Command Z: Soderbergh’s Self Critical Call to Action

Just a few days ago, you could find articles aplenty saying that there was a new Steven Soderbergh series that you should check out. Full Circle (2023) debuted on the is-it-or-is-it-not-a-real-streaming-service-and-will-it-survive-the-summer, Max, and you can read about how it is apparently an interesting take on a Kurosawa classic — from the looks of it, High and Low (1963). I wouldn’t know, I don’t have Max (or whatever it’s called by the time this article publishes (if it even still exists)). And then, just a few days later, on his own website, he drops another web series.

Pointing out how a Soderbergh project is going under the radar on a streaming service is now old hat, as he has seemingly counter programmed against himself; a move that seems: a) calculated to show disdain for the streaming landscape and the attention economy, while also using it to get his things made, and b) an even clearer indication that Steven Soderbergh just does whatever he wants. This is the same man that competed against himself in the 2001 Academy Awards, with Traffic (2000) netting him best director over Steven Soderbergh for Erin Brockovich (2000). And, in 2023, he’s not only just put out another streaming only series, he also put out (the underrated by some) Magic Mike’s Last Dance (2023). This all from a man who famously retired from filmmaking in 2013.

Like a lot of retirement era Soderbergh, the form of Command Z is as interesting — if not more so — than the thing itself. In fact, it is inextricably linked to its release. After all, it exists on the director’s website, you can only access it by donating to Children’s Aid and Boston University Centre for Antiracist Research, and the footer of the Command Z subsite of the ‘Soderblog’ states: ‘Do Something‘, and lists links to organisations for fighting climate change, combatting disinformation and pursuing progressive policies by getting involved in politics. The show itself could be reduced to an excuse to front these ideas, though it is more than that, and is a purposefully light — somewhat disposable — thing that itself showcases the limitations of political art.

It is a stacked deck, the show is very surface level — not digging into things or having an overarching argument outside of pointing towards issues. But even in this framework, it makes good points. Though, appropriately for a time travel show, I’m getting ahead of myself and need to wormhole back to actually explain what Command Z even is.

Command Z is an eight episode web series about three characters in the future who are employed by a dead tech trillionaire who has been ‘reborn’ as an AI (played by an excellent Michael Cera). This floating, digital head gives them access to a washing machine, that gives them access to a wormhole, that gives them access to time travel to 17th July 2023. Sorry reader in the future, this was designed to be watched the day it dropped and thus signifies that it is not trying to ‘matter’, that the long term impacts of engaging outside of culture are more vital and long lasting. The goal in the past is to (for amusingly complex reasons), use influencers to convince the inherently evil mega rich to make different choices, and thus slightly improve the future. A running gag is that all of this small scale intervention with single people only improves the future (which the AI quantifies) by fractions of a percent (occasionally popping up into single digits). There are two clear points:

1) Powerful individuals are a root cause of our ever widening dystopia.

2) Change needs to happen on a wider, systemic level if it is going to do anything.

The show points out that small things can make change, and do matter, but that this can be co-opted with ease and is not worth the effort. What matters is doing something through the kind of institutions and groups listed on the website. Command Z is therefore self satirical, a mockery of how we replace activism with art, but a well-meaning and non-judgmental polemic. Every episode ends with a ‘for more information on [insert topic here], watch’ disclaimer, and lists three movies. This, quite hilariously, includes the call to action that, to learn about climate change, you should watch Ice Age: The Meltdown (2006). This end of episode refrain is admitting that it is enriching to explore culture about these topics, and does give some really cool recommendations at points, but is deeply aware of the limitations — fronting the real advice on the website you have to navigate through to get to the show.

As an independent thing, Command Z is pretty silly. It is always fun, and mostly funny, but misses along the way, sporadically going after easy targets in broad ways. The characters are nicely written, and are cohere well across each instalment, and there are good running gags and motifs that benefit from the structure. It is a formal experiment. It mostly exists in one location and with a very limited cast of characters. It is repetitive by design and is an excuse for those involved to experiment and have fun. It is an advert: art as enticement to get you involved in something about art. A self mocking thing that is all about intervention and pushing for change, while pointing out that many ways we push for change and intervene are flawed.

Like all Soderbergh projects, there are great performances and it has got style. There is also a lot of varied writing talent along the way and it gets to play around with fun concepts and ideas. It is a self aware distraction, existing to live in the moment while prompting you to actually change the future from the present. It is made by a bunch of very talented people, though, so even a show that on its website advertises itself as coming ‘from the ass of Steven Soderbergh’, ends up being pretty damn good. It is not revolutionary, but it is not so by design and exists as part of a wider thing. Even on its own terms it is funny, charming and eminently watchable. A cool thing advocating for greater causes.


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