In fighting off waves of melancholy over Deadwoodâ€™s premature demise (HBO and creator David Milch will wrap things up with a couple of TV movies), itâ€™s helpful to reflect on the improbability of the showâ€™s existence. Poised to enter its third season as a modest hit, and riding a wave of critical admiration, the series has flourished amidst inhospitable conditions. A densely plotted serial belonging to the least popular of genres, the western, Deadwood owes as large a debt to high school civics class as it does to the shoot-out at the OK Corral. With its pug-face character actors, horseshit-speckled costumes, convoluted dialogue and the foulest disposition youâ€™re likely to find outside of the local drunk tank, the show is what youâ€™d charitably call â€śan acquired taste.â€ť
Whatâ€™s so remarkable about the show is not just way itâ€™s forced an audience accustomed to spoon-feeding to surmount its own prejudices, but the fact that it continues to do so in astoundingly break-neck, Byzantine ways. While network mates (both deceased and soon to be) CarnivĂ le and The Sopranos leisurely genuflect over the comings and goings which shape the world around them, Deadwood lays down track scarcely before it rolls over it, leaving the flat footed choking on its dust. Like the mayfly, a season of Deadwood has a very short lifespanâ€”typically a matter of weeks. But oh, the things it accomplishes in that time.
The adjective â€śShakespeareanâ€ť is often applied to Deadwood for innumerable reasons: the reliance on fools and imps and conspirators swindling and undermining one another, often in high comic fashion; the regular embrace of operatic tragedy, and of course, the iambic pentameter-influenced dialogue, its beauty made ironic by Milchâ€™s penchant for wrapping poetry as beautiful as any ever written for American television around such words as â€śfuck,â€ť â€ścunt,â€ť â€ścocksuckerâ€ť â€śwhoreâ€ť and â€śchink.â€ť
Even the way most initially appreciate the series reminds me how one first approaches Shakespeare.Back when I was in high school, there was a pecking order to when you were assigned each of the Bardâ€™s plays. It began with Romeo and Juliet as a freshman and ended with Hamlet during the last semester of senior year (which, if you think about it, really does no service to the play) and Julius Caesar and Macbeth in in between. We were given every work, each so daunting on first glance, at a moment in life when we were most receptive to appreciating them, starting with the oh-so-prescient themes of young lust and loversâ€™ torment, then gradually working through the canon to obsession, insanity, deceit and murder.
On first reading we understood less the exact meaning of the words than the tenor of the voice. Deadwood operates in much the same way. Without the aid of repeat viewing and subtitlesâ€”not to mention helpful online communities such as thisâ€”I would speculate that 100% comprehension is near impossible. And, like my old curriculum, thereâ€™s a built-in learning curve. The series initially goes easy on us, using a broad brush to introduce us to a world where celebrities like Wild Bill Hickok roams the roads (itâ€™s easy to forget now, but once upon a time the show was advertised around Keith Carradineâ€™s character) avenging orphaned children and talking tough over ill-fated card games, while larger- than-life characters like Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), a charismatic monster in the Tony Soprano mold, held court over dim subjects, dishing out bile-dripping insults as readily as beatings. And, as if the Sopranos-to-Deadwood segue werenâ€™t easy enough, there are even de-facto Bing Girls in the whores, on hand to provide gratuitous T&A when needed. But, just as â€śthat play they turned into West Side Storyâ€ť paved the way for â€śFriends, Romans, countrymenâ€¦,â€ť so too did season oneâ€™s tongue-twistingly verbosity in service of communal scheming prepare us for the loftier ambitions of Season Two.
Take the following passage, spoken in season one by Swearengen regarding his intentions towards the widow Garret (Molly Parker): â€śMy oath on this; everyday that the widow sits on her ass in New York City, looks west at sunset, and thinks to herself â€śGod bless you ignorant cocksuckers in Deadwood who strive mightily and have little money, to add to my ever increasing fortune,â€™ sheâ€™ll be safe from the wiles of Al Swearengen.â€ť
Season Two applies the same flowery syntax to negotiating a charter for annexation of an illegal territory by a sovereign state. Thatâ€™s right: itâ€™s bureaucratic pentameter!
At this point itâ€™s probably furtive to continue the analogy between Shakespeare and Deadwood, as thereâ€™s a much more recent and (in most circles these days) familiar antecedent, one that employed similar tactics to exemplary effect. Iâ€™m referring, of course, to the first two installments of Francis Ford Coppolaâ€™s The Godfather.
The surface similarities are unmistakable. Both follow criminal organizations attempting to go legit. Both have period settings. Both are inherently pulpy, with the adulation and awards that followed seemingly an afterthought. The violence is graphic, with lasting consequences, yet thereâ€™s an undeniable vicarious thrill to watching â€śfamily business get settled,â€ť or seeing a doped-up snitch get fed to Mr. Wuâ€™s pigs. Both works also serve as microcosms of America, allowing us to watch the nation develop from within the confines of a tightly-knit community.
Look deeper and the similarities become even more pronounced. Sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant of the unmistakable gaited walk), a community pillar and moral compass, initially shirked his responsibilities, running from his destiny as a lawman by opening up shop in a land with no laws. Cold-blooded Corleone family don Michael (Al Pacino) was once an idealistic young man who joined the military to defend the nation, and once told his WASP schoolteacher girlfriend (Diane Keaton), â€śThatâ€™s my family Kay, itâ€™s not me.â€ť In the aforementioned Hickok and Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) you have two forceful, soft-spoken, violent, yet ultimately moral partirachs who guide our reluctant heroes, and whose passing ultimately spurs their wards to become the men they were born to be.
Life in Deadwood is a commodity which is bartered and snatched away suddenly, often with reptilian detachmentâ€”a place where death is often just the beginning of indignities inflicted on the body. As Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe) purrs at one point to his departing madam, â€śItâ€™s kill you or let you go, [could] I make it with you dead?â€ť (And really, is Cy Tolliver anything more to Swearengen than a rival family muscling in on his territoryâ€”his very own Barzini?) The Corleones have similarly been graced with an almost extrasensory ability to sniff out conflict and violently curtail problems, always with an element of chilling surprise; just ask Carlo, whose greatest sin was calling in sick the day Don Vito got shot. Furthermore, when it comes to exact your vengeance, both Deadwood and the Godfather pictures appreciate the value of staging calculated violence against the backdrop of a sacred communal event. The similarities are so legion that it feels as if the two works are speaking to each other across timeâ€”in season two, when Tolliver helps Garret Dillahuntâ€™s Francis Wolcott conceal the bodies of the dead whores, how can one not think of Senator Geary in Godfather II?
But the most rewarding comparison point is the way the two works transition in their sophomore outings, expanding their narratives into unfamiliar and unsettling territories. Season Two takes place a year after season one. The once near-medieval town has acquired telegraph poles, a jail and heavy mining equipment. Yet interpersonal relationships are more contentious than ever. Bullock and Swearengen remain, at best, tenuous allies, with the dynamic between lawman and thuggish criminal destined to come to a head. In the season-two opener, â€śA Lie Agreed Upon, Parts 1 & 2,â€ť a spat between the two becomes a melee on the balcony of the Gem, then devolves into a blood-and-mud-caked brawl in the townâ€™s main thoroughfare. As Bullockâ€™s wife, Martha (Anna Gunn) and stepson (Josh Eriksson) arrive in town and interrupt the fight, Al barks: â€śWelcome to fucking Deadwood!â€ť He might as well be welcoming viewers home.
Similarly, The Godfather, Part II begins much the same way the previous film did. After a brief prologue in turn of the century Italy and Ellis Island, Coppola again immerses us in a large, protracted family gathering where the Don (now Michael) holds court and conducts illegal business against a festive backdrop. Part II goes to great lengths to mirror its predecessor in these early scenes, all the way down to Frankie Pentangliâ€™s (Michael V. Gazzo) ill-advised attempt at reprising the sing-along from the wedding, and the Don confiding in a visibly shaken Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) over a drink.
The events of Part II are set in motion by a botched assassination attempt against Michael. But the retaliation weâ€™ve become conditioned to expect is defused early on: the trigger-men are found murdered on the premises. Revenge will have to be served (very) cold this time, because before we can follow Michael on his pursuit of a family traitor, Coppola whisks us back in time to the ascension of young Vito Corleone (now played by Robert De Niro) in 1920â€™s New York. What initially seemed a stand-alone prologue reveals itself as a parallel narrative; the 1920s backstory informs the life of Michaelâ€™s father, the man who both cursed him to this life while serving as a role model he should have tried harder to emulate.
Similarly, while Bullock and Swearengen reach a tentative accord at gun point, weâ€™re never granted the resolution to which we feel entitled. Like the second Godfather, Season Two of Deadwood doesnâ€™t merely revisit the predicaments and narrative rhythms of season one, but denies us other pleasures as well, entering unfamiliar territory while staying in the present and never leaving the limits of the town. In the first two episodes, Milch even removes his most vibrant character; Swearengen is incapacitated, silenced and brought to deathâ€™s door by an ailment wholly unrelated to his injuries: kidney stones, of all things.
Deadwood has always been a tapestry, an ensemble in the truest sense of the word, but Al always was in the middle of it, spurring events through instigation or back-handed encouragement. With his life hanging in the balance, Al is unable to snip certain complications (formerly difficulties) in the bud, and his absence from the public stage allows strong opposition to his control to take root. When The Sopranos attempted a similar tactic this past season it was used to allow Tony to grow and change because of the experience. When Swearengen is out of commission, itâ€™s the town that does the changing.
With his recovery slow, Al is placed outside of the loop for the first time in the showâ€™s history, no longer overtly pulling the strings (now where have I seen that image before?) and at the mercy of questionable intelligence often arriving after the fact. By the time heâ€™s back on his feet Yanktonâ€™s Commissioner Jarry (Stephen Tobolowsky) has already planted the seeds of doubt amongst local land owners while Hearstâ€™s man Wolcott has purchased all gold claims save the widow Garretâ€™s. There are still battles to be fought, but the weapons will be misinformation, negotiation and the occasional bribe.
At the end of the first Godfather, the Corleone clan left New York City for Reno, Nevada. An almost entirely self-contained film (with the exception of Michaelâ€™s trip to Italy), Part I rarely ventured beyond the immediate actions and needs of, and direct threats to, the family. The Donâ€™s godson Johnny Fontane wants the part in a war film, so pressure must be placed on the filmâ€™s producer; Sollozzo tried to kill the Don, so he must be killed in turn; the four families stand in the way of Corleone dominance so they must be removed. Etcâ€¦
Part II takes a much more global approach to crime, literally and figuratively. Not only do the flashbacks cover nearly 30 years in Vitoâ€™s life, (watching him rise from slighted young man to low-level thug to guardian of the neighborhood to international businessman to syndicate boss) but also traversing two continents. Michael himself leaves the safety of Nevada for Florida, New York and pre-revolution Cuba, snaking out his assassins and expanding his empire to the south and Latin America, and turning up in Washington, D.C., to flaunt his criminality. After watching Michaelâ€™s father broker deals with old school thugs in Part Iâ€”faces concealed by fedoras, unafraid to get their hands dirtyâ€”we watched Michael jostle for control with Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) a withered old man not long for this earth (an early assassination attempt on him squandered when heâ€™s rushed to the hospital with a legitimate health emergency). Like Gerald McRaneyâ€™s mining mogul George Hearst on Deadwood, Roth is an enemy who doesnâ€™t need a gun to kill you.
Consider some of the conflicts and inciting incidents of Deadwood Season Two: â€śTerritorial Disputes.â€ť Installing the electoral process. Becoming annexed by existing territories. Real estate purchases. Validating land ownership claims. Pursuing representation in local government. Government officials issuing misleading press reports. Sexy stuff, right? The thrills of Godfather Part II include buying out ownership of casinos, haggling over gambling licenses and bribes to politicians, aquiescing to a decrepit mobster, investing in Third World countries, working with corrupt governments and testifying before a Senate subcommittee on organized crime. A bit far from sticking a horse head under the sheets, no?
As America changed, so too did the baseline requirements for would-be archcriminalsâ€”especially ones with delusions of legitimacy. While intimidation, extortion and murder still move the gears along, Michael Corleone, like Al Swearengen, is forced to adapt to â€śprogressâ€ť which, as we learn, is as devious and challenging as barbarism.
In expanding the conflict beyond the immediate loss of life and into the loss of a way of life, both Deadwood and The Godfather risk alienating fans that have come to expect nothing more than lurid thrills, bursts of violence and T-shirt worthy quips. Overly ambitious, unwieldy and lacking some of the more exhilarating flashes of their predecessor, both of these masterpieces faced initial criticism for diluting the strength of what came before.
Yet by delving deeper into the rot of corruption, both ultimately reveal much about the men at the center of their respective stories. While Michaelâ€™s grasp for power and inability to trust those around him dooms him to a life of solitude and misery, Al proves to be a forward-thinking pragmatist, sacrificing personal gain in the form of a spurned bribe to help insure the lasting legitimacy of a newly rectified charter. Michael is insistent on moving against those who have wronged him, but men like Bullock and Swearengen put aside their differences, placing the strength of the camp above all else.
Beyond politics. policy and furthering criminal empires thereâ€™s a noticeable shift both in the dramatic beats as well as the way characterâ€™s relationships are defined. Thereâ€™s something to be said for the way both Deadwood Season Two and Godfather II circumvent expectations, using our knowledge of these characters and their settings to keep us off guard. Having gotten in bed with those outside of the family (a Jew no less!), Michaelâ€™s loyalties are distorted and ultimately shattered. Unable to forgive his brother for (as he well knows) being weak and stupid, Michael orders Fredoâ€™s murder, thus shunning the one rule thought unbreakable: never go against the family.
Similarly, the arrival of Wolcott in season two creates strange bedfellows around town, especially once itâ€™s revealed Hearstâ€™s man is a vicious sociopath who poses a threat to whore-turned-madam Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens). Upon learning of the trouble at Joanieâ€™s joint, the Chez Amie, Cy (Joanieâ€™s former pimp, employer and presumably lover) chooses to help the man who plans to make him rich instead of the woman he once cherished by disposing of the bodies of three dead hookers and leaving Miss Stubbs to fend for herself. (Good thing she had Charlie Utter to look out for her, but thatâ€™s a piece for another day).
Even principal male charactersâ€™ interaction with the women they love is subverted, often painfully, by changes from without. Kay, long a doormat and passive participant in Michaelâ€™s illegal activities (yes, the original Carmela Soprano), finally takes a stand against something that is â€śunholy and evilâ€ť by â€śkillingâ€ť Michaelâ€™s unborn son. Her confession to him, and his response, comprise a scene as dramatic as any in the series, despite physical violence limited to a slap to the face. With his marriage to Kay in shambles, his soulâ€™s remaining anchor removed, Michael ceases to be human, shunning all but his own counsel and hardening his heart even to those closest to him. If he hadnâ€™t spent so much time hopping around the Western Hemisphere, ignoring those he supposedly cares about most, could he have prevented any of this?
A fission also awaits the lovers of Deadwood. Season one slowly built to a bodice-tearing affair between Bullock and the widow Garret that seemed destined to form the beating heart of Season Two. Yet with the arrival of Bullockâ€™s family, the relationship is abruptly terminated, in spite of their lingering passion and Almaâ€™s illegitimate pregnancy. Their demonstrative affection is largely confined to in the past and off-screen, the white heat of their affair muted into the sorts of longing glances and awkward social exchanges seen in Ang Lee films. Over and over we see the ways in which the outside world infringes on these characters, and their responses, positive and negative.
These are weighty, pertinent issues, the ramifications of which donâ€™t necessarily lend themselves to mindless entertainment. The art certainly doesnâ€™t suffer by broaching these subjects, but popularity takes a hit. Deadwood reported a ratings decline in its second season, which many chalked up to losing The Sopranos as its lead-in. But I wonder how much of that viewer erosion was due to the fact that audiences donâ€™t have the patience to sift through â€śamalgamation and capitalâ€ť and werenâ€™t willing to stick it out to see whether the camp joined forces with Yankton or Montana.
Pity. While Godfather II will never be as wildly popular as the more quotable, more â€śfunâ€ť original (they made a video game out of it, for crying out loud), itâ€™s the more challenging and ultimately more rewarding of the two movies. The same can be said for the second go-round of Deadwood.
Of course, if youâ€™ve read this far into what is is, in fact, a rather elephantine article, you likely donâ€™t need me to tell you that when Deadwood isnâ€™t challenging the viewer with its labyrinth of plotting and politics, itâ€™s enchanting us with its impish wit, bold storytelling and pockets of humanity nestled among the filth and deception. Destroying our expectations and entertaining us arenâ€™t mutually exclusive goals. And like my English teachers all those years ago, David Milch seems to be again preparing us for the next bold step in the showâ€™s evolution (Iâ€™ve been privileged enough to see the first five episodes of season 3 and they are, in a word, riveting) and Iâ€™m grateful for each and every line, development and bit of subtext that flies clear over my head.
And how about that: I managed to go all this time without a Godfather III joke.
This article was originally published on The House Next Door.
Review: In My Skin Is a Bitingly Poignant, If Cluttered, Coming-of-Age Story
Though it doesnâ€™t provide room for a fully formed character arc, the series is driven by its performances and mordant humor.2.5
Sixteen-year-old Bethan Gwyndaf (Gabrielle Creevy), the protagonist of Huluâ€™s In My Skin, has a lot going on in her life. Sheâ€™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 sheâ€™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 sheâ€™s not around. Sheâ€™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 canâ€™t do, easy to likeâ€”even as Bethan frustratingly and steadfastly refuses to let anyone in. In My Skinâ€™s Welsh-born creator, Kayleigh Llewellyn, based Bethan and Trina on herself and her own bipolar mother, and thereâ€™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 Llewellynâ€™s late father, has no patience for Trinaâ€™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 parentsâ€™ combative dynamic often leaves Bethan stuck in the middle of them, attempting to play peacemaker.
As volatile as Bethanâ€™s family relationships can be, In My Skin still has plenty of humor, emanating from Bethanâ€™s biting wit and frequent flights of imagination, during which she casts herself as the romantic hero in Poppyâ€™s life, as well as a poet whose words are illustrated with perfume commercial-style images. Bethanâ€™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 Bethanâ€™s reflective observations, which give us a deeper understanding of her often impulsive decisions.
All the more important since the first seasonâ€™s five half-hour episodes donâ€™t provide enough room for Bethanâ€™s arc to fully take shape, moving her only a short way down the path toward maturity and ending just as sheâ€™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 isnâ€™t afraid to confront the dark elements of Bethanâ€™s lifeâ€”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 Creevyâ€™s performance and the characterâ€™s determination to make a better life for herself, however misguided.
That personality is what drives In My Skin, and Bethanâ€™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 showâ€™s first season, Bethan always comes back, taking on a responsibility that she never asked for and shouldnâ€™t have to handle on her own. If she doesnâ€™t always know how to balance that responsibility with everything else going on in her life, at least sheâ€™s approaching every new setback with appealingly mordant humor.
Cast: Gabrielle Creevy, James Wilbraham, Jo Hartley, Poppy Lee Friar, Zadeia Campbell-Davies, Rhodri Meilir, Alexandra Riley, Di Botcher, Aled ap Steffan Network: Hulu
Review: Peacockâ€™s The Capture Wears Its Topicality Impersonally on Its Sleeve
The series sucks the juice out of its pop-cultural reference points, failing to mine our current nightmares on its own terms.2
Ben Chananâ€™s The Capture wears its topicality on its sleeve, principally concerning the CCTV security cameras that monitor Londonâ€™s streets and which number in the hundreds of thousands, averaging out to one camera per dozen or so people. The casualness of the camerasâ€™ presence throughout the Peacock series is unnerving, suggesting how easily privacy can be annihilated with little in the way of pushback from the populace.
Chananâ€™s concerns, though, arenâ€™t existential ones, as heâ€™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 Snowdenâ€”all of which are referenced explicitly in the showâ€™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 Shaunâ€™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 cameraâ€™s sight, he denies any involvement, but heâ€™s immediately accused of a second crime thatâ€™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 Chananâ€™s need to define his characters by signpost dialogue. Shaun eludes Rachel, whoâ€™s convinced of his guilt, until she begins to uncover a wealth of evidence that connects Shaunâ€™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 weâ€™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 Davisâ€™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 showâ€™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 thatâ€™s both eerie and funny.
What The Capture doesnâ€™t have is the sense of violation that made 24 such an unmooring experience in its best seasons. That showâ€™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 Kaufmanâ€™s atmospheric Rising Sun. A newer element of our surveillance state, social media, is mentioned obligatorily but is barely explored. The Capture sucks the juice out of its pop-cultural reference points, failing to mine our current nightmares on its own terms.
Cast: Holliday Grainger, Callum Turner, Laura Haddock, Cavan Clerkin, Ginny Holder, Barry Ward, Ben Miles, Peter Singh, Lia Williams, Sophia Brown, Ron Perlman, Famke Jansen Network: Peacock
Review: The Optimism of Japan Sinks: 2020 Leads to a Curious Emotional Remove
The showâ€™s reticence to dig into hopelessness and pain leaves its admirable optimism to feel strangely artificial.2.5
The latest adaptation of Japanese science-fiction writer Sakyo Komatsuâ€™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 Komatsuâ€™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 familyâ€™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 clanâ€™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 showâ€™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 charactersâ€™ deaths, you may feel as if thereâ€™s little to mourn. With a few exceptions, theyâ€™re primarily vehicles for shock and dire twists of fate rather than people to empathize with.
Yuasaâ€™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 doesnâ€™t function quite the same way since, here, itâ€™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 charactersâ€™ 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
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
As the first episode of Little Voice begins, aspiring singer-songwriter Bess King (Brittany Oâ€™Grady) is still traumatized from being laughed off stage after attempting to perform one of her original songs. Bessâ€™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.
Bessâ€™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 sheâ€™s an entitled, ungrateful narcissist, petulantly pushing away friends and family if they donâ€™t conform to her arbitrary moral standards. Even worse, thereâ€™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 figuresâ€™ 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 thereâ€™s little sense that Bess has anything of importance to say with her music, which at one point she describes as â€śAlessia Cara meets Carole Kingâ€ť 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. Oâ€™Grady, who was a regular on Foxâ€™s musical drama Star, has a clear, resonant voice, and itâ€™s easy to envision her as a mainstream pop singer, but Bessâ€™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 Bessâ€™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 Bessâ€™s family, and the showâ€™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 (â€śWonder of wonders!â€ť), and his relationship with Bess is meant to display her compassion and dedication, but it mostly just proves that sheâ€™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 Louieâ€™s blind faith in Bessâ€™s talent is as misguided as her indulgence of his every whim. At one point in the series, a music executive condescendingly describes Bessâ€™s music as â€śdarling.â€ť While thatâ€™s intended as a dubious insult, it captures the twee, navel-gazing tone of Little Voice.
Cast: Brittany Oâ€™Grady, Phillip Johnson Richardson, Colton Ryna, Sean Teale, Kevin Valdez, Luke Kirby Network: Apple TV+
Review: HBOâ€™s Perry Mason Examines Power and Faith Amid a Fog of Decay
The series is gory and dour with a bone-deep cynicism, but itâ€™s also optimistic in its own small way.3
A dead baby appears not five minutes into HBOâ€™s reboot of Perry Mason. Left on a rail car at Angels Flight in Los Angeles, the childâ€™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 showâ€™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 Gardnerâ€™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), heâ€™s not above taking illicit photos of a movie star at a studioâ€™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.
Masonâ€™s lawyer pal, E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow), brings him in to work with E.B.â€™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 canâ€™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 childâ€™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 everyoneâ€™s most desperate instincts for survival. The showâ€™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.â€™s questionable financial records or the compromising photos that Mason develops at his dead parentsâ€™ 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.â€™s secretary, but itâ€™s immediately clear that the scatterbrained old-timer couldnâ€™t run the office without her, as she empathizes with and advocates for women like Emily in a way that the men often donâ€™t. Paul Drake (Chris Chalk), who goes on to be a frequent investigator in Masonâ€™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 Masonâ€™s concern with power is most clearly seen in Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany), who gets to stand on the evangelical churchâ€™s stage and theatrically preach, her position as the churchâ€™s mouthpiece sometimes clashing with the moneymen who run the place behind the scenes. The showâ€™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 thatâ€™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 goingâ€”a faith in humanity to look beyond societal conditioning and the corruption snaking its way through every angle of civilization. Faith isnâ€™t always rewarded. The series is gory and dour with a bone-deep cynicism, but itâ€™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
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
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 seasonâ€™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 saysâ€”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 Doryâ€™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 Doryâ€™s psyche, sharply revealing how her place in the spotlight magnifies her anxieties. In contrast to the defining visual of Search Partyâ€™s first two seasonsâ€”a tracking shot of Dory, which prioritized her reactions and impressions over the stimuli eliciting themâ€”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 sheâ€™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 friendâ€™s wedding with tales of fameâ€™s woes.
Search Partyâ€™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 spaceâ€”and a magnet for outsized personalitiesâ€”the series drops Dory down the rabbit hole and surrounds her with near-unbelievable weirdos. Bob (Louie Anderson), Drewâ€™s lawyer, spouts a wonderful blend of banal aphorisms and pulpy zingers. â€śOh, this city,â€ť he drones upon arriving in New York from Chicago, â€śso much chaos out there.â€ť And Bob is joined in court by two other similarly odd and hilarious attorneys: Cassidy (Shalita Grant), Doryâ€™s rookie lawyer, and the overzealous prosecutor, Polly (Michaela Watkins). The trial, shepherded as it is by a trio of clowns, drives the seasonâ€™s tonal shift as it quickly devolves into a circus-like farce of shoddy evidence and shaky testimonies.
Dory and Drewâ€™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 Doryâ€™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 Doryâ€™s eyesâ€”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 Doryâ€™s claims of innocence are just a legal strategy, or if she really believes that she didnâ€™t do anything.
And sheâ€™s still keeping her greatest secretâ€”that she killed April, the neighbor who knew about Keithâ€™s murderâ€”but Drew is on to her. That Dory remains at least slightly sympathetic throughout all this is a testament to the subtle expressiveness of Shawkatâ€™s performance. Doryâ€™s torn emotions course through Shawkatâ€™s face; the characterâ€™s survival instincts flash in her eyes when sheâ€™s cornered, when her control of situations starts to falter.
Rare are the moments, however, in which Doryâ€™s power is truly at risk of slipping. One of the seasonâ€™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 otherâ€™s hair; Dory combs Portia’s while Portia runs her fingers through Elliott’s. Drew is opposite them, on the couch. Theyâ€™re all quiet, thoughtful, reflective. But Dory, with Portiaâ€™s hair in her hand, resembles a puppet master. As the camera slowly zooms out, the moody electronic soundtrack kicks in, an echo of Doryâ€™s unceasing calculations. Aspects of the blocking recall Michelangeloâ€™s The Creation of Adam: Drewâ€™s no God, but Elliot stretches out like the first manâ€”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
Review: Huluâ€™s Love, Victor Is a Likable, If Timid, Exploration of Sexual Identity
The showâ€™s episodic sitcom rhythms allow for an easier access point to the narrative about identity and prejudice.2.5
“Screw you,â€ť 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 filmâ€™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 arenâ€™t exactly about to buy him a car for his birthday. â€śMy story is nothing like yours,â€ť 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 parentsâ€™ discomfort with non-heteronormative modes of expressionâ€”like Adrianâ€™s preoccupation with the Disney princess Elsaâ€”are made clear to him.
While the stakes for Victorâ€™s coming out are clear, though, that doesnâ€™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 Albertalliâ€™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 Victorâ€™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 seasonâ€™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), whoâ€™s such an idealized object of affection that heâ€™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 prejudiceâ€”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
Review: Netflixâ€™s The Woods Spins a Monotonously Grim but Addictive Mystery
The storyâ€™s rush of exposition can be dizzying, but the pieces fall into place in ways that arenâ€™t entirely unbelievable.2.5
Harlan Cobenâ€™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 Netflixâ€™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 authorâ€™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 othersâ€”including Pawelâ€™s sister, Kamila (Martyna Byczkowska)â€”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), whoâ€™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), whoâ€™s vowed to use his resources to ruin Pawelâ€™s life if he wonâ€™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 storyâ€™s central victim doesnâ€™t necessarily lead to catharsis. Here, Pawelâ€™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 whoâ€™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 arenâ€™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 storyâ€™s rush of exposition can be dizzying, but the pieces fall into place in ways that arenâ€™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
Review: Crossing Swordsâ€™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.1
Huluâ€™s Crossing Swords, created by Robot Chickenâ€™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 showâ€™s handcrafted animation is charmingly scrappy, from the cardboard textures of the environments to fire being rendered as globs of colored fuzz. But Crossing Swordsâ€™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 Swordsâ€™s protagonist, a peasant named Patrick (Nicholas Hoult), represents the perceived experience of watching the show, as his good-hearted aspirations to be the kingâ€™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, thereâ€™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 showâ€™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, itâ€™s not particularly hard to connect the dots of the plot long before the script does.
The rest of Crossing Swordsâ€™s humor hinges on a comingling of the showâ€™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, â€śSee ya, fucksticks,â€ť and then, when she spots the kitten orphanage, she sighs, â€śWell, shit.â€ť 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 isnâ€™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
Review: Netflixâ€™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.2
Itâ€™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 donâ€™t wish to mire their stories with specifically right- or left-wing baggage, especially in these hyper-partisan times. Greg Daniels and Steve Carellâ€™s Space Force suffers from a similar malady. The Netflix comedy imagines the realization of President Donald Trumpâ€™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 showâ€™s world.
The showrunnersâ€™ 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 Forceâ€™s development. The texts are curt and macho, but they sound like regular sports coach-speak, which is to say that theyâ€™re too coherent to suggest the way Trump actually writes or talksâ€”at least in public. If the showâ€™s writers had the daring to imply that Trumpâ€™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 Forceâ€™s premise, in which a country thatâ€™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 Carellâ€™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, itâ€™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 Forceâ€™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 Nairdâ€™s unexpected victory, though the characterâ€™s bluster does lead to one prolonged, uproarious sequence involving a chimpanzee astronaut.
Political confrontation is also superficially offered up via Nairdâ€™s duels with the chief scientist of Space Force, Dr. Adrian Mallory (John Malkovich), who derides Americaâ€™s hard-on for the military and contempt for intellectual reason. Malkovich, whoâ€™s accorded the showâ€™s most confrontationally partisan dialogue, gives an elegant, thorny performance thatâ€™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 canâ€™t even settle on a voice. Early on, Naird talks in a gruff military-man fashion that suggests George C. Scottâ€™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 clichĂ©d 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 Netflixâ€™s own Orange Is the New Black.
Space Force renders the architects of our worldâ€™s destabilization, like Trump, his enablers, and military hawks, into lovably misguided dadsâ€”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 generalâ€™s atrocities are downplayed for the sake of easy caricature. These entertainments suggest that the unmooring turmoil of modern life isnâ€™t so bad, giving us an excuse to write off our blossoming dystopia with a semi-amused â€śeh.â€ť 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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