One of the best things about Big Love is that it’s decidedly agnostic about its purported protagonist, Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton). The show is smart enough to admit when he does a good thing but also keeps its distance from the man, as though it’s always concerned that he might turn into the second coming of Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton). Critics of Big Love have frequently said the show presents a too idyllic vision of polygamy, but that’s not entirely accurate. The show has frequently criticized Bill and his vision, particularly via Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), Sarah (Amanda Seyfried) and Barb’s mom, Nancy (Ellen Burstyn), and it’s shown how the polygamist lifestyle, even in a seemingly ideal set-up, manages to marginalize women and take away their ability to realize their potential. The show’s detachment, however, gets it into trouble with its critics where other HBO series (notably, The Sopranos) used that detachment to force the audience to probe their complicity in the actions seen on screen. On Big Love, the Henrickson household is presented so appealingly that we WANT it to be the kind of idyllic place it really can’t be, but it never really will be. The foundation it’s built on is the one of sand from the parable.
“Everybody’s well-meaning,” says Sarah in an angry tirade to her friend Heather (Tina Majorino) about why she won’t give up her unborn child to the couple they’ve just met who want to adopt it. The husband of the couple is a gay man (he calls it his “SSA problem”), and he and his wife have a completely fake relationship and seem perfectly OK with that. Sarah, however, wants a better than loveless marriage for her baby, and she certainly doesn’t want that baby raised in a polygamist household (as her brother suggests, when he tells her to give it up to her mom and dad). Sarah is probably the closest thing Big Love has at the moment to a character who is voicing what the show’s producers think about what’s going on (as on most dramas of this caliber, the producers’ surrogate is largely marginalized), so her words speak to something at the center of Big Love, a show about the ways that we are never truly able to divorce anything in our lives from our own selfish impulses. Everybody in the suburban world of Big Love IS well-meaning. Being well-meaning is what much of Western civilization is built on. But that’s almost never enough because altruism (wanting to adopt the child of a teenage mother) gets mixed in with selfish desire (wanting to give the outward appearance of a “normal” family despite the psychological damage it might do to the child) all too often. Both religion and civilization are built on the ideal of curbing our animal appetites, and both encourage us to be “well-meaning,” but both can also cause us to go too far. Pretty much everybody in Big Love that’s not Roman or Lois (Grace Zabriskie) has only the best of intentions in mind, but being well-meaning is rarely enough.
Bill’s having his own moments of well-meaningness in the last couple of episodes, including this week’s “On Trial,” scripted by series creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer and directed by David Knoller. After learning about the Joy Books last week, Bill asked Barb if he was a good man (in a moment that seemed a little forced—he REALLY didn’t know that Roman was shipping teen girls around to others to marry them off), and now, he’s trying to take down Roman but only doing a pretty half-assed job of it. He tries to help Rhonda (Daveigh Chase), but only to the extent that he gets better protection for her from what appears to be the most incompetent DA in the history of the world. Sure enough, Rhonda’s soon on the run with $30,000 and getting lonely truck drivers to listen to her demo tape. (Rhonda’s one of my least favorite characters on the show. She doesn’t make a lot of sense as an actual human being, and she usually seems to be conceived as a symbol of the human cost of polygamy or something. Still, that final scene with the truck driver WAS pretty sad, especially as I assume we’ll never see her again.) Bill might have taken Rhonda into his home and tried to build a support system for a truly messed up girl. It’s not for nothing that we last see Rhonda in Utah talking on the phone to Sarah, telling her that she was wrong about so many things and wants to start over.
Nancy ends up calling Bill on his frequent choice of convenience over what would be the right thing near the episode’s end, when she calls him a gadfly and a dabbler upon learning that Bill is considering taking Ana (Branka Katic) as a fourth wife. (Bursts Lois, “You don’t need four. You’ve got three. That’s celestial. That’s all you need, for now and for eternity. Unless you’re going for a quorum!”) Nancy’s right, in a way. Bill can never be satisfied with what he has. He’s always grasping for more in his personal and business lives, and that will likely prove to be his undoing if it hasn’t already. Bill’s ego also always undermines him, which is why he proposes to Ana as soon as Nancy completes her outburst. (As always on Big Love, this is not as simple as it seems: Notice how Barb immediately jumps in to defend Bill’s plural marriage not as a “lifestyle choice” but as something much deeper, a commitment to God.) Bill also can’t realize that Nicki (Chloë Sevigny, not getting as much to do in this episode as in the last three) is falling apart at the seams, questioning everything her father did and wondering what she truly believes in. That scene of Bill and Nicki playing Go Fish while he avoids talking with her about anything case-related (when, really, she would be the KEY witness to bring down her father) was marvelously scripted and directed, the sort of understated scene laden with subtext that Big Love does really well when it wants to (Sevigny oozes malevolence for her husband even as all she’s doing, pretty much, is asking him for cards). Bill doesn’t even seem to notice that his finances are falling apart, leading to Barb turning to her mother to make sure her kids are cared for, at least.
Big Love’s attempts to portray polygamy as an undesirable way of life have been problematic at best. Even tonight’s episode, probably its most full-throated indictment of polygamy, overplayed its hand a bit by having the DA talk at length about how many young women had been destroyed by polygamy. The monologue was meant to spur Nicki’s feelings towards her father as they continued to curdle, but it did feel rather clumsy to have him suddenly start declaiming about such things. Still, though, “On Trial” managed to attack the polygamist lifestyle directly and succinctly with a minimum of preaching simply by moving the Juniper Creek characters up to Salt Lake City for Roman’s trial. Juniper Creek scenes often seem unnecessary, but the characters all take on a new life by being thrust into the unfamiliar setting of Sandy, Utah. Lois, in particular, seems more human in this context than on the compound, where she too often turns into blackly comic relief. Big Love’s never going to wholly turn on polygamy, even if Sarah (and, by extension, the producers) sees it for what it is, simply because Bill and his wives really DO love each other, but it also knows that that arrangement is definitely not the norm.
Meanwhile, there’s Margie (Ginnifer Goodwin), another person Bill seems to miss slowly falling apart. Indeed, Margie seems to be cracking up in the wake of her mother’s death. First, she’s sharing random photos of her mom with Don Embry (Joel McKinnon Miller). Then, she’s the only person in the episode ignoring the news of Roman’s trial, as she fervently dances to the music on her iPod, memorabilia from her mother’s life all about her. The final cut from inside of Margie’s headspace, where the music dominated, to outside the house entirely, watching her dance in complete isolation from everyone else, news of the trial blaring on her TV, the din of the music barely heard, was pretty masterful, as was the composition of that final shot. Margie goes from there to dying her hair platinum blonde (her mom’s color), and Bill doesn’t seem to draw up any of these connections. Goodwin’s been playing all of this grief in the background, the show only occasionally allowing it to peek through, and given the way things boil away on Big Love, there’s likely to be some sort of outburst in this regard.
The primary focus of the episode, though, was on the trial of Roman, with most of the episode spent in the build-up to it and the final 10 minutes or so dedicated to the trial itself. With everyone but Kathy (Mireille Enos) abandoning their role as witnesses in the trial, Kathy’s testimony is easily picked apart by having her twin sister Jodeen (also Enos) cast doubts on just how old Kathy was when she was sent off to marry Ron. The case against Roman completely falls apart in the wake of that, and he is allowed to walk free. Someone spits on Kathy, Jodeen’s son is removed from the threateningly watchful eyes of the UEB (in another moment that conveyed so much through wordlessness) and the Juniper Creekers walk off, singing a hymn for their God and their prophet (who’s such a good prophet because he only gets on board with sure things). And then Roman thanks Nicki for her help in his freedom, and she pushes him down the stairs, and you realize this story has always been less about the intrigue of the compound and more about Nicki finally beginning to realize who she is outside of her marriage and her paternity. So even if the trial is over, Nicki has a long road to travel.
Sibling pairings also seemed significant in the episode, as Sarah turned to her brother, Ben (Douglas Smith), in an attempt to figure out what to do about her pregnancy, Nicki and her brother Alby (Matt Ross) had words about why Nicki kept trying to appease their parents (leading to Nicki’s push) and Jodeen brought down her sister and sent her into shame. The most interesting relationships on Big Love are often those between siblings (after all, they’re called sister wives, ha ha), because Big Love is always interested in the ways parents’ sins come home to roost with their children. Even in a slightly overstuffed episode like “On Trial” (have this many major plot developments shoehorned themselves into one episode in the series history?), Big Love makes room for the people in your family who are going to speak the unvarnished truth just when you need to hear it.
Some other thoughts:
1. Big Love got a fourth season, despite ratings being slightly down from the second season, after the show’s disappearance for more than a year. The series remains one of the few draws on HBO for a female audience (though True Blood now does fairly well in that demographic as well), so perhaps this renewal shouldn’t have been in doubt, but I was sweating it.
2. That scene with the couple looking to adopt Sarah’s baby was the sort of scene HBO dramas do so well. It certainly didn’t NEED to be in there, and if this were a network drama with no time for digressions like that, it would have been cut, but it was a nice little piece of work, as it verged from funny to sad to awkward to frustrating. The character of the gay man who’s in denial and married to a woman is a laughingstock on most other TV shows (as is the woman), but Big Love manages to balance the ridiculousness of the situation with just the right level of compassion for the characters involved. It definitely helped to have Heather, whose sexuality seems somewhat … confused, there, but the show also found just the right balance for the married couple as well. The whole thing certainly didn’t NEED to be there, but it commented on so much in the episode and the series as a whole at a thematic level that it felt necessary all the same. (And the coda, with Sarah ranting about being well-meaning while Ben tried to drown her out with Christian rock is the sort of scene you wouldn’t see on any show other than this. Big Love captures the tenor of American fundamentalism so, so well and in a way most other shows wouldn’t even attempt.)
3. Ellen Burstyn’s been appearing quite a bit this season, which is great (Nancy’s a good character and one of our few windows into mainstream LDSers on the show), but I surely can’t be alone in wanting to again see her husband, played by Philip Baker Hall, one of my favorite character actors. Hall got four or five lines in the episode he appeared in last season, and I hope he took the role because the producers promised him great things in season three. I am sadly not hopeful.
4. Here’s a legal question I have just in case Nicki suddenly decides to testify: Are the Henricksons, particularly Bill, in any sort of LEGAL trouble for their living arrangement? Since only Bill and Barb are LEGALLY married and since Bill pays child support for all of his kids, there’s really no way he can be prosecuted should his living arrangement come out if Nicki takes the stand, right? I mean, they’re all consenting adults, just living in an odd living situation, and since Bill is only legally married to one woman, he should be in the clear.
5. Last season, there was some discussion in comments about how Bill seemed to be on a path to turn into Roman. Tonight’s episode showed that even as he made a real effort to tear himself away from Roman’s style of life, he inadvertently ended up growing ever closer (telling Rhonda he’d like her more if she testified, proposing to Ana, etc.).
6. Thanks to that dance sequence, I think we can all pretty much safely say that Big Love is just taunting me at this point, yes?
7. See, I said Nicki didn’t get a lot to do, but I completely forgot to mention that scene where she broke down in front of her mother (Mary Kay Place) while digging a pit looking for a cash stash. That just shows you how much she’s had to do in the last few weeks. Also, that DA is totally flirting with her, right?
For more recaps of Big Love, click here.
Review: Season Three of Harlots Retains the Show’s Campy Flourishes
The series is ultimately content to luxuriate in the well-established tension between its central characters.2.5
Season two of Hulu’s period drama Harlots seemed to trace the arcs of its female protagonists to their logical conclusions, with Madame Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) fleeing London for America, the villainous Madame Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville) committed to the Bedlam psychiatric hospital, and Margaret’s daughter, Charlotte (Jessica Brown Findlay), ascending to the role of “bawd” of the Greek Street brothel. These developments presented the writers with an opportunity to expand the show’s world, but while season three introduces new players to its gritty London backdrop, Harlots is ultimately content to luxuriate in the well-established tension between its central characters.
With Margaret and Lydia in exile, the season’s early episodes focus on Charlotte’s budding rivalry with a pimp named Isaac Pincher (Alfie Allen), who’s aggressively claiming territories in London. Perhaps because the slick, unctuous Isaac is so easily detestable, these episodes lack the knotty moral dynamic that the show previously derived from the strife between Margaret and Lydia. The two veteran madams are more nuanced characters than either the sympathetic Charlotte or the plainly villainous Isaac, and when Charlotte, ambitious but ultimately kind-hearted, attempts to outmaneuver Isaac, Harlots assumes a didactic pose.
The series has always focused on women struggling against a patriarchal system, and the conflict between Charlotte and Isaac renders the show’s overarching theme in literal terms. The writers do attempt to imbue their relationship with intricacy by adding a romantic layer, yet as Isaac’s actions toward Greek Street become more violent, Charlotte’s attraction toward him, which is merely unexpected at first, becomes inexplicable.
While these episodes don’t provide the show’s most nuanced character portrayals, they feature enough soapy excitement to hold the audience’s attention until Margaret and Lydia reemerge in London. The cat-and-mouse conflict between Charlotte and Isaac leads to a number of memorable set pieces, including a typically playful and bawdy one in which the women of Charlotte’s Greek Street brothel raid Isaac’s tavern for gold. Each episode is punctuated by a cliffhanger, including a cataclysmic event in episode three which signals an impending paradigm shift for Harlots. As the plot twists accrue, palpable chemistry emerges between Findlay and Allen, with the actors toggling between archness and sincerity to characterize the underdeveloped romance between Charlotte and Isaac.
While the initial episodes suffer some narrative foundering, season three retains the show’s campy flourishes, including an upbeat, anachronistic score and intentionally stagey performances. Findlay, Allen, and the rest of the cast loudly betray their characters’ emotions, contributing to both the show’s bubbly soapiness and its sympathetic view of its characters. The harlots aren’t cowed sex workers, driven to secrecy; as ever, they’re brazen and proud. The show’s vivid costume design provides bursts of color, and informs our perception of characters: Consider the transformation in Lydia’s wardrobe as she reenters society, or the way her sad-sack son, Charles (Douggie McMeekin), is draped in drab and subtly frayed jackets.
Certain scenes last mere seconds before the narrative shifts to other characters, and the whirlwind pace contributes to an overall breeziness that makes Harlots, despite its poignant and occasionally disturbing material, so easy to digest. The series cycles through surprising plot twists, ribald humor, and glimpses of cruelty, while maintaining a focus on the precarious state of its characters’ lives. And because the show’s world remains characterized as much by cheer as danger, its horrifying moments are thrown into stark relief. In particular, the climactic catastrophe in the season’s third episode reminds the audience that no one in Harlots is safe from harm—and that old grudges die hard.
Cast: Jessica Brown Findlay, Samantha Morton, Lesley Manville, Eloise Smyth, Kate Fleetwood, Liv Tyler, Holli Dempsey, Danny Sapani, Alfie Allen, Ash Hunter, Douggie McMeekin Network: Hulu
Review: The Loudest Voice Is Confirmation Bias as Liberal Bedtime Story
The miniseries does little more than reinforce everything the left always suspected about Fox News.1
Showtime’s The Loudest Voice, a seven-part miniseries about the rise of former Fox News head Roger Ailes (Russell Crowe), is predisposed to the sort of blustering speeches that constantly tumble from Crowe’s latex-encased maw. His Ailes has a gift for neatly packaged profundities and generalizations about the nature of TV and its viewership, a succinct and incendiary vision from which subsequent battle plans are drawn. In the first episode, Ailes insists that the nascent network should, instead of vying for the attention of the public at large, target those “who are predisposed to buying what we are trying to sell.” In a monolithic yet totally unexamined irony, the series itself operates with a similar strategy, forgoing any challenging truths in favor of reiterating gospel long ago accepted by the choir.
Because, of course, while Fox News is designed to stoke right-wing paranoia and prejudice, The Loudest Voice similarly emerges from and is designed specifically for confirmation bias. The series does little more than reinforce everything the left always suspected about Ailes and the long con of his news network through painfully obvious and patronizing dialogue, as when Ailes rallies the troops by declaring, “We become the loudest voice. We bring to this country fairness and balance.” As the series so dutifully demonstrates, Ailes knew that he was twisting facts and spreading propaganda, which he justifies with statements like: “People don’t wanna be informed; they wanna feel informed.” The entire series plays like a self-satisfied “gotcha,” as if the ultimate proof and punishment of wrongdoing is to reenact it on television.
The structure of the miniseries traces the development of Fox News’s methods over the years, with one person or another usually disapproving of Ailes’s tactics—perhaps even outright forbidding him from doing something, as owner Rupert Murdoch (Simon McBurney) does when the network repeatedly characterizes the Obamas as terrorists—only for Ailes to continue doing things his way. He’s a man who, by and large, cannot be stopped, whether in his work pursuits or in his sexual assaults and general harassment of countless women; he’s fond of making them twirl around before him, all the while leering.
The problem with depicting Ailes as an essentially unstoppable force that does little more than shout in order to get his way is one of repetition. The Loudest Voice intends to convey how Fox’s rhetoric escalated over time, but because every internal conflict plays out so similarly, we get little sense of that escalation, of different lines being crossed that weren’t already crossed in previous episodes. The series struggles to even depict the results of Ailes’s editorial decisions. As a result, the initial episodes of The Loudest Voice all but play out in a vacuum, more concerned with relating how Ailes’s decisions were made.
The responses to Fox that are depicted are only the biggest ones, such as other networks picking up their ACORN conspiracy, or the Obama campaign requesting a private sit-down after so much negative coverage. An argument at a coffee shop grows heated enough to encompass multiple customers in the town where Ailes bought out the local newspaper, and there are ominous clips of a mob protesting the Obama administration, riled into a frenzy by Fox coverage. But with no real buildup to these responses from outside The Loudest Voice’s Fox-centric perspective, they’re less examinations of the consequences than just the basic proof that Fox did, in fact, provoke a response, as if that’s the only thing worth exploring.
The series waits until the third and fourth episodes before alluding to the upbringing that shaped Ailes into the man he became, as he relates stories about his father and where he grew up. But even these are surface observations made mainly through environmental shots of the rusted corpse of his hometown of Warren, Ohio, where the factories have since pulled out and the working class ekes out a living amid trash-ridden streets and homes in varying states of disrepair. It amounts to little more than pointing the finger at abandoned buildings looming large in the distance, as if a simple gesture toward where Ailes is from explains everything about his formation into an eventually infamous figure. “Economic anxiety” has struck again as the readily accepted culprit for noxious political views.
In a similar fit of oversimplification, Ailes increasingly seems unaware of the sociological context for what he’s presenting to the public; despite coming across as so calculating in the first episode, he eventually seems to simply believe some of the conspiracies his network peddles. The characterization of his wife, Beth Ailes (Sienna Miller), is even thinner, insofar as she’s hardly characterized at all. She’s mainly relegated to a sounding board so that the beliefs and actions of Roger Ailes may be spelled out to the audience.
The result is a suffocating, overlong dramatization of what happened where the why is purely incidental, a Wikipedia recitation from a credibly make-upped Russell Crowe who never quite decides what regional American accent he’s supposed to be doing. The Loudest Voice is a liberal bedtime story; it doesn’t argue a point or even particularly inform so much as blandly recreate the heinous actions of a Republican bogeyman. In doing so, it merely pacifies, assuring us that the world functions exactly as we expected while leaving us safe and secure in the knowledge that the monsters are exactly where we always knew they were.
Cast: Russell Crowe, Sienna Miller, Naomi Watts, Seth MacFarlane, Annabelle Wallis, Simon McBurney, Aleksa Palladino, Josh Stamberg, Josh Charles, Mackenzie Astin, Lucy Owen Network: Showtime
Review: Legion’s Unhinged Final Season Plunges Us into an Unknowable Mind
The show’s third and final season is a visual achievement, typified by imaginative flights of absurdism.3
After Legion’s shocking second season finale, in which it was revealed that David (Dan Stevens) had sexually assaulted his girlfriend, Syd (Rachel Keller), the series enters its third and final season with a lingering ambiguity: Is David, the show’s titular telepath and diagnosed schizophrenic, redeemable? Furthermore, to what extent is he responsible for his actions? Throughout season three, in which David is hunted by the Shadow King (Navid Negahban) and Division Three while he attempts to travel back in time to rectify his misdeeds, Legion struggles to answer these questions, which serve as the crux of the series.
Certainly, by framing David’s efforts to alter the past as self-serving and expedient, Legion maintains one view of its protagonist as an egomaniac and probable sociopath. In conversations with a rightly unmoved Syd, David’s protestations and glib promises to simply undo the past reflect his inability to grasp the gravity of his crime. And the character’s first effort at time travel, in which he attempts to protect his infant self from the Shadow King, is tinged with both self-interest and an attempt to shift the blame for his actions.
From this perspective, Legion’s depiction of David is a trenchant critique of toxic masculinity. But the series also suggests that David, while impurely motivated, might not be wrong to seek an excuse for his behavior. Nothing in the season dispels the notion that he could, by preserving his own innocence from the Shadow King’s influence, prevent himself from becoming a manipulative and self-obsessed person—or one who would commit sexual assault.
This conflicted portrayal at least makes Legion extremely effective as a plunge into sheer narcissism. To engage with David, and the show’s ever-shifting reality, is to experience the sensation of being gaslit firsthand. His passionate pleas when enlisting the help of a young time-traveling mutant, Switch (Lauren Tsai), are backed by rousing strings on the soundtrack, which imply virtue in his determination. Similarly, when David professes his love for Syd, Stevens strips David of his usual guile, offering an earnest portrayal of heartbroken regret. Such moments, which tempt us to empathize with David, and maintain the idea of him as the show’s hero, are contrasted by deflating glimpses of his selfishness. When he thoughtlessly implores an exhausted, injured Switch to bring him back to the past after a failed attempt, the series punishes us for having trusted David to consider anything beyond his own self-interest.
Legion remains a visual achievement, typified by the imaginative settings and flights of absurdism which, at their most effective, serve to illuminate David’s mental state. Season three finds David with a new cult of followers, who surround him in a ramshackle house that acts as both plot device and canvas for his volatile emotions. The house’s exposed pipes, which resemble veins or synapses, glow neon blue with a substance revealed to be a sedative drug created by David. While the drugged cult evinces David’s craving for any kind of admiration, the claustrophobic space is a realization of his addled mind. When the character is at one point consumed by rage, the pipes turn a foreboding shade of red, and his followers begin to froth at the mouth—an effectively unsettling metaphor for David’s chaotic instability.
Some of the season’s other oddball incursions are less thematically coherent or informative, especially as the series builds toward its ostensible conclusion. Series creator Noah Hawley has publicly cited David Lynch as an inspiration for the series, and while Legion does possess a Lynchian sense of unmooring suspense, the weirdness can also merely forestall whatever intelligible vision of David’s arc the series is approaching. In one such instance, a confrontation between Switch and David pushes him toward self-assessment, but the conversation quickly evolves into the entire cast singing a melancholic version of “(What’s So Funny ‘bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?” In a series with so little peace, love, or understanding, the wry song choice is clearly meant to be ironic, but the whimsical indulgence serves no purpose except to reinforce David’s already well-established inability to learn.
Season three includes more than one such musical number, which consistently resemble escapes from the character resolutions the series simultaneously inches toward and avoids. Surreal tangents once provided crucial insights into David’s mind, yet now they just as often distract from the show’s emerging assessment of the character. Legion alternately views the very act of telepathy as a violation, and David as a victim of his own abilities. Crucially, the series, by building toward a conventional showdown between David and the Shadow King, seems unsure as to which character is ultimately responsible for David’s past actions.
As the season approaches its conclusion, Legion occasionally hints at offering elusive truths about David’s nature, but just as often seems to be building toward an opaque conclusion for the character: one in which David, and his fragmented mind, simply might not be understandable in any conventional sense. Still, in its attempt to provide both character study and pure, unhinged abstraction, Legion has fashioned yet another visually distinct and uniquely bizarre season around a man’s unknowable mind.
Cast: Dan Stevens, Aubrey Plaza, Rachel Keller, Jean Smart, Amber Midthunder, Bill Irwin, Jemaine Clement, Hamish Linklater, Navid Negahban Network: FX
Review: City on a Hill Is a Bonanza of Character Detail and Hammy Thrills
When the series isn’t immersed in pulpy shenanigans, it aspires to be a sort of Bostonian The Wire.3
Not since Gerard Butler’s riotous, bloody doughnut-eating turn in Christian Gudegast’s Den of Thieves last year has an actor plumbed the scumbag depths quite like Kevin Bacon does as wayward F.B.I. agent Jackie Rohr in Showtime’s City on a Hill. Everyone within the show’s various layers of Boston law enforcement seems to know Rohr, and not a single person likes the guy—not the co-workers who bristle at his presence, not the people who return his greeting with an immediate “fuck off,” and certainly not his mother-in-law, Rose (Catherine Wolf), who threatens to expose his serial infidelity by telling his wife, Jenny (Jill Hennessy), about his recent STD test. In retaliation, he grabs a model Red Baron plane—a memento from Rose’s late husband—from the mantelpiece and makes like he’s going to smash it. “You put me in the fucking doghouse,” he growls in his hoarse Boston accent, “and I’m gonna be like Snoopy and blow your shit right the fuck out of the sky.”
When City on a Hill isn’t immersed in such pulpy shenanigans, which find the casually racist Rohr doing things like brandishing a fish at an angry old woman who calls him a “white devil,” it aspires to be a sort of Bostonian The Wire. The series, set in the early ‘90s and based on an original idea by creator Chuck MacLean and executive producer Ben Affleck, constantly keeps one eye on the systems that contribute to the city’s rot as it moves through a fictionalized account of the “Boston Miracle” police initiative that statistically reduced violence in the city. One-eyed District Attorney Decourcy Ward (Aldis Hodge) is an idealist beaten down by what he sees, given to statements such as “I like what my job should be” to justify why he thanklessly works to improve the system. He’s black, so he gets the kind of scrutiny that doesn’t afford him any goofy bad-cop antics, but Hodge dials up the searing intensity with a wide-eyed stare, the only window to the drive and the outrage bubbling beneath his no-nonsense exterior. Every so often, it leaks through with a shouted line like, “I’m not their boy.”
Rohr and Ward fall into a mismatched partnership that’s surprisingly absent any of the explosive confrontations that typically characterize odd-couple pairings in film and TV. Their hesitant camaraderie just sort of happens as they recognize their mutual interests; even if they don’t like each other, they understand one another. And from there, the series unfolds the complications (of which there are many) and the key players (of which there are even more) that will figure into a wider arc that begins with a simple armored car robbery. Laying out all the different systems that figure into the story, though, makes the first few episodes somewhat slow-going; some scenes tend to devolve into a lot of bureaucratic jargon and off-the-cuff mentions of Boston locations that might lose anyone unfamiliar with the city.
Where the series excels, however, is in the level of detail it brings to its individual characters. Armored car robber Frankie Ryan (Jonathan Tucker), for example, works stocking a grocery store, and he’s often seen doing lottery scratch cards as if constantly on the lookout for alternative cash flow. When he cuts himself putting up a bathroom cabinet, it figures into foreplay with his wife, Cathy (Amanda Clayton); he holds up his bandaged hand to say he’s not afraid of a little blood while she goes to pull out a tampon “the size of a friggin’ bus.” And when Cathy suspects her screw-up brother-in-law, Jimmy (Mark O’Brien), of absconding with their money, she yanks the cabinet out of the wall to reveal the nook where they keep unlaundered cash. Here, Frankie’s cut hand, bathroom cabinet, and working-class lifestyle converge to describe his relationship with Cathy and the exact degree of her complicity in his operation. Elsewhere, Rohr’s menacing of the model plane neatly (and hilariously) outlines his living situation and the strained relationships that encompass it.
While it’s true that none of these characters are particularly unique even within the setting (Affleck’s own The Town features a similarly honorable robber stuck with a volatile sidekick), they feel dynamic enough that their familiarity ceases to matter. They all know their way around a punchy, profane turn of phrase, and they’re usually good for some kind of amusing sight, whether it’s Rohr’s coked-up air-drumming to a Rush song or Jimmy driving to see his kids in a car filled with balloons, singing along to Marky Mark’s “Good Vibrations” with a mouthful of Bubble Tape. Such a confident grasp of character goes a long way toward smoothing over the show’s somewhat clumsier big-picture narrative, as City on a Hill proves itself as effective at small, interlocking details as it is at purely hammy thrills.
Cast: Kevin Bacon, Aldis Hodge, Jonathan Tucker, Mark O’Brien, Lauren E. Banks, Amanda Clayton, Jere Shea, Kevin Chapman, Jill Hennessy, Blake Baumgartner, Catherine Wolf Network: Showtime
Review: Years and Years Is a Captivating Dystopian Family Drama
The series manages to pile on the cataclysms without taking pleasure in the pain of its characters.3
In his memoir Self-Consciousness, John Updike describes his early adulthood by saying, “I turned thirty, then forty,” and in doing so skips over a decade’s worth of information unnecessary to the reader. Russell T Davies’s miniseries Years and Years, which will launch on HBO following its run on BBC One, similarly makes economic use of time, but where Updike jumps into the future, the series sprints. Every so often throughout the four episodes made available to press, a searing montage pushes the world a few years forward, relaying key geopolitical developments—a landmark legal decision, a diplomatic falling out, an environmental crisis—before settling back down in a global order even shakier than before.
We experience these changes through the perspective of Britain’s Lyons family, which includes tough but caring matriarch Muriel Deacon (Anne Reid) and her grandchildren: Stephen (Rory Kinnear), a banker; Daniel (Russell Tovey), a housing officer; Rosie (Ruth Madeley), a school cafeteria manager; and Edith (Jessica Hynes), an activist. The siblings, their partners, and their children are Years and Years’s primary concern, and with each lurch into the future, their lives tend to get worse rather than better. All the while, Vivienne Rook (Emma Thompson), a fear-mongering pseudo-populist, launches and advances her political career, deploring the world’s degradation and promising to represent the true wishes of the British people.
At one point, the Lyons siblings hop on a conference call to react to one of Rook’s appearances on the news. Rosie appreciates Rook’s straightforwardness—the series opens with a shockingly candid and unempathetic on-air comment that Rook makes about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—Daniel is horrified by it, and others lie somewhere in between. Rook is more than a little Trumpian, a resonant representation of the crassness that he’s made politically viable. And as Years and Years proceeds, this much becomes clear: Although it largely centers around the Lyonses, the series isn’t really about them, but about Rook. It’s about the potential for the world to operate in a way that enables Rook’s ascent and leaves people like the Lyons family staring slack-jawed at her demagoguery and electoral swashbuckling.
As Rook, Thompson seems to multiply the minutes she gets on screen with the ferocity and sheer gravitational pull that the actress brings to the politician. When she’s on television, Rook looks directly into the camera, at the Lyonses and at the viewer. And when she’s participating in a local debate, she defiantly stands at the center of the stage, in the middle of the screen, her opponents surrounding her like planets stalled in orbit.
The rest of the cast’s performances similarly ground the series’s socio-political thought experiment in human experiences. Kinnear, as Stephen, realizes a soft stoicism, a resilience undergirded by subdued positivity. When that façade finally cracks, following a death in the family, we know that Stephen doesn’t cry solely because of the loss; he’s also grieving a financial crash along with his increasingly fraught marriage, which together contribute to the gulf separating what he thought his life would be and what it has become.
Though thoughtful and moving in its exploration of such suffering, both individual and collective, Years and Years occasionally stumbles by insufficiently using its characters to contextualize its political world-building. At Rook’s debate, which Rosie and Edith attend, Rook wins over her detractors in the crowd with a swiftness that’s jarring given the weakness of her argument, which essentially justifies authoritarianism as a bulwark against the proliferation of porn. Rook’s victory feels artificial, like she manages to sway her doubters purely because the series needs her to in order to demonstrate the shortsightedness of voters. Rosie and Edith’s presence should, in theory, render Rook’s beguiling charm more believable, but the series fails to interrogate the reasons for the pair’s attraction to her.
Two monologues that Daniel delivers encapsulate the series’s sporadic inconsistency. In one, he holds Rosie’s newborn baby while questioning, aloud and at length, if it’s right to bring a child into a deteriorating world. As Daniel bemoans the banks and the corporations and fake news and more, he ceases to blink, his voice rising and quickening. He becomes a machine unleashing a diatribe that’s too neat to be convincing, the character of Daniel giving way to a Daniel-shaped megaphone. Later, though, Daniel tells off a xenophobic visitor to the refugee camp he works at in his capacity as a housing officer. This scene, in contrast to the earlier one, doesn’t burden Daniel with the weight of the world. Rather, it gives him the freedom to discuss what he’s personally and passionately invested in: the idea that refugees deserve all—and more than—the help they receive. Here, Daniel’s dialogue and Tovey’s performance are vastly more organic, emerging from within the character as opposed to simply flowing through him.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of Years and Years is the compassion with which it considers its characters. It would be easy for a series filled with so many cataclysms, both global and personal—nuclear weapon launches, deaths, infidelities—to err on the side of sadism in its depiction of that turmoil. But it takes no pleasure in the pain of the Lyonses. Instead, Years and Years recognizes that pain is edifying as well as transient, and it accordingly gives the pain that it inflicts space to evolve: to form, to torment, and to pass, like each year that comes and goes, taking more and more away with it.
Cast: Emma Thompson, Rory Kinnear, T’Nia Miller, Russell Tovey, Jessica Hynes, Ruth Madeley, Anne Reid, Dino Fetscher, Lydia West, Jade Alleyne, Maxim Baldry, Sharon Duncan-Brewster Network: HBO
Review: Euphoria’s Depiction of Teen Hedonism Is Both Frank and Lurid
Euphoria’s central relationship is luminous, but the series struggles to develop its other characters.2.5
Sam Levinson’s Euphoria announces its self-consciously provocative nature within its first minute, when Rue Bennett (Zendaya) says that she was happy once, over an image of the girl, in fetus form, about to be born. Airplane engines begin to howl alongside baby Rue’s POV as she exits the birth canal, at which point the episode transitions to a shot of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center. She was born three days after 9/11. The juxtaposition here is loud and in-your-face, and though it’s tonally similar to the deluge of ironic trigger warnings that open Levinson’s film Assassination Nation, it has the benefit of some actual thematic coherence, for the way the open-with-a-literal-bang image acknowledges 9/11 as the unmistakable divide between Euphoria’s teens and everyone else.
Rue characterizes the world she grew up in as a chaotic, aimless place devoid of much understanding for her people her age, which leaves her generation concerned mainly with wringing out as much enjoyment from it as they can. And the series, which is adapted from an Israeli drama of the same name, depicts such teenage hedonism in frank, explicit terms: a high school world awash in pills, sex, and nude photos thrown to the winds of social media. The nature of these occasionally graphic depictions is complicated by Levinson’s consciously “attitude”-laden stylings: Are they graphic purely to shock, or to authentically portray what today’s young people go through, or both? Regardless, the series finds its character-driven groove by turning an empathetic eye toward the inner lives of its principal teens, observing their listlessness and small moments of solace as much as their outward pain.
Rue, we learn, is a drug addict fresh out of rehab who’s largely uninterested in getting clean. And while the show’s other teens feel their way through seedy meet-ups with older men, pursue self-actualization through porn, and cope with invasions of privacy, Rue provides the perspective through which we view nearly everything and everyone else. She narrates even the events that don’t involve her, lending them a general vibe of playful, sarcastic worldliness. She determines the flow of the action, freezing a sex scene outright for a digression on modern porn habits or summoning a cutaway gag, like a lecture on dick pics complete with projector slides. Zendaya plays Rue with a perpetual murmur and effortless remove, like an observer sitting on the sidelines watching the world go by, until she succumbs to a desperate, drug-seeking freak-out or one of the panic attacks those drugs are meant to distance her from.
The series tempers some of its heavier material with an often laidback atmosphere, a world of deep shadows drenched in multi-colored hues and dreamy hip-hop beats that belie the darkness in its corners. If the universe is falling apart around the characters’ ears, the result is that Euphoria’s characters see little reason to consider what encroaching adulthood will mean, to ruminate on what will come next when there might as well be no “next.” There’s only the all-encompassing “now.” “The world is coming to an end,” Rue says to justify her drug use, “and I haven’t even graduated high school yet.”
Euphoria’s best scenes are its oases of joy and humor, particularly the luminous relationship between Rue and Jules (Hunter Schafer), the new-in-town trans girl whose sunny disposition contrasts Rue’s overall remove yet masks a deeper restlessness. The chemistry between Zendaya and Schafer paints a believable portrait of a companionship only possible before adulthood, when you have as much free time as you have affection to distribute.
The two might have sustained the series by themselves, though Euphoria struggles to develop its other characters. Cassie (Sydney Sweeney), for example, is largely undefined beyond the sexual history she’s trying to move beyond, while her boyfriend, Chris (Algee Smith), seems to exist only to express discomfort about that history. Beneath his football-playing façade, Nate (Jacob Elordi) has a streak of violent calculation that dances on the edge of caricature. Only Kat (Barbie Ferreira) seems to develop beyond her basic template of virginal angst, mainly because the series resolves the issue almost immediately before sending her down a Pornhub rabbit hole on an amusing journey of self-discovery; her burgeoning sexuality comes to encompass an attractive classmate as much as a man on Skype who wants to be her “cash pig.”
The fourth episode only emphasizes the disparity between the show’s development of the teens. As the camera glides between multiple perspectives at the same carnival event, Jules has a scary revelation about an older, married man, Cal (Eric Dane), she recently hooked up with, while a panicked Rue searches for her sister, Gia (Storm Reid), who’s still reeling from Rue’s overdose prior to the events of the series. However, the more half-sketched characters, such as Cassie and Nate’s long-suffering girlfriend, Maddy (Alexa Demie), take drugs seemingly so they’ll have something to do for the duration of the episode. While it’s realistic that not all the characters would have intricate stories to engage in (Kat’s storyline is also comparably low-stakes), sidelining Cassie and Maddy feels like a concession that the series isn’t totally sure what to do with them beyond displaying their suffering.
The success of Euphoria’s teen drama ultimately depends on which teen it focuses on at any given moment. With Rue and Jules at the center, you feel the exhilaration of their friendship as much as a real concern for their growing troubles. But with its less fully developed characters, the series can feel like little more than a lurid performance of teenage pain.
Cast: Zendaya, Maude Apatow, Angus Cloud, Eric Dane, Alexa Demie, Jacob Elordi, Barbie Ferreira, Nika King, Storm Reid, Hunter Schafer, Algee Smith, Sydney Sweeney, Austin Abrams, Alanna Ubach Network: HBO
Review: Hulu’s Das Boot Forfeits the Telescoped Focus of Its Source Material
The series transforms a story that captured something of the experience of war into a familiar melodrama.1.5
One of the strengths of Wolfgang Petersen’s classic submarine drama Das Boot, based on Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s novel of the same name, is that it’s no glorification of the German war machine. Indeed, its shocking ending underlines the absolute senselessness of war and the meaninglessness of heroism. Das Boot is a war film that could only be made in a country where virtually everyone had experienced the horror of war firsthand, whether it was on the frontlines or cowering in a bomb shelter. But it’s also a story told strictly from the perspective of the gentile German sailor; women appear quite literally on the margins—at beginning and end, when the boat disembarks and returns—and non-gentiles are neither seen nor mentioned. War crimes are far from the film’s purview, and its sailors are, for the most part, not terribly interested in Nazism.
Johannes W. Betz’s new series solves this problem by flashing back and forth between the crew of a U-Boot captained by the young Captain Klaus Hoffmann (Rick Okon) and a plot of betrayal and subterfuge in the ship’s port in La Rochelle, France, centered around German Navy translator Simone Strasser (Vicky Krieps). In doing so, however, Betz’s Das Boot eschews much of what made the original film effective: the feeling that the viewer is stranded in the narrow gangways of the submarine on a mostly blind journey through treacherous waters.
Forfeiting the telescoped focus that keeps the film engrossing, the series substitutes hidden backstories and interpersonal melodrama that feels like it was pulled from the prestige-drama handbook. As the crew is assembled in the first episode, “New Paths,” we learn that the long-serving First Officer Karl Tennstedt (August Wittgenstein), a familiar Nazi type who’s been passed over for command of the ship in favor Hoffmann, is the son of a WWI hero. Tennstedt’s simmering resentment plays out, over the course of the four episodes available for review, as an escalating crisis of authority, as he grows increasingly bold in his defiance of the noble-minded Hoffmann, and sways the minds of several (rather easily convinced) enlisted men.
Meanwhile, Simone arrives in La Rochelle, where she expects to live and work alongside her younger brother, Frank (Leonard Scheicher), a radio engineer. When an accident on board Hoffmann and Tennstedt’s U-Boot damages the radio and seriously injures the ship’s engineer, Tennstedt summarily decides to assign Frank to the vessel. With no choice in the matter and suddenly facing an uncertain fate, Frank hands over to Simone a cache of materials he was supposed to deliver in a post-curfew rendezvous later that night.
In the second episode, “Secret Missions,” it’s revealed that Frank’s mission had something to do with a French girl he’s been seeing, Natalie (Clara Ponsot), and with a mysterious American resistance fighter named Carla Monroe (Lizzy Caplan)—well, only “mysterious” inasmuch as the series clumsily cultivates an air of mystique around her, all oblique camera angles and vague dialogue. On the brink of explaining her intentions to Simone, Monroe stops herself, mostly, it seems, to extend the mystery for another episode or two. “Probably better if you don’t know,” she says, though she might as well be addressing the camera.
It’s in this episode that the seams of Das Boot really begin to show—or, rather, its bulkheads start to crack. Almost every aspect of the shorebound storyline, which becomes the show’s main focus, is an exaggerated contrivance. In a scenario painfully familiar from a dozen cable dramas that have pulled it off more convincingly (see The Americans, Breaking Bad, Barry), Simone conducts her illegal dealings with Monroe’s resistance cell under the nose of Gestapo inspector Hagen Forster (Tom Wlaschiha). Forster has a professional relationship with Simone, and, he hopes, a burgeoning personal one. As he’s drawn ever closer to her, Forster becomes increasingly blind to her traitorous activities—though, naturally, episode four, “Doubts,” ends with him coming one step closer to discovering them.
This adaptation of Das Boot, which also incorporates elements from Buchheim’s 1995 novel Die Festung, transforms a story that endeavored to capture something of the experience of war into an overly familiar melodrama of obscure motivations, hidden backstories, and broadly sketched interpersonal conflict. The series may try to address Nazi terror in a way Petersen’s film leaves beyond its margins, but even its depiction of atrocity serves merely as a convenient motivator for familiar twists and turns. The sense of cheapness and naked commercialism that pervades the series makes its explicit depiction of disturbing violence—a death by firing squad, the gang rape of a Jewish woman by German sailors—feel unearned and, particularly in the latter case, completely irresponsible. The series can’t be counted on to deliver any insights on history or war, but compelling drama may be even further beyond its capabilities.
Cast: Vicky Krieps, Tom Wlaschiha, Lizzy Caplan, Vincent Kartheiser, James D’Arcy, Thierry Frémont, August Wittgenstein, Rainer Bock, Rick Okon, Leonard Scheicher, Robert Stadlober, Franz Dinda, Stefan Konarske Network: Hulu
Review: Jessica Jones’s Third and Final Season Feels Like an Afterthought
As it nears the end of its run, the series doesn’t seem to have much more to say about trauma.2
The third and final season of Jessica Jones feels more like an afterthought than a farewell, an unevenly written retread that’s uninterested in breaking out of a well-worn groove. Trauma is at the center of the Netflix show’s world, with the eponymous superpowered private eye (Krysten Ritter) having conquered the lingering pain of sexual abuse and childhood domestic strife across the first two seasons. And it being a Marvel Comics property, Jessica Jones predictably scrutinizes such personal trauma through the lens of highly literal metaphor: In the first season, an evil ex-lover’s telepathic powers represent the way that abusers get into our heads, and in the second, an abusive mother’s super strength stands for the seemingly indominable power parents have over their children.
The new season saddles its hero with more trauma, both psychological and physical, but loses the real-life resonance of the show’s previous themes, becoming an exercise in self-reflexivity. Jessica Jones now squares off against a serial killer, Gregory Salinger (Jeremy Bobb), who’s the embodiment of misogynist male geekdom—which is to say, that corner of the internet that’s predisposed to objecting to woman-driven action properties like Jessica Jones.
In the season’s first episode, “A.K.A. The Perfect Burger,” Jessica is taken by surprise when Salinger shows up at her apartment in the middle of the night, hunting her one-night stand, Erik (Benjamin Walker). The encounter leaves Jessica injured and newly traumatized, and Salinger psychotically obsessed with his incidental victim. Salinger resents Jones for being what real-world toxic nerds would call a “Mary Sue”—or, as Salinger puts it, for “cheating,” for not appropriately earning her powers, and for being a “feminist vindicator.”
This new season’s use of allegory is a bit on the nose, which isn’t the worst sin for a superhero property, but Jessica Jones clearly has aspirations to be a character-driven drama. It’s an intent undermined by its characters’ tendency to feel like little more than signposts directing us to the show’s message. In contrast to David Tenant’s chilling performance as misogynist villain Killgrave in season one, Bobb doesn’t convey the menace or malicious seductiveness that might enliven Salinger’s often blandly scripted rants against women’s empowerment.
Salinger also targets Erik’s wayward sister, Brianna (Jamie Neumann), a sex worker whom Jessica tries to protect by foisting her upon Malcolm (Eka Darville), Jessisca’s neighbor and former assistant. This all intersects conveniently (and problematically) with Malcolm’s subplot, which concerns his flirtation with moral corruption as he works as a fixer for Jeri Hogarth’s (Carrie-Anne Moss) law firm. Brianna is stereotyped as an erratic, trashy prostitute who’s sexually available to Malcolm simply because she’s hiding out in his apartment. She’s characterized as a nuisance who becomes a kind of punching bag for the other characters, who talk about her poor life decisions in front of her as if she isn’t there.
Malcolm’s is one of three major subplots that take up much of the run time of the eight episodes of the new season made available to press. In the others, both Jeri and Jessica’s ex-bestie, Trish (Rachael Taylor), deal with their own moral transgressions. Of these, Trish’s story is the strongest. Newly equipped with (vaguely defined) superpowers, she aims to join Jessica as a superhero on the streets of Hell’s Kitchen, and she’s given a satisfying and resonant origin story in episode two, the Ritter-directed “A.K.A You’re Welcome.”
Jeri’s subplot, on the other hand, adds very little to a character already understood from previous seasons as self-serving and morally compromised. This arc, hardly more than filler, also features one of the season’s most regrettable scenes: a painfully kitschy seduction that involves Jeri’s former lover, Kith Lyonne (Sarita Choudhury), badly faking a cello performance as Jeri caresses her and the low-angle camera slowly tracks around them.
As for Jones herself, the series can’t shake the feeling that its main character has simply become her outfit. The season’s opening shot, which has her leather boot stomp into the frame in close-up against the unaccustomed environs of a sunny beach, even evokes the way her personality is summed up by tattered jeans and grimy leather. In the form of Salinger’s initial attack, she’s given a new trauma to work through, but after three seasons, this form of motivation seems more like an obligatory gesture than an exploration of character. By the time she’s brutally besting Salinger in an amateur wrestling match in front of the pre-teen wrestling team he coaches in episode seven, “The Double Half-Woppinger,” it’s clear that, as it nears the end of its run, Jessica Jones doesn’t have much more to say.
Cast: Krysten Ritter, Rachael Taylor, Eka Darville, Carrie-Anne Moss, Rebecca De Mornay, Jeremy Bobb, Benjamin Walker, Sarita Choudhury, Jamie Neumann Network: Netflix
Review: Pose Season Two Looks to the Future with Its Head Held High
The series empathetically attests to the agonies that queer people to this day often have no choice but to suffer in silence.2.5
One notable arc of the second season of Pose traces the success of Madonna’s “Vogue,” from the song premiering on radio in March 1990 to the moment it hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart less than two months later. The show understands the song’s lucid appreciation of the ballroom as an aspirational space. Madonna’s dance-pop anthem was like a lifeline to those in the house-ball community, and almost all of Pose’s characters celebrate it without reservation. “Everything is about to change. I can see it clear as day!” says Blanca (Mj Rodriguez), emboldened by the song to chase after her dreams.
Which is to say that Pose doesn’t bow before the altar of wokeism, at least not in the four episodes made available to press ahead of the new season’s premiere, knowing that the conversation about the song erasing voguing’s roots in a community’s daily struggles wasn’t one that many people were having in 1990. But the show does seem interested in the idea that the global success of “Vogue” was blinding to some in the drag-ball community. Can a queer person of color living on the fringes of society actually harness Madonna’s blond ambition? And from the spectacle of drag emcee Pray Tell (Billy Porter) reading the riot act to Candy (Angelica Ross) for coming to one show as a simulacrum of Madonna, voguing while dressed as one of the singer’s “Express Yourself” personas, the answer would seem to be a resounding no.
There’s a sense that Pray is being rough on Candy because he recognizes what we’ve long known about her, and what the season’s third episode makes sure that we don’t forget: that she has no problem distinguishing fantasy from reality. Witten by Our Lady J and directed by Janet Mock, the episode splits its time between the budding romance between Angel (Indya Moore) and Lil Papi (Angel Bismark Curiel) and the aftermath of a client (Frank De Julio) dying during one of Elektra Abundance’s (Dominique Jackson) shifts at the Hellfire Club. Tonally, the episode walks a high-wire act that’s empowering—for the way it regards Angel and Lil Papi in their bliss as stars of a Hollywood melodrama that never was—and ballsy—for the way it unearths humor and pathos in equal measure from everything that leads up to Candy convincing Elektra to not report her client’s death to the authorities.
The episode is perhaps too easily understood as an imagining of what must have led to one Paris Is Burning participant, drag performer and dressmaker Dorian Corey, possibly murdering and storing an ex-lover’s dead body in a closest inside her apartment for approximately 15 years. (The man’s mummified corpse was only discovered after Corey’s AIDS-related death.) But the point of the episode, like some long-delayed eulogy, is to empathetically attest to the agonies that queer people to this day often have no choice but to suffer in silence. Too often, though, the series goes one step further by blaring that message out loud, with dialogue that suggests a kind of PSA speak. That isn’t so much an issue in scenes that see the characters fighting the menace of AIDS, as Pose knows that the gay community raised awareness of the disease in the bluntest of ways, but in various scenarios, like Angel’s pursuit of her modeling career, that are beholden to all manner of coming-of-age and aspirational clichés.
The cast list for the new season reveals that Charlayne Woodard, as Helena St. Rogers, will be returning at some point, which goes a long way toward explaining why it appears as if Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain) and Ricky (Dyllon Burnside) are just hanging around in the background of the first four episodes as if they’re waiting for something, anything, to bring them to the foreground. The stage may be lovingly ceded to Angel and Lil Papi, but after a while, it just feels as if the lovebirds are going through all the same soap-operatic motions that Damon and Ricky did in the first season: Angel is so desperate to be a star that she opens herself up to being exploited by a smarmy photographer (Alexander DiPersia), and after she and her friends hand him his ass in a proud show of unity, Angel gets her first break, which just so happens to occur at the exact moment of a date she has with Lil Papi.
Something, though, that we do know for sure by the end of the fourth episode is that Pose isn’t concerned with putting any allies on blast. If you’re in the know about the history of New York and the AIDS crisis, then you’ll instantly recognize nurse and activist Judy Kubrak (Sandra Bernhard) and dog-toting real estate agent Frederica Norman (Patti LuPone) as stand-ins for Linda Laubenstein and Leona Helmsley, respectively. And if Judy, who joins Blanca in a crusade to get Pray Tell to start taking AZT, is celebrated for being a small-scale hero, Linda very easily invites the audience’s scorn for threatening Blanca after discovering she’s trans. But it’s an invitation that feels too easy, too cartoonish, especially in the context of the show’s almost Disney-fied—or Glee-ful—depiction of New York during this time period.
There’s a disconnect between the show’s aesthetics and its subject matter that feels especially apparent when one major character shows up dead in episode four. The moment certainly lacks the immediacy of the horrific moment from The Deuce’s first season when a john throws Pernell Walker’s Ruby out of a window like a piece of trash. Director Ryan Murphy knows that you can assert such a woman’s humanity in more than one way, but the sentimentalized theater of this episode is the stuff of cognitive dissonance. Because the prior three episodes give the short shrift to the character’s investment in changing ball culture, to tailoring it to her strengths, the moment that she’s celebrated for influencing that culture feels unearned. If hers wasn’t a dream that ever felt like it was her own, that’s because it’s the stuff of narrative convenience, a setup for a fall that, in the depiction of its aftermath, ironically links Pose to Madonna’s “Vogue” by making reality seem a little less dark than it really is.
Review: Season Five of Black Mirror Regards Our Grim Future with a Smirk
The new season recalls the most human elements of past episodes while levying urgent indictments of the present.3.5
Season five of Black Mirror offers three new episodes that envision a predictably worrisome slate of side effects to humanity’s technological reach outpacing its intellectual grasp. But in offering dystopian visions that hew closer to reality than they have in past seasons, these episodes exceed the show’s promise of nightmarish hypotheticals. While the series has on occasion veered toward alienating, high-concept bleakness—as in season three’s “Playtest” and season two’s “White Bear”—season five maintains an empathetic focus on the characters struggling to navigate grim new worlds.
Series creator and writer Charlie Brooker employs a variety of familiar storytelling models to construct the season’s overarching theme, which generally concerns the unforeseen fallout of our shifting media diets. In the melancholic “Striking Vipers,” a marriage is endangered by the husband’s new obsession with a virtual reality game. Brooker moves his focus to social media in “Smithereens,” a claustrophobic hostage thriller, and to the music industry in the darkly comic caper “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too.” Each episode envisions upheavals in a different social construct, from traditional masculinity to celebrity culture, but Brooker’s consistent focus on media as the trigger for transformation lends the stories a foreboding thread.
The show’s directors match Brooker’s ingenuity, tailoring an immersive style for each episode. In “Striking Vipers,” Owen Harris fixates on the alienation felt by Danny (Anthony Mackie), a man experiencing a crisis of conscience, by framing the character in wide shots set against drab backdrops and cityscapes; it’s a pointed contrast to the colorful environments and dynamic camera movements Harris employs when Danny is gaming. In “Smithereens,” which follows a distraught rideshare driver (Andrew Scott) who takes a customer hostage (Damson Idris), director James Hawes presents the driver either in tight close-up or from the far-away perspective of police and gawking onlookers, highlighting the gulf between how the world perceives the man—as a terrible curiosity—and his own intense sense of victimization.
The relationship between perspective and perception is similarly central in “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too,” the episode with the most complicated premise of the season. Miley Cyrus stars as Ashley, a singer who wants to transition from glittery pop to more challenging material, much to the horror of her exploitative handlers. As the episode evolves into a scathing indictment of the celebrity industry (and offers a startling vision of artificial intelligence), “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” fosters our genuine concern for Ashley’s mental state—in part as a result of the savvy casting of Cyrus, a transformative pop star herself, but also, and more crucially, because the episode reveals much of what happens to Ashley from the relatable perspective of Rachel (Angourie Rice), a lonely and adoring teenage fan.
While none of these episodes are as nihilistic as the show’s grimmest installments to date, they remain imbued with snarky, topical satire and dogged cynicism. “Smithereens” portrays a social media network that, with its scrolling newsfeed and reliance on hashtags, is unsubtly modeled after Twitter. Even less subtle is the character of the platform’s man-bunned creator, Billy Bauer (Topher Grace), who’s clearly a sketch of Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey. Brooker doesn’t veil his view of the real-life tech mogul: When Bauer’s service ignites (and acts as a livestream of) an international hostage situation, he’s pictured peacefully meditating in Utah, both figuratively and literally above the fray he helped create. When eventually called for help, the communications magnate is powerless, no longer able to grasp the magnitude of his creation, and reduced to speaking in platitudes.
By targeting forces (and people) who already exist in reality, Brooker couples the show’s broad anxieties with a tinge of righteous anger. Coupled with the season’s character-driven focus, the specificity of the show’s grievances represents a welcome evolution. With stories that recall the most human elements of Black Mirror’s past episodes, while levying urgent indictments of the present, the series that’s always worked to imagine a dark future seems to be wondering if we haven’t already crossed into the dystopian abyss.
Cast: Andrew Scott, Anthony Mackie, Miley Cyrus, Topher Grace, Damson Idris, Angourie Rice, Madison Davenport, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II Network: Netflix
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