t just trying to be a straight arrow after his wayward youth; he’s also a hunky jock who knows the effect he has on women. And his roommate is kind of a fratty doofus, embodying the good-time-bro stereotype through an unmistakably Korean lens. If we’ve ever seen that specific character in a standard sitcom, I’m not aware of it.
The show is also very smart about how it uses its supporting cast. There are immigrant faces everywhere, all with their own distinctive quirks, from the kleptomaniac pastor at the family’s church to the gregarious restaurateur down the block who out-brags Mr. Kim about his tough childhood. And the recurring characters played by white people, in a reversal of the usual racial formula, are the ones who get the signature-gag walk-ons, in which they appear, do their usual “bit,” and then exit until the next time that gag is needed. Best example: At the car-rental agency where Jung works, his boss is a sweet but ditzy woman who is hilariously, desperately thirsty for him. For the first two seasons, her whole character is basically this: she tries to talk casually to Jung, she inadvertently reveals her lustful thoughts, and she flees in embarrassment. It’s only one joke, over and over again, but it’s a good one joke, and it lands almost every time.
Honestly, everything about Kim’s Convenience is just a master class in how this kind of show should be done. Every show is self-contained, with its conflict introduced, explored, and resolved, but it also manages underlying threads of continuity from week to week. Each episode is satisfying for completing its mini-story, and the seasons are also satisfying in how they build their larger narratives. This is exactly how a modern episodic sitcom should work.
And the cast is just impeccable. As Mr. Kim, in every episode, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee puts on a veritable clinic of expertly crafted comedy acting, from slow-burn realizations and beautifully-timed takes to flawlessly thrown-away verbal flourishes. My favorite understated performance on the show is Andrea Bang as Janet, whose remarkably transparent face effortlessly reflects the character’s interior life; some of the funniest beats of the show are simply Bang’s rapid flurry of silent expressions, confused-then-angry-then-resigned, as Janet reacts to some provocation from her nutty family. Simu Liu (cast by Marvel as their upcoming Shang-Chi) and Jean Yoon as Jung and Umma respectively get less to do and have comparatively thankless parts in the early going, but they gradually build a repertoire of traits and idiosyncrasies that pay off in the long run.
As much as Kim’s Convenience leans on sitcom conventions for its storytelling, it very cleverly and perceptively uses its characters’ racial identities as an opportunity to expand the formula beyond the usual clichés. The most insightful moments involve observing and contrasting the privileges and burdens of being Asian in the West. In one episode, Janet happily accepts a full-access film-festival pass because someone mistakenly believes she’s North Korean, fleeing oppression and adversity. A few episodes later, she’s at a restaurant to apologize to a server for a rude comment during a prior visit, and she mixes up the woman with another black server. (“I can’t believe I made a white-guy mistake!” she says afterwards, horrified.) These are conventional sitcom setups, based on misunderstanding and escalation, but the show gives them new weight and texture by leaning into the cultural context.
The show’s writers even occasionally allow these awkward moments to escalate into genuinely cutting criticism. An underlying theme in the series is to regularly note how the academic and personal achievements of daughter Janet are consistently a lower priority for the old-fashioned parents than the potential success of Jung, the male child, a problem which sometimes erupts into open conflict. Even better, one of Janet’s college professors, an older white woman, believes she sympathizes with Janet’s struggles as an immigrant, but instead imposes her assumptions about refugees and persecution on the Kim family’s decidedly middle-class life. It’s a pitch-perfect portrayal of someone who wears the mask of an educated, politically-correct liberal but is actually a racist jerk, and putting her in a position of power over Janet gives their scenes truly uncomfortable bite.
It’s frequently been said that one of the milestones of equality for a minority group is that they get to headline a formulaic piece of mainstream entertainment. When people like this are under-represented, there’s great pressure to maximize the value of their rare appearances, and they’re expected to literally embody their culture in a positive, world-changing way. The breakthrough happens when that pressure disappears and the people and their culture are allowed to be simply enjoyed like anyone and anything else. Kim’s Convenience is, quite simply, a really good example of the family sitcom form, with wacky people and wackier situations, and no obvious ambition beyond that. You watch, you laugh, and you feel good. You like the characters, and you look forward to the next episode.
But the real joy of the show is that it’s much better than it needs to be. It understands the significance of planting a flag on the breakthrough side of the representation line, and it knows in its bones that the best way to be important is not to be important. The show is big specifically because it is so small; by not trying to do too much, it achieves a tremendous amount.
Kim’s Convenience is very, very smart, it’s warm-hearted and generous, and it’s frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious. What more do you need to know?
That’s it for this week’s edition! We hope you enjoyed it and found some new direction to point that endlessly turning cranium of yours. We also hope you’ll check back as we publish new pieces in this regular column, and give some inspiration back to us in the comments!
Stay safe, stay healthy, and stay happy.