âInform your dealers and whores of my credit, and pour me a goddamn drink.â
With his first line in Deadwood, the prospector Ellsworth (Jim Beaver) announces to Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) his blueprint for a satisfying life, unapologetic in its simple construction: pan for gold, then trade it for his âquota of whiskey, pussy, and food.â He thrives in Deadwoodâs lethal landscape by sidestepping conflict and peppering his encounters with a self-deprecating wit won over many terrains.
Among a contingent bent on personal reinvention, Ellsworth knows who he is and where he fits. In a camp where alliances are traded like commodities, Ellsworth retains the distinction of being liked by practically everyone, even the most suspicious or traumatized. The whore Trixie (Paula Malcomson), who would as soon shoot a john as befriend him, saves Ellsworth from reprisal when he witnesses a murder. The child Sofia (Bree Seanna Wall), the lone survivor of a highway massacre, engages him in some peek-a-boo in the hotel lobby soon after revealing her name for the first time. A dog whose master is gutted and fed to the pigs takes to Ellsworth like theyâve been together all along. Even the geologist Wolcott (Garret Dillahunt), who sports an inhuman disregard for his fellow man, recalls Ellsworth from a past experience as âa hero,â albeit in his practiced tone of mockery.
Ellsworthâs survival counts on more than his geniality. When he witnesses Dan Dority (W. Earl Brown) commit a murder in the hills, he gets in front of the dilemma by privately notifying the hulking henchman what he saw. Ellsworth tells Dan that âthe key to a long lifeâ is the âsame as a dog keeps its noseâdonât poke it where it donât belongâŠA lesson hard come by, but thoroughly learned.â As testament to his reliable silence, he offers to leave town, thereby placing another option into the mix of solutions. Later, he and Dan struggle to climb a ridge near the spot of the murder while assaying the claim of the widow Alma Garret (Molly Parker), and though the threat of retribution hovers, Ellsworth manages a graceful good nature about his prospects: âIf Iâm to get my throat cut, Dan, Iâd rather not exert myself further.â When Dan informs him heâs safe in the matter, wary relief gives way to barely suppressed exhilaration at the new lease.
One short scene in the first episode of season two, when he escorts Alma to deliver a welcome basket to her loverâs newly arrived wife, blends the essential Ellsworth elementsâthe studied avoidance of unnecessary conflict, the humor at his own expense, the basic decency, and the polite acknowledgement of his proper place.
Ellsworth: âNot as Iâve been asked, Ms. Garret, I wonder if this ainât a call better paid another day.â
Alma: âIâve stopped believing I can dictate the terms of my opportunities.â
Ellsworth: âWell, some would say it might be your choice what chances you decide not to take. Some being the butt-in, loudmouth types.â
Alma: âShall I walk all alone, Mr. Ellsworth?â
Ellsworth: âNo, maâam.â
One chance Ellsworth does decide to take is when he confronts Wolcott, the surrogate of the countryâs richest and most ruthless prospector, as the geologist inspects Almaâs claim, of which Ellsworth is now superintendent. With his hand resting on his holstered pistol, Ellsworth rudely shoos Wolcott from the diggings, even though he knows from experience and reputation what a relentless threat Wolcott poses. The fierceness of his stance is surprising, given Ellsworthâs repeated vows of minding his own business, but the act indicates heâs beginning to take on a duty to something beyond his own carnal habits.
That transformation from lovable rogue to a vital player in the affairs of others deepens when he advises Alma on how to handle the local panic over rumors that Yankton, the territorial capital, might overturn all claims. âPanicâs easier on the back than the short-handled shovelâŠThe Creator, in His infinite wisdom, Ms. Garret, salted His work so that, where gold was, there also youâd find rumorâŠAnd now I come to camp to find the waters called muddy and the current quickened, though I see no change in the creek. And the hooples, certain sure the flood crest fast approaches, have begun to think keenly, âIâll get ahead of the event, maybe Iâll sell my claim at a discount,â anything to un-harness so they can head for the higher ground. Myself, maâam, Iâd be betting that the levee will hold.â Almaâs look of calm reassurance upon hearing this wisdom reveals a new level of gratitude for Ellsworthâs stewardship.
Ellsworthâs burgeoning position brings with it new complications as well. When he implies to Trixie that Alma might be pregnant, Trixie, who already knows the truth, demands that he step forward and âdo the right fucking thing,â by which she means marry Alma to forestall the public exposure of her affair with Sheriff Bullock and subsequent humiliation of Bullockâs family. The concept takes hold slowly in Ellsworthâs mind, and when he lends voice to the notion (âWould she fucking have me?â), his eyes burn with a glint of possibility that his life could again be about more than one man and his appetites. Later, while trying to rationalize such a bold step in a speech to his dog, Ellsworth cites his ability to rise to the occasion, declaring, âKeenness to my shortcomings donât blind me to seeing it right that when a boulder needs hauling, I will haul a boulder.â
In his introductory scene with Al Swearengen, Ellsworth quizzes Al on the rumors of his noble descent and offers a toast. âHereâs to you, your majesty. Iâll tell you what. I mayâve fucked my life up flatter than hammered shit, but I stand here before you today beholden to no human cocksucker.â Ellsworth is able to navigate the vagaries of Deadwood because he has the measure of himself, a trait that carries its own nobility.
This article was originally published on The House Next Door.
Review: Work in Progress Confronts Mental Illness with Heart and Barbs
The series never loses sight of its premise, though it remains bleak without beating you over the head.3
Abby (Abby McEnany) is planning to kill herself. Sheâs 45, a devoted journaler, and quite miserable. Her first line of dialogue in Showtimeâs Work in Progress is a comically extended shout of âWazzup!,â and she buys her nephew a megaphone for his birthday, but being loud and fun masks her inner turmoil. She feels totally unaccomplished as a self-described âfat, queer dykeâ with OCD. And though she has yet to decide on a suicide method, 180 almonds are key. Theyâre a âgiftâ from an insipid co-worker as a commentary on her weight, and Abby decides to use them to mark time: Throw out one almond per day until there are none left, and if things havenât gotten better, then itâs time to pack it all in.
McEnany is an improv comic and the series, created with director Tim Mason and produced by co-showrunner Lilly Wachowski, is semi-autobiographical. Scenes are often broken up by title cards that list everything from the day of the week to the almond count to a public bathroomâs capacity, with frequent detours into flashbacks of past relationships and confrontations. These situations are heightened, laced with humor thatâs both frank and self-deprecating. In one sequence, Abby insists on having sex in total darkness despite multiple resulting injuries, and we see her cycle through various slings and bandages over various body parts.
Work in Progress never loses sight of its premise, though it remains bleak without beating you over the head. After all, Abby copes through humor and, often, by yelling at people. She has boxes upon boxes of journals packed in a barricaded closet, expressing her feelings almost in spite of herself, and to the point where she speaks to a cellphone wallpaper pic of her dead therapist. McEnany is such an immediately gripping comedic presence because sheâs unwilling to back down even when confrontations spiral out of control or she initially faints from the stress. Her suicide scheme, for example, is meant to continue for months while building slowly to a direct, hilariously petty response to her almond-purveying co-worker: âIn my note, Iâm gonna tell that woman that the almonds were what pushed me over the edge.â
Things do seem to get better for Abby. She finds unexpected romance with Chris (Theo Germaine), a trans man half her age. He pushes her into situations where she isnât totally comfortable, like going to a nightclub or confronting SNL alum Julia Sweeney (playing herself), whose most famous character on that show, the androgynous Pat, became a reference point for bullying gender non-conforming people like Abby. The first few episodes of the season donât yet characterize Chris beyond some catalyst for Abbyâs change, but the two have such a charming chemistry that their connection feels believable.
More than the considerable pain at the center of Work in Progress, you can feel the joy of new love, of potentially moving past the baggage of the past. But all the while, the almonds loom in the background, at first spread out on a table and later consigned to a jar but never truly gone. Itâs a sobering, subtle way to tackle mental illness because Abby doesnât throw out her whole plan upon meeting Chris; the possibility of death is still there like a backup, due to her uncertainty. Things may be better, but how long will they last? Like the flashbacks and all those journals stored away in Abbyâs closet, the baggage is never totally gone.
Cast: Abby McEnany, Karin Anglin, Celeste Pechous, Julia Sweeney, Theo Germaine, Armand Fields Network: Showtime
The 25 Best TV Shows of 2019
Our favorite shows of 2019 resist easy categorization, and they attest to a medium in transformation.
Our favorite television shows of 2019 resist easy categorization, and they attest to a medium in transformation. On our list, the old and new sit side by side, as do the challenging and the inspirational, the urgent and the offbeat. These 25 shows speak to the mediumâs consistently stimulating sense of variety, and to the fact that as one golden age of television yields to the demands of an era of endless content, resonant voices and bold ideas can still find their audience. While these shows are diverse in subject matter and style, the best offerings of the year were characterized by clear, well-honed perspectives, often engaging the big questions of our present-day human existence.
The yearâs best TV programming gave voice to a breadth of ideas and experiences, even those which might not reasonably be considered âissue-driven.â Consider the Netflix sketch show I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson, which couched a canny indictment of male egoism and fragile masculinity in fart jokes and absurdist cringe humor. Or Pamela Adlonâs Better Things, which launched an incisive and frank portrayal of menopause in its third season. HBOâs Succession, perhaps the only series on the list that might be classified as a reaction to Trumpism, supplanted Game of Thrones as the networkâs crown dramatic jewel by offering viewers the repugnant, terrifyingly cut-throat palace intrigue that the latter series long-ago turned its back to.
The immersive Russian Doll operated as an Escher painting turned dramedy, slowly and thoughtfully eroding the affected abrasiveness of its main character. And while that series was just one of the yearâs many surprising breakthroughs, 2019 also found well-established shows in peak form, from BoJack Horseman, newly alive with a deep sense of hope for its eponymous character, to Bobâs Burgers, richer and funnier in what it has to tell us about family life. Whether tackling existential issues or providing a reprieve from them, the yearâs best shows comprise a multitude of voices, which flowed forth from the most prestigious platforms to the smallest, strangest niches of the mediumâall of them demanding, in one way or another, to be heard. Michael Haigis
25. City on a Hill
When City on a Hill isnât immersed in pulpy shenanigans, which find Kevin Baconâs casually racist F.B.I. agent Jackie Rohr doing things like brandishing a fish at an angry old woman who calls him a âwhite devil,â it aspires to be a Bostonian spin on The Wire. The series, set in the early â90s and based on an original idea by creator Chuck MacLean and executive producer Ben Affleck, constantly keeps one eye on the systems that contribute to the cityâs rot as it moves through a fictionalized account of the âBoston Miracleâ police operation that statistically reduced violence in the city. The series excels in the level of detail it brings to its characters, and proves itself as effective at small, interlocking details as it is at purely hammy thrills. Steven Scaife
24. Years and Years
Perhaps the most significant aspect of Years and Years is the compassion with which it considers its characters. It would be easy for a series filled with so many cataclysms, both global and personalânuclear weapon launches, deaths, infidelitiesâto err on the side of sadism in its depiction of that turmoil. But it takes no pleasure in the pain of its central family. Instead, Years and Years recognizes that pain is edifying as well as transient, and it accordingly gives the pain that it inflicts space to evolve: to form, to torment, and to pass, like each year that comes and goes, taking more and more away with it. Niv M. Sultan
23. On Becoming a God in Central Florida
Florida water park employee Krystal Stubbs (Kirsten Dunst) earns the nickname âthe alligator widowâ after her husband, Travis (Alexander SkarsgĂ„rd), works himself into bleary-eyed exhaustion and, then, gator-inhabited waters. Travis fell victim to a pyramid scheme whose promises of wealth and prosperity prompted him to dump the familyâs life savings into the organizationâs coffers, leaving Krystal holding both the bag and their baby. As conceived by On Becoming a God in Central Florida, this vision of 1992 America is a morass of hucksters and hollow promises, and the series explores that world with both a sharp eye and a peculiar sense of humor. It keenly captures our dubious relationship with the prospect of wealth; its myriad absurdities are resonant reminders of how tough it is to âget ahead,â and how easy it is to get lost in the labyrinth of capitalism. Scaife
22. Big Mouth
Netflixâs Big Mouth is continued evidence against the dubious argument that P.C. culture has made it impossible for comedians to be edgy. As a subject for an animated sitcom, the sex lives of 13-year-olds constitutes an ethical, political, and cultural minefieldâone that the graphic and logorrheic Big Mouth gives the impression of approaching blindfolded and in a headlong rush. But thereâs a method to its mania: Even while firing an entire volley of cum jokes at viewers every few seconds, the new season covers topics like female masturbation, slut shaming, incel masculinity, biphobia, social media addiction, and the gay teen experience with a heartening frankness that belies its apparent irreverence. Pat Brown
Sam Levinsonâs Euphoria depicts teenage hedonism in frank, explicit terms: a high school world awash in pills, sex, and nude photos thrown to the winds of social media. The series finds its character-driven groove by turning an empathetic eye toward the inner lives of its principal teens, observing their listlessness and small moments of solace as much as their outward pain. It tempers some of its heavier material with an often laidback atmosphere, a world of deep shadows drenched in multi-colored hues and dreamy hip-hop beats that belie the darkness in its corners. If the universe is falling apart around the charactersâ ears, the result is that Euphoriaâs characters see little reason to consider what encroaching adulthood will mean, to ruminate on what will come next when there might as well be no ânext.â Thereâs only the all-encompassing ânow.â Scaife
Review: Truth Be Told Is Uninterested in the Malleable Nature of Truth
The series attempts to derive excitement solely from its overly calibrated performances.1.5
As Octavia Spencerâs journalist turned podcaster Poppy Parnell leads her listeners through the shadowy histories of gruesome criminal cases in Truth Be Told, the actress perfectly mimics the warmly grave vocal delivery thatâs a hallmark of the true-crime podcast genre. Yet, while the Apple TV+ series understands this genreâs allure, it fails to replicate the enduring insights of podcasts like Serialâinsights which pertain to the opacity of fact and the idea that the truth can be shaped by the whims of institutions, such as jury selection and the preservation of crime-scene evidence. Truth Be Told eschews the fixations of the nonfiction works that it apes, focusing on lurid gossip and incredulous plot twists and, as a result, proving uninterested in the malleable nature of truth itself.
Truth Be Told follows Poppy as she reassesses a grisly suburban murder from 20 years agoâone she mined for professional success at the time, penning a series of columns which helped turn the public tide against Warren Cave (Aaron Paul), the teenager who was convicted of the crime. A nagging flaw in Truth Be Told emerges early on, as the series fails to elucidate exactly why Poppy is convinced of Caveâs innocence. Reference is made to a key witness who may have been coached, but that inconclusive new development seemingly confirms Poppyâs long-harbored suspicions, which exist for reasons that are never made clear.
The showâs contrived central mystery, then, pertains to who really killed Chuck Buhrman (Nic Bishop). Itâs a question thatâs far less complex than that of many high-profile true-crime mysteries, and Truth Be Told attempts to derive excitement solely from its overly calibrated performances. Indeed, the direction given to a majority of the actors seems to have been to glower more, act shiftier, or seem more agitated. The series suggests Buhrmanâs killer could have been any of the figures Poppy encounters, but because theyâre all so obviously creepy, a pervasive sense emerges, unintentionally, that theyâre all engaged in some kind of conspiracy.
Paul bizarrely plays Cave as a feral presence, growling and tilting his head during his characterâs interviews with Poppy. Incarceration, the series unsubtly suggests, has made him an animal. Likewise, Buhrmanâs daughters, Josie and Lanie (both played by Lizzie Caplan), are a pair of incessant liars whoâre still grappling with the trauma of their fatherâs death. Other characters seem to simply be evil, none more so than Caveâs father, whoâs the showâs plainly obvious red herring. All of these figures are suspects, yet the persistent suggestion that that we might also empathize with many of them results in Truth Be Told vacillating between conflicting viewpoints: one that sees these charactersâ flaws are the resultant damage of Buhrmanâs murder, and one that sees their flaws as inherent and may have led them to kill. But the series lacks the tact or nuance to investigate the idea of inherent evil, and whatâs left is a rather muddled whodunit in which the answer ceases to be very interesting.
While the showâs reliance on easy misdirection and incredulous plot dynamics are an understandable hallmark of its genre, Truth Be Told similarly fails to distinguish itself in cinematic or thematic terms. Shot in an exceedingly workmanlike fashion, the series is designed to offer boatloads of information and little else. Every conversation unfolds in rote over-the-shoulders shots, and exteriors are plagued by the copious drone shots that have become a kind of shorthand for high production value in prestige television. Even the rare bursts of action unfold mechanically, with twists telegraphed by the showâs performances and scenes either being marred by slow motion or shaky-cam obfuscation.
Coherent cinematic flourishes would have been a welcome addition, because much of whatâs being captured here seldom exceeds matters of exposition. For instance, every discussion between Poppy and her private investigator, Markus (Mekhi Phifer), includes clumsy references to their past romantic history, as if we might forget. Seemingly every conversation that Poppy has with anyone includes a statement of their current emotional dynamic. While Spencerâs warmth and wit hint at Poppyâs skill as an investigator, the actress is too often left delivering dialogue that merely states whatâs happening around her or in her head.
Throughout Truth Be Told, Poppy constantly explicates her guilt, yet the series doesnât seem sure what exactly is prompting those feelings. The show flattens its performersâ unique personalities, utilizing them simply in service of engendering suspicion. Ostensibly about the nature of fact and the spiraling effects of dishonesty, Truth Be Told is actually much less thought-provoking than all that, and simply erects a byzantine rumor mill around one manâs death and then mining those rumors for cheap thrills.
Cast: Octavia Spencer, Aaron Paul, Lizzie Caplan, Elizabeth Perkins, Michael Beach, Mekhi Phifer, Tracie Thoms, Ron Cephas Jones, Nic Bishop Network: Apple TV+
Review: Joe Pera Talks with You Digs Into the Truth About Our Preoccupations
Season two of the series explores how our preoccupations bring us comfort when we might need it most.3.5
As a comedian, Joe Pera is a bit of an enigma. With a hunched-over, ambling gait and a slow, soothing voice, he may be the youngest old man on TV. How much of this is an Andy Kaufman-esque stunt is an open question; Pera is certainly committed to not totally breaking character even outside his TV series Joe Pera Talks with You, as he sustains his grandfatherly persona through stand-up routines, promotional interviews, and appearances on the local news. His website provides a form for fans to guess his age. Heâs almost painfully polite and modest, brimming with a shy, nervous energy, using pauses and stumbling over words to disarm viewers right before he jams in some unexpected joke.
In other words, how much of Joe Pera the man is in Joe Pera the performance art character, and which parts are specifically turned up for comedic value? Watching Joe Pera Talks with You is to simultaneously ponder this question and be so taken with his sweet, earnest persona that the answer seems not to matter. The showâs 11-minute episodes are ostensibly structured around the middle-school choir teacherâs interest in mundane objects and activities: speaking directly into the camera, he discusses beans, hiking, shopping at the grocery store, and other things around his home in Marquette, Michigan.
Other topics and concerns inevitably creep into each episode, whether because Pera is easily distracted by things like the effect of jack-oâ-lanterns on oneâs soul or because other forcesâa boisterous co-worker, an awareness of consumerism, or a disagreement with band teacher Sarah (Jo Firestone)âbriefly throw him off course. Following from the previous season, he and Sarah are newly dating, though their viewpoints sometimes differ as Peraâs apparent frivolity clashes with Sarahâs status as a committed end-of-the-world prepper with a fortified basement and a handgun; in one episode, she asks him if heâs willing to kill to defend his garden.
In another type of series, Pera might be some wacky side character or otherwise relegated to the butt of a joke to contrast a more cynical protagonist, but the brilliance of Joe Pera Talks with You is how he instead provides the dominant perspective. No matter how seemingly insignificant, Pera and his interests are presented with complete sincerity through gentle music and loving close-ups of objects and processes, creating an atmosphere of reserved but infectious passion through his dedication and attention to detail. With a mix of serene images, oddly well-researched facts, and understated visual comedy, episodes play like a mix of Mister Rogersâ Neighborhood, ASMR videos, and Guy Maddinâs My Winnipeg.
An extreme self-awareness fuels the showâs comedy, from the subtle tics and timing of Peraâs speaking style to the use of subtitles and careful compositions that do such things as gradually reveal that heâs wearing shorts. He walks silently in one episode, and as soon as that silence begins to feel awkwardly too long, he begins his monologue about hiking to reveal, simply through impeccable timing, that the silence stems from a weird, adorable belief that before he can discuss hiking, he must first demonstrate what it is. Heâs thorough, this guy. And he makes sure to inform you that heâs just kidding when he says cold beer is nutritious.
Joe Pera Talks with You never feels like itâs making fun of Peraâs demeanor. Though the character is almost childlike in his perpetual wonderment, the parts of him that initially come off as absurd also feel truthful and even aspirational, in how this man has thought long and hard about things like the societal value of beans. Heâs a master of conveying miniature stories in just a few words, like how he has âbeen devastated in the pastâ by experimenting in his garden or how classifying Easter as âthe third most romantic day of the yearâ suggests a considered ranking of dates by such values.
Many of Peraâs observations ring true for their cutting, hilarious simplicity, though much of the comedy comes from how heâs not some inaccessible guru or unsung sage of Michiganâs Upper Peninsula. Some of the showâs funniest lines are when Pera brings up something his outward naivetĂ© suggests he might be ignorant of, like American interventionism. He has his own worries; theyâre just often about whether his beans will grow properly around the wire arch in his garden. He focuses on the beauty in the mundane, the things that bring him quiet joy. Employing warm cinematography, gentle narration, and its lightly absurd portrayal of everyday life, Joe Pera Talks with You digs at a larger existential truth about our own preoccupations and how they bring us comfort when we might need it most.
Cast: Joe Pera, Jo Firestone, Conner OâMalley, Pat Harris, Jo Scott Network: Adult Swim
Review: Servant Is an Unrelentingly Strange Examination of Grief and Denial
The showâs control of tone and atmosphere soon becomes even more engrossing than the storyâs mystery itself.3
On paper, the premise of Apple TV+âs Servant sounds simple enough: New parents Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) and Sean (Toby Kebbell) hire a nanny, Leanne (Nell Tiger Free), to take care of their infant son in their Philadelphia home. Itâs a ritzy place, with a fully stocked wine cellar and a spacious kitchen for chef Sean to test out his elaborate recipes. When coupled with the showâs musical score of discordant, jittery strings and atmosphere of uneasy stillness created by long takes and peculiar camera angles, however, everything simply feels off, even before itâs revealed that the child, Jericho, is dead.
What lays motionless in the crib is actually just a silent, unblinking doll meant to placate Dorothy, who suffered a psychotic break following Jerichoâs sudden death. Beyond a handful of instances throughout the season where she stares listlessly into the distance as if on the cusp of some revelation, she treats the Jericho doll as though itâs alive and well. The bitter, curmudgeonly Sean plays along, but when heâs alone, heâs content to drop the thing on the floor or knock its head against the crib. Hiring Leanne is just one more part of the charade, until one night Sean finds a living, breathing, crying infant in the dollâs place.
Much of the series follows Sean as he tries to figure out whatâs going on, and with the help of Dorothyâs high-strung, perpetually wine-drunk brother, Julian (Rupert Grint). They investigate where the baby could have possibly come from and dig into the background of the prim, devoutly religious Leanne, whose presence coincides not only with the return of the new Jericho, but with Sean getting splinters from nearly every surface he touches. Dorothy resumes her work as a newscaster none the wiser, but her bright, outgoing demeanorâan extreme contrast with the sullen, dickish Seanâkeeps putting their newly living baby at risk of discovery when she invites people over or insists on bringing him to work.
Itâs a supremely weird setup for a series made only weirder by the way it builds atmosphere through the use of jarring sounds and an austere visual language. Though most of the seasonâs episodes noticeably lack the ambitious directorial hand of M. Night Shyamalanâwhoâs an executive producer on the show and helmed two episodesâcinematographer Michael Gioulakis maintains an unnerving mood through close observation of seemingly mundane actions. By holding so long on faces and often employing overhead angles, the camera lends a sort of voyeuristic, almost alien-like tinge to the proceedings.
And the close-ups are uncomfortably close, particularly with the constant focus on Seanâs cooking that finds him meticulously pulling apart the flesh of eels, lobsters, and squids. At other times, heâs seen tugging splinters out from his neck or inside his mouth. Whether something actually does happen when the camera lingers on Sean shoving something into the garbage disposal, the potential for disaster always seems to loom large. In such moments, itâs as though grief, denial, and pain coalesce into one suffocating presence.
Servantâs mystery unfurls at a satisfying clip, since itâs broken up into brisk half-hour chunks that always present some new complication. Episodes rarely leave Dorothy and Seanâs home, locking us inside to watch everyone seethe and fall apart. In the absence of traditionally horrific imagery, the show emphasizes an unrelenting strangeness not only through Seanâs increasingly odd recipes, but through things like a man vigorously dabbing sauce from his slice of chicken before, for no apparent reason, wrapping it in napkins and then squeezing the food between his fingers. The season ends, perhaps expectedly, with more questions than any particularly satisfying answers, but in similar fashion to shows like Twin Peaks, its control of tone and atmosphere soon becomes even more engrossing than the mystery itself.
Cast: Lauren Ambrose, Toby Kebbell, Nell Tiger Free, Rupert Grint, Phillip James Brannon Network: AppleTV+
Review: Season 3 of The Crown Makes Progress Look and Feel Wearisome
The series homes in on the growing chasm between royal expectations and public norms.2.5
Season three of The Crown lacks the urgency that previously made the Netflix series so engaging. This is partly due to the more subdued relationships between the older members of the House of Windsor, now settled into their various roles as sovereign, husband, sister, and wife. Only a few years have passed between seasons, but Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman), her husband Philip (Tobias Menzies), and sister Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter) have accumulated a deep weariness that can be enervating to behold.
This season, the countercultural politics of the Swinging Sixties nurtures a new sense of awareness around the myriad hypocrisies and criticisms of aristocratic life. The series homes in on both economic inequality and the growing chasm between royal expectations and public norms, with the British crownâs traditional nonpartisan position becoming increasingly detrimental to its image. The antiestablishment spirit of the time seeps into Buckingham Palace via the small rebellions of Princess Anne (Erin Doherty), now a miniskirt-wearing, David Bowie-loving young woman. And itâs through her that the monarchy makes small but significant steps toward changing its perception as an outdated institution.
The Crownâs first two seasons tapped into the allure of a world insistent on formality. The â60s, though, bring a new set of societal challenges that redefine the relationship between the Windsors and their American counterparts, especially in the episode âMargaretology,â in which Margaret takes a tour of the States. Her spontaneity and charismaâthe very qualities that make her a liability to the monarchyâs rarefied imageâhelp Elizabeth to win over President Johnson (Clancy Brown), who dreads the codified etiquette that dictates their countriesâ âspecial relationship.â Johnson doesnât care about exclusive invitations to Balmoral Castle; heâs happy with dirty jokes and drinking contests that fly in the face of royal protocol.
The crownâs relationship to the British people is also changing, as highlighted in âBubbikins,â which chronicles the impact of the infamous 1969 BBC documentary Royal Family. One of Philipâs public relations projects is to make the Windsors seem more appealing to the masses, but in his vanity, he fails to understand the importance of mystery and ritual to their public image. Royalty is the ultimate spectacle, and The Crown valiantly attempts to illuminate the psychological and emotional toll it takes on those who have little control over their lives. But itâs more than a little difficult to feel sympathy for the royals when the prince consort is seen trying to explain why the queen deserves more taxpayer money.
Despite Philipâs efforts to sweeten their image, the Windsorsâ most likeable member is as un-royal as it gets: his mother. At turns fragile and fearless, Princess Alice (Jane Lapotaire) is a welcome mid-season addition, providing a much-needed contrast to her son, whoâs still itching to find meaning in his life. Where Alice is selfless and warm, Philip is consumed by the need to micro-manage everything around him. As the younger Philip in the showâs first two seasons, Matt Smith was palpably angsty, but in Menziesâs hands, the neurotic prince is drawn ever inward. And a highlight of the new season is an entire episode concerned with his midlife crisis. Set during the events of the 1969 moon landing, âMoondustâ is a sensitive exploration of masculine insecurities, and in no small part for the way Menzies calls upon reserves of pathos to chart his characterâs miserable descent into self-pity and spite.
The most prominent thread running through The Crownâs third season is the dualities in peopleâs lives. Itâs in the juxtaposition of the royalsâ public and private selves, the ever-present chasm between aristocratic and common society, or the much more personal struggle of characters reconciling individual desires and duties. Thereâs plenty of fertile ground to explore this dynamic, as almost every character is in a state of conflict, from Elizabeth, who struggles to show genuine humanity to her people, to Prince Charles (Josh OâConnor), who reckons with his destiny as the future king. Within their rigid world, the royals pursue their desires in their own little waysâCharles with his love of the performing arts, Elizabeth with her beloved racehorses at Sandringham, Anne with a casual fling that surprises her family.
Toward the end of the season, even Margaret has a fleeting taste of happiness outside of the public eye, before getting sucked back into the vortex of her unhappy marriage. Itâs impossible for the Windsors to fully escape the demands of the crown; several extended family scenes see even the most individualistic characters obediently falling in line. Elizabeth is ultimately the only character who digests and accepts this reality without much drama. Colman brings a hard-won confidence to the queen, who weathers changes and hard decisions with the mettle of a ruler who recognizes the importance of self-reliance and stability.
The title of the seasonâs first episode, âOlding,â is a play on Elizabethâs age (and the code name of a K.G.B. spy), setting the tone for the queenâs private musings on the trajectory of her reign. The episode is an exploration of appearances and what they conceal, with a number of pieces of fine art and literary metaphors hammering that point home. During a pivotal moment in the season premiere, the Surveyor of the Queenâs Pictures, Anthony Blunt (Samuel West), gives an overblown lecture about the layers of deceit and multiple meanings lurking within Renaissance artâand the moment is followed by a longwinded scene that overcomplicates an otherwise simple allegory about hidden identities and trust.
The Crown presents a network of relationships that are more meaningfully connected by ringing telephones, newspaper headlines, letters, and electric buzzers than face-to-face communication. The showâs royal family is âalone together,â settled in their identities and the demands of their station. Philip only reconciles with his mother after reading an article about her in the papers, and one of the seasonâs most heartening scenes depicts Alice and Philip walking arm-in-arm together in the gardens of Buckingham Palace. Young Elizabeth once confronted Philip about what he does and where he goes, but sheâs since risen above these small concerns. Given the queenâs inability to show her feelings, itâs fitting that the season closes on a note of solitude and isolation. In her own words, âOne just has to get on with it.â
Cast: Olivia Colman, Tobias Menzies, Helena Bonham Carter, Jason Watkins, Ben Daniels, Marion Bailey, Josh OâConnor, Charles Dance, Jane Lapotaire, Erin Doherty, Emerald Fennell, Gillian Anderson Network: Netflix
Review: For All Mankind Prioritizes Cynical Alternate History Over Character
The series suffocates its promising characters with the tedium of backroom politics.2
According to For All Mankind, if the Soviet Union had landed humans on the moon before the United States did, the space race would have continued at full speed, escalating from moon landings to the building of lunar bases to cosmic subterfuge. But the Apple TV+ series, created and written by Ronald D. Moore (of Battlestar Galactica and Outlander fame), Matt Wolpert, and Ben Nedivi, sluggishly leads to little of interest. For All Mankind prioritizes its alternate historyâs tedious political maneuvering over its characters, suffocating their development and deflating emotional payoffs.
Navy veteran and astronaut Edward Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman) is the primary focus of the series. In an early scene, set in 1969, heâs sitting in a bar in Houston, watching on TV as a Russian cosmonaut steps on the moon. Ed was on Apollo 10, a trial run for Apollo 11, which in the showâs alternate history is a footnote in the space race. Now, he and crewmate Gordo Stevens (Michael Dorman) strive to get back to space and break new ground.
Most of the showâs supporting characters come and go as if at random. For one, steely astronaut Molly Cobb (Sonya Walger) and her endearing hippy husband, Wayne (Lenny Jacobson) become central figures and then inexplicably, and disappointingly, disappear. Often, characters exist less to provide a human perspective on the space race than to represent issues, a problem thatâs more acute when it comes to the showâs women. Some of themâlike astronaut Danielle Pool (Krys Marshall) and Tracy Stevens (Sarah Jones), Gordoâs wifeâpropel more substantial narratives whose social commentary informs, rather than supplants, their personhood. But others, such as engineer Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt) and Edâs wife, Karen (Shantel VanSanten), are merely stand-ins for forces and experiences like sexism in the workplace and the trials that servicepeoplesâ families endure.
After the Soviets land a woman on the moon, President Nixonâwhoâs depicted via archival footage overlaid with recordings, both authentic and fabricatedâwants to do the same, which sets up an episode about the training of female astronauts. When the Soviets are expected to establish a military presence on the moon, Nixon and the Pentagon move to ramp up their own, which cues an arc about the creation of a lunar base. Throughout For All Mankind, NASA higher-ups, beholden to the president, ceaselessly relay his demands to Director of Flight Crew Operations Deke Slayton (Chris Bauer) and Flight Director Gene Kranz (Eric Ladin) over in mission control, but all their exhaustingly repetitive policy debates siphon attention away from the human beings whose lives they shape.
As For All Mankind proceeds, however, it shifts its focus from broad political mandates to the specificities of its characters. One episode that centers around three astronauts penned up in a claustrophobic lunar base is among the showâs most evocative. The astronauts spend nearly half a year sleeping in cramped bunks, pickaxing moon rocks, and eating goo. When they intently and gravely tinker with an off-screen item, the stakes feel life-or-death, but a cut to the subject of their concern reveals a damaged VHS tape, one of their six episodes of The Bob Newhart Show. The crew watches the episodes on repeat, eventually reenacting one in a welcome act of catharsis. But later, when an astronaut feverishly acts out all three parts in a scene from the Newhart series, we see how much these people have given up, how profoundly it can hurt to be so far away from home.
One of the showâs notable revisions of the historical record is its portrayal of Ted Kennedy having succeeded Nixon as president, along with the formerâs triumphant push to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. Kennedy initially wants to bring the moon-marooned astronauts homeâa relief crew is repeatedly delayed from replacing themâbut he ultimately tolerates their stranding because the lunar outpost distracts the nation from his ongoing sex scandal. These and other dynamics fuel the showâs deeply cynical framing of the space race not as a struggle for key geopolitical advantage or a fight for national principles, but as a conflict as fruitless and myopic as a dogâs quest to catch its own tail.
Cynicism suffuses the series both subtly, with its framing of NASA as a pawn of the
presidentâs administration, and overtly, with Wernher von Braun (Colm Feore), the German aerospace engineer who designed the Saturn V, saying that âevery political system is flawed, and every bureaucracy is corrupt.â Soviet points of view are almost entirely absent from the series, but the American cronies on hand justify his mistrust.
Such disenchantment occasionally generates intriguing reflections on imperialism, discrimination, PTSD, and more. It also renders the earnestness of a side plot about a young girl, Aleida Rosales (Olivia Trujillo), and her father, Octavio (Arturo Del Puerto), jarring in contrast. The pair immigrates to the U.S. from Mexico, and Aleida develops a fascination with rockets and space, as well as formidable skills in math. Sheâs poised to become an engineer, maybe even an astronaut, one day. The suggestion, here, is that the American dream is alive and well. But it seems that Aleida will have to leave Earth to find it.
Cast: Joel Kinnaman, Michael Dorman, Shantel VanSanten, Chris Bauer, Sarah Jones, Colm Feore, Wrenn Schmidt, Sonya Walger, Krys Marshall, Jodi Balfour, Nate Corddry, Eric Ladin, Rebecca Wisocky, Arturo Del Puerto, Olivia Trujillo, Lenny Jacobson, Dan Donohue, Wallace Langham Network: Apple TV+
Review: Apple TVâs See Feels Startlingly Uncommitted to Its Bonkers Concept
The series struggles to sensibly lay out the particulars of its post-apocalyptic feudalism.1
Apple TVâs post-apocalyptic drama See will undoubtedly be sold on the credentials of those involved, from director Francis Lawrence to star Jason Momoa to writer-creator Steven Knight. Knight is best known for TV dramas like Peaky Blinders and Taboo, but his most relevant credit is one that will certainly go unmentioned in trailers and other marketing materials for the series: the stupefying, bonkers Matthew McConaughey fishing-centered noir Serenity, as See suffers from a similarly bizarre, overreaching concept.
In Seeâs vision of the future, only a couple million people are still alive, almost all of them blind. Society has, for some reason, gone feudal, with everyone decked out in furs and living in huts and broken up into different tribes. They call the sun the âgod flame,â and, at the behest of tyrannical Queen Kane (Sylvia Hoeks), they burn heretics who espouse the mostly forgotten idea of vision. The three-months pregnant Maghra (Hera Hilmar) is taken in by a remote community headed by Baba Voss (Momoa), who marries her. When she gives birth, itâs to twins who can see just fine. This, of course, being heresy, Baba Voss and the rest of the village flee from Kaneâs witchfinders, building a new home in a remote location to keep the children safe.
The showâs opening credits display wispy yellow shadows of things like horses and spiders to suggest recognition even through blindness. Beyond that, though, See feels startlingly uncommitted to its gimmick of a blind world. The series is filmed in bog-standard fantasy style, all wide vistas, expansive greenery, and ominous smoke in the distance with seemingly no concession for how its charactersâ perception of the world might differ from the audienceâs. Thereâs a near-total absence of subjective camera work here, a sense of how the characters might have to rely on touch, sound, or smell to navigate. Barring a personâs occasional stumble to find their footing or moving a hand along a guiding rope tied across the top of the village, everything unfolds so expectedly that itâs easy to forget the showâs concept entirely.
Even with interminable amounts of exposition in the three episodes provided to press ahead of the showâs premiere, Knight struggles to sensibly lay out the particulars of this post-apocalyptic feudalism in terms of government, social hierarchies, and basic navigation between settlements. Everyone is incongruously well-groomed and color-coordinated, even going so far as to wear hoods when burning people at the stake despite no one being able to see their faces. Gory battle scenes include someone like Voss groping around for a handhold only to swing his blade to perfectly meet an enemyâs throat the very next moment.
See is at its most engaging when it allows itself to get truly silly and weird: A naked woman in white paint follows people unnoticed because sheâs said to purge herself of thought, and Queen Kane prays via masturbation, concluding each invocation in the throes of orgasm. But the majority of Knightâs series is a self-serious dirge, where sight-based wordplay like âSo they just walk around with their eyes closed?â is delivered with a straight face. In the end, Seeâs myriad absurdities somehow add up only to a run-of-the-mill dystopia, where the children are the âchosen onesâ and the tyrant must be overthrown.
Cast: Jason Momoa, Sylvia Hoeks, Hera Hilmar, Alfre Woodard, Christian Camargo, Archie Madekwe, Nesta Cooper, Yadira Guevara-Prip, Josh Blacker, Christian Sloan Network: Apple TV+
Review: The Morning Show Boldly Navigates the Nuances of the “Me Too” Era
The series is an uneasy, sometimes nauseating, and often fascinating examination of our current moment.3
In the third episode of The Morning Show, two disgraced men sit down after a spirited tennis match and chat over scotch and Chinese takeout. One, a film director of apparent renown (Martin Short), tells the otherâMitch Kessler (Steve Carell), a TV anchor recently accused of sexual misconduct and fired from his job co-hosting the nationâs most beloved morning showâthat he feels bad for people coming of age in the #MeToo era. âThereâs nothing sexy about consent,â he says. When Mitch responds with visual discomfort, the director revises his statement: âI guess what Iâm saying is, humanity happens in the unspoken moments.â
Mitch claims that his only sin was engaging in consensual âextracurricular sex.â But while the three episodes provided to press ahead of the showâs premiere donât confirm exactly what Mitch did or didnât do, and while he expresses genuine contempt for unequivocal predators, weâre granted hints of the unspoken moments he may have orchestrated. At one point, Mia Jordan (Karen Pittman), a producer on Mitchâs former show, enters Mitchâs abandoned dressing room and presses a button under his desk, which automatically closes the door.
Earlier, Mitch receives a surprise visit from Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston), his longtime co-host. Heâs been cooped up in his house, surrounded by reporters, for days. The two clearly adore each other, and when Alex starts to leave, Mitch begs her to stay. His pleas are unnervingly murky: They may be the innocent symptoms of his loneliness and isolation, or they could be glimpses of the tactics he uses to keep women where they donât want to be.
Alex is furious at Mitch for leaving her on her own, at executive producer Charlie Black (Mark Duplass) for keeping her in the dark about the allegations, and at the network itself for the bitter contract renegotiation itâs putting her through. The network is represented largely by Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup), an executive whoâs dismissive of hard news and devoted to entertainment. Heâs a delightfully odd highlight of the series, less traditional suit than android: unblinking, unreadable, and teetering on the edge of going haywire.
The rage that Aniston summons as Alex is beguiling. She slams her fists on conference tables and roars at her staff, achieving a catharsis thatâs at odds with the passive aggression that permeates The Morning Show. But when she interviews Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon), a firebrand reporter from West Virginia whoâs gone viral thanks to a candid video of her passionately telling someone off at a protest, Alex demonstrates a subtler wrath; thinking that the viral video was part of a scheme for fame, she asks increasingly antagonistic questions. Bradley, though, stands her ground, and the electrically pointed but within-bounds exchange escalates like a polite knife fight. Bradleyâs resolution, verve, and popular appeal catch Coryâs eye, making her, unknowingly, a candidate to replace Mitch.
Bradley is predominantly limited to her outsider-nessâbeing a moderate conservative from a rural localeâand clichĂ©s about both-sides journalism that undercut her supposed radical streak. But Witherspoon infuses the character with scrappy charm and complexity, namely in Bradleyâs uncharacteristically tender interactions with her brother, a recovering drug addict. Mitch, meanwhile, is thoroughly ostracized. Carell delivers bursts of pathos that disconcertingly temper Mitchâs grotesque rants, but the series uses Mitch as too broad a stand-in for the fallen man. A conversation between him and Charlie feels as though itâs meant purely to squeeze in boilerplate talking points about âMcCarthyismâ and âthe court of public opinionâ (and to make the insufferable Charlie even less sympathetic).
In its introductory episodes, however, The Morning Show mostly avoids trite, glib, or otherwise thoughtless writing. The series takes on the risky goal of humanizing Mitchâalbeit inconclusively, for nowâand carefully navigates the minefield of its sensitive subject material. Propelled by its magnetic performances, the series is an uneasy, sometimes nauseating, and often fascinating examination of our still-unspooling current moment.
Cast: Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, Steve Carell, Billy Crudup, Mark Duplass, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nestor Carbonell, Karen Pittman, Desean Terry, Janina Gavankar, Bel Powley, Jack Davenport, Victoria Tate, Tom Irwin Network: Apple TV+
Review: Season 2 of Jack Ryan Leans Hard on Generic Action and Stale Plotting
The occasionally thrilling series relies on generic action cribbed from other, more distinct espionage fiction.1.5
Early in season two of Tom Clancyâs Jack Ryan, C.I.A. analyst Jack Ryan (John Krasinski) lectures a rapt audience of college students, defining for them the meaning of the term âfailed state,â and warning them of the looming threat of economic collapse in Venezuela. Ryan has an easy charisma, owing to the amiable presence of Krasinski, and he describes the South American nation in overly simplistic terms that fit the showâs polarized, good-versus-evil worldview: Its strongman president, Nicolas Reyes (Jordi Molla), is âan asshole,â and the country is destined for ruin. And so begins the new season, with the series in thrall to its title characterâand, by proxy, Americaâand concerned with its South American setting mostly as one more Banana Republic to be saved from itself.
Pitting moral opposites against one another for an occasionally thrilling eight episodes that place the fate of a nation in the balance, Jack Ryan harkens back to the anodyne action thrillers of the 1980s and â90s. Itâs also clearly influenced by the Reagan Doctrine of interventionism, which encouraged guerrilla wars against left-wing governments. The showâs paternalistic vision of Venezuela, like season oneâs notion of the Middle East, leans toward portraying the nation as one inherently incapable of self-managementâthus necessitating the help of Jack Ryan, a character who moves, frustratingly, into messianic territory here.
Ryan finds himself in Venezuela on a diplomatic mission to question Reyes regarding a mysterious shipment deep in the jungle, which is being guarded by notorious weapons traffickers. His earlier warnings about the country are quickly justified, as heâs ambushed by a mysterious hitman after the meeting with President Reyes seems to ruffle political feathers. The seasonâs winding plot spins out from this point, as Ryan and C.I.A. colleague Jim Greer (Wendell Peirce) must attempt to find out who ordered the ambush and whatâs in the jungle.
Jack Ryanâs loose grasp of U.S. foreign relations, while providing a poor representation of our history in Latin America, is a feature of its action-hero formula. Yet because the series has little unique to convey about the world Ryan inhabits, itâs composed solely of the brand of generic action and manipulative reliance on cliffhangers cribbed from other, more distinct espionage fiction. Jack Ryan is the Bourne series without the well-honed, if pummeling, stylistic brio; itâs James Bond minus the elegance; Mission: Impossible without the gonzo stunt work. What joys can be derived from it come mostly from Krasinskiâs affability and his characterâs prickly chemistry with Greer, to whom Pierce lends a warm grouchiness.
Throughout Jack Ryanâs new season, its relatively meaningless story doubles back over itself with a number of twists before, inevitably, the âgood guysâ win. Right out of the gate, you sense the showâs creative regression, as Ryan has transformed from a fish-out-of-water C.I.A. analyst to a natural superheroâone comfortable liberating prison camps in the jungle, spying on weapons caches, and invading foreign government buildings. The season stretches credulity even by the showâs own standards, culminating with Ryan and a small band of black-ops cohorts invading the Venezuelan presidential palace on election dayâand its laughably unrealistic final climax includes Ryan fist-fighting with President Reyes.
Though Ryan is sketched loosely, and strictly in terms of his heroism, Krasinskiâs everyman persona and knack for sarcastic comedy assures that heâs believable as a smart guy with hidden ambition and untapped potential, as well as a dash of ego. But despite Krasinskiâs effort, the series remains most engaging when the seasonâs action turns away from Ryan. A secondary plot, involving a foursome of American black operatives invading the jungle, provides some of the seasonâs most suspenseful action sequencesâand its most potent source of pathos, when Marcus (Jovan Adepo), one of the young soldiers, is lost alone behind enemy lines.
As in its first season, the series is still better at assigning motivation to its antagonists than it is at developing its title character, as the palace intrigue between Reyes and his chief advisor, Miguel Ubarri (Francisco Denis), efficiently gets at their motivations, revealing the history of their corruption and foreshadowing a dark fracture in their alliance. In stark contrast, Ryan is merely good, and his goodness is seen as a function of his profession, blank personality, and nationality. While season two is never boring, the series nonetheless has little new to say about Jack Ryan or the world, and while it doesnât lack for suspense, the fate of the latter is never really in doubt. The seasonâs length strains the effectiveness of its throwback sensibilities, passable action choreography, and formulaic charactersâattributes which may be better suited for standalone feature films.
Cast: John Krasinski, Wendell Pierce, John Hoogenakker, Jordi Molla, Eduar Salas, Francisco Denis, Michael Kelly, Cristina UmaĂ±a, Jovan Adepo Network: Amazon