Column: Kicking off 2021 TV with meditation, swearing and a rock doc – The San Diego Union-Tribune

Posted: January 12, 2021 at 7:53 am


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If your last days of 2020 included some binge-watching to go along with your binge-eating, I come not to judge, but to advise. What you need is a palate cleanser, something to make you forget how much you miss The Queens Gambit already and how the next season of Succession cant come soon enough. Here are three shows two newbies from Netflix and a repurposed HBO series now airing on AXS TV that will clear your head with short bursts of timeless insight, pop-culture history and profanity. Two of them are less than 30 minutes long, and all of them are chess-free. Youre welcome.

Campy, yet semi-serious. Foul-mouthed, yet educational. Too short, but also repetitive. As you might have guessed from the cheeky yin-yang title, Netflixs History of Swear Words packs a bunch of competing qualities into one compact package. Compact being the operative word. If you want to ease into the New Year with the TV equivalent of jalapeo bites (small, spicy and only marginally filling), this could be the show for you.

Under the sly eye of host Nicolas Cage, who presides over the NSFW fun from a Masterpiece Theater"-style set, History of Swear Words takes a bawdy, breezy look at six of the English languages most bleeped words, most of which I cant print here. Using a large and lively mix of commentators that includes comedian Sarah Silverman, lexicographer Kory Stamper and film critic Elvis Mitchell, each episode tackles one word, looking at how and when it became a swear word, what makes it so inflammatory, and why some uses are far more offensive than others.

Along the way, we also discover many fun facts. Such as which part of the brain controls swearing. And why swearing has health benefits. And who is considered Hollywoods sweariest actor. (Youll want to save that nugget for your first post-lockdown cocktail party.) There are also some witty touches, like the appearance by actor Isiah Whitlock Jr. of The Wire, whose virtuoso reading of one particular swear word makes him the perfect guest star for the episode devoted to that word.

"(Bleep) has become a huge part of my career, Whitlock deadpans. I didnt plan it that way.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the most entertaining installment is the one devoted to the f-word. From Cages opening roundup of the words best Hollywood moments to Stampers playfully informative examination of its history and Mitchells thoughtful take on the words use in gangster rap, this episode is a pretty terrific tribute to the power of language itself. If one notorious word can have so many moods, meanings and uses, what does that say about everything else in the dictionary?

Thanks to the on-screen experts, all of whom are smart and highly quotable, the show manages to cover a lot of territory in 20 minutes. But unlike Netflixs Song Exploder, which devotes each of its short episodes to just one song, History of Swear Words is less of a deep dive and more of a sprint. Even when its taking on tough subjects like racism, sexism and homophobia, the insights pass in a flash. Or half a flash.

Like the overexposed but underutilized Cage himself, History of Swearing is both too much and not quite enough. Darn it. (History of Swearing is streaming on Netflix.)

Since 2012, the Headspace app has been providing accessible meditations that help users deal with anxiety, pump up their creativity, cope with grief and increase their focus. With its cheerful animated tutorials and soothing yet friendly guidance from former Buddhist monk (and Headspace co-founder) Andy Puddicombe, the app has seen me through the loss of my parents and some scary health stuff while making the low-level stresses of being a human easier to take. I cant imagine surviving our current reality without it.

I love Headspace, but I wasnt sure how I felt about the idea of Headspace on TV. Could the medium that brought us the Game of Thrones finale and Baby Yoda also be a tool for enlightenment? On Jan. 1, Netflix gave us the chance to find out.

Just in time for New Years resolutions, Netflix debuted Headspace Guide to Meditation, an eight-episode introduction to basic mindfulness techniques and to the process of meditation. Each 20-minute installment includes a brief tutorial from Puddicombe about subjects like meditation myths (It is not about stopping your thoughts! Really!) and how visualization works. The mini-lesson is followed by a 10-minute guided meditation led by the approachable Brit I call Guru Andy, whose reassuring voice is like a security blanket for your ears.

Throughout the episode, Puddicombes wise words are accompanied by lovely animated sequences that are the visual equivalent of his voice. The animation continues during the meditation portion, when you would ideally be closing your eyes. But if the idea of closing your eyes for 10 minutes makes you feel claustrophobic or antsy, the loop of abstract squiggles or puffy clouds is a serene backdrop to the meditation itself. While your conscious brain is zoning out on the pretty pictures, meditation is working its magic.

It was during the squiggle portion of the first episode that I decided that I was OK with the idea of Headspace on TV. Stressful times call for flexible measures, and if Netflix can convince people that meditation can be as comforting as The Great British Baking Show and as uplifting as The Good Place, then Im all for it. So put down your baggage and grab your remote. Guru Andy awaits. (Headspace Guide to Meditation is streaming on Netflix.)

After originally airing as a two-part, four-hour documentary on HBO in 2017, Rolling Stone: Stories From the Edge is now airing as a six-part series on AXS TV. Its the same series, but if you missed it the first time, its worth catching up with now. The documentary covers the rise of the magazine from a counterculture upstart working out of a San Francisco printing factory to a glossy heavy-hitter that was as likely to chat up Britney Spears as it was to bring down a United States general. The organization of the episodes can be a little scattershot, but as the magazines larger-than-life journalists (Hunter S. Thompson, Ben Fong-Torres, Cameron Crowe) take on politicians, Ike and Tina Turner and David Bowie, viewers get a look at rare photos, unreleased film footage and interview recordings that bring the stars to us. As any music fan could tell you, the bootlegs have all the best stuff. (Rolling Stone: Stories From The Edge airs Wednesdays at 6 and 9 p.m. on AXS TV.)

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Column: Kicking off 2021 TV with meditation, swearing and a rock doc - The San Diego Union-Tribune

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January 12th, 2021 at 7:53 am

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