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Overlooked: Lee Daniels’ Star

Star acts as a convenient distraction from the first week of classes

Overlooked:  Lee Daniels’ Star

Star is the new-and-improved version of the musical drama Empire. It’s more thrilling and has a killer soundtrack and a flawless cast. 

The show follows an aspiring girl group, Take 3, as they navigate their way through the ins and outs of Atlanta’s music industry to achieve stardom. Take 3, however, is not your ordinary modern-day girl group. They do not benefit from the exposure that comes from participating in televised singing competitions like Fifth Harmony and Little Mix. Nor do they start off with a budget, or rely on ghost writers to produce their music. 

Rather, the trio — comprised of two half-sisters who grew up in foster care and their new songwriting friend who is trying to escape her life as the offspring of musical royalty — come together with nothing but their ambition and love of music to become Atlanta’s hottest sound. 

The group’s journey is far from easy. The girls deal with adversity that is all-too-common for any musical group, including jealousy, creative differences, romantic distractions, and their own individual demons that they must learn to conquer. Further, the girls must find a way to stick together in light of their individual musical achievements in the ruthless music industry that pits artists against each other. Yet, with an amazing support system to keep them in check and focused on their initial goals, the girls are able to overcome the hurdles thrown their way and stay true to themselves.

As a typical musical drama, Star exceeds the unexpected. With its unpredictable storylines that will have you sitting on the edge of your seat in disbelief, this show will have you constantly guessing. However, unlike the other dramas, Star aligns with reality by addressing a broad range of issues that have become increasingly relevant to society today. 

The show’s predominantly Black cast features celebrities such as Queen Latifah, Brandy, and Quincy Brown. The series tackles issues such as police brutality, racial profiling, and the acceptance of LGBTQ+ members within the Black community. Star also sheds light on other important issues such as sexual abuse, immigration, human trafficking, drug abuse, gang violence, and the flaws of the foster care system. 

Star is the show to watch on Netflix this fall. With a mixture of comedy, drama, crime, and romance — as well as a catchy soundtrack — this series will have you laughing, crying, singing, and dancing every episode. Additionally, with a jaw-dropping season three finale, you will be inspired to join the tens of thousands of fans who have already signed a petition to get the show renewed for a fourth season. 

Overlooked: The Banana Story of Agony

A children’s book we should all read by fourth year

Overlooked: The Banana Story of Agony

I found The Banana Story of Agony in the children’s section of BMV Books. Something about it called to me. It was probably the words “banana” and “agony”: the former being my favourite fruit and the latter being my perpetual state of being. So naturally, I bought it without so much as a glance at the blurb. After initially abandoning it in the corner of my room next to an empty Pepcid bottle, I stumbled upon it again days later, and to my surprise found that I had purchased a masterpiece.

The Banana Story of Agony is a picture book, written and illustrated by Lesley Johnson and published by Conundrum Press, an independent publisher known for its graphic novels. However, it would be folly to assume that The Banana Story of Agony can be classified as anything other than high art.

On a superficial level, this book looks like any other children’s book. Illustrations are accompanied by large, simple text running along the bottom, and the stories all feature children, personified objects, or mythic persons such as Santa Claus. Upon looking closer, however, one discovers that it not only appears to be written for a child, but also written by a child. The illustrations are simple and unpolished, and you can see the white space where the watercolour paper shows through. In fact, the pictures are oddly reminiscent of locker murals painted by middle school art clubs.

Even the text, which Johnson created using both her left and right hand simultaneously, mimics a childlike scrawl. But this isn’t a criticism. This precisely shows how the work blurs the line between child and adult literature, art and kitsch, satire and seriousness.

One of the work’s most obvious blurred dualities is that of innocence and disturbance. The childlike simplicity of the illustrations are juxtaposed with the absurdity and undeniable creepiness of the four stories: “Love”, “There’s No One Home: A Story of Indifference”, “Susan had a Chicken on her Butt”, and the titular “Banana Story of Agony.” The plots of these tales resemble that of an uncomfortably vivid and particularly bizarre dream, one that you wake up remembering and later recount to an annoyed group of strangers while on acid at a house party.

Like Daniel Johnston’s cassette covers, Mark Perry’s Sniffin’ Glue, and Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, Lesley Johnson’s The Banana Story of Agony is undeniably punk rock in its defiance of conventional norms of art and literature. It is art from the ground up, born from the grassroots, from a place where there are no rules and where we are all a little “bananas.”

Overlooked: Derry Girls

Another show surrounding four gal pals trying to live their best lives

Overlooked: <i>Derry Girls</i>

What happens when you have four out-of-their-mind teenage girls and their pitiable English tag-along and set them up against the backdrop of civil conflict? You get the brilliant show Derry Girls!

The show follows Erin and her friends as they cross the usual hurdles of being 16: parents, independence, romance, school. But where Derry Girls stands out in its references to checkposts, army officers, and the ever-present threat of clashes between Irish republicans and British unionists.

Maybe unexpectedly, Derry Girls is absolutely hilarious. Bad luck seems to constantly follow Erin and her gang, putting them in awkward situations, which include witnessing a false miracle, housing a Russian immigrant, and finding a stowaway in their car while crossing the border to the Republic of Ireland.

The teenagers are ridiculous in their comedy and actions, but the stars of the show are their school’s headmistress, who is sarcastic and clearly has put up with fumbling teenagers for too long, and Erin’s family, which has a realistic and quirky dynamic. Needless to say, each scene is jam-packed with action even if it is the most mundane of situations.

Derry Girls is unique in the fact that not many Irish television shows have gained its level of international success, especially as it features young women in starring roles. It shows us how even in places of conflict, ordinary lives exist and still have to go on, though interrupted as they are.

It resonates especially with me because I grew up in conflict-ridden Lahore, Pakistan, but our day-to-day life continued nonetheless. I wish someone made a series like this about Lahore!

The show not only made me laugh but also taught me about an important historical decade that I did not know much about, which led me to research more on the issue. You’ll fall in love with the characters, that’s a given, but you’ll also begin to love Derry itself.

With only six episodes at about 20 minutes each — which are all readily available on Netflix — what are you waiting for?

(not) Overlooked: Romantic comedies

The best genre of film, fight us xoxo The Varsity’s A&C section

(not) Overlooked: Romantic comedies

Palpable and undeniable chemistry, long witty banter, brazen declarations of love, and unlikely pairings followed by actions laced with infinite empathy are just a few of the key pieces that embody the essence of a romantic comedy to me. Characters who seem emotionally incomplete without the affections of their person of interest — a habitually regressive trope that can seem rather fluffy in our recent era of heralding self-love, which is by the way also important and its about damn time — gets me every time. As I tell all my friends while planning my weddings with every guy who has ever returned a pen that I unknowingly dropped or held a door for me for an extended time, I can’t help it — I love LOVE.

My love of the genre can be traced back to my tween years in Nigeria as a fairly socially awkward schoolgirl. Being African, but specifically Nigerian, it was, and still is, rather bizarre to not be as abrasive and unabashedly confident as every other person you come across on a daily basis. So you can imagine how I stuck out like a sore thumb with my reserved nature and tendency to only speak when I needed to — a rare phenomenon back home. Instead, I used coming-of-age romance novels and the occasional Mills & Boon-esque books lent to me by my aunt — as inappropriate as that may sound — to escape into a world of stories that only I could imagine myself in. They ranged from summer love pieces and stories of best friends who unknowingly had feelings for each other, to fantasy stories about a princess recently hiring a stable boy who somehow constantly misplaced his shirt and needed her to keep him warm. I know, I know. But I went to an all-girls high school, so what we lacked in everyday interactions, we sought elsewhere. The whole romance thing fascinated me and I craved to understand and interrogate the nuances and intricacies of love.

The romantic comedy is as important a genre as any other, including science fiction, drama, and action. But, over the years, it has been afforded less cultural legitimacy than its counterparts. Romantic comedies are regularly degraded in favour of stories that highlight more heavy-handed topics. Though these lighthearted stories are equally as important, this stigma deprives the genre’s most ardent followers of the opportunity to be as openly self-indulgent about depictions of everyday romance as, for instance, Star Wars stans. Why should we diminish our declarations of love for one genre over another when, rather, we should be able to embrace them all without shame? Romantic comedies allow their audiences to delve into stories that touch on everyday human connections and the complexities of our interactions. Though it may be considered predictable or cheesy, there is a comfort in knowing what to expect, something that real life regularly fails to give us.

Nevertheless, the current sociopolitical climate has forced us to look at our most relished romantic comedies and re-evaluate what should be considered problematic. The recent box office successes of Netflix’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and Warner Bros. Pictures’ Crazy Rich Asians sent messages to Hollywood about the lack of diversity in our most adored romantic comedies and that inclusive movies can be just as successful. The audience, including myself, craves representation on-screen. I grew up watching romantic comedies that mostly featured people who didn’t look like me, and that is a problem. Love and Basketball, The Best Man, and Think Like a Man stand out as some of the few features that encapsulated Black love on screen for me.

Having matured and experienced adult romantic connections, romantic comedies mean all the more to me now. Now, they are a reflection of lived realities, more meaningful than they were in past times of preferred realities. But I am now able to embrace myself, along with my awkwardness and its complexities, and forge my own stories outside of what I see in film. Romantic comedies served as an escape for a younger me to imagine a reality outside of my immediate world, and they are still just as significant to me now.

So yet again, it’s important to recognize that romantic movies are as important as the umpteenth period drama in the cinemas every year. Love is essential and even more special because it can be redefined in so many funny ways. Dismissing the quintessential plot of two unlikely individuals falling in love with each other in spite of themselves robs you of the comforts of revelling in the most basic of human connections. And that should be considered a crime in itself.

Need a hand getting started? Here is a list of my most loved romantic comedies, in no particular order — don’t make me do what I cannot do!

Also, the ’90s had the best romantic comedies, don’t deny it!

  • When Harry Met Sally…
  • Notting Hill
  • My Best Friend’s Wedding
  • The Proposal
  • Silver Linings Playbook
  • Jerry Maguire
  • Crazy, Stupid, Love

Overlooked: The Sopranos

Millennials and Gen Z have failed good TV

Overlooked: <i>The Sopranos</i>

The Sopranos may seem like an odd choice for The Varsity’s “Overlooked” column, boasting over 20 Emmy awards. However, it is ripe and waiting for a generational rediscovery. Despite being instantly absorbed into the zeitgeist of the early 2000s, the television masterpiece has been criminally ignored by those who exist on the millennial and Gen Z border. Part of the reason for this is likely its lack of presence on streaming services like Netflix.

The Sopranos follows the chronicles of New Jersey mobster Tony Soprano, masterfully portrayed by the late James Gandolfini. Tony is brash and unapologetic, but as he juggles his daily life of crime with his familial duties, he begins experiencing severe panic attacks. With Edie Falco as Tony’s wife, Carmela, who shows a fascinating contradiction of subservient mob wife and strong-willed personality, these characters serve as an example of the show’s impeccable and unique characterization.

The effect of this character-based plot is that each episode contains a complete story arc, allowing for painfully grounded human characters to weave between bits of mafia spectacle. In the current TV landscape, where characterization and story have largely been thrust to the wayside to make way for splashy plot devices, The Sopranos seems transcendent.

Nuanced characters, however, should not be mistaken for morally upright ones. The inherently crude world in which the Soprano family and its associates exist creates violent plotlines and dredges up disgusting and deplorable supporting characters. Characters’ biases and reprehensible actions are shown yet condemned, and this tension manages to get at themes of loyalty, trust, love, and justice, much deeper than television does today. This cathartic ride, combined with the detailed depiction of the scandalous world of organized crime, creates a quality of television that has remained unmatched to this day.

The Sopranos, at its core, is a show about a family like any other, who just happen to live in a horrific and fascinating world. Though the lack of bingeable-ness may turn some off, experiencing the show in all of its glory for the first time is a revelation. As you learn each character’s neurosis and desires, it starts feeling like you’re visiting old friends — scotch-swirling, rat-whacking, criminal friends, but friends nonetheless.

Overlooked: Children of Men

This dystopian tale is still relevant 13 years on

Overlooked: <I>Children of Men</I>

Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men was released almost 13 years ago, just before the financial crisis of 2007–2008. Its dystopian world without children and hope is filled with stark imagery, grey skies, and a society that has descended into chaos. 

It is a film that was overlooked by the Academy the year of its release. Cuarón paints a picture of our world after society has continued on its course of far-right populism, authoritarianism, and an inward-looking humanity, afraid of one another and new ideas. The rhetoric espoused by modern-day populists in Europe and the US are on full display in this film. Despite being released a full decade before the 2016 US presidential election,  the film is more relevant now than ever before. 

The events in the film occur in the year 2027, at which point no children have been born for nearly two decades. Governments around the world, including in the UK, where the film takes place, have taken on anti-immigration policies to counteract their extreme conditions. Immigrants are forced into cages and sent to ghettos controlled by the army, or are otherwise executed on the spot. The treatment of immigrants in the film reminds me of the current US government’s increased detention of immigrants at its southern border.

In the real world, liberal democracies still haven’t recovered from the global financial crisis. From swaths of voters flocking to far-right political parties in Europe, to the Brexit movement in Britain, to the rise of Donald Trump, these are all reactions to feelings of being ‘left behind’ in the age of globalization and neoliberalism. 

If there exists a flashpoint for the current political strife poisoning liberal democracies around the world, it would be the financial crisis. Indeed, the film hints at an event that triggered the political strife, which resulted in the Western world falling into chaos. Yet Cuarón never tells viewers what the event was and allows them to fill in the blanks for themselves. The reason for humanity’s infertility is also left as a question mark.

The great science fiction classics of literature and film depict fantastic and seemingly impossible worlds, which in turn allow us to gain a better understanding of our current political and social climate. Children of Men is one such classic because the world in it doesn’t seem so impossible now. The events and ideology in the film feel starkly real. And the ending is as bleak as the rest, as Theo (Clive Owen), Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), and humanity’s fate are all left unanswered. 

The final shot of the film is of a ship sailing in from the fog to presumably provide Theo and Kee with their salvation. 

Will their world recover from its strife? Will our world be able to avoid going down the same path? We are only left to wonder as the credits roll.

Overlooked: Sleeping at Last

Composer Ryan O’Neal’s household recognition begins and ends in the credits

Overlooked: Sleeping at Last

Ryan O’Neal has found great success in his relatively short career by creating music for the concepts of other artists. However, his own musical side projects are undervalued by comparison.

His scores can be found in motion pictures, car commercials, and music videos alike. Each one is unique, yet unified stylistically with a fondness of narrative and an emo tinge.

He wields his musical tools masterfully, carefully curating his music and lyrics for each project. These tools never appear predictably within his albums; they are as diverse as the topics he chooses to muse upon.

Every note, chord, and rest is specifically written to elicit a particular emotion or experience from the listener.

Precise and careful, yet eloquent and efficient, the Sleeping at Last project exemplifies everything music should do for its audience. Through beauty, and the expert use of the mechanics of song, Sleeping at Last seeks only to provide fundamentally universal experiences that everybody can learn from. Though his goal seems lofty, O’Neal achieves it splendidly.

You find yourself so comfortable in the worlds he creates that sometimes you forget the one you’re actually in.

He is captivating in the simplest sense.

His albums, aptly dubbed ‘atlases,’ begin describing our entire universe at its most basic level — light and dark — and move through increasing levels of complexity. His current project seeks to tackle the human psyche through the Enneagram of Personality.

Even though he has spent the better part of the last three years serenading objects from throughout the solar system and beyond, beauty is the string that ties his separate works together into a cohesive whole. His music allows the audience to discover, and constantly rediscover, the beauty in all things.

O’Neal asks you to feel the joy that simple sunlight shining through curtains brings; to exonerate the regret that comes from the “reckless and honest words” leaving our mouths. And at his request, on clear nights, you should take the time to look at the moon as if you had never seen it before.

O’Neal writes only for others. His music exists simply to gift others the beauty of the unknown.

For what greater gift can there be than to allow us to feel wonder for wonder’s sake?

No longer just in the background or periphery, O’Neal deserves every last ounce of recognition for his tireless, incredible work. And you, dear reader, deserve to see the beauty in everything, and possibly even yourself.

At last.

Overlooked: Mozart in the Jungle

Art versus money — where would you fall?

Overlooked: <i>Mozart in the Jungle</i>

Set in the classical music world, Mozart in the Jungle follows the New York Symphony Orchestra as they try to survive and navigate a time when their most trusted patrons are old enough to have served in Vietnam. In store are a talented orchestra, a new conductor, an old conductor, a union, some donors, and one oboist.

Inspired by Blair Tindall’s memoir, Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music, the show is a delightful surprise even after you read the Wikipedia summary — no, I don’t always do that for shows I said I’d watch.

This show reacquainted me with classical music by encouraging conversations about old classical music and composers as though I knew them. Witness that even great composers and artists have human fallacies; Mozarthighlights their dirty secrets and general reputation in the music world. The show also introduces slightly unknown pieces by modern classical artists, such as “Hi” by Caroline Shaw. The contrast between old and new provides a revealing platform of the current classical music climate.

Mozart in the Jungle is as eccentric as its title, however, what is even more peculiar is the male lead Rodrigo De Souza. Portrayed by the ever so charismatic Gael García Bernal — The Motorcycle Diaries, anyone? — Rodrigo is the new conductor of the symphony. He advocates for hallucinogens, rides a bike, drinks malt, talks to dead composers, gets cursed by other dead people, and is just a hoot to watch.

Rodrigo wants to achieve the impossible but the realities of the orchestra’s financial situation and ‘red tape’ bar him from achieving his dreams. That is the crux of the show — the battle of art against money. Art cannot be kept alive without money, but it cannot thrive under its burden.

All in all, the show is quite the ride.