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: Years and Years Is a Captivating Dystopian Family Drama
The series manages to pile on the cataclysms without taking pleasure in the pain of its characters.3
In his memoir Self-Consciousness, John Updike describes his early adulthood by saying, “I turned thirty, then forty,” and in doing so skips over a decade’s worth of information unnecessary to the reader. Russell T Davies’s miniseries Years and Years, which will launch on HBO following its run on BBC One, similarly makes economic use of time, but where Updike jumps into the future, the series sprints. Every so often throughout the four episodes made available to press, a searing montage pushes the world a few years forward, relaying key geopolitical developments—a landmark legal decision, a diplomatic falling out, an environmental crisis—before settling back down in a global order even shakier than before.
We experience these changes through the perspective of Britain’s Lyons family, which includes tough but caring matriarch Muriel Deacon (Anne Reid) and her grandchildren: Stephen (Rory Kinnear), a banker; Daniel (Russell Tovey), a housing officer; Rosie (Ruth Madeley), a school cafeteria manager; and Edith (Jessica Hynes), an activist. The siblings, their partners, and their children are Years and Years’s primary concern, and with each lurch into the future, their lives tend to get worse rather than better. All the while, Vivienne Rook (Emma Thompson), a fear-mongering pseudo-populist, launches and advances her political career, deploring the world’s degradation and promising to represent the true wishes of the British people.
At one point, the Lyons siblings hop on a conference call to react to one of Rook’s appearances on the news. Rosie appreciates Rook’s straightforwardness—the series opens with a shockingly candid and unempathetic on-air comment that Rook makes about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—Daniel is horrified by it, and others lie somewhere in between. Rook is more than a little Trumpian, a resonant representation of the crassness that he’s made politically viable. And as Years and Years proceeds, this much becomes clear: Although it largely centers around the Lyonses, the series isn’t really about them, but about Rook. It’s about the potential for the world to operate in a way that enables Rook’s ascent and leaves people like the Lyons family staring slack-jawed at her demagoguery and electoral swashbuckling.
As Rook, Thompson seems to multiply the minutes she gets on screen with the ferocity and sheer gravitational pull that the actress brings to the politician. When she’s on television, Rook looks directly into the camera, at the Lyonses and at the viewer. And when she’s participating in a local debate, she defiantly stands at the center of the stage, in the middle of the screen, her opponents surrounding her like planets stalled in orbit.
The rest of the cast’s performances similarly ground the series’s socio-political thought experiment in human experiences. Kinnear, as Stephen, realizes a soft stoicism, a resilience undergirded by subdued positivity. When that façade finally cracks, following a death in the family, we know that Stephen doesn’t cry solely because of the loss; he’s also grieving a financial crash along with his increasingly fraught marriage, which together contribute to the gulf separating what he thought his life would be and what it has become.
Though thoughtful and moving in its exploration of such suffering, both individual and collective, Years and Years occasionally stumbles by insufficiently using its characters to contextualize its political world-building. At Rook’s debate, which Rosie and Edith attend, Rook wins over her detractors in the crowd with a swiftness that’s jarring given the weakness of her argument, which essentially justifies authoritarianism as a bulwark against the proliferation of porn. Rook’s victory feels artificial, like she manages to sway her doubters purely because the series needs her to in order to demonstrate the shortsightedness of voters. Rosie and Edith’s presence should, in theory, render Rook’s beguiling charm more believable, but the series fails to interrogate the reasons for the pair’s attraction to her.
Two monologues that Daniel delivers encapsulate the series’s sporadic inconsistency. In one, he holds Rosie’s newborn baby while questioning, aloud and at length, if it’s right to bring a child into a deteriorating world. As Daniel bemoans the banks and the corporations and fake news and more, he ceases to blink, his voice rising and quickening. He becomes a machine unleashing a diatribe that’s too neat to be convincing, the character of Daniel giving way to a Daniel-shaped megaphone. Later, though, Daniel tells off a xenophobic visitor to the refugee camp he works at in his capacity as a housing officer. This scene, in contrast to the earlier one, doesn’t burden Daniel with the weight of the world. Rather, it gives him the freedom to discuss what he’s personally and passionately invested in: the idea that refugees deserve all—and more than—the help they receive. Here, Daniel’s dialogue and Tovey’s performance are vastly more organic, emerging from within the character as opposed to simply flowing through him.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of Years and Years is the compassion with which it considers its characters. It would be easy for a series filled with so many cataclysms, both global and personal—nuclear weapon launches, deaths, infidelities—to err on the side of sadism in its depiction of that turmoil. But it takes no pleasure in the pain of the Lyonses. Instead, Years and Years recognizes that pain is edifying as well as transient, and it accordingly gives the pain that it inflicts space to evolve: to form, to torment, and to pass, like each year that comes and goes, taking more and more away with it.
Cast: Emma Thompson, Rory Kinnear, T’Nia Miller, Russell Tovey, Jessica Hynes, Ruth Madeley, Anne Reid, Dino Fetscher, Lydia West, Jade Alleyne, Maxim Baldry, Sharon Duncan-Brewster Network: HBO
Review: Euphoria’s Depiction of Teen Hedonism Is Both Frank and Lurid
Euphoria’s central relationship is luminous, but the series struggles to develop its other characters.2.5
Sam Levinson’s Euphoria announces its self-consciously provocative nature within its first minute, when Rue Bennett (Zendaya) says that she was happy once, over an image of the girl, in fetus form, about to be born. Airplane engines begin to howl alongside baby Rue’s POV as she exits the birth canal, at which point the episode transitions to a shot of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center. She was born three days after 9/11. The juxtaposition here is loud and in-your-face, and though it’s tonally similar to the deluge of ironic trigger warnings that open Levinson’s film Assassination Nation, it has the benefit of some actual thematic coherence, for the way the open-with-a-literal-bang image acknowledges 9/11 as the unmistakable divide between Euphoria’s teens and everyone else.
Rue characterizes the world she grew up in as a chaotic, aimless place devoid of much understanding for her people her age, which leaves her generation concerned mainly with wringing out as much enjoyment from it as they can. And the series, which is adapted from an Israeli drama of the same name, depicts such teenage hedonism in frank, explicit terms: a high school world awash in pills, sex, and nude photos thrown to the winds of social media. The nature of these occasionally graphic depictions is complicated by Levinson’s consciously “attitude”-laden stylings: Are they graphic purely to shock, or to authentically portray what today’s young people go through, or both? Regardless, the series finds its character-driven groove by turning an empathetic eye toward the inner lives of its principal teens, observing their listlessness and small moments of solace as much as their outward pain.
Rue, we learn, is a drug addict fresh out of rehab who’s largely uninterested in getting clean. And while the show’s other teens feel their way through seedy meet-ups with older men, pursue self-actualization through porn, and cope with invasions of privacy, Rue provides the perspective through which we view nearly everything and everyone else. She narrates even the events that don’t involve her, lending them a general vibe of playful, sarcastic worldliness. She determines the flow of the action, freezing a sex scene outright for a digression on modern porn habits or summoning a cutaway gag, like a lecture on dick pics complete with projector slides. Zendaya plays Rue with a perpetual murmur and effortless remove, like an observer sitting on the sidelines watching the world go by, until she succumbs to a desperate, drug-seeking freak-out or one of the panic attacks those drugs are meant to distance her from.
The series tempers some of its heavier material with an often laidback atmosphere, a world of deep shadows drenched in multi-colored hues and dreamy hip-hop beats that belie the darkness in its corners. If the universe is falling apart around the characters’ ears, the result is that Euphoria’s characters see little reason to consider what encroaching adulthood will mean, to ruminate on what will come next when there might as well be no “next.” There’s only the all-encompassing “now.” “The world is coming to an end,” Rue says to justify her drug use, “and I haven’t even graduated high school yet.”
Euphoria’s best scenes are its oases of joy and humor, particularly the luminous relationship between Rue and Jules (Hunter Schafer), the new-in-town trans girl whose sunny disposition contrasts Rue’s overall remove yet masks a deeper restlessness. The chemistry between Zendaya and Schafer paints a believable portrait of a companionship only possible before adulthood, when you have as much free time as you have affection to distribute.
The two might have sustained the series by themselves, though Euphoria struggles to develop its other characters. Cassie (Sydney Sweeney), for example, is largely undefined beyond the sexual history she’s trying to move beyond, while her boyfriend, Chris (Algee Smith), seems to exist only to express discomfort about that history. Beneath his football-playing façade, Nate (Jacob Elordi) has a streak of violent calculation that dances on the edge of caricature. Only Kat (Barbie Ferreira) seems to develop beyond her basic template of virginal angst, mainly because the series resolves the issue almost immediately before sending her down a Pornhub rabbit hole on an amusing journey of self-discovery; her burgeoning sexuality comes to encompass an attractive classmate as much as a man on Skype who wants to be her “cash pig.”
The fourth episode only emphasizes the disparity between the show’s development of the teens. As the camera glides between multiple perspectives at the same carnival event, Jules has a scary revelation about an older, married man, Cal (Eric Dane), she recently hooked up with, while a panicked Rue searches for her sister, Gia (Storm Reid), who’s still reeling from Rue’s overdose prior to the events of the series. However, the more half-sketched characters, such as Cassie and Nate’s long-suffering girlfriend, Maddy (Alexa Demie), take drugs seemingly so they’ll have something to do for the duration of the episode. While it’s realistic that not all the characters would have intricate stories to engage in (Kat’s storyline is also comparably low-stakes), sidelining Cassie and Maddy feels like a concession that the series isn’t totally sure what to do with them beyond displaying their suffering.
The success of Euphoria’s teen drama ultimately depends on which teen it focuses on at any given moment. With Rue and Jules at the center, you feel the exhilaration of their friendship as much as a real concern for their growing troubles. But with its less fully developed characters, the series can feel like little more than a lurid performance of teenage pain.
Cast: Zendaya, Maude Apatow, Angus Cloud, Eric Dane, Alexa Demie, Jacob Elordi, Barbie Ferreira, Nika King, Storm Reid, Hunter Schafer, Algee Smith, Sydney Sweeney, Austin Abrams, Alanna Ubach Network: HBO
Review: Hulu’s Das Boot Forfeits the Telescoped Focus of Its Source Material
The series transforms a story that captured something of the experience of war into a familiar melodrama.1.5
One of the strengths of Wolfgang Petersen’s classic submarine drama Das Boot, based on Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s novel of the same name, is that it’s no glorification of the German war machine. Indeed, its shocking ending underlines the absolute senselessness of war and the meaninglessness of heroism. Das Boot is a war film that could only be made in a country where virtually everyone had experienced the horror of war firsthand, whether it was on the frontlines or cowering in a bomb shelter. But it’s also a story told strictly from the perspective of the gentile German sailor; women appear quite literally on the margins—at beginning and end, when the boat disembarks and returns—and non-gentiles are neither seen nor mentioned. War crimes are far from the film’s purview, and its sailors are, for the most part, not terribly interested in Nazism.
Johannes W. Betz’s new series solves this problem by flashing back and forth between the crew of a U-Boot captained by the young Captain Klaus Hoffmann (Rick Okon) and a plot of betrayal and subterfuge in the ship’s port in La Rochelle, France, centered around German Navy translator Simone Strasser (Vicky Krieps). In doing so, however, Betz’s Das Boot eschews much of what made the original film effective: the feeling that the viewer is stranded in the narrow gangways of the submarine on a mostly blind journey through treacherous waters.
Forfeiting the telescoped focus that keeps the film engrossing, the series substitutes hidden backstories and interpersonal melodrama that feels like it was pulled from the prestige-drama handbook. As the crew is assembled in the first episode, “New Paths,” we learn that the long-serving First Officer Karl Tennstedt (August Wittgenstein), a familiar Nazi type who’s been passed over for command of the ship in favor Hoffmann, is the son of a WWI hero. Tennstedt’s simmering resentment plays out, over the course of the four episodes available for review, as an escalating crisis of authority, as he grows increasingly bold in his defiance of the noble-minded Hoffmann, and sways the minds of several (rather easily convinced) enlisted men.
Meanwhile, Simone arrives in La Rochelle, where she expects to live and work alongside her younger brother, Frank (Leonard Scheicher), a radio engineer. When an accident on board Hoffmann and Tennstedt’s U-Boot damages the radio and seriously injures the ship’s engineer, Tennstedt summarily decides to assign Frank to the vessel. With no choice in the matter and suddenly facing an uncertain fate, Frank hands over to Simone a cache of materials he was supposed to deliver in a post-curfew rendezvous later that night.
In the second episode, “Secret Missions,” it’s revealed that Frank’s mission had something to do with a French girl he’s been seeing, Natalie (Clara Ponsot), and with a mysterious American resistance fighter named Carla Monroe (Lizzy Caplan)—well, only “mysterious” inasmuch as the series clumsily cultivates an air of mystique around her, all oblique camera angles and vague dialogue. On the brink of explaining her intentions to Simone, Monroe stops herself, mostly, it seems, to extend the mystery for another episode or two. “Probably better if you don’t know,” she says, though she might as well be addressing the camera.
It’s in this episode that the seams of Das Boot really begin to show—or, rather, its bulkheads start to crack. Almost every aspect of the shorebound storyline, which becomes the show’s main focus, is an exaggerated contrivance. In a scenario painfully familiar from a dozen cable dramas that have pulled it off more convincingly (see The Americans, Breaking Bad, Barry), Simone conducts her illegal dealings with Monroe’s resistance cell under the nose of Gestapo inspector Hagen Forster (Tom Wlaschiha). Forster has a professional relationship with Simone, and, he hopes, a burgeoning personal one. As he’s drawn ever closer to her, Forster becomes increasingly blind to her traitorous activities—though, naturally, episode four, “Doubts,” ends with him coming one step closer to discovering them.
This adaptation of Das Boot, which also incorporates elements from Buchheim’s 1995 novel Die Festung, transforms a story that endeavored to capture something of the experience of war into an overly familiar melodrama of obscure motivations, hidden backstories, and broadly sketched interpersonal conflict. The series may try to address Nazi terror in a way Petersen’s film leaves beyond its margins, but even its depiction of atrocity serves merely as a convenient motivator for familiar twists and turns. The sense of cheapness and naked commercialism that pervades the series makes its explicit depiction of disturbing violence—a death by firing squad, the gang rape of a Jewish woman by German sailors—feel unearned and, particularly in the latter case, completely irresponsible. The series can’t be counted on to deliver any insights on history or war, but compelling drama may be even further beyond its capabilities.
Cast: Vicky Krieps, Tom Wlaschiha, Lizzy Caplan, Vincent Kartheiser, James D’Arcy, Thierry Frémont, August Wittgenstein, Rainer Bock, Rick Okon, Leonard Scheicher, Robert Stadlober, Franz Dinda, Stefan Konarske Network: Hulu
Review: Jessica Jones’s Third and Final Season Feels Like an Afterthought
As it nears the end of its run, the series doesn’t seem to have much more to say about trauma.2
The third and final season of Jessica Jones feels more like an afterthought than a farewell, an unevenly written retread that’s uninterested in breaking out of a well-worn groove. Trauma is at the center of the Netflix show’s world, with the eponymous superpowered private eye (Krysten Ritter) having conquered the lingering pain of sexual abuse and childhood domestic strife across the first two seasons. And it being a Marvel Comics property, Jessica Jones predictably scrutinizes such personal trauma through the lens of highly literal metaphor: In the first season, an evil ex-lover’s telepathic powers represent the way that abusers get into our heads, and in the second, an abusive mother’s super strength stands for the seemingly indominable power parents have over their children.
The new season saddles its hero with more trauma, both psychological and physical, but loses the real-life resonance of the show’s previous themes, becoming an exercise in self-reflexivity. Jessica Jones now squares off against a serial killer, Gregory Salinger (Jeremy Bobb), who’s the embodiment of misogynist male geekdom—which is to say, that corner of the internet that’s predisposed to objecting to woman-driven action properties like Jessica Jones.
In the season’s first episode, “A.K.A. The Perfect Burger,” Jessica is taken by surprise when Salinger shows up at her apartment in the middle of the night, hunting her one-night stand, Erik (Benjamin Walker). The encounter leaves Jessica injured and newly traumatized, and Salinger psychotically obsessed with his incidental victim. Salinger resents Jones for being what real-world toxic nerds would call a “Mary Sue”—or, as Salinger puts it, for “cheating,” for not appropriately earning her powers, and for being a “feminist vindicator.”
This new season’s use of allegory is a bit on the nose, which isn’t the worst sin for a superhero property, but Jessica Jones clearly has aspirations to be a character-driven drama. It’s an intent undermined by its characters’ tendency to feel like little more than signposts directing us to the show’s message. In contrast to David Tenant’s chilling performance as misogynist villain Killgrave in season one, Bobb doesn’t convey the menace or malicious seductiveness that might enliven Salinger’s often blandly scripted rants against women’s empowerment.
Salinger also targets Erik’s wayward sister, Brianna (Jamie Neumann), a sex worker whom Jessica tries to protect by foisting her upon Malcolm (Eka Darville), Jessisca’s neighbor and former assistant. This all intersects conveniently (and problematically) with Malcolm’s subplot, which concerns his flirtation with moral corruption as he works as a fixer for Jeri Hogarth’s (Carrie-Anne Moss) law firm. Brianna is stereotyped as an erratic, trashy prostitute who’s sexually available to Malcolm simply because she’s hiding out in his apartment. She’s characterized as a nuisance who becomes a kind of punching bag for the other characters, who talk about her poor life decisions in front of her as if she isn’t there.
Malcolm’s is one of three major subplots that take up much of the run time of the eight episodes of the new season made available to press. In the others, both Jeri and Jessica’s ex-bestie, Trish (Rachael Taylor), deal with their own moral transgressions. Of these, Trish’s story is the strongest. Newly equipped with (vaguely defined) superpowers, she aims to join Jessica as a superhero on the streets of Hell’s Kitchen, and she’s given a satisfying and resonant origin story in episode two, the Ritter-directed “A.K.A You’re Welcome.”
Jeri’s subplot, on the other hand, adds very little to a character already understood from previous seasons as self-serving and morally compromised. This arc, hardly more than filler, also features one of the season’s most regrettable scenes: a painfully kitschy seduction that involves Jeri’s former lover, Kith Lyonne (Sarita Choudhury), badly faking a cello performance as Jeri caresses her and the low-angle camera slowly tracks around them.
As for Jones herself, the series can’t shake the feeling that its main character has simply become her outfit. The season’s opening shot, which has her leather boot stomp into the frame in close-up against the unaccustomed environs of a sunny beach, even evokes the way her personality is summed up by tattered jeans and grimy leather. In the form of Salinger’s initial attack, she’s given a new trauma to work through, but after three seasons, this form of motivation seems more like an obligatory gesture than an exploration of character. By the time she’s brutally besting Salinger in an amateur wrestling match in front of the pre-teen wrestling team he coaches in episode seven, “The Double Half-Woppinger,” it’s clear that, as it nears the end of its run, Jessica Jones doesn’t have much more to say.
Cast: Krysten Ritter, Rachael Taylor, Eka Darville, Carrie-Anne Moss, Rebecca De Mornay, Jeremy Bobb, Benjamin Walker, Sarita Choudhury, Jamie Neumann Network: Netflix
Review: Pose Season Two Looks to the Future with Its Head Held High
The series empathetically attests to the agonies that queer people to this day often have no choice but to suffer in silence.2.5
One notable arc of the second season of Pose traces the success of Madonna’s “Vogue,” from the song premiering on radio in March 1990 to the moment it hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart less than two months later. The show understands the song’s lucid appreciation of the ballroom as an aspirational space. Madonna’s dance-pop anthem was like a lifeline to those in the house-ball community, and almost all of Pose’s characters celebrate it without reservation. “Everything is about to change. I can see it clear as day!” says Blanca (Mj Rodriguez), emboldened by the song to chase after her dreams.
Which is to say that Pose doesn’t bow before the altar of wokeism, at least not in the four episodes made available to press ahead of the new season’s premiere, knowing that the conversation about the song erasing voguing’s roots in a community’s daily struggles wasn’t one that many people were having in 1990. But the show does seem interested in the idea that the global success of “Vogue” was blinding to some in the drag-ball community. Can a queer person of color living on the fringes of society actually harness Madonna’s blond ambition? And from the spectacle of drag emcee Pray Tell (Billy Porter) reading the riot act to Candy (Angelica Ross) for coming to one show as a simulacrum of Madonna, voguing while dressed as one of the singer’s “Express Yourself” personas, the answer would seem to be a resounding no.
There’s a sense that Pray is being rough on Candy because he recognizes what we’ve long known about her, and what the season’s third episode makes sure that we don’t forget: that she has no problem distinguishing fantasy from reality. Witten by Our Lady J and directed by Janet Mock, the episode splits its time between the budding romance between Angel (Indya Moore) and Lil Papi (Angel Bismark Curiel) and the aftermath of a client (Frank De Julio) dying during one of Elektra Abundance’s (Dominique Jackson) shifts at the Hellfire Club. Tonally, the episode walks a high-wire act that’s empowering—for the way it regards Angel and Lil Papi in their bliss as stars of a Hollywood melodrama that never was—and ballsy—for the way it unearths humor and pathos in equal measure from everything that leads up to Candy convincing Elektra to not report her client’s death to the authorities.
The episode is perhaps too easily understood as an imagining of what must have led to one Paris Is Burning participant, drag performer and dressmaker Dorian Corey, possibly murdering and storing an ex-lover’s dead body in a closest inside her apartment for approximately 15 years. (The man’s mummified corpse was only discovered after Corey’s AIDS-related death.) But the point of the episode, like some long-delayed eulogy, is to empathetically attest to the agonies that queer people to this day often have no choice but to suffer in silence. Too often, though, the series goes one step further by blaring that message out loud, with dialogue that suggests a kind of PSA speak. That isn’t so much an issue in scenes that see the characters fighting the menace of AIDS, as Pose knows that the gay community raised awareness of the disease in the bluntest of ways, but in various scenarios, like Angel’s pursuit of her modeling career, that are beholden to all manner of coming-of-age and aspirational clichés.
The cast list for the new season reveals that Charlayne Woodard, as Helena St. Rogers, will be returning at some point, which goes a long way toward explaining why it appears as if Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain) and Ricky (Dyllon Burnside) are just hanging around in the background of the first four episodes as if they’re waiting for something, anything, to bring them to the foreground. The stage may be lovingly ceded to Angel and Lil Papi, but after a while, it just feels as if the lovebirds are going through all the same soap-operatic motions that Damon and Ricky did in the first season: Angel is so desperate to be a star that she opens herself up to being exploited by a smarmy photographer (Alexander DiPersia), and after she and her friends hand him his ass in a proud show of unity, Angel gets her first break, which just so happens to occur at the exact moment of a date she has with Lil Papi.
Something, though, that we do know for sure by the end of the fourth episode is that Pose isn’t concerned with putting any allies on blast. If you’re in the know about the history of New York and the AIDS crisis, then you’ll instantly recognize nurse and activist Judy Kubrak (Sandra Bernhard) and dog-toting real estate agent Frederica Norman (Patti LuPone) as stand-ins for Linda Laubenstein and Leona Helmsley, respectively. And if Judy, who joins Blanca in a crusade to get Pray Tell to start taking AZT, is celebrated for being a small-scale hero, Linda very easily invites the audience’s scorn for threatening Blanca after discovering she’s trans. But it’s an invitation that feels too easy, too cartoonish, especially in the context of the show’s almost Disney-fied—or Glee-ful—depiction of New York during this time period.
There’s a disconnect between the show’s aesthetics and its subject matter that feels especially apparent when one major character shows up dead in episode four. The moment certainly lacks the immediacy of the horrific moment from The Deuce’s first season when a john throws Pernell Walker’s Ruby out of a window like a piece of trash. Director Ryan Murphy knows that you can assert such a woman’s humanity in more than one way, but the sentimentalized theater of this episode is the stuff of cognitive dissonance. Because the prior three episodes give the short shrift to the character’s investment in changing ball culture, to tailoring it to her strengths, the moment that she’s celebrated for influencing that culture feels unearned. If hers wasn’t a dream that ever felt like it was her own, that’s because it’s the stuff of narrative convenience, a setup for a fall that, in the depiction of its aftermath, ironically links Pose to Madonna’s “Vogue” by making reality seem a little less dark than it really is.
Review: Season Five of Black Mirror Regards Our Grim Future with a Smirk
The new season recalls the most human elements of past episodes while levying urgent indictments of the present.3.5
Season five of Black Mirror offers three new episodes that envision a predictably worrisome slate of side effects to humanity’s technological reach outpacing its intellectual grasp. But in offering dystopian visions that hew closer to reality than they have in past seasons, these episodes exceed the show’s promise of nightmarish hypotheticals. While the series has on occasion veered toward alienating, high-concept bleakness—as in season three’s “Playtest” and season two’s “White Bear”—season five maintains an empathetic focus on the characters struggling to navigate grim new worlds.
Series creator and writer Charlie Brooker employs a variety of familiar storytelling models to construct the season’s overarching theme, which generally concerns the unforeseen fallout of our shifting media diets. In the melancholic “Striking Vipers,” a marriage is endangered by the husband’s new obsession with a virtual reality game. Brooker moves his focus to social media in “Smithereens,” a claustrophobic hostage thriller, and to the music industry in the darkly comic caper “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too.” Each episode envisions upheavals in a different social construct, from traditional masculinity to celebrity culture, but Brooker’s consistent focus on media as the trigger for transformation lends the stories a foreboding thread.
The show’s directors match Brooker’s ingenuity, tailoring an immersive style for each episode. In “Striking Vipers,” Owen Harris fixates on the alienation felt by Danny (Anthony Mackie), a man experiencing a crisis of conscience, by framing the character in wide shots set against drab backdrops and cityscapes; it’s a pointed contrast to the colorful environments and dynamic camera movements Harris employs when Danny is gaming. In “Smithereens,” which follows a distraught rideshare driver (Andrew Scott) who takes a customer hostage (Damson Idris), director James Hawes presents the driver either in tight close-up or from the far-away perspective of police and gawking onlookers, highlighting the gulf between how the world perceives the man—as a terrible curiosity—and his own intense sense of victimization.
The relationship between perspective and perception is similarly central in “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too,” the episode with the most complicated premise of the season. Miley Cyrus stars as Ashley, a singer who wants to transition from glittery pop to more challenging material, much to the horror of her exploitative handlers. As the episode evolves into a scathing indictment of the celebrity industry (and offers a startling vision of artificial intelligence), “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” fosters our genuine concern for Ashley’s mental state—in part as a result of the savvy casting of Cyrus, a transformative pop star herself, but also, and more crucially, because the episode reveals much of what happens to Ashley from the relatable perspective of Rachel (Angourie Rice), a lonely and adoring teenage fan.
While none of these episodes are as nihilistic as the show’s grimmest installments to date, they remain imbued with snarky, topical satire and dogged cynicism. “Smithereens” portrays a social media network that, with its scrolling newsfeed and reliance on hashtags, is unsubtly modeled after Twitter. Even less subtle is the character of the platform’s man-bunned creator, Billy Bauer (Topher Grace), who’s clearly a sketch of Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey. Brooker doesn’t veil his view of the real-life tech mogul: When Bauer’s service ignites (and acts as a livestream of) an international hostage situation, he’s pictured peacefully meditating in Utah, both figuratively and literally above the fray he helped create. When eventually called for help, the communications magnate is powerless, no longer able to grasp the magnitude of his creation, and reduced to speaking in platitudes.
By targeting forces (and people) who already exist in reality, Brooker couples the show’s broad anxieties with a tinge of righteous anger. Coupled with the season’s character-driven focus, the specificity of the show’s grievances represents a welcome evolution. With stories that recall the most human elements of Black Mirror’s past episodes, while levying urgent indictments of the present, the series that’s always worked to imagine a dark future seems to be wondering if we haven’t already crossed into the dystopian abyss.
Cast: Andrew Scott, Anthony Mackie, Miley Cyrus, Topher Grace, Damson Idris, Angourie Rice, Madison Davenport, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II Network: Netflix
Review: Season Five of Luther Is Undermined by a Sense of Inevitability
As the series has continued, it’s grown more outlandish, oppressive, and removed from the things that made it so captivating.1
Time has not been kind to John Luther (Idris Elba), the wool-coated supercop haunted by the horrors of all the things he’s seen on the job. To be fair, what detective wouldn’t be traumatized living and working in the version of London offered up by BBC’s Luther? It’s a concrete sprawl where every crack in every grimy back alley seems to conceal some ultraviolent psychosexual serial killer. This is a gloomy, frequently ridiculous series that survives on the back of Elba’s staggering intensity as a volatile, obsessive detective more than willing to skirt the law as long as it catches him a killer. But as the series has continued, it’s only grown more outlandish, more oppressive, and more removed from the things that made its inaugural season so captivating. And the show’s belated fifth season, coming over three years after the two-part fourth season, hardly closes the distance.
It’s not for lack of trying, of course. For the first time since the beginning of the series, Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson) returns to the center of the story to throw a wrench into Luther’s professional and private life. Wilson is, expectedly, adept at selling her character’s amusing sociopathy with every thin, dark smirk. Unfortunately, though, Alice’s storyline entirely concerns her attempted revenge against East End gangster George Cornelius (Patrick Malahide), whose repetitive, nonsensical attempts to murder Luther were the most tiresome element of the prior season. With Luther now caught in the crossfire, the resulting feud is so central to the season that it all but pushes the season’s murder investigation to the side in favor of various square-offs with Cornelius’s gun-toting goons.
Luther has always worked best as a trashy mystery series because its main character’s explosive, extralegal tendencies contrast most sharply with the show’s depiction of a structured, by-the-book police world. The supporting characters, when they aren’t being killed off with alarming frequency, marvel at Luther’s alternately clever and outrageous attempts to flout the rules. However, writer and creator Neil Cross’s growing reliance on action elements has come to mean abandoning the contrast between Luther’s methods and expected police procedure in favor of throwing him into a murky criminal underworld. There’s simply less dramatic intrigue and less of an audacious thrill when he’s breaking out of his restraints to fight a room full of gangsters than when he’s punching a murder suspect in the street to get a sample from the man’s bloody nose in an absurd evidence-planting gambit.
Alice previously served a similar juxtaposing function. Despite her chemistry with Luther and their mutual attraction, her teasing, nihilistic amorality and even-more-extreme methods conflicted with his determination to protect life; their developing relationship threatened his job, his loved ones, and his own beliefs. But at this point, the two simply know each other too well for her wild-card antics to surprise Luther, and by extension the audience. Her ability to throw him off balance is muted since he mostly just seems tired of putting up with her rather than shocked at her insistent, ultimately predictable attempts to lash out at Cornelius.
That same sense of exhaustion and inevitability hangs over the entire season, undermining its usual attempts to shock us with plot twists that bring death and violence. The serial killer this time around, a surgeon (Enzo Cilenti) with a fetish for turning people into pincushions, may have strong visual iconography through the eerie combination of a clown mask and a glowing hood meant to fool CCTV, but his grisly compulsion is more of the same for a series that loves to plumb the depths of how gory a series can get. Once Cornelius becomes the umpteenth person to seriously threaten the lives of the supporting characters, you aren’t surprised so much as left to ruminate on the diminishing returns, remembering just how many names have already been scratched out of the show’s opening credits. The show’s concept has long revolved around how everything Luther has been through has left him haunted, but now, in the fifth season, it does little more for viewers than leave them numb.
Cast: Idris Elba, Ruth Wilson, Dermot Crowley, Michael Smiley, Wunmi Mosaku, Enzo Cilenti, Hermione Norris, Patrick Malahide Network: BBC America
Review: Season Two of Big Little Lies Fails to Justify Its Existence
The series works best when it focuses on intimate, human moments rather than on broad social critiques.2
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and adapted by David E. Kelley from Liane Moriarty’s novel, the first season of Big Little Lies told a complete story, resolving the murder mystery that drove its primary storyline and successfully exploring the bleak underbelly of the affluent coastal city of Monterey, California. As such, the foremost question facing the show’s second season—directed by Andrea Arnold and based on a story by Moriarty and Kelley—is an existential one: Is this follow-up really necessary? Though the three episodes made available to press are enjoyable enough, thanks largely to the cast’s continued strong performances, they’re weighed down by heavy-handed writing and an inchoate grasp of what powered the first season—namely, its subtlety, surprise, and emotional murkiness.
Season two begins about a year after the so-called Monterey Five conspired to cover up the circumstances of Perry Wright’s (Alexander Skarsgård) death. Some of the group’s members have fared better than others in the time since: Madeline Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon) is thriving as a real estate agent, Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) has settled into a job at the aquarium, and corporate hotshot Renata Klein (Laura Dern) is being featured on magazine covers. But Bonnie Carlson (Zoë Kravitz), who pushed the abusive Perry down a flight of stairs to protect his wife, Celeste (Nicole Kidman), struggles with the guilt of her actions, while Celeste doesn’t quite know how to grieve for the man she still loves.
Perry’s mother, Mary Louise (Meryl Streep), has come to stay with Celeste and help her care for her twin sons (Cameron and Nicholas Crovetti). She also suspects that Perry’s death wasn’t a total accident and works to find out the truth. Mary Louise is a master of aggression, both passive and active, and Streep delivers the character’s critiques of Madeline with a quiet monotone that’s at once grandmotherly and acidic. Even among a cast as strong as the one assembled here, the veteran actress commands every scene she’s in. But as Mary Louise resists Celeste’s narrative of abuse—she wonders, for instance, why her Celeste didn’t tell the police that Perry beat her—her dialogue grows so tired, so backward, as to feel purely mechanical. Mary Louise as an acerbic grandma is compelling, but Mary Louise as a Me Too bogeywoman is a bore, little more than a repository of eye-roll-inducing, reactionary pushback against abuse victims. Her symbolic significance comes at the cost of her personhood.
Which is to say that Big Little Lies works best when it focuses on intimate, human moments rather than on the social critiques that it clumsily handles. For one, watching Madeline and her husband, Ed (Adam Scott), face a personal reckoning is engaging because we care about these characters and understand the stakes of their conflict—and the series doesn’t compromise their interiority by forcing them to represent a broader social issue. The poignancy of their disillusionment suggests that the season might, in fact, justify its own existence. But the series consistently undercuts that potential. Bonnie’s mother, Elizabeth (Crystal Fox), accurately remarks that there aren’t many black people in Monterey, but then it errs uneasily close to stereotype by giving her—one of only a small handful of black characters—possibly prophetic visions and an affinity for healing crystals and other talismans.
The show’s themes of abuse and sexual violence are urgent and timely, which makes its shoddy treatment of them all the more disappointing. Big Little Lies also takes on matters of desire, wealth, and sexism, but does so with brute force and repetition. When Madeline rails against the unfairly different expectations people have for fathers and mothers, she offers no original perspective on that common double standard; in the end, it’s as if the scene is relying solely on Madeline’s zeal to hide its trite writing. Later, a young field-tripper at the aquarium asks Jane why pretty things tend to be dangerous. It’s a lazy exchange that’s similarly emblematic of the show’s insistence on shouting its themes.
Save the occasional cinematographic flourish, the non-spoken tools of film and television have come to kneel before the power of the word in the second season of Big Little Lies. Even the show’s soundtrack serves as a way to squeeze more words in: While the songs featured throughout these episodes are definitely capable of generating mood—as was the case last season—their lyrics regularly and agonizingly describe the drama that we’re witnessing. The spectral cover of REO Speedwagon’s “Keep on Loving You” that plays during a conversation about a crumbling marriage is haunting, but its beauty is shorn by how on the nose it is. The song, in this context, is exceptionally pretty but ultimately meaningless, a bunch of notes vanishing into the nearly hollow shell where Big Little Lies used to be.
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Zoë Kravitz, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, Alexander Skarsgård, Adam Scott, James Tupper, Jeffrey Nordling, Kathryn Newton, Sarah Sokolovic, Crystal Fox, Iain Armitage, Darby Camp, Cameron Crovetti, Nicholas Crovetti, Ivy George, Chloe Coleman, Robin Weigert, Douglas Smith Network: HBO
Review: The Handmaid’s Tale Remains Captivating and Tedious in Its Third Season
The series successfully creates an atmosphere of dread and uncertainty, but its withholding of catharsis can be wearying.3
In his review of Volker Schlöndorff’s 1990 film adaption of The Handmaid’s Tale, Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman called Margaret Atwood’s fantasy of a reproductive dystopia “paranoid poppycock,” and the author’s fear of a totalitarian regime birthed from religious fundamentalism “wildly overestimate[d].” It’s easy to forgive Gleiberman for his skepticism and naïveté, even at a time when the conservative forces that currently drive our country’s discourse had already firmly gripped the body politic. Few could have imagined that the social progress we’ve made since then would not only unearth the rot festering beneath the surface of civil society, but that the backlash from a small yet virulent minority of white nationalists and their silent enablers would be so corrosive.
No, America isn’t Gilead. But it might be something altogether more insidious. That Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale came when it did, premiering in the months following Donald Trump’s inauguration and the birth of the Women’s March movement, was a perverse sort of kismet. And in its third season, the series remains unsettlingly relevant—a harbinger for the consequences of complacency and the slow, oppressive creep of authoritarianism.
By the start of its second season, The Handmaid’s Tale had already begun to expand beyond what was conceived in Atwood’s novel. Early on in the new season, it becomes apparent that, while June (Elisabeth Moss) continues to be our eyes inside the Republic of Gilead, this is no longer her story. When her lover, Nick (Max Minghella), learns that she remained in the country after he helped arrange for her escape at the end of last season, he warns her, “You’re going to die here.” She knows it, and in some ways, it feels like her story has died too.
Though June’s quest to save her daughter, Hannah, is still one of the show’s implicit and explicit objectives, it’s no longer the principal driving force. Instead, it’s the stories of two other women, who have the potential to destroy Gilead from within and without, respectively. Emily (Alexis Bledel) is adjusting to life in Canada after fleeing Gilead with June’s baby daughter, Nicholle, and small moments—like her nonplussed reaction to being told that her cholesterol is “a little high”—are revelatory. Whether or not her character will emerge as a political force in opposition to Gilead, she’s a hero to those still held prisoner there, and her very existence as an openly gay, highly educated woman, is itself an act of resistance.
First and foremost, though, this season is Serena’s (Yvonne Strahovski) story, as June gently but persistently nudges her to take more control of both her fate and that of the women and female children of Gilead. In the exquisite fourth episode, “God Bless the Child,” the two conspire together at a neighbor’s house; Serena offers June a cigarette and the pair lean back in their lounge chairs alongside the indoor pool. A shift has occurred: The women have control now—if fleetingly—but rather than cut to a wide shot, director Amma Asante opts for a close-up of June as she takes a drag, the smoke wafting in front of her fuming face.
Perhaps that’s because Asante knows what we don’t: that Serena will, once again, flip on June. What can make The Handmaid’s Tale so tedious isn’t necessarily its pace—after all, progress is rarely linear and part of the show’s genius is the sadistic way it forces us to endure June’s perpetual captivity—but its characters’ inertia. That’s why watching Serena’s evolution has been so satisfying, and her backsliding so maddening. Strahovski’s carefully calibrated performance has made Serena’s transformation from oppressor to freedom fighter feel inevitable, but the show’s writers seem determined to keep her as a foil for June.
In the climax of the otherwise enervating sixth episode, “Household,” June and Serena—two women utterly subjugated by a fundamentalist patriarchy that Serena helped design—quietly and devastatingly tear each other down inside the Lincoln Memorial, desecrated during the Second American Civil War. It’s a powerful juxtaposition that feels understated compared to the heavy-handed (or, rather, winged) imagery from earlier in the episode that recalls the instantly famous shot of Daenerys and Drogon in the Game of Thrones finale.
Bradley Whitford’s Commander Joseph Lawrence, the founder of the colonies where sterile women are forced to excavate toxic land, is almost as frustratingly capricious as Serena. He may have tried to help June escape last season, but now he’s content to toy with her like a cat would a helpless mouse. During a riveting argument with June in the third episode, “Useful,” Joseph articulates perhaps the most compelling case yet for the motivations of those who created Gilead. Despite his obvious contempt for people, he sees his cause as noble: He’s “saving the planet,” and “replenishing the human race,” he tells her, before seething, “What did you do to ever help anyone?” It’s a question she can’t answer.
Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), too, continues to show glimmers of humanity, and as always, they’re prone to evaporating in often-explosive instants. It’s only in “Household,” when she sees the methods with which handmaids in D.C. are silenced, that the empathy she clearly has for June and the other handmaids lingers for a spell. The moment hints at some deeper truth about Lydia and one imagines a peek into her former existence would go a long way toward making her feel less like a one-dimensional villain. Even merely having one of the girls under her charge ask her about her past would provide an opportunity to humanize a character whose backstory and motivations seem to be richly drawn—if only in Dowd’s own head.
June is given ephemeral moments of empowerment, like at the end of “Useful,” when she ruthlessly turns Joseph’s attempt to implicate her in his crimes into a power play for the resistance. But one gets the sense that stasis is the show’s endgame. Hulu has suggested The Handmaid’s Tale could continue for 10 seasons, and Gilead’s increasing brutality and fanaticism adds new layers to our macro understanding of this oppressive society’s evolution. But while the writers have successfully created an atmosphere of dread and uncertainty that echoes that of the show’s characters, the withholding of catharsis can be wearying. Like society itself, the series resists progress at its own peril.
Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Yvonne Strahovski, Ann Dowd, Joseph Fiennes, Alexis Bledel, Bradley Whitford, Max Minghella, Madeline Brewer, O. T. Fagbenie, Samira Wiley, Amanda Brugel, Ever Carradine, Clea DuVall Network: Hulu
Review: AMC’s NOS4A2 Adaptation Is Television As Psychic Vampire
The series visibly struggles to spin an enveloping atmosphere around its ideas.1
The title of AMC’s NOS4A2 is seen on the vanity plate of a 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith in the series’s first episode, immediately clarifying the specific nature of this vehicle, which saps the life from passengers in order to refresh its driver, Charlie Manx (Zachary Quinto). It also establishes the show’s somewhat cockeyed sense of horror, which filters decidedly non-spooky concepts through more sinister overtones. Christmas carols play as warnings of approaching doom, snowmen’s heads turn of their own accord, and the chief bad guy, of course, drives around with a license plate that sounds like a cheesy joke one might find inside a Halloween greeting card. If this interplay between creepy and eccentric worked in Joe Hill’s source novel, it’s hardly survived the transition to this drab, bloated adaptation.
When the camera first settles on Quinto, he’s buried under gobs of old-man makeup. His long gray wig is matted and greasy, his voice a laborious wheeze. Manx becomes young and handsome again by kidnapping children, luring them into the Wraith with promises of candy, presents, and a trip to the magical Christmasland. In the six episodes made available for review, what becomes of these children once he deposits them at Christmasland isn’t yet clear, though their newly gaunt faces and sharp teeth suggest they aren’t going to be partaking in any holiday cheer. Into this cycle of kidnappings rides Vic McQueen (Ashleigh Cummings), whose dirt bike lets her access a rickety magic bridge that leads her to lost things: a watch, a wayward father, perhaps even a missing child. The idea of that last one, naturally, sets her on an inevitable crash course with Manx and his vampiric Rolls-Royce.
The show’s idea of drama—aside from too many scenes where characters decide they’re outmatched by Manx and briefly give up—is mostly Vic’s preoccupation with the rest of her life. Dad (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) is a violent drunk, Mom (Virginia Kull) wants her to scrub toilets instead of attend art school, and the only friends she has in Small Town, Massachusetts are a little girl, one of those guy friends with “notice me” written all over his face, and a middle-aged school janitor (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) who’s into comic books. If these seem like background details, NOS4A2, whose first season is meant to cover only the first third of Hill’s 700-page tome, doesn’t treat them as such. But to what end?
Indeed, for as much space as the series allows its characters to develop idiosyncrasies and inner lives, no one is released from the confines of their archetypal functions. That Vic’s father truly cares about her and her future even though he hits his wife when he’s had too much to drink is what passes for complexity here. The show’s depictions of working-class struggle, small-town alienation, and abuse are so lacking in specificity that they feel more like shorthand for what it means to really be down and out. In NOS4A2, people say things like, “There’s good and bad in everyone,” as if nuance can be created by simply speaking it aloud.
Worse, these moments aren’t even worth gritting your teeth through to get to the supernatural intrigue that ostensibly anchors NOS4A2, which peels back mythology and mysteries over time in the build-up to some climactic Vic/Manx showdown. The problem here isn’t so much that the series is short on ideas: Manx’s Christmas iconography is a memorable calling card, and the show’s wider universe includes other supernatural flourishes, like a girl (Jahkara J Smith) who predicts the future with the tiles and rules of Scrabble (no proper nouns). It’s that NOS4A2 so visibly struggles to spin an enveloping atmosphere around these ideas.
Given how many Christmas-themed horror films, from Gremlins to Krampus, opt for some degree of comedy and camp, the show’s choice to play things straight is almost refreshing. But NOS4A2 is utterly devoid of dread or menace, and its artistry fails to compensate for its otherwise complete lack of dramatic momentum. Occasionally, the series flashes mildly perturbing images across the screen for a few seconds—bloodied bodies, faces contorted in pain—before returning to its usual gray daylight and the tight handheld shots that frame faces against it. The backgrounds fall out of focus with extreme frequency, in what seems to be some shaky depiction of disorientation and disconnection. But the result is less a world thick with foreboding, impenetrable smog than one seen through an irritating, bleary-eyed haze.
Cast: Ashleigh Cummings, Zachary Quinto, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Jahkara J Smith, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Virginia Kull, Darby Camp, Rarmian Newton, Asher Miles Fallica, Dalton Harrod Network: AMC
All 21 Pixar Movies, Ranked from Worst to Best
Review: Madonna’s Madame X Is a Fearless, Eccentric Musical Memoir
Review: Outer Wilds Is a Wondrous Maze of Infinite, Breathtaking Possibilities
Review: The Raconteurs’s Help Us Stranger Is a Robust Return to Form
Review: Euphoria’s Depiction of Teen Hedonism Is Both Frank and Lurid
Review: A Bigger Splash Finds Intimacy in the Space Between Life and Art
Review: The Quiet One Conspicuously Doesn’t Say Enough About Bill Wyman
Taylor Swift Drops Star-Studded, Pride-Themed “You Need to Calm Down” Video
Review: Wild Rose Both Honors and Upends the Beats of the Star-Is-Born Story
Review: Yeasayer’s Erotic Reruns Is a Collection of Benign Love Songs
- Features4 days ago
All 21 Pixar Movies, Ranked from Worst to Best
- Music5 days ago
Review: Madonna’s Madame X Is a Fearless, Eccentric Musical Memoir
- Games5 days ago
Review: Outer Wilds Is a Wondrous Maze of Infinite, Breathtaking Possibilities
- Music5 days ago
Review: The Raconteurs’s Help Us Stranger Is a Robust Return to Form