Review: “People Watching” (Season 1) (Animated Youtube Series)

Well, I don’t usually review things on Youtube but I thought that I’d make an exception in this extra article. This is mostly because, over the past ten weeks, the creator of my favourite webcomic (Subnormality” By Winston Rowntree) has been releasing a weekly animated Youtube series called “People Watching” which was co-produced by a humour/journalism site called “Cracked”.

So, since the individual episodes are a bit too short to review on their own, I thought that I’d wait until the first season of the show had finished and review it as a whole.

Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS. Likewise, this is a show that is firmly aimed at audiences in their 20s-30s. So, if you don’t fit into this age group, then you may or may not enjoy it as much.

So, let’s take a look at season one of “People Watching”:

This is most of the series’ cast, although one character is standing behind the camera in this scene.

Although “People Watching” contains several recurring characters, the episodes are self-contained and can be watched in pretty much any order (it’s best to watch episode 10 last though).

Like in Rowntree’s “Subnormality” comics, the episodes often tend to focus on observations about society, introspective topics and cultural commentary. The series also contains a mixture of comedy and serious moments. Sorry if this description sounds a bit bland, but it’s a really difficult series to describe in a single paragraph.

Let me start by saying that the art in this series is actually as good as the astonishingly detailed art in “Subnormality”. I’d initially expected the level of artistic detail to drop somewhat due to the practicalities of the animation process. But, Rowntree’s art is as spectacular as ever.

Plus, the Sphynx also makes a cameo appearance in the background here.

As for the animation quality, it’s surprisingly good considering that this is a low-budget series on Youtube. Although there are occasional examples of clunky animation (such as someone running in the early parts of episode four), limited animation and/or re-used backgrounds – the animation is, on the whole, fairly good. Since this is a series where the main emphasis is on the dialogue and the storytelling, the limitations of the animation don’t really get in the way of the show.

Likewise, the voice acting in this series is fairly good too. Since the series mostly focuses on a group of new characters, there isn’t the “this character shouldn’t sound like that” problem that you can sometimes get when comics and/or novels are adapted to the screen. The main characters sound like fairly ordinary American or Canadian twentysomethings and the voice acting just comes across as “acting” rather than “voice-acting”.

But, in terms of story quality, the series is something of a mixed bag though. For every good episode, there’s usually one.. less-good… episode.

But, when this series is good, it is good! So, I’ll start with the best moments. As a side note, the episode titles displayed in the episodes are different from the video titles (“Cracked” is notorious for random, inexplicable title changes).

The best episodes in the series are probably episode four and episode nine. And here’s why…

Episode four (“Death Is Bullshit”) revolves around a character having a near-death experience and then trying to find some way to rationalise the concept of death. Although this sounds like a super-depressing episode, it is one of the most psychologically nuanced and emotionally profound things that I’ve ever seen on Youtube. Surprisingly though, it seems to be one of the least popular episodes in the series – if the Youtube comments when it was originally realeased were anything to go by.

Yes, it might look like science fiction. Parts of the episode might even sound like science fiction. But, it isn’t an episode about science fiction!

However, if you remember that it’s supposed to be an episode about psychology and not about science fiction or new age philosophy, then it will probably make you cry with it’s sheer emotional profundity.

Even though the episode itself points out that it’s about the fear of death and it’s effects (eg: in a spine-tingling moment, one of the characters quite literally points out that “death f**king makes you crazy”) a lot of people assumed that the episode was some kind of new age tract and criticised it. But, you’d be hard-pressed to find something as profound or well-written on Youtube. Seriously, watch it!

Episode 9 (“In Defence Of Talking During The Movie”) isn’t as weighty or philosophical as episode four is, but it’s certainly the most fun episode in the series.

The episode revolves around two characters called Ted and Martha who are having a hilarious conversation about a movie that they’re watching on TV. After the movie finishes, they decide to go to a nearby cinema to watch (a parody of) one of the “Taken” films.

Seriously, the dialogue in this episode is hilarious. This screenshot really doesn’t do the episode justice.

Throughout the film, both them and various audience members think and comment about how terrible the movie is whilst other characters are horrified that people are talking in the cinema. There’s a bit of random philosophy, some cultural commentary and so much brilliant sarcasm (eg: Martha’s line about how people are expected to sit in “reverent silence” during terrible movies still makes me laugh when I think about it). It’s a fun, funny and heartwarmingly nice episode.

Episode 10 (“Nostalgia”) sits somewhere between these great episodes and the good episodes I’ll describe in the next paragraph. It mostly consists of an optimistic motivational speech (with a few sci-fi elements) that packs a surprising emotional punch, especially if you’ve seen more of the series. I might not agree with literally all of the sentiments in the episode, but it’s still an incredibly dramatic episode and a fitting conclusion to the season.

Plus, episode 10 has the best-looking title card in the whole series.

Anyway, onto the “just good” episodes. The most notable of these is probably episode two, which is an animated remake of Rowntree’s “Non-religious confessional” comic from “Subnormality”. Given that this episode compresses a dialogue-heavy (but short by “Subnormality” standards) comic strip into a single six-minute video, whilst also adding a lot of extra improvements, it’s certainly a good episode.

One of the most astonishing things about episode two is that the backgrounds are sometimes MORE detailed than in the original comic!

Likewise, episode seven focuses on a self-help group for people who look popular but are secretly losers. This episode is fairly close to the tone of the original comics, with lots of introspective dialogue and dark humour.

It also contains a bit more characterisation for some of the main characters too.

Then there are the mediocre and/or terrible episodes. Some episodes, like episode eight or episode three, seem like they could be something interesting – but end up going in a fairly predictable direction instead. Likewise, some episodes can – for want of a better term- become insufferably hipsterish. Episodes five and six, I’m looking at you!

The art and set design in episode six looks really cool, but the whole episode revolves around looking at smartphones and having awkward conversations. Yes, it’s meant to be an episode about how creativity can sometimes be the only form of self-expression some people are comfortable with, but the episode gets this point across in a slightly obtuse, confusing and hipsterish way.

Episode five introduces Ted and Martha and is a critique of the TV show “Friends”. But, well, the dialogue (and the politics etc..) in this episode is probably about as hipster as you can get.

All in all, this series is extremely good though. Or, rather, half of it is. Even so, it’s one of the most thought-provoking, artistically beautiful and well-written pieces of original content that you can find on Youtube. In a sensible and logical world, this wouldn’t be an obscure collection of 5-10 minute shorts, it would be an actual animated TV series! Seriously, if you want to watch something with a bit more depth than the average animated TV show, then check out “People Watching”. Or, parts of it at least (eg: episodes 2,4,7,9 and 10) .

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would average out at about four. But, at it’s best, it’s a six and – at it’s worst – it’s a two or a three.


Review: “Boardwalk Empire” (Season One) (TV Show)

2017 Artwork Boardwalk Empire Season 1 review

Well, it has been ages since I’ve reviewed a whole season of a TV show so, for today, I thought that I’d take a look at the first season of a show called “Boardwalk Empire”. This is mostly because I found a cheap second-hand DVD boxset of it on Amazon a week or so before I originally wrote this review. At the time of writing, later seasons of the show are somewhat more expensive – so I may not review them.

This review may contain some mild spoilers, but I’ll try to avoid major ones.

“Boardwalk Empire” is a semi-historical crime drama series set in prohibition-era/roaring twenties America. The series mostly takes place in the glamourous boardwalk area of Atlantic City, New Jersey and it focuses on a man called Enoch “Nucky” Thompson – the corrupt treasurer of Atlantic City. At the very beginning of the first season, prohibition has just come into force and Nucky realises that there’s money to be made in the drinks business….

The plot is, of course, considerably more complex than this brief summary. As well as a series of long-running sub-plots, there is also a fairly large supporting cast – many of whom also have their own story arcs within the first season.

In fact, one of the first things that I will say is that this show has an extremely high level of depth, breadth, maturity and complexity that both did and didn’t surprise me.

One of the things that first attracted me to this series (apart from the fact that it’s set in the roaring twenties and stars Steve Buscemi) is the fact that it was made by HBO. If you’ve somehow never heard of HBO before, they’re basically the American equivalent of the BBC when it comes to high-quality, intelligent drama. Although their budgets are somewhat higher than the average BBC budget though…

The first season of “Boardwalk Empire” is yet another example of why television is superior to film. Over the twelve episodes of the first season, we are treated to a multi-layered story, filled with complex characters and narratives that could perhaps rival a few chapters of a Mario Puzo novel (well, the two of them I read ages ago anyway). Because of the space that this TV series has to tell it’s story, it weaves the kind of complex, compelling novelistic story that lends itself well to binge-watching.

Although you might initially mistake the first season of “Boardwalk Empire” for something slightly immature (due to the copious amounts of sex and violence) there is a complex, mature storyline beneath all of this.

A lot of the historical context of the show is portrayed with a level of nuance and complexity that really surprised me. Although I haven’t studied the history of prohibition-era America in detail, the level of attention to detail in this show really stands out. Put it this way, it was hard to tell whether some parts of the show were an accurate reflection of history, or a story that was loosely-based on it.

Thankfully though, the absurdity of prohibition is still shown in all of it’s silliness (although there is some insight into the reasons why some people actually supported it at the time).

Very rarely does the show lecture or preach at the audience about anything, but it will often still make moral arguments about various issues in all sorts of subtle ways.

Likewise, although the characters spend a fair amount of time sleeping with and/or fighting each other, there aren’t really many two-dimensional characters here either. I could write a gigantic essay about all of the characters in the first season but, with the exception of a couple of characters, virtually every character in the show will experience some significant level of character development throughout the series.

For example, Nucky’s chauffeur (Jimmy) is a traumatised WW1 veteran who goes from just being a chauffeur to being someone more significant throughout the series. Likewise, an impoverished housewife who comes to Nucky for financial help (Margaret Schroeder) at the beginning of the season gradully becomes a more significant and complex character too.

Likewise, one of the characters who is seen briefly in one of the early episodes is a low-level, but ambitious, member of the Mafia called Al Capone.

Being a crime drama, one of the other interesting things is how law and order are portrayed. Since prohibition was a very unjust law, many of the more sympathetic characters are all criminals – this lends the series a really interesting dynamic, which isn’t really seen in other series that have morally-ambiguous criminal protagonists. However, the police in this series are fascinating in their own right.

There’s a really interesting contrast between Atlantic City’s corrrupt sheriff (Nucky’s brother, Eli) and the prohibition agent (Nelson Van Alden) who is investigating Nucky’s corrupt regime.

Although Nucky’s brother is no stranger to murder, police brutality, bribery etc… and wears a rather militaristic police uniform (complete with jackboots) that makes him look more like a fascist than a policeman, he still somehow comes across as the more sympathetic and human character when compared to Van Alden.

Agent Van Alden, on the other hand, initially comes across as a coldly emotionless (and totally unsympathetic) religious fanatic who treads a fine line between being comedic and terrifying. Yet, as the series progresses, we get tantalising glimpses inside his damaged psyche. He gradually goes from being a hilariously creepy two-dimensional cartoon character to being one of the most fascinating characters in the show.

Nucky himself is, of course, the star of the show though. I can’t believe it’s taken this long for Steve Buscemi to get a starring role – and the character of Nucky must have been written specifically for him. He’s able to be funny and serious at the same time, he’s able to be the kind of loveable rogue that you can’t help but like and he’s able to also come across as a real person at the same time. Seriously, Steve Buscemi is an amazing actor!

The atmosphere of the show is also really interesting and complex too. Initially, I really loved the glamourous, debauched atmosphere of roaring twenties America but – as the show progresses- the levels of suspense and tension gradually increase. It gets to the point where you can’t watch about half of the conversations in the slightly later parts of the season without the nervous worry that they could erupt into brutal violence at any second.

This is one of the show’s strengths since, although many of the characters lead very glamourous lives, the malevolence behind that glamour is always lurking in the background in a very subtle way that many crime dramas just can’t do as well.

All in all, this is an excellent first season of an excellent show. I don’t know when or if I’ll watch any more of it, but even the first season stands on it’s own extremely well (although there’s obviously room for the story to continue, at least there aren’t any of the ultra-melodramatic end of season cliffhangers that US TV shows are famous for). It’s a complex, serious, compelling, fascinating, mature semi-historical drama and it’s well worth watching.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.