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TV

How The Good Place Utilized The Strengths of Peak TV To Become One of The Best Shows of The Year

Michael Schur’s latest project is forking fantastic, and a strong encapsulation of modern TV’s best attributes.

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NOTE: As you might have heard, there’s plenty of twists and turns in the first season of The Good Place. However, as this article is mostly written to convince readers like you to watch the show, this piece will be mostly spoiler-free, discussing the initial premise and that’s it. There is actually a surprisingly lot to spoil about this show, but rest assured spoiler-phobes: read away!

Television has become, for lack of a better word, overwhelming. I’ve spoken many times in the past about the pros and cons of the age of Peak TV, and how good (and, hell, even great) shows can get lost in the shuffle. But whenever the issue comes up, my mind often drifts to this line of thinking: in a world where literally hundreds of TV shows are vying for attention, how do showrunners make their’s stand out? What is the key to attracting an audience in such a crowded pop culture landscape?

Well, the obvious first factor is quality: the truly great shows are the ones that people tend to watch and talk about, for the most part at least (I can’t explain The Walking Dead and The Big Bang Theory, for what it’s worth.) But beyond that, there are a few factors that contribute to a show going from an ignored piece of decency to a critical sensation. And, in my mind, The Good Place utilized most of them — and became one of the best new shows of 2016 in the process.

By now, I hope you have at least a passing knowledge of The Good Place. It’s far from a ratings bonanza, and disappointingly didn’t get a lot of buzz going into its debut season. That’s a shame, and my only line of reasoning going into its first season was that shows of this nature (a.k.a. episodic, standalone sitcoms) simply can’t amass “buzz” anymore, at least not on the level of a Game of Thrones or Westworld. So many prestige shows depend upon a twisty story and strong, serialized storytelling to gets fans involved, and more importantly, to get them talking. Could a show like The Good Place, with the simple premise of “a bad person trying to do good,” ever compare?

Well, by the time I watched the first few episodes, I quickly realized I was very wrong about this series. The Good Place is not the show I thought it would, and likely isn’t the show you think it is either. No, The Good Place is far more special than that.



But to explain why, let’s go back to the show’s initial premise. A woman by the name of Eleanor Shellstrop dies and ends up in “The Good Place,” which is basically a non-direct way of saying “Heaven.” The twist? She was a pretty bad person in her time on Earth, and only ended up in The Good Place due to a rather complicated case of mistaken identity. But determined not to be kicked to the curb and sent to the rather grisly “Bad Place,” Eleanor teams up with her miss-assigned soul mate Chidi (a former ethics professor on Earth) to try to learn how to be good.

Is this a bit of a high concept? Sure — hell, the show was originally pitched as “a bad person tries to be good,” and the whole Heaven/Hell thing was only revealed after filming concluded. But still, even with such a “big” premise, the day-to-day of the show is still pretty easy to assume: it would basically be a slightly more fantastical take on My Name is Earl, with the lead character spending every episode going against her baser instincts in an effort to improve as a person.

And you know what? That would have been a-okay! Michael Schur is a brilliant TV creator, and with his shows like Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, has very much proven himself capable of delivering great, fun “hangout” comedies. He didn’t need to have an overarching storyline, or deep serialization, or thematic depth. These things are necessary for a Mr. Robot or Stranger Things, but a network comedy on NBC? All it had to be was charming, funny, empty filler. And make no mistake: The Good Place IS funny, and charming. But yes, it also has a strong overarching storyline. It is deeply serialized to its core. And it has more thematic depth than any other network sitcom I can think of.



But all of that goes back to the serialization. Network sitcoms have always been weird with serialization, with most shows in the past desperately trying to avoid it. Sure, you would have the occasional three-part episode or hour long finale, but long-term, episode-to-episode serialization was never the intent of a network sitcom. After all, they were made primarily in the hope of syndication, and nothing kills syndication more than a story you literally have to watch every episode of to figure out. But as syndication has become less of a holy grail, and serialization has taken off in the age of Netflix binges, TV creators and outlets are quickly changing their tune. Shows like The Good Place started to realize that nothing attracts a dedicated audience more than a series telling one long, twisty story.

Of course none of that would matter if the story behind said TV series wasn’t very good. Thankfully, The Good Place has a wonderful story, full of twists, turns, and surprises aplenty. Pretty much every episode ends with some type of “twist,” but it never felt like the show was stringing us along — instead, the twists just added to the comedic escalation, putting the series into overdrive at least a half dozen times. Every time the series started to feel like it was getting comfortable, an out of nowhere plot development would send the ensemble scattering. This is a basic component of strong story telling, ESPECIALLY in a TV setting. You never want your characters to be comfortable, because the fun in that gets very boring very quickly. Where would Breaking Bad be if everything just sort of worked out for Walter White at the end of each episode? Who would care at all about Game of Thrones if it was just Eddard Stark solving episodic mysteries with Tyrion Lannister (actually…) “How are they going to get out of this one?” has been an essential element of longform filmmaking since the age of serials, and The Good Place was skilled enough to pull on that history with its many, many cliffhangers.

Making that process all the easier was the season’s short running length, another touch taken straight from the “Peak TV” playbook. Simply put, the “traditional” 22 episode season is dead. Well some would argue that its demise came from the demands of a more crowded marketplace, it’s clear to me that shows started producing less episodes because, almost always, it makes the show better. If Stranger Things ran for 22 episodes, it likely would have been bogged down in nothingness and filler. With a tight eight episode structure, the series was able to tell a constantly enthralling tale that never bored viewers and always left them waiting for more.



Going back to classic sitcoms, it would be almost unheard of to have a successful show run less than 20 episodes. Hell, even the previous series that Michael Schur created, Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine Nine, ran for at least 22 episodes a season. And for what they were trying to be, that was perfectly fine — going into an episodic sitcom, you kind of expect to have a bunch of incredible episodes mixed in with the forgettable ones. Just because only 75% of Parks and Rec was good doesn’t mean it’s not one of the best TV comedies ever made. But it was clear from the get-go that The Good Place, despite all its comedic similarities, was going for something entirely different in its ongoing story. And because the overarching plot was such a key part of what made the show great, they had the common sense to keep it brief and concise. Shorter isn’t always better but, if you want people’s constant attention, it’s probably a better gambit. I mean, if I made this article five paragraphs less than it turned out to be, you would have definitely finished the whole thing. But that’s why Michael Schur is a smarter writer than I am, right?

Which, overall, is why The Good Place succeeded. Earlier I wondered what made a show gain an audience in Peak TV-land, and sort of dismissed quality so I could move on to the other things. But in terms of why this show in particular works, it is the fact that Michael Schur and the rest of his writing team are damned good at their jobs. For all the things that The Good Place does that separates it from the rest of its sitcom brethren, the basic tenets of making a successful TV comedy are still followed.

The characters are all wonderfully written, brought to life brilliantly by its crazy good cast. This might be one of the best comedic ensembles working on TV right now, which is pretty stunning when you consider how much of it is made up of relative unknown. Ted Danson and Kristen Bell aside, everyone else has limited acting experience, especially in the comedy realm. But every damn one of them bring their A-game, and create a very lovable and fascinating group of people in the process. And paired with the great and extremely funny writing (which I certainly don’t want to downplay in this piece; the series has left me laughing out loud many times an episode), The Good Place would be a great sitcom even putting aside everything else it manages to accomplish.



But really you can’t put aside the other things, because they are crucial to understanding how special The Good Place is. By focusing so strongly on story and theme (the latter of which I can’t really get into without spoiling things), the show managed to rise above itself, and become far more than what its initial pitch might suggest. As much as I’ve claimed that Michael Schur DIDN’T need to make the show more than just a fun sitcom, I think a part of him knew that he kind of did.

The TV landscape is so overwhelming that viewers are more picky than ever. As silly as it might be to say, your show can no longer just be “good” in order to get attention — it has to be great. It has to spur on conversation, and theories, and fan enthusiasm over the CRAZY twists. Simply put, it has to be “must watch” TV. And if you ask me, The Good Place more than proved itself worthy of such an honor.


The Good Place was renewed just a few days ago for a second season, so there’s no time like the present to give the first 13 episodes a whirl. The season is currently available in its entirety on Hulu.

Matthew Legarreta is the Editor and Owner of Freshly Popped Culture. A big ol' ball of movie, TV, and video game loving flesh, Matthew has been writing about pop culture for nearly a decade. Matthew also loves writing about himself in the third person, because it makes him feel important (or something.)

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Games

You Won’t Believe This, But That Live-Action Halo TV Series Is Facing Development Troubles!

The series has lost director Rupert Wyatt, and reports of budget concerns put the adaption’s future in jeopardy. But what else is new?

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I’ve been following film and TV news for the better part of a decade and a half, and writing about it for nearly as long. And, in that time, you start to become numb to the cycle of development — creatives are always leaving, executives are always balking, and yada yada yada. Let’s just say there’s a reason why most of the movies in development hell stay there — once a project begins circling the drain, it’s hard to really pull it back out. So after years of this painful back and forth — this developmental ballet — I start to lose faith entirely. For pop culture that has been developing for years, my optimism for it actually get made morphs into the fun category of “I’ll believe it when I fucking see it.” Which, for the record, is why I still don’t believe Kingdom Hearts III is coming out next month. I don’t care that it has a release date, I don’t care that it has gone gold — until the damn thing is in my hands, it’s just vaporware. And you know what else is just vaporware? That goddamn Halo TV series.

Or should I say live-action Halo movie. Really, it’s all the same tale — Hollywood has been trying to monetize the Halo brand since shortly after the first game was released, and became one of the defining video game titles of this millennium. Creating a movie just seemed like the next logical step, and Hollywood recruited Alex Garland to do just that. And Peter Jackson to do just that. And Neil Blomkamp to do just that.  And D.B. Weiss to do just that. And so on and so on. Eventually, that entire project stalled and Microsoft, with the live-action rights back in their hands, decided to shift the game’s adaptation to the world of television, and partnered with a pretty big name to do it: producer Steven Spielberg.

That was five years ago. Just to show how much the world of TV has changed since then, Microsoft initially planned to release the series independently, through the Xbox TV brand. That brand no longer exists which, to these outside eyes, would seem to indicate the TV series was no longer happening. But, nope! After years of silence, Microsoft returned and announced that the TV series was still happening (sure), and that it would be released on Showtime (sure.) A little more time passed. I assumed the concept of a Showtime produced Halo TV series was just some weird fever dream I had. And then, boom! the Halo TV series was off towards the races, with Showtime hiring on showrunner Kyle Killen, a bunch of writers, a big name director — everything! The plan was set for filming to commence at the tail end of 2018, for a late 2019 launch.

And I never believed that shit for a goddamn second. This is a Halo live-action project we are talking about. It’s doomed to fail. And if news from today is any indication, the process has begun in earnest.

As reported by Variety, the “big-name” director hired to helm many episodes of the project, Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes), has departed the series. On the surface, it seems like an innocent enough departure: standard scheduling issues. Wyatt even released this statement corroborating the reported reason:

“It’s with great disappointment that changes to the production schedule of Halo prevent me from continuing in my role as a director on the series. My time on Halo has been a creatively rich and rewarding experience with a phenomenal team of people. I now join the legion of fans out there, excited to see the finished series and wishing everyone involved the very best.”

So yeah: “changes to the production schedule” is the culprit. But the question must be asked: why did the production schedule change in the first place?

Well, thankfully, /Film looked into just that, and found that production on the series is not going as smooth as it might have sounded like it was a few months ago. The budget “has spiraled out of control” according to the website’s sources, and the people in charge are none to happy about what the series is becoming. Well the first few scripts were in line with what Showtime was looking for, latter scripts saw “the entire series balloon in size and cost, leading to some cold feet.” Well it’s possible the series might work through these issues (Game of Thrones, which Showtime is clearly hoping to ape here, ended up doing so), history is not on this franchise’s side as it paves its way to the live-action realm.

And, in my mind, that makes absolute sense. Putting aside the curse an old Hollywood witch doctor performed upon this franchise some time ago, I always thought that TV was a weird fit for the Halo brand. The games are massive, large scale explorations of intergalactic war. They are big war movies, essentially. Unlike Game of Thrones (which peppered its big fantasy moments with plenty of scenes involving political intrigue, dramatic exchanges, and other TV budget friendly concepts), there’s not a whole lot more to Halo than the big action sequences and massive, universe spanning lore. Which is fine and dandy for a big blockbuster movie to tackle. But a TV series? I literally did not see how this could happen. And if these troubles just continue to get worse and worse, that may indeed be the case. Will yet another live action Halo project fall apart right before it reaches the starting line?

…Probably, yeah.


Also published on Medium.

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Geek Binge

The 100 Best Episodes of SpongeBob Squarepants

In tribute to recently deceased Spongebob creator Stephen Hillenburg, let’s take another look at the 100 finest moments of his all-time classic series.

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NOTE: This post was previously written for the website Geek Binge back in the summer of 2014. With the unfortunate news of creator Stephen Hillenburg’s passing earlier today, we thought it would be appropriate to repost it its 25,000 word entirety here. The man leaves behind a legacy of some of the best pieces of animated comedy to ever exist. He will be missed. 


Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the official list of the best episodes of SpongeBob Squarepants! In this article, we’ll dive into the rich history of the show and give you a definitive list of the greatest episodes. Ten episodes will drop here every single day for the next two weeks, culminating in the final spots near the 15th anniversary of the show’s premiere. So read around, comment, bask in the nostalgia, and enjoy all the funny images, memes, videos, and memories from the last fifteen years in one of the greatest TV shows of all time.  We here at Geek Binge love SpongeBob, and we hope you do too.

You may notice the interchangeable nature of the word “episode” in this list. Really, an episode of SpongeBob is two segments put together with commercials, and so technically this is a list of the 100 greatest segments. But some episodes are only one long segment, and sometimes there are three in one, since this show doesn’t like being pinned down to one structure. So just know that you are not crazy, and that I am purposefully being weird about the jargon. Ignore it and you’ll be fine, trust me.


100. “Help Wanted” (May 1st, 1999)

What better place to start on this list than the first episode of SpongeBob? The pilot for the show is the only episode in history to have three segments instead of the usual two, and “Help Wanted” is the second best of the bunch (another is further down the list). It helped establish SpongeBob’s enthusiasm for The Krusty Krab, Squidward’s apathy towards The Krusty Krab, and the tone for the series, all within a brisk eight minutes. It’s an ambitious premiere for a kid’s show, and has a diverse range of humor and animation styles. It’s hard to think what the world would be like without the yellow sponge, and it’s a good thing this initial pitch episode not only did well enough to land it into a full series, but is good enough to still enjoy fifteen years later.

You may remember this particular segment from:


99. “The Great Patty Caper” (November 11th, 2010)

From the oldest entry on the list, we now get to the newest one. The TV special known as “Mystery with a Twistery” is actually a thinly veiled adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express but I use the word adaptation very very loosely. For a full length episode (22 minutes instead of the typical 11) it has a lot of references and call-backs, and has a lot of time to successfully pull off an entire mystery story. It features a terrific new character and straight man in Orin J. Ruffy (The Butler) who counteracts the goofiness of Spongebob and Patrick, only to be later exposed as the real bandit. It’s one of the better special episodes, and is surprisingly funny and clever for being such a recent episode. If you watch modern SpongeBob you know it isn’t up to snuff, but I’m glad there is still the capacity for this show to knock one out of the ballpark every once in a while.

You may remember this particular segment from:


98. “Opposite Day” (September 11th, 1999)

A nefarious plan by Squidward to make sure Spongebob doesn’t get in the way of selling his house, “Opposite Day” challenges the preconceived notions of who Spongebob and Patrick are by forcing them to be someone they aren’t. The characters do the opposite of what they normally do, and at the end straight up pretend to be Squidward. It’s sort of dark if you think about it; a lot of insults are thrown around without sarcasm and the only reason they aren’t taken seriously is because they’re taken as compliments thanks to the holiday. It can be pretty mean in parts, but doesn’t come off as being written that way, just that the characters have the potential to be so. Squidward impersonations aren’t uncommon, but having a climax consist of two Mr. Tentacles is genius.

You may remember this particular segment from:


97. “Jellyfish Jam” (August 28th, 1999)

A relatively straightforward episode (Jellyfish enter Spongebob’s house, he makes them leave, the end), “Jellyfish Jam” focuses not on its plot, but on its sight gags, its catchy music, and commitment to being as silly as it possibly can. There’s a lot of animation on display here: various insert shots of dolphins playing in the ocean, live action underwater footage of sea critters, flashy colors and multiple jellyfish dancing about in fun creative ways. Not every Spongebob story has to be witty, or make you burst into tears with laughter; sometimes you can simply be entertained with what’s going on. “Jellyfish Jam” certainly falls into that category, and suffice it to say, that techno song is still stuck in my head. Not the first time this show has done that though, there’s a lot of fantastic music that’s bound to pop up further down this list.

You may remember this particular segment from:


96. “Scardey Pants” (October 28th, 1999)

This is the first Halloween episode of the show and it premiered just in time for the 31st. The SpongeBob writers have a propensity towards the spooky, scary, and the occult, but at the end of “Scardey Pants” it goes straight Cronenberg with its creepiness. But, it makes the list for reasons non-gore related, including a classic first appearance by The Flying Dutchman, and a lot of really good jokes and an attention to detail that remains an intricate part of the show (Halloween decorations, music cues, ambient sounds, Mr. Krabs writing ‘souls’ on that bag, Squidward not knowing what a goldfish is doing in a bowl of water). There are funnier episodes that deal with fear, and better Halloween themed shows, but this is certainly a good first step.


95. “Tea at the Treedome” (May 1st, 1999)

It’s hard to imagine SpongeBob Squarepants without Sandy Cheeks, the show’s only above-water animal to venture into the depths of the ocean. A lot is established within this segment: the Treedome, Sandy’s love of karate, and the water helmets that Patrick and SpongeBob use for the rest of the series. But this doesn’t get on the list for being a stepping stone, it actually holds up on its own merits. The main running gag of the episode is “putting on airs”, which no child would ever understand, and it leads to a nicely paced and tension filled storyline where SpongeBob dries up and could potentially die. On paper that sounds rather hardcore, but it’s not so harsh when you put whimsical comedy around it. We all remember “pinky out” and “I’m a quitter”, and episode also gave us some delightful live action jokes and a bit of karate.

You may remember this particular segment from:


94. “Texas” (March 22nd, 2000)

If you can stomach all the stereotypes, “Texas” has a big heart underneath all the snark. It’s a bit on the heavy side at times, and speaks to something we can all relate to: feeling home sick in a place we just aren’t familiar to. But thankfully, a lot of endearingly stupid and goofy moments bring enough levity to balance out how sad Sandy is most of the time. I mean, that song about missing Texas, it’s so good. And, if you hate Texas, that’s certainly a plus I guess. I don’t know how much people from Texas actually use quotes from this episode, but I imagine it’s more than you think. Unless Texans don’t have TVs or electricity there yet, or can’t understand cartoons. I’m kidding, of course, relax, readers from Texas.

You may remember this particular segment from:


93. “Culture Shock” (September 18, 1999)

In typical SpongeBob style, some things do not make sense, no matter how much you break it down. Why do people go wild for someone mopping rotten tomatoes? And only when SpongeBob does it? Who cares. “Culture Shock” doesn’t have much going for it, other than the sheer lunacy of the jokes and the absurd number of non-sequiturs (‘Mouth Full of Clams Day’, Squidward’s interpretive dance, “free socks with every meal”, Gary’s incomprehensible poetry). But somehow it all clicks, and the end sequence at the talent show cements “Culture Shock” onto the list and into the classic repertoire of signature moments for the show. For a good while, there is absolutely no dialogue, which is hard enough to pull off, and you might not even realize it. That’s good writing. Plus, there’s a reference to Allen Ginsburg. How cool is that?

You may remember this particular segment from:


92. “Krusty Love” (September 6th, 2002)

Falling in love can be an incredibly complicated and often taxing thing to do. I mean, how can we impress the person we are dating when Spongebob keeps spending all of our hard earned cash? The premise of “Krusty Love” doesn’t sound all that funny on paper, but it’s all in the execution. Despite the story ending very abruptly, it’s always interesting to watch a character like Mr. Krabs have to struggle to keep two things he loves in his life simultaneously: Mrs. Puff, and money. Throw in some terrific jokes, like the ‘imported music’, seeing what Mr. Puff looks like, and ‘renovations’ in the Krusty Krab being gigantic bandages, and I think “Krusty Love” turns out to be an underrated and under appreciated episode.


91. “Skill Crane” (May 20th, 2005)

I love episodes where Squidward is obsessed with something he shouldn’t be (like Krabby Patties). And with “Skill Crane”, the central joke is how easy it is for SpongeBob to win at a crane vending game, and how Squidward can just never seem to win. A lot of well-timed audio cues (the sounds the machine makes when someone wins or losses), strong editing, and the manipulative behavior of Mr. Krabs makes watching Squidward’s misery all the funnier. What’s most impressive about this episode is how a good portion of the story takes place in one corner of the Krusty Krab, which might categorize this as a bottle episode. Not once do you notice how much of it takes place in front of that skill crane, and for that I tip my hat to this episode.

Click the next page on the handy dandy slider to read picks number 90-81!

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Movies

10 Other Members of The Americans Cast Who Should Be Put In A Star War (And The Roles That They Could Play)

Keri Russell should just be the start of alum from FX’s hit spy drama joining the Star Wars universe.

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The talk of the fanboy town this weekend was Keri Russell, a frequent J.J. Abrams cohort, joining the cast of Star Wars: Episode IX (or whatever it might end up being titled.) The think pieces came fast and furious from nearly the moment the casting was first announced, which shouldn’t be too much of a surprise: when any new detail drops about one of these Star Wars films, people will inevitably spend way too much time theorizing about what is to come, for better or (mostly) worse. But when it comes to my initial reaction to the casting, I only had two thoughts: 1) oh my god what is J.J. Abrams going to do to Keri Russell’s hair this time and 2) it’s so damn great to see The Americans cast get work.

Coming off of five years of being perhaps the best dramatic ensemble on television, I truly would be happy to see all of the cast members of The Americans land roles in huge films following the conclusion of the show. And not just huge films, mind you — I’m talking Star Wars huge films. Truly The Americans cast is versatile enough to land any role they could want in the galaxy far, far away, and with Russell’s casting, all I could think about (aside from how amazing she’s going to end up being in the movie, of course) was what her fellow cast members could also bring to the extended franchise.

And I’m a silly person who happens to have a blog so, sorry, you have to be present for my ramblings on such niche, unasked subjects! So here are 10 other members of The Americans cast who deserve a shot at a Star Wars gig and, for the hell of it, the character archetypes they would be great for in the universe. Thank me later, Kathleen Kennedy!


Matthew Rhys (Philip Jennings):

I’ll let my first post-Keri Russell casting tweet speak for itself here:


Holly Taylor (Paige Jennings):

Rey’s previously unmentioned bestie/roommate back home on Jakku. They stay up all night chowing down on dehydrated bread and talking about desert problems, as you do.


Noah Emmerich (Stan Beeman):

Maybe it’s recency bias, but I can’t help but imagine Emmerich playing a tough bounty hunter character. That being said, it will be pretty tragic when he realizes his co-pilot and best friend was his target the whole time. What a dramatic scene they will end up having in the Star Wars equivalent of a parking garage, though.


Brandon J. Dirden (Dennis Aderholt):

Brandon J. Dirden holds himself up with such calm and levelheaded prestige as an actor…making him a perfect choice to play a hapless senator trying to do the right thing, but missing the fact that OOPS an electric wizard is in control now. Bummer!


Costa Ronin (Oleg Burov):

I can definitely see Costa Ronin playing the cool, confident gangster type. He’ll also have a robot arm, for some reason. And he should keep his Season 6 beard, because DAMN does he rock the hell out of it.


Alison Wright (Martha):

Padme in a set of prequel remakes. Because if anyone could sell the anguish of being betrayed by someone they deeply loved for years, only for them to end up being a completely different person than who they thought they were, it would be her. Poor Martha…


Margo Martindale (Claudia):

It’s Character Actress Margot Martindale! Let her be whatever she wants! A Jedi master, a Sith Lord, a crime boss, a droid, a wookie, a gungan — she can do it all, dang it!


Frank Langella (Gabriel):

Let him be the kindest Jedi master ever. OR the most evil Sith Lord to ever exist. Frank Langella is somehow capable of channeling both.


Mail Robot (Mail Robot):

The new official droid mascot of Star Wars, duh! NEXT.


Keidrich Sellati (Henry Jennings):

…He can also be present.


Also published on Medium.

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