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Deadweek: A Gift for Reinvention—The Women of Deadwood

The women of Deadwood are passionate, fully realized human beings.

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Deadwood
Photo: HBO

Set, as it is, several decades before women won the right to vote in the United States, one might be forgiven for expecting the women of David Milch’s Deadwood to fall into the seemingly set roles women have held in western after western. There’s the supportive frontier wife and the feisty prostitute, the nearly regal madam and the schoolteacher, even a woman who seemingly wishes to take on the role of a man to survive a male-dominated world.

But the women of Deadwood are more than types. Just as the men of Deadwood remade themselves in the process of transforming a piece of land into a mining camp, the women likewise came to begin anew. But where Deadwood’s men may have reinvented themselves once, the women of Deadwood have done it several times over.

Alma Garrett Ellsworth (Molly Parker) may be the Deadwood citizen who is the least like the person we first met. She has gone from a perpetually drugged trophy wife to one of the town’s foremost powerbrokers who clearly has the upper hand in her second marriage. When she first arrived in camp, Alma was deeply dependent on her husband, a stereotypical East Coast dandy who knew nothing of the ways of the frontier. She was weak, reliant on crutches of all sorts. But a string of events pushed her into the mainstream of Deadwood society. First, her husband was murdered, and she dealt with the calamity by breaking her addiction. Second, she found herself caring for a child, the victim of a massacre by agents only vaguely under the control of the series’s central character, Al Swearengen (Ian McShane). Third, she was adopted into the body of Deadwood as a whole, and forged friendships with the prostitute Trixie (Paula Malcomson) and various men, including Wild Bill Hickock (Keith Carridine) and Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), whom she would eventually take as a lover. Finally, Alma discovered that her gold claim (inherited from her dead husband) was extraordinarily rich, giving her by default plenty of leeway in her dealings with the locals.

An appearance by Alma’s father toward the end of Deadwood’s first season highlights how far the character had come by that point. He arrived on the scene to attempt to beg money from his daughter (he had previously pulled the strings that led to her cold, distant marriage he hoped would benefit him financially). Alma does not want to do what he asks, but fears she will slip back in to her old patterns. When Bullock gets word of what is happening, he beats her father horribly. She has awakened passion in him and he in her. By stripping away every bit of her comfortable life in East Coast society, Deadwood has forced Alma to be reborn as a calculating wheeler-dealer.

At the start of season two, Alma finds herself pregnant with Bullock’s child, even though he has left her for his wife, Martha (Anna Gunn) who has arrived at the camp. She decides to keep the baby (against Trixie’s counsel), and immediately throws herself into the affairs of Deadwood with renewed vigor, financing a new bank and arranging a new marriage that will both offer her and her children protection and allow her the maximum amount of maneuvering room. Alma seems to treat this second marriage (to her underling Ellsworth, played by Jim Beaver) as almost another form of negotiation.

The opening episodes of the third season find Alma mostly sidelined by a health problem. But her misfortune ripples throughout the town, evoking concern from a wide cross-section of its citizenry.

Curiously, my wife likes Alma the least of any of the female characters on Deadwood. She finds Alma to be, in so many words, a tremendous bitch. While this may be the simple byproduct of how the role is written and performed, I suspect it has more to do with the fact that Alma has had to make herself more like a stereotypical businessman than any other woman in the series. She has to to be taken seriously. While her money would get her to the table, to get what she wants she has to take the initiative; that requires her to sideline her emotions (the trait we most tend to associate with women, even in our ostensibly modern society). Gifted with the economic freedom she didn’t know she needed, and the ferocity of motherhood she thought would be denied to her, Alma is unafraid to take whatever is within her grasp.

If Alma is divisive, another female character is perhaps the most warm-hearted character on the show (as well as the most foul-mouthed). Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert), based on a historical figure who lived in the real Deadwood, is the citizen of the town who is most open to other human beings. She’s willing to sit down with men of all races for a drink or two, and she cares for the plague-ridden Andy Cramed when he’s left to die in the middle of the forest. Indeed, as Milch points out on the commentary track for the pilot, Jane gained the nickname “Calamity” because she was willing to put herself in harm’s way. She scouted for Custer and helped the town’s reverend and doctor care for disease-ridden residents during the smallpox outbreak that began with the wastel Andy Cramed (Zach Grenier, whose character reinvented himself as a reverend).

If there’s one thing I dislike about the second season, which I generally consider superior to the first, it’s that Jane doesn’t have as much to do—she’s quite possibly my favorite character, or at least the character who is the easiest to love. Jane comes into sharp focus in the second season when she shares a drink with the Nigger General (Franklin Ajaye). While it’s jarring enough to hear the general tossing around a racial epithet most of us would never utter as a part of his name almost casually (even in our hip-hop-steeped culture), when Jane uses it, it feels almost as though the show will comment on the casual racism of the 1800s too overtly. Instead, Jane treats it as just another name, just another person she could turn in to a friend (it’s worth noting, perhaps, that Jane is drunk for most of the series, and perhaps that’s why she’s so accommodating).

Curiously, Jane is the series’s most outwardly masculine female character, but inwardly, she’s almost stereotypically female. She’s a romantic in many ways, still pining for her beloved Wild Bill, standing vigil at his grave and reporting the latest news of the town. She’s pining for a man who never could have been hers, one of the few in Deadwood actually devoted to his absent wife. Jane carries with her a whiff of the romance of the Old West, which may be why she was gradually marginalized as the series went along; she represented a world that was no longer still with the residents of Deadwood.

Jane seems utterly without a self-promoting motive (unusual for this show), able to be trusted by just about anyone in Deadwood. Bullock calls on her for law enforcement purposes (she has guarded prisoners on a few occasions). And in the Season Three premiere, when Joanie Stubbs, at her lowest point, needs someone to turn to, she turns to Jane. Jane is as able to cuss out a wrongdoer as she is to recount her exploits with the Army before an audience of schoolchildren. Despite having one of the foulest mouths in Deadwood, she ranks with the whitest of the series’s murky white hats.

While Alma and Jane both represent, in many ways, the ways in which women of the frontier could learn to exist as separate individuals in a male-dominated society, Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens) acts as a cautious reminder of just how fleeting that sort of power could be. While she also tries to build a life for herself that will be separate from, but equal to, the lives of the men around her, the world foils her. Joanie came to town with saloon owner and pimp Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe), a man who has trouble shifting with the times. At first, she was Cy’s prize—his lover and his finest working girl. Despite this, Joanie began to stand out from the gaggle of whores at Cy’s place. It was clear she had ambition (she colluded with other employees to make sure she would escape any untenable situation), and she also seemed to harbor desire for other women (in particular a teenager who came to Deadwood—played memorably by Kristen Bell). When that teenager was cruelly slaughtered by Cy, Joanie began to separate from him, even announcing that she couldn’t work for him anymore.

In the second season, Joanie sets up her own brothel, Chez Amie. At first she prospers, thanks to her natural business sense and help from friends. But she is soon trapped when Wolcott (Garret Dillahunt), the advance man for mining magnate George Hearst (Gerald McRaney), takes a liking to her girls. But something is not quite right with Mr. Wollcott, and he soon kills three of Joanies employees, including her longtime friend Maddie (Alice Krige), who betrayed Joanie moments before Wolcott slit her throat. When Cy sides with Wolcott, Joanie is isolated and made powerless, forced to send her girls away and nearly bankrupt herself. She has no choice but to return to Cy, and when the third season begins, she is in a dark place.

The story of Joanie’s brothel might seem a mere plot mechanism (a glimpse of Wolcott’s evil depths here, a little prostitute intrigue there) if not viewed within the context of Deadwood’s feminist aspirations. Women can be free in Deadwood only up to a point. Once that point is reached, a woman needs money (Alma) or a guileless personality and sharpshooting abilities (Jane) to be taken seriously. Otherwise, it’s far too easy to end up as collateral in the ever-twisting machinations of Deadwood’s men. This would seem to be a statement by Milch and his writing staff on how the mechanics of institutions, from business and politics to war, often hurt society’s most vulnerable members.

Still, Joanie, like the other prostitutes of Deadwood, is resourceful. One can only assume she’ll bounce back. Indeed, she’s roughly at the same point as Trixie (Paula Malcomson) when the series began. When we first met Trixie, she was a bit of a shell, just another girl Swearengen could sleep with (though, admittedly, his favorite). But she, too, is jarred out of her state of being by young Sofia, Alma’s future adoptee. In caring for the girl, Trixie finds strength. She goes against Al for the first time and helps wean Alma off of laudanum, even though Al wanted her doped up to make it easer to wrestle away her gold claim. When Al threatens Trixie, she stands up to him; soon she’s defying him with regularity. By season two, Trixie seems largely free of Al’s control, learning about accounting from her lover, Sol Starr (John Hawkes). As season three begins, it seems that she and Sol may settle into something approaching a domestic lifestyle.

But Trixie isn’t just a “prostitute with a heart of gold” or someone who manages to embrace the semblance of a dream and rise above a miserable situation. She’s also a bit of a mother figure to the other women of Deadwood. She’s the de facto leader of the Gem girls, and when Alma fears she’s pregnant and won’t be able to deliver the baby, or needs general counsel, she turns to Trixie. The latter’s reinvention is just as pronounced as Alma’s, but since she’s doing it largely under a man’s supervision, it’s not as noticeable. But she’s seized control of her life, finding a way to rebuild herself as someone who will be useful to the community evolving from lawlessness to civility. And that’s what sets the women of Deadwood apart from the men and makes the show quite possibly the most feminist program on television: They’re always reinventing, rebuilding, forcing themselves through painful processes of rebirth. And they tend to look out for each other.

While most of Deadwood’s men haven’t changed remarkably since the series began (journeying mainly from conflict to compromise), the women are all noticeably different people after two full seasons. They’ve improved their situations and made better lives for themselves. If Deadwood is a metaphorical journey through America (as many have argued it is), the most American characters of all are the women, which is a truly radical notion for a Western.

Even Martha, who could have so easily become the quiet schoolmarm from westerns stretching from Stagecoach to Back to the Future III, singlehandedly takes on the task of educating the town’s children. And we see in the third season just how difficult a task like this would be. While the men of Deadwood fight, the women make peace, forming unlikely alliances that prove unusually strong (Alma and Trixie, for example). One could even make the argument that if the men of Deadwood suggest what America actually is (brutish, only willing to compromise when there’s no other option), the women represent America’s best self-image: kind, capable of reinvention and agreement with others.

The women of Deadwood are passionate, fully realized human beings. While that’s not an unusual notion for HBO (the women of The Sopranos and even Big Love are complex and complete), it’s a rare sight elsewhere on TV. Just look at at Rescue Me, in many ways a fine show (and one that’s funnier than any sitcom on the air right now). But its treatment of women is ridiculous. It can’t even be bothered to take the path of least resistance and categorize its female characters as virgins, mothers or crones. They’re all shrews, demanding, and taking, everything from their men and giving little back. One could claim this is a subjective view—that we’re seeing the women as the show’s men see them—but that argument doesn’t hold up when you consider the fate of Diane Farr’s character, who was built up as “one of the guys” in the firehouse but still eventually succumbed to shrew’s disease. Rescue Me understands a lot about the interplay between men better than almost any show on the air, but its depiction of women borders on sexist.

This gender imbalance at the script level can also be seen on House. This medical drama suffers from a general inability, or unwillingness, to offer supporting players as intriguing as its title character (Hugh Laurie). But the women, in particular, are poorly drawn. Cameron (Jennifer Morrison) is just a dewy-eyed innocent who vainly waits for our hero to realize how nubile and loving she could be (ironically, Cameron is more like a Victorian heroine than any woman on Deadwood, a show that is actually set during the Victorian era). If Cameron is the aforementioned feminists’ virgin, then Dr. Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) is the crone, constantly butting up against House and making his life miserable. While these characters occasionally manage snappy rejoinders (their interplay with House is always entertaining), they aren’t as developed as they should be. Not so the women of Deadwood. They point the way forward from their 19th century frontier camp life all the way to the suffrage movement and the Equal Rights Amendment. Milch has taken stock Western characters and made them breathe.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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Review: The Third Day Leans Heavily on Mystery at the Expense of Human Drama

Much of the show’s drama pivots around how successful it will be at slowly pulling back the curtain.

2.5

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The Third Day
Photo: Robert Ludovic/HBO

The premiere episode of HBO’s limited series The Third Day, in which a man fighting off sadness and potentially madness finds himself on a mysterious island just off the English coast, goes longer on mystery and mood than it does on plot. The feel of the series is richly atmospheric, filled with oversaturated colors and quaint cottages that would make for a nice weekend getaway were it not for the inhospitable, antagonistic, and slightly cult-ish locals. Despite the show’s unsettling backdrop, though, the circular nature of the story keeps any appreciable amount of tension from building over the course of the five episodes were made available for review.

The first episode throws a lot at the audience before even getting to the island. Sam (Jude Law) is a raggedy-looking guy who volleys quickly between moods. First there’s inchoate fury, as he screams into a phone about money being stolen from an office, and then irredeemable and inexplicable sadness, as he collapses by the side of a stream. Snapped out of his chaotic collapse by the sight of a teenage girl, Epona (Jessie Ross), hanging herself from a tree in the woods, he saves her life and drives her home, even as she murmurs, “They’ll kill me.”

Epona lives in a self-contained island community called Osea that’s accessible only for a short time each day when the ocean tide uncovers a Roman-era causeway. Once there, Sam is flooded with conflicting sensations. The first is that it all feels somewhat familiar, even though as far as he knows his only connection to Osea is his grandfather being stationed there during World War II. The second is a low kind of foreboding that will be well-known to viewers of many a horror movie about urbanites stuck in remote locations. Sam knows something is amiss about this strange place with its quasi-pagan traditions and its people’s alternating suspicion and over-friendliness toward outsiders, but he somehow conveniently keeps missing the short windows of time when he could just drive back to the mainland.

Triangulating a creepy space located somewhere between Ari Aster’s Midsommar, Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, and the TV cult classic The Prisoner, The Third Day works hard to not give too much away while still trying to pull viewers in. It’s a difficult act, given that Sam’s manic behavior and the show’s intentional and often fairly clichéd attempts to blur the lines between reality and fantasy make it somewhat difficult to invest in what happens to him.

Generally more engaging are the side characters who start popping in to further confuse an already muddle-headed Sam, including the ever-bickering Martins (Paddy Considine and Emily Watson), the cosmically mismatched pair who run Osea’s one pub and ricochet from suspicious to trustworthy in an instant. Jess (Katherine Waterston), an American researcher doing work on the island’s traditions both ancient (Celtic bacchanals, sacrifices, and the like) and newer (a Burning Man-like festival designed to drum up tourism), is ostensibly the standard alluring woman of mystery but has grim secrets of her own that mimic Sam’s dark past.

Like the stories that The Third Day appears on its surface to be emulating, much of the drama here will ultimately pivot around just how successful it will be at slowly pulling back the curtain until its final reveal. The series is certainly committed to the slow burn, with too much of its running time given over to Sam’s punchy befuddlement as he tries to separate dream from reality. Further slowing down the momentum is the show’s structure: The first three episodes (gathered together as “Summer”) are separated from a second set of three (“Winter”), in which another outsider (Naomie Harris) traps herself on Osea by a single linking episode (“Autumn”), which is planned to screen live from London in early October.

The Third Day works best when it’s not teasing out this or that secret about Osea and its cagey inhabitants. A strong undercurrent in which characters wrestle with their grief keeps wrenching the story away from its somewhat ambling mystery plot. Sam is given one of the show’s most impactful lines when he tries to explain the sadness he carries: “Pain doesn’t work that way, you can’t share it…agony is bespoke.” Although Osea is studded with gothic signposts that should be warning characters like Sam away from the place, as the series continues it zeroes in less on the horror elements and more on the more quotidian and human conflicts that keep threatening to tear the island apart. Though viewers may stick with The Third Day to the end to discover what Osea’s deepest and darkest secrets might be, its human drama is more compelling than any suggestion of the unworldly.

Cast: Jude Law, Katherine Waterston, Paddy Considine, Emily Watson, Naomie Harris, John Dagleish, Nico Parker, Freya Allan Network: HBO

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Review: We Are Who We Are Perceptively Homes in on the Malleability of Boundaries

The series concerns itself with boundaries between the different cultural standards of young adulthood.

3

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We Are Who We Are
Photo: Yannis Drakoulidis/HBO

With his loud clothes and bleached hair, 14-year-old Fraser Wilson (Jack Dylan Grazer) sticks out on the U.S. Army base where he lives. He spends much of the first episode of director and co-writer Luca Guadagnino’s We Are Who We Are in animal-print shorts long enough to function as pants, being restless and fidgety and a detached nuisance in that post-adolescent sort of way, taking pictures of people inside classrooms or running through the middle of a basketball game between recruits. One of his mothers, Colonel Sarah Wilson (Chloë Sevigny), has been put in charge of a garrison in Italy, so they—he, Sarah, and his other mom, Maggie (Alice Braga)—have relocated from New York, to Fraser’s dismay.

Especially when its yoked to Fraser’s perspective, the series makes the base feel vibrant and alive, given the Altmanesque use of overlapping conversations and diegetic music. Peripheral characters are always conspicuously doing things in the background, like buying food or running drills. The boy seems volatile and strange, in ways perhaps explained by the sensory overload of his POV; he’s an observer and there’s almost too much to observe, with dialogue and actions often carrying on out of frame. Fraser feels compelled to center himself in his own world, doing things like balancing precariously on a bridge railing or intruding on Italian homeowners sewing outside, though sometimes he allows himself to be guided by new acquaintances, like fellow army brat Britney (Francesca Scorsese).

When the second episode of the series replays many of these same overlapping events from the perspective of Caitlin Harper (Jordan Kristine Seamón), the repetitions don’t feel gimmicky so much as a natural result of the show’s densely packed structure. Conversations that were tangential and difficult to follow for the easily distracted Fraser are given clearer focus due to Caitlin’s more confident, pensive demeanor. She’s already familiar with the environment, having been at the base long enough to form a friend group that includes other teens like Britney and Caitlin’s high-strung brother, Danny (Spence Moore II). And with the additional perspective, throwaway lines from the first episode take on new meanings. For example, Sarah’s remark to Jenny (Faith Alabi) about respecting faiths other than the base’s dominant Christian demographic gains a patronizing quality when we learn that Jenny is Danny’s mother and that he’s experimenting with the Islamic faith that she left behind, seemingly at the behest of her domineering husband, Richard (Scott Mescudi, a.k.a. Kid Cudi).

Of the four episodes made available to critics ahead of We Are Who We Are’s premiere, the other two sync up more traditionally as Caitlin and Fraser begin to spend time with one another. Being the new kid on the base, Fraser lacks any of the preconceptions of Caitlin’s friend group, so he becomes an ideal confidante for her experiments with gender expression. Going by just “Harper,” Caitlin tucks her long hair beneath a hat and hits on Italian girls in town, while subtly rebuffing guys elsewhere with a quick, “I don’t speak Italian.”

The series concerns itself with boundaries and the way they blur, namely the differing standards of young adulthood between Italy and the base that technically functions as the United States. In one scene, Britney drags Fraser to the beach because he’s allowed to drink off base. By spotlighting this interplay, the series emphasizes how we create so many of these boundaries ourselves, whether in our own heads, through procedures, or in accordance with society at large, along lines of political affinity, relationships, and sexuality.

The most significant boundary separation in the series, then, is the one between childhood and adulthood, which is hardly a rigid one. Accordingly, the kids sometimes seem wise and mature and accepting beyond their years only to fly off the handle and engage in that distinctly teenage brand of solipsism, where the people around you don’t matter nearly as much as you and your own feelings. They’re able to be pretentious and profound on entirely their own terms, rather than seeming like mouthpieces for middle-aged screenwriters. They leave atrocious messes in their wake, badger a lot of people, and act downright annoying, which feels true and honest in a broader sense than the occasional small detail that rings false. They have the space to change, while the adults ruminate on the decisions—the marriages, the jobs, the beliefs—that they’ve long since committed to. We Are Who We Are explores a world that’s opening up to these kids just as it is, in many ways, preparing to snap closed.

Cast: Jack Dylan Grazer, Jordan Kristine Seamón, Chloë Sevigny, Alice Braga, Spence Moore II, Kid Cudi, Faith Alabi, Francesca Scorsese, Ben Taylor, Corey Knight Network: HBO

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Review: I May Destroy You Boldly Dissects Notions of Sexual Assault and Consent

The series draws one of the most nuanced portraits of sexual assault ever depicted on TV.

4

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I May Destroy You
Photo: Natalie Seery/HBO

In “Ego Death,” the final episode of the British comedy-drama I May Destroy You, actress, writer, and series creator Michaela Coel confidently defies convention and, with it, any expectation that the events of the series, like life, can be tied into a tidy knot. Privileging character over plot, I May Destroy You has no need for the kinds of melodramatic reveals on which other cable dramas like Big Little Lies rely, and it proves no less revelatory on that front.

Coel draws one of the most nuanced portraits of sexual assault and its psychological fallout ever depicted on TV, and along the way captures the milieu of Black millennial Londoners with precise and vivid detail. For all the lived-in verisimilitude of its world, though, I May Destroy You also smoothly incorporates psychologically subjective and allegorical elements: The bar in which Arabella is assaulted is called Ego Death (a perfect summation of the consequent disintegration of her identity), and the book on sexual assault that she’s writing throughout the series is likely an in-text reflection of the creation of I May Destroy You itself.

In the first episode, “Eyes, Eyes, Eyes, Eyes,” we join the Ghanaian-British Arabella (Coel) as she returns to London from Italy, where she’s been working on a follow-up to her published collection of social-media musings, Chronicles of a Fed-Up Millennial. Or at least that’s what she’s told her literary agent (Adam James) and financier (Natalie Walter), as the trip was actually motivated by a visit to her on-again, off-again beau, Biagio (Marouane Zotti), who remains noncommittal about their relationship as she departs. Back in London, she’s welcomed by her group of steadfast friends, including Simon (Aml Ameen), who convinces her to suspend her all-night scramble to finish her book draft and join him at the Ego Death.

There, Arabella’s drink is spiked and, as she later comes to remember and even more slowly comes to accept, raped in a bathroom stall by an unknown assailant. Brief point-of-view flashbacks to the attack that recur throughout the series complement Coel’s larger fascination with the role that memory and its interpretation play in the formation of identity. Longer, structural flashbacks in many episodes challenge our perspective on Arabella’s present and often serve to undermine our presumptions about victimhood and blame.

Hardly a cowed victim, but shaken and traumatized, Arabella reevaluates and rebuilds her life after her attack. It’s been said that the world is revealed in breakdown—that you don’t know how a car works until your carburetor fails. Arabella’s assault forces her and her closest friends, Terry (Weruche Opia) and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), to examine their own sexual encounters, relationships, and histories, leading them to disconcerting conclusions about the various roles they play in relation to each other and their sexual partners.

Similar to its exploration of the multiple dimensions of a person’s identity, I May Destroy You depicts the different forms that sexual assault can take, not all of it as immediately readable as Arabella’s violent rape, and not always committed by obvious villains like the man (Lewis Reeves) in Arabella’s flashbacks. The series delivers an illustration of how someone can be violated even after consent is given: We repeatedly see men use deception to get people in bed, or deploy it once they’ve already starting hooking up. Kwame finds it impossible to process his own sexual assault, personally or legally—in part because the justice system proves to have even less infrastructure for dealing with the rape of gay men—and diverts his anguish into a distasteful act of sexual mendacity. Terry comes to rethink a threesome she ostensibly opted into, whose circumstances we explore in a flashback to her and Arabella’s first trip to Italy.

But Coel isn’t simply out to demonstrate the many variations of sexual assault in the manner of a sex education video; rather, I May Destroy You examines how sexual, racial, and gender exploitation weave themselves into people’s identities and attitudes. Episode three, “Don’t Forget the Sea,” crucially plants the seed of the unexamined tension within Arabella and Terry’s friendship. As in almost any long-term close friendship, both have committed inconsiderate slights against the other, but, as two black women in a sexist and racist society, such petty affronts come with high stakes. Allowing her characters to respond imperfectly to each others’ crises, Coel foregrounds the importance of forgiving individuals within a broken society—daringly including among the forgiven characters who have unambiguously crossed a sexual “line spectrum border” (the title of the show’s eighth episode).

I May Destroy You doesn’t define its characters through moral dichotomies. Episode six, “The Alliance,” poignantly explores the tangled social hierarchy that gives a measure of institutional power to white girls, but also can allow black boys to assert a form of male privilege, as a flashback to a racially and sexually charged incident that occurred when Arabella was in high school blurs the line between victim and perpetrator. And the tenth episode, “The Cause the Cure,” presents what’s probably the show’s most moving representation of the yin-and-yang influence that loved ones can have on the course of our lives, juxtaposing Arabella’s realization of a truth about her beloved father (Yinka Awoni) with her processing of her and Terry’s own betrayals of each other’s sisterly trust.

Arabella’s circuitous route to recovery feels deeply personal, but at the same time, her story touches on more universal aspects of life for someone of her gender, race, and age. At once hyper-local and global in its concerns, I May Destroy You feels eminently contemporary, a necessary artistic distillation of a distinctly modern form of life. With the series, Coel gives voice to a generation of black and brown millennials whose realities don’t reflect the fantasy of a post-racial, post-feminist society that many have tried to wish into being.

Cast: Michaela Coel, Weruche Opia, Paapa Essiedu, Aml Ameen, Marouane Zotti, Harriett Webb, Stephen Wight, Natalie Walter, Adam James Network: HBO

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Review: HBO’s Lovecraft Country Confronts the Evil Lurking Beneath American Life

The series eclipses its source material in capturing the omnidirectional dread of Lovecraftian horror.

3

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Lovecraft Country
Photo: Eli Joshua Ade/HBO

The horror of Lovecraft Country, Misha Green’s adaptation of Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel of the same name, is at first all too real. Set in the 1950s, it introduces Korean War veteran Atticus “Tic” Freeman (Jonathan Majors) as he returns to his hometown of Chicago after receiving news of his father’s (Michael Kenneth Williams) disappearance. Left a note pointing to the man’s possible location in a Massachusetts town called Ardham, Tic journeys across 1950s Jim Crow America with an old friend, Letitia Lewis (Jurnee Smollett), and his uncle, George (Courtney B. Vance), a travel agent who contributes to a guidebook, similar to The Negro Motorist Green Book, of safe places to eat and lodge for Black roadtrippers.

The first episode of the series generates much dread from Tic, Letitia, and George passing through towns as white people turn their heads in eerie unison and police cars seemingly materialize out of nowhere. Close-ups of the white walls of a diner that was previously welcoming of Black customers reveal scorch marks that were barely painted over, telling us all that we need to know about how the locals here felt about integration. Cops pull out their guns the moment they set eyes on Tic and his associates, and conversations between the main characters and white people are marked by eye-averting submissiveness and fear. In fact, when the other shoe finally drops and the monsters we expect to encounter in an H.P. Lovecraft story finally materialize, the additional layer of terror heaped onto the protagonists is somewhat offset by the relief of seeing some of their white tormenters become prey.

As Lovecraft’s influence on horror continues to grow in the decades since his death, artists have attempted to reckon with his racism and xenophobia, namely by recognizing that the pagan cults and corrupted humanoid monsters that make the author’s work so chilling also provide insights into his pathological hatred of the Other. Lovecraft Country understands that in a world filled with underground occultists who wield strange power, such groups aren’t made up of tired and huddled masses, but of folks in the upper echelons of wealth and authority. If anything, the racially and culturally diverse people whom Lovecraft saw as social pollutants would be the most routine victims of these organizations—second-class citizens whose disappearances would never be investigated by the powers that be.

The series has its share of CGI monsters, from many-limbed creatures to undead spirits, but its most compelling visual scares involve the cold framing of remote manors owned by cult leaders like Samuel Braithwhite (Tony Goldwyn) and his daughter, Christina (Abbey Lee). These individuals, with their Aryan features and stiff countenances, never betray any emotion or urgency, for they know that they live in a world where they can have whatever they want. And their sense of superiority informs Lovecraft Country’s most blackly comedic moment, when Christina objects to Tic comparing their group to the KKK by saying, “My father and his associates would never fraternize with the Klan. They’re too poor.”

The first five episodes of the series made available to press branch out from the central plotline to cover such topics as haunted houses and body transformation, which allows Lovecraft Country to change up its scares as well as broaden its allegorical range. The realistic harassment suffered by the Black residents of a boarding house in a white neighborhood, for example, is thrown into even sharper relief by the mutilated ghosts who stalk its halls. And throughout these episodes, characters encounter gruesome objects connected to the order that hunts them, reflecting the long history of slavery and Manifest Destiny.

Green makes some significant changes to the novel, but her most rewarding come in the form of the extra time she devotes to tracking the emotional fallout of the characters’ experiences, not only in relation to the horrors they witness, but the everyday degradations they suffer. One can see, for example, how an older man like George is so deeply inculcated in a racist system that, even at the height of his fear, he remains obsequious around whites. Comparatively, there’s something rousing, and more than a little funny, in seeing Tic and Leti so addled by the unearthly terrors they face that they become less dutiful in abiding by the mores of Jim Crow. Eventually, they begin to lash out at harassing whites, who are so used to the power dynamics of American society that they’re almost too stunned at the backtalk to be enraged by it.

Early in the first episode, a woman riding next to Tic on a bus to Chicago sees that he’s reading one of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter novels and expresses her disapproval of such a work with an ex-Confederate for a hero. “Stories are like people,” he says. “Loving them doesn’t make them perfect. You just try to cherish them and overlook their flaws.” The old woman responds: “Yeah, but the flaws are still there.” That exchange could be the thesis of Lovecraft Country, which eclipses even its source material in capturing the all-encompassing dread of Lovecraft’s fiction while at the same time confronting head-on the most problematic aspects of his writing. The author feared America becoming infected with evil that would sink it asunder, while Green’s series operates from the opposite point of view: that evil was integral to the nation’s creation and that it must be fought, however futilely, to be overcome.

Cast: Jonathan Majors, Jurnee Smollett, Aunjanue Ellis, Abbey Lee, Jada Harris, Michael Kenneth Williams, Courtney B. Vance, Jordan Patrick Smith Network: HBO

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Review: In My Skin Is a Bitingly Poignant, If Cluttered, Coming-of-Age Story

Though it doesn’t provide room for a fully formed character arc, the series is driven by its performances and mordant humor.

2.5

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In My Skin
Photo: BBC

Sixteen-year-old Bethan Gwyndaf (Gabrielle Creevy), the protagonist of Hulu’s In My Skin, has a lot going on in her life. She’s the only responsible member of her household, essentially acting as caretaker for her bipolar mother, Trina (Jo Hartley), and constantly at odds with her layabout, alcoholic father, Dilwyn (Rhodi Meilir). And she’s often the only voice of reason among her best friends, Travis (James Wilbraham) and Lydia (Poppy Lee Friar), who seem to always get into trouble whenever she’s not around. She’s also nursing a desperate crush on Poppy (Zadeia Campbell-Davies), the popular girl at school.

Bethan is a compulsive liar, so obsessed with fitting in at school that she spins elaborate stories of a home life filled with cultural activities and fancy renovations to cover for the reality that she spends much of her time taking care of Trina and tracking down Dilwyn. Her obsession with crafting a perfect external image of herself makes it impossible for her to form emotional connections with anyone, even people who genuinely care for her. Travis and Lydia, for example, want to support her in the same way she supports them, brushing off their questions about her family life and never even letting them inside her house.

Bethan is smart and sensitive, and Creevy makes the character, with her conspiratorial smile and natural aversion to being told what she can and can’t do, easy to like—even as Bethan frustratingly and steadfastly refuses to let anyone in. In My Skin’s Welsh-born creator, Kayleigh Llewellyn, based Bethan and Trina on herself and her own bipolar mother, and there’s a lot of raw emotion in the interactions between the two characters, ranging from tender and loving to harsh and hurtful. The short-tempered Dilwyn, inspired by Llewellyn’s late father, has no patience for Trina’s unstable mental state, leaving her to wander the streets or tying her to the radiator to make sure she stays in the house. Her parents’ combative dynamic often leaves Bethan stuck in the middle of them, attempting to play peacemaker.

As volatile as Bethan’s family relationships can be, In My Skin still has plenty of humor, emanating from Bethan’s biting wit and frequent flights of imagination, during which she casts herself as the romantic hero in Poppy’s life, as well as a poet whose words are illustrated with perfume commercial-style images. Bethan’s occasional voiceover narration is an inconsistent element of the series, but her self-aware commentary is a welcome counterpoint to her infuriatingly self-sabotaging behavior. While having Bethan explain her inner thoughts can easily become a narrative crutch, In My Skin could have benefited more from Bethan’s reflective observations, which give us a deeper understanding of her often impulsive decisions.

All the more important since the first season’s five half-hour episodes don’t provide enough room for Bethan’s arc to fully take shape, moving her only a short way down the path toward maturity and ending just as she’s starting to assert herself at school, harnessing her way with words to run for student body. Her relationships with her fellow teens remain stunted, and her potential coming-out journey takes a back seat to her need to care for Trina and insulate her from trauma. Llewellyn isn’t afraid to confront the dark elements of Bethan’s life—the way poverty, mental illness, homophobia, and substance abuse combine to weigh her down. That her personality shines through at all is both a testament to Creevy’s performance and the character’s determination to make a better life for herself, however misguided.

That personality is what drives In My Skin, and Bethan’s self-sufficiency is a big part of what makes her so compelling. No matter what delusion or altercation Trina involves her in throughout the show’s first season, Bethan always comes back, taking on a responsibility that she never asked for and shouldn’t have to handle on her own. If she doesn’t always know how to balance that responsibility with everything else going on in her life, at least she’s approaching every new setback with appealingly mordant humor.

Cast: Gabrielle Creevy, James Wilbraham, Jo Hartley, Poppy Lee Friar, Zadeia Campbell-Davies, Rhodri Meilir, Alexandra Riley, Di Botcher, Aled ap Steffan Network: Hulu

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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.

2

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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.

3

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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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