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David vs. David vs. David; or Which Is the Greatest TV Drama Ever, Simon’s The Wire, Milch’s Deadwood, or Chase’s The Sopranos?

For me, The Sopranos is a tough choice, because the three shows deal with America in different ways.

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David vs. David vs. David; or Which Is the Greatest TV Drama Ever, Simon’s The Wire, Milch’s Deadwood, or Chase’s The Sopranos?

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).



Throwing Down

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—

MZS: Exactly.

AS: Yeah.

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—

AS: Yeah.

MZS:—not necessarily the one that’s gonna make them personally happy, but you know, the dramatically correct outcome.

AS: Yeah.

MZS: And I will say that all three of the shows were actually pretty good about that—

AS: —yeah—

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.

AS: Yeah.

AJ: Yeah.

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.

MZS: Wow.

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.”

MZS: Exactly.

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.

AS: Yeah.

AJ: Yeah.

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!

AS: Yeah.

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.

MZS: Okay.

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—

AS: Beadie.

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.

AS: Yeah.

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.

AS: Yeah.

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—

AS: Yes.

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—

AS: Yeah.

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 —

AS: Yeah.

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?”

AS: Yeah.

MZS: Even at the moment of his death, [Tony]’s not gonna give Pussy anything.

Laying Pipe

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.”

MZS: Exactly.

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.

External Factors

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—

AS: Yeah.

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.

MZS: Interesting.

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.

Curveballs

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?

AS: Yeah.

MZS: Yeah.

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?”

AS: Yeah.

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.

AS: Dammit!

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.

AS: Yeah.

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

AS: —yeah—

MZS: —at the same time!

AS: Yes.

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.

AS: Yeah.

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—

AS: Yeah—

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.

AS: Yeah.

MZS: Thanks, everybody.

AJ: Thank you, and hopefully all of this will be understandable.

AS: Yes.

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Game of Thrones Recap: Season 8, Episode 1, “Winterfell”

The episode has the good sense to respect our familiarity with these characters, and as such it doesn’t beat around the bush.

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Game of Thrones
Photo: Helen Sloane/HBO

Given the sheer number of still-living characters that remain caught in the tangled web of plot lines that Game of Thrones has delighted in spinning across its first seven seasons, the show’s final six episodes have a lot of wrapping up to do. And the eighth season’s premiere episode, “Winterfell,” suggests that will occur at a reliably steady clip.

Take Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), who doesn’t waste words when he sees his ex-wife, Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner): “Last time we spoke was at Joffrey’s wedding. Miserable affair.” Her response is even more to the point: “It had its moments,” conveying her satisfaction at the poisoning of Tyrion’s nephew, Joffrey. The episode has the good sense to respect our familiarity with these characters, and as such it doesn’t beat around the bush.

This approach, though, isn’t always successful, as in the clipped depiction of Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) effortlessly infiltrating his uncle Euron’s ship in order to free Yara (Gemma Whelan) from captivity. The scene is conspicuous as much for its compressed nature as it is for closing a plot thread and allowing Theon to finally return to the North, where almost every other character on has converged, and where most of the episode’s action takes place.

Speaking of which, Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) badly needs an excuse to head North; her scenes, so isolated from the rest of the show’s stakes, feel as if they’ve been beamed in from an entirely different show. Headey is given little to do at the start beyond smirking and telegraphing her character’s evil, but in Cersei’s interactions with Euron (Pilou Asbæk) we’re reminded of the complexity of this woman’s nature. It’s in the way she scoffs at, then indulges Euron’s sexual demands, and never without ever relinquishing her power.

Fan service also occasionally gets the better of “Winterfell.” Little is accomplished by having Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) exchange grim pleasantries with The Hound (Rory McCann), her one-time captor. The scene serves only to emphasize the obvious: “You’re a cold little bitch, aren’t you? Guess that’s why you’re still alive.” Far richer is just about every other reunion, especially Arya’s with Jon Snow (Kit Harington). The Hound’s words exist to underline who Arya has become, while Jon, who hasn’t seen Arya since the first season, offers her the rare opportunity to be the mischievous little girl she once was. Arya’s brutally honest with everyone she meets, but when Jon asks if she’s had to use the sword Needle he gifted her, she lies, so as to stay that little girl just a little while longer in his eyes: “Once or twice.”

Both the opening and closing scenes of the episode depict two very different returns to Winterfell, and they intentionally echo those of the very first episode of Game of Thrones. This time, however, it’s not a king arriving in the North at the start of the episode, but rather a new and suspicious queen, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke). Her darkly attired retinue doesn’t approach Winterfell neither in festive nor raucous fashion, marching instead in fixed and rigid columns. It’s important for a sense of scale (and spectacle) that we see just how many troops are present, but in mirroring this earlier episode, director David Nutter achieves more than just a dutiful tally: He evokes the funereal mood of how things have changed now that winter has finally arrived in Westeros. And right at the end of the episode, we see Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) staring down Jaimie Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) as the latter attempts to sneak back into Winterfell. It’s a kind of flip on the moment from the show’s pilot where Jaimie pushed Bran out a window for catching him and Cersei having sex.

Game of Thrones excels when it puts weight behind its words and artifacts, because without such history—George R. R. Martin’s imprimatur—the show would be a tawdrier fantasy: pomp, sans circumstances. Yes, there’s a bit of gratuitous nudity in the scene where the mercenary Bronn (Jerome Flynn) at last receives a three-prostitute reward for his loyalty to Cersei. But the scene is swiftly, mercifully interrupted, so as to focus on the significance of the crossbow that Qyburn (Anton Lesser) gives to Bronn. Though it’s only implied by Qyburn’s mention of “poetic justice,” eagle-eyed fans will certainly recognize that this is the weapon Tyrion used to slay his father. Now it’s the one that Bronn is being hired to use in the event that either of Cersei’s “traitorous” brothers somehow survive the war in the North.

Consider, too, the weight carried by the crypt in which Jon at last learns the truth of his parentage, as well as the blood-brother connection he shares with Samwell Tarly (John Bradley), his best friend and the bearer of this news. Jon isn’t just a man learning that he’s been lied to his entire life—that he’s actually Aegon Targaryen, the rightful heir to the throne—or that the woman he’s fallen in love with is actually his aunt. In that tomb, he’s once again a boy—a bastard—trying to live up to the legacy of the dead statues that surround him. This isn’t some M. Night Shyamalan-like twist-for-twist’s-sake, but a genuine revelation that’s been years in the making. That viewers have known this since last season, or predicted it for even longer, takes nothing away from the moment at which Jon at last knows something.

If it seems at all odd that the series lingers on Jon and Daenerys’s courtship—they kiss in exhilaration after taking her dragons for a ride—it’s to better set up not only the confirmation of Jon’s dragon-riding heritage, but the likelihood of this love being doomed by the whole incest thing. (That may be a Targaryen thing, but Jon’s got a pretty sturdy moral compass.) Likewise, it’s no mistake that moments before Sam tells Jon what he and Bran have discovered, Sam is turned against Daenerys as he learns—from her own mouth—that she murdered his father and loyal-to-a-fault brother. Earlier conversations with Sansa and the young spitfire Lyanna Mormont (Bella Ramsey), who at first just seemed resentful or distrustful of Jon’s abdication of his title of “King of the North,” now take on an entirely new light.

What’s most remarkable about all this squabbling over lineage is just how much it actually matters, given that an army of the dead is only days away, seemingly determined to kill everyone in its path. And as if we need another reminder of this existential threat, Beric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer) and Tormund (Kristofer Hivju), trapped behind enemy lines, encounter a gruesome sigil hewn of human flesh in the recently ruined Castle Umber, a taunting (and still partially alive) message from the Night’s King. It remains to be seen just how far Game of Thrones will bend the knee to full-on body horror and fantasy in its remaining five episodes. But something that’s as true now after this premiere episode as it was throughout any that have come before it is that the show is at its most frightening when it grapples with the political realities that connect its characters’ lives.

For more Game of Thrones recaps, click here.

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Review: Native Son’s Anguished Howl Lacks the Rage of Richard Wright’s Novel

Once an accidental act of violence sends the main character’s life into a spiral, the film unfortunately spirals with him.

2.5

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Native Son
Photo: Matthew Libatique/HBO

This modernized adaptation of Richard Wright’s iconic 1940 novel Native Son is full of people who believe they understand the story’s African-American protagonist, Bigger Thomas (Ashton Sanders). They assume that he marches for some unnamed cause because he’s outraged, and that he’s outraged because he’s black. They believe he’s desperate for a “respectable” job opportunity, and that he’s into hip-hop.

As adapted by Pulitzer-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and directed by conceptual artist Rashid Johnson, Native Son makes a number of changes to its source material, many of which dilute the story’s power. The most successful tweak is how Bigger, who goes by “Big” and pointedly not “Biggie,” is conceived as a listless punk-rock type. At a record store, he asks for a Bad Brains album. He cuts a wiry, towering figure topped with dyed green hair. He wears a jacket stuck through with pins and sprayed with words that might be lyrics or slogans that, though they mean something to him, don’t mean the world understands him any better.

He’s less angry than he is lost, pulled in every direction. A friend wants him to help rob a convenience store, but Big opts for another job: as the driver for the wealthy Dalton family, whose daughter, Mary (Margaret Qualley), is an activist—the kind of white liberal who would certainly have voted for Obama a third time if she could have. The awkward exchanges between Big and Mary quickly become the discomforting heart of the film, a suffocating performative wokeness on her part worsened by fumbling attempts at solidarity. “You’re outraged, aren’t you? He’s outraged,” she says at one point. She doesn’t mean any harm, of course. She’d probably consider him a friend. Her boyfriend (Nick Robinson) certainly does.

Nobody in the film truly “sees” Big for anything other than a concept, the dehumanized stereotype of a young black man, and Native Son builds that point from a subtle hum to an anguished howl through Big’s striking appearance. Sanders plays Big with the easygoing confidence of someone who knows that confidence is a performance to some degree, a mask for inner turmoil. You see the confidence drain from Big’s body when he’s dragged into uncomfortable situations; his body language goes rigid, like someone who’s gritting his or her teeth and praying for the end. As if in response to James Baldwin’s noted critique of the character as a stereotype, this version of Bigger Thomas is tormented as much by casual racism as by how it drowns out his constant assertions of individuality.

Eventually, an accidental act of violence sends Big’s life into a spiral, and Johnson’s Native Son unfortunately spirals with him. The film’s initial confidence at examining the weight of stereotypes falls away, as if such self-assurance were a mask of its own. Ominous whirs and drones on the soundtrack stand in for the fact that we never truly get inside Big’s head. So much of his character is only defined by situations he’s thrown into, and Matthew Libatique’s camera shoots all of them at a sort of neutral, objective remove. That pivotal act of violence cries out for some subjectivity to seem plausible, but despite being true to the source material, it feels outrageous and contrived because it’s filmed with the same clinical distance.

When Big subsequently acts out, his actions feel incongruous because this version of Native Son hasn’t shown us the thought process that fuels them. The Bigger Thomas of Johnson’s film lacks the rage of his literary counterpart, but because the novel climaxes in explosive violence and terror, the film seems obligated to replicate it (albeit to a much less extreme degree), despite so many other changes. As a result, what understanding we have of the character seems to slip through our fingers, as if the filmmakers and viewers alike are the next in a long line of people who don’t truly understand Bigger Thomas.

Cast: Ashton Sanders, Margaret Qualley, KiKi Layne, Bill Camp, Nick Robinson, Lamar Johnson, Sanaa Lathan, David Alan Grier Airtime: HBO

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Review: Fosse/Verdon Struggles to Capture the Sensual Fanaticism of Its Subjects’ Art

The miniseries at least gives ample space for Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams to richly inhabit their characters.

2.5

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Fosse/Verdon
Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/FX

The FX miniseries Fosse/Verdon comes with more than a bit of baggage. First, it has to compete with the electrifying work of its legendary protagonists: choreographer, theater director, and filmmaker Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell) and dancer and choreographer Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams), who collaborated on stage in Damn Yankees, Sweet Charity, and Chicago, among others, while living out a volatile love affair and marriage that would inspire each artist’s career. But Fosse/Verdon is particularly haunted by the legacy of Fosse’s monumental and similarly plotted 1979 film All That Jazz, in which he fictionally recreated his efforts to stage his iconic Chicago production while editing his third film, Lenny.

All That Jazz mixes mythmaking with an intoxicatingly, and disturbingly, sensual study of addiction, as Fosse fashioned an editing syntax that remains influential, especially to films about drug use. All That Jazz’s quick, repetitive, exhilarating montages suggest the rigid schedule of uppers that are ingested by Fosse’s stand-in, played by Roy Scheider, so that he may work for days at a time while seeking late-night solace in women and alcohol. This editing comes to suggest a cinematic equivalent to the jagged movements that Fosse favors as a choreographer to express the exertion of power for the sake of satiating erotic hunger. Fosse’s characters, like the man himself, always wanted more. Like Fosse’s Cabaret, All That Jazz informs the musical genre with a modern, free-associative cynicism and luridness.

Fosse/Verdon emulates All That Jazz’s freneticism, as the series is constantly hopping around in time so that we may experience only the highs and lows of these lives. It opens in the late 1960s, when Gwen is helping Bob fine-tune the film version of Sweet Charity, which would become a financial and critical disaster. A lovely scene makes a point that theater and film buffs will already know: that Gwen wasn’t allowed to reprise her role for the film, which went to Shirley MacLaine, who bears a striking resemblance to the dancer. Bob reads the New York Times review, which asks “Where’s Gwen?” and Gwen is put in the weird position of having to comfort her husband for his complicity in not hiring her. Meanwhile, Gwen is trying to get Chicago off the ground while also reinventing herself as a dramatic actress for straight plays.

All That Jazz played Chicago and Lenny off of one another, suggesting how Fosse derived his creative energy from working in multiple mediums at once while deliberately spreading himself thin, courting physical and mental collapse as an implicit declaration of his integrity, as well as a way of servicing his addiction to the various substances necessary to sustain such a lifestyle. Similarly, Fosse/Verdon is driven by various comparisons of productions that are being simultaneously considered or created. One such pairing is Children! Children!, a doomed play Gwen takes out of desperation to prove her acting chops, and the film version of Cabaret, which appears to be the nail in the coffin of Bob’s languishing film career. Cabaret’s producer, Cy Feuer (Paul Reiser), thinks that Bob is all style and no substance, fighting the filmmaker’s taste for darkness and decay. Later, Bob looks at a four-hour rough cut that he describes as “unwatchable,” leaving him to save the film in the editing room—a process in which he discovers how to use cutting to adjust his aesthetic for cinema. Learning to cut both with and against the movements of the dancers, depending on the mood he wishes to evoke, Bob outgrows the stagey sluggishness of the Sweet Charity film.

Fosse/Verdon could’ve spent more time in the Cabaret editing room, as Bob nearly loses his mind on booze, pills, and women while trying to save the film that would eventually win him a best director Oscar. It’s also a pity that a series about dancers doesn’t have more dancing. (There’s a sexy sequence in which Bob and Gwen meet over a discussion of Damn Yankees, their rehearsal of “Whatever Lola Wants” coming to represent their own attraction.) And a touching point is conventionally over-emphasized: Gwen is “always there” for Bob, apparently inventing the sexy black outfit that Liza Minelli wears in Cabaret on the fly, while Bob fails to give her notes on Children! Children!, coddling her with banalities that are meant to disguise his distraction and self-absorption. Such threads risk reducing Gwen, a colossal figure in her own right, to “Bob Fosse’s wife, lover, and champion.”

Fosse/Verdon is boxed in by a “have-it-both-ways” quandary. Cinephiles will probably want something more dynamic and less sentimental, with more formalist fireworks and nuts-and-bolts texture about Bob and Gwen’s modes of creation, while others may prefer a simpler and talkier melodrama about a couple torn between their ambitions, vices, and respect and love for one another. Despite its showy flashback structure, the series leans more toward the latter mode, with romantic pop psychology and jokey cameos by Bob and Gwen’s friends and fellow legends-in-the making such as Neil Simon (Nate Corddry) and Paddy Chayefsky (Norbert Leo Butz). (In fairness, there’s also plenty of pop psychology in All That Jazz, as the narrative is another of those Great Self-Destructive Genius numbers that Hollywood pumps out on a regular basis, but Fosse’s formal audacity transcends such gimmickry.)

If Fosse/Verdon lacks the obsessiveness and sensual fanaticism of Fosse and Verdon’s art, though, it nevertheless gives ample space for Rockwell and Williams to inhabit their characters. Rockwell conjures Fosse’s almost paradoxical sexiness, emulating the man’s stooped posture, which somehow conveyed power, and speaking in a voice that’s fey and raspy working-class masculine at the same time—a combination that suggests confidence and years spent hustling. Rockwell also reprises one of Fosse’s signature moves, in which he would crouch near the bottom of the dance floor and look up at the dancers, seemingly drinking them in on a molecular level, which is an act of submission as domination. Most importantly, Rockwell captures Fosse’s general bonhomie—the sense the man gave of taking pleasure in everything—which fuses with Rockwell’s own infectious energy as a performer.

Williams is subtle and heartbreaking in a role that’s often more thankless than Rockwell’s, as Verdon’s artistry is given short shrift here compared to Fosse’s. That very sense of being overlooked is built into Williams’s performance, however, as her voice contains multitudes of insinuation that communicate Gwen’s desires to men on nearly subliminal levels, so they can hear her without them knowing it, especially as Gwen fights to keep Chicago alive. Throughout the miniseries, Williams merges Verdon’s voice with her own, grounding an impression in behavioral curlicues, switching from humor to rage with musical fluidity.

Williams is given the finest scene of Fosse/Verdon’s first five episodes. Rehearsing Children! Children!, trying to give a stodgy monologue juice, Gwen accesses one of the most painful moments of her life, turning exposition into confessional poetry. Gwen fillets herself for the rehearsal, and Williams allows you to see the toll this takes, as well as the transcendence of being able and willing to pay that toll. Williams doesn’t foreground the pain, but the surprise of rediscovering an emotional wound that has never healed, the sort of wound the drives artists—and people of other trades as well—to keep working, consuming, screwing, all in the hope of feeling as if they’ve satisfied their inner demon, the harshest and least satiable critic.

Cast: Sam Rockwell, Michelle Williams, Paul Reiser, Aya Cash, Nate Corddry, Norbert Leo Butz, Blake Baumgartner, Juliet Brett, Susan Misner, Margaret Qualley, Evan Handler Airtime: FX, Tuesdays, 10 p.m.

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Review: The Sprawling Unspeakable Simmers with Rage But Lacks Resolve

The miniseries fails to tackle the unseen forces which enable and encourage the institutional rot that wrecks people’s lives.

2

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Unspeakable
Photo: SundanceTV

With a title like Unspeakable, one might imagine that Sundance’s miniseries about Canada’s contaminated blood scandal, in which thousands of hemophiliacs were infected with HIV and hepatitis after receiving tainted blood, is concerned primarily with the stigma surrounding those diseases. Yet the series, which attempts to narrativize two separate books about the scandal, as well as creator Robert C. Cooper’s own experience contracting hepatitis from hemophilia treatments, resists homing in on any one aspect of its sprawling story. The result is an untidy and cursory overview of a 40-year saga.

Unspeakable certainly simmers with rage, and Cooper’s disgust is palpable. Throughout, the series solemnly depicts each negligent decision made by parliamentary politicians and Canadian Red Cross bureaucrats, who ignored warnings from United States health officials and distributed potentially infected blood in order to save money. But while this staggering malfeasance provides an opportunity to interrogate a complex example of institutional failure, Unspeakable’s point of view is more incredulous than curious: The series is packed with characters who are consistently shocked and angry, yet it fails to tackle the unseen forces which enable and encourage the institutional rot that wrecks people’s lives.

Unspeakable attempts to underscore the tragedy of the scandal by offering its broad historical account through an intimate lens, following five separate Canadian families effected by the tainted blood supply. Yet because of the sheer breadth of the saga and the multitude of perspectives, the series often feels like nothing more than a dry historical outline. As the breakneck narrative breezes over entire years, we aren’t afforded the opportunity to connect with any one character. A pattern emerges, with short successions of scenes that dutifully lead to a consequential event, before action shifts to a new year, and the cycle is repeated. The effect is distancing, and made even more so by unceasing title cards that clumsily herald new locations with information that should ostensibly be provided by the scenes themselves. (One such mouthful reads “Heat-Treated Factor Concentrates Consensus Conference, Ottawa.”)

Because Unspeakable moves so rapidly through its timeline, much of the dialogue is composed of stilted exposition. Lines like “The way the two of you still don’t speak is fucked up!” and countless instances of characters announcing the parameters of their professions are jarring reminders of the constantly shifting landscape. In other instances, the series glosses over seemingly important developments, leaving the viewer without context. Ex-reporter Ben Landry (Shawn Doyle), the father of an HIV-positive, hemophiliac son, at one point resolves to take action, declaring, “There’s only one thing I’m good at.” Years pass by in the narrative before it becomes clear that he wrote a book about the scandal, which, ironically, seems based on one of the books which provided the inspiration for Unspeakable.

Unspeakable’s subject matter is self-evidently grave, but the series is filmed in a procedural style that lacks distinctiveness. The lighting is creamy and omnidirectional, and episodes are edited with a utilitarian devotion to plot. The quick pace does result in a sense of urgency, if only because the series never fully resolves one narrative tangle before it introduces another. Ben, still working as a reporter, attempts to expose the scandal in its early stages, while Will Sanders (Michael Shanks), the father of another hemophiliac, tries to convince the Red Cross of the impending crisis. Their efforts are portrayed as the kind of earnest journalistic persistence seen in films like Spotlight, but while Unspeakable’s emphasizes the failure of public institutions, it ultimately stops short of interrogating exactly why they failed.

Cast: Sarah Wayne Callies, Michael Shanks, Ricardo Ortiz, Spencer Drever, Shawn Doyle, Camille Sullivan, Levi Meaden, Aaron Douglas, David Lewis, Caroline Cave Airtime: SundanceTV

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Review: In Season Two, Killing Eve Still Thrills Even When Spinning Its Wheels

The show’s greatest strength is still the way it upends our expectations via tonal shifts and amusing personal details.

3

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Killing Eve
Photo: Aimee Spinks/BBC America

The second season of Killing Eve commences immediately after last season’s conclusion, during which MI6 agent Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) unceremoniously shanked the object of her (mutual) obsession, the flamboyant assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer). It’s a disorienting and totally engaging starting point for the new season, a confirmation that the two women are still very much entangled in the web of desperation and lies that led them to one another in the first place. But for how much the season focuses on the show’s obvious strengths, it also gets off to something of an uncharacteristically slow start.

Much of the two episodes provided to critics is devoted to the fallout of Eve and Villanelle’s actions: the firings, the confessions, the stabbings, the shootings. Thankfully, the acts of violence that capped last season’s finale do nothing to flatten and clarify the complexity of their relationship. Instead, they only deepen their infatuation, each one still enraptured with the other’s intellect and style and incongruity within their respective personal spheres. “Sometimes when you love someone, you will do crazy things,” Villanelle says at one point. Though the first date (of sorts) may have gone bad, it hardly closes the door on a second.

The knife wound, however, is quite serious and, hand clutched to her side, Villanelle stumbles to a hospital. It’s a continuation of the shift in the pair’s power dynamic, with Villanelle as elusive and inscrutable as ever yet now quite literally vulnerable. The first two episodes of the season are keen on reinforcing her newfound weakness while Eve deals with feelings of her own, a wide spectrum of emotion that manifests in manic cooking, vacant moisturizing, and stress-eating. Eve’s emotions have practically exploded in every direction, and the debris is strewn all over Oh’s terrific expressions, an equal spread of thrill, regret, and confusion.

Killing Eve’s greatest strength continues to be its dark comedy, and the way it upends our expectations via tonal shifts and amusing personal details. “How do you always look so good?” an exasperated Eve asks her unflappable MI6 boss, Carolyn Martens (Fiona Shaw). The series never undercuts its drama, instead using such specificity to humanize characters thrown into worlds they scarcely understand at the behest of truly thankless jobs.

Comer again embodies the bulk of Killing Eve’s wicked sense of humor, conveying Villanelle’s cheerful but irritable psychopathy through a combination of simmering rage, an eat-your-peas level of childlike disgust, and a still-shocking capacity for violence. And the new season gives Villanelle a host of oblivious characters to play off of who are nevertheless not so easily taken in: One woman at a grocery store shoos the cut-and-bruised hitwoman away, protesting that she doesn’t have the change that Villanelle didn’t even ask for.

The thrilling cat-and-mouse suspense of the show’s best moments, however, is largely absent from these initial episodes. Rather than build on many of the developments from the end of last season, Killing Eve cobbles back together some approximation of its status quo, and quite slowly at that. It’s perhaps an expected, if disappointing, development, and there are some tweaks to the formula—chief among them the ongoing suspicion of Carolyn’s true colors. But the start of the second season eventually begins to spin its wheels, lingering a little too long on Villanelle’s weakness while providing various sounding boards for emotions that Oh is perfectly capable of conveying with no more than a furrowed brow.

Cast: Sandra Oh, Jodie Comer, Fiona Shaw, Owen McDonnell, Sean Delaney, Nina Sosanya, Edward Bluemel Airtime: BBC America, Sundays, 8 p.m.

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Review: The New Twilight Zone Is Stuck Chasing Rod Serling’s Shadow

There’s an unsteadiness to this return to that certain dimension of sight, sound, and, of course, mind that dulls whatever impact it intends.

2.5

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Photo: Robert Falconer/CBS

Despite occasional successes, no incarnation of The Twilight Zone has quite stood up to Rod Serling’s iconic original. Two revivals on television and one feature film are more footnotes than notable successors. But Jordan Peele seemingly has the artistic credibility to ensure that this third TV revival is more than just a brand-exploiting ploy.

Peele certainly slides right into the besuited presenter’s persona once occupied by Serling, delivering verbose narration at the beginning and end of each episode in an impassive drone that suggests inevitability yet ends in a slight, mischievous half-smirk. But like previous versions of The Twilight Zone, there’s an unsteadiness to this return to that certain dimension of sight, sound, and, of course, mind that dulls whatever impact it intends.

The four episodes screened for press have a variety of supernatural focal points: a comedian’s stand-up routine that makes people disappear; a future-predicting true-crime podcast that anchors a reimagining of the classic “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”; a man (Steven Yeun) who mysteriously appears in an Alaskan holding cell; and a camcorder that turns back time. The best of these episodes is the last one, “Replay,” which finds a black woman (Sanaa Lathan) using the camcorder’s unique powers in a desperate attempt to evade a racist police officer (Glenn Fleshler) while she drives her son (Damson Idris) to college.

It’s the most overtly political episode of the bunch, though every moment of the series is placed in a cultural context. “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” plays on anxieties about terrorism, while the stand-up conceit of “The Comedian,” which parallels an episode in the original series, alludes to the performative, confessional nature of social media and influencer culture.

The elements that make “Replay” such a standout, however, reveal a distressing void in other episodes—that is, a firm grasp of the intended social commentary, as well as an ability to build that commentary into the episode’s hook without compromising drama. Each rewind of the camcorder creates a distinct, suspenseful scenario in its own right. “The Comedian,” on the other hand, fails to use its multiple stand-up performances to forge new insight into its protagonist (a credibly unraveled Kumail Nanjiani). Though it features an outstanding turn from a sinister Tracy Morgan, the episode merely belabors an obvious, simplistic point that hardly justifies the outrageous 50-plus-minute runtime.

Other episodes lose sight of their themes altogether: “A Traveler” and even the relatively brisk 35-minute “Nightmare” trail off on tangents with multiple characters. As if to acknowledge that they muddy their intended messages, each episode concludes in excruciatingly didactic fashion. Characters say things straight into the camera even before they’ve ceded the stage to Peele’s final narration, which somehow seems subtler than much of the actual dialogue.

The rebooted Twilight Zone suggests a larger problem than mere inconsistency. This version lacks the original’s storytelling economy and, in the process, loses the direct impact of whatever themes it means to convey. It often looks good, with fantastic performances by Lathan, Yeun, and others framed in oblique close-ups to augment the paranoid, aberrant atmosphere, but the muddled, on-the-nose writing is stuck chasing Rod Serling’s shadow.

Cast: Jordan Peele, Adam Scott, Chris Diamantopoulos, Kumail Nanjiani, Amara Karan, Tracy Morgan, Sanaa Lathan, Damson Idris, Glenn Fleshler, Steven Yeun, Marika Sila, Greg Kinnear Airtime: CBS All Access

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Watch: Hold on to Your Obsessions with the Final Trailer for Season Two of Killing Eve

The new season may just give you nightmares, though none that Sean Delaney’s accent can’t soothe.

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Killing Eve
Photo: BBC America

We’ve already seen the first two episodes of the new season of Killing Eve, and since the embargo on reviews has now lifted, we can tell you that the series embraces a formal adventurousness in its second season that blows the first season out of the water. Season two picks up at the exact moment that the first left off, with Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) escaping in tense and almost balletic fashion from the bloody clutches of Villanelle (Jodie Comer)—or is it vice versa?—before the two are once again caught in a prolonged game of cat and mouse that plays out throughout much of Britain and, presumably, beyond.

Today, BBC America has released the final trailer for the new season. Titled “Obsession,” the clip begins with Villanelle, healing from her injuries sustained from being stabbed by Eve last season, sneaking out from a hospital. I won’t tell you where she ends up, only that it may just give you nightmares, though none that Sean Delaney’s accent can’t soothe.

See the trailer below:

Season two of Killing Eve premieres on April 7.

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Review: In Season Two, Barry Draws Dark, Heartfelt Comedy from a Man’s Trauma

The season’s storylines cohere around the myriad factors which comprise the masks people present to the world.

4

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Barry
Photo: HBO

Right out the gate, the stakes are high in the second season of HBO’s Barry, which begins with Barry (Bill Hader) desperate to maintain normalcy after having murdered Paula Newsome’s Detective Moss in last season’s finale. As soon as police begin to suspect Barry’s involvement in the crime, the new season settles into a propulsive narrative that, similar to the first season, unfolds as a comedy of errors. And while the new episodes maintain the show’s satiric view of self-interested Hollywood types, a poignant theme emerges which represents an evolution for the series. As an introspective Barry takes inventory of his past misdeeds, the show’s storylines cohere around the reflexive lies people tell themselves, and the myriad factors which comprise the masks they present to the world.

Barry’s world is in flux as he attempts to avoid the police, dodge the Chechen mob, and abstain from violence. He even offers to train soldiers for the Chechen mob’s new leader, Noho Hank (Anthony Carrigan), rather than carry out another hit himself. The conceit leads to a scene that derives much humor from the Chechen trainees’ ineptitude at shooting, and while similar comedy abounds in Barry’s attempts to extricate himself from the crime world, the series is ultimately more interested in why Barry is so desperate for change. Though in the first season the character strove to mimic the people whom he viewed as good, this season finds him grappling with, and motivated by, the idea that he’s inherently evil.

In one of the new season’s central storylines, Barry must craft a one-man performance based on his first kill in Afghanistan as a member of the Marine Corps. While he resolves to portray the event as a moral reckoning, flashbacks reveal that it was actually one of the happiest moments of his life—a fact which places an upsettingly irreconcilable paradox at the heart of Barry. In an inspired bit of absurdism, the series underlines the extent of the man’s denial when his acting coach, Gene (Henry Winkler), appears in one of Barry’s war flashbacks, offering notes on his student’s recollection. Hilariously, the other soldiers in the flashback chime in as well—a chorus chiding Barry for his attempt to whitewash reality.

Such surreal flourishes lace the show’s new season, conveying in exacting but moving fashion how Barry’s trauma has caused him to live in a fugue state. But the show’s dark comedy is still largely derived from stark juxtapositions of violence and humor. When Barry finds himself in a shootout with a Burmese gang disguised as monks, the incongruity of the gang’s costumes adds a dash of farce to the proceedings. And when Barry declines a job offer from the bald and tattooed Hank, the spurned mobster asks in his characteristically fragmented English, “What do you want me to do, walk into John Wick assassin hotel with ‘Help Wanted’ sign?”

While the series portrays its underworld as the province of bumbling and affable lords, its directors frame violence with a matter-of-fact sensibility, emphasizing the yawning gap between whimsy and outright danger in Barry’s world. When Barry flees a shootout in the season’s second episode, director Hiro Murai embeds his camera in the car alongside Barry, eschewing adrenalized, eye-catching flourishes in favor of stark naturalism. Relatively peaceful moments pass before the first bullets come, and then, without fanfare, they arrive in a hail. The effect is startling and gripping. The discord in Barry’s life similarly informs the way Barry captures Los Angeles, with wide shots that juxtapose the city’s beckoning blue sky and towering palm trees with the generic, nondescript buildings that ensconce Barry. In such moments, the gap between his reality and his ambitions is rendered literal.

As Barry reaches for and clings to a sense of normalcy, Hader portrays the character with a mixture of fear and shame. During one monologue, in which Barry’s girlfriend, Sally (Sarah Goldberg), triumphantly declares that she’ll never date another violent man, the camera lingers poignantly on Barry’s quietly downcast reaction. The crux of this season isn’t whether Barry can find happiness from acting, or whether he’ll outsmart the cops, but whether he’s inherently broken and capable of repair. As he strives to bridge the gap between the person he is and the one he wants to be, the show’s central source of pathos is his (and our) dawning understanding that it may not be possible, and that he may not even deserve it.

Cast: Bill Hader, Henry Winkler, Sarah Goldberg, Stephen Root, Anthony Carrigan, D’Arcy Carden, Darrell Britt-Gibson Airtime: HBO

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Watch: Two Episode Trailers for Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone Reboot

Ahead of next week’s premiere of the series, CBS All Access has released trailers for the first two episodes.

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The Twilight Zone
Photo: CBS All Access

Jordan Peele is sitting on top of the world—or, at least, at the top of the box office, with his sophomore film, Us, having delivered (and then some) on the promise of his Get Out. Next up for the filmmaker is the much-anticipated reboot of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, which the filmmaker executive produced and hosts. Ahead of next week’s premiere of the series, CBS All Access has released trailers for the first two episodes, “The Comedian” and “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet.” In the former, Kumail Nanjiani stars as the eponymous comedian, who agonizingly wrestles with how far he will go for a laugh. And in the other, a spin on the classic “Nightmare at 20,0000 Feet” episode of the original series starring William Shatner, Adam Scott plays a man locked in a battle with his paranoid psyche. Watch both trailers below:

The Twilight Zone premieres on April 1.

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Review: Amazon’s Hanna Quickly Exhausts the Novelty of Its Premise

The series fails to uphold, subvert, or otherwise comment on the stylistic vision or thematic coherence of its source material.

1.5

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Hanna
Photo: Amazon Prime

Like the 2011 film upon which it’s based, Amazon’s Hanna follows the eponymous teen (Esme Creed-Miles) as she embarks on a revenge mission against a shadowy spy agency. The series milks visceral thrills from Hanna’s fight skills as she kicks, punches, shoots, and kills burly adult men. But where Joe Wright’s film was distinguished by its thumping Chemical Brothers score, bluntly filmed and brutal action scenes, and strikingly lensed locations, the series neither carves a unique path for itself nor upholds, subverts, or otherwise comments on the stylistic vision or thematic coherence of its source material.

After an opening sequence that sees Hanna’s parents fleeing for their lives from the spy agency, the series flashes forward to regard Hanna training with her ex-military father, Erik (Joel Kinnaman), in the woods where they live in solitude. When the duo is eventually forced to flee their safe haven, Erik reveals to Hanna that he’s actually been preparing her to hunt and kill a villainous C.I.A. agent named Marissa Wiegler (Mireille Enos). While Marissa is shown in flashback to be nefariously connected to Hanna’s childhood, Erik tells Hanna nothing else about her target. Consequently, the central mystery of Hanna’s origin, and Marissa’s role in it, is predicated on the secrets that Erik keeps from her for reasons that are never made clear.

Every episode of the series more or less follows the same format, as slow-burning cloak-and-dagger spy games eventually yield a few more revelations about Hanna’s past before leading to an eruptive and often incoherently filmed climax. The season’s middle stretch is particularly dull, as Erik and Hanna’s first attempt to kill Marissa goes awry and the teen finds herself stranded with a vacationing English family. Hanna attempts to use the relationship which emerges between Hanna and the family’s daughter, Sophie (Rhianne Barreto), to yoke a violent revenge plot to a coming-of-age teenage drama—which doesn’t work, chiefly because it’s impossible to understand why the otherwise unremarkable Sophie would be suddenly obsessed with Hanna, who’s nearly feral and prone to extreme violence.

Of course, Sophie’s fascination with her new friend is mysterious in part because Hanna herself is purposefully difficult to know, with Creed-Miles uses her open face and wide eyes to portray Hanna with a faraway look and a curious intelligence. The girl is inscrutable by Erik’s design, but less understandable is why the adults in the series, particularly Marissa, are similarly vague. Throughout, Hanna goes to great lengths to make its villain, who’s shown committing heinous acts, more sympathetic to the viewer. Certain plot twists suggest that Marissa may be ready to deal with her guilt over the nature of Hanna’s being, yet Enos’s severe, unsmiling performance and the season’s hectic third act go a long way toward muddying our sense of whatever change of heart the woman may be experiencing.

This muddled depiction of Marissa’s ostensible moral transformation, along with the introduction of a cabal of more menacing villains operating alongside her, rob the season finale of catharsis—which is about the only quality otherwise still preserved in the vicious retributions doled out by Hanna. Just as the series struggles to define Marissa’s motivations, it doesn’t hint at what might eventually happen to the rest her shadowy organization. The season’s conclusion asks as many questions as it answers, appearing to exist only so that Hanna may sustain itself, offering more henchman bones for Hanna to snap without wondering whether the character should, or even wants to, keep snapping them.

Cast: Esme Creed-Miles, Mireille Enos, Joel Kinnaman, Khalid Abdalla, Rhianne Barreto, Benno Fürmann, Sam C. Wilson, Félicien Juttner Airtime: Amazon Prime

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