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David vs. David vs. David, or Which Is the Greatest TV Drama Ever, The Wire, Deadwood, The Sopranos?

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

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The Wire
Photo: HBO

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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Review: Peacock’s The Capture Wears Its Topicality Impersonally on Its Sleeve

The series sucks the juice out of its pop-cultural reference points, failing to mine our current nightmares on its own terms.

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The Capture
Photo: BBC/Heyday Films/Nick Wall

Ben Chanan’s The Capture wears its topicality on its sleeve, principally concerning the CCTV security cameras that monitor London’s streets and which number in the hundreds of thousands, averaging out to one camera per dozen or so people. The casualness of the cameras’ presence throughout the Peacock series is unnerving, suggesting how easily privacy can be annihilated with little in the way of pushback from the populace.

Chanan’s concerns, though, aren’t existential ones, as he’s fashioned a murder mystery that laboriously connects modern surveillance to social media, war crimes committed in the Middle East, rising notions of fake news, and whistleblowers like Edward Snowden—all of which are referenced explicitly in the show’s dialogue. Weirdly, the sociopolitical Easter eggs often feel beside the point, serving as window dressing for an impersonal game of cat and mouse.

Shaun Emery (Callum Turner) is a British soldier accused of killing a member of the Taliban during a tour of duty in Afghanistan after the man had already surrendered. Surveillance footage from a body camera seems to validate this assertion, until Shaun’s bannister, Hannah Roberts (Laura Haddock), establishes a lag between the audio and the video feeds of the footage, casting doubt on the evidence. Shaun, Hannah, and others celebrate his acquittal at a local pub, after which the two kiss on the street, pointedly in view of a CCTV camera. She leaves, never to be seen again. When footage surfaces of Shaun hitting Hannah and dragging her out of the camera’s sight, he denies any involvement, but he’s immediately accused of a second crime that’s supported by theoretically objective evidence.

This is all essentially setup, and Chanan threatens to stuff his concept up to the breaking point of contrivance. Investigating the case is Rachel Carey (Holliday Grainger), a brilliant and ambitious detective inspector with a stereotypical taste for stylish jackets and a penchant for playing by her own rules. Her superiors and peers castigate Rachel for her drive, which scans less as an acknowledgement of sexist double standards than as Chanan’s need to define his characters by signpost dialogue. Shaun eludes Rachel, who’s convinced of his guilt, until she begins to uncover a wealth of evidence that connects Shaun’s two murder investigations, as well as a celebrated case in which Rachel foiled a potential terrorist attack.

The twist-a-minute The Capture is compulsively watchable, but we’ve seen much of this before. In addition to 24, which similarly pulled the rug out from under its audience with endless, sometimes ingenious reversals, The Capture also recalls Andrew Davis’s The Fugitive, as well as seemingly every jargon-laden investigative crime show on TV.

Shaun and Rachel are ciphers with stock backstories, and the show’s dozens of other characters often fit into easily recognizable archetypes, from the jealous sidekick to the estranged, earnest wife, to the icy authority figure with shady motives. As the latter, Detective Superintendent Gemma Garland, Lia Williams acquits herself better than much of the rest of the cast, commanding the screen with seeming ease. And in a small, mysterious role, Ron Perlman revels in a sense of understatement, suggesting a bored, bureaucratic comfort with authoritarianism that’s both eerie and funny.

What The Capture doesn’t have is the sense of violation that made 24 such an unmooring experience in its best seasons. That show’s protagonist, Jack Bauer, was a charismatic hawk who did things that most people to the left of Dick Cheney would find monstrous. Kiefer Sutherland allowed you to see the humanity and the savagery of Bauer, which rendered the character all the more disturbing. Whatever its faults, 24 is a distinctive, authentic reaction to the political atrocities that marked the post-9/11 world.

By contrast, the violence of The Capture is just noise to further the plot. Even the notion of doctored surveillance footage has been examined before and more artfully, especially in Philip Kaufman’s atmospheric Rising Sun. A newer element of our surveillance state, social media, is mentioned obligatorily but is barely explored. The Capture sucks the juice out of its pop-cultural reference points, failing to mine our current nightmares on its own terms.

Cast: Holliday Grainger, Callum Turner, Laura Haddock, Cavan Clerkin, Ginny Holder, Barry Ward, Ben Miles, Peter Singh, Lia Williams, Sophia Brown, Ron Perlman, Famke Jansen Network: Peacock

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Review: The Optimism of Japan Sinks: 2020 Leads to a Curious Emotional Remove

The show’s reticence to dig into hopelessness and pain leaves its admirable optimism to feel strangely artificial.

2.5

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Japan Sinks 2020
Photo: Netflix

The latest adaptation of Japanese science-fiction writer Sakyo Komatsu’s 1973 disaster novel Japan Sinks comes to us in animated form, overseen by prolific director Masaaki Yuasa at Science Saru, the studio he co-founded. The Netflix series wastes little time dishing out the apocalyptic imagery promised by its title: Soon after a low-level earthquake hits Japan, a stronger one follows, causing buildings to crumble and pound bystanders into a gory paste beneath the rubble. The Earth vomits gas and magma, and the ground violently splits open, only to be jammed back together into new, alien configurations.

Rather than the scientific and political perspectives of Komatsu’s novel and its previous adaptations, however, Japan Sinks: 2020 takes a markedly more personal viewpoint of the mixed-race Muto family and the companions they pick up along the way. Coupled with some surprisingly spare and soothing music on the soundtrack, the depictions of the family’s early reunion suggest a defiantly optimistic take on the large-scale disaster story, a focus on togetherness and a celebration of the human capacity to adapt even amid utter turmoil. In one scene, the Muto patriarch, Koichiro (Masaki Terasoma), uses colored lights to illuminate some trees the way he once did at their ruined home, guiding the family back together.

As bodies rain from the sky, though, Japan Sinks: 2020 shows its teeth. Characters die in sudden, jarring ways, disorienting the viewer in a similar fashion to these travelers whose only option is to press forward on an island that can offer them no refuge. Throughout the series, these characters are mostly defined by archetypal qualities, with new ones introduced almost as soon as others are lost. This gives the Muto clan’s odyssey something of a mythic quality as they make their way through symbolic destinations, from an open, seemingly empty grocery store to a community that practices kintsugi, a Japanese art of pottery repair.

The show’s limitations become apparent when it slows down midway through the season, no longer relying on the pure momentum of its plot twists and striking images of environmental devastation. When Japan Sinks 2020 actually allows space for us to absorb the characters’ deaths, you may feel as if there’s little to mourn. With a few exceptions, they’re primarily vehicles for shock and dire twists of fate rather than people to empathize with.

Yuasa’s prior Netflix series, the gonzo Devilman Crybaby, injected some disarming positivity into its own increasingly bleak premise, and in a way that made its tragedies feel even more devastating. But the optimism of Japan Sinks: 2020 doesn’t function quite the same way since, here, it’s the overriding ethos, with characters who are more than willing to come together despite catastrophe and pain and displays of self-interest like nationalism.

While this idea is noble, the series moves on from the tragedy of these characters’ lives so quickly that we never get a sense of the totality of their grief. The result, despite no shortage of daring escapes, is a disaster story whose harried pace and reticence to grapple with hopelessness and pain renders it artificial, keeping us at an emotional remove.

Cast: Reina Ueda, Tomomi Muranaka, Yuko Sasaki, Masaki Terasoma, Kensho Ono, Umeji Sasaki, Nanako Mori Network: Netflix

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Review: Little Voice Is a Twee, Navel-Gazing Depiction of Creative Struggle

Created by Sara Bareilles and Jessie Nelson, the series positions its protagonist as a bastion of artistic purity.

1.5

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Little Voice
Photo: Apple TV+

As the first episode of Little Voice begins, aspiring singer-songwriter Bess King (Brittany O’Grady) is still traumatized from being laughed off stage after attempting to perform one of her original songs. Bess’s fragile ego is a major impediment to the launching her music career, and it takes the rest of the season for her to just feel truly comfortable on stage again, a pretty meager payoff considering it takes nine episodes to reach that point.

Bess’s friend and manager, Benny (Phillip Johnson Richardson), assures her in a later episode of the series that artists are meant to be moody, but Bess goes beyond that, as she’s an entitled, ungrateful narcissist, petulantly pushing away friends and family if they don’t conform to her arbitrary moral standards. Even worse, there’s very little about her supposed talent that could justify the behavior that Benny excuses on the basis of artistic brilliance.

Created by singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles and filmmaker Jessie Nelson (who previously collaborated on the Broadway musical Waitress), Little Voice positions Bess as a bastion of artistic purity, first asserting that she writes songs only for herself, and later fending off industry figures’ attempts to have her record songs written by other people or compose music for others. When she gets a chance to record in the legendary Electric Lady Studios, she rebuffs suggestions from a jaded engineer (Luke Kirby) and her guitarist, Samuel (Colton Ryan), to make changes to one of her songs, and both men later acknowledge that she was right.

But there’s little sense that Bess has anything of importance to say with her music, which at one point she describes as “Alessia Cara meets Carole King” but just sounds like Sara Bareilles B-sides. Her precious piano-driven dirges all sound the same, which makes it tough to feel the intended emotional impact of songs often written in response to the events of a particular episode. O’Grady, who was a regular on Fox’s musical drama Star, has a clear, resonant voice, and it’s easy to envision her as a mainstream pop singer, but Bess’s songs always sound smooth and polished, which contradicts their supposed purpose as messy personal statements.

The audiences arrives at an understanding of just how messy Bess’s personal life is through a tedious dramatization of love triangle that puts her in the middle of two bland, sensitive hunks. She first connects with video editor Ethan (Sean Teale), who works in a storage unit next to the one that Bess rents as a practice space (the series emphasizes her financial hustle with jobs as a bartender, dog walker, music tutor, and busker, but she somehow affords rent for both a storage space and half of a gorgeous New York City apartment). Of course, Ethan has a girlfriend, and Bess is later romantically drawn to Samuel, but both men mostly pine from the sidelines while Bess strings them along for the entire season.

Being inconsiderate and presumptuous seems to run in Bess’s family, and the show’s most frustrating character is her mentally disabled brother, Louie (Kevin Valdez), who lives in a group home but constantly relies on Bess for every pretty much everything. Louie is obsessed with Broadway and even has his own catch phrase (“Wonder of wonders!”), and his relationship with Bess is meant to display her compassion and dedication, but it mostly just proves that she’s incapable of holding him accountable for his behavior. Just as Bess seems to expect her friends to cater to her every shift in mood, Louie expects the same from his sister.

Their relationship comes off as a codependent nightmare, and Louie’s blind faith in Bess’s talent is as misguided as her indulgence of his every whim. At one point in the series, a music executive condescendingly describes Bess’s music as “darling.” While that’s intended as a dubious insult, it captures the twee, navel-gazing tone of Little Voice.

Cast: Brittany O’Grady, Phillip Johnson Richardson, Colton Ryna, Sean Teale, Kevin Valdez, Luke Kirby Network: Apple TV+

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Review: HBO’s Perry Mason Examines Power and Faith Amid a Fog of Decay

The series is gory and dour with a bone-deep cynicism, but it’s also optimistic in its own small way.

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Perry Mason
Photo: HBO

A dead baby appears not five minutes into HBO’s reboot of Perry Mason. Left on a rail car at Angels Flight in Los Angeles, the child’s eyes are stitched open in hopes of fooling the frantic parents just long enough for the kidnappers to abscond with the ransom money. The grotesque image is certainly far from the show’s last, but it functions as a statement of purpose: Creators Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald intend to grit up the world of Erle Stanley Gardner’s criminal defense lawyer, who was most famously depicted on the CBS television series starring Raymond Burr that aired from 1957 to 1966.

The new Perry Mason is set in 1932, and at the outset, the eponymous character is a private investigator, and hardly the respectable kind. Paired up with the sardonic Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham), he’s not above taking illicit photos of a movie star at a studio’s behest, hoping to prove a morals clause violation. Matthew Rhys brings a thick haze of disillusionment to his character, who wears a lot of stubble and an expression of perpetual weariness. Reconceived in the mold of reluctant prestige TV heroes, Mason is a man adrift, with few opportunities during the Great Depression, and so he tries (unsuccessfully) to squeeze his employers for more cash, though he still misses out on paying the child support he owes.

Mason’s lawyer pal, E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow), brings him in to work with E.B.’s associate, Della Street (Juliet Rylance), on the kidnapping case. The law jabs an accusatory finger at the grieving parents, Matthew and Emily Dodson (Nate Corddry and Gayle Rankin), leaving the defense to contend with dirty cops and cover-ups in addition to following a trail of money that loops through the local evangelical church. A lot of the story beats are the usual stuff of noir, with people you can’t trust mixed up in systems you can trust even less, but the series uses its central case and characters to tug at the different threads of a rich societal tapestry, deftly posing questions about religion, race, sexuality, and gender roles as the world unravels.

Amid dramatic courtroom monologues from E.B. and various scenes of Mason probing crime scenes, the case quickly becomes a media circus. Reporters mob the courthouse steps alongside throngs of protestors howling for blood; the Dodson kidnapping captures the imagination of the public because, despite multiple scenes that show people gasping at others dropping profanities, their interests run toward the morbid and the salacious.

The spotlight throws marriage dynamics into sharp relief, with Emily Dodson vilified on the stand for displaying sexual agency or disinterest in a husband who keeps her in the dark about their finances. Any guilt or shame over their child’s death on her part is framed as a confession in the eyes of the vicious, grandstanding district attorney (Stephen Root). Reactions from the main characters and the general public depict a wider culture of apathy, bigotry, and especially misogyny amid an economic downturn that stokes everyone’s most desperate instincts for survival. The show’s world is a richly rendered fog of decay and hopelessness; people who can make a living do so off secrets, as with E.B.’s questionable financial records or the compromising photos that Mason develops at his dead parents’ desolate farm.

The public hungers for escape, and they get it from the movies, sensational newspaper stories, or from the sense of community provided by a religion that demands their money and devotion in return. They fixate on violence, on victims and victimizers as expressions of their own powerlessness, while others take whatever small power they can, under whatever label. Officially, Della Street is E.B.’s secretary, but it’s immediately clear that the scatterbrained old-timer couldn’t run the office without her, as she empathizes with and advocates for women like Emily in a way that the men often don’t. Paul Drake (Chris Chalk), who goes on to be a frequent investigator in Mason’s employ, is here reconceived as a black cop, an outsider in a system that wants little to do with him beyond what it can use. He becomes disillusioned with his place in that system, as the other characters similarly confront their own powerlessness.

Perry Mason’s concern with power is most clearly seen in Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany), who gets to stand on the evangelical church’s stage and theatrically preach, her position as the church’s mouthpiece sometimes clashing with the moneymen who run the place behind the scenes. The show’s focus on religion can be strained at times, as the church subplots feel tangential to the main case, but its prominence clarifies Perry Mason as a series that’s also about faith, religious and otherwise. Here, faith is eminently vulnerable, often taken advantage of by charlatans but also necessary to keep a person going—a faith in humanity to look beyond societal conditioning and the corruption snaking its way through every angle of civilization. Faith isn’t always rewarded. The series is gory and dour with a bone-deep cynicism, but it’s also optimistic in its own small way, an origin story that chronicles how its characters find a means to fight rather than serving as dejected, disgusted observers.

Cast: Matthew Rhys, Juliet Rylance, Chris Chalk, Shea Whigham, Tatiana Maslany, John Lithgow, Gayle Rankin, Stephen Root, Lili Taylor, Nate Corddry Network: HBO

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Review: Season Three of Search Party Embraces a More Madcap Sensibility

Season three rivals its predecessors in its intoxicating blend of bleak cynicism and irreverent comedy.

3.5

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Search Party
Photo: Jon Pack

The third season of Search Party, the exceptionally nimble dramedy created by Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers, and Michael Showalter, returns after a hiatus of two and a half years but begins right after the events of the second season’s finale. Dory (Alia Shawkat) has just been arrested for the murder of her quasi-associate and ex-lover, Keith, and as a cop takes her mugshot, she chuckles at something he says—resulting in a beguiling portrait of Dory, wearing dark red lipstick, with one eyebrow raised and a roguish half-smile fixed on her face.

The ever-ravenous press and public latch on to Dory’s mugshot, turning her and the legal case against her and her boyfriend, Drew (John Reynolds), into a national spectacle. The series, in turn, takes a gripping dive into Dory’s psyche, sharply revealing how her place in the spotlight magnifies her anxieties. In contrast to the defining visual of Search Party’s first two seasons—a tracking shot of Dory, which prioritized her reactions and impressions over the stimuli eliciting them—season three often depicts her in faux news reels and talk-show clips. Rather than centering Dory as she moves through the world, these sequences freeze her in a still image, embodying her objectification at the hands of the media frenzy. The alienation she feels as tabloid fodder eclipses what she once felt as an aimless personal assistant.

But Dory is far from powerless, as she’s remarkably adept at steering the narrative of both her life and the trial. One of her most formidable feats is a television interview alongside her estranged parents (Jacqueline Antaramian and Ramsey Faragallah), which successfully presents the illusion of a unified front. And she seems to like the attention, as when she humors the paparazzi posted outside her apartment, or when she melodramatically regales the partygoers encircling her at a friend’s wedding with tales of fame’s woes.

Search Party’s earlier seasons found joltingly dark humor in the absurdity of four clueless, sheltered, relatively young adults playing detective and then committing and covering up a murder. This season rivals its predecessors in its intoxicating blend of bleak cynicism and irreverent comedy, but embraces a more exaggerated, madcap sensibility. Recognizing that court is an inherently theatrical space—and a magnet for outsized personalities—the series drops Dory down the rabbit hole and surrounds her with near-unbelievable weirdos. Bob (Louie Anderson), Drew’s lawyer, spouts a wonderful blend of banal aphorisms and pulpy zingers. “Oh, this city,” he drones upon arriving in New York from Chicago, “so much chaos out there.” And Bob is joined in court by two other similarly odd and hilarious attorneys: Cassidy (Shalita Grant), Dory’s rookie lawyer, and the overzealous prosecutor, Polly (Michaela Watkins). The trial, shepherded as it is by a trio of clowns, drives the season’s tonal shift as it quickly devolves into a circus-like farce of shoddy evidence and shaky testimonies.

Dory and Drew’s friends Elliott (John Early) and Portia (Meredith Hagner) are back, but where past seasons deepened their outwardly shallow personalities, this season frequently relegates them to inconsequential, if funny, subplots. The treatment of Portia is particularly disappointing: Previously, a surprising acuity flickered within her, but the series tosses that potential nuance aside, doubling down on the ditzy obliviousness at her surface.

Ultimately, though, the simplicity of the non-Dory narratives is of a piece with the trajectory that Search Party has outlined over its run thus far. The series is Dory’s story, told in an obsessive manner as befits her swelling narcissism. And the strangeness of the trial hints, perhaps, at the world as seen through Dory’s eyes—and as tinged by her growing delusion. Dory is prone to hallucinations and fantasies, and her mental state only worsens under the psychological toll of the trial. At one point, Drew wonders if Dory’s claims of innocence are just a legal strategy, or if she really believes that she didn’t do anything.

And she’s still keeping her greatest secret—that she killed April, the neighbor who knew about Keith’s murder—but Drew is on to her. That Dory remains at least slightly sympathetic throughout all this is a testament to the subtle expressiveness of Shawkat’s performance. Dory’s torn emotions course through Shawkat’s face; the character’s survival instincts flash in her eyes when she’s cornered, when her control of situations starts to falter.

Rare are the moments, however, in which Dory’s power is truly at risk of slipping. One of the season’s most striking shots embodies her insidious influence on those around her. Dory, Portia, and Elliot sit and lie down in a line, playing with each other’s hair; Dory combs Portia’s while Portia runs her fingers through Elliott’s. Drew is opposite them, on the couch. They’re all quiet, thoughtful, reflective. But Dory, with Portia’s hair in her hand, resembles a puppet master. As the camera slowly zooms out, the moody electronic soundtrack kicks in, an echo of Dory’s unceasing calculations. Aspects of the blocking recall Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam: Drew’s no God, but Elliot stretches out like the first man—and Dory is behind both him and the woman closest to him, plotting, the serpent just off-canvas.

Cast: Alia Shawkat, John Reynolds, Meredith Hagner, John Early, Shalita Grant, Michaela Watkins, Louie Anderson, Raphael Nash Thompson, Clare McNulty, Brandon Micheal Hall, Claire Tyers, Christine Taylor Network: HBO Max

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Review: Hulu’s Love, Victor Is a Likable, If Timid, Exploration of Sexual Identity

The show’s episodic sitcom rhythms allow for an easier access point to the narrative about identity and prejudice.

2.5

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Love, Victor
Photo: Mitchell Haaseth/Hulu

“Screw you,” texts 16-year-old Victor Salazar (Michael Cimino) to the mostly unseen Simon Spier (Nick Robinson) in Love, Victor, a spin-off of the gay teen rom-com Love, Simon. The 2018 film’s white, upper-middle-class protagonist, with his perfectly accepting parents, had a relatively easy coming-out journey compared to Victor, whose Colombian-American working-class mother and father cling closely to traditional religious values and aren’t exactly about to buy him a car for his birthday. “My story is nothing like yours,” Victor tells Simon at the end of the first episode of the Hulu series.

Victor reaches out to Simon via text message after starting at Creekwood High School, where his mentor was once cheered on by the entire student body for finally connecting with his secret paramour, Bram. Victor has moved from Texas to the Atlanta suburbs with his parents, Isabel (Ana Ortiz) and Armando (James Martinez), his sullen teenage sister, Pilar (Isabella Ferreira), and his quirky little brother, Adrian (Mateo Fernandez), for reasons that are slowly revealed over the course of the season. Like Simon, Victor comes from a loving home, but his parents’ discomfort with non-heteronormative modes of expression—like Adrian’s preoccupation with the Disney princess Elsa—are made clear to him.

While the stakes for Victor’s coming out are clear, though, that doesn’t make his journey of acceptance any less tedious to witness, stretched out as it is over the course of 10 episodes. Created by Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger (who also adapted Love, Simon, based on Becky Albertalli’s novel), Love, Victor was originally slated for Disney+ before being shifted to Hulu due to its supposedly mature themes. But aside from some strong language and pretty vague sex talk, the series could easily be a companion to High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. Its upbeat tone keeps Victor’s journey from feeling dour and didactic, even though the series is designed to partially provide easily digestible life lessons to a teen audience.

Love, Victor hints at some slightly more nuanced versions of those life lessons in the season’s first half, when Victor begins researching pansexuality. Still attempting to convince others (and himself) that he could be straight, he decides to pursue the popular, studious Mia (Rachel Naomi Hilson). But the messy possibilities of a pansexual teen drama fall away the more Victor becomes obsessed with his openly gay classmate and co-worker, Benji (George Sear), who’s such an idealized object of affection that he’s shown multiple times flipping his luxurious hair in slow motion. In Love, Simon, the connection between Simon and Bram felt genuine and vital, but here Victor and Benji seem destined to get together solely based on proximity.

With its brisk half-hour episodes, and appearances from veteran comedic performers including Andy Richter, Ali Wong, Beth Littleford, and Natasha Rothwell (whose scene-stealing drama teacher from the film has been promoted to vice principal), Love, Victor is structured like your average TV comedy. The episodic sitcom rhythms allow for an easier access point to the narrative about identity and prejudice—both internal and external. But it seems frustratingly hesitant to assert itself as a mainstream teen dramedy with an openly gay protagonist, returning to the starting line of Love, Simon rather than building forward from it.

Cast: Michael Cimino, Mateo Fernandez, Isabella Ferreira, Mason Gooding, Rachel Hilson, James Martinez, Ana Ortiz, Nick Robinson, George Sear, Anthony Turpel, Bebe Wood, Lukas Gage Network: Hulu

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Review: Netflix’s The Woods Spins a Monotonously Grim but Addictive Mystery

The story’s rush of exposition can be dizzying, but the pieces fall into place in ways that aren’t entirely unbelievable.

2.5

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The Woods
Photo: Krzysztof Wiktor

Harlan Coben’s work has been adapted across various European markets, always retaining the same commitment to formula regardless of location or language. The American writer trades in superficial but addictive tales about long-buried secrets, mysterious disappearances, and murderous betrayals, and Netflix’s The Woods is no exception.

The six-episode Polish miniseries is more streamlined than prior Coben adaptations, spending less time getting sidetracked from its central mystery. The story, based on the author’s 2007 novel of the same name, is split between two time periods, opening with a flash-forward to prosecutor Pawel Kopinski (Grzegorz Damiecki) with a gun pressed to his head before flashing back to 1994, when a teenage Pawel (Hubert Milkowski) was at summer camp. Something very bad happened in the woods there, leaving two teens dead and two others—including Pawel’s sister, Kamila (Martyna Byczkowska)—missing, and the discovery of a dead body potentially connected to the murders brings Pawel back to the case in 2019.

In the present-day timeline, Pawel reconnects with his former girlfriend, Laura Goldsztajn (Agnieszka Grochowska), who’s now a college professor, and the two attempt to figure out what happened all those years ago. Pawel has been prosecuting a rape case in which one of the accused perpetrators is the son of a rich TV personality, Krzysztof (Cezary Pazura), who’s vowed to use his resources to ruin Pawel’s life if he won’t drop the charges. This is all familiar ground for Coben, from the gradual unearthing of secrets that often tie together in unexpected (and unlikely) ways to the rather steady doling out of sudden reversals and revelations.

The change of setting from New Jersey to Poland has little impact on the story. The most distinctive local element here is an exploration of anti-Semitic attitudes as grieving families search for someone to blame following the initial crimes. But even that turns out to be just one of many bits of misdirection, a hallmark of Coben stories that often presents solutions to other horrific crimes in the margins, distracting the audience from the true culprits.

Coben may not have much interest in social commentary, but his characters, even the ostensible heroes, are always morally compromised, and finding out who killed or kidnapped a story’s central victim doesn’t necessarily lead to catharsis. Here, Pawel’s handling of the rape case is especially thorny, and his determination to stand up for the accuser is as much about his own pride as it is about seeking justice for a young woman who’s been attacked.

The Woods, part of a 14-book deal between Coben and Netflix, can be monotonously grim, with no mischievously charismatic villains to compare to the antagonist of Coben stories like The Stranger, but Damiecki and Grochowska sharply convey the anguish that their characters have carried with them for decades via haunted glances and halting speech patterns. Pawel and Laura aren’t clever detectives spouting off one-liners, and their personal connection to every aspect of the case provides a kind of revelation that feels earned. By the end, the story’s rush of exposition can be dizzying, but the pieces fall into place in ways that aren’t entirely unbelievable. And the details, remixed from so many other mystery stories by Coben and others, will make sense in almost any language.

Cast: Grzegorz Damiecki, Agnieszka Grochowska, Hubert Milkowski, Martyna Byczkowska, Cezary Pazura Network: Netflix

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Review: Crossing Swords’s Pleasant Exterior Hides a Predictable Core of Vulgarity

Even the jokes that land mostly emphasize how complacent the series is to coast on its crassness.

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Crossing Swords
Photo: Sony/Hulu

Hulu’s Crossing Swords, created by Robot Chicken’s John Harventine IV and Tom Root, depicts a beautiful stop-motion fantasy world where the characters have big round heads plastered with simplistic facial expressions. These toy-like peg people have no arms, their swords and such floating in midair beside them as if held by invisible hands. The show’s handcrafted animation is charmingly scrappy, from the cardboard textures of the environments to fire being rendered as globs of colored fuzz. But Crossing Swords’s pleasant exterior hides a core of vulgarity, alluded to by the sexual euphemism of its title.

This same brand of humor runs through so much adult-oriented animation, where gore, nudity, and profanity is juxtaposed with what might appear to be cuddly and kid-friendly at first glance. Crossing Swords’s protagonist, a peasant named Patrick (Nicholas Hoult), represents the perceived experience of watching the show, as his good-hearted aspirations to be the king’s squire plunge him into a world of hedonistic nobility.

The series is full of liars, narcissists, and people comedically abusing power to arbitrary, often violent ends. A squire contest in the first episode indulges in what quickly becomes tiresome standbys: Everyone cheats at fighting by kicking each other in the genitals, and one later challenge involves contestants having sex with the queen, who gives them gonorrhea.

Though Crossing Swords is briskly paced and filled with rapid-fire jokes, there’s little shock or surprise to be had once a cute little peg man calls someone a motherfucker and then pulls out his penis for the umpteenth time. The show’s comedy becomes rote, with a dreary predictability that extends even to more elaborate setups. For example, when one character requires snakeskin for a spell in the same episode where Patrick agonizes over circumcision, it’s not particularly hard to connect the dots of the plot long before the script does.

The rest of Crossing Swords’s humor hinges on a comingling of the show’s medieval aesthetic with consciously modern touches, as in Patrick needing to ask for snakeskin at a pharmacy, or a hippie professor in a tie-dyed shirt using his class to hijack a ship in the interest of saving humongous krakens the way one might try to save whales. Although some of these concepts head in sporadically amusing directions, as when the professor demands to reinstate virgin sacrifices to the krakens, the show inevitably returns to predictable raunchiness (in this case, the promiscuous queen is no good for a sacrifice, so the job naturally falls to Patrick).

In a typical early gag, one character in a runaway wagon veers out of the way of an orphanage only to careen toward…a kitten orphanage. Upon hopping into the wagon, she shouts, “See ya, fucksticks,” and then, when she spots the kitten orphanage, she sighs, “Well, shit.” On paper, the sheer immediacy of this bait-and-switch is funny, but the dialogue bogs down the pacing for yet another example of how supposedly hilarious it is for these cutesy characters to use profanity. The series isn’t without moments of cleverness, but even the jokes that land mostly just emphasize how complacent the remainder of Crossing Swords is to coast on its crassness.

Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Luke Evans, Tony Hale, Adam Pally, Adam Ray, Tara Strong, Alanna Ubach Network: Hulu

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Review: Netflix’s Space Force Is a Toothless Satire of Political Ineptitude

The series informs sitcom hijinks with a bit of political tension, but the punchlines are diluted for the sake of likability.

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Space Force
Photo: Aaron Epstein/Netflix

It’s distracting when a TV series or film pivots on conflicts between politicians whose party affiliation somehow goes unspecified. The motivation behind this vagueness is obvious, as showrunners and filmmakers don’t wish to mire their stories with specifically right- or left-wing baggage, especially in these hyper-partisan times. Greg Daniels and Steve Carell’s Space Force suffers from a similar malady. The Netflix comedy imagines the realization of President Donald Trump’s oft-mocked plan for a sixth branch of the U.S. military, to which over $700 billion has already been allotted. Yet Trump is never explicitly mentioned, referenced by the characters only as POTUS, and his whims are so consciously bland that one wonders if another president has been elected within this show’s world.

The showrunners’ skittishness over the heated subject of Trump is best embodied by a number of gags in which the commander in chief texts Mark R. Naird (Carell), the four-star general newly appointed to lead Space Force’s development. The texts are curt and macho, but they sound like regular sports coach-speak, which is to say that they’re too coherent to suggest the way Trump actually writes or talks—at least in public. If the show’s writers had the daring to imply that Trump’s garbled mixture of slogans and defamation was a public stunt designed to inflame his base, they might have fashioned a resonant recurring joke.

Space Force’s premise, in which a country that’s been in perpetual war for decades develops a blood lust so great it must try to conquer space, boasts a certain Dr. Strangelove-esque potential. Rather than tap into that potential, Space Force proceeds as one of those Daniels/Carell shows, like The Office, where Carell’s blowhard is revealed to be a nice guy underneath. It took The Office a while to lose its teeth and become a perpetual meme and cuddle-fest, while Space Force goes soft within just a few episodes before limping to an embarrassingly inspirational family reunion finale. Daniels and Carell have little interest in the Space Force as a concept; for them, it’s a backdrop for a special effects-driven workplace sitcom, replete with supporting characters who embody the usual sitcom stereotypes.

In Space Force, even potentially scathing punchlines are diluted for the sake of palatability. For instance, a congresswoman, Bryce Bachelor (Tamiko Brownlee), obviously meant to resemble Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez questions Naird about Space Force’s ballooning budget. Like Trump, Naird (initially) shows contempt for research and has done no preparation for this hearing, spiraling off into amusingly ludicrous grandstanding that the congresswoman, astonishingly, just accepts. In such moments, the series wants it both ways: offering lightweight jokes for liberals while essentially validating the Trump playbook of bluffing minute by minute with Naird’s unexpected victory, though the character’s bluster does lead to one prolonged, uproarious sequence involving a chimpanzee astronaut.

Political confrontation is also superficially offered up via Naird’s duels with the chief scientist of Space Force, Dr. Adrian Mallory (John Malkovich), who derides America’s hard-on for the military and contempt for intellectual reason. Malkovich, who’s accorded the show’s most confrontationally partisan dialogue, gives an elegant, thorny performance that’s gradually compromised by the plotting, as Naird and Mallory will, of course, bond, and Naird will learn the errors of his reactionary ways, embracing reason over violent confrontation. In another example of pandering wishy-washiness, the series eventually goes out of its way to celebrate Space Force, un-ironically, after spending so much time mocking it.

Similarly, Carell is so uncertain in this role that he can’t even settle on a voice. Early on, Naird talks in a gruff military-man fashion that suggests George C. Scott’s general in Dr. Strangelove. Otherwise, Naird is just sweet old Steve Carell, though sometimes his voice changes within a scene, suggesting that this device might be an intentional joke. The character, like Mallory, also suffers from increasingly random storylines that strive to humanize Naird in clichéd terms. For some reason, he has a wife, Maggie (Lisa Kudrow), who goes to prison so that Space Force may offer callbacks to the opening season of Netflix’s own Orange Is the New Black.

Space Force renders the architects of our world’s destabilization, like Trump, his enablers, and military hawks, into lovably misguided dads—a common entertainment trope. In 30 Rock, a conservative billionaire gradually became besties with a liberal TV producer, allowing her to feel better about distracting America with pop-cultural detritus. In The Office, the initially moving misery of a group of corporate drones was steadily dialed down for the sake of feel-good sentimentality, as a once-contemptible manager became a poignant goof. Even in an ostensibly edgier film like War Machine, a general’s atrocities are downplayed for the sake of easy caricature. These entertainments suggest that the unmooring turmoil of modern life isn’t so bad, giving us an excuse to write off our blossoming dystopia with a semi-amused “eh.” An act of satirical heartlessness would be more compassionate than fortune-cookie uplift.

Cast: Steve Carell, John Malkovich, Tawny Newsome, Ben Schwartz, Diana Silvers, Jessica St. Clair, Fred Willard, Don Lake, Noah Emmerich, Lisa Kudrow, Owen Daniels, Alex Sparrow, Jimmy O. Yang Network: Netflix

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Review: Hulu’s The Great Revises History with Riotous Irreverence

The series takes on Catherine the Great with off-kilter comedy and startling poignancy.

3.5

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The Great
Photo: Hulu

Tony McNamara’s alternately riotous and poignant Hulu miniseries The Great begins with the future Catherine the Great (Elle Fanning) leaving Austria for Russia to marry the country’s emperor, Peter (Nicholas Hoult). Catherine wants to bring the Enlightenment to her new home—to abolish serfdom, proliferate literacy, and embrace art and science—but Peter is a doltish man-child more interested in philandering than leading. His governing style is self-serving and myopic; for one, he refuses to pull Russia out of its disastrous war with Sweden, as he’s desperate for a victory akin to those of his late father, Peter the Great. What little progress the young Catherine makes in reforming Peter is fleeting, and because she’s confident that she’s destined to save Russia, she plans a coup.

Like Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite, which McNamara co-wrote and features Hoult in a supporting role as a sycophantic politician, the series rejects the commitment to historical fact that burdens many period pieces. Catherine channels the empress’s ambition and relatively liberal bent, but the characters around her are composites and fabrications; Peter, for instance, is only loosely based on Peter III, and provides a vehicle for Hoult’s unnerving blend of youthful earnestness and wanton cruelty. This historical freewheeling feeds into The Great’s broader irreverence, which comes through in every jarringly crass line coated in period-drama affect—like when Peter tells Catherine, over a meal, that he’s set on producing an heir. “I’d do it now, but I just blew my bag on Madame Dimov,” he says, causing Catherine to nearly choke on her food. “My God,” she says, “a phrase I have never heard.”

The delectably off-kilter dialogue highlights Catherine’s alienation. She first arrives to court a naïve idealist, prim and proper, but as she develops into a skilled politician, she demonstrates growing comfort navigating the crudeness surrounding her. She eventually attempts to win over Grigor (Gwilym Lee), Peter’s best friend, who can’t stand the emperor’s dalliance with his wife, Georgina (Charity Wakefield). “He eats fruits various from your wife’s cunt on a daily basis,” Catherine says to Grigor, egging him on. Grigor’s eyes bulge and his jaw clenches. It’s an almost revelatory moment for Catherine in her quest to wield a less bloody sort of power.

Catherine’s co-conspirators initially consist of Marial (Phoebe Fox), her maid, who hatches the scheme; Count Orlo (Sacha Dhawan), an influential but meek bureaucrat in Peter’s inner circle; and Leo (Sebastian de Souza), the compassionate and winsome lover gifted to Catherine by Peter in accordance with the court’s libertine ethos. These characters contextualize Catherine’s idealism and innocence. Where she’s eager to take the throne and launch her virtuous reign, they recognize that deposing an emperor is slow and messy business.

One of the central elements of Catherine’s political education is figuring out how to seize power as a woman in a thoroughly misogynistic environment, one filled with oafs such as the frequently drunk General Velementov (Douglas Hodge), who’d rather try to seduce Catherine than hear about her ambitions. Catherine and Marial commiserate about the sexism they face, but their discussions expose Catherine’s ignorance of how class difference shapes their distinct experiences. These interactions subtly and effectively cast doubt on Catherine’s claims of readiness by showing that her lofty goals of egalitarianism are far clearer to her than the nuts and bolts of classism, let alone the complexities of ruling an empire.

Catherine’s blind spots come to a head when she addresses a room full of powerful men at a time of profound uncertainty. It’s a crucial opportunity to win their respect, but she flounders: Her instincts are off, she knows nothing of Russia, and the men spurn her. Fanning deftly embodies Catherine’s distress as the character’s sense of self shatters, her breaths turning into gasps and her dreams of leading Russia slipping through her anxiously fidgeting hands.

Catherine’s true exemplar at court is Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow), Peter’s bohemian aunt, who largely shares her progressive politics. Elizabeth is totally unconcerned with what others think about her, and while her boldness can feel unremarkable given the cushy position she occupies at court, it’s marvelous to witness. She airs her perspective most compellingly in scenes with “Archie” the Archbishop (Adam Godley), who represents the church and abhors Catherine’s humanism. The pair are two of the The Great’s sharpest minds, and their absorbing conversations spill tantalizingly into blasphemy and treason, as when Archie floats the possibility of Elizabeth replacing her nephew on the throne.

As for Peter, he tries to better himself under Catherine’s influence—unbanning the printing press, holding art and science fairs—and he shows signs of sweetness, but nothing sticks. The series elucidates his behavior with sympathetic reflections on his inner workings. Peter lives in the shadow of his late parents, suffocated by his father’s outsized legacy and scarred by his mother’s disdain. In one of The Great’s most stirring moments, a shot of Catherine and Leo kissing by firelight cuts to a dark room and pans to reveal Peter curled up on a statue of his father. Such sequences stop short of excusing Peter’s vileness, but they do render his arrested development more tragic than laughable. They also make the tension nestled in the series’s title increasingly plain: Great is both what Catherine will become and what Peter will never be.

Cast: Elle Fanning, Nicholas Hoult, Sebastian De Souza, Sacha Dhawan, Phoebe Fox, Adam Godley, Belinda Bromilow, Douglas Hodge, Gwilym Lee, Charity Wakefield, Bayo Gbadamosi, Louis Hynes Network: Hulu

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