Over at Slate a couple weeks ago, Juliet Lapidos wrote a column entitled âChauvinist Pigs in Space: Why Battlestar Galactica Is Not So Frakking Feminist After All,â in which she explores the widely-lauded feminism ostensibly on display in the show. Lapidos calls it âconventional wisdom … that the show takes a strong stand against misogyny,â citing Elle, Wired, and a scholarly collection of essays on Battlestar called Cylons in Americaa. Allowing for some advances, especially over previous depictions of women in science fiction, she ultimately identifies any perceived advances as âattention-grabbing,â with âplenty [remaining] to make a feminist squirm.â She devotes the rest of the column to exploring the ways in which Battlestarâparticularly as belonging to the peculiarly misogynistic genre of science fictionâfails the feminism test.
To an extent, of course, Lapidos is right. The show rarely focuses on the naked or hypersexualized (much less gooed-up and reborn) bodies of the male Cylons; the show is made largely by males and for males, and it follows that the attractive women of Battlestar have their sexuality explored, visualized and, yes, exploited. In no way excusing this facet of the show, it is somewhat difficult to hold this against the show insofar as every other contemporary form of visual media, including those made by and for women, engages in this very same practice. That is, the hypersexualization may not be okayâmuch less something that honors womenâbut for television in 2009, it is simply par for the course. Regardless: point taken, and noted.
The rest of Lapidosâ points may be grouped into five categories, all of which are highly flawed criticisms. I will engage them case by case.
1. Cally as ultimate retrograde woman.
Lapidos examines the character of Cally (Nicki Clyne), and specifically her relationship to Chief Tyrol and the context of her death, with the final conclusion that Battlestar presents Cally as âa Victorian hysteric … driven to desperation [not] by a sexist social order but [because] she canât contain her feminine irrationality.â
The examination is fair and careful, but the conclusion is seriously wanting. More than anything, Lapidos misses the point of Callyâs hysteria: it is not Tyrolâs (Aaron Douglas) poor parenting or (lack of) marital presenceâsuch that it would of course make sense for her to seek divorceâbut, rather, the devastating revelation that her husband is a Cylon and thus her own child is half-Cylon. This woman who was willing to sacrifice her own future on the Galactica in order to murder the saboteur Cylon who shot Adama, who partook in the insurgency on New Caprica, who lived for years in rabid hatred of all things machine, this same woman, Cally, discovers her husband and son are themselves machines, and the floor drops out. Who knows how crazy any of us would become in the discovery of such a life-altering and game-changing truth? It certainly has nothing to do with her âfeminine irrationality.â Her sanity is her insanity at this atomic explosion of news.
Furthermore, there is no âmessageâ about âthe way to a manâs heart [being] through his fist,â as Lapidos states concerning Tyrolâs waking up from a dream and beating Cally to a pulp, precipitating their eventual relationship and marriage as a central event. The first rule of strong drama is that radically imperfect events happen in the context of radically imperfect human life, as lived by real, flawed, recognizable human beings. We know that, horrific as it is, in real life this event happens all too often. We have even seen it recently in the news with Rihanna and Chris Brown. My wife is a social worker and confirms the sad reality: Men beat up their wives or girlfriends, and separation comes, but promises are made, and then they reunite or even become âcloserâ (metaphorically or literally, as in the âdeepeningâ of the relationship through marriage). Sometimes this is due to a lack of options, resources, or community; sometimes it lies in the past of either or both parties; sometimes it simply happens for no understandable reason.
Regardless, Battlestar Galactica is a truly great television show precisely because it explores and allows for these kinds of radically imperfect realities. As a male I do not receive a message from the story of Cally and Tyrol that endorses violence toward women; rather, I shudder at the terrible tragedy of real abuse in real relationships.
2. Every woman is dead, dying, or Cylon.
The argument here is deeply confusing. It is wholly unclear to me how the fact that every woman on Battlestar is dead, dying or non-human somehow contributes to the notion that â[w]omenâthe human ones, anywayâjust canât hack it when the going gets rough.â
Some of the examples are flawed. Let us remember that by tonightâs series finale, we shouldnât be expecting many of either gender to be left standing. The show is realistic about death, and we come expecting untold casualties in this gritty story of survival. Thus, to use Deeâs (Kandyse McClure) suicide as an example of âjust one more woman dyingâ (my false quotes, not hers) is unhelpful and irrelevant, because she has been a main character from the very beginning in the miniseries, and she killed herself in the 10th-to-last episode. She âlastedâ almost the entirety of the showâs run!
Taken along with Roslinâs (Mary McDonnell) illness and the revelation of other female characters as Cylons, this leads to a larger mistake made by Lapidos in her analysis: We must understand sickness or non-humanness not as weakness or an inability to âhack itâ but, rather, as an investment in the powerful complexity and depth of these female characters.
Think about it: if the great majority of the dead/dying/Cylon characters were male, we might make the opposite argument, that âonlyâ the male characters were interesting enough to be the âimportantâ Cylons or âworthâ killing off. Instead, we have utterly arresting portrayals of a cancer-ridden President leading her people home, of a confused potential half-breed who canât find balance between heroine and screw-up, of an Admiral so consumed with power and authority that she is assassinated, of an intelligent machine utterly caught up into the drama of the future of human and Cylon alikeâall played by incredible actresses who more than answer the call! I am at a loss for how this might in any way be to the detriment of women.
(At this point, it is becoming clear, and will become more so later in this post, that Lapidos and I surely share differing views about what might constitute âfeminismâ in a television show, and/or what might demonstrate a show like Battlestar faithfully taking a âstand against misogyny.â It is difficult to discern what Lapidosâ expectations are coming to the show: if it âtakes a stand against misogyny,â so to speak, does that mean all differences between the genders or problems resulting from gendered humanity disappear or have been solved? No other such social problems seem to have been solved in the world of Battlestar; that is the value of the show in a nutshell. This is not Roddenberryâs Star Trek: The 12 Colonies of Kobol are no utopia. And going on the run from a hellbent genocidal enemy does not add to social cohesion. Battlestar Galactica explores issues of class, race, war, authority, governance, genocide, religion, politics, violence, revolution, prison, patriotism, torture, and the face of the Other. How could it not explore the twin issues of sex and gender? What would it mean for Battlestarâs universe to be âgender blindâ as she mournfully requests later in the article? Battlestar Galactica is a gender-full world constituted by the rich variety of male and female that form what it means to live as human beingsâboth genders treated equally with the profound respect, honor, time, and richness they deserve. To do or be otherwise would be unfaithful to the reality of life as it is lived, and Battlestar is, if it is anything, a product of the artistic attempt to be faithful to the messy glory of lived life.
(In such a way do I potentially (likely) disagree with Lapidos. I state it only to make as clear as possible the potential differences beneath our analysis and understanding of the show we each obviously respect and (hopefully) enjoy, assumptions that make all the difference. I hope that, in my continued critique of her below, those differing assumptions will not make the conversation impossible, but rather guide and illumine the ground and depth of our disagreements for the sake of better communication.)
3. Friendship as sole possession of men.
Lapidos may be onto something in her recognition in the show of male friendship set over against female friendship. On the other hand, it is difficult to find any real core friendship explored in the series other than that of Adama (Edward James Olmos) and Tigh (Michael Hogan), which may imply that women are not being ignored, so much as all other friendships take the backseat to Adama and Tighâs.
Beyond that, it is important to recognize the cross-gender friendships that populate the show, entirely (to my reading) ignored in the column. I hope Lapidos would not want to claim that for Battlestar to be somehow âtrulyâ or âproperlyâ feminist it must meet a checklist of demands for some arbitrary number of positive portrayals of women. To my mind, the point would rather be to create a world in which men and women are written, acted, and portrayed as the equally complex, particular, imperfect, and wonderful creations they are. In that sense, there can be no doubt that Battlestar Galactica succeeds triumphantly.
Thus we see Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) and Helo (Tahmoh Penikett), odd pair that they are, walking through life as old friends and constantly seeking and finding in the other a corollary, known point of contact. We see Adama and Roslin in adversarial respect, then in mutual friendship and only then in some kind of romantic relationship. We see Baltar (James Callis) and Gaeta (Alessandro Juliani) begin in scientific communion, transition into mutual respect, move to broken betrayal, and conclude, quietly, in redeemed confession. We see the intimate evolution of Adama and Athenaâs (Grace Park) relationship grow to the point of respect and trust, and ultimately a uniform bestowed. And we see the transition from Roslinâs relationship with Billy (Paul Campbell) to one with Tory (Rekha Sharma), both unique and interesting in their own ways.
Such examples, among others, ought to disabuse us of any notion that friendshipâthat is, complex relationship that is gender-inclusive and non-sexualâis limited only to the males of Battlestar Galactica.
4. Rape as unexamined casual threat.
Here is one of Lapidosâ most potent critiques: what she calls the âinsidious … casual threats of rape made throughout the series.â And when she says that â[r]ape is a trope on the show,â she is absolutely correct. Here, to her credit, she recognizes that the show does not condone rape, but she laments âthat the writers drop sexual violence into the script so often without comment,â as well as the fact that the threat is only directed at women, which to her mind ânegates the idea that Battlestar conjures a gender-blind universe.â
Again, I am unclear what it might mean for Battlestar to be a âgender-blind universeâ and remain a compelling drama, to the extent that being âgender-blindâ would in all likelihood entail characters being less imperfectly human than they are. If by the term she means a world in which men are threatened with rape equally as much as women, or that the show could offer more comment on the reality and violence of rape, I am not sure how to reply. Certainly in life, men are not excluded from the threat and horror of rape, and so a complete lack of attention to that fact could be construed as gender bias in the show. Two responses, however.
First, it seems odd, at least to me, to ask for a âbalancingâ of rape to both genders. The request sounds bizarre. Its oddness stems particularly from my second response: Rape is not a random human-on-human act in Battlestar. It is tied intimately with the fact that two opposing civilizations/races/forms of life view the one as somehow inferior in value to the other. Thus nearly every situation where rape comes into play is borne out in the context of human-Cylon hatred and violence. The human Admiral Cain (Michelle Forbes) orders subordinates to rape the Cylon prisoner; a human interrogator attempts to rape Sharon the Cylon (Park) to extract information (and simply for the torturous âfunâ of it); a mutineer tells Helo he plans to âfrakâ Heloâs wife, Athena the Cylon; and the Cylons do their best to impregnate Starbuck, regardless of the effects on her, finding any violence done to the merely âhumanâ subject negligible for the gain of furthering the evolution and progeny of the species.
Here is an extraordinary account of the depths of human depravity when viewing the Other as inhuman, monster, or without value. We think of Abu Ghraib or of eugenics. We know that this horror exists, and that it is so often done by men against women, or at least against âthe enemy.â Is it somehow chauvinist that the violence has been perpetrated solely against women? I am sure that is possible, but it certainly seems to be missing the point.
5. General inequities between male and female depiction.
Ultimately, Lapidos finds no reason to excoriate Battlestarâs writers, as if they have been âsit[ting] around inventing new, technologically advanced ways to denigrate women.â Yet because, she writes, we still live here and now and not âthenâ in the world of Battlestar, âchauvinism creeps into the show.â Gender inequities remain.
I have no interest in putting down Lapidosâ wonderfully thought-provoking column, so allow me to make abundantly clear how much I appreciated her careful approach to the subject and grateful attention to the show. I similarly appreciate her critical, sensitive eye to the ongoing, tragic inequities between men and women that continue to live on, both in our world and in that of Battlestar Galactica.
I only hope to show that most, if not all, of her concerns are misplaced. I realize, of course, I am the exact demographic she names as Battlestarâs key audience: an 18-29 year old male sci-fi fan. Nevertheless, my small hope is that she might see in this phenomenal show not a mere rehashing of an old story that, explicitly or not, elevates men over women but, instead, a compelling, powerful and truthful story about real men and real women in the complex and disputatious struggle of human survival, which, here, happens to be named Battlestar Galactica.
This article was originally published on The House Next Door.
Review: Tales from the Loop Explores the Complexities of Human Connection
The series is a character study in which wounded introverts wrestle with their inability to connect with others.3
Amazonâs Tales from the Loop is set in a pastoral farm community that seems to simultaneously embody the past and future. There are no cellphones here, and bars and diners have a rustic â50s-era feel. However, large robots also populate the area, often seen in the backgrounds of compositions, suggesting solitary guards. The robots also feel rustic, nearly forgotten, like broken-down tractors. Rather than serve as conventionally awe-inspiring special effects, the robots appear to be taken for granted by the human characters, and the casualness of their presence is one of the showâs enchantments. The robots have a metaphorical weight, echoing the uncertainty and melancholia of the humans.
High-concept sci-fi is often heavy with exposition. By contrast, Tales from the Loopâs creator, Nathaniel Halpern, and his various collaborators allow the mysteries of the central premise to hang, barely explained, throughout the three episodes made available to press. The town exists above a secret lab, created by Russ (Jonathan Pryce), which is said to explore the properties of the universe. And at the center of the lab is the sort of mystical huge orb thatâs been featured in countless genre stories, and which can apparently alter the space-time continuum.
The townâs citizens have come to accept the extraordinariness of certain things as ordinary, which also spares the series from having to spell things out. And the sci-fi window dressing is gradually revealed to be misdirection anyway, as Tales from the Loop, which is based on Simon StĂ„lenhagâs 2014 narrative art book, is mostly a character study, in which wounded introverts and workaholic intellectuals wrestle with their inability to connect with others.
A major theme of the series is the relationship between children and their parents, the latter of which spend long hours obsessing over projects at the lab. In the premiere episode, a young girl, Loretta (Abby Ryder Fortson), loses her mother, Alma (Elektra Kilbey), whoâs disappeared after stealing a crystal from the orb. In a haunting image, potentially a vision, or maybe a projection or a memory, Loretta sees her house floating upward toward the sky in pieces. Distraught and homeless, Loretta is helped by a boy, Cole (Duncan Joiner), and his mother (Rebecca Hall). Eschewing the cuteness of other kidsâ quest series like Stranger Things, director Mark Romanek fashions an earnest, somber portrait of neglect and regret, in which a woman is afforded the ability to see herself through the lens of the past. Forston and Hall hit striking notes of despair, each dramatizing a war between intellectuality and emotion.
Each episode of Tales from the Loop is standalone yet interconnected. A minor character in one episode, seemingly a background actor, becomes the star of anotherâa device that casually illustrates how we are all alternatingly the protagonists of our own lives and bit players in the lives of others, and how many of us are dogged by similar existential issues. The series suggests that weâre together in our aloneness, an idea thatâs reminiscent of the stories of Raymond Carver. At one point, Coleâs mother is revealed to be Loretta as a grownupâa twist, in the key of Christopher Nolanâs Interstellar, thatâs telegraphed by Fortson and Hallâs remarkable resemblance to one another, and various other characters are brought, via the labâs technology, into confrontations with alternate versions of themselves.
In another episode, Cole shouts into a hollowed out thing that resembles a wrecked miniature Death Star. The echoes he hears are his voice across the various stages of his life, which director Andrew Stanton fashions into a moving symbol of a boyâs grappling for the first time with aging, loss, and impermanency. Given center stage, Joiner, like Fortson before him, offers an unsentimentally stoic portrait of yearning.
As themes go, âlife goes onâ would surely rank as one of the least profound, but Tales from the Loop continues to offer details that resonate. Weâre allowed to understand that Coleâs father and Russâs son, George (Paul Schneider), resents the connection between Cole and Russ, as well as between Russ and Loretta, a prized employee at the lab. This resentment is barely articulated, but Schneider informs George with a heartbreaking dwarfed quality, which is affirmed by the showâs most poignant special effect: the mechanical arm that George, an amputee, wears. The arm physicalizes his sense of being eclipsed by everyone around him.
Such body language is also evident in Gaddis (Ato Essandoh), a guard at the lab. Gay and terminally single, Gaddis tells Loretta that it must be nice to come home to an already lit house, signifying familial presence. She says what many married people have said to lonely-hearts over the years, in TV and real life: Itâs not as easy as it looks.
Tales from the Loop recalls the spirit of the films of executive producer Matt Reeves, especially Let Me In, which could serve as the title of this series as well. Both productions imbue familiar genre tropes with restlessness, with a wandering sense of irresolution. The landscapes of Tales from the Loop are beautiful but somehow unwelcoming in their sense of lonely sparsenessâechoing the imagery of the source material, Simon StĂ„lenhagâs illustrated book of the same nameâwhile Philip Glass and Paul Leonard-Morganâs score practically subsumes the series in longing. For Tales from the Loop, the mysteries of the universe play second fiddle to the perils of giving up, of resigning oneself to solitary nights in a town that suggests a perpetual past.
Cast: Rebecca Hall, Paul Schneider, Jonathan Pryce, Abby Ryder Fortson, Duncan Joiner, Ato Essandoh, Jane Alexander, Elektra Kilbey, Shane Carruth, Jodi Lynn Thomas, Victor J. Ho, Brian Mallard, Leann Lei Network: Amazon
Review: HBOâs Run Doesnât Sustain Itself Beyond Its Initially Thrilling Premise
The long-form storytelling obligations of a TV series soon overwhelm this simple but compelling premise.2
Ruby (Merritt Wever) once made a pact with her ex-boyfriend, Billy (Domhnall Gleeson): If both text the word âRUNâ to each other within a certain period of time, they will drop everything and travel together across America for one week, after which they must decide if they want to part ways for good. Commencing right after they exchange that fateful texts 17 years after college, HBOâs Run plays like a consciously frazzled version of Before Sunset. Like that film, Run depicts romance as messy and complicated, especially on such short notice: Not only is Ruby in a parking lot when she receives Billyâs text, prompting her to open the door of her minivan and hit an adjacent vehicle, but sheâs also married.
Once reunited, Ruby and Billy fall easily into flirty old habits, but the series keeps an intriguing focus on the tension and awkwardness of their situation. âWho does this?â Ruby says aloud at one point, in disbelief of their impulsive behavior. Theyâre desperate to get away from their humdrum lives, and theyâre doing their best to make a good impression on each other while gingerly broaching the potential for sex, which leads to one of Runâs most amusing scenes: the pair flailing around in a private train compartment, accidentally turning on sinks and bumping against the top bunk in the heat of the moment. Full of fraught, longing looks and palpable chemistry, the start of the series sweeps us up right alongside the characters, who rediscover one another while dancing around the developments of the intervening years.
But the long-form storytelling obligations of a TV series soon overwhelm this simple but compelling premise: Billy has larger problems than he initially lets on, and those reveals trickle out in piecemeal fashion alongside his former assistant Fionaâs (Archie Panjabi) determined attempts to halt his escapade. Thereâs a sense that the series doesnât quite trust itself to subsist merely on the lower-stakes drama of Ruby and Billy running away together. Runâs tone abruptly shifts after the first two episodes, with the introduction of more urgent, suspenseful elements like Billy inexplicably fighting to keep the sizable contents of his bank account away from Fiona. Much of the interpersonal humor gives way to wackier situations meant to heighten both the stakes and the charactersâ reactions, but the results are too broadly comedic while nudging the characters to new heights of self-absorption.
Many of the sillier comic situations simply involve being shitty to wage workers, but Run also tosses off issues about the morality of Billyâs self-help business with little mind for their seriousness. Though the series certainly isnât blind to Ruby and Billyâs rather pronounced sense of entitlement, the chaos piling up in their wake becomes far less endearing than itâs seemingly meant to be. Ruby and Billyâs actions make them harder and harder to root for, and Run becomes unable to sustain itself beyond the initial thrill of their reunion.
Cast: Merritt Wever, Domhnall Gleeson, Archie Panjabi, Rich Sommer, Phoebe Waller-Bridge Network: HBO
Review: In The Virtues, Transience Is a Path to Personal Redemption
The series is a reminder that facing up to oneâs problems doesnât guarantee release, but does allow for the possibility of moving forward.3.5
Transience is a recurring motif in Shane Meadowsâs The Virtues. The four-episode series is filled with scenes in which recovering alcoholic Joseph (Stephen Graham) trudges through city streets and countryside roads toward an uncertain future. Unmoored after his ex-wife, Debbie (Juliet Ellis), announces that sheâs moving with their son, Shea (Shea Michael Shaw), to Australia, Joe relapses in a big way. Seeking to regain some hold of his life, he decides to return to his native Ireland to track down his sister, Anna (Helen Behan), whom he hasnât seen since he was sent to an orphanage after their parentsâ deaths. Joeâs return home triggers confrontations with traumatic memories warped and repressed by time, suggesting that the only way to overcome oneâs past is to confront it head on.
Meadowsâs work as a filmmaker has charted how misery and hopelessness manifests in post-imperial Britain. Heâs always had an intuitiveness that transcends the ostensible realism of his desaturated palettes and handheld camerawork, and here he shows a new level of aesthetic subjectivity. When Joe is sober, his tremors rhyme with the shaking of the camera; when Joe drinks, however, the camera turns sedate, swaying more slowly as the relief of intoxication washes over him, followed by sudden, erratic cuts when he inevitably blacks out.
Meadows visualizes Joeâs repressed memories with snatches of home-video-grade images of the manâs childhood. The blotchy, low-resolution of the video, redolent of Harmony Korineâs early work, manifests Joeâs hazy grasp on his past, and the escalating intercutting of such clips with the present-day material as the series progresses mimics the overwhelming rush of his recalling the full extent of his trauma. Meadows parcels out this footage with precision, teasing us with the indecipherable images until whatâs being depicted becomes all too clear.
As nervous as Joe is in conversations with others, heâs also quick to befriend strangers. And he has a special affinity for children, at once playfully immature and genuinely tender and caring toward them. In his farewell with Shea, Joe humbly reassures him that itâs okay if he calls his stepfather, David (Vauxhall Jermaine), âdad.â Like many an addict, Joe can be overwhelming and caustic, but Graham foregrounds the manâs unending attempts to tamp down his worst impulses, focusing less on Joeâs capacity for overbearing behavior and more on his shame and ability to charm people in spite of his withdrawn, nervous energy.
As the series progresses, Joeâs struggles are contrasted with other characters dealing with their own suppressed issues. His sister-in-law, Dinah (Niamh Algar), is introduced as a brash, sarcastic self-starter who can punch out any man who hassles her, but she nurses a brooding shame over having to give up a baby she had as an unwed teen. Meanwhile, Joe gets a job at his brother-in-lawâs (Frank Laverty) construction business, where he meets Craigy (Mark OâHalloran), a tetchy worker with a checkered past who remembers living with Joe in the orphanage as kids. Craigy is even more of a nervous wreck than Joe, often barely able to get to the end of a sentence without circumnavigating the globe to get to the point. Joe and Craigy are kindred spirits, as they understand each otherâs pain, but theyâre also triggers for one another, leading to as many moments of strife as camaraderie.
With This Is England and its various TV spinoffs, Meadows tracked the political and social upheavals of modern England through an intimate network narrative of closely entwined stories. The Virtues isnât particularly concerned with the political history of Ireland, but rather the lingering pressures of the religious shame and abuse that shape addled individuals. The finale brings the tacit influence of such personal and institutional manipulations into clarity along with the full extent of the charactersâ trauma in a tautly edited climax that bridges Joe, Dinah, and Craigyâs struggles into a series of tense confrontations in which grace is either bestowed or brutally withheld. Like much of Meadowsâs work, the series has a clear ending, but the characters remain irresolute. Itâs a reminder that even facing up to oneâs problems doesnât guarantee release, but it does at least allow for the possibility of moving forward.
Cast: Stephen Graham, Niamh Algar, Helen Behan, Mark OâHalloran, Frank Laverty, Juliet Ellis, Shea Michael Shaw Network: Topic
Review: One Day at a Time Remains a Comforting Mix of Head and Heart
The showâs fourth season serves as a reliable and comforting balm suited for the current moment.3
In the aftermath of 9/11, audiences sought solace in familiar shows like Friends, which took place in a world untouched by the tragic event and populated with beloved characters who were confronting more mundane, everyday problems. Todayâs television landscape is too diffuse to point to a single, obvious source of comfort, but as Americans face the expanding COVID-19 crisis, self-isolating and assessing the risks of death and economic disaster, shows like One Day at a Time, now in its fourth season, serve as a welcome balm.
The series follows the Alvarez family as they confront social issues that, while timely and relevant, feel entirely manageable when compared to a global pandemic. The tight-knit family reflects on topics like sex, relationships, and money through an intergenerational lens, as Penelope (Justina Machado) absorbs blows from two age-divided fronts: her teenage children, Elena (Isabella Gomez) and Alex (Marcel Ruiz), and her mother, Lydia (Rita Moreno).
In one episode, Alex walks in on a family member masturbating, triggering a discussion about female sexuality and self-pleasure. âSex is between people who are married,â Lydia says. âIt is Adam and Eve, not âbzzztâ and Eve.â As in previous seasons of One Day at a Time, Morenoâs riotous line readings and her characterâs hijinksâshopping for crabs at the fish market, catfishing Penelopeâs potential suitorsâimbue the show with endearing archness. But every member of the family gets their fair share of deviously funny verbal jabs, punching up or down a generation to reject what they deem naĂŻve or reactionary.
When the blowups cool down, as they always do, Penelope summarizes the takeaways with a blend of sweetness and didacticism that falls just on the right side of a public service announcement. Real-world context renders these resolutions reassuring rather than trite: No difficulty in the series is impossible to overcome, so long as the Alvarezes stick together.
The promise of unconditional unity that permeates One Day at a Time comes through not only in grand apologies and lessons, but also in subtler interactions. In season one, Lydia worked through her religious objections to Elenaâs coming out in less than a minute; here, when she speaks to Elena and her significant other, Syd (Sheridan Pierce), she refers to Syd by their preferred pronoun. Lydiaâs casual use of the word âthemâ reflects her ability to internalize practices and behavior that make her loved ones feel safe. The moment understatedly captures Lydiaâs radical personal growth, the kind people achieve when they demand the best of each other. That, One Day at a Time insists, is what love looks like.
Cast: Justina Machado, Rita Moreno, Isabella Gomez, Marcel Ruiz, Todd Grinnell, Stephen Tobolowsky, Sheridan Pierce Network: Pop
Review: Devs Is an Exposition-Heavy Rumination on the Nature of Humanity
The seriesâs synthesis of aesthetic, plot, and subtext slowly starts to pull apart in its exposition-heavy second half.2
Alex Garlandâs Devs is the writer-directorâs latest rumination on the nature of humanity in the face of both technology and the unknown. As in much of Garlandâs prior work, the Hulu limited series uses speculative fiction to address both contemporary social malaise and deeper metaphysical questions on the nature of human life.
The showâs title alludes to the deliberately generic, misleading name of a supercomputer capable of peering into the past and predicting the future, a MacGuffin that allows for a treatise on determinism. Using quantum algorithms, Forest (Nick Offerman), the mysterious owner of a computing company named Amaya, can trace the chains of cause and effect that guide our lives beneath the illusion of free will. Or, as Forest himself says to a new programmer, Sergei (Karl Glusman), our lives arenât chaotic, but rather ordered âon tramlines.â
Sergei is swiftly revealed to be a corporate spy who infiltrated Amaya to steal code for Russia. Outed almost immediately, he finds himself confronted by Forest and Amayaâs head of security, Kenton (Zach Grenier), who kills the would-be thief and stages his death as a spectacular suicide, much to the confusion and grief of Sergeiâs girlfriend, Lily (Sonoya Mizuno), a software engineer at Amaya who sets about digging into the truth.
At first, Devsâs straightforward murder mystery and broader philosophical questions dovetail seamlessly. Lilyâs amateur sleuthing around Amayaâs compound and a thoroughly gentrified San Francisco positions the series as pure noir, a genre quite conducive to exploring existential and metaphysical quandaries. Itâs especially fitting for a consideration of determinism, with Lilyâs attempt to work out what happened to Sergei aligning with the supercomputerâs ability to reconstruct the past based on behavioral clues. This represents the ultimate endpoint of technologyâs capability to reshape humanityâs self-conception, demonstrating that you can program software so intricately that it can disprove free will. As Lily struggles to make sense of her life being turned upside down, Devs regularly returns to Forest and his sedate, wizened calm, that of a man who sits upon the mountaintop and sees all.
Garland, as ever, devotes a great deal of care to the showâs sense of atmosphere. Set in and around Silicon Valley, Devs reflects the modern look of the tech industry in much the same way that Spike Jonzeâs Her used hazy, soft lighting and warm colors to evoke the sleekness and comfort of Appleâs aesthetic. People arrive at Amayaâs main building, all glass windows and open desks, as if to a college campus. The Devs building itself, with its Brutalist exterior and series of cube-shaped rooms and gold-lined walls, is a radical break from reality that nonetheless manifests the internal logic of tech culture. At heart, itâs a giant computer that programmers work within, a windowless space where humans are at once spying and being spied upon in an extreme visualization of our surveillance society.
This initial synthesis of aesthetic, plot, and subtext slowly starts to pull apart, however, as Devs drags into its second half. Garland frontloads the series with narrative exposition, revealing to the audience (and Lily) most of the mystery behind Sergeiâs death, the depth of his clandestine connections, and the totality of influence that a mega-rich CEO like Forest can exert in the late-capitalist Shangri-la of Silicon Valley. That leaves the series to start spiraling into stranger and ever more forced twists, from an awkward romantic subplot between Lily and her cybersecurity ex, Jamie (Jin Ha), to Kentonâs increasingly ludicrous omnipresence and seeming invulnerability to physical harm (one starts to expect a Westworld-like twist to reveal him as a robot). Similarly, Forestâs motivating obsession over his lost child is telegraphed by the colossal statue in the girlâs image that looms over the Amaya compound.
Early on, the balance between open discussion of Devsâs themes and the use of setting and tone to convey said themes is a careful one, but soon the series gives itself over to long-winded monologues that make the subtext text. The later episodes grind to a halt as the contours of a philosophy that were already neatly summarized in the pilot are more arduously explained to viewers. The series momentarily rebounds when it starts to consider the role that chaos plays in shaping the supposedly absolute tramlines of existence, using clever editing and doubling effects to show all the various permutations that any given moment of a personâs life could have gone depending on small variations of behavior. Soon, though, this provocative visualization of unpredictability and random chance gives way to characters standing around debating such ideas, reducing the surreal to the academic.
Devs frustratingly comes too sharply into focus at the expense of leaving some of its more evocative ideas unsaid. The storyâs metaphors become increasingly obvious, such as Forestâs long hair and beard turning him into a cult-like leader, an image regularly juxtaposed with his teamâs repeated projections of Christâs crucifixion. As the showâs visual storytelling is increasingly subsumed by explanatory dialogue, the more tragic insinuations of Forestâs obsessions become lugubriously spelled out as others tie the Devs project ever more explicitly to his personal trauma. Thereâs plenty to chew on in Devs, but the protracted serial format robs Garland of his best trait, of knowing when to let the audience fill in the gaps on their own.
Cast: Nick Offerman, Sonoya Mizuno, Jin Ha, Zach Grenier, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Cailee Spaeny, Alison Pill, Karl Glusman Network: FX
The 25 Best Netflix Original Series to Watch Right Now
These 25 Netflix original shows prove the marathon-watching juggernautâs equal concern for both quantity and quality.
Like Google, Netflix has evolved over two decades from a Silicon Valley venture to a legitimate verb in the cultural lexicon. Ten years after expanding from DVD-by-mail to streaming service, and four since debuting its first original series with House of Cards, Netflix all but dominates the online TV landscape. While competitors like Amazon Prime and Hulu certainly vie for our time with their own in-house programs, the sheer inundation of Netflix originals requires its very own examination. The animated seriocomic genius of BoJack Horseman, the tech horrors that Black Mirror situates on the near horizon, and the earnestness and dramatic sprawl of Sense8 are merely a few of the storytelling pleasures available to anyone with a WiFi connection and a (potentially borrowed) Netflix login. These 25 Netflix original shows prove the marathon-watching juggernautâs equal concern for both quantity and quality. Nathan Frontiero
25. I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson
Social discomfort leaks out of each and every sketch of I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson, as characters constantly double down, then triple down, then quadruple down on their inane schemes and insecurities. Throughout, already bizarre situations escalate to truly profound degrees of obstinance and delusion: denying responsibility for a crashed hot dog car while dressed in a hot dog costume, incessantly responding to a âhonk if youâre hornyâ bumper sticker, vowing revenge on a magician who publicly humiliated you, attempting to assassinate baby bad boy Bart Harley Jarvis, and defiantly, inexplicably singing about the reanimation of some skeletons. The series reaches such dizzying, quotable absurdity that it seems to inhabit an abrasive and uncomfortable universe all its own. Steven Scaife
24. Luke Cage
The way Luke Cage at once embraces blaxploitation tropes and transcends them completely isn’t necessarily its triumph. It is, however, the element that speaks most directly to what the series, based on the Marvel Comics character that first appeared back in 1972 with Luke Cage: Hero for Hire, is attempting to accomplish. Cage, as portrayed by Mike Colter, is a wrongly convicted ex-con and certified ladies’ man who makes rent and some meager pocket change by sweeping up hair at a barber shop and doing dishes at the restaurant owned by Harlem crime lord Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali). He’s also attempting to be a role model and a hard-working member of his local community in the aftermath of his time in jail and the life he left behind when his wife was murdered. Above all else, Luke Cage is about what, if any, qualifications there are for being a hero. Chris Cabin
23. Lady Dynamite
Her endearing eagerness to please, extreme social awkwardness, and hopeless inability to camouflage her feelings makes the semi-fictionalized version of her bipolar self that actor-writer-comedian Maria Bamford plays in Lady Dynamite a kind of human emoji factory, her unguarded face expressing a kaleidoscope of comically intense emotions. Her bafflement and improvised solutions to uncomfortable situations make things we have all struggled with, like dating, feel as freshly and insightfully witnessed as her wide-eyed adventures in Hollywood. Though she’s anything but a stone face, Bamford has more than a little Buster Keaton in her, her cosmic befuddlement and heroic efforts to navigate even the simplest situation highlighting the absurdity in just about everything. Elise Nakhnikian
22. The Crown
Once again, The Queen‘s Peter Morgan combines extensive research with a highly empathetic understanding of human nature to create a fascinating exploration of the capabilities and limitations of Britain’s monarchy in the 20th century, the enormous personal sacrifices that monarchy required of Elizabeth II, and the strains it exerted on her family. The Crown opens with Elizabeth’s (Claire Foy) beloved father, king George (Jared Harris), another reluctant monarch who inherited the role only after his older brother renounced it. It then follows the young queen as, forced to give up her cherished private life after her father’s demise, she grows into the role of queenâand into a form of greatness distinguished by genuine humility and common-sense values. A feminist tale of a patronized, undereducated, and perpetually underestimated young woman who learns to rely on her native intelligence and good sense to help lead a besieged country through perilous times, The Crown makes the case that the best rulers may be those who never wanted the role. Nakhnikian
21. Seven Seconds
The dichotomy between Isaiah (Russell Hornsby) and Latrice Butler (Regina King) and the police is rooted in privilege, and while Seven Seconds resists a systemic view of Jersey City’s racial landscape, it’s thorough in its outlining of the biases that affect the Butlers’ lives. And none is more insulting than the way Brenton, even in death, is denied the same benefit of the doubt that’s readily afforded to his killer. The series presents a sympathetic likeness of real-world victims of police brutality, but by eschewing a broad view of race relations in our nation, it risks affirming the ubiquitous “few bad apples” apologia that’s often put forward when police wrongdoing comes to light. Ultimately, though, the detailed character portrayals at the heart of Seven Seconds invest us into the Butlers’ search for justice, while poignantly illustrating that in the real world, that justice is rare. Haigis
Review: HBOâs The Plot Against America Offers a Flattened Take of a Prescient Novel
The series feels ordinary, so of a piece with other politically engaged prestige television.2.5
Philip Rothâs 2004 novel The Plot Against America imagines a world in which aviation hero and Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh beats Franklin D. Roosevelt to become president of the United States in 1940. In the authorâs terrifying alternate history, Lindbergh forges an âunderstandingâ with Adolf Hitler in Iceland, and the Axis powers gradually take over the world while America celebrates its isolationism and economic robustness. And Roth adds to this high concept a meta-textual wrinkle: The narrator of the book is himself as a young boy, and the protagonists are the Roth family, whose names correspond with the authorâs real relatives. The book, then, is an imagining not only of a global atrocity, but of the atrocityâs effect on the psychology of a Jewish family in Newark, New Jersey that increasingly feels the threats of a country turning to fascism. The use of real names suggests that Roth is wrestling personally with the lingering emotional effects of his countryâs not-so-hidden possibility for evil, memorably calling these emotions a âperpetual fear.â
The Plot Against America scans differently in 2020 than in 2004, now that Americans are familiar with the consequences of electing a famous person with fascist, purposefully divisive tendencies to the presidency. Rothâs prose, especially pertaining to how quickly an electorate rationalizes once-forbidden behavior, now feels eerily prescientâuntil one considers that rulers with fascistic tendencies often follow the same playbook. In HBOâs six-episode adaptation of Rothâs novel, showrunners David Simon and Ed Burns have occasional, wicked fun rhyming Lindberghâs America with Trumpâs. The characters here talk of what is âpresidential,â and someone remarks of how the press repeatedly promotes Lindberghâs signature publicity stunt, and no matter how many times he does itâa pointed reference to the gargantuan amount of free press that Trump continues to enjoy. The seriesâs ending also delivers a sick punch, referencing contemporary voter fraud and gerrymandering while denying the viewer the reassuring closure that Roth offered his readers.
In many fashions, however, Simon and Burns vastly simplify Rothâs vision. Thereâs a sense of casualness in the novel, a casualness that Simon and Burns conjured in The Wire, thatâs missing from this production. Much of the book, written in a kind of oratorical style thatâs characteristic of Rothâs work, is devoted to the quotidian of American life, especially from the perspective of American Jews. There are ritualistic celebrations of every element of day-to-day routine, from the buying of food, to the performance of chores, to the nightly listening to the radio, to strange sexual urges, to the tensions that arise when some family members are more successful than others. Above all, Roth celebrates America even as it succumbs to insanity, dramatizing the allure of actualization and improvement, bolstered by the sensuality of pop culture, which continues to be the nucleus of the American ideal. Such rituals often occur in the background of the limited series, but Simon and Burns are more concerned with narrative, and as a result they iron out many of Rothâs fascinating ambiguities and details. Roth created characters of many contradictions and particulars as well as a society of many procedural contours, while Simon and Burns move markers through a great tangle of plot developments.
This is no longer a story of the Roth family, as Simon and Burns have given them the surname Levins, and Lindberghâs ascension is no longer framed as a haunted reminiscence. Philip (Azhy Robertson), the novelâs central consciousness, is now a cutely wide-eyed boy who observes much but says little. His father, Herman (Morgan Spector), is furious with Lindberghâs rise, though the manâs fury is also linked to his struggles as a low-paid insurance man living in the shadow of his mercenary brother, Monty (David Krumholtz). Simon and Burns dial down Hermanâs anger, positioning the father in hero poses, and his rivalry with Monty is referenced but minimized. Philipâs mother, Bess (Zoe Kazan), a source of great, powerful reverence for Roth in the book, is imbued by Kazan with masterful vulnerability, though the characterâs great sceneâa phone call that potentially saves a boyâs lifeâis intercut with other moments for the sake of an efficiently momentous climax. Philipâs cousin, Alvin (Anthony Boyle), a scoundrel turned patriot turned scoundrel again, is also sentimentalized into a more or less conventional hero, while the flirtation of Philipâs brother, Sandy (Caleb Malis), with Lindbergh worshipâthat is, a desire to live as a gentile or a ânormal Americanââis also reduced.
Two other pivotal characters are also flattened, further sanitizing Rothâs fury. The true villain of the novel isnât Lindbergh, but Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro), a Jewish intellectual who allows himself to be used by the Lindbergh administration so as to âkosherâ the president, giving Christians permission to vote for the candidate and indulge their anti-Semitism. Rothâs portrait of Bengelsdorf verges on a Dickensian caricature of opportunism, though in the series he appears to authentically believe in Lindbergh. This alteration renders him a poignant yet vaguely defined fool, as Simon and Burns have largely elided the characterâs frustration and near-contempt for lower-class Jewsâa thorny and resonant conceit that Roth acutely dramatized. Meanwhile, Bengelsdorfâs wife and Bessâs sister, Evelyn (Winona Ryder), is sapped of the ugly shrewdness that she possessed on the page. (A brilliant scene in the novel, in which Philip feels stirrings of sexual desire as he hugs his aunt, while simultaneously understanding her to be a traitor, has been unforgivably jettisoned.)
The novel serves to explain why HBOâs The Plot Against America feels so ordinary, so of a piece with other politically engaged prestige television. Collectively, Simon and Burnsâs alternations serve to contort the narrative into a story of good guys against bad guys, flattering our distanced 21st-century perspective and comfortably preaching to Americans whoâre fed up with Trumpâs cruelty and incompetency. Roth uncomfortably understands that for people who arenât white male Christians, there can exist an either/or divide between âAmericanâ and whatever portion of their identity thatâs easily vilified by the Lindberghs and Trumps of the world. The quest in Rothâs novel becomes a desire to unify Jewish with American, which leads to much internal turmoil in the community. By contrast, the series is more concerned with the quest to stop Lindbergh. The neurotic, hallucinatory, surreal power of Rothâs prose vanishes, and is replaced by forgettable televisual stylistics (that distinctly gauzy, over-produced period HBO atmosphere) and quite a bit of speechifying. Though Simon and Burns at least understand that the sleeper-cell hatred that Lindbergh unleashes is intensely real, and has been unlocked by another enterprising charlatan.
Cast: Morgan Spector, Zoe Kazan, John Turturro, Anthony Boyle, Azhy Robertson, Caleb Malis, David Krumholtz, Ben Cole, Steven Maier, Michael Kostroff, Ed Moran, Graydon Yosowitz, Keilly McQuail, Lee Tergesen Network: HBO
Review: Little Fires Everywhereâs Study of Race and Class Is Doused in Melodrama
The showâs strength lies in the rich context that surrounds its occasionally melodramatic conflicts.2.5
The Shaker Heights of Little Fires Everywhere is the sort of suburban hamlet that requires homes to keep their grass below six inches. Its duplexes are even designed to disguise themselves as single-family homes, as upstairs and downstairs entrances are quietly consolidated behind a single outward door in order to, as Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon) explains to artist Mia Warren (Kerry Washington), âavoid any stigma of renting.â But Elenaâs own unacknowledged prejudicesâagainst people of color and the lower âclassââare matched only by her white guilt. She recognizes Miaâs dirty hatchback as the one she reported to authorities earlier that day after noticing someone who appeared to be sleeping in it. So Elena rents one side of her duplex to Mia, and from there, everything changes.
The biggest change, of course, is the mysterious fire that consumes the separate, much-larger Richardson residence in the flash-forward scene that opens the first episode. But much of the Hulu series, based on Celeste Ngâs novel of the same name, covers the various smaller changes in the leadup to the fire. For example, Miaâs daughter, Pearl (Lexi Underwood), falls in with the Richardson kids, enchanted by their comparative lux lifestyle. Until settling in Shaker Heights, Mia and Pearl lived a transient lifestyle, with Mia taking odd jobs like waitressing to supplement sales of her art. Pearl has never, until now, even had a room of her own.
Mia is thus confronted with the byproduct of her hectic lifestyle, where Pearl has been left lonely and quite susceptible to the Richardsonsâ glamorous upper-class privilege. She grows wary of the family that so enraptures her daughter, though she also takes a shine to Elenaâs youngest child, Izzy, (Megan Stott), a rebellious and artsy kindred spirit. The tensions between these charactersâalong lines of class, race, and wherever they intersectâsimmer and eventually boil over, landing the families on opposing sides of a legal battle that only tangentially concerns them. Bebe (Huang Lu), Miaâs co-worker and an illegal Chinese immigrant, fights for custody of the daughter she once abandoned with a white family, the McCulloughs, who are friends of the Richardsons and eager to adopt.
The showâs strength lies in the rich context that surrounds these occasionally melodramatic conflicts, rendering Mia in particular with vivid detail. In its best moments, Little Fires Everywhere resists drawing clear lines between whoâs right and whoâs wrong: Miaâs reservations about the Richardsons are totally justifiable, though her reactions sometimes feel overprotective, like when she takes a job in the Richardson house primarily to keep an eye on Pearl. She can be cold and even cruel, but sheâs also given to a quiet kindness toward Izzy and Bebe due to a sense of solidarity. Far from some angelic portrait of the lower class, Mia is a fascinating, complex character, and Washington modulates her stoicism with no small amount of disdain, anger, and apprehension.
The series, however, too often paints with a broad brush, particularly where the Richardsons are concerned. Fleeting anecdotes tossed off in the novel by an omniscient narrator to shade in the charactersâ backstories feel goofy and extraneous when depicted here via full-fledged, fleshed-out scenes, like when Izzy refuses to play a concert and writes âNOT YOUR PUPPETâ on her forehead. Elenaâs tidiness is meant to signify her upper-class privilege; she has more than enough means to micromanage every facet of her life. When she does things like strictly schedule sex with her husband (Joshua Jackson), though, the series ventures into caricature.
For however much Elenaâs own habits are clearly tinged with privilege and solipsism, she provides refuge for Pearl and the McCulloughs in a way that doesnât seem entirely self-serving. Yet some of those nuances dissipate as the custody battle consumes the series. Though Bebe and the McCulloughs initially feel like pawns in the larger Warren/Richardson feud, the conflict eventually flattens into a more rigid portrait of right and wrong as the script reveals Elena and Miaâs backstories and motivations. Little Fires Everywhere never quite resists the occasional hokey flourish either, from sappy dream sequences visualizing Miaâs fears to the various on-the-nose cover songs that conclude each episode. The series never loses sight of its fraught interplay of race and class, but the initial intensity with which it explores those subjects dims as melodramatic coincidences and speeches accumulate.
Cast: Kerry Washington, Reese Witherspoon, Joshua Jackson, Lexi Underwood, Megan Stott, Jade Pettyjohn, Gavin Lewis, Jordan Elsass, Huang Lu, Rosemarie DeWitt Network: Hulu
Review: Breeders Finds Catharsis Amid the Agony of Parenthood
The lighting-strike chemistry of the showâs central couple fuels its exploration of parenthoodâs highs and lows.3.5
Throughout FXâs Breeders, golden-hued flashbacks contrast the idyllic past of Paul (Martin Freeman) and Ally (Daisy Haggard) with the coupleâs present, an epoch marked by the din of their sweet, utterly exhausting children: seven-year-old Luke (George Wakeman) and four-year-old Ava (Jayda Eyles). Paul and Ally used to wake up with giddy energy, eager to call out of work in order to stay in bed together. Now they start the day defeated, having barely rested after soothing Lukeâs nighttime fears of being burned or burgled to death. Which is to say that, for Paul and Ally, parenthood has meant giving up a great deal of thingsânot just sleep, but also romance, liberty, and impulsivity, to name a few.
The series, co-created by Simon Blackwell, Chris Addison, and Freeman, primarily deals in dark comedy, with much of its humor stemming from Paulâs often vitriolic parenting style. Where Ally is cool and lighthearted, Paul suffers from an especially quick temper: When the kids are too loud for too long, he shouts at them with riotous zeal that he instantly regrets. Paulâs outbursts are hilarious and relatively rare. More common are his equally funny, gentler rejoinders to the kids. Freeman skips the beats that usually separate stimuli and responses, making each yell and hiss feel particularly authentic and acerbicâlike when Luke asks to go home while Ally sobs at a deceased petâs burial, and Paul urges him to âsense the tone.â
Paulâs and Allyâs behavior is contextualized by the presence of their own parents, who weave in and out of the showâs episodes. Ally, for one, both channels and rejects the parenting methods of her itinerant father, Michael (Michael McKean), who was absent in her youth but whose beatnik chill we recognize in her calm and unwavering devotion to her children. Elsewhere, Paulâs parentsâthe endearingly foul-mouthed Jackie (Joanna Bacon) and Jim (Alun Armstrong)âare regular springboards for his ruminations on life. In conversations with them, he wonders if the elementary school he went to led to his uninspiring career and if his fatherâs approach to discipline inescapably shaped his own.
The latter line of thought comes to a head when a doctor expresses her concern about Lukeâs oddly frequent accidents (he fell down the stairs this time), forcing Paul to face the possibility that heâs abusive. Paulâs resultant introspection misses the mark by a bit: Instead of reconsidering his verbal tirades, he ponders whether he could be hurting his kids by subconsciously creating an environment rife with potential slips and trips and batterings. The series takes this sequence seriously, and initiates a compelling tonal shift from grim humor to pensive reflections on trauma and psychology. Though Paul and Ally face the risk of governmental intervention in their family, the predicament does little to change Paulâs parentingâan acknowledgment of the near impossibility of change, or of the way that oneâs upbringing can permanently shape oneâs inner circuitry.
With the abuse arc and other storylines, the series grows increasingly capacious over the five episodes made available to press. It moves from the clamorous frenzy of its opening sceneâin which Paul goes on one of his most extreme and delightful screamologuesâto more tender examinations of characters and relationships. Flashbacks begin to not only explore the myriad repercussions of childbirth, but also touch on quotidian interactions between Paul and Ally, and between each of them and their parentsâthe exact kinds of unexceptional moments in life that tend to linger when oneâs memory stretches years into the past. In addition to lending a striking layer of poignancy to the series, these flashbacks add nuance to Paulâs and Allyâs inner lives. Despite Paulâs apparent lack of growth, he truly does try to be better, and despite Allyâs nonchalance, she does have fears and regrets and hang-ups.
This fleshing-out is crucial given Paul and Allyâs place at the core of Breeders. Their relationship is the showâs unifying thread, cutting through time and tone. The audience observes the couple in multiple phases and modes: blissful courtship, childbirth, acute grief, grief-induced horniness. Haggard and Freemanâs lightning-strike chemistry fuels their supersonic banter and warm, softer exchanges. Perhaps most charming are the instances in which Ally teases Paul, homing in on a deep and undeniable flaw, and Paul smiles in full recognition of how right she is, then and always. Such moments are reminders that these two could never really hurt each otherânot even by damning themselves to parenthood.
Cast: Martin Freeman, Daisy Haggard, Michael McKean, Joanna Bacon, Alun Armstrong, Stella Gonet, George Wakeman, Jayda Eyles, Patrick Baladi, Tim Steed Network: FX
Review: The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez Stokes Outrage but Fits a Predictable Mold
The Netflix miniseries suggests a sort of virtual, one-stop-shop Wikipedia page.2
Netflixâs The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez will stoke your outrage, and it should. The six-part limited series provides what feels like an expansive primer on one of the most horrific child abuse cases in the history of the United States, and thereâs a sense that it wants to fill in gaps for those who might have been swept up by some other outrage shortly after eight-year-old Gabriel Fernandezâs death made national news in 2013, or just werenât privy to the ins and outs of the case as reported by Los Angeles news outlets.
The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez suggests, like the recent Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez, a sort of virtual, one-stop-shop Wikipedia page about an infamous case, though it arguably goes further by indicting the faceless systemic forces that aligned in cruel harmony to crush a human life. At one point, the series even delves into the 2018 abuse case of Anthony Avalos, the 10-year-old Lancaster boy who was also tortured to death by his mother and boyfriend, to get at how the cracks in the child protective services system that cost Gabriel his life in nearby Palmdale were barely patched up in the five years following his death.
Gabriel died on May 24, 2013 after years of torture and abuse at the hands of his mother, Pearl Sinthia Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre. As detailed by various individuals, including Deputy District Attorney Jon Hatami, Pearl and Aguirre starved Gabriel, fed him cat litter, shot him with a B.B. gun, and burned him with cigarettes all over his body. They even bound and gagged him in a cubby. The series isnât shy about providing us with photo evidence of that horrifying abuse, and it spends much time simply sitting with people and those photos, trying to fathom how a parent could do such things to a child. In one episode, Hatami opens up at length about his own abuse at the hands of his father, and in the moment, the prosecutorâs outrage in the courtroom is tinged with a wrenching melancholy, as if heâs fighting on behalf of a pain that he only recently came to understand.
The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez is at its strongest in such periods of reflection, when itâs trying to understand that which would appear to defy understanding. It lingers on the visible pain of those who came into Gabrielâs orbit, in life and in death, from those who tried to give him a chance at a happy life before he was placed in his motherâs care, to those who tried to report to police and the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) that he was being abused, to those who wanted justice for his torture and murder. Impressively, too, it makes space for interviews with a character witness who testified on Aguirreâs behalf and several jurors in his case, including the man who couldnât initially bring himself to sentence Aguirre to death. The series has us grapple with questions of justice and morality, and there comes a point in the final episode where calling Aguirre âevilâ feels as if it has no meaning given that the word can just as easily be applied to so many who turned their backs to Gabrielâs abuse.
Throughout The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez, you will know how responsible some of those individuals probably feel for the little boyâs death simply by their not having given interviews to the filmmakers. But those arenât the only elisions here, and some arenât so easy to rationalize. For one, the series never really gives a particularly concrete sense of who Aguirre was before he met Pearl, and after a while it feels as if the only systemic issues it cares to confront are those that prevented police and DCFS from properly responding to reports of Gabrielâs abuse. Though it mounts a strong case for why the boy and not his two older siblings were targets of their parentsâ abuse, The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez doesnât contend with the systemic social contexts that made Aguirre and Pearlâs violence an inevitability. And had it done so, the series might have reached the magisterial heights of Ezra Edelmanâs O.J.: Made in America, which found new ground on the oft-reported case of O.J. Simpson by framing the fallen starâs life against the violence of L.A. and the ideals of a nation, its moral rot.
During Aguirreâs trial, Hatami argued that the man not only liked what he did to Gabriel, but that he did so because he perceived the boy to be gay, though the series tells the story of that perception in half-shades. From birth, Gabriel was raised for several years by his gay great-uncle, Michael Lemos Carranza, and his boyfriend, David Martinez, so we can intuit that the boyâs torture was at least in part an attempt at a correction. While Gabriel was in Pearlâs custody, someone reported that Michael molested the child, and itâs an allegation that journalist Melissa Chadburn states hasnât been confirmed nor disproven. Thereâs a sense that no one in Gabrielâs family who had his best interests at heart seem to believe the allegation to be true, and while the series attests to the kindness Michael and David showed Gabriel, it does conspicuously glance past discussion of this matter, as well as the methods, legal and otherwise, by which the boy was able to land and remain in their care for so long.
Nor is mention made of Michael and Davidâs advocacy work as part of Gabrielâs Justice, or that Michael died of cancer in 2014. In San Salvador, the filmmakers interview an agonized David about what happened to Gabriel, and you may be frustrated by the missed opportunity to explore why and how David came to be deported by ICE and connect that to the other systemic forces of race and class that contributed to Gabrielâs death. There are times throughout the series where itâs difficult to tell if a storyâlike the one about Gabrielâs first-grade teacher posing with a noose alongside three other teachersâwas swept under the rug because the filmmakers simply didnât know how to incorporate it into the series or because it might have undermined the dominant narrative theyâre seeking to put forth.
The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez, though, does find time for the sort of aesthetic bells and whistles that have become de rigueur for projects such as this since The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, whose lurid reenactments could at least be justified because Andrew Jareckiâs entire project was to ascertain the exact nature of Durstâs crimes. But the uncomfortably ominous reenactments of this seriesâby and large suturing devices between interviews and courtroom footageâdo nothing to enhance our understanding of the Gabriel Fernandez case. At times, they even work against what we already do know, such as the sight of the actor who plays Aguirre mostly from the neck down quaking in his cell with the sort of fear thatâs never evident in Aguirreâs body as he sits still and silent in court.
But thatâs nothing compared to the tactlessness of the showâs title sequence, which heavy-handedly literalizes the idea that Gabriel âfell through the cracksâ before ending dramatically, distastefully with the sight of the cubby where he was imprisoned by his torturers. In such moments, when itâs trying to summon an aura of mysteryâthat thereâs something here thatâs waiting to be cracked open, something to be solvedâitâs as if the desire of The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez to entertain, to ensure that we are as spellbound as possible by yet another example of the atrocities that humans are capable of, is greater than any need to inform and educate.
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