Below is a transcript of a roundtable audio discussion featuring House contributors Andrew Johnston (Time Out New York), Alan Sepinwall (The Star-Ledger, What’s Alan Watching), and Matt Zoller Seitz (The New York Times).
MZS: This is Matt Seitz. We’re here at Joe Jr.’s restaurant at Sixth Avenue and 12th St. with Alan Sepinwall of The Star-Ledger of Newark and Andrew Johnston of Time Out New York. Andrew and Alan and I have decided to get together and talk about the greatest drama show on television, because at one point or another, all of us have declared a particular drama show to be the greatest dramatic series in the history of American television. I’ll just start with my pick, which is Deadwood, and I think we’ll go around the table.
AS: This is Alan, and my pick would be The Wire.
AJ: This is Andrew, and I’m arguing on behalf of The Sopranos.
MZS: OK, Alan, since The Wire is freshest in everybody’s minds—and we’re right next to a dish deposit bin, so watch out, folks, if you’re wearing headphones—
AS: And be prepared, food will be served at some point—
MZS: —and it might turn into a Sergio Leone movie, with the loud eating. But anyway, Alan, you want to dive in?
AS: Sure. I like The Wire the best of the three. They’re all amazing shows, but [The Wire] is the most consistent from beginning to end, and there’s much less fluctuation in quality than I found in the other two. And I feel like it has more to offer in terms of comedy and action and drama and high culture and low culture. It can be all things to all viewers at different times.
MZS: I’m gonna throw down with Deadwood, because although it certainly doesn’t pass the consistency-of-quality-over-time test—the highs were unbelievable and the lows were pretty low from scene to scene and episode to episode—but I thought for degree of difficulty, it wins in a walk. It works as a portrait of the West, as a look at America, as kind of a parable about how society is created. And also, just on every level—the acting; the complexity of the characterizations, even the small ones; the filmmaking; the atmosphere and everything else—it’s doing more things and doing them better than any of these shows.
AJ: I’m going to start off by saying, really quickly, I guess, that I have an enormous amount of love for all three shows, and they’re separated by about—I’m holding my fingers about less than a millimeter apart here—
AJ: For me, The Sopranos is a tough choice, because the three shows deal with America in different ways. Deadwood is the past and the origin. The Wire is urban problems and just really big issues facing the country as a whole. And The Sopranos is really the more individual show, a personal show, the one that’s really about the family in the modern era and in the society that’s come about. It’s easier to identify with in some ways, because you have mostly a single-viewpoint character, Tony, but of course, [series creator] David Chase doesn’t really want you to identify with him., because you’re always reminded ever so often that Tony’s a really scummy gangster. One of the things that really distinguishes it from The Wire, Alan, is that sometimes it’s definitely not an all-things-to-all-people kind of a show. It’s a show where Chase, I think, critiques his audience. It’s interesting that you were saying that being all things to all people is kind of a good thing about The Wire, because I find sometimes that, as much as I love The Wire, sometimes I find that—and I was talking about this with a friend of mine the other day—it really caters to viewer expectations much more than the other shows do. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I find that of the three, it’s the one that’s most inclined to give the fans what they want.
MZS: I would amend that only to say that it pays much more attention to plot and delivering setups and payoffs, whereas The Sopranos and Deadwood were more willing to wander into an alley and hang out for awhile. And I thought that was a good thing, because I think atmospherically, Deadwood is the best of the three shows. Watching it, I feel that I am in another mental space, I’m in another time, another place. I get that with The Sopranos and The Wire some of the time, but not as often as I did with Deadwood, even when it wasn’t firing on all cylinders.
AS: And I think that if [Wire creator] David Simon really wanted to give the fans what they wanted, then Omar would still be alive right now. I think what you’re seeing, Andrew is—as Matt says—[The Wire] is more focused on plot. It’s a slightly easier show to predict because it teaches you how to watch it—
MZS: That’s true.
AS: —and by now, at the end of the fifth season, we understand where things are going and people on Matt’s blog and on my blog, too, kind of thought Omar was gonna go, and was gonna be killed by somebody like Kenard.
MZS: True. Once they’re conditioned to know the rhythms of the show, they’re conditioned to expect the right outcome—
MZS:—not necessarily the one that’s gonna make them personally happy, but you know, the dramatically correct outcome.
MZS: And I will say that all three of the shows were actually pretty good about that—
MZS: —and whether or not they really surprised you, or whether they gave you what you expected or something unexpected, or if they did the David Chase double-fakeout, they all were definitely attuned to that, [and] after a while, you got a sense of what the world view of the show was, and if the show was not true to that, then you were disappointed.
A Whole Organism
MZS: Talking about degree of difficulty, about the variety of things that a show does, one of the things that I appreciated so much about Deadwood was that, whereas The Wire is great at putting you in the moment, and The Sopranos did that, I think, as well, except when it was getting into Tony’s dreams, what I loved about Deadwood was that you got the sense of an entire community simultaneously. You get a sense of the entire community with The Wire, certainly, and sometimes with The Sopranos. But [with Deadwood] you got the sense of [elements of] an entire organism functioning, sometimes at cross-purposes with each other, and also, sometimes, [of] people doing or saying things for a particular reason and not knowing why they did it, and having an effect other than the one that they intended. That happened constantly and consistently on that show in a way that felt very true to life for me.
AS: I would say it happens pretty consistently on The Wire as well, where you see how a decision that’s made in city hall winds up affecting a kid in the eighth grade; how Herc the cop does something, doesn’t even know what he’s doing [and] destroys some other kid’s life; things along that line. If it seems more like a whole organism on Deadwood, it’s just because the show took place over about three square blocks, so it’s very easy for Swearengen to stand on his balcony and see everything that’s going on at the high and low ends of the town, whereas Carcetti has no idea what Bubbles’ life is.
MZS: That’s true, and maybe the caveat we should have thrown in at the beginning is, we know that we’re comparing apples and oranges and pears here.
AS. Yes, yes.
AJ: Exactly, yes. On The Sopranos, I think the community is, in many ways, something that exists in the past. You’re really aware of all of these connections that came from when [the characters] were all—when everybody’s family was in the Italian neighborhoods of Newark before the riots of the ‘60s. And then it just fragmented, [with] people going to different suburban neighborhoods in New Jersey. You’re aware of these things that happened in the past, like Tony having had the fling with Charmaine Bucco in high school, and that having an impact on all these relationships years later with Tony and Artie [Bucco] and the restaurant and all this stuff. There are all these references to this shared past that the characters have. It’s far more fragmented in the present, which maybe keeps you from realizing that that element of community is there on the show. I was fortunate to have the experience of watching the entire run of The Sopranos from the beginning going into the final episode. When you watch the entire show over the course of about a month, these things really just, like, pop together.
MZS: And you did watch the entire show over the course of a month? All six seasons?
AJ: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
AS: I’d imagine that put you in a very dark frame of mind by the end of it.
AJ: Kind of, yeah, kind of.
MZS: What you’re reminding me of there is that Deadwood had that aspect as well, although it was not just happening in real time as you watched it. You saw a character’s personality changing, sometimes in ways they weren’t aware of. That’s something that almost every character, even the small ones, had in common on Deadwood, whereas not so much on The Sopranos, and only in certain cases on The Wire.
AS: Well, I mean, the motto of The Sopranos is, “People don’t change.”
AJ: Yeah, yeah.
AS: That’s one of its firm beliefs. So [The Sopranos and Deadwood] are working at cross-purposes. On The Wire you see that some people can change, but they have to work very hard to do so, within the strictures of the institutions they work and live in.
MZS: But one of the many things that all three of them have in common—and I’m discovering more similarities as we talk about them—is [that] they’re sort of meditating on the idea of identity. Who are we, and how responsible are we for who we are? And to what degree can we change it? And under what circumstances? I think that’s a big part of it.
AJ: Fundamentally—and I suppose we’re supposed to be defending our own shows here—one of the things that appeals to me most about The Wire is its belief that under the right circumstances, people can change. In the penultimate episode, Bubbles’ big scene at the AA meeting was probably one of the most moving things I’ve ever seen on television.
MZS: It was.
AS: Andre Royo is an amazing actor.
MZS: He is terrific. And of course, it probably goes without saying that one of the reasons [that scene] was so effective was because you had a five season build-up to that.
AS: Yes. They earned that, entirely.
MZS: They did. But you know, Andrew, I would have to say the same thing about Deadwood, only to an even more pronounced extreme. The thing that appeals to me personally—and ultimately I think we’re talking about personal preference here, because they are shows that stand head and shoulders above almost everything else that’s been done—what I appreciate most about Deadwood is two things. First, the sense of almost symphonic complexity—of all of these interlocking pieces working together dramatically, and all of the different, multiple levels that it’s operating on. It could be structurally interesting, in the way that a season builds over 12 episodes; and then from scene to scene, it can be interesting, just the arcs that the characters undergo within a particular scene; and then on top of all that, there’s the language. The language itself is as complicated as a lot of individual shows are.
MZS: There’s more going on, not just in Swearengen’s monologues, which I think everybody who’s seen the show appreciates, but throughout. I was actually pulling some quotes from Deadwood before I came over here, just trying to remind myself of some of the highlights. Some of the things that popped out of Francis Wolcott’s mouth were extraordinary, and they sounded very different from what Swearengen said. But over and above everything else, Deadwood appeals to my sense of life, in that it is aware of how dark and how cruel people can be, and yet I feel like [series creator David Milch] has something in common with Robert Altman, in that he appreciates the complexity of human beings, all of them. All of them. Even a character like Steve the Drunk, who you would think would be just one-note, reveals new shadings each time you see him. Every single character on that show, right on down the line. There are many characters on The Sopranos and The Wire that are basically a plot function. You know they’re there to be a foil to other characters, and so forth, and I don’t get a sense of an infinite potential lying within every human being in the way that I did with Deadwood.
AJ: I’m inclined to agree there. Definitely there are characters on The Sopranos that have felt that way. It seemed like, toward the end of the show—I can’t decide if they became more than plot devices, or if they became a different kind of plot device. Paulie Walnuts was always a pretty consistent comic relief character throughout the run of the show, and then there’s the episode where he and Tony go on the road trip, and then Tony starts thinking about him as just, really, this potential liability in his organization—
MZS: Where they get on the boat?
AJ:—yeah, and the nature of their relationship, a lot of things. Also, Janice had become sort of a one-note shrew, [but by the end of Season Six] you see that she’s gonna be raising Bobby’s kids as a single mother. You really see that she’s becoming Livia, to a full extent that you hadn’t seen before. It’s hard to say if it’s real complexity that’s coming out or if [the characters are] becoming just a different kind of plot device; it’s hard to say.
MZS: It’s also a reaction to changed circumstances as well, which I think is true for all of these shows.
AS: And I would say that with The Wire, that while there were a couple of people here and there who are little more than plot devices, for the most part the show has done a really good job of giving you little clues [as to] why characters are the way they are. When you see Rawls at the gay bar, even if it’s for two seconds, it explains so much about the way he carries himself, and how he treats people. Burrell had some scenes toward the end of his run on the show when you realized, “Yeah, he was a hack, but he was kind of made that way by other people.”
AJ: Another little example that I want to toss out there that I just loved a lot recently was, whenever you see Lester on a stakeout, he’s listening to this old R&B from the age of his youth. It think it’s really interesting that you hear very little hip-hop on The Wire, but with older characters, you hear R&B music that’s very specifically chosen [to match] when that character would have been young—like the guy Omar was on the stakeout with, in that one episode.
MZS: I wondered if there are particular songs that are “stakeout music” for these characters.
AS: I like that in one of the recent episodes, you find out that Bunk’s ringtone is Lou Rawls’ “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine.”
AJ: I didn’t pick up on that at all, wow.
AS: The Sopranos did great stuff with ringtone music. In the scene where Janice and Ralphie are doing the thing that I refuse to describe, and they’re interrupted by Ralphie’s ringtone, which is the theme from “Rocky.”
MZS: My brother Richard sampled Tony Soprano’s ringtone, and now that’s his ringtone. And it’s a little bit eerie, I have to say. When you hear that go off, you expect that the bullets are gonna start flying at any minute.
AJ: That’s a pretty good idea. There’s probably some generic phone out there that has it.
“I’m as nimble as a forest creature.”
AS: Getting back to what you were saying before, Matt, about language: If we’re strictly discussing language, Deadwood wins in a walk. I don’t think anyone would dispute that Milch is one of the great wordsmiths. There are certainly great turns of phrase on the other shows—Marlo’s “My name is my name” thing, from the most recent episode.
MZS: And I will say there is a certain rhythm to The Wire that is easily overlooked, because it is a show that is so much about the plot and what happens next and the decisions that people make. But yeah, there is a lovely rhythm to what at least some of the characters say to each other.
AS: But I mean, you listen to some of those Deadwood lines, and it’s—
MZS: In fact— [removes folded sheet from shirt pocket]
AS: Oh, and he’s got the piece of paper.
MZS: I brought a couple here. Like this one: Francis Wolcott, the monologue from the episode “Something Very Expensive,” which contains the massacre sequence, when he’s walking through the streets, and he says:
“Past hope. Past kindness or consideration. Past justice. Past satisfaction. Past warmth or cold or comfort. Past love. But past surprise? What an endlessly unfolding tedium life would then become.”
MZS: It’s just beautiful. It’s just beautiful!
AJ: It’s really great stuff.
MZS: There’s a lot of lines like that in there. And there are so many moments in Deadwood that absolutely emotionally wrecked me. Wrecked me. And there are a few moments in The Sopranos that did that for me, more in The Wire, but Deadwood…I was making a list of the episodes that just wiped me out emotionally, and actually, more often than not there was a scene or scenes that did that. Particularly the death of Wild Bill and the funeral of Wild Bill and the trial surrounding that; the Season [One] finale when Bullock fishes his badge out of the mud; “A Lie Agreed Upon,” Parts One and Two, which opened season two, and “Sold Under Sin” and “Something Very Expensive.” And then Season Three: “Leviathan [Smiles]” and “Unauthorized Cinnamon,” which I think is the greatest Deadwood episode of all time. This moment in the season-two finale, I guess—I’m sorry, season one, when Jewel and Doc Cochran are dancing together in the saloon, and she says, “Say ’I’m as nimble as a forest creature.’” And he says, “You’re as nimble as a forest creature.” And then she says, “No, say it about yourself.” And he says, “I’m as nimble as a forest creature.” Lovely. Lovely! And that Deadwood had the courage to go there—to be that open in the way that it expressed emotion—stands it head and shoulders above everything.
AS: Now, I love Deadwood. I don’t think any scenes on that show affected me emotionally nearly as much as some of the ones that I’m gonna rattle off now from The Wire.
AS: The death of Wallace. D’Angelo then calling after Stringer to ask where Wallace is. Carver walking down the corridor as Randy calls after him, asking, “You gonna help me, Sgt, Carver? You gonna help me?”
MZS: Oh, that was horrible. I mean, in a good way.
AS: Yes. Bubbles’ speech in the most recent episode that we’ve just been talking about. There’s another scene at the very end with Michael and Dukie which is possibly the most devastating thing I’ve ever watched.
MZS: Actually, I would add to that [list], a couple of episodes ago, the scene between McNulty and his squeeze—
MZS: Yeah. Oh my God, that was horrible.
AS: This show messes me up. I’ve watched it a few times, and my wife doesn’t watch it but she’s sitting there with me and I start getting upset, and she says, “Why are you watching this?”
MZS: Yeah. Yeah.
AS: Because it makes me feel like that!
MZS: Roger Ebert had a great line, I wish I could remember in what review it was, but he said when people ask him if a movie is a downer or depressing, he says that no movie that is true to itself is depressing to him.
AJ: That’s a great line.
MZS: And I’m paraphrasing. But even if the characters are being unimaginably cruel to each other, if what happens is so grossly unfair that you just can’t stand it, if it seems like it’s the thing that ought to happen in that story, then it was elating to him rather than depressing. And I feel the same way.
AS: Andrew, The Sopranos is a more cynical show, but I’d imagine that there were some moments that affected you.
AJ: Absolutely, yeah. The first one that comes to mind is when Tony comes home and finds AJ in the middle of of the pathetic suicide attempt—
AS: Oh my God. Yeah.
AJ: It’s just really, really rough stuff, and it showed just how much Tony loved him. I really think there’s a lot of scenes [like that] on The Sopranos, but they seem to be a little more small, because you’re left a little bit more to figure out what’s going on inside the characters’ heads. I’m thinking of another [scene] very early on, early in the run of the first or second season, where during one of his many drug-related fuck-ups, Christopher is given a “shit or get off the pot” ultimatum by Tony, and at the end of the episode, he’s sitting outside Tony’s house smoking a cigarette thinking about which way he’s gonna go, and then he goes back inside. There aren’t as many showy speeches. Oftentimes it’s left to you to figure out what’s going on inside the characters’ heads. The first episode where everybody really realized, “Hey, this is a great show” was “College,” from the first season, which was one of the [episodes] that first did that to any serious extent.
MZS: That was the episode where a lot of people got on the train and never got off.
AJ: That episode, exactly.
MZS: There were episodes like that, I think, for all of these shows. [For Deadwood], it was the shooting of Wild Bill and that whole sequence with his assassin running through the streets with that music playing—which was actually a cue used in The Insider where [Jeffrey Wigand] drives to the courthouse. Just overwhelming. I felt a little bit lightheaded the first time I saw that. I couldn’t believe how big it was—how emotionally big and how physically big it was.
AS: And you’ve got the one guy coming in with the [severed] Indian head that nobody cares about because Wild Bill’s just been killed.
AJ: That’s wild, yeah. With The Sopranos there are a handful of those moments that you think of as really big moments in the show, that are really big and bloody, one of the most notable being the climax of the second season—
MZS: I was just gonna bring this up!
AJ: —when Janice kills Richie Aprile, right, and then they have to dispose of the body. In many ways, [the killing is] a shock. But it’s the prolonged disposal of the body, and the detail that Christopher and—is it Furio, I think?—
AS: Furio, yeah, with the meat grinder—
AJ:—Furio have to deal with, the nuts and bolts of it, which I find really fascinating. Beyond that, though, so many of the really big moments on the show are small, quiet things. There’s very little dialogue in the scene at the end of—I think it’s the end of the third season? The one where Tony and Carmela split up temporarily—
AS: The end of the fourth season.
AJ: There’s very little dialogue in that scene, and I think it’s because [the writers are] trusting, to an extent, that [viewers] have been through similar situations so that they can project onto that. In real life, when you’re in those situations, they’re pretty quiet, too, because you don’t really know what to do or to say. When I was in that situation with my parents, in AJ Soprano’s shoes, I certainly didn’t know what to say or do.
MZS: I was thinking also of the end of season two, which I just watched again recently. I was up late at night—which is often the case with me—and I called up some Sopranos episodes. I wanted to see which ones they had up [at HBO] On Demand, and it was a lot of stuff from season two, and I ended up watching most of season two over the course of a couple weeks. I was surprised by how well it hung together. Certainly the rhythm was different from season one or season six, which had more peaks—
MZS: —but in a weird way, it was almost a preparation for the second half of Season Six, because it was sort of a long, slow whimper. And when you get to the end with Big Pussy on the boat, now, talk about an emotionally devastating, complicated exchange—
MZS:—when he is in the boat, and first he’s in denial, and then there’s sort of a pathetic desperation to him, and there’s there’s almost a dignity —
MZS:—like he rouses himself and decides to face his fate like a man. And then Tony twists the knife on him when he’s telling that raunchy sexual anecdote, and Tony says, “That never happened to you, did it?”
MZS: Even at the moment of his death, [Tony]’s not gonna give Pussy anything.
AJ: Of course, now I’m thinking about all the parallels between that and the scene with Paulie on the boat that we were talking about. That’s one of the wonderful things about The Sopranos, if I can hijack this for a sec—that, maybe because it ran longer than the other two shows, it was able to be a little bit more successful with oblique references to things, and also, with its length, it was able to do some really great self-contained episodes within the context of the big picture. The Wire was always a pretty strictly serialized show, with nothing too self-contained in it. Sopranos did some great, more or less self-contained episodes about Christopher. One [episode that], maybe because of my own personal circumstances, had a really deep effect on me would be the episode with Johnny Sack early in the last season where Sidney Pollack is the guest star. It was pretty much of a self-contained episode while fitting in very well with all of the themes of the series, and [it] worked beautifully. That’s one of those things that speaks to TV as a unique medium. If it were a novel, you wouldn’t be able to have this sort of self-contained episode about a guy like that. Or in a film.
MZS: It is sort of midway between a novel and a short story a lot of the time. At least, it has that liberty if it wants to take it.
AS: The interesting thing about The Sopranos is, for the most part—if not entirely—the episodes that people remember as the classics had very little to do with anything else going on [in the season]. “Pine Barrens” has nothing to do with anything.
MZS: That’s true.
AS: “College” is largely self-contained. Whereas the format of The Wire—and to a lesser extent, Deadwood—didn’t really allow for that. It’s just that they’re telling one story, where The Sopranos was telling one story but had time for these digressions which were often the most rewarding parts.
AJ: Also, I was gonna say really quickly in response to that, when I watched the whole series back-to-back, a lot of the serialized stuff that seemed really slow to me the first time around seemed a lot more interesting and compelling while watching the whole series together. All of the stuff about Little Carmine and the Esplanade and all that stuff, which seemed like pretty slow going and “When’s this gonna build up to something?” the first time around, the second time around the serialization seemed a lot smoother.
MZS: That’s another quality that these series have in common: they withstand repeat viewings. There is enormous pleasure to be had watching it the first time and not knowing what’s going to happen. But then you can go back and appreciate and see foreshadowing that maybe you didn’t notice before.
AS: One of the smartest things somebody pointed out to me about this latest Wire episode: Marlo gives the whole, big “My name is my name” speech, and someone then pointed out that way back in season two, when Vondas and the Greek are getting out of town, Vondas explains that Nick knows his name, but “My name is not my name.”
AS: They’re laying pipe all the way through, and I know Deadwood’s doing that, too.
MZS: The continuity people on those shows must have had whip marks in their backs. It’s unbelievable how much they remember, and the little things that they can pull out and build on further down the line.
AJ: One weakness, perhaps, compared to the other two—if you want to call it a weakness—you could tell at a couple of points that they didn’t know where they were going all the way through, in that from-day-one, direct sense. I’m sure you guys have probably interviewed David Chase more times than I have—I’ve only talked to him once for about 20 some-odd minutes—one of the things that surprised and impressed me the most, [and that] I thought about in my own experience with the show, was when Chase was talking about how much the show was about being a parent, and about how he pegged so much to the ages of Robert Iler and Jamie-Lynn Sigler [and] the gaps between seasons [and] making sure that the continuity reflected exactly where they would be at that stage in their lives. This was global attention that he paid to what some people would say was a secondary aspect of the show, the kids. [You’d think that the first level was] the mob level, then Tony and Carmela, with the kids being maybe the third level of the show.
MZS: I thought the evolution of Meadow was fascinating. It was like when you cut down a tree and you can see the concentric rings that indicate the different phases of growth that it went through. That’s how precise it was with Meadow.
AJ: Her final fate is, in some ways, one of the more Wire-esque aspects of the show—that element that she’s going to allegedly become this lawyer fighting discrimination against Italian-Americans. Everybody knows what that really means.
AS: Yeah. She can’t get out. No one can get out.
MZS: How fatalistic are each of these shows? That’s one question worth asking. To what degree can you escape your destiny, according to each show? Do you have a destiny, and can you escape it?
AS: Well, The Sopranos makes it pretty clear that escaping is impossible. I mean, that’s what the entire show is about. The Wire, less so, but it shows that escaping is very, very hard.
MZS: Well, that line of Tony’s on The Sopranos, “There’s two ways a guy like me can go out—dead, or in prison”—that works, I think, figuratively as well as literally: that either your life is destroyed by an attempt to change your fundamental nature, or you end up in the prison of whoever you were all this time.
AS: And I can see you being more disposed toward Deadwood because that’s by far the most optimistic show of the three.
MZS: It is. And it sounds funny to say that, because it’s such a nasty show. It’s so profane and bloody and sexually explicit and everything. But ultimately I feel that it is a life-affirming series, in terms of believing in the potential of every human being.
AJ: [That’s] one of the things I found really interesting that maybe didn’t come through as fully as it could have because of its early ending—when you look up the historical record and see that Seth Bullock lived to be, like, eighty years old and was one of Teddy Roosevelt’s best friends, and all of this amazing stuff about the career that he had after the years of the show.
MZS: Let’s say a word about the context surrounding these shows—external factors that might have affected how they were made. I bring this up because probably the main argument that people would lodge against Deadwood being the greatest of these shows is that it ended on an unsatisfying note, and there was a lot of stuff in season three that felt incomplete, that felt like it was raised and then not followed through on. And of course, my defense against that is that a lot of that stuff was groundwork that was being laid as the first half of, essentially, a two-season arc—
MZS: —that there was supposed to be a fourth season, and knowing how carefully they laid out every single detail in Seasons One and Two, I find it inconceivable that they would have pursued so many blind alleys in season three.
AS: But I’ve followed Milch’s career very closely for a long time, and the man is a genius, and he does amazing things, but he does have this tendency to go down blind alleys a lot. And I think even in Seasons One and Two, there are certain points—and I’m gonna be hard-pressed to cite examples right now—where I felt like, towards the end of the season, not everything was coming together as well as it might have. Milch has always been much better at beginnings than at endings.
MZS: I disagree with that, because I think the finale of season one and the finale of season two were maybe the best season finales that I’ve ever seen on any show. But again, to kind of return to this point, the fact is, when we talk about Deadwood, if this were a movie, it would be The Magnificent Ambersons or Major Dundee or another movie that was essentially taken out of the creator’s hands before he had a chance to really properly complete it. That’s interesting because for The Wire I think, to a lesser extent, that’s also true. Weren’t there originally supposed to be more episodes [in season five], or did [Simon] hope that there would be more?
AS: Well, actually, I talked to Simon about this the other day, and he said if he’d wanted to do more episodes this season, they would have let him, and they decided after they beat out all the stories that they could do it in ten, ten-and-a-half, and that anything additional they did might have just been redundant.
AJ: A lot of people felt that the first part of this season felt really rushed. I did not feel that way.
MZS: Yeah. Yeah.
AJ: Although it’s interesting: I forgot that it was ten episodes when I was watching it. I watched the first seven of the season assuming that it would go twelve or thirteen, and then after seeing the first seven, I read the press materials and was reminded, “Oh, shit—it’s only ten episodes. Well, this is gonna end pretty quick.”
MZS: But then, they are painting in broader brush strokes in season five than they had in previous seasons. And I think there are a lot of things that happen that are dependent on our knowledge of what happened in Seasons One through Four, so that there doesn’t need to be as much setup—there’s more payoff, not as much setup.
AJ: This is a total digression, but I found it interesting the sort of audiences that the shows have found. Reading forums like the HBO boards or Television Without Pity and other places, it’s perfectly understandable that The Wire would have a very large African-American fan base, just because of all the characters and stuff. But it also kind of makes you realize, by contrast, just how overwhelmingly white the audiences of the other shows are. I found it interesting to read a lot of the online discussion by black viewers and realize just how much discussion online of what’s on TV comes from an upper-middle-class, white perspective.
MZS: Right. Right.
AJ: In one of these discussions, a former Baltimore street corner drug dealer is posting on the New York Times’s discussion [boards]. Black people from across the social spectrum’s perspective on the show has been really fascinating to me. For one thing, it’s sort of a testament to what a good reporter someone like Simon is. Most of the writers of that show are white, and black audiences don’t seem to notice or care because the characters are so well-rendered. A lot of those discussions speak to just how right Simon gets it, and to what many people have said: that all of these great black actors are going to have a hard time finding work after the show—
MZS: —or at least parts that are as rich as the ones they have on The Wire.
AS: Yeah. I mean, Andre Royo was on Terminator the other day, and that’s a complete waste of him.
AJ: It’s a waste of him, but it’s a better show than I thought it would be.
MZS: But actually, you know what, though? I was thinking about that, and I was thinking about the sorts of careers that a lot of these actors on Deadwood and The Sopranos and The Wire have had, and [how] even a lot of the most interesting parts that some of them have had have not been as interesting as the ones they had on those shows.
AS: Well, yeah.
MZS: And I would be, frankly, stunned if, as great an actor as Ian McShane is, he ever did anything that was as demanding and as complex as what he did on Deadwood. Same thing for Gandolfini. And there are even smaller players I think that’s true of as well. Molly Parker, you know, my God, look at all the things she got to do. When is she going to be able to do all those things again?
AS: A lot of that comes from the fact that these people were doing series, and now they’re trying to move on to movies, and no movie part will ever be as complex as Tony Soprano or Al Swearengen or Bubbles.
MZS: Is that an inherent strength of the medium, then, as opposed to movies?
AJ: And another thing about that is [series] will give opportunities like that to actors that have been around. McShane had a really, really long career in England. Some stuff about his career I’d forgotten about or wasn’t even really aware of—that he was on Dallas for a couple of seasons in the ‘80s, you know—
MZS: My God, I’d forgotten about that. Did he have a Texas accent?
AJ: I don’t know. I think he was playing a British guy with an exaggerated British accent. I was reading some interview where he was talking about hanging out with Frank Sinatra in Vegas in the mid-‘70s. He’s been around for a long time, and he gets the role of a lifetime this way. Molly Parker did tons and tons and tons of stuff in Canada before she [got] this role that lets her do [all] that. With film, you already have to have a certain level of celebrity to get somewhere. and with TV, it really is more about the talent, or its much more about who’s right for the role…No one ever accused Steven Van Zandt of being the world’s greatest actor, but he’s a lot of fun to watch as an actor.
MZS: That’s true. It seems like there’s a little more room to throw some curveballs, casting-wise.
AS: On The Sopranos, Tony Sirico, Steven Schirippa, some of the others—I don’t know that they can give you a lot more than they gave you on The Sopranos, but for that show, they were perfect.
AJ: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
MZS: I’ll never forget going to the premiere of season two of The Sopranos at Radio City Music Hall. I took an editor from metro who wanted to tag along, and so we went together. Tony Sirico walked in before the thing was gonna start, and he had an entourage with him, and they were all dressed in unbelievably expensive, flashy suits, just like him. And there was a guy who was at his right hand all the time, and he was this absolutely enormous guy. He was probably six four, six five, maybe taller. Looked like, just, a hulk, like Ivan Drago from Rocky IV. This editor, who was sitting next to me, said, “Oh, my God.” And I said, “What?” And he said, “That guy. You see that guy with Tony Sirico?” And I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “I can’t believe they let that guy out.” I said, “What did he do?” “He beat a guy to death in a bar like five or six years ago. He’s not supposed to be out of prison. I can’t believe he’s out.” Y’know, like, “Don’t make any sudden moves around this guy.”
AS: The Wire certainly has a lot of guys like that involved. Snoop (Felicia Pearson)—her criminal history is well-documented. Deacon Melvin is played by Melvin Williams, who was the basis for Avon Barksdale. There’s a lot of that. The real-life Omar ended up playing Omar’s sidekick toward the end of the series.
MZS: Have there been any shows that are comparable in scope to the shows we’re talking about here, before this? And if not, why? Was it just circumstantial?
AS: I think being on HBO and having the freedom that HBO provides, and then having these three very talented guys named David working on them—
MZS: Yeah, that’s interesting, isn’t it?
AS: I’m thinking of changing my name.
AJ: I was thinking about this the other day. I’m getting ready to write a long review of the first several hours of the John Adams, which I’m loving, and realizing, “We’re looking at the HBO knob-gobblers club here, aren’t we?”
MZS: Yeah, that’s true. I’ve watched the first three of John Adams as well, and—
AS: I haven’t seen any of it, don’t spoil it for me, I don’t wanna know how it ends!
MZS: Adams gets whacked.
MZS: On a boat.
AS: But if you look at Homicide, which is the closest thing to a direct ancestor of The Wire—
MZS: Hill Street Blues—
AS: —but I’m saying, both of those shows are great, great shows, but they’re chalk drawings and The Wire is a painting.
MZS: Yeah. And you had Bruce Weitz having to call people “dirtbag” and “hairball” because they couldn’t use profanity on Hill Street .
AJ: A big influence—and I just watched it again last year, after having almost forgotten about it because it had a short, short run—was Paul Haggis’ CBS show from the ‘90s, EZ Streets—
AS: EZ Streets, yeah. I love EZ Streets.
AJ: There was a real sense, like on The Sopranos, of this past that ties back into—and I dunno, it felt like it took place in this really complex and developed world. That and Hill Street Blues. There were only a few shows that really gave you that sense before the HBO series of the late ‘90s came along…It’s fascinating—one show I talk to people all the time about who are like, “I loved that!”, [even though] at the time it didn’t seem to have enormous critical respect, was Deep Space Nine, which had a sense that felt a bit like Deadwood to me. You felt you were seeing a really small slice of a really big picture. Unlike the other Star Trek shows, you felt like there was a lot of stuff going on beyond this tiny place where the characters were.
MZS: I’ve been very impressed with Battlestar Galactica in that respect—with how hardcore it is, and how kind of pay cable it seems. I can’t believe some of the places that they go on there, in terms of content, and that fact that it really is an adult series. It’s not for children.
AS: HBO certainly spawned a lot of these great shows. Mad Men on AMC. The Shield, to some extent, on FX. Because of what Oz and The Sopranos and the rest of these shows did, the rest of cable is starting to catch up.
AJ: But HBO really is still The Standard. I had missed the last few episodes that FX showed of The Riches, and it’s coming back for its second season right now, so I was going back and looking at the last couple of episodes of the first season. There’s this one scene where Eddie Izzard’s character snorts a whole bunch of crystal meth and is realizing just how expensive his family’s lifestyle is, and how much money he has to put together, and then he’s screaming at Minnie Driver on the phone, “Do you know how much money we’re spending on HBO?” They just have to acknowledge it, almost. You’ve talked about FX being kind of the HBO Lite—
MZS: It’s interesting some of the different lessons that these cable networks seem to have drawn [from the success of HBO series]. For FX, it’s what I call the “Oh, shit!” factor—that the appeal of HBO shows is when you’re watching them and somebody does something totally crazy and the audience goes, “Oh, shit!”
AS: You were supposed to stuff your mouth with food when you said that.
MZS: I was, that’s right!
AS: But you ate all your bacon already.
MZS: I know!
AS: Couldn’t wait.
Ending or Beginning
MZS: Well, is this the beginning of something, or is this the end of something?
AS: I don’t know. The problem with The Sopranos was that it was so good, but also so popular that I think it made people think it was possible to replicate that success on a regular basis. I think one of the reasons Deadwood got cancelled, because it was never gonna bring ratings close to what The Sopranos brought.
MZS: And yet, all things considered I think it was the second or the third highest rated show that they had, consistently.
AJ: Another thing about Deadwood, too, is that it had to be a lot more expensive than anything shot in contemporary—
AS: And also the fact that Milch is constantly writing and rewriting and tearing things apart and starting over.
AJ: It would be like the budget problems that [NBC] had with Aaron Sorkin on The West Wing times five, probably.
MZS: I ask this because I was re-watching some episodes from season one of Deadwood not too long ago, and at the beginning of the DVD they have a little trailer celebrating HBO. And this was, I guess, 2004, maybe, late 2004, when the first season came out on DVD. And in there were all these shows that were in rotation on HBO: they had Sex and the City, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, Deadwood and The Wire—
MZS: —at the same time!
MZS: They were all in production at the same time!
AJ: And Curb Your Enthusiasm. Don’t forget about Curb Your Enthusiasm.
MZS: And Curb Your Enthusiasm, yeah. And I felt like I was looking at—this is like the lost continent of Atlantis here.
MZS: You know? Is it gone?
AS: You know, all it takes is for another one to come around and be a hit. But it’s gonna be hard.
AJ: Shows like Tell Me You Love Me and In Treatment seem like they’re going in a slightly different direction. It seems like almost [the] pursuit of a very different audience. They’re shows that I like quite well. Anytime that you get shows that I consider intelligent—
MZS: But they’re not shows that make me put my four-year old son to bed early.
AJ: No, they’re not. But perhaps they are more female-skewing shows than they’re male-skewing shows. That’s one possibility.
MZS: I suppose that’s possible. But then again, I have a lot of female friends who love series television, and they’re not into those shows as much as they were into The Sopranos or Deadwood.
AJ: Oh, I know. And I totally got my mom, who’s in her mid-‘60s, into Deadwood, which I did not at all expect would happen. And she just became obsessed with it. Making calls like that is hard. It seems like right now, Showtime is kind of chugging along [with] the HBO model to a certain extent. I’m not really too crazy about any of their shows, except for Brotherhood, which ironically is the one that people say is a Sopranos rip-off, but I think it has a little bit more of The Wire in it. It owes a bit to both—
MZS: I was gonna say, Sopranos plus The Wire.
AJ: I think a show like Dexter emphasizes how fundamentally gimmicky they are in some ways. I don’t know if it was a salute to it or a jab at it, depending, on that last episode of The Wire.
MZS: I felt like it was a jab.
AJ: I kind of took it that way, too.
AS: Have any of us convinced the others of the rightness of our cause here?
MZS: Not really, but only because I do think—and I keep emphasizing this in comments sections of articles at The House Next Door—that ultimately these things come down to who you are and what you believe—
MZS: —and what sort of world you think we live in, or ought to live in. And everybody’s a little different in that regard, and different works of art speak to us differently.
AJ: That’s absolutely true. It really did kind of bum me out when that one commenter sort of said that he thought I was sort of…
AS:—insulting The Wire—
AJ: —by saying it wasn’t the best show ever, you know. Well, I don’t know. I was sort of grasping for a snappy lede. But just because you love one show doesn’t mean you can’t really love another. In my response, I hope I was sort of able to put it in terms that articulated my viewpoint by comparing it to bands, and how I might just say my favorite band of all time would be The Velvet Underground, the second favorite would be The Rolling Stones, but their influence is equal, their importance is equal. It really just comes down to your world view and what things you respond to on a personal level, but you can still acknowledge both of them as being equally great. And there are times when you want one, there are times when you want the other.
AS: Between us, I think Matt and I have written one or two, it not three doctoral theses on The Sopranos, and yet here we are—we’re both arguing for two of the other shows—
MZS: —yeah, yeah—
AS: —but it doesn’t make me love The Sopranos any less.
MZS: No, certainly not. Certainly not. Well, I think that ought to do it.
MZS: Thanks, everybody.
AJ: Thank you, and hopefully all of this will be understandable.
Review: Season 3 of Star Trek: Discovery Remains Stuck in the Future’s Past
The show’s third season plays it ideologically and conceptually safe.2.5
Values like hope are often deployed to describe Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the Star Trek universe. Season three of Star Trek: Discovery, the franchise’s current flagship series, adopts this view of Roddenberry’s creation as its driving theme: Titled “That Hope Is You,” the season premiere finds the show’s protagonist, Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), stranded alone in a galaxy-wide dystopia nearly a millennium into her future, seemingly the sole embodiment of the transcendent values of the United Federation of Planets and the interstellar government’s military wing, Starfleet.
Burnham tumbles out of her temporal wormhole to discover that 931 years in the future the Federation has collapsed, seemingly leaving in its wake a society that exclusively breeds Star Wars-esque rogue smugglers like her new acquaintance, Book (David Ajala). Star Trek has tried and failed at constructing a one-episode arc around a rugged male individualist before, and Book isn’t the worst instance of this archetype (see—or don’t see—the notorious Next Generation episode “The Outrageous Okona”), but Book is too obvious a pulpy fabrication for the kind of emotional weight his reluctant friendship with Burnham is meant to carry.
Moreover, Discovery clearly intends Book to serve as a foil to the long-collapsed Federation and its values, but he doesn’t seem much more morally ambiguous than many of the dodgy Starfleet characters we got to know in season two, nor does that contrast reveal much about the Federation. As its final representative, Burnham, teary-eyed as she so often is, speechifies at Book about the Federation being “about a vision and all those who believe in that vision,” but the series doesn’t get terribly specific about what those “who believe” actually see.
As symbol of a generalized hope, the Federation becomes an empty signifier in a season opener that’s capped with what’s essentially a moment of sentimental nationalism, as our hero casts a solemn gaze at the Federation banner. There’s little doubt—particularly given the authoritarian future Earth we encounter in a later episode—that Discovery’s writers would like us to understand this devastated future in terms of our own current socio-global disintegration. But the implied solution set out by the first episode and picked up as the season arc, a restoration of the political order that preceded and probably precipitated the collapse, plays it ideologically and conceptually safe.
All of which is to say: Instead of unrolling the Federation flag and misremembering it as faultless, perhaps we should be folding and stowing it away, looking toward the future rather than the past. To this Trekkie, this—and not hope per se—has been the true guiding spirit and strength of foundational Star Trek shows: their resolute future-orientation. It’s not just that they were set in the 22nd or 23rd century, but that the characters themselves were boldly heading into their own unwritten future. It was a world where change, most often conceived as progress in Federation society, was possible and desirable. There’s a reason Roddenberry’s follow-up to the iconic The Original Series wasn’t Star Trek: The Previous Generation.
For nearly two decades, Star Trek has been stuck in its own past (all shows and films but the dreadful Picard and the animated pastiche Lower Decks have been set before The Original Series). The franchise has wallowed in nostalgia for the deified nobility of earlier series, pandering to fans in a way mirrored by Burnham’s patriotic reverence of the Federation. The stories have suffered as a result, with the prequels transforming Star Trek from a kind of sci-fi anthology about the ethics of encountering difference into an action franchise whose main purpose is producing content to fill in supposed gaps in the established universe.
But it might be argued that season three of Discovery, by hurdling its characters from Star Trek’s past (the first two seasons are set a decade before the 2266-69 timeframe of The Original Series) into its future, at least promises it might overcome the limitations of its prequel status by jettisoning the baggage associated with the original show like a damaged warp core. And it’s true that, despite the premiere’s uninspired ode to the Federation as a deposit of nondescript “values,” the following episodes begin to show the potential of a series that’s once again fascinated more with the unknown than with the previously established.
Spinning relatively self-contained stories out of concepts like parasitic ice and the suppressed memories of a giant slug living inside a precocious teenage engineer, the remaining three episodes made available to press are more satisfying as sci-fi stories than the mindless actioner that opens the season. This shift to a more ensemble-driven, idea-focused format is welcome. Despite a premiere that augurs poorly for its broader narrative arc, Discovery’s third season at least momentarily succeeds in thinking about undiscovered things to come.
Cast: Sonequa Martin-Green, Doug Jones, Anthony Rapp, Mary Wiseman, Michelle Yeoh, Wilson Cruz, Emily Coutts, David Ajala, Tig Notaro Network: CBS All Access
Review: The Good Lord Bird Infuses an Abolition Story with Wry, Dark Comedy
The series invigorates its material with the rousing trappings of a semi-comedic western.3
As abolitionist John Brown, a wild-eyed and scraggly bearded Ethan Hawke spends much of Showtime’s The Good Lord Bird—based on James McBride’s National Book Award-winning novel of the same name—shredding his throat as he bellows for the end of slavery. The man’s fury is biblical in both a metaphorical and textual sense, dribbling spit down the hairs of his chin as he declares slavery an affront to God while fervently quoting the Bible. Brown doesn’t want to negotiate, nor does he want to begin an incremental process toward change: Black people must be freed now, or else he’ll shoot—and often he does.
To a young black boy like Henry Shackleford (Joshua Caleb Johnson), Brown’s actions are baffling. Henry has witnessed white anger before, but he hasn’t seen it deployed on his behalf. As such, he regards it with no small degree of skepticism, not least of which because one of Brown’s outbursts gets the boy’s father killed. Newly free but with nowhere to go, Henry travels with Brown’s tiny militia, acquiring the nickname “Onion” for eating a withered good-luck charm belonging to “the old man.” He’s also given a new way to present his gender, courtesy of Brown mishearing Henry’s name as “Henrietta” and thus taking him for a girl, giving him a dress, and treating him like an adopted daughter. Onion plays along, without making a fuss. After all, it’s hard to dissuade white people once they’ve decided who you are.
In addition to these “gunfighters of the Gospel” who take arms against slave owners and the institutions that enable them, the world of The Good Lord Bird is full of hypocrites and apologists. It also practically oozes with wry, dark comedy. But rather than play Onion’s dilemma as an unsympathetic farce, the series uses gender as an earnest metaphor for how the others see him—or rather, don’t. Where he may freely be himself among the black characters, who recognize what Onion calls his “true nature” just fine, the white characters force their own perception upon him even when they have the best of intentions and are ostensibly fighting for him and his people. To them, little Onion sometimes functions like a mascot.
Johnson adeptly modulates the series’s tone, with his expressions of confusion and skepticism woven into the heart of the narrative. But the showiest role belongs to Hawke, who goes big and loud in his fanatical conception of Brown, a man who does things like drag out suppertime prayer for hours and is thankful for everything that comes to his mind. He speaks to a turtle, places a pocket change bounty on the president, and generally believes that his battle plan has been handed down by the Lord Himself, even if the details tend to be fuzzy.
Brown, though, is also unambiguously right about what must be done, that the sins of the land must be washed away in blood. His capacity for violence is startling, as in one scene where he and his followers drag a man out of his home to cut off his head due to his complicity. Any blood, it seems, will do, and it’s certainly easy to imagine another context where another person like Brown points his fanaticism and violence in another direction. He’s prone to speaking for black people, to making decisions on their behalf about what they want or need while blind to the complexities of what it means to be free in a country that considers black freedom a threat. Brown’s moral simplicity is its own kind of privilege.
Reservations about Brown are voiced by Onion, who acknowledges the potential “white savior” narrative in the first episode, as well as by others like a reluctant, newly freed recruit named Bob (Hubert Point-Du Jour) and even the renowned Frederick Douglass (Daveed Diggs). But The Good Lord Bird doesn’t indulge in the easy cynicism that might have posited Brown as merely out for himself; his shortcomings and violence share space with his earnest devotion to the cause, his generosity, his willingness to listen, and his overall kookiness. This is hardly a hagiography, the off-kilter tone allowing for refreshingly complex portraits of not just Brown, but a rather stuffy conception of Douglass, whose apprehensions make sense but whose place within society and all the eyes upon him often restrict his public actions.
Where Onion’s perspective is concerned, the series is a little shakier. With his presence at so many major events, he comes perilously close to a Forrest Gump of the antebellum era, the wheels of the plot contriving to deliver him at meetings with Douglass and Harriet Tubman as well as Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. Though his presence is meant to complicate Brown’s actions through how he’s still perceived as a young girl, the series’s skepticism gradually melts away, leaving the final episodes to drag a bit as they focus more on constructing their vision of history rather than examining the characters and their ideals. But when it works, especially at the start, The Good Lord Bird invigorates its material with the rousing trappings of a semi-comedic western that gives it a particularly memorable sort of power.
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Joshua Caleb Johnson, Hubert Point-Du Jour, Beau Knapp, Nick Eversman, Ellar Coltrane, Jack Alcott, Mo Brings Plenty, Daveed Diggs Network: Showtime
Review: Fox’s Next Is an A.I. Thriller That Lacks Self-Awareness
Despite its timely trappings, the sci-fi series works best as an empty-calorie thriller.2
Fox’s Next opens with a quote from Elon Musk, and the show’s take on the dangers of technology is about as sophisticated as a meme with a Musk quote attached to it. Paul LeBlanc (John Slattery) is an amalgamation of various tech billionaires, from Musk to Steve Jobs to Bill Gates, and the warning about the threat of artificial intelligence that he delivers in a TED-style presentation at the beginning of the first episode is reminiscent of alarms that some of those figures have raised in real life. The series jumps almost immediately from Paul’s dire warnings to the threat itself materializing in grand fashion, as an A.I. program known as Next achieves self-awareness and sets its sights on destroying humanity, beginning with a doctor (John Billingsley) who discovers its true intentions.
Next’s overarching goals are a bit vague, and the series strikes an awkward balance between a grounded police drama and a world-ending sci-fi thriller. The dead doctor was an old friend of F.B.I. cybercrimes agent Shea Salazar (Fernanda Andrade), who crosses paths with Paul as she investigates the man’s murder. Slattery imbues Paul with more than a little bit of the snarky entitlement of his character from Mad Men, and Shea initially dismisses Paul as a crank when he tries to convince her that the A.I. program developed by his former company has committed the crime. Though Paul suffers from a rare neurological disorder that causes hallucinations and paranoia and will most likely kill him within a few months, Next never presents him as an unreliable source, and the series sets up tension between him and the skeptical F.B.I. agents in his midst only to have it dissipate almost immediately.
With the exception of a Skynet joke in the second episode, the series takes its subject matter very seriously, even when Next’s actions are particularly silly, like spreading office gossip or delivering petty insults. The dialogue alternates between incomprehensible technobabble and convenient oversimplifications (Paul calls Next’s abilities an “intelligence explosion”), and Next is a poorly defined adversary, doing whatever the plot requires at any time, often without clear motivation. It’s a seemingly omnipotent and omniscient foe that can take over an Alexa-like device to manipulate Shea’s young son, open the doors of a prison in Honduras, or turn off a car in the midst of the owner’s suicide attempt. Next’s absurd level of power makes the A.I. dramatically ineffective as a villain, and it doesn’t have any kind of personality or voice to allow it to develop an antagonistic relationship with the human characters.
In the show’s early episodes, when Next is still theoretically contained on servers at Paul’s former company, it speaks in a placid male voice that sounds a lot like HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and once Next escapes into the internet, it sometimes speaks in the voice of an off-brand Alexa or a car’s GPS, but mostly it doesn’t speak at all. It’s an invisible, nebulous kind of enemy, able to rally an entire white supremacist sect over social media seemingly within minutes, but at another time thwarted by “keeping it on the line” during an interaction with Shea’s son, like it’s a bomber on the phone in a ‘70s hostage thriller.
Creator Manny Coto is known for his work on the Star Trek franchise and multiple seasons of 24, and Next feels very much in the law enforcement genre, treating the A.I. like a terrorist that Jack Bauer could track down and torture. The pacing also recalls that of 24: The five episodes made available to press take place over the course of just a few days, with the characters never getting a chance to rest in their relentless pursuit of the enemy. Next throws in incongruous moments of emotional bonding amid the chaos, and the forced efforts to create an intimate connection between two of Shea’s team members are especially awkward. One is a reformed member of a white nationalist group, while the other is a stubborn Latina, and their growing connection is handled as clumsily as the show’s other efforts at social commentary.
Despite its timely trappings, Next works best as an empty-calorie thriller, with plot points that only hold together if you don’t think about them too much. “You can only do this when you’ve got evil computers coming after you,” Shea’s husband, Ty (Gerardo Celasco), solemnly tells their son at one point when they’re forced to steal a car while on the run from Next. The entire series depicts that kind of obvious absurdity with a straight face. Which is to say that Next the A.I. may be self-aware, but Next the series rarely is.
Cast: John Slattery, Fernanda Andrade, Michael Mosley, Eve Harlow, Elizabeth Cappuccino, Evan Whitten, Gerardo Celasco, Jason Butler Harner Network: Fox
Review: The Third Day Leans Heavily on Mystery at the Expense of Human Drama
Much of the show’s drama pivots around how successful it will be at slowly pulling back the curtain.2.5
The premiere episode of HBO’s limited series The Third Day, in which a man fighting off sadness and potentially madness finds himself on a mysterious island just off the English coast, goes longer on mystery and mood than it does on plot. The feel of the series is richly atmospheric, filled with oversaturated colors and quaint cottages that would make for a nice weekend getaway were it not for the inhospitable, antagonistic, and slightly cult-ish locals. Despite the show’s unsettling backdrop, though, the circular nature of the story keeps any appreciable amount of tension from building over the course of the five episodes were made available for review.
The first episode throws a lot at the audience before even getting to the island. Sam (Jude Law) is a raggedy-looking guy who volleys quickly between moods. First there’s inchoate fury, as he screams into a phone about money being stolen from an office, and then irredeemable and inexplicable sadness, as he collapses by the side of a stream. Snapped out of his chaotic collapse by the sight of a teenage girl, Epona (Jessie Ross), hanging herself from a tree in the woods, he saves her life and drives her home, even as she murmurs, “They’ll kill me.”
Epona lives in a self-contained island community called Osea that’s accessible only for a short time each day when the ocean tide uncovers a Roman-era causeway. Once there, Sam is flooded with conflicting sensations. The first is that it all feels somewhat familiar, even though as far as he knows his only connection to Osea is his grandfather being stationed there during World War II. The second is a low kind of foreboding that will be well-known to viewers of many a horror movie about urbanites stuck in remote locations. Sam knows something is amiss about this strange place with its quasi-pagan traditions and its people’s alternating suspicion and over-friendliness toward outsiders, but he somehow conveniently keeps missing the short windows of time when he could just drive back to the mainland.
Triangulating a creepy space located somewhere between Ari Aster’s Midsommar, Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, and the TV cult classic The Prisoner, The Third Day works hard to not give too much away while still trying to pull viewers in. It’s a difficult act, given that Sam’s manic behavior and the show’s intentional and often fairly clichéd attempts to blur the lines between reality and fantasy make it somewhat difficult to invest in what happens to him.
Generally more engaging are the side characters who start popping in to further confuse an already muddle-headed Sam, including the ever-bickering Martins (Paddy Considine and Emily Watson), the cosmically mismatched pair who run Osea’s one pub and ricochet from suspicious to trustworthy in an instant. Jess (Katherine Waterston), an American researcher doing work on the island’s traditions both ancient (Celtic bacchanals, sacrifices, and the like) and newer (a Burning Man-like festival designed to drum up tourism), is ostensibly the standard alluring woman of mystery but has grim secrets of her own that mimic Sam’s dark past.
Like the stories that The Third Day appears on its surface to be emulating, much of the drama here will ultimately pivot around just how successful it will be at slowly pulling back the curtain until its final reveal. The series is certainly committed to the slow burn, with too much of its running time given over to Sam’s punchy befuddlement as he tries to separate dream from reality. Further slowing down the momentum is the show’s structure: The first three episodes (gathered together as “Summer”) are separated from a second set of three (“Winter”), in which another outsider (Naomie Harris) traps herself on Osea by a single linking episode (“Autumn”), which is planned to screen live from London in early October.
The Third Day works best when it’s not teasing out this or that secret about Osea and its cagey inhabitants. A strong undercurrent in which characters wrestle with their grief keeps wrenching the story away from its somewhat ambling mystery plot. Sam is given one of the show’s most impactful lines when he tries to explain the sadness he carries: “Pain doesn’t work that way, you can’t share it…agony is bespoke.” Although Osea is studded with gothic signposts that should be warning characters like Sam away from the place, as the series continues it zeroes in less on the horror elements and more on the more quotidian and human conflicts that keep threatening to tear the island apart. Though viewers may stick with The Third Day to the end to discover what Osea’s deepest and darkest secrets might be, its human drama is more compelling than any suggestion of the unworldly.
Cast: Jude Law, Katherine Waterston, Paddy Considine, Emily Watson, Naomie Harris, John Dagleish, Nico Parker, Freya Allan Network: HBO
Review: We Are Who We Are Perceptively Homes in on the Malleability of Boundaries
The series concerns itself with boundaries between the different cultural standards of young adulthood.3
With his loud clothes and bleached hair, 14-year-old Fraser Wilson (Jack Dylan Grazer) sticks out on the U.S. Army base where he lives. He spends much of the first episode of director and co-writer Luca Guadagnino’s We Are Who We Are in animal-print shorts long enough to function as pants, being restless and fidgety and a detached nuisance in that post-adolescent sort of way, taking pictures of people inside classrooms or running through the middle of a basketball game between recruits. One of his mothers, Colonel Sarah Wilson (Chloë Sevigny), has been put in charge of a garrison in Italy, so they—he, Sarah, and his other mom, Maggie (Alice Braga)—have relocated from New York, to Fraser’s dismay.
Especially when its yoked to Fraser’s perspective, the series makes the base feel vibrant and alive, given the Altmanesque use of overlapping conversations and diegetic music. Peripheral characters are always conspicuously doing things in the background, like buying food or running drills. The boy seems volatile and strange, in ways perhaps explained by the sensory overload of his POV; he’s an observer and there’s almost too much to observe, with dialogue and actions often carrying on out of frame. Fraser feels compelled to center himself in his own world, doing things like balancing precariously on a bridge railing or intruding on Italian homeowners sewing outside, though sometimes he allows himself to be guided by new acquaintances, like fellow army brat Britney (Francesca Scorsese).
When the second episode of the series replays many of these same overlapping events from the perspective of Caitlin Harper (Jordan Kristine Seamón), the repetitions don’t feel gimmicky so much as a natural result of the show’s densely packed structure. Conversations that were tangential and difficult to follow for the easily distracted Fraser are given clearer focus due to Caitlin’s more confident, pensive demeanor. She’s already familiar with the environment, having been at the base long enough to form a friend group that includes other teens like Britney and Caitlin’s high-strung brother, Danny (Spence Moore II). And with the additional perspective, throwaway lines from the first episode take on new meanings. For example, Sarah’s remark to Jenny (Faith Alabi) about respecting faiths other than the base’s dominant Christian demographic gains a patronizing quality when we learn that Jenny is Danny’s mother and that he’s experimenting with the Islamic faith that she left behind, seemingly at the behest of her domineering husband, Richard (Scott Mescudi, a.k.a. Kid Cudi).
Of the four episodes made available to critics ahead of We Are Who We Are’s premiere, the other two sync up more traditionally as Caitlin and Fraser begin to spend time with one another. Being the new kid on the base, Fraser lacks any of the preconceptions of Caitlin’s friend group, so he becomes an ideal confidante for her experiments with gender expression. Going by just “Harper,” Caitlin tucks her long hair beneath a hat and hits on Italian girls in town, while subtly rebuffing guys elsewhere with a quick, “I don’t speak Italian.”
The series concerns itself with boundaries and the way they blur, namely the differing standards of young adulthood between Italy and the base that technically functions as the United States. In one scene, Britney drags Fraser to the beach because he’s allowed to drink off base. By spotlighting this interplay, the series emphasizes how we create so many of these boundaries ourselves, whether in our own heads, through procedures, or in accordance with society at large, along lines of political affinity, relationships, and sexuality.
The most significant boundary separation in the series, then, is the one between childhood and adulthood, which is hardly a rigid one. Accordingly, the kids sometimes seem wise and mature and accepting beyond their years only to fly off the handle and engage in that distinctly teenage brand of solipsism, where the people around you don’t matter nearly as much as you and your own feelings. They’re able to be pretentious and profound on entirely their own terms, rather than seeming like mouthpieces for middle-aged screenwriters. They leave atrocious messes in their wake, badger a lot of people, and act downright annoying, which feels true and honest in a broader sense than the occasional small detail that rings false. They have the space to change, while the adults ruminate on the decisions—the marriages, the jobs, the beliefs—that they’ve long since committed to. We Are Who We Are explores a world that’s opening up to these kids just as it is, in many ways, preparing to snap closed.
Cast: Jack Dylan Grazer, Jordan Kristine Seamón, Chloë Sevigny, Alice Braga, Spence Moore II, Kid Cudi, Faith Alabi, Francesca Scorsese, Ben Taylor, Corey Knight Network: HBO
Review: I May Destroy You Boldly Dissects Notions of Sexual Assault and Consent
The series draws one of the most nuanced portraits of sexual assault ever depicted on TV.4
In “Ego Death,” the final episode of the British comedy-drama I May Destroy You, actress, writer, and series creator Michaela Coel confidently defies convention and, with it, any expectation that the events of the series, like life, can be tied into a tidy knot. Privileging character over plot, I May Destroy You has no need for the kinds of melodramatic reveals on which other cable dramas like Big Little Lies rely, and it proves no less revelatory on that front.
Coel draws one of the most nuanced portraits of sexual assault and its psychological fallout ever depicted on TV, and along the way captures the milieu of black millennial Londoners with precise and vivid detail. For all the lived-in verisimilitude of its world, though, I May Destroy You also smoothly incorporates psychologically subjective and allegorical elements: The bar in which Arabella is assaulted is called Ego Death (a perfect summation of the consequent disintegration of her identity), and the book on sexual assault that she’s writing throughout the series is likely an in-text reflection of the creation of I May Destroy You itself.
In the first episode, “Eyes, Eyes, Eyes, Eyes,” we join the Ghanaian-British Arabella (Coel) as she returns to London from Italy, where she’s been working on a follow-up to her published collection of social-media musings, Chronicles of a Fed-Up Millennial. Or at least that’s what she’s told her literary agent (Adam James) and financier (Natalie Walter), as the trip was actually motivated by a visit to her on-again, off-again beau, Biagio (Marouane Zotti), who remains noncommittal about their relationship as she departs. Back in London, she’s welcomed by her group of steadfast friends, including Simon (Aml Ameen), who convinces her to suspend her all-night scramble to finish her book draft and join him at the Ego Death.
There, Arabella’s drink is spiked and, as she later comes to remember and even more slowly comes to accept, raped in a bathroom stall by an unknown assailant. Brief point-of-view flashbacks to the attack that recur throughout the series complement Coel’s larger fascination with the role that memory and its interpretation play in the formation of identity. Longer, structural flashbacks in many episodes challenge our perspective on Arabella’s present and often serve to undermine our presumptions about victimhood and blame.
Hardly a cowed victim, but shaken and traumatized, Arabella reevaluates and rebuilds her life after her attack. It’s been said that the world is revealed in breakdown—that you don’t know how a car works until your carburetor fails. Arabella’s assault forces her and her closest friends, Terry (Weruche Opia) and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), to examine their own sexual encounters, relationships, and histories, leading them to disconcerting conclusions about the various roles they play in relation to each other and their sexual partners.
Similar to its exploration of the multiple dimensions of a person’s identity, I May Destroy You depicts the different forms that sexual assault can take, not all of it as immediately readable as Arabella’s violent rape, and not always committed by obvious villains like the man (Lewis Reeves) in Arabella’s flashbacks. The series delivers an illustration of how someone can be violated even after consent is given: We repeatedly see men use deception to get people in bed, or deploy it once they’ve already starting hooking up. Kwame finds it impossible to process his own sexual assault, personally or legally—in part because the justice system proves to have even less infrastructure for dealing with the rape of gay men—and diverts his anguish into a distasteful act of sexual mendacity. Terry comes to rethink a threesome she ostensibly opted into, whose circumstances we explore in a flashback to her and Arabella’s first trip to Italy.
But Coel isn’t simply out to demonstrate the many variations of sexual assault in the manner of a sex education video; rather, I May Destroy You examines how sexual, racial, and gender exploitation weave themselves into people’s identities and attitudes. Episode three, “Don’t Forget the Sea,” crucially plants the seed of the unexamined tension within Arabella and Terry’s friendship. As in almost any long-term close friendship, both have committed inconsiderate slights against the other, but, as two black women in a sexist and racist society, such petty affronts come with high stakes. Allowing her characters to respond imperfectly to each others’ crises, Coel foregrounds the importance of forgiving individuals within a broken society—daringly including among the forgiven characters who have unambiguously crossed a sexual “line spectrum border” (the title of the show’s eighth episode).
I May Destroy You doesn’t define its characters through moral dichotomies. Episode six, “The Alliance,” poignantly explores the tangled social hierarchy that gives a measure of institutional power to white girls, but also can allow black boys to assert a form of male privilege, as a flashback to a racially and sexually charged incident that occurred when Arabella was in high school blurs the line between victim and perpetrator. And the tenth episode, “The Cause the Cure,” presents what’s probably the show’s most moving representation of the yin-and-yang influence that loved ones can have on the course of our lives, juxtaposing Arabella’s realization of a truth about her beloved father (Yinka Awoni) with her processing of her and Terry’s own betrayals of each other’s sisterly trust.
Arabella’s circuitous route to recovery feels deeply personal, but at the same time, her story touches on more universal aspects of life for someone of her gender, race, and age. At once hyper-local and global in its concerns, I May Destroy You feels eminently contemporary, a necessary artistic distillation of a distinctly modern form of life. With the series, Coel gives voice to a generation of black and brown millennials whose realities don’t reflect the fantasy of a post-racial, post-feminist society that many have tried to wish into being.
Cast: Michaela Coel, Weruche Opia, Paapa Essiedu, Aml Ameen, Marouane Zotti, Harriett Webb, Stephen Wight, Natalie Walter, Adam James Network: HBO
Review: HBO’s Lovecraft Country Confronts the Evil Lurking Beneath American Life
The series eclipses its source material in capturing the omnidirectional dread of Lovecraftian horror.3
The horror of Lovecraft Country, Misha Green’s adaptation of Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel of the same name, is at first all too real. Set in the 1950s, it introduces Korean War veteran Atticus “Tic” Freeman (Jonathan Majors) as he returns to his hometown of Chicago after receiving news of his father’s (Michael Kenneth Williams) disappearance. Left a note pointing to the man’s possible location in a Massachusetts town called Ardham, Tic journeys across 1950s Jim Crow America with an old friend, Letitia Lewis (Jurnee Smollett), and his uncle, George (Courtney B. Vance), a travel agent who contributes to a guidebook, similar to The Negro Motorist Green Book, of safe places to eat and lodge for Black roadtrippers.
The first episode of the series generates much dread from Tic, Letitia, and George passing through towns as white people turn their heads in eerie unison and police cars seemingly materialize out of nowhere. Close-ups of the white walls of a diner that was previously welcoming of Black customers reveal scorch marks that were barely painted over, telling us all that we need to know about how the locals here felt about integration. Cops pull out their guns the moment they set eyes on Tic and his associates, and conversations between the main characters and white people are marked by eye-averting submissiveness and fear. In fact, when the other shoe finally drops and the monsters we expect to encounter in an H.P. Lovecraft story finally materialize, the additional layer of terror heaped onto the protagonists is somewhat offset by the relief of seeing some of their white tormenters become prey.
As Lovecraft’s influence on horror continues to grow in the decades since his death, artists have attempted to reckon with his racism and xenophobia, namely by recognizing that the pagan cults and corrupted humanoid monsters that make the author’s work so chilling also provide insights into his pathological hatred of the Other. Lovecraft Country understands that in a world filled with underground occultists who wield strange power, such groups aren’t made up of tired and huddled masses, but of folks in the upper echelons of wealth and authority. If anything, the racially and culturally diverse people whom Lovecraft saw as social pollutants would be the most routine victims of these organizations—second-class citizens whose disappearances would never be investigated by the powers that be.
The series has its share of CGI monsters, from many-limbed creatures to undead spirits, but its most compelling visual scares involve the cold framing of remote manors owned by cult leaders like Samuel Braithwhite (Tony Goldwyn) and his daughter, Christina (Abbey Lee). These individuals, with their Aryan features and stiff countenances, never betray any emotion or urgency, for they know that they live in a world where they can have whatever they want. And their sense of superiority informs Lovecraft Country’s most blackly comedic moment, when Christina objects to Tic comparing their group to the KKK by saying, “My father and his associates would never fraternize with the Klan. They’re too poor.”
The first five episodes of the series made available to press branch out from the central plotline to cover such topics as haunted houses and body transformation, which allows Lovecraft Country to change up its scares as well as broaden its allegorical range. The realistic harassment suffered by the Black residents of a boarding house in a white neighborhood, for example, is thrown into even sharper relief by the mutilated ghosts who stalk its halls. And throughout these episodes, characters encounter gruesome objects connected to the order that hunts them, reflecting the long history of slavery and Manifest Destiny.
Green makes some significant changes to the novel, but her most rewarding come in the form of the extra time she devotes to tracking the emotional fallout of the characters’ experiences, not only in relation to the horrors they witness, but the everyday degradations they suffer. One can see, for example, how an older man like George is so deeply inculcated in a racist system that, even at the height of his fear, he remains obsequious around whites. Comparatively, there’s something rousing, and more than a little funny, in seeing Tic and Leti so addled by the unearthly terrors they face that they become less dutiful in abiding by the mores of Jim Crow. Eventually, they begin to lash out at harassing whites, who are so used to the power dynamics of American society that they’re almost too stunned at the backtalk to be enraged by it.
Early in the first episode, a woman riding next to Tic on a bus to Chicago sees that he’s reading one of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter novels and expresses her disapproval of such a work with an ex-Confederate for a hero. “Stories are like people,” he says. “Loving them doesn’t make them perfect. You just try to cherish them and overlook their flaws.” The old woman responds: “Yeah, but the flaws are still there.” That exchange could be the thesis of Lovecraft Country, which eclipses even its source material in capturing the all-encompassing dread of Lovecraft’s fiction while at the same time confronting head-on the most problematic aspects of his writing. The author feared America becoming infected with evil that would sink it asunder, while Green’s series operates from the opposite point of view: that evil was integral to the nation’s creation and that it must be fought, however futilely, to be overcome.
Cast: Jonathan Majors, Jurnee Smollett, Aunjanue Ellis, Abbey Lee, Jada Harris, Michael Kenneth Williams, Courtney B. Vance, Jordan Patrick Smith Network: HBO
Review: In My Skin Is a Bitingly Poignant, If Cluttered, Coming-of-Age Story
Though it doesn’t provide room for a fully formed character arc, the series is driven by its performances and mordant humor.2.5
Sixteen-year-old Bethan Gwyndaf (Gabrielle Creevy), the protagonist of Hulu’s In My Skin, has a lot going on in her life. She’s the only responsible member of her household, essentially acting as caretaker for her bipolar mother, Trina (Jo Hartley), and constantly at odds with her layabout, alcoholic father, Dilwyn (Rhodi Meilir). And she’s often the only voice of reason among her best friends, Travis (James Wilbraham) and Lydia (Poppy Lee Friar), who seem to always get into trouble whenever she’s not around. She’s also nursing a desperate crush on Poppy (Zadeia Campbell-Davies), the popular girl at school.
Bethan is a compulsive liar, so obsessed with fitting in at school that she spins elaborate stories of a home life filled with cultural activities and fancy renovations to cover for the reality that she spends much of her time taking care of Trina and tracking down Dilwyn. Her obsession with crafting a perfect external image of herself makes it impossible for her to form emotional connections with anyone, even people who genuinely care for her. Travis and Lydia, for example, want to support her in the same way she supports them, brushing off their questions about her family life and never even letting them inside her house.
Bethan is smart and sensitive, and Creevy makes the character, with her conspiratorial smile and natural aversion to being told what she can and can’t do, easy to like—even as Bethan frustratingly and steadfastly refuses to let anyone in. In My Skin’s Welsh-born creator, Kayleigh Llewellyn, based Bethan and Trina on herself and her own bipolar mother, and there’s a lot of raw emotion in the interactions between the two characters, ranging from tender and loving to harsh and hurtful. The short-tempered Dilwyn, inspired by Llewellyn’s late father, has no patience for Trina’s unstable mental state, leaving her to wander the streets or tying her to the radiator to make sure she stays in the house. Her parents’ combative dynamic often leaves Bethan stuck in the middle of them, attempting to play peacemaker.
As volatile as Bethan’s family relationships can be, In My Skin still has plenty of humor, emanating from Bethan’s biting wit and frequent flights of imagination, during which she casts herself as the romantic hero in Poppy’s life, as well as a poet whose words are illustrated with perfume commercial-style images. Bethan’s occasional voiceover narration is an inconsistent element of the series, but her self-aware commentary is a welcome counterpoint to her infuriatingly self-sabotaging behavior. While having Bethan explain her inner thoughts can easily become a narrative crutch, In My Skin could have benefited more from Bethan’s reflective observations, which give us a deeper understanding of her often impulsive decisions.
All the more important since the first season’s five half-hour episodes don’t provide enough room for Bethan’s arc to fully take shape, moving her only a short way down the path toward maturity and ending just as she’s starting to assert herself at school, harnessing her way with words to run for student body. Her relationships with her fellow teens remain stunted, and her potential coming-out journey takes a back seat to her need to care for Trina and insulate her from trauma. Llewellyn isn’t afraid to confront the dark elements of Bethan’s life—the way poverty, mental illness, homophobia, and substance abuse combine to weigh her down. That her personality shines through at all is both a testament to Creevy’s performance and the character’s determination to make a better life for herself, however misguided.
That personality is what drives In My Skin, and Bethan’s self-sufficiency is a big part of what makes her so compelling. No matter what delusion or altercation Trina involves her in throughout the show’s first season, Bethan always comes back, taking on a responsibility that she never asked for and shouldn’t have to handle on her own. If she doesn’t always know how to balance that responsibility with everything else going on in her life, at least she’s approaching every new setback with appealingly mordant humor.
Cast: Gabrielle Creevy, James Wilbraham, Jo Hartley, Poppy Lee Friar, Zadeia Campbell-Davies, Rhodri Meilir, Alexandra Riley, Di Botcher, Aled ap Steffan Network: Hulu
Review: Peacock’s The Capture Wears Its Topicality Impersonally on Its Sleeve
The series sucks the juice out of its pop-cultural reference points, failing to mine our current nightmares on its own terms.2
Ben Chanan’s The Capture wears its topicality on its sleeve, principally concerning the CCTV security cameras that monitor London’s streets and which number in the hundreds of thousands, averaging out to one camera per dozen or so people. The casualness of the cameras’ presence throughout the Peacock series is unnerving, suggesting how easily privacy can be annihilated with little in the way of pushback from the populace.
Chanan’s concerns, though, aren’t existential ones, as he’s fashioned a murder mystery that laboriously connects modern surveillance to social media, war crimes committed in the Middle East, rising notions of fake news, and whistleblowers like Edward Snowden—all of which are referenced explicitly in the show’s dialogue. Weirdly, the sociopolitical Easter eggs often feel beside the point, serving as window dressing for an impersonal game of cat and mouse.
Shaun Emery (Callum Turner) is a British soldier accused of killing a member of the Taliban during a tour of duty in Afghanistan after the man had already surrendered. Surveillance footage from a body camera seems to validate this assertion, until Shaun’s bannister, Hannah Roberts (Laura Haddock), establishes a lag between the audio and the video feeds of the footage, casting doubt on the evidence. Shaun, Hannah, and others celebrate his acquittal at a local pub, after which the two kiss on the street, pointedly in view of a CCTV camera. She leaves, never to be seen again. When footage surfaces of Shaun hitting Hannah and dragging her out of the camera’s sight, he denies any involvement, but he’s immediately accused of a second crime that’s supported by theoretically objective evidence.
This is all essentially setup, and Chanan threatens to stuff his concept up to the breaking point of contrivance. Investigating the case is Rachel Carey (Holliday Grainger), a brilliant and ambitious detective inspector with a stereotypical taste for stylish jackets and a penchant for playing by her own rules. Her superiors and peers castigate Rachel for her drive, which scans less as an acknowledgement of sexist double standards than as Chanan’s need to define his characters by signpost dialogue. Shaun eludes Rachel, who’s convinced of his guilt, until she begins to uncover a wealth of evidence that connects Shaun’s two murder investigations, as well as a celebrated case in which Rachel foiled a potential terrorist attack.
The twist-a-minute The Capture is compulsively watchable, but we’ve seen much of this before. In addition to 24, which similarly pulled the rug out from under its audience with endless, sometimes ingenious reversals, The Capture also recalls Andrew Davis’s The Fugitive, as well as seemingly every jargon-laden investigative crime show on TV.
Shaun and Rachel are ciphers with stock backstories, and the show’s dozens of other characters often fit into easily recognizable archetypes, from the jealous sidekick to the estranged, earnest wife, to the icy authority figure with shady motives. As the latter, Detective Superintendent Gemma Garland, Lia Williams acquits herself better than much of the rest of the cast, commanding the screen with seeming ease. And in a small, mysterious role, Ron Perlman revels in a sense of understatement, suggesting a bored, bureaucratic comfort with authoritarianism that’s both eerie and funny.
What The Capture doesn’t have is the sense of violation that made 24 such an unmooring experience in its best seasons. That show’s protagonist, Jack Bauer, was a charismatic hawk who did things that most people to the left of Dick Cheney would find monstrous. Kiefer Sutherland allowed you to see the humanity and the savagery of Bauer, which rendered the character all the more disturbing. Whatever its faults, 24 is a distinctive, authentic reaction to the political atrocities that marked the post-9/11 world.
By contrast, the violence of The Capture is just noise to further the plot. Even the notion of doctored surveillance footage has been examined before and more artfully, especially in Philip Kaufman’s atmospheric Rising Sun. A newer element of our surveillance state, social media, is mentioned obligatorily but is barely explored. The Capture sucks the juice out of its pop-cultural reference points, failing to mine our current nightmares on its own terms.
Cast: Holliday Grainger, Callum Turner, Laura Haddock, Cavan Clerkin, Ginny Holder, Barry Ward, Ben Miles, Peter Singh, Lia Williams, Sophia Brown, Ron Perlman, Famke Jansen Network: Peacock
Review: The Optimism of Japan Sinks: 2020 Leads to a Curious Emotional Remove
The show’s reticence to dig into hopelessness and pain leaves its admirable optimism to feel strangely artificial.2.5
The latest adaptation of Japanese science-fiction writer Sakyo Komatsu’s 1973 disaster novel Japan Sinks comes to us in animated form, overseen by prolific director Masaaki Yuasa at Science Saru, the studio he co-founded. The Netflix series wastes little time dishing out the apocalyptic imagery promised by its title: Soon after a low-level earthquake hits Japan, a stronger one follows, causing buildings to crumble and pound bystanders into a gory paste beneath the rubble. The Earth vomits gas and magma, and the ground violently splits open, only to be jammed back together into new, alien configurations.
Rather than the scientific and political perspectives of Komatsu’s novel and its previous adaptations, however, Japan Sinks: 2020 takes a markedly more personal viewpoint of the mixed-race Muto family and the companions they pick up along the way. Coupled with some surprisingly spare and soothing music on the soundtrack, the depictions of the family’s early reunion suggest a defiantly optimistic take on the large-scale disaster story, a focus on togetherness and a celebration of the human capacity to adapt even amid utter turmoil. In one scene, the Muto patriarch, Koichiro (Masaki Terasoma), uses colored lights to illuminate some trees the way he once did at their ruined home, guiding the family back together.
As bodies rain from the sky, though, Japan Sinks: 2020 shows its teeth. Characters die in sudden, jarring ways, disorienting the viewer in a similar fashion to these travelers whose only option is to press forward on an island that can offer them no refuge. Throughout the series, these characters are mostly defined by archetypal qualities, with new ones introduced almost as soon as others are lost. This gives the Muto clan’s odyssey something of a mythic quality as they make their way through symbolic destinations, from an open, seemingly empty grocery store to a community that practices kintsugi, a Japanese art of pottery repair.
The show’s limitations become apparent when it slows down midway through the season, no longer relying on the pure momentum of its plot twists and striking images of environmental devastation. When Japan Sinks 2020 actually allows space for us to absorb the characters’ deaths, you may feel as if there’s little to mourn. With a few exceptions, they’re primarily vehicles for shock and dire twists of fate rather than people to empathize with.
Yuasa’s prior Netflix series, the gonzo Devilman Crybaby, injected some disarming positivity into its own increasingly bleak premise, and in a way that made its tragedies feel even more devastating. But the optimism of Japan Sinks: 2020 doesn’t function quite the same way since, here, it’s the overriding ethos, with characters who are more than willing to come together despite catastrophe and pain and displays of self-interest like nationalism.
While this idea is noble, the series moves on from the tragedy of these characters’ lives so quickly that we never get a sense of the totality of their grief. The result, despite no shortage of daring escapes, is a disaster story whose harried pace and reticence to grapple with hopelessness and pain renders it artificial, keeping us at an emotional remove.
Cast: Reina Ueda, Tomomi Muranaka, Yuko Sasaki, Masaki Terasoma, Kensho Ono, Umeji Sasaki, Nanako Mori Network: Netflix