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TV/Film Culture cheat sheet: “Normal People,” Kehlani, and more

May. 11, 2020
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Binge: Devs

Alex Garland only has three directing credits to his name, but he’s quickly become the go-to name for existential sci-fi. (The objectively perfect movie Ex Machina is his directorial debut, although he wrote for 28 Days Later and Never Let Me Go, among others.) Devs, the first FX show to stream on Hulu, is also Garland’s first foray into TV.

Things present in his earlier work found their way into Devs, the most noticeable being our protagonist Sonoya Mizuno—she played Oscar Isaac’s servant in Ex Machina and Natalie Portman’s odd humanoid reflection in Garland’s second film Annihilation (yes, it’s her!). In Devs, she is Lily Chan, a software engineer working for a Silicon Valley company with an enigmatic CEO. When her boyfriend dies by suicide after getting hired into the company’s elusive Devs devision, she suspects foul play and begins to investigate—uncovering not only the real cause of death but the groundbreaking tech for which they’re willing to kill. 

That said, trying to write a synopsis of the miniseries is tough. While it’s indeed a conspiracy thriller, it’s also, in many ways, a testament to Garland’s ability to weaponize sci-fi. He told Rolling Stone that he sees science “as being weird and mysterious and lyrical,” and his characters have a tendency to use the most sophisticated, groundbreaking tech for the most visceral, unapologetically human purposes. It’s impossible not to draw comparisons between Devs and the earlier Ex Machina, as both deal with the messianic tendencies of tech geniuses—the former with a man making a god out of a machine, the latter with a man using a machine to be a god. Garland did say the two are spiritually linked. They’re just recapturing reality, after all; unable to imagine anything above it. The real monsters are human, except, you know, done more poignantly. 

Devs is streaming on FX on Hulu.Binge: Normal People

Every website with a semblance of a culture section has reviewed Normal People, the Hulu adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel of the same name. The book is loved and talked about; I don’t keep an eye out for fiction releases anymore but I still bought it the moment I chanced upon an elusive copy. Rooney has been dubbed the Salinger of the Snapchat generation, and in Normal People, she shows off her deep understanding of young love: its iterations and reiterations, its multi-meanings, its fickleness and endurance. 

The series is a tight six-hour binge, and with Rooney as a co-writer of all episodes, it stays very faithful to the book, with many conversations lifted verbatim from its pages. It’s essentially a will-they-won’t-they pendulum between Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal), beginning in secondary school until they graduate college. This makes for a rather tedious watch at first, with the show lacking the extra layer of emotionality provided by the characters’ internal monologue in the novel—had I not read it, it would be easy to feel alienated. 

That said, the series is a brilliant companion to the book. The tender first half frames the couple’s longing in the somber streets of Sligo and Dublin, and the moments when they do make it work outnumber the moments they don’t. The latter half is more emotionally intense as their history gets more complicated, touching upon themes like trauma, depression, and classism. The book’s carnality is of course best expressed in a visual format, and the show’s direction and editing make it a sight to behold. While I’d much rather your introduction to Marianne and Connell’s story be the original source material, the show is a justifiable alternative.

Normal People is streaming on Hulu. 

Listen: It Was Good Until It Wasn’t by Kehlani

R&B singer Kehlani is one of the many artists whose plans were halted by the quarantine. Aiming for a late April release for her sophomore album, she had to rethink things as early as March, when stay-at-home orders were being put in place. Her label wanted to postpone, but when she expressed she wanted to release this month, she was granted permission as long as she did everything herself. The music video for the album's first track, “Toxic,” was shot entirely by her using a Macbook. The video was subtitled “Quarantine Style.”

She’s been making music since 2011, having started in pop group PopLyfe which placed fourth in America’s Got Talent. Now 25 years old, her music is broodier and more soulful. She’s a gifted lyricist in that she can capture such specific moments and feelings in a relationship, perhaps because she’s unafraid to draw material from her personal life. After all, she had to go through most personal struggles under public scrutiny. 

The album boasts features from artists like Jhené Aiko and James Blake; even an uncredited interlude from Megan Thee Stallion called “Real Hot Girl Skit.” (Kehlani lent her vocals to Megan’s “Hit My Phone,” and this was her returning the favor.) That said, the most memorable tracks are ones in which she’s on her own. “Everybody Business” is her response to a love life constantly eyed by gossip websites. The pre-chorus of “Serial Lover” closes with, “My intentions are pure, but my habits are cold”—in it she sings of being addicted to romance, and how her lovers enter her life at their own risk. While Kehlani might still not have any instant chart-toppers with this second full-length offering, the album is more reflective of who she is as an artist. In her Vulture profile, she said “I wanted to sound 25 on this one.”

Stream It Was Good Until It Wasn’t on Spotify.