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Want to Try Blank Check? Start Here.

Photo: Arin Sang-Urai

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On the podcast Blank Check With Griffin & David, reply guys-turned-hosts Griffin Newman and David Sims have invented and perfected a system for delivering their sometimes idiosyncratic verdicts about movies without coming across as mansplaining douchebags. In each episode of the Patreon-funded show, Newman, a comedian and actor best known for Amazon’s The Tick reboot, and Sims, a culture writer for The Atlantic, examine a film made by a director whom Hollywood afforded a proverbial “blank check.” Each examined filmmaker’s full filmography becomes the subject of a different miniseries: “Podward Scissorcast” for the complete works of Tim Burton, “Podback Mountcast” for Ang Lee, or “The Pod Knight Casts” for … well, you get it. The hosts, known to longtime listeners as “#TheTwoFriends,” share a complex but riveting chemistry. For one, their dynamic is often more prickly than congenial. With his critic’s training, Sims brings to the podcast a focused, even-keeled approach compared to Newman, whose more gonzo persona toggles between elastically silly and sincere depending on the film. Even when they agree on something, Sims often spends much of each episode’s runtime warning his clownish counterpart to stay on track.

Since debuting in January 2016, Blank Check has featured guests from a wide range of backgrounds, leading to a somewhat unpredictable tone. Episodes in which comedians like Ayo Edebiri or Las Culturistas’ Matt Rogers and Bowen Yang appear are straightforwardly hilarious, whereas those featuring filmmakers like Nia DaCosta or critics like Slate’s Dana Stevens serve as earnest and intellectual deep dives. As a result, despite its popularity among loyal fans, a.k.a. “Blankies,” Blank Check can be a difficult show to recommend to the uninitiated. (Even the theme song by Layne Montgomery acknowledges this: “Blank Check With Griffin & David: Don’t know what to say or to expect.”) But in episodes where one’s scholarly takes on a movie sync up with the other’s goofball instincts, Sims, Newman, and their producer and unofficial “Third Friend” Ben Hosley capture a stupid-smart dichotomy so different from the more common arrogance of typical movie-review podcasts that any self-effacing cinema obsessive will consider it a breath of fresh air.

That particular dichotomy is what makes “Unbreakable With Matt Patches,” the third installment of the “Pod Night Shyamacast” miniseries chronologically dedicated to the oeuvre of M. Night Shyamalan (and episode 42 overall), the most welcoming entry point from the show’s six-plus-year run for new listeners. Released February 8, 2016 with Thrillist executive entertainment editor Patches (now deputy entertainment editor at Polygon) as the guest, the episode opens with Newman riffing on the final lines of Shyamalan’s fourth film starring Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson, Unbreakable: “I should have known all along. You know why? Because of the kids, David. They called me … Mr. Podcast!” Sims laughs at the reference but quickly turns serious: “I just want to get the guest in really quickly because it freaks me out when he’s just sitting there.” “Nah, I’m just gonna sit in the corner,” Patches gamely responds.

Patches is from Philadelphia, so the hosts note that he’s the perfect fit for a conversation about Shyamalan’s Pennsylvania-set thriller. Newman chides that the guest is getting ahead of himself in describing the first scene of Unbreakable, a film Newman considers his “Rosetta Stone.” But before he can begin waxing nostalgic, Hosley — introduced as “Producer Ben,” “The Ben-Ducer,” “The Hoz,” “The Peeper,” and finally, “Professor Crispy” (because of the crisp sound editing) — interrupts the conversation with the episode’s signature bit: a jarring sound bite of a chorus sing-yelling “UN-BREAKABLE!” from the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt opening credits.

It takes eight minutes of similar distractions and quipping to settle before the real discussion begins. To start, all three men agree that Unbreakable is one of Shyamalan’s most haunting works, and well worth what will become a one-hour-40-minute deep dive. Sims describes the experience of seeing Unbreakable in theaters as “alarming” and “disturbing.” Patches compares it to a Lars von Trier film (“Unenjoyable, but on purpose”). And Newman recalls that it “skyrocketed into his top ten favorite movies” when he saw it at the age of 11, turning him into a full-blown teenage “Shyamaholic.” Even at that young age, Griffin says he recognized that Shyamalan was already a brand name due to the success of The Sixth Sense in 2000. In a rare moment, Sims agrees, calling Unbreakable “the definition of a blank check: Okay, you’re the wunderkind — do what you want.

For the next 15 minutes, they trade loose factoids about Shyamalan’s $10 million salary and Robin Wright replacing Julianne Moore. They dissect the intensity of the noir-esque trailer, which Newman can recall shot by shot (this seems impressive until Sims bellows, “What’s your point?!”). And they react with shock when Newman reveals that Samuel L. Jackson’s longtime “hair guy” is credited as one Robert Louis Stevenson.

It is not until the 25-minute mark that Sims’s training as a professional film critic (and his palpable impatience with all the banter) kicks in, and he finally demands “a human level of discourse.” At that point, the conversation turns to Unbreakable’s sad, grim tone (Hosley again: “UN-BREAKABLE!”). “Every time that it makes a choice, it makes a choice to be muted and dark and unfathomably, glacially slow,” Sims says. When Newman suggests that “2000-to-2010 Griffin would have argued that this film was perfect,” Sims highlights Eduardo Serra’s cinematography as the key to its long-lasting power. “This movie is not flawless, but what it is is meticulous,” he says. “There is a lot of intent in the way he frames shots to look like comic-book frames.”

In addition to Serra and Shyamalan’s “somewhat showy” visual framing, which gets its own ten-minute analysis, Sims, Newman, and Patches spend the next half-hour studying several other components of the film, like its central performances (which Newman smirkingly argues is “Bryce Willis’s” best ever in homage to a Stella bit), the iconography of David Dunn’s poncho costume, and Shyamalan’s obsession with the deadliness of water. Newman concludes that while ostensibly a superhero origin story, Unbreakable (“UN-BREAKABLE!”), like all of the director’s films, is simply about “people who need to reconnect with other people; emotionally repressed men feel the need to reconnect with their spiritually, their family, their career.” He adds that Shyamalan is “a very algorithmic filmmaker — in terms of trying to get audience response, but also, he has a good sense of technical craft and film language.” Sims responds with a rusty shiv: “I think we have made that point.”

Patches jokes that for him, Unbreakable might have felt more like his native Philly if Shyamalan had added rap over James Newton Howard’s (or as Newman calls him, “James Newty How”) already bombastic theme music. The room goes ballistic at the concept:

Hosley: “Who would have done the Unbreakable rap in 2000?”

Sims: “Someone from the Wu-Tang Clan because they love superheroes. The RZA?”

Newman: “Sisqo would have. They’d have called it ‘The Glass Song.’”


Newman: “Let me break that gla-a–a-ass.”

[Sims sighs.]

Newman: “Negative ten points?”

Hosley: “I’m going to actually have to cut that out.”

In the final 20 minutes, Sims and Newman close the episode by discussing the public reception to the movie, including how being given such a “blank check” after The Sixth Sense led to enormous pressure on Shyamalan. The group debates whether Shyamalan could or should ever make a follow-up, given its lackluster box office.

They suggest that while it was considered his “sophomore slump” at the time, it holds up beautifully and remains “Touchstone Pictures’ touchstone picture.” As Newman conclusively summarizes it: “Thank God he didn’t make a sequel.” Sims and Patches even agree with Newman that Unbreakable works best as a standalone film. Peace is once again restored. Then Hosley cuts back in: “UN-BREAKABLE!”

The interjection is disruptive in its absurdism, then hysterical after a moment’s pause, and ultimately, a perfect little cherry on top of this sundae of an episode. The only true downside is that, after repeating such an earworm over and over again, anyone who listens to the episode will never be able to watch the Shyamalan movie without giggling again.

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Want to Try Blank Check? Start Here.