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Review: Better Call Saul: Season Two

The series is so casually beautiful as to risk being taken for granted.

4.0

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Better Call Saul: Season Two
Photo: Ursula Coyote/ Sony Pictures Television

With Better Call Saul, creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould forge with their collaborators an aural/visual equivalent of the crisp prose favored by crime-fiction masters like George V. Higgins, Lawrence Block, Donald Westlake, and Elmore Leonard. Images are bright and sharp, as one might expect of a series set in the hot, sunny sprawls of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and this impression of sharpness is intensified by a playful and continual contrast between dueling focal points in the background and foreground of the frames. While a lawyer talks his client out of prosecution, for instance, we see the attorney and the police in the front of the shot, while the client mulls around in the background of another room, oblivious to the manipulations required of earning him his freedom. Colors are deep and robust, sometimes lurid in the manner of a dime-store novel’s cover, and without calling attention to themselves. The series is so casually beautiful as to risk being taken for granted.

This aesthetic is more than style for its own sake. Like the punchy verbiage of much great American crime fiction, this staging embodies a way of doing more with less, of boiling events down to their essence, which also serves as a kind of implicative manifesto for ridding life and art of detritus and pretension. This formalism serves to inform Better Call Saul with a sense of stillness, which is a blessed relief from the desperate, frenetic pointlessness of network crime shows, which often derive their flatulent intensity from endlessly moving cameras, meaningless jargon-heavy dialogue, and CGI that purports to take us directly into the corpses of recently discovered victims.

The show’s writing is as economic and poetically pared down. Each moment is compact, leading to the next with unpredictable, behaviorally astute precision (the flashback scenes are particular models of structural ingenuity, often revealing elements of plot that might not be obvious until many episodes later). Gilligan and Gould have a refreshing tendency to regard viewers as attentive adults who can remember events from the previous season, peppering their narratives with recurring in-jokes that reveal a wealth of emotional information in a matter of seconds. When Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) requests a cocobolo desk from the Santa Fe law firm newly employing him, we know he’s remedying a dashed dream from season one, when he nearly used stolen money to secure an office for himself and, ideally, his friend, potential lover, and fellow attorney, Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn).

This notion of disappointments corrected, of a man attempting to justify himself to his friends and family, is broached earlier when Jimmy takes Kim aside and asks her, with startling bluntness, if “they’re going to happen” if he takes this job offer (which she brokered). Jimmy’s revealing more of himself than he intends to, verbally encapsulating his manias, which are so poignantly of the everyday American male variety: He needs conventional success to feel as if he’s deserving of companionship, or more generally of status as a human. He feels broken, and assumes that money and social standing can serve as the adhesive.

Season one cumulatively established the specifics of Jimmy’s social estrangement with the ruthlessly logical precision of a math equation, gradually evolving from a good to great series, turning an amusing Breaking Bad character into a full and tormented protagonist in his own right, contextualizing him without banally psychoanalyzing him. Like most Americans, as insidiously conditioned by pop culture, Jimmy feels that he’s never quite in society, truly belonging to it, though he’s one big success away from joining the club. This profound inferiority complex is exacerbated by a dysfunctional relationship with his brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), a legendary attorney who was revealed in the first season to be sabotaging Jimmy under the guise of mentoring him. The brothers are enacting a genre-television version of a familiar dynamic: Chuck is the brilliant, dutiful, driven grinder who’s worked himself into mental disorder as a founding partner of a prestigious firm, while Jimmy, in Chuck’s mind, has glided on charm, only superficially renouncing his petty criminal ways when convenient.

Chuck isn’t entirely wrong, and his judgment clearly springs in part from his own personal resentment and pain, but he’s not all right either. Jimmy, with his intelligence for reading people, knack for ingratiation, invention, and cojones, is a natural-born charlatan—a weirdly humanist con man, which makes total sense when one considers his future as a player in Walter’s schemes. Jimmy has it in him to be a great attorney, but he comes to life as a crook, and this conundrum, with its resulting identity conflict as to where Jimmy precisely “fits in” among the world, is a metaphor for anyone who’s gifted in ways that are essentially unvalued by society. Namely, artists.

The pair of episodes made available to the press imply that season two of Better Call Saul will deepen the primary quadrangle driving the series: Between Jimmy, Chuck, Kim, and Mike (Jonathan Banks), a pragmatic enforcer-for-hire who quietly beckons Jimmy to join him on the murky side of the law, where Jimmy’s talents shine. A minor character from the first season returns, escalating tension between Mike and a drug dealer, Nacho (Michael Mando), that’s illegally resolved in a terrifically curt and hard exchange outside an upholstery business, and that’s also more or less legally resolved by a slice of invention that’s grandly bizarre even by Jimmy’s standards.

Mike is the distant side of the quadrangle, there if Jimmy wants him, as he’s a man too seasoned and shrewd to make the mistake of applying ostentatious pressure. In his despairing, manly fashion, Mike is as sharp as Jimmy, and this nuance is representative of the show’s great empathetic strength for rendering everyone with equal vividness. More immediately pressing on Jimmy are Chuck, who represents the ugly, neurotic side of social conformity, and Kim, who loves Jimmy, but is clearly uncomfortable with his dark side. She can flirt with this darkness, as she does in a short con in the season premiere, but she can’t commit, though she offers Jimmy the validation that Chuck isunable to give, which is starkly underlined when she places her hand on Jimmy’s leg, restoring his confidence just as Chuck’s presence in a legal briefing threatens to deliberately reduce Jimmy from a rising lawyer to a stammering little brother.

Jimmy’s come a long way from the nearly homeless grifter of Better Call Saul’s first season, with opportunities and an honest support system in place, yet there’s a wounded, nihilistic side of him that must pick at figurative scabs, pissing in the face of presumed superiors, as cheekily summed up by his irresistible urge to flip a light switch in his new office, which is plastered with a label advising that it always be left on. Jimmy flips it off and nothing seems to happen. Hovering like a storm cloud over this wonderful series is the knowledge that, one day, Jimmy will flip the wrong switch.

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Cast: Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, Michael McKean, Rhea Seehorn, Michael Mando, Patrick Fabian Airtime: AMC, Monday, 10 p.m. Buy: Amazon

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Review: Black Monday: Season One

Black Monday dabbles in farce, social commentary, and character study, without managing to establish a coherent point of view.

2.0

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Black Monday: Season One
Photo: Erin Simkin/Showtime

The first episode of Showtime’s Black Monday begins with sobering title cards which promise that the series will eventually reveal the reason for the disastrous 1987 stock market crash. But while it might eventually offer real insight into Wall Street malfeasance (only the first three episodes were made available for review), Black Monday quickly establishes a set of alternate priorities: comic caricatures of excess, an unceasing cavalcade of references to 1980s popular culture, and occasional poignant character portraits that, in such a farcical context, appear jarringly out of place.

Black Monday revolves around a small, roguish, and fictional investment firm headed by an insatiable hustler, Maurice (Don Cheadle), who outsmarts rival traders and whose confidence can seem intoxicating. He’s a ruthlessly efficient carnival barker, lording over a kingdom populated by strippers, misogynists, and homophobes, where cocaine and finance crimes are abundant. Indeed, his behavior and milieu are so exaggerated that attempts by creators David Caspe and Jordan Cahan to engender sympathy for Maurice—by revealing his deep emotional vulnerability, or giving him a humble backstory—lack emotional resonance. Black Monday mines humor from its Wall Street cesspool and Maurice’s extravagance, but those two components eventually undermine whatever goodwill the character might inspire.

Black Monday dabbles in farce, simplistic social commentary, and character study, without managing to establish a coherent point of view toward its subjects or their universe. With its eye toward greed and materialism, the series recalls The Wolf of Wall Street, while its breezy pace and comedic flourishes bring to mind The Big Short. Ultimately, it lacks the well-honed moral perspective of either of those films, but it doesn’t commit to the nihilistic reverence of a series such as HBO’s Veep either. Stranded between earnestness and cynicism, Black Monday seems to exist merely to remind us of events that once occurred, and people who once existed.

A screenwriter who appears in the second episode to see if Maurice’s story might be worthy of Hollywood provides a clue for how the series might eventually focus itself: The writer decides that Dawn (Regina Hall), the top broker at Maurice’s firm, is a more fitting figure for adaptation. Indeed, Dawn, as a black woman attempting to crack into an industry which is largely white, male, and insular, is the most plainly sympathetic character in Black Monday. Hall excels as the feisty and competent broker, whose barbed repartee with Maurice provides some of the show’s most heady dialogue. And in the brief moments when the series illustrates the daily indecencies and biases Dawn suffers, even in a humorous light, it manages to derive some actual pathos, and a sense of stakes.

The humor in Black Monday is super-concentrated, laden with witty wordplay and quick retorts. One typical punchline comes when a broker (Horatio Sanz) realizes that the Nintendo game Duck Hunt is not, as he had assumed, titled Da Cunt. Dick jokes abound, and large swaths of an entire episode are devoted to a cartoonish cocaine bender; very little of the show’s humor is original, but even the most simplistic jokes are elevated by familiar, funny performers like Sanz and Paul Scheer, who deliver reliably well-timed line readings.

Such comedy, even when immaterial to Black Monday‘s specific Wall Street milieu, is consistently effective, and the series succeeds as an absurdist reminder of the excesses of the ‘80s. Yet results vary when the writers endeavor to expand on their cartoonish portrayal of Wall Street. By attempting to ground the characters of Dawn and Maurice, and ostensibly working toward some insight into a historical event, the series does occasionally adopt a patina of gravity, or hint at some crystallizing perspective. Mostly, though, such gestures toward a coherent point of view or clear direction are underdeveloped, as the series rushes for another joke or reference, and in the process comes to resemble Maurice himself: exciting and articulate, with little but fool’s gold and hollow promises to sell.

Cast: Don Cheadle, Regina Hall, Andrew Rannells, Paul Scheer, Casey Wilson, Kadeem Hardison, Eugene Cordero, Horatio Sanz Airtime: Showtime, Sundays, 10 p.m.

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Review: True Detective: Season Three

Season three of True Detective plays to the first season’s strengths, but it also feels like an admission of defeat.

2.0

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True Detective: Season Three
Photo: Warrick Page/HBO

In the third installment of HBO’s anthology series True Detective, creator Nic Pizzolatto opts to play to the first season’s strengths: multiple timelines, occult undertones, partnered detectives shooting the philosophical shit while they drive down the road. Even the backwoods setting—this time, the Ozarks—evokes the desolation of the Louisiana bayou that was so evocative in the show’s debut. Viewers might have figured these trappings for series hallmarks had the second season not so consciously distanced itself from them, so it’s hard not to view this return as an admission of defeat, a resignation to the limits of Pizzolatto’s personal storytelling toolbox.

But the familiar elements don’t totally dull the crime show’s construction as a character piece. This season’s protagonist, Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali), is haunted at every stage of his life. In 1980, it’s by the Vietnam War reconnaissance detail that got him the nickname “Purple Hays” and the tracker skillset he now channels into his job as a police detective. In 1990, it’s the reopening of the case at the center of the season: the disappearance of two young children. And in 2015, while grappling with dementia, he’s haunted by the life he’s lived, as it all seems to slip through his fingers. What’s left of the unhappy memories has become his strongest connection to the life he once had. He’s looked inside himself and come out disturbed by how much his insides are tangled around this one case—this fixed point in history.

Hays is a little bit gone a lot of the time, his emotions as bottled up as most of his thoughts. His eyes come alive when his mind is working through something, and they go dead when he’s angry. He’s too buttoned up for the showy soliloquys of a character like Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle from True Detective‘s first season, yet he’s no less conflicted; the three-timeline setup shows the evolution of Hays’s thought process, as he goes from shunning the past to desperately clinging to what he has left.

Despite the occasional line like “I’ve got the soul of a whore,” Pizzolatto has reined in most of his worst instincts as a writer. He gives (some) space to the development of a female character in schoolteacher Amelia Reardon (Carmen Ejogo), but he never strays too far from Hays and the mystery that comes to define the man’s life. The initially welcome focus on Hays, however, continues much longer than the character—or even Ali’s nuanced performance—can ultimately sustain. Large swaths of the season drag as a result, seemingly begging for a more engaging mystery or some other character to latch onto in an equal capacity, or even the pulpy excess of True Detective‘s second season. Dementia quickly begins to feel like a cheap ploy to ensure that certain plot revelations deliver maximum dramatic impact, as well as an excuse to dabble in hacky hallucinations like a room filled with Vietnamese soldiers or an obnoxiously cryptic vision of Hays’s dead wife.

Beyond the preoccupation with time and memory, Pizzolatto does seem to be grasping at something larger than Hays’s personal journey. He just never, at least in the five episodes of the new season made available to critics, seems to find it. The true-crime book that Reardon wrote about the case, for example, promises a look at the crime’s social impact, but True Detective‘s grasp of those broader implications is tenuous at best. In the first two episodes, director Jeremy Saulnier seems to abide with a pleasingly detailed look at the town. People take down Halloween decorations, kids ride bikes and shoot firecrackers near the ranger’s tower, a man hoards trash in a cart. Saulnier has an eye for the Arkansas scenery, as his sedate camera movements frame characters within doorframes and trap them between people’s shoulders. Hay bales sit like behemoths in the mist.

Once Saulnier departs, however, he takes that initially captivating sense of place with him. The things that seemed, at first, like flavor for small-town life end up as mere pieces slotted neatly into the mystery. Pizzolatto relegates the crime’s repercussions to broad portrayals of angry mobs. He makes sporadic, go-nowhere stabs at addressing poverty and race while the series begins to coast through familiar territory. Perhaps Hays will come to terms with the ghosts of his past by the show’s end, but the third season doesn’t suggest True Detective will ever quite reckon with its own.

Cast: Mahershala Ali, Carmen Ejogo, Stephen Dorff, Scoot McNairy, Ray Fisher, Mamie Gummer, Josh Hopkins, Scoot McNairy Airtime: HBO, Sundays, 9 p.m.

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Review: Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

Whatever assemblage of parts make up an individual viewer’s experience of Bandersnatch, it represents the best and worst of Black Mirror.

2.5

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Black Mirror: Bandersnatch
Photo: Netflix

The opening shot of the Black Mirror interactive film Bandersnatch informs us that the story takes place in 1984, the dystopian resonance of which is a bit on the nose. But this is Black Mirror, after all. The show’s formula has relied on various immediately recognizable cultural reference points placed in the context of a speculative high concept. What if Gamergate types could use MMORPGs to replicate consciousness? What if those military robots from Boston Dynamics go rogue and kill everyone? What if streaming and gaming technologies constitute a surveillance network that offers the illusion of choice in a society of creeping totalitarianism?

That last question drives at least parts of Bandersnatch. The film flashes back to the personal-computing and home-gaming revolution to offer a critique of Netflix, its own streaming platform, as a kind of dissimulating game. The ostensibly innocent everyman at the center of the story is Stefan (Fionn Whitehead), an aspiring programmer working on a computer game adaptation of the choose-your-own-adventure novel Bandersnatch by the fictional author Jerome F. Davies. Like Philip K. Dick, Davies saw his interest in free will, technology, and psychedelia notoriously slide into paranoia, dissociation, and delusion—and in ways that, of course, will have import for the film’s plot.

The viewer makes choices for Stefan as he prepares to pitch a local game developer, Tuckersoft. The first choice presented to the viewer, for example, is whether Stefan eats Sugar Puffs or Frosties for breakfast. The inconsequentiality of such initial choices recalls the tired “butterfly effect” trope, as clearly these banal decisions determine our initial path toward the story to an unknown degree. It’s not the only place in which Bandersnatch edges toward the simplistic, but these early choices function like a video game tutorial, which corresponds more interestingly with the film’s themes.

Gradually, Stefan transitions from unaware main character to unwilling avatar of the viewer’s decisions. Tuckersoft offers to publish his game, and as he copes with the months-long process of writing it, we’re asked to decide how he handles the stress: whether he wrecks his computer, pounds his desk, opens up to his therapist (Alice Lowe), or takes his frustration out on his meek father (Craig Parkinson). Stefan begins to suspect that he isn’t in total control of such actions, and this suspicion is encouraged by his new acquaintance, Colin Rockman (Will Poulter), Tuckersoft’s legendary bad-boy game designer.

The wiry, bleached-blond Colin represents the unlikely prophet archetype created by cyberpunk and hacker culture, his transcendent coolness coded in the terms of ‘80s cultural capital: Whereas Stefan listens to mainstream pop like the Thompson Twins, Colin listens to Depeche Mode and Tangerine Dream. Colin also appears to be tapped into a higher reality, as in the film’s most memorable scene, in which he explains to Stefan during an acid trip his Daviesian/Dickian theory that reality is actually made up of the sum of several different branches of reality. His and Stefan’s world, his theory suggests, is little more than a game, a repeatable simulation dependent on a system of rules outside of their control. Depending on the story path the viewer chooses from this point, this system is run by a demon called pAX, a government program called P.A.C.S., or a computer program called Netflix.

Netflix, Bandersnatch reflexively proposes, is one big choose-your-own-adventure story, in which we are presented with a bounty of options construed as our own idea (“Because you liked…”). A streaming service like Netflix, a medium of proscribed choices, offers an experience that’s more like a game than a narrative, and games offer only the illusion of free agency. It’s a fitting point to make with Netflix’s first truly interactive film, but as with many episodes of Black Mirror, there’s also something fairly obvious and one-dimensional about it—or perhaps the problem is in the presentation.

Writer Charlie Booker and director David Slade attempt to manage the potential tediousness of Bandersnatch‘s metatextuality by making the film about metatextuality itself, but in many branches of the story they lapse into using self-reflexivity as a facile punchline. For one, trying to confront Stefan with the reality of his situation leads to a dead-end joke of a conclusion concerning Netflix viewers’ demands for action. Whenever viewers access such a concluding scene, they’re presented with the option of returning to a pivotal decision and pursuing a different path, but each of the five main endpoints feel more like a metatextual short circuit than a completed pathway.

It’s not so much its pat technophobia, then, that makes Bandersnatch unsatisfying. In the tradition of great sci-fi anthology shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, Black Mirror‘s stories are often effective without being subtle. At their worst, they merely recapitulate omnipresent popular anxieties, but at their best they compel critical reflection on the technologies that structure our lives. Whatever assemblage of parts make up an individual viewer’s experience of Bandersnatch, it will likely be a mixture of both.

Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Will Poulter, Alice Lowe, Craig Parkinson, Asim Choudhry, Tallulah Haddon, Jonathan Aris, Suzanne Burden, Jeff Minter Airtime: Netflix

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