At long last, BBC America has bowed to the reality of the internet and broadcast the Doctor Who Christmas special within hours of its UK premiere. It’s particularly fortunate that as many viewers as possible got to see this episode at the correct time of year, rather than weeks or months later, as “A Christmas Carol” is definitely the most Christmassy of all the Christmas specials so far. Previous specials have seen various trappings of Christmas given a Doctor Who twist (killer Christmas trees, robot Santas, and so on), but this is the first time the Christmas episode draws inspiration from one of the classic works of Christmas literature. Despite the title, though, this is not simply an adaptation of the famous original; such a thing would make no sense, since we already know that Charles Dickens exists in the Doctor’s universe (“The Unquiet Dead”). Instead, writer Steven Moffat neatly engineers a situation where the Doctor deliberately chooses to act in a way that follows the basic structure of A Christmas Carol—just with time-travel, rather than ghosts.
The teaser dumps us straight into the action: a spaceship is in trouble, its engines failing, plummeting into the atmosphere of a planet covered with dense white clouds. On board are four thousand people, including our honeymooning companions, Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill). They manage to send a distress signal which brings the TARDIS flying to the rescue, but it can’t simply lock on and tow the ship to safety—and the clouds make any sort of controlled landing impossible. With admirable efficiency, the main threat driving the plot has been set up in under two minutes, with several gags along the way referencing everything from Star Trek (the design of the ship’s bridge, especially the viewscreen, and the navigator with an artificial-eyesight device on his face) to Red Dwarf (“The light’s stopped flashing… Does this mean he’s on his way, or do I have to change the bulb?”). Amy and Rory are wearing their policewoman/kissogram and Roman outfits from previous stories, which I’m sure was done not only to hint that they were engaging in a bit of roleplaying in the honeymoon suite, but to mislead fans who saw the publicity photos into thinking that Moffat, with his penchant for time-twisting plotting, might be revisiting the events of the last year (as if they weren’t tangled enough already). Surprisingly, it turns out that there is plenty of ’timey-wimey’ trickery to come, but Amy and Rory are barely involved in the story—they’ll remain trapped on board the USS MacGuffin for the duration.
Below the cloud layer, we find a different world altogether. One of the things that struck me forcefully about this episode is simply how good it looked. New production designer Michael Pickwoad presents a positively cinematic setting that initially looks like a picture-postcard Victorian Christmas. But a closer look reveals electric lighting, loudspeakers on the lamp-posts, and costumes that incorporate helmets and goggles reminiscent of early aircraft pilots. It’s the sort of thing which was being attempted in “The Beast Below”—to create a setting based firmly on British iconography, with a surreal twist—but this episode is on a bigger scale, and much more successful. This Victorian-ish human colony is more or less superimposed onto a sort of bizarre undersea world—the clouds and fog are actually home to flying fish of all sizes up to and including man-sized sharks. There are some vague attempts at providing justifications for all this, with the Doctor mumbling about “crystalline fog” and so on, but they’re unlikely to satisfy those who prefer their Doctor Who to be more science fiction than fantasy, and it’s probably best to view this environment as simply continuing the style of storytelling which informed much of the last season. Besides, the image of schools of small fish swimming through the air, circling around street lamps, is wonderfully beguiling.
The ruler of this town, Kazran Sardick, is a thoroughly unpleasant person who seems to derive his pleasures from being as petty and mean as possible to anyone and everyone. A Scrooge-like moneylender who takes family members as collateral for loans and stores them in cryogenic stasis caskets, we see him refusing a poor family’s request for their frozen relative—a beautiful young woman—to be let out for just one day; to let them have Christmas Day together. He sneers at the family to go home and “pray for a miracle,” when suddenly there’s a disturbance at the chimney. In a shower of soot and sparks, the Doctor (Matt Smith) makes a spectacular entrance (“Christmas Eve on a rooftop, saw a chimney, my whole brain just went, What the hell!”). He’s here because Kazran is the owner of a device which can control the clouds of this planet, and is the only hope for the crippled spaceship to land safely. When he tries to operate the controls himself he finds they are “isomorphic,” and will respond only to Kazran (for long-time fans, an in-joke referring to the Tom Baker story “Pyramids of Mars,” in which the Doctor used a bluff about the TARDIS controls being isomorphic).
The producers scored a considerable coup by getting Michael Gambon for the part of Kazran. He will be most familiar to a lot of the audience (particularly the children) as Dumbledore, but for me he is indelibly linked not to Harry but to Dennis Potter. His unforgettable central performance in The Singing Detective (the 1986 version, that is, not the inferior 2003 remake) is a large part of why that production is one of the greatest dramatic works ever created for television. I was greatly looking forward to seeing him in this episode, and he didn’t disappoint. As we find out over the course of the story, Kazran is a man whose emotional makeup was greatly influenced by his brutal, domineering father Elliot Sardick—whose brief appearances in flashback scenes are also portrayed by Gambon. His own childhood interests were crushed, as he grew up to follow his father in the “family business”—the atmospheric control system which now gives him power and influence over the whole planet. Something I particularly enjoyed about Gambon’s performance here is the way, whenever Kazran is being especially unpleasant, his voice takes on some of the characteristics of the coarser, more thuggish voice Gambon provides for Elliot. It’s as if he can’t help himself becoming the embodiment of his own father.
Meanwhile, Matt Smith continues to show all the brilliance which I’ve come to expect after the last series. The only things I didn’t care for in the portrayal of the Doctor in this episode (and the writing is perhaps more to blame than the performance here) were a couple of particularly hyperactive moments that would have fit perfectly into the little pantomime skit Moffat wrote for Smith’s live performance at the Doctor Who Prom concert (which was shown on BBC America a few hours before this episode). “Big flashy lighty thing. Big flashy lighty things have got me written all over them. Well, not actually… give me time. And a crayon.” At least Kazran does get to mock him about it (“Was that a sort of threat-y thing?”), but I find this sort of superficial wackiness tends to detract from the Doctor’s presence without adding anything interesting in return.
Apart from those little glitches, though, Smith and Gambon work excellently together. Their first, long confrontation scene is a treat. When the Doctor asks who the frozen woman is and Kazran says she is “nobody important,” his quiet reply—“D’you know, in nine hundred years of time and space I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important before”—manages to slip in a disconcerting amount of menace underneath the last few words. Even after he discovers that only Kazran can operate the controls, he still can’t stop himself trading barbs (“I’m Kazran Sardick. How could you possibly not know who I am?” “Well… just easily bored, I suppose”). He tries cajoling, then veiled threats; nothing works against Kazran’s determined intransigence. But when he sees Kazran raise his hand against the little boy from the poor family—but be unable to make himself complete the action of hitting him—the Doctor begins to realize that there might be a way to change Kazran’s mind after all.
The Doctor: “That ship needs to land. But it can’t land unless a very bad man suddenly decides to turn nice just in time for Christmas Day.”
As I said earlier, this is not a straight adaptation of A Christmas Carol, but rather an independent story incorporating some of its motifs. The social commentary from the original is not used here (although Kazran does make a couple of snide remarks about “surplus population”), and there is no allegorical reveal of two children named Ignorance and Want. Instead, Moffat makes use of an idea that formed the basis of his first-ever piece of Doctor Who fiction, a highly regarded short story published in 1996 called “Continuity Errors”—the Doctor reforms Scrooge/Kazran in the present by changing his past.
Kazran is sleeping in his chair when he is jolted awake by the ghost of Christmas Past—a video image projected onto his wall by the Doctor. It’s a recording he made as a boy, showing his twelve-year-old self wanting to make a film about the fish that fascinate him, but being berated by his father who slaps him—something the grown-up Kazran was unable to do to the boy earlier.
Kazran: “I cried all night, and I learned life’s most invaluable lesson.”
The Doctor: “Which is?”
Kazran: “Nobody comes.”
He tells the Doctor to get out; in response, the Doctor simply tells him he’ll be back… way back. The moment where the sound of the TARDIS leaving becomes the sound of the TARDIS arriving, and in the recording the boy Kazran looks up and sees the Doctor at his window, is a simply magical transition. Director Toby Haynes, having successfully coped with Moffat’s time-jumping plotting in last season’s finale, is equally adept here at finding ways to ensure that the viewer is kept up to speed with Kazran’s shifting timeline. As the Doctor interacts with the boy Kazran, the adult version finds himself with memories of those events—but in addition to, not instead of, his previous memories, in much the same way as Amy and Rory found themselves with memories of multiple timelines at the end of the last series.
I do wonder whether Steven Moffat is to some extent playing with fire here. Something Doctor Who has always shied away from is using the TARDIS as a means of solving story problems, especially by going back in time. The chief narrative function of the TARDIS has always been to deposit the Doctor and his companions at the start of an adventure and take them away at the end. In the classic series, of course, its navigation was generally too unreliable to do anything else. And even when the Doctor did later manage to gain more control over his journeys, there was always technobabble available to “explain” why established events could not be interfered with. Even in recent stories which have featured manipulation of timelines, the TARDIS has generally not been involved. By using the TARDIS in this fashion here, Moffat’s fascination with the possibilities of time-travel (and his undoubted ability to exploit those possibilities) may have opened up a can of worms and created a situation where it’s hard to avoid asking why the Doctor can’t fix every problem he encounters by just going back in time.
Anyway, be that as it may, the Doctor now spends some time getting to know Kazran as a boy. Matt Smith has already shown several times how well he can work with child actors, and this episode provides another example. Laurence Belcher gives a very natural and believable performance, establishing a real rapport with Smith just as the intelligent, likeable young Kazran does with the Doctor. This section also contains my favorite joke of the episode:
Young Kazran: “Are you really a babysitter?”
The Doctor: (presents his psychic paper) “I think you’ll find I’m universally recognised as a mature and responsible adult.”
Young Kazran: “It’s just a lot of wavy lines.”
The Doctor: (examines it) “Shorted out. Finally, a lie too big.”
The Doctor sets up his sonic screwdriver to attract one of the fish; unfortunately it ends up attracting one rather bigger than he was expecting, and young Kazran finds himself facing a full-sized shark floating in his bedroom. (Amusingly, in the accompanying Confidential episode, Moffat reveals that the shark-in-the-bedroom image comes straight from his own childhood nightmares.) The shark bites the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver in half, but leaving the cloud layer means it’s dying. The boy asks the Doctor to take the shark back to the clouds, but that will require borrowing one of the cryogenic caskets. He picks the one containing the young woman we saw earlier, who he knows shares his fascination with the fish, which leads to the introduction of the episode’s other guest star.
The role of Abigail was the first acting role for Welsh mezzo-soprano Katherine Jenkins, and she made a great job of it. Not only is she visually stunning, but as the episode progresses she has to carry more and more emotional weight, and proves more than capable of it. Her singing voice is also put to good use; here she sings “In the Bleak Midwinter” to calm the shark—in typical Moffat fashion, combining an arresting image with the laying in of plot points for later, as the Doctor talks about how the sound of her voice resonates with the ice crystals making up the clouds.
The release of the shark back into the clouds, with Abigail and young Kazran standing in the TARDIS doorway and looking on delightedly, kicks off a section lasting nearly fifteen minutes where the Doctor and Kazran spend a multitude of Christmas Eves with Abigail. The Doctor of course journeys straight from one Christmas Eve to the next, and Abigail is frozen in her casket for the rest of the year, so only Kazran ages, changing from a boy into a young adult (Danny Horn). As they journey to famous places on Earth, enjoy a ride through the clouds on a rickshaw pulled by their now-tame shark, or drop in on Abigail’s family for a happy Christmas dinner (a scene drawing directly on the merrymaking at the Cratchits’ house in the original Christmas Carol), Kazran and Abigail gradually fall in love. Periodically, we cut back to the old Kazran, sitting on the floor of his study, looking at the photographs of what are simultaneously both old memories and new experiences for him. And the portrait now watching over him is no longer his father—it’s been replaced by a picture of Abigail. Despite my reservations above about the possible misuse of the TARDIS, the sheer joy of this sequence is hard to resist. Apart from anything else, there are some more great comedy lines from Moffat:
Kazran: “I’ve never kissed anyone before. What do I do?”
The Doctor: “Well, try and be all nervous and rubbish and a bit shaky.”
The Doctor: “Because you’re going to be like that anyway. Might as well make it part of the plan, then it’ll feel on purpose. Off you go, then.”
Kazran: “Now? I kiss her now?”
The Doctor: “Kazran, trust me. It’s either this, or go to your room and design a new kind of screwdriver. Don’t make my mistakes. Now, go!”
However, tragedy strikes when Abigail lets Kazran in on a big secret she’s been keeping to herself. Unfortunately, the story requires the Doctor to be kept in the dark at this point, and Moffat resorts to a serious case of idiot plotting to accomplish this. Earlier the Doctor had pointed out a numerical readout on the front of Abigail’s casket, and Abigail had confirmed that it pertained to her, and mentioned something about doctors (“Are you one of mine?”). But the story contrived to distract the Doctor before he could probe further. Then, each time Abigail is released for Christmas Eve, the direction makes a point of showing us the number on the front of her casket counting down. It’s very obvious that something bad is going to happen when the count reaches zero, but we’re supposed to believe the Doctor never notices the decreasing number right in front of him—even though earlier he gave an impressive demonstration of his observational skills with his deductions about Kazran’s father (presented in the rapid-fire style of Moffat’s other hit show of 2010, Sherlock).
Abigail finally tells Kazran at a party on Earth where the Doctor accidentally gets engaged to Marilyn Monroe. In a very funny scene, the Doctor wants to make a quick getaway, while the two lovers ignore him, their kissing hiding their tear-streaked faces. The way Matt Smith says, “Fine, I’ll just go and get married then. See how you like that,” and stalks away with an irritated snap of his jacket and a yell of “Marilyn, get your coat!” is just hilarious. Back in the vault, a clearly bitter Kazran seals Abigail away before telling the Doctor he won’t be going on any more Christmas Eve trips—in fact, he won’t be needing the Doctor any more at all. The Doctor is left puzzled, responding to Kazran’s “Times change” with “Not as much as I’d hoped.” It’s nice to have the audience ahead of the Doctor just for once, but it goes on way too long, and the way it’s presented makes the Doctor look absurdly slow-witted.
Back in the ’present day,’ the old Kazran is once again being watched over by the portrait of his father. Having originally become a misanthrope through loneliness and lack of love, he is now embittered by the pain of having loved and lost, and still refuses to help the ship land safely (“As a very old friend of mine once took a very long time to explain, life isn’t fair!”). Even when Amy gets into the action, appearing to Kazran in a holographic projection as “the ghost of Christmas Present,” she is no more successful than the Doctor was earlier. Finally Kazran reveals the secret that everyone in the audience had already guessed—Abigail is dying, and has only one day left to live. “So tell me, ghost of Christmas Present. How do I choose which day?”
Gambon and Smith shine again in the final confrontation between the Doctor and Kazran. Having criticized Moffat’s plotting earlier, it’s only fair that I give him due credit for the climax of the Doctor’s manipulation of Kazran—the ghost of Christmas Yet to Come:
Kazran: “Why are you here?”
The Doctor: “Because I’m not finished with you yet. You’ve seen the past, the present… and now you need to see the future.”
Kazran: “Fine. Do it. Show me. I’ll die cold, alone and afraid. Of course I will; we all do. What difference does showing me make?” (beat) “Do you know why I’m going to let those people die? Not a plan; I don’t get anything from it. It’s just that I don’t care. I’m not like you; I don’t even want to be like you. I don’t and never ever will care!”
The Doctor: “And I don’t believe you.”
Kazran: “Then show me the future.”
And now the twist occurs, which I never saw coming. The Doctor simply replies, “I am showing it to you; I’m showing it to you right now.” Standing behind Kazran is his twelve-year-old self, who looks at him, appalled. Eventually, he says simply: “Dad?” That one word finally penetrates the hard carapace Kazran has built up around himself. His Christmas Carol therapy is completed as he rejects his father’s harshness and ends up quite literally embracing his inner child.
Now at last Kazran is willing to save the ship, but Moffat manages to fit in one more clever twist. The Doctor has now changed Kazran to such an extent that the isomorphic controls no longer recognize him. Instead, the Doctor has to cobble together a solution using Abigail’s voice transmitted through the two halves of his sonic screwdriver—one retained by Kazran over the years, the other still in that shark flying through the clouds. This of course means that Abigail must be released from her casket—for the last time. It’s a beautifully written scene as she gently chides Kazran for “hoarding my days like an old miser,” before concluding: “We’ve had so many Christmas Eves, Kazran. I think it’s time for Christmas Day.”
Once again, Katherine Jenkins’ marvelous voice is showcased as Abigail sings a new Murray Gold number. The melody had actually been heard earlier, forming the basis of the joyful accompaniment to the rickshaw sequence. Here, though, it is presented in a pure, unadorned version that provides a suitably moving climax as the clouds are finally “unlocked,” snow falls on the town, and the ship at last lands safely.
Amy: “It’ll be their last day together, won’t it?”
The Doctor: “Everything’s got to end some time. Otherwise nothing would ever get started.”
The trailer for the next season, released after this episode, is a reminder that “A Christmas Carol” is actually an interlude within a larger story. The threads left hanging at the end of last season—River Song, and the mysterious “Silence”—will be taken up again soon. But for now, we end with the sight of Kazran and Abigail dashing through the clouds in a one-shark open sleigh (well, rickshaw), making the most of their last day together. See you next year.
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Review: The Boys Is a Bleakly Cynical Take on the Superhero Genre
The Amazon series is a little too fond of its antiheroes to really throw them in the muck.2.5
Adapted from writer Garth Ennis and artist Darick Robertson’s cult comic book series, The Boys is a cynical, bleakly comedic take on the superhero genre. In both the comic and TV show, superheroism has been privatized, with various costumed fighters managed and marketed by companies like Vought International. When, for example, A-Train (Jessie T. Usher)—who’s part of an elite team called the Seven and bills himself as the fastest man alive—accidentally crashes into a woman on the street, her body explodes into a gory soup of blood and bone, the fingers on her severed hands still intertwined with those of her boyfriend, Hughie (Jack Quaid). A Vought representative assures Hughie the company wants to do “the right thing” and offers him $45,000, as long as he signs a nondisclosure agreement.
Vought’s celebrity superheroes are so rich and powerful, so above it all, that the deaths of normal people don’t faze them. Crowds may be good for the adoration that fuels their fame and feeds their images, but on an individual level, a regular person is as significant to them as a scuff on their focus-tested boots. This, a trench-coated, bearded man named Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) tells Hughie, is where he and his team—informally called The Boys—come in, to retaliate against superbeings when they get out of line, by whatever means necessary.
Much was made of the difficulty in adapting something so gleefully profane as Ennis’s Preacher for TV, and his Boys comics arguably go to even greater (and occasionally pointless) extremes. In translating them to a one-hour-per-episode streaming format, the show’s writers add about as much as they subtract. Amazon’s adaptation certainly maintains the graphic violence, though in the writers’ attempts to excavate Ennis’s salient commentary and anarchic ideas, they judiciously cut much of the sexual violence and juvenile shock tactics while turning a more sympathetic eye to the characters. No longer do any of them feel like simple vehicles for cruelty, or targets meant to receive it. A large portion of each episode is even devoted not to The Boys, but to the inner workings of Vought, from the perspective of the largely sociopathic Seven and the company’s vice president Madelyn Stillwell (Elisabeth Shue), who’s as practiced at navigating super-egos as she is at coldly crunching the numbers behind smoothed-over corporate acts of representation and empowerment.
Some of the show’s very best moments come from its wicked corporate satire, often seen through fresh-faced hero Starlight (Erin Moriarty), the newest member of the Seven. Her glimpse behind the scenes is hardly what she expects, as her outfit is made more revealing by the marketing team, various characters encourage her “authenticity” as if it’s a cultivated false persona, and festivals featuring organizations named things like “Capes for Christ” book her for speaking engagements. Though The Boys includes hilarious moments like hero The Deep’s (Chace Crawford) attempt to rescue a dolphin from his SeaWorld-like sponsor or a proposed reality show about the Seven, the series satirizes our fascination with celebrities, fictional heroes, and capitalism at large without losing its class-conscious edge: There are no real supervillains in this world, only the natural abuse of power by the super-powerful.
Elsewhere, though, the show maintains a few of the comic’s problems with race and women. It’s in the silent, infantilized Asian woman (Karen Fukuhara) who joins The Boys, the Middle-Eastern terrorist clichés, and all the dead women piled around the story’s margins to motivate its chiefly male protagonists. But it also never quite reconciles the pitch-black roots of its principal characters with their more sympathetic TV counterparts. The Boys are no longer a C.I.A.-sanctioned hit squad as they were in the comics so much as everyman vigilantes raging against the machine, and rather than regard their actions and bravado with skepticism as Ennis’s source material did, the show arrives at an awkward middle ground.
For as much as The Boys’ exploits start off with a gruesomely literal bang, the Amazon series pulls back to posit them as more of an investigative crew engaged in some occasional blackmail as they dig through Vought’s secrets, leaving only Urban’s Billy Butcher to occasionally play the wild card. The Boys’s skewering of superheroism is often clever, but as the series progresses, the more hands-off approach of Butcher’s crew can leave them with little to do, to the point where the messy, circular plotting of the finale all but leaves them sitting on their hands. Although this adaptation excises the most misanthropic parts of its source material, Ennis did, at least, have a clear thematic vision for that mean, nihilistic story. This show, by contrast, is a little too fond of its antiheroes to really throw them in the muck, to the point where they can feel like guests in their own series.
Cast: Karl Urban, Jack Quaid, Elisabeth Shue, Antony Starr, Erin Moriarty, Dominique McElligott, Jessie T. Usher, Laz Alonso, Chace Crawford, Tomer Capon, Karen Fukuhara, Nathan Mitchell, Jennifer Esposito Network: Amazon
Review: Season Three of GLOW Offers a Multifaceted Vision of the ‘80s
Season three eschews the notion that there’s a single experience of the ‘80s that should dominate above the others.3
Netflix is awash in nostalgia for the 1980s, and from a certain distance its original programming’s reliance on the visual kitsch of the early MTV era can come off as a bit cheap. The opening credits of GLOW, which is loosely based on the eponymous real-world troupe of women wrestlers, goes all in on ‘80s-era signifiers: Neon-pink block letters alternate with rotoscoped outlines of women adorning themselves with headbands and tights against a black background, all set to Patty Smyth’s “The Warrior.” Taken by itself, this opening sequence suggests a gene splice of Jem and the Holograms and A-ha’s “Take on Me” music video, promising little more than bouncy ‘80s camp.
To series creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, however, the ‘80s are more than fodder for fun visual references. Yes, Debbie’s (Betty Gilpin) hair can get pretty big, and it’s hard not to notice that Ruth (Alison Brie) often wears her jeans tucked into her oversized sweat socks. But such recognizable hallmarks of ‘80s fashion are small details of a concretely realized world, grounded foremost in the show’s characters rather than in glitzy pastiche. GLOW mines an era of visual overstimulation, corporatized sexuality, and gender politics for stories that remain deeply relevant in a time when most people are keeping their socks under their pant legs.
Whereas the first season of GLOW focused on the schism between struggling actresses and former best friends Ruth and Debbie, season two refocused the narrative attention by spreading it out, supplying full arcs for the better part of its expansive and diverse cast, and season three follows suit. As the season opens, Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling has transitioned from a fledgling local television program to a limited engagement at a Las Vegas casino run by Sandy Devereaux St. Clair (Geena Davis). The city of spectacular excess is neither fetishized nor condemned, but it does have an effect on the L.A. transplants, compelling each of them toward reconsiderations of their sexual desires or identities—or, in Sheila’s (Gayle Rankin) unique case, her she-wolf persona—and their goals—like Debbie’s struggle to balance her life as a new mother with her ambitions to become a successful business woman.
While Debbie and Ruth each find themselves at a crossroads as their show extends its Vegas run—now a producer as well as a performer, Debbie looks to seize more power behind the camera, while Ruth grows anxious about her stalled acting career—the other women contend with their own issues in the highly gendered space of Vegas variety shows. Cherry (Sydelle Noel) begins to have second thoughts about having a child with her husband, Keith (Bashir Salahuddin), because of the impact it will have on her career as a wrestler and stuntwoman. Tammé (Kia Stevens) hides the toll that performing is taking on her spine for fear of losing her only gig. And the meek Arthie (Sunita Mani) must take stock of her own sexuality after a fight with her girlfriend, the much more unapologetically out Yolanda (Shakira Barrera).
And then, of course, there are the men: Bash (Chris Lowell), the founder and bankroller of the wrestling show, remains GLOW’s go-to comic relief, an infantile millionaire susceptible to the flashiest trends in clothing and live showcases. Bash is more than a punchline this season, though, as his recent green-card marriage to British-born wrestler Rhonda (Kate Nash) and his meeting with drag queen Bobby Barnes (Kevin Cahoon) allow a more meaningful exploration of the repressed homosexuality that the earlier seasons merely alluded to, just as Bobby’s unofficial integration into the wrestling show’s collective life spurs Arthie and Sheila’s own reconsideration of their identities. Nash stands out this season as Rhonda, the deceptively simple-minded Londoner who consistently outwits the sweet-natured but oblivious Bash, whom she grows to genuinely adore, and his abrasive, elitist mother Birdie (Elizabeth Perkins).
As Sam, the director who orchestrates the wrestling show’s action, comedian Marc Maron continues to surprise. Sam has softened up a bit in season three, but his growing compassion for the women under his watch is still tinged with the barely reformed misogyny of a hip ‘70s auteur (he suggests a poor man’s Brian De Palma, as his films are beloved equally by aesthetes and sleazeballs), a juxtaposition of qualities lent credence by Maron’s ability to simultaneously project cynical world-weariness and puppy-dog woundedness. Like the much younger Ruth, Sam is increasingly finding the repetitive nature of his show’s live performances unfulfilling. Trapped together in the secluded playground of Vegas, the two begin reconsidering the nature of their relationship, which leads to comically cringe-worthy tension with Ruth’s long-distance beau, Russell (Victor Quinaz).
If the first two seasons of GLOW were about this group of women coming together, season three is implicitly about them growing apart as they seek validation outside of their shared pro-wrestling gig. These episodes aren’t anchored by a strong, centralizing narrative—saving the wrestling show, vanquishing a greedy casino owner, finding true love, or triumphing over sexist management—but, rather, it explores varying aspects of these women’s lives with each relatively self-contained episode. Even if a couple of these stories end up a tad undercooked, this approach to serial television gives GLOW an admirably democratic vibe, as it eschews the notion that there’s a single experience of the ‘80s that should dominate above the others.
Cast: Alison Brie, Betty Gilpin, Marc Maron, Sydelle Noel, Britney Young, Kate Nash, Gayle Rankin, Kia Stevens, Jackie Tohn, Chris Lowell, Bashir Salahuddin, Kevin Cahoon, Sunita Mani, Shakira Barrera, Geena Davis, Ellen Wong, Britt Baron Network: Netflix
Review: Season Three of Harlots Retains the Show’s Campy Flourishes
The series is ultimately content to luxuriate in the well-established tension between its central characters.2.5
Season two of Hulu’s period drama Harlots seemed to trace the arcs of its female protagonists to their logical conclusions, with Madame Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) fleeing London for America, the villainous Madame Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville) committed to the Bedlam psychiatric hospital, and Margaret’s daughter, Charlotte (Jessica Brown Findlay), ascending to the role of “bawd” of the Greek Street brothel. These developments presented the writers with an opportunity to expand the show’s world, but while season three introduces new players to its gritty London backdrop, Harlots is ultimately content to luxuriate in the well-established tension between its central characters.
With Margaret and Lydia in exile, the season’s early episodes focus on Charlotte’s budding rivalry with a pimp named Isaac Pincher (Alfie Allen), who’s aggressively claiming territories in London. Perhaps because the slick, unctuous Isaac is so easily detestable, these episodes lack the knotty moral dynamic that the show previously derived from the strife between Margaret and Lydia. The two veteran madams are more nuanced characters than either the sympathetic Charlotte or the plainly villainous Isaac, and when Charlotte, ambitious but ultimately kind-hearted, attempts to outmaneuver Isaac, Harlots assumes a didactic pose.
The series has always focused on women struggling against a patriarchal system, and the conflict between Charlotte and Isaac renders the show’s overarching theme in literal terms. The writers do attempt to imbue their relationship with intricacy by adding a romantic layer, yet as Isaac’s actions toward Greek Street become more violent, Charlotte’s attraction toward him, which is merely unexpected at first, becomes inexplicable.
While these episodes don’t provide the show’s most nuanced character portrayals, they feature enough soapy excitement to hold the audience’s attention until Margaret and Lydia reemerge in London. The cat-and-mouse conflict between Charlotte and Isaac leads to a number of memorable set pieces, including a typically playful and bawdy one in which the women of Charlotte’s Greek Street brothel raid Isaac’s tavern for gold. Each episode is punctuated by a cliffhanger, including a cataclysmic event in episode three which signals an impending paradigm shift for Harlots. As the plot twists accrue, palpable chemistry emerges between Findlay and Allen, with the actors toggling between archness and sincerity to characterize the underdeveloped romance between Charlotte and Isaac.
While the initial episodes suffer some narrative foundering, season three retains the show’s campy flourishes, including an upbeat, anachronistic score and intentionally stagey performances. Findlay, Allen, and the rest of the cast loudly betray their characters’ emotions, contributing to both the show’s bubbly soapiness and its sympathetic view of its characters. The harlots aren’t cowed sex workers, driven to secrecy; as ever, they’re brazen and proud. The show’s vivid costume design provides bursts of color, and informs our perception of characters: Consider the transformation in Lydia’s wardrobe as she reenters society, or the way her sad-sack son, Charles (Douggie McMeekin), is draped in drab and subtly frayed jackets.
Certain scenes last mere seconds before the narrative shifts to other characters, and the whirlwind pace contributes to an overall breeziness that makes Harlots, despite its poignant and occasionally disturbing material, so easy to digest. The series cycles through surprising plot twists, ribald humor, and glimpses of cruelty, while maintaining a focus on the precarious state of its characters’ lives. And because the show’s world remains characterized as much by cheer as danger, its horrifying moments are thrown into stark relief. In particular, the climactic catastrophe in the season’s third episode reminds the audience that no one in Harlots is safe from harm—and that old grudges die hard.
Cast: Jessica Brown Findlay, Samantha Morton, Lesley Manville, Eloise Smyth, Kate Fleetwood, Liv Tyler, Holli Dempsey, Danny Sapani, Alfie Allen, Ash Hunter, Douggie McMeekin Network: Hulu
Review: The Loudest Voice Is Confirmation Bias as Liberal Bedtime Story
The miniseries does little more than reinforce everything the left always suspected about Fox News.1
Showtime’s The Loudest Voice, a seven-part miniseries about the rise of former Fox News head Roger Ailes (Russell Crowe), is predisposed to the sort of blustering speeches that constantly tumble from Crowe’s latex-encased maw. His Ailes has a gift for neatly packaged profundities and generalizations about the nature of TV and its viewership, a succinct and incendiary vision from which subsequent battle plans are drawn. In the first episode, Ailes insists that the nascent network should, instead of vying for the attention of the public at large, target those “who are predisposed to buying what we are trying to sell.” In a monolithic yet totally unexamined irony, the series itself operates with a similar strategy, forgoing any challenging truths in favor of reiterating gospel long ago accepted by the choir.
Because, of course, while Fox News is designed to stoke right-wing paranoia and prejudice, The Loudest Voice similarly emerges from and is designed specifically for confirmation bias. The series does little more than reinforce everything the left always suspected about Ailes and the long con of his news network through painfully obvious and patronizing dialogue, as when Ailes rallies the troops by declaring, “We become the loudest voice. We bring to this country fairness and balance.” As the series so dutifully demonstrates, Ailes knew that he was twisting facts and spreading propaganda, which he justifies with statements like: “People don’t wanna be informed; they wanna feel informed.” The entire series plays like a self-satisfied “gotcha,” as if the ultimate proof and punishment of wrongdoing is to reenact it on television.
The structure of the miniseries traces the development of Fox News’s methods over the years, with one person or another usually disapproving of Ailes’s tactics—perhaps even outright forbidding him from doing something, as owner Rupert Murdoch (Simon McBurney) does when the network repeatedly characterizes the Obamas as terrorists—only for Ailes to continue doing things his way. He’s a man who, by and large, cannot be stopped, whether in his work pursuits or in his sexual assaults and general harassment of countless women; he’s fond of making them twirl around before him, all the while leering.
The problem with depicting Ailes as an essentially unstoppable force that does little more than shout in order to get his way is one of repetition. The Loudest Voice intends to convey how Fox’s rhetoric escalated over time, but because every internal conflict plays out so similarly, we get little sense of that escalation, of different lines being crossed that weren’t already crossed in previous episodes. The series struggles to even depict the results of Ailes’s editorial decisions. As a result, the initial episodes of The Loudest Voice all but play out in a vacuum, more concerned with relating how Ailes’s decisions were made.
The responses to Fox that are depicted are only the biggest ones, such as other networks picking up their ACORN conspiracy, or the Obama campaign requesting a private sit-down after so much negative coverage. An argument at a coffee shop grows heated enough to encompass multiple customers in the town where Ailes bought out the local newspaper, and there are ominous clips of a mob protesting the Obama administration, riled into a frenzy by Fox coverage. But with no real buildup to these responses from outside The Loudest Voice’s Fox-centric perspective, they’re less examinations of the consequences than just the basic proof that Fox did, in fact, provoke a response, as if that’s the only thing worth exploring.
The series waits until the third and fourth episodes before alluding to the upbringing that shaped Ailes into the man he became, as he relates stories about his father and where he grew up. But even these are surface observations made mainly through environmental shots of the rusted corpse of his hometown of Warren, Ohio, where the factories have since pulled out and the working class ekes out a living amid trash-ridden streets and homes in varying states of disrepair. It amounts to little more than pointing the finger at abandoned buildings looming large in the distance, as if a simple gesture toward where Ailes is from explains everything about his formation into an eventually infamous figure. “Economic anxiety” has struck again as the readily accepted culprit for noxious political views.
In a similar fit of oversimplification, Ailes increasingly seems unaware of the sociological context for what he’s presenting to the public; despite coming across as so calculating in the first episode, he eventually seems to simply believe some of the conspiracies his network peddles. The characterization of his wife, Beth Ailes (Sienna Miller), is even thinner, insofar as she’s hardly characterized at all. She’s mainly relegated to a sounding board so that the beliefs and actions of Roger Ailes may be spelled out to the audience.
The result is a suffocating, overlong dramatization of what happened where the why is purely incidental, a Wikipedia recitation from a credibly make-upped Russell Crowe who never quite decides what regional American accent he’s supposed to be doing. The Loudest Voice is a liberal bedtime story; it doesn’t argue a point or even particularly inform so much as blandly recreate the heinous actions of a Republican bogeyman. In doing so, it merely pacifies, assuring us that the world functions exactly as we expected while leaving us safe and secure in the knowledge that the monsters are exactly where we always knew they were.
Cast: Russell Crowe, Sienna Miller, Naomi Watts, Seth MacFarlane, Annabelle Wallis, Simon McBurney, Aleksa Palladino, Josh Stamberg, Josh Charles, Mackenzie Astin, Lucy Owen Network: Showtime
Review: Legion’s Unhinged Final Season Plunges Us into an Unknowable Mind
The show’s third and final season is a visual achievement, typified by imaginative flights of absurdism.3
After Legion’s shocking second season finale, in which it was revealed that David (Dan Stevens) had sexually assaulted his girlfriend, Syd (Rachel Keller), the series enters its third and final season with a lingering ambiguity: Is David, the show’s titular telepath and diagnosed schizophrenic, redeemable? Furthermore, to what extent is he responsible for his actions? Throughout season three, in which David is hunted by the Shadow King (Navid Negahban) and Division Three while he attempts to travel back in time to rectify his misdeeds, Legion struggles to answer these questions, which serve as the crux of the series.
Certainly, by framing David’s efforts to alter the past as self-serving and expedient, Legion maintains one view of its protagonist as an egomaniac and probable sociopath. In conversations with a rightly unmoved Syd, David’s protestations and glib promises to simply undo the past reflect his inability to grasp the gravity of his crime. And the character’s first effort at time travel, in which he attempts to protect his infant self from the Shadow King, is tinged with both self-interest and an attempt to shift the blame for his actions.
From this perspective, Legion’s depiction of David is a trenchant critique of toxic masculinity. But the series also suggests that David, while impurely motivated, might not be wrong to seek an excuse for his behavior. Nothing in the season dispels the notion that he could, by preserving his own innocence from the Shadow King’s influence, prevent himself from becoming a manipulative and self-obsessed person—or one who would commit sexual assault.
This conflicted portrayal at least makes Legion extremely effective as a plunge into sheer narcissism. To engage with David, and the show’s ever-shifting reality, is to experience the sensation of being gaslit firsthand. His passionate pleas when enlisting the help of a young time-traveling mutant, Switch (Lauren Tsai), are backed by rousing strings on the soundtrack, which imply virtue in his determination. Similarly, when David professes his love for Syd, Stevens strips David of his usual guile, offering an earnest portrayal of heartbroken regret. Such moments, which tempt us to empathize with David, and maintain the idea of him as the show’s hero, are contrasted by deflating glimpses of his selfishness. When he thoughtlessly implores an exhausted, injured Switch to bring him back to the past after a failed attempt, the series punishes us for having trusted David to consider anything beyond his own self-interest.
Legion remains a visual achievement, typified by the imaginative settings and flights of absurdism which, at their most effective, serve to illuminate David’s mental state. Season three finds David with a new cult of followers, who surround him in a ramshackle house that acts as both plot device and canvas for his volatile emotions. The house’s exposed pipes, which resemble veins or synapses, glow neon blue with a substance revealed to be a sedative drug created by David. While the drugged cult evinces David’s craving for any kind of admiration, the claustrophobic space is a realization of his addled mind. When the character is at one point consumed by rage, the pipes turn a foreboding shade of red, and his followers begin to froth at the mouth—an effectively unsettling metaphor for David’s chaotic instability.
Some of the season’s other oddball incursions are less thematically coherent or informative, especially as the series builds toward its ostensible conclusion. Series creator Noah Hawley has publicly cited David Lynch as an inspiration for the series, and while Legion does possess a Lynchian sense of unmooring suspense, the weirdness can also merely forestall whatever intelligible vision of David’s arc the series is approaching. In one such instance, a confrontation between Switch and David pushes him toward self-assessment, but the conversation quickly evolves into the entire cast singing a melancholic version of “(What’s So Funny ‘bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?” In a series with so little peace, love, or understanding, the wry song choice is clearly meant to be ironic, but the whimsical indulgence serves no purpose except to reinforce David’s already well-established inability to learn.
Season three includes more than one such musical number, which consistently resemble escapes from the character resolutions the series simultaneously inches toward and avoids. Surreal tangents once provided crucial insights into David’s mind, yet now they just as often distract from the show’s emerging assessment of the character. Legion alternately views the very act of telepathy as a violation, and David as a victim of his own abilities. Crucially, the series, by building toward a conventional showdown between David and the Shadow King, seems unsure as to which character is ultimately responsible for David’s past actions.
As the season approaches its conclusion, Legion occasionally hints at offering elusive truths about David’s nature, but just as often seems to be building toward an opaque conclusion for the character: one in which David, and his fragmented mind, simply might not be understandable in any conventional sense. Still, in its attempt to provide both character study and pure, unhinged abstraction, Legion has fashioned yet another visually distinct and uniquely bizarre season around a man’s unknowable mind.
Cast: Dan Stevens, Aubrey Plaza, Rachel Keller, Jean Smart, Amber Midthunder, Bill Irwin, Jemaine Clement, Hamish Linklater, Navid Negahban Network: FX
Review: City on a Hill Is a Bonanza of Character Detail and Hammy Thrills
When the series isn’t immersed in pulpy shenanigans, it aspires to be a sort of Bostonian The Wire.3
Not since Gerard Butler’s riotous, bloody doughnut-eating turn in Christian Gudegast’s Den of Thieves last year has an actor plumbed the scumbag depths quite like Kevin Bacon does as wayward F.B.I. agent Jackie Rohr in Showtime’s City on a Hill. Everyone within the show’s various layers of Boston law enforcement seems to know Rohr, and not a single person likes the guy—not the co-workers who bristle at his presence, not the people who return his greeting with an immediate “fuck off,” and certainly not his mother-in-law, Rose (Catherine Wolf), who threatens to expose his serial infidelity by telling his wife, Jenny (Jill Hennessy), about his recent STD test. In retaliation, he grabs a model Red Baron plane—a memento from Rose’s late husband—from the mantelpiece and makes like he’s going to smash it. “You put me in the fucking doghouse,” he growls in his hoarse Boston accent, “and I’m gonna be like Snoopy and blow your shit right the fuck out of the sky.”
When City on a Hill isn’t immersed in such pulpy shenanigans, which find the casually racist Rohr doing things like brandishing a fish at an angry old woman who calls him a “white devil,” it aspires to be a sort of Bostonian The Wire. The series, set in the early ‘90s 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 city’s rot as it moves through a fictionalized account of the “Boston Miracle” police initiative that statistically reduced violence in the city. One-eyed District Attorney Decourcy Ward (Aldis Hodge) is an idealist beaten down by what he sees, given to statements such as “I like what my job should be” to justify why he thanklessly works to improve the system. He’s black, so he gets the kind of scrutiny that doesn’t afford him any goofy bad-cop antics, but Hodge dials up the searing intensity with a wide-eyed stare, the only window to the drive and the outrage bubbling beneath his no-nonsense exterior. Every so often, it leaks through with a shouted line like, “I’m not their boy.”
Rohr and Ward fall into a mismatched partnership that’s surprisingly absent any of the explosive confrontations that typically characterize odd-couple pairings in film and TV. Their hesitant camaraderie just sort of happens as they recognize their mutual interests; even if they don’t like each other, they understand one another. And from there, the series unfolds the complications (of which there are many) and the key players (of which there are even more) that will figure into a wider arc that begins with a simple armored car robbery. Laying out all the different systems that figure into the story, though, makes the first few episodes somewhat slow-going; some scenes tend to devolve into a lot of bureaucratic jargon and off-the-cuff mentions of Boston locations that might lose anyone unfamiliar with the city.
Where the series excels, however, is in the level of detail it brings to its individual characters. Armored car robber Frankie Ryan (Jonathan Tucker), for example, works stocking a grocery store, and he’s often seen doing lottery scratch cards as if constantly on the lookout for alternative cash flow. When he cuts himself putting up a bathroom cabinet, it figures into foreplay with his wife, Cathy (Amanda Clayton); he holds up his bandaged hand to say he’s not afraid of a little blood while she goes to pull out a tampon “the size of a friggin’ bus.” And when Cathy suspects her screw-up brother-in-law, Jimmy (Mark O’Brien), of absconding with their money, she yanks the cabinet out of the wall to reveal the nook where they keep unlaundered cash. Here, Frankie’s cut hand, bathroom cabinet, and working-class lifestyle converge to describe his relationship with Cathy and the exact degree of her complicity in his operation. Elsewhere, Rohr’s menacing of the model plane neatly (and hilariously) outlines his living situation and the strained relationships that encompass it.
While it’s true that none of these characters are particularly unique even within the setting (Affleck’s own The Town features a similarly honorable robber stuck with a volatile sidekick), they feel dynamic enough that their familiarity ceases to matter. They all know their way around a punchy, profane turn of phrase, and they’re usually good for some kind of amusing sight, whether it’s Rohr’s coked-up air-drumming to a Rush song or Jimmy driving to see his kids in a car filled with balloons, singing along to Marky Mark’s “Good Vibrations” with a mouthful of Bubble Tape. Such a confident grasp of character goes a long way toward smoothing over the show’s somewhat clumsier big-picture narrative, as City on a Hill proves itself as effective at small, interlocking details as it is at purely hammy thrills.
Cast: Kevin Bacon, Aldis Hodge, Jonathan Tucker, Mark O’Brien, Lauren E. Banks, Amanda Clayton, Jere Shea, Kevin Chapman, Jill Hennessy, Blake Baumgartner, Catherine Wolf Network: Showtime
Review: Years and Years Is a Captivating Dystopian Family Drama
The series manages to pile on the cataclysms without taking pleasure in the pain of its characters.3
In his memoir Self-Consciousness, John Updike describes his early adulthood by saying, “I turned thirty, then forty,” and in doing so skips over a decade’s worth of information unnecessary to the reader. Russell T Davies’s miniseries Years and Years, which will launch on HBO following its run on BBC One, similarly makes economic use of time, but where Updike jumps into the future, the series sprints. Every so often throughout the four episodes made available to press, a searing montage pushes the world a few years forward, relaying key geopolitical developments—a landmark legal decision, a diplomatic falling out, an environmental crisis—before settling back down in a global order even shakier than before.
We experience these changes through the perspective of Britain’s Lyons family, which includes tough but caring matriarch Muriel Deacon (Anne Reid) and her grandchildren: Stephen (Rory Kinnear), a banker; Daniel (Russell Tovey), a housing officer; Rosie (Ruth Madeley), a school cafeteria manager; and Edith (Jessica Hynes), an activist. The siblings, their partners, and their children are Years and Years’s primary concern, and with each lurch into the future, their lives tend to get worse rather than better. All the while, Vivienne Rook (Emma Thompson), a fear-mongering pseudo-populist, launches and advances her political career, deploring the world’s degradation and promising to represent the true wishes of the British people.
At one point, the Lyons siblings hop on a conference call to react to one of Rook’s appearances on the news. Rosie appreciates Rook’s straightforwardness—the series opens with a shockingly candid and unempathetic on-air comment that Rook makes about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—Daniel is horrified by it, and others lie somewhere in between. Rook is more than a little Trumpian, a resonant representation of the crassness that he’s made politically viable. And as Years and Years proceeds, this much becomes clear: Although it largely centers around the Lyonses, the series isn’t really about them, but about Rook. It’s about the potential for the world to operate in a way that enables Rook’s ascent and leaves people like the Lyons family staring slack-jawed at her demagoguery and electoral swashbuckling.
As Rook, Thompson seems to multiply the minutes she gets on screen with the ferocity and sheer gravitational pull that the actress brings to the politician. When she’s on television, Rook looks directly into the camera, at the Lyonses and at the viewer. And when she’s participating in a local debate, she defiantly stands at the center of the stage, in the middle of the screen, her opponents surrounding her like planets stalled in orbit.
The rest of the cast’s performances similarly ground the series’s socio-political thought experiment in human experiences. Kinnear, as Stephen, realizes a soft stoicism, a resilience undergirded by subdued positivity. When that façade finally cracks, following a death in the family, we know that Stephen doesn’t cry solely because of the loss; he’s also grieving a financial crash along with his increasingly fraught marriage, which together contribute to the gulf separating what he thought his life would be and what it has become.
Though thoughtful and moving in its exploration of such suffering, both individual and collective, Years and Years occasionally stumbles by insufficiently using its characters to contextualize its political world-building. At Rook’s debate, which Rosie and Edith attend, Rook wins over her detractors in the crowd with a swiftness that’s jarring given the weakness of her argument, which essentially justifies authoritarianism as a bulwark against the proliferation of porn. Rook’s victory feels artificial, like she manages to sway her doubters purely because the series needs her to in order to demonstrate the shortsightedness of voters. Rosie and Edith’s presence should, in theory, render Rook’s beguiling charm more believable, but the series fails to interrogate the reasons for the pair’s attraction to her.
Two monologues that Daniel delivers encapsulate the series’s sporadic inconsistency. In one, he holds Rosie’s newborn baby while questioning, aloud and at length, if it’s right to bring a child into a deteriorating world. As Daniel bemoans the banks and the corporations and fake news and more, he ceases to blink, his voice rising and quickening. He becomes a machine unleashing a diatribe that’s too neat to be convincing, the character of Daniel giving way to a Daniel-shaped megaphone. Later, though, Daniel tells off a xenophobic visitor to the refugee camp he works at in his capacity as a housing officer. This scene, in contrast to the earlier one, doesn’t burden Daniel with the weight of the world. Rather, it gives him the freedom to discuss what he’s personally and passionately invested in: the idea that refugees deserve all—and more than—the help they receive. Here, Daniel’s dialogue and Tovey’s performance are vastly more organic, emerging from within the character as opposed to simply flowing through him.
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 personal—nuclear weapon launches, deaths, infidelities—to err on the side of sadism in its depiction of that turmoil. But it takes no pleasure in the pain of the Lyonses. 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.
Cast: Emma Thompson, Rory Kinnear, T’Nia Miller, Russell Tovey, Jessica Hynes, Ruth Madeley, Anne Reid, Dino Fetscher, Lydia West, Jade Alleyne, Maxim Baldry, Sharon Duncan-Brewster Network: HBO
Review: Euphoria’s Depiction of Teen Hedonism Is Both Frank and Lurid
Euphoria’s central relationship is luminous, but the series struggles to develop its other characters.2.5
Sam Levinson’s Euphoria announces its self-consciously provocative nature within its first minute, when Rue Bennett (Zendaya) says that she was happy once, over an image of the girl, in fetus form, about to be born. Airplane engines begin to howl alongside baby Rue’s POV as she exits the birth canal, at which point the episode transitions to a shot of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center. She was born three days after 9/11. The juxtaposition here is loud and in-your-face, and though it’s tonally similar to the deluge of ironic trigger warnings that open Levinson’s film Assassination Nation, it has the benefit of some actual thematic coherence, for the way the open-with-a-literal-bang image acknowledges 9/11 as the unmistakable divide between Euphoria’s teens and everyone else.
Rue characterizes the world she grew up in as a chaotic, aimless place devoid of much understanding for her people her age, which leaves her generation concerned mainly with wringing out as much enjoyment from it as they can. And the series, which is adapted from an Israeli drama of the same name, depicts such 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 nature of these occasionally graphic depictions is complicated by Levinson’s consciously “attitude”-laden stylings: Are they graphic purely to shock, or to authentically portray what today’s young people go through, or both? Regardless, 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.
Rue, we learn, is a drug addict fresh out of rehab who’s largely uninterested in getting clean. And while the show’s other teens feel their way through seedy meet-ups with older men, pursue self-actualization through porn, and cope with invasions of privacy, Rue provides the perspective through which we view nearly everything and everyone else. She narrates even the events that don’t involve her, lending them a general vibe of playful, sarcastic worldliness. She determines the flow of the action, freezing a sex scene outright for a digression on modern porn habits or summoning a cutaway gag, like a lecture on dick pics complete with projector slides. Zendaya plays Rue with a perpetual murmur and effortless remove, like an observer sitting on the sidelines watching the world go by, until she succumbs to a desperate, drug-seeking freak-out or one of the panic attacks those drugs are meant to distance her from.
The series 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 characters’ ears, the result is that Euphoria’s 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 “next.” There’s only the all-encompassing “now.” “The world is coming to an end,” Rue says to justify her drug use, “and I haven’t even graduated high school yet.”
Euphoria’s best scenes are its oases of joy and humor, particularly the luminous relationship between Rue and Jules (Hunter Schafer), the new-in-town trans girl whose sunny disposition contrasts Rue’s overall remove yet masks a deeper restlessness. The chemistry between Zendaya and Schafer paints a believable portrait of a companionship only possible before adulthood, when you have as much free time as you have affection to distribute.
The two might have sustained the series by themselves, though Euphoria struggles to develop its other characters. Cassie (Sydney Sweeney), for example, is largely undefined beyond the sexual history she’s trying to move beyond, while her boyfriend, Chris (Algee Smith), seems to exist only to express discomfort about that history. Beneath his football-playing façade, Nate (Jacob Elordi) has a streak of violent calculation that dances on the edge of caricature. Only Kat (Barbie Ferreira) seems to develop beyond her basic template of virginal angst, mainly because the series resolves the issue almost immediately before sending her down a Pornhub rabbit hole on an amusing journey of self-discovery; her burgeoning sexuality comes to encompass an attractive classmate as much as a man on Skype who wants to be her “cash pig.”
The fourth episode only emphasizes the disparity between the show’s development of the teens. As the camera glides between multiple perspectives at the same carnival event, Jules has a scary revelation about an older, married man, Cal (Eric Dane), she recently hooked up with, while a panicked Rue searches for her sister, Gia (Storm Reid), who’s still reeling from Rue’s overdose prior to the events of the series. However, the more half-sketched characters, such as Cassie and Nate’s long-suffering girlfriend, Maddy (Alexa Demie), take drugs seemingly so they’ll have something to do for the duration of the episode. While it’s realistic that not all the characters would have intricate stories to engage in (Kat’s storyline is also comparably low-stakes), sidelining Cassie and Maddy feels like a concession that the series isn’t totally sure what to do with them beyond displaying their suffering.
The success of Euphoria’s teen drama ultimately depends on which teen it focuses on at any given moment. With Rue and Jules at the center, you feel the exhilaration of their friendship as much as a real concern for their growing troubles. But with its less fully developed characters, the series can feel like little more than a lurid performance of teenage pain.
Cast: Zendaya, Maude Apatow, Angus Cloud, Eric Dane, Alexa Demie, Jacob Elordi, Barbie Ferreira, Nika King, Storm Reid, Hunter Schafer, Algee Smith, Sydney Sweeney, Austin Abrams, Alanna Ubach Network: HBO
Review: Hulu’s Das Boot Forfeits the Telescoped Focus of Its Source Material
The series transforms a story that captured something of the experience of war into a familiar melodrama.1.5
One of the strengths of Wolfgang Petersen’s classic submarine drama Das Boot, based on Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s novel of the same name, is that it’s no glorification of the German war machine. Indeed, its shocking ending underlines the absolute senselessness of war and the meaninglessness of heroism. Das Boot is a war film that could only be made in a country where virtually everyone had experienced the horror of war firsthand, whether it was on the frontlines or cowering in a bomb shelter. But it’s also a story told strictly from the perspective of the gentile German sailor; women appear quite literally on the margins—at beginning and end, when the boat disembarks and returns—and non-gentiles are neither seen nor mentioned. War crimes are far from the film’s purview, and its sailors are, for the most part, not terribly interested in Nazism.
Johannes W. Betz’s new series solves this problem by flashing back and forth between the crew of a U-Boot captained by the young Captain Klaus Hoffmann (Rick Okon) and a plot of betrayal and subterfuge in the ship’s port in La Rochelle, France, centered around German Navy translator Simone Strasser (Vicky Krieps). In doing so, however, Betz’s Das Boot eschews much of what made the original film effective: the feeling that the viewer is stranded in the narrow gangways of the submarine on a mostly blind journey through treacherous waters.
Forfeiting the telescoped focus that keeps the film engrossing, the series substitutes hidden backstories and interpersonal melodrama that feels like it was pulled from the prestige-drama handbook. As the crew is assembled in the first episode, “New Paths,” we learn that the long-serving First Officer Karl Tennstedt (August Wittgenstein), a familiar Nazi type who’s been passed over for command of the ship in favor Hoffmann, is the son of a WWI hero. Tennstedt’s simmering resentment plays out, over the course of the four episodes available for review, as an escalating crisis of authority, as he grows increasingly bold in his defiance of the noble-minded Hoffmann, and sways the minds of several (rather easily convinced) enlisted men.
Meanwhile, Simone arrives in La Rochelle, where she expects to live and work alongside her younger brother, Frank (Leonard Scheicher), a radio engineer. When an accident on board Hoffmann and Tennstedt’s U-Boot damages the radio and seriously injures the ship’s engineer, Tennstedt summarily decides to assign Frank to the vessel. With no choice in the matter and suddenly facing an uncertain fate, Frank hands over to Simone a cache of materials he was supposed to deliver in a post-curfew rendezvous later that night.
In the second episode, “Secret Missions,” it’s revealed that Frank’s mission had something to do with a French girl he’s been seeing, Natalie (Clara Ponsot), and with a mysterious American resistance fighter named Carla Monroe (Lizzy Caplan)—well, only “mysterious” inasmuch as the series clumsily cultivates an air of mystique around her, all oblique camera angles and vague dialogue. On the brink of explaining her intentions to Simone, Monroe stops herself, mostly, it seems, to extend the mystery for another episode or two. “Probably better if you don’t know,” she says, though she might as well be addressing the camera.
It’s in this episode that the seams of Das Boot really begin to show—or, rather, its bulkheads start to crack. Almost every aspect of the shorebound storyline, which becomes the show’s main focus, is an exaggerated contrivance. In a scenario painfully familiar from a dozen cable dramas that have pulled it off more convincingly (see The Americans, Breaking Bad, Barry), Simone conducts her illegal dealings with Monroe’s resistance cell under the nose of Gestapo inspector Hagen Forster (Tom Wlaschiha). Forster has a professional relationship with Simone, and, he hopes, a burgeoning personal one. As he’s drawn ever closer to her, Forster becomes increasingly blind to her traitorous activities—though, naturally, episode four, “Doubts,” ends with him coming one step closer to discovering them.
This adaptation of Das Boot, which also incorporates elements from Buchheim’s 1995 novel Die Festung, transforms a story that endeavored to capture something of the experience of war into an overly familiar melodrama of obscure motivations, hidden backstories, and broadly sketched interpersonal conflict. The series may try to address Nazi terror in a way Petersen’s film leaves beyond its margins, but even its depiction of atrocity serves merely as a convenient motivator for familiar twists and turns. The sense of cheapness and naked commercialism that pervades the series makes its explicit depiction of disturbing violence—a death by firing squad, the gang rape of a Jewish woman by German sailors—feel unearned and, particularly in the latter case, completely irresponsible. The series can’t be counted on to deliver any insights on history or war, but compelling drama may be even further beyond its capabilities.
Cast: Vicky Krieps, Tom Wlaschiha, Lizzy Caplan, Vincent Kartheiser, James D’Arcy, Thierry Frémont, August Wittgenstein, Rainer Bock, Rick Okon, Leonard Scheicher, Robert Stadlober, Franz Dinda, Stefan Konarske Network: Hulu
Review: Jessica Jones’s Third and Final Season Feels Like an Afterthought
As it nears the end of its run, the series doesn’t seem to have much more to say about trauma.2
The third and final season of Jessica Jones feels more like an afterthought than a farewell, an unevenly written retread that’s uninterested in breaking out of a well-worn groove. Trauma is at the center of the Netflix show’s world, with the eponymous superpowered private eye (Krysten Ritter) having conquered the lingering pain of sexual abuse and childhood domestic strife across the first two seasons. And it being a Marvel Comics property, Jessica Jones predictably scrutinizes such personal trauma through the lens of highly literal metaphor: In the first season, an evil ex-lover’s telepathic powers represent the way that abusers get into our heads, and in the second, an abusive mother’s super strength stands for the seemingly indominable power parents have over their children.
The new season saddles its hero with more trauma, both psychological and physical, but loses the real-life resonance of the show’s previous themes, becoming an exercise in self-reflexivity. Jessica Jones now squares off against a serial killer, Gregory Salinger (Jeremy Bobb), who’s the embodiment of misogynist male geekdom—which is to say, that corner of the internet that’s predisposed to objecting to woman-driven action properties like Jessica Jones.
In the season’s first episode, “A.K.A. The Perfect Burger,” Jessica is taken by surprise when Salinger shows up at her apartment in the middle of the night, hunting her one-night stand, Erik (Benjamin Walker). The encounter leaves Jessica injured and newly traumatized, and Salinger psychotically obsessed with his incidental victim. Salinger resents Jones for being what real-world toxic nerds would call a “Mary Sue”—or, as Salinger puts it, for “cheating,” for not appropriately earning her powers, and for being a “feminist vindicator.”
This new season’s use of allegory is a bit on the nose, which isn’t the worst sin for a superhero property, but Jessica Jones clearly has aspirations to be a character-driven drama. It’s an intent undermined by its characters’ tendency to feel like little more than signposts directing us to the show’s message. In contrast to David Tenant’s chilling performance as misogynist villain Killgrave in season one, Bobb doesn’t convey the menace or malicious seductiveness that might enliven Salinger’s often blandly scripted rants against women’s empowerment.
Salinger also targets Erik’s wayward sister, Brianna (Jamie Neumann), a sex worker whom Jessica tries to protect by foisting her upon Malcolm (Eka Darville), Jessisca’s neighbor and former assistant. This all intersects conveniently (and problematically) with Malcolm’s subplot, which concerns his flirtation with moral corruption as he works as a fixer for Jeri Hogarth’s (Carrie-Anne Moss) law firm. Brianna is stereotyped as an erratic, trashy prostitute who’s sexually available to Malcolm simply because she’s hiding out in his apartment. She’s characterized as a nuisance who becomes a kind of punching bag for the other characters, who talk about her poor life decisions in front of her as if she isn’t there.
Malcolm’s is one of three major subplots that take up much of the run time of the eight episodes of the new season made available to press. In the others, both Jeri and Jessica’s ex-bestie, Trish (Rachael Taylor), deal with their own moral transgressions. Of these, Trish’s story is the strongest. Newly equipped with (vaguely defined) superpowers, she aims to join Jessica as a superhero on the streets of Hell’s Kitchen, and she’s given a satisfying and resonant origin story in episode two, the Ritter-directed “A.K.A You’re Welcome.”
Jeri’s subplot, on the other hand, adds very little to a character already understood from previous seasons as self-serving and morally compromised. This arc, hardly more than filler, also features one of the season’s most regrettable scenes: a painfully kitschy seduction that involves Jeri’s former lover, Kith Lyonne (Sarita Choudhury), badly faking a cello performance as Jeri caresses her and the low-angle camera slowly tracks around them.
As for Jones herself, the series can’t shake the feeling that its main character has simply become her outfit. The season’s opening shot, which has her leather boot stomp into the frame in close-up against the unaccustomed environs of a sunny beach, even evokes the way her personality is summed up by tattered jeans and grimy leather. In the form of Salinger’s initial attack, she’s given a new trauma to work through, but after three seasons, this form of motivation seems more like an obligatory gesture than an exploration of character. By the time she’s brutally besting Salinger in an amateur wrestling match in front of the pre-teen wrestling team he coaches in episode seven, “The Double Half-Woppinger,” it’s clear that, as it nears the end of its run, Jessica Jones doesn’t have much more to say.
Cast: Krysten Ritter, Rachael Taylor, Eka Darville, Carrie-Anne Moss, Rebecca De Mornay, Jeremy Bobb, Benjamin Walker, Sarita Choudhury, Jamie Neumann Network: Netflix
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