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Review: Anger Management: Season Two

The second season of Anger Management is mostly a depressing slog, lacking even the calculated urgency that characterized the first season.

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Anger Management: Season Two

A sexist, racist, homophobic dinosaur in the age of daring and empathetic comedies such as Girls and Louie, Anger Management, whose 2012 debut was shrewdly timed to cash in on the latest speed bump in Charlie Sheen’s career, revels in a glib mean-spiritedness. The first season was inhumane and all the more popular for it, so there was little hope that creator Bruce Helford and his writers would try to rise above their tabloid muck. The only, admittedly qualified, hope that one might bring to a second season is that it at least exhibit occasional cleverness in its ongoing smear campaign of everything that isn’t Charlie Sheen.

In its second season, Anger Management’s superficial issues of craftsmanship have been smoothed out, as one can now mostly discern the intended punchlines without the help of a grating laugh track. But the characters, which already began as ciphers, have somehow managed to regress even further. Selma Blair’s desperation to squeeze anything out of her character Kate Wales’s pathetic one-liners, whether it be subtext, humanity, or an ounce of active pleasure, is even more pronounced now that the writers have predictably decided to parody Kate’s determination to be a woman who prizes casual sex and a fulfilling professional life. It’s embarrassingly beyond the show’s imagination to suggest that Kate’s desires are perfectly reasonable.

An early episode finds Charlie (Sheen) and Kate traveling to visit Charlie’s estranged sister for her baby shower, which leads to the pair winning a newlyweds board game against couples who’ve been married for years and should be theoretically better acquainted with one another than the two casual lovers. That’s a potentially amusing idea, and the writers are quick to score the usual mostly unfunny points on the married couples as conformist hypocrites, but those jokes don’t thematically gel with later episodes that are openly critical of Kate for being a self-absorbed manipulator incapable of giving in fully to ex-womanizing Charlie’s reformed charms—and thus embracing a lifestyle the writers have just ridiculed.

Three of the show’s four principle female characters are explicitly and routinely defined by a singular characteristic of promiscuity (strippers and assorted other guest hotties also pop in for Charlie’s delectation). Lacey (Noureen DeWulf), an anger-management patient whose continually on the look-out for the next wealthy penis to exploit, teams up with the show’s equally reductive queer stereotype, Patrick (Michael Arden), against his former high-school tormentor, but the potential for a surprising development of kinship between the two is disappointingly abandoned for yet another round of strained, bitchy repartee. Brett Butler, as a weary bartender, is saddled with a witless and unvaried aging slut-hippy routine, while Charlie’s ex-wife, Jennifer (Shawnee Smith), is spared of this sort of shtick by virtue of being positioned as the the obligatory center of bland domestic stability.

Potentially passable stories succumb again and again to the show’s relentless contempt, but one episode is almost accidentally amusing for its pointed lack of empathy. Martin Sheen, in a recurring role as Charlie’s dad, is revealed to be faking senility in a bid to hide out at his son’s place. It’s tough to discern if this is meant to intentionally parody the pompous stillness that the deeply dull and inexplicably admired elder Sheen often brings to roles, but it’s the closest Anger Management gets to achieving any comic friction. Otherwise, the series is mostly a depressing slog, lacking even the calculated urgency that characterized the first season.

Cast: Charlie Sheen, Selma Blair, Shawnee Smith, Brett Butler, Barry Corbin, Noureen DeWulf, Derek Richardson, Martin Sheen Airtime: FX, Thursdays @ 9:30 p.m. Buy: Amazon

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Review: Russian Doll Resists Becoming a Simplistic Morality Tale

The Netflix show’s premise is like a playfully morbid Escher painting.

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Russian Doll
Photo: Netflix

The premise of Russian Doll, in which Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) keeps dying during her 36th birthday party only to awaken each time at the start of the night, suggests a playfully morbid Escher painting. In one episode, Nadia dies multiple times by falling down the same staircase and snapping her neck; in another, she learns her lesson and avoids the stairs by using the fire escape, only to later choke on a chicken wing. The character’s repetitive 24-hour cycle provides a showcase for Lyonne: The actress, uniquely suited to play a sardonic New Yorker such as Nadia, highlights the dark comedy of the character’s situation as well as her lingering emotional damage.

Nadia eventually meets Alan (Charlie Barnett), a man who also keeps dying, and together they hunt for a way out of their peculiar situation. The discoveries they make along the way don’t always make logical sense—in part because, while Alan has some vaguely compulsive tendencies, the series isn’t specific about his personal issues. Although Nadia and Alan begin to grasp that their salvation may depend on confronting their emotional and mental damage, the series never quite provides an answer for exactly how they found themselves in these loops to begin with. Do these cycles befall other people besides Nadia and Alan? Are they an act of god? Does it all have to do with Nadia’s cat, who has recently gone missing?

The fact that Russian Doll doesn’t address the specific root of Nadia’s predicament, though, invites a number of interpretations. And by glossing over the precise details of its central mystery, the series resists reducing Nadia’s quest to a simplistic morality tale. She can be vulgar, unfiltered, and even cruel. She also indulges in a breadth of vices. Without ever suggesting that she must alter herself to meet the expectations of others, though, Russian Doll maintains an astute understanding of which aspects of Nadia are permanent and which are malleable. It suggests that the parts of her that need changing, like her self-loathing and emotional numbness, relate primarily to her own happiness rather than virtue or goodness. In a philosophical conversation with between her and Alan, the series seems to make the case that morality is relative, amorphous, and immaterial.

In resisting convenient lesson-teaching, Russian Doll sustains its central mystery and never collapses into saccharine didacticism. There’s no checklist for Nadia to attend to in order to free herself, no great wrongs that need righting. She must get better, but not necessarily to be better—though, in some instances, she does that as well. And while the resolution of her predicament is somewhat vague, it remains sweetly fulfilling, because, while the series deals in opaque supernaturalism, its protagonist is easy to root for as she fumbles toward happiness.

Cast: Natasha Lyonne, Yul Vazquez, Elizabeth Ashley, Greta Lee, Charlie Barnett Airtime: Netflix

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Review: Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy Slumps Into Mopey Mediocrity

The series is unable to render any of the visual imagination its source material practically begs for.

1.5

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The Umbrella Academy
Christos Kalohoridis/Netflix

So many superhero stories—particularly the gritty Marvel shows in Netflix’s stable—focus on minimizing the weirdness of their characters, streamlining their iconic costumes, and simplifying their origin stories, in order to flaunt a kind of fashionable semi-plausibility. At first, The Umbrella Academy seems to buck this trend by remaining refreshingly off the wall. The series is populated by characters like a talking chimpanzee butler named Pogo (Adam Godley) and time-traveling assassins in children’s masks (Mary J. Blige and Cameron Britton). In the first 10 minutes of the pilot, an impossibly beefy man hangs out on the moon. As the series wears on, though, it reveals itself to be largely incapable of juggling such promising absurdity with the demands of the average TV superhero melodrama.

Adapted from the Eisner-winning Dark Horse comic book drawn by Gabriel Bá and written by My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way, the series sifts through the wreckage of a superhero team that’s less a nuclear family than a family gone nuclear. In 1989, more than 40 women around the world were spontaneously impregnated and gave birth to super-powered children. The mysterious billionaire Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore) adopted seven such children and trained six, sans one apparently without powers, into a crime-fighting team that grew up, grew dysfunctional, and grew apart. The patriarch’s sudden death brings the estranged siblings back together, including the time-traveling Number Five (Aidan Gallagher).

Despite such an audacious premise, The Umbrella Academy quickly slumps into mopey mediocrity, unable to render any of the visual imagination the material practically begs for. Throughout, the action is sloppy, the cinematography is pedestrian, and the production design is gray and largely nondescript. Beyond a ‘50s-flavored donut shop and the apparent nonexistence of cell phones, the series barely bothers to portray its retro setting. There are brief flashes of style, but The Umbrella Academy is largely content to abuse slow-mo and ironic needle-drops. Several drug trips, the hijacking of an ice cream truck, a meeting with God, and other such moments feel more like aberrations than examples of a coherent tone, gestures toward an irreverent personality the series never sustains.

The majority of The Umbrella Academy is marred by fumbled attempts at character development and stilted performances. The protagonists rarely transcend the broadest strokes as the Netflix series dwells on the same few character beats and displays of sibling bickering and mind-numbing romance. Only Robert Sheehan’s anarchic Klaus, who takes drugs to dull his ability to commune with ghosts, and Ellen Page’s frustrated Vanya, who has no powers at all, seem to benefit from the show’s attempts to beef up its breezy source material. Their character arcs are the most heartfelt and relatable, rooted in fear and insecurity.

Occasionally, The Umbrella Academy hits on something profound about feeling inferior, abandoned, and alone, mostly in its flirtations with familial trauma. Reginald Hargreeves was a cold man, and he left lasting emotional and physical scars on each of his children; he referred to them by numbers instead of names. But rather than look to the past, the series advises its characters to let go and focus on what’s in front of them, who they’ve grown into, and how they can heal together. The problem, of course, is that the show’s past seems significantly more interesting than its present, which is confined to the same handful of locations and full of red herrings that delay obvious plot twists.

Way and Bá’s comic exhibits none of the bloat that sinks this adaptation. It’s briskly paced, with exaggerated art and striking colors that perfectly service the story’s unhinged invention and wacky detours. For whatever weirdness the TV series promises at its outset, it ends up as another distended superhero show that smooths out its source material’s idiosyncrasies until little remains of whatever made it appealing in the first place.

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Review: Amazon’s The ABC Murders Is a Formulaic Adaptation

The miniseries transforms Agatha Christie’s novel into a formulaic, adamantly bleak exercise.

1.5

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The ABC Murders
Amazon Prime

Re-fashioned by screenwriter Sarah Phelps as a beaten-down man sporting a goatee instead of his trademark moustache, the Hercule Poirot of Amazon’s three-part adaption of Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders is a total bore. John Malkovich, in bringing this iteration of the famed detective to life, performs accordingly, as the actor’s oddball charisma is nowhere to be seen. Here, Poirot’s dogged stoicism scans as disinterest.

While much of Poirot’s investigative work is dispassionate and mechanical, however, the story’s central mystery is deftly plotted, with Christie’s trail of breadcrumbs twisting and turning toward a clever and surprising conclusion. Poirot receives regular letters from The A.B.C. Killer, a serial murderer who leaves a trail of victims across the British countryside and seems to know Poirot personally. The killer at least has an encyclopedic knowledge of Poirot’s life before the detective fled for England from his native Belgium during the first World War.

Poirot’s time in Belgium is a secondary mystery here, one that’s hinted at in repetitive, vague flashbacks. The series leans heavily on the mystery of the detective’s traumatic past, allowing his suffering to subsume any of the character’s other discernible traits. He’s merely a tortured man, and when the story hidden in those flashbacks is finally revealed, the truth (which is an invention of this adaptation) does little to explain anything about Poirot except his misery. It doesn’t even enhance our understanding of his prodigious investigative skill.

The characters who surround Poirot are sketched with as little nuance as the detective himself. Inspector Crome (Rupert Grint), for one, exists solely to eye Poirot with suspicion; the boyish Grint instills his character with a hint of adolescent insecurity that suggests a professional jealousy, but that isn’t something that’s otherwise explored in the writing. Elsewhere, the killer’s victims are caricatures, and the likely killer, a creepy-looking man named Alexander Bonaparte Cust (Eamon Farron), is defined by two traits: masochism and epilepsy.

Director Alex Gabassi renders The ABC Murders’s 1930s setting with an attention to detail both large and small, from eerie Victorian-era mansions to period-specific cigarettes. Indeed, the most memorable moments from the series are touches of visual flair. A climactic chase through a rail yard cleverly uses track switches to build suspense and surprise as CGI trains thunder by, and in one of the show’s most striking (and revolting) moments, a close-up of a man’s bulbous cyst precedes a similar close-up of a runny fried egg.

The ABC Murders also makes painstaking note of a rising nativist movement. Xenophobic posters can be seen at train stations, and characters often cringe at Poirot’s French linguistic flourishes. These elements plainly gesture toward Brexit and the broader, worldwide surge of nationalism in 2019. But Phelps struggles to thematically relate the fascism that envelopes the setting to the story’s events as they unfold, or even to Poirot’s modus operandi as a detective. Poirot remains a cipher, humorlessly bearing the weight of a tragic origin story and a nation’s decay on his shoulders. In the end, The ABC Murders suffocates the enthralling, exciting qualities of a detective mystery beneath a layer of self-regarding grimness.

Cast: John Malkovich, Rupert Grint, Michael Shaeffer, Andrew Buchan, Eamon Farren, Jack Farthing, Tara Fitgerald Airtime: Amazon Prime

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