A sitcom and a sci-fi drama reviewed in the same post?
Why not, I say; sure, they are wildly disparate genres, and have little to nothing in common but then that’s the joy of an eclectic taste in streaming programs.
You can veer wildly from one type of narrative to another and never get even a little but bored; we are deluged with content at the moment, and yes, it can get more than a little overwhelming at times, but the upside is choice and so much choice and this post reflects how good it is to have so many different things to watch at our disposal.
THE MANDALORIAN (S3, E1-2)
Having The Mandalorian back on our slate of viewing options is one of life’s great joys.
One of the most perfect distillations of the Star Wars franchise sine the original trilogy (now the middle trilogy) hit screens back in 1977 with A New Hope, The Mandalorian is back with a third season, helmed by writer and creator Jon Favreau, and the good news is that it’s as fearsomely good and affecting in its storytelling as ever.
While the original central narrative quest by the titular Mandalorian, Din Djarin (Pedro Pascal), to return Grogu aka Baby Yoda to his people has run its course, with the two reunited after a brief period apart – see season 2 finale – there is new impelling story driver with Mando trying to redeem himself after the removal of his helmet caused him to be declared as apostate by his extremist fundamentalist sect.
Having suffered huge trauma as a people and thus as individuals, the Mandalorians are understandably clinging to whatever belief system can get them through the galactic day and having lost a great deal in his time, including his entire family, it makes sense, from a grief-grappling point of view, that Din is holding on tight to his rigidly unyielding belief system.
His quest to redeem himself is what drives episodes 1 and 2, “Chapter 17: The Apostate” and “Chapter 18: The Mines of Mandalore”, both of which focus on what happens to someone when the sustaining beliefs that drive them come under sustained attack.
In Mando’s case, he reacts by seeking to hold them still closer, while onetime pretender to the Mandalorian throne – it’s not much of a throne to get since the Empire bombed the planet Mandalore into fusion bomb-initialised crystalline wasteland, scattering its people throughout the galaxy – Bo-Katan Kryze (Katee Sackhoff) has repudiated it all, believing the stories she was told about cleansing pools in the mines and imprisoned Mythosaurs to be nothing but fairytales.
As reactions to collective trauma are concerned, neither of them are particularly helpful – Din has taken a relatively benign set of comforting beliefs and turbocharged them, along with his clan, into a dogma so fiercely held there is no room for pain, grief, or empathy, while Bo-Katan is now so disengaged that her life has ceased to have any worth or meaning at all.
The two of them are brought together in these two finely-wrought episodes when Mando’s quest to find reconnection with his people, whose induction ceremony for a new teenage member, goes deathly awry when a giant crocodile-like beast surges onto the shore and tries to eat everyone, leads him back to Mandalore, a supposedly cursed planet that holds they key, so he believes, to getting his people and personal world back.
He is driven by a promise by the leader of the clan, the Armourer, that if he is able to cleanse himself in the mine’s pool, far below its bombed-out cities in which fearsomely rapacious creatures dwell, that he will be forgiven and it means so much to him that he’s prepared to risk life and limb (but not Grogu; he is a dad, after all) to make it happen.
To explain how much of a herculean task this becomes would be to give away to much of the engrossing storyline but suffice to say, Mando really has to put a lot on the line to find his longed-for redemption, and whether you see his beliefs as admirable in the face of great loss or frighteningly, imprisoningly fundamental (I’m opting for the latter), the reality is that after so much trauma, Din honestly believes he has no choice but to do this.
For both Din and Bo-Katan, whose leadership claims have come to nothing with the loss of the Dark Sabre in a free and fair fight with Din – the person who holds the sabre can claim Mandalorian leadership but Din doesn’t want that mantle but alas he can’t simply give the legitimising weapon away either – the visit to Mandalore, which we have never seen before despite its legendary reputation, is transformative.
Bo-Katan witnesses things in the pool that turn kids’ stories into reality while Din gets not only his redemptive moment but also a sense of homecoming that will likely begin to heal some wounds within him.
In episodes that are short on a lot of humour – Grogu continues to act like a mischievous kid, summoning candy with the Force and hugging droid repairers like they’re furry pets; both times Din has to play the role of parent and teach Grogu some sage life lessons, along with critically important navigational instruction – we take a mighty step forward in who Din is and who he will likely become, another seismic step in his journey from brokenness to healing, which began with a gig to hand Grogu to criminals (something he couldn’t morally countenance) and may well end with him becoming the leader of his people, yet another life-changing arc for a franchise rich in such transformative journeys.
The Mandalorian S3 continues with “Episode 19” which releases today US time and 16th AU time.
NOT DEAD YET (S1, E3-6)
There is a particular joy that comes from watching a sitcom rich in characters and a firm sense of place and identity.
The sitcom, in this case, Not Dead Yet, doesn’t have to be one of the legends of the genre, it simply needs to feel like it is its own creation and not some derivative pile of laughter-track plagued slush and in that respect, Not Dead Yet very much ticks all the right boxes.
Centred on Nell Serrano (Gina Rodriguez) who is rebuilding her journalistic career by writing obituaries at the paper, the So Cal Independent, where she was once a leading light before following her heart to the UK for five years where her cad of a fiancé dumped her, the show is in many regards a bread-and-butter sitcom. (The hook here is the she can see the ghosts of the people she’s writing about, all of whom to some extent or another, trigger a key life lesson for her, only disappearing when she’s made peace with the issue and their obituary is complete.)
It has a decidedly workplace setting, so that the first part of the genre’s abbreviated name taken care of, and it has a mix of heartfelt and quirkily funny characters, none of whom would exists in a normal newsroom (or perhaps they might?), all of which get their moments in the comedic sun, and a chance to feel some existential angst though it is, in good old sitcom tradition, resolved nice and speedily in just over 20 finely-plotted minutes.
As far as its adherence to the conventions of the genre goes, Not Dead Yet, is pretty what you’d expect from a sitcom.
But in these four episodes, it neatly manages to elevate itself above the lower tier sitcom dross, by injecting a sizable amount of heart into proceedings.
That’s critical to its appeal because while it’s charming, its no Frasier or The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and while the writing is smart and snappy, it’s hasn’t yet reached iconic status.
What it does have going for it in spades are characters who, when they are not wisecracking their way through slight but enjoyable storylines, really wear their hearts on their sleeves.
In these four episodes, we see Nell grapple with the PTSD of bullying and a hugely tragic life moment – the only misstep here is that it reduces the effects of bullying to a snap resolution which as someone who was relentlessly bullied and scarred for life, doesn’t ring true to me; sure, it’s a sitcom but it’s too weighty an issue for 20 all-too-short minutes – her colleague Dennis (Joshua Banday) trying to deal with his own school-inspired insecurities, her new friend Cricket (Angela E. Gibbs) mourning her husband once again – grief is not linear and thankfully Not Dead Yet beautifully embraces that – and even her hardhearted, rich boss Lexi (Lauren Ash) having a rare moment of vulnerability.
They are not indie drama-worthy moments granted but then you’d hardly expect a sitcom to aspire to that – having said that, as the bullying storyline demonstrates, there are perhaps some issues too big for a sitcom to tackle in any sort of meaningful way – but they are impactful in their own ways because they give the characters a chance to become more well-rounded as people.
That last dynamic is critically important in any sitcom because it grants these quip-and-done characters the sort of emotional longevity they need if they are to mean something to us and we are to bond with them.
Watching the four episodes felt like being with family, and while again the writing is not necessarily top tier classic, it’s still good enough that every episode feels like you’re back with people who matter to you and whose problems are worth the time you spend with them.
Plus, it’s good for the soul to let yourself just sit back and let the jokes and the quiet moments of emotional weight role over you; the criticism over Not Dead Yet perhaps biting off more than it can narratively chew aside, it’s a joy to sit through and to experience, a reminder that escapist, humourous entertainment done well is likely what the early 21st century stress doctor ordered and that it can make your world feel a little less weighty and little more loved-up and light than it did before you hit play.
Not Dead Yet continues today US time with episode 7 “Not Out of the Game Yet” …