The day before the first ever episode of Doctor Who was broadcast on British televisionâthe 22nd of November, 1963âis etched into world history forever due to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. However, that day was also notable for the deaths of a pair of celebrated British authors. One was Aldous Huxley, and the other was C.S. Lewisâwho therefore missed by the narrowest of margins the chance to see a science fiction twist on the enchanted wardrobe from his famous Narnia books that opened onto whole worlds of adventure. The similarities between Lewisâs magic wardrobe and the TARDIS have often been noted, especially by current Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat, and in this yearâs Christmas special he uses The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as inspiration for a festive bit of escapism. Thereâs nothing much going on below the surfaceâand compared to the convoluted plotting of this yearâs season arc, the storytelling here is almost shockingly undemandingâbut the Who of the Christmas specials has always been a deliberately simplified version of the show, specifically aimed at an audience containing a large number of non-regular viewers.
The ârompâ nature of this episode is apparent right from the start, as the teaser opens with a bangâliterally. A shot of the Earth from space turns into a brilliant evocation of the Star Wars opening as an enormous spaceship bristling with intimidating weaponry glides over the camera. But before it can even finish issuing a single âPuny humans, you are doomedâ announcement, the ship begins to break up. Inside, we see the Doctor (Matt Smith) dodging fireballs and sparks and crashing scenery as he frantically tries to escape the explosion he has evidently set off. Clinging to the outside of the ship, before being swept away by the final detonation, he ends up scrabbling to grab hold of a spacesuit which, like him, is in free fall towards the Earth below. I doubt there has ever been as energetically cartoonish an opening for a Doctor Who episode before.
Appropriately, our next sight of the Doctor, after heâs crashed to the ground, is of him lying at the bottom of a little crater like Wile E. Coyote. Heâs managed to put the spacesuit on on the way down (and naturally, Moffat simply waves away the question of how he could possibly have survived a fall from space by calling it an âimpact suitâ and having him say at one point that itâs âstill repairing meâ). Itâs Christmas Eve, 1938, and the Doctor is found by housewife Madge Arwell (Claire Skinner, this episodeâs above-the-title guest star). Madge is baffled but happy to help this weird stranger in his quest to find a police telephone box, and this sequence contains some lovely physical comedy from Matt Smith as the Doctor staggers around with his suit on back to front (âHow did you manage that?â âI got dressed in a hurryâ), running into street lamps and so on. I do have to admit to being bothered by the holes in the back of the helmet (obviously put there to let Smith see where he was going). I know itâs rather absurd to complain about suspension of disbelief being broken in an episode like this, but I found myself wishing they could have been better concealed (or possibly covered up using CGI).
The Doctor: âIf thereâs ever anything I can do for you, let me know.â
The Doctor: âI donât knowâŠmake a wish. That usually works.â
Madge: âDoes it?â
The Doctor: âWell it did for me. Youâre here, arenât you?â
Now we jump foward three years to the height of the Second World War, and the main story begins with Madge receiving the dreaded official telegram informing her with âdeepest sympathyâ that her husband Reg (Alexander Armstrong), a bomber pilot in the RAF, has been lost over the English Channel; his damaged plane suffered instrument failure on a night without moon or stars visible, and never made it home. To escape the bombing of London, Madge and her two children, Lily and Cyril, are evacuated to a large, ominous-looking house in the country. But instead of the old caretaker theyâre expecting to meet, they find a young man in a bowtie who rapidly turns their lives upside-downâŠ
The Doctor, in keeping with his new determination to keep a low profile in the universe, is content to be known simply as âthe Caretaker.â He is here to repay the favor of Madgeâs help three years ago, and has obviously had immense fun turning the house into a magical wonderland full of flashing lights and strange gadgets. The first few minutes after he welcomes them into the house show the Doctor at his most Willy Wonka-ish, as he shows off his work to the delight of the children. As always, Matt Smithâs acting range is astonishing. He is brilliant at sustaining this high-energy silliness, but when the scene turns serious as Madge reveals the strain she is under, concealing her husbandâs death from the children so as not to spoil Christmas for them, he can immediately switch to showing warmth and wisdom:
Madge: âOf course, when the Christmas period is overâŠâ (beat) âI donât know why I keep shouting at them.â
The Doctor: âBecause every time you see them happy, you remember how sad theyâre going to be. And it breaks your heart. Because whatâs the point in them being happy now if theyâre going to be sad later? The answer is, of courseâŠbecause they are going to be sad later.â
Another aspect of Smithâs Doctor Who work has been his excellent rapport with child actors, which has led to an increase in the number of child characters in the show over the last two seasons. The Arwell children are played by a couple of excellent young actors; both Maurice Cole (Cyril) and Holly Earl (Lily) give natural and believable performances. Cyril is the studious young boy with huge round spectacles, interested in everything, while Lily affects a teenagerâs disinterest and attempted worldlinessâshe does her best to conceal her enjoyment of the Doctorâs antics, and, in a nice touch, only says âI like himâ when she can contradict her mother, who has just called him âquite ridiculousâ and ordered her children to stay away from him.
This special doesnât follow the template of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in the way last yearâs was explicitly modelled after A Christmas Carol. Indeed, the âWardrobeâ part of the title is something of a red herringâthereâs a joking line from the Doctor to Lily about the TARDIS being his wardrobe (âIâve just painted it to look like a phone boxâ), but apart from that slim justification the TARDIS ironically has no part to play in this story. The true âwardrobeâ is hidden in a big gift-wrapped box under the Christmas tree downstairs. Naturally, the ever-curious Cyril canât stop himself from opening his Christmas present early, revealing a dimensional portalâthrough which he crawls, emerging into a snow-covered forest. Eventually, the Doctor realizes where Cyril has gone, and that what was meant to be a simple, supervised tourist visit has turned into something more perilous, and he and Lily follow the boyâs trail in the snow. Soon after, Madge goes through the portal as well, in search of her children.
The story Moffat is telling in this winter wonderland is surprisingly straightforward, albeit with a strong component of fairytale logic. He produces a stream of whimsical invention, involving a forest of sentient trees, which bear what look like living Christmas tree ornaments that suddenly expand when touched and break open like giant eggs. The trees are aware of an approaching threat to their forest, and have created a tower-like construct to lure a suitable living creature to serve as a vehicle for their âsouls,â which will be transported elsewhere so the treesâ life-essence can be preserved. The creatures hatched from the Christmas tree ornament âeggsâ have rapidly grown into huge statue-like forms which can communicate with the humans.
Unfortunately, the whole story is very slow-paced, and the Doctor and the humans tend to accidentally trigger or simply observe events rather than actively driving the plot. Also, the direction from newcomer Farren Blackburn doesnât inject any great excitement into the proceedings. Even scenes like those of Cyril, trapped and alone in the tower and gradually making his way to the top, donât generate any great amount of tension. On the other hand, the production design is certainly up to the seriesâs usual high standard. The seemingly vast snowy forest is a beautifully rendered environment, and the Wooden King and Queen are excellently designed creatures. They look menacing at first, but once their true purpose is understood they are capable of projecting a regal and majestic bearing. They also allow Moffat an extended riff on the joke heâs used a couple of times before, about the inability of the Doctorâs sonic screwdriver to cope with wooden doors and creatures.
The atmosphere of the story lurches alarmingly as a massive tripod-shaped vehicle stomps through the forest, and three armored soldiers emerge from it to confront Madge. They tell her theyâre from Androzani Major, in an unexpected classic series reference. (Elsewhere, thereâs another reference in passing for the fans to catch, about a previous race of sentient trees the Doctor met in âThe End of the Worldâ.) Apparently, they came to investigate the strange life-signs they observed in the forest, because anyone still in the forest after another few minutes will be destroyed as the trees will be âharvestedâ and turned into fuel via acid rain. Bizarrely, though, this supposedly serious part of the plot is embedded within sequences of the soldiers bickering among themselves about wool blocking their scans, and not being able to interrogate a crying woman. Two of the soldiers are played by famous comic actors Bill Bailey (Black Books) and Arabella Weir (The Fast Show), and itâs almost like the episode has momentarily turned into a comedy sketch (âI have motherhood issues!â), with everyone trying a little too hard to make something distinctive out of rather thin material.
In any case, the soldiers are soon beamed out of the story, having been intimidated by Madgeâs status as a mother looking for her children. This episode is in many ways a paean to motherhoodâwhen Madge reaches the tower, the Wooden King and Queen quickly decide that she is the suitable vessel to transport the life-essence of the trees; as the Doctor says, âHow else does life ever travel? The mother ship!â Itâs a childlike solution that fits this episode wellâmost of us have had the occasional bout of nostalgia for a simpler time of life when Mother could solve anything.
Lily: âWhatâs happening?â
The Doctor: âNo idea. Do what I doâhold tight, and pretend itâs a plan.â
As the acid rain starts to fall, the life-essence of the trees is safely stored in Madge, and the dome at the top of the tower detaches and reveals itself to be a vehicleâfittingly, looking like a larger version of the ornaments hanging from the trees. With encouragement from the Doctor, Madge manages to pilot the vehicle safely through the time vortex. By focusing on her memories of Regâin particular, those triggered by the telegram announcing his death, which she has been carrying all this timeâshe is able to bring them all home.
Unfortunately, when Moffat tries to trump this with an even happier ending, the episode tips over into bathos. In trying to bring all the threads of the plot together in a grand convergence, he yields once too often to the temptation of âEverybody lives!â This worked brilliantly in his 2005 episode âThe Doctor Dancesââat a time when a Doctor Who episode in which no one died was extremely unusualâbut has produced diminishing returns each time it has been used in the years since. In this case, the happy ending feels particularly unearned because it comes about purely by chanceâor rather, by authorial fiat. Somehow, the glow of the vehicle, as Madge is piloting it through the time vortex, becomes visible to Reg in his plane, providing him a beacon to navigate by. So his death gets cancelled, and he lands his plane safely in the field behind the old house.
This complete undoing of all negative consequences means that there is very little development for any of the characters in this episode. They have had a fun adventure, but have hardly been changed by it in any significant way. Admittedly, it would have made for a rather grim Christmas episode to show the family having to come to terms with Regâs death, but it could certainly have been done, and would have meant the episode was actually about something. As it stands, itâs a feel-good episodeânice to watch, but nothing more.
As has been known for several months now, the next season of Doctor Whoâthe seventh since the show was revived in 2005âwill, for various reasons, not be premiering until near the end of 2012. Itâs a pity that the last episode before the biggest gap in transmission since the series returned should be so insubstantial, and perhaps magnifies the disappointing aspects more than they deserve to be. (In the last âgap yearâ of 2009, âPlanet of the Deadâ had much the same problem.)
Fortunately, the episode ends on a high point. In a final scene which is very well acted by both Claire Skinner and Matt Smith, Madge finally realizes that this mysterious caretaker is the spaceman she met three years before. When the Doctor confesses that all his friends now think heâs dead, Madge tells him he must go and see them at once, overriding his objections that the situation is âcomplicated.â Smithâs mock-sulking as the Doctor agrees to do as heâs told by âMumâ is hilarious.
Then, in a memorable coda, the Doctor is reunited with Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill), after two years away (from their point of view). The humor as Amy faces the Doctor on the doorstep, each determined to make the other be the one to hug first, is perfectly played. As we saw at the end of âThe Wedding of River Songâ, unbeknown to the Doctor, Amy and Rory had already been let in on the secret of his non-death. Appropriately for this episode, Amy is every inch the proud mother when talking of her improbable daughter:
Amy: âRiver told us.â
The Doctor: âWell, of course she did.â
Amy: âSheâs a good girl!â
The episode closes with a superb bit of work from Matt Smith, stretching out the moment as the Doctor finally makes the decision to head inside to join his friends, with both a relieved laugh and a surreptitious tear. The Doctor may have deliberately turned his back on being a universal figure, and left his fame behind him, but that doesnât mean he has to be alone.
Classic Who DVD Recommendation: As mentioned above, the grim, cynical world of âThe Caves of Androzaniâ, starring Peter Davison and Nicola Bryant, gets unexpectedly name-checked in this episode. Itâs a story generally considered one of the pinnacles of the classic series (apart from one laughably bad monster, which fortunately makes only brief appearances), thanks to a brilliant script from veteran writer Robert Holmes combined with a thrilling directorial debut from Graeme Harperâthe only classic series director to also work on the 21st-century show. Davison responds to the material with one of the best performances of the Doctor ever seen, and itâs a story that anyone even slightly interested in the classic series should see.
Review: Legionâs Unhinged Final Season Plunges Us into an Unknowable Mind
The showâs third and final season is a visual achievement, typified by imaginative flights of absurdism.3
After Legionâs 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 showâs 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 Davidâs 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, Davidâs protestations and glib promises to simply undo the past reflect his inability to grasp the gravity of his crime. And the characterâs 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, Legionâs 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 Kingâs influence, prevent himself from becoming a manipulative and self-obsessed personâor 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 showâs 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 showâs 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 Davidâs 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 houseâs 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 Davidâs 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 mouthâan effectively unsettling metaphor for Davidâs chaotic instability.
Some of the seasonâs 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 Davidâs 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 â(Whatâs So Funny âbout) Peace, Love and Understanding?â 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 Davidâs 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 Davidâs mind, yet now they just as often distract from the showâs 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 Davidâs past actions.
As the season approaches its conclusion, Legion occasionally hints at offering elusive truths about Davidâs 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 manâs 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 isnât immersed in pulpy shenanigans, it aspires to be a sort of Bostonian The Wire.3
Not since Gerard Butlerâs riotous, bloody doughnut-eating turn in Christian Gudegastâs 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 Showtimeâs City on a Hill. Everyone within the showâs various layers of Boston law enforcement seems to know Rohr, and not a single person likes the guyânot the co-workers who bristle at his presence, not the people who return his greeting with an immediate âfuck off,â 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 planeâa memento from Roseâs late husbandâfrom the mantelpiece and makes like heâs going to smash it. âYou put me in the fucking doghouse,â he growls in his hoarse Boston accent, âand Iâm gonna be like Snoopy and blow your shit right the fuck out of the sky.â
When City on a Hill isnât 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 âwhite devil,â it aspires to be a sort of Bostonian 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 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 âI like what my job should beâ to justify why he thanklessly works to improve the system. Heâs black, so he gets the kind of scrutiny that doesnât 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, âIâm not their boy.â
Rohr and Ward fall into a mismatched partnership thatâs 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 donât 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 heâs 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 heâs not afraid of a little blood while she goes to pull out a tampon âthe size of a frigginâ bus.â And when Cathy suspects her screw-up brother-in-law, Jimmy (Mark OâBrien), of absconding with their money, she yanks the cabinet out of the wall to reveal the nook where they keep unlaundered cash. Here, Frankieâs 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, Rohrâs menacing of the model plane neatly (and hilariously) outlines his living situation and the strained relationships that encompass it.
While itâs true that none of these characters are particularly unique even within the setting (Affleckâs 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 theyâre usually good for some kind of amusing sight, whether itâs Rohrâs 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 Markâs âGood Vibrationsâ with a mouthful of Bubble Tape. Such a confident grasp of character goes a long way toward smoothing over the showâs 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 OâBrien, 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, âI turned thirty, then forty,â and in doing so skips over a decadeâs worth of information unnecessary to the reader. Russell T Daviesâs 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 developmentsâa landmark legal decision, a diplomatic falling out, an environmental crisisâbefore settling back down in a global order even shakier than before.
We experience these changes through the perspective of Britainâs 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 Yearsâs 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 worldâs 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 Rookâs appearances on the news. Rosie appreciates Rookâs straightforwardnessâthe series opens with a shockingly candid and unempathetic on-air comment that Rook makes about the Israeli-Palestinian conflictâDaniel is horrified by it, and others lie somewhere in between. Rook is more than a little Trumpian, a resonant representation of the crassness that heâs made politically viable. And as Years and Years proceeds, this much becomes clear: Although it largely centers around the Lyonses, the series isnât really about them, but about Rook. Itâs about the potential for the world to operate in a way that enables Rookâs 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 sheâs on television, Rook looks directly into the camera, at the Lyonses and at the viewer. And when sheâs 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 castâs performances similarly ground the seriesâs socio-political thought experiment in human experiences. Kinnear, as Stephen, realizes a soft stoicism, a resilience undergirded by subdued positivity. When that faĂ§ade finally cracks, following a death in the family, we know that Stephen doesnât cry solely because of the loss; heâs 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 Rookâs debate, which Rosie and Edith attend, Rook wins over her detractors in the crowd with a swiftness thatâs jarring given the weakness of her argument, which essentially justifies authoritarianism as a bulwark against the proliferation of porn. Rookâs 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 Edithâs presence should, in theory, render Rookâs beguiling charm more believable, but the series fails to interrogate the reasons for the pairâs attraction to her.
Two monologues that Daniel delivers encapsulate the seriesâs sporadic inconsistency. In one, he holds Rosieâs newborn baby while questioning, aloud and at length, if itâs 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 thatâs 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, doesnât burden Daniel with the weight of the world. Rather, it gives him the freedom to discuss what heâs personally and passionately invested in: the idea that refugees deserve allâand more thanâthe help they receive. Here, Danielâs dialogue and Toveyâs 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 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 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, TâNia Miller, Russell Tovey, Jessica Hynes, Ruth Madeley, Anne Reid, Dino Fetscher, Lydia West, Jade Alleyne, Maxim Baldry, Sharon Duncan-Brewster Network: HBO
Review: Euphoriaâs Depiction of Teen Hedonism Is Both Frank and Lurid
Euphoriaâs central relationship is luminous, but the series struggles to develop its other characters.2.5
Sam Levinsonâs 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 Rueâs 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 itâs tonally similar to the deluge of ironic trigger warnings that open Levinsonâs 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 Euphoriaâs 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 Levinsonâs consciously âattitudeâ-laden stylings: Are they graphic purely to shock, or to authentically portray what todayâs 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 whoâs largely uninterested in getting clean. And while the showâs 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 donât 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 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 âThe world is coming to an end,â Rue says to justify her drug use, âand I havenât even graduated high school yet.â
Euphoriaâs 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 Rueâs 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 sheâs trying to move beyond, while her boyfriend, Chris (Algee Smith), seems to exist only to express discomfort about that history. Beneath his football-playing faĂ§ade, 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 âcash pig.â
The fourth episode only emphasizes the disparity between the showâs 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), whoâs still reeling from Rueâs overdose prior to the events of the series. However, the more half-sketched characters, such as Cassie and Nateâs long-suffering girlfriend, Maddy (Alexa Demie), take drugs seemingly so theyâll have something to do for the duration of the episode. While itâs realistic that not all the characters would have intricate stories to engage in (Katâs storyline is also comparably low-stakes), sidelining Cassie and Maddy feels like a concession that the series isnât totally sure what to do with them beyond displaying their suffering.
The success of Euphoriaâs 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: Huluâs 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 Petersenâs classic submarine drama Das Boot, based on Lothar-GĂŒnther Buchheimâs novel of the same name, is that itâs 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 itâs also a story told strictly from the perspective of the gentile German sailor; women appear quite literally on the marginsâat beginning and end, when the boat disembarks and returnsâand non-gentiles are neither seen nor mentioned. War crimes are far from the filmâs purview, and its sailors are, for the most part, not terribly interested in Nazism.
Johannes W. Betzâs 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 shipâs port in La Rochelle, France, centered around German Navy translator Simone Strasser (Vicky Krieps). In doing so, however, Betzâs 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, âNew Paths,â we learn that the long-serving First Officer Karl Tennstedt (August Wittgenstein), a familiar Nazi type whoâs been passed over for command of the ship in favor Hoffmann, is the son of a WWI hero. Tennstedtâs 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 Tennstedtâs U-Boot damages the radio and seriously injures the shipâs 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, âSecret Missions,â itâs revealed that Frankâs mission had something to do with a French girl heâs been seeing, Natalie (Clara Ponsot), and with a mysterious American resistance fighter named Carla Monroe (Lizzy Caplan)âwell, only âmysteriousâ 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. âProbably better if you donât know,â she says, though she might as well be addressing the camera.
Itâs in this episode that the seams of Das Boot really begin to showâor, rather, its bulkheads start to crack. Almost every aspect of the shorebound storyline, which becomes the showâs 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 Monroeâs 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 heâs drawn ever closer to her, Forster becomes increasingly blind to her traitorous activitiesâthough, naturally, episode four, âDoubts,â ends with him coming one step closer to discovering them.
This adaptation of Das Boot, which also incorporates elements from Buchheimâs 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 Petersenâs 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 violenceâa death by firing squad, the gang rape of a Jewish woman by German sailorsâfeel unearned and, particularly in the latter case, completely irresponsible. The series canât 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 DâArcy, Thierry FrĂ©mont, August Wittgenstein, Rainer Bock, Rick Okon, Leonard Scheicher, Robert Stadlober, Franz Dinda, Stefan Konarske Network: Hulu
Review: Jessica Jonesâs Third and Final Season Feels Like an Afterthought
As it nears the end of its run, the series doesnât 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 thatâs uninterested in breaking out of a well-worn groove. Trauma is at the center of the Netflix showâs 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-loverâs telepathic powers represent the way that abusers get into our heads, and in the second, an abusive motherâs 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 showâs previous themes, becoming an exercise in self-reflexivity. Jessica Jones now squares off against a serial killer, Gregory Salinger (Jeremy Bobb), whoâs the embodiment of misogynist male geekdomâwhich is to say, that corner of the internet thatâs predisposed to objecting to woman-driven action properties like Jessica Jones.
In the seasonâs first episode, âA.K.A. The Perfect Burger,â 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 âMary Sueââor, as Salinger puts it, for âcheating,â for not appropriately earning her powers, and for being a âfeminist vindicator.â
This new seasonâs use of allegory is a bit on the nose, which isnât the worst sin for a superhero property, but Jessica Jones clearly has aspirations to be a character-driven drama. Itâs an intent undermined by its charactersâ tendency to feel like little more than signposts directing us to the showâs message. In contrast to David Tenantâs chilling performance as misogynist villain Killgrave in season one, Bobb doesnât convey the menace or malicious seductiveness that might enliven Salingerâs often blandly scripted rants against womenâs empowerment.
Salinger also targets Erikâs wayward sister, Brianna (Jamie Neumann), a sex worker whom Jessica tries to protect by foisting her upon Malcolm (Eka Darville), Jessiscaâs neighbor and former assistant. This all intersects conveniently (and problematically) with Malcolmâs subplot, which concerns his flirtation with moral corruption as he works as a fixer for Jeri Hogarthâs (Carrie-Anne Moss) law firm. Brianna is stereotyped as an erratic, trashy prostitute whoâs sexually available to Malcolm simply because sheâs hiding out in his apartment. Sheâs 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 isnât there.
Malcolmâs 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 Jessicaâs ex-bestie, Trish (Rachael Taylor), deal with their own moral transgressions. Of these, Trishâs story is the strongest. Newly equipped with (vaguely defined) superpowers, she aims to join Jessica as a superhero on the streets of Hellâs Kitchen, and sheâs given a satisfying and resonant origin story in episode two, the Ritter-directed âA.K.A Youâre Welcome.â
Jeriâs 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 seasonâs most regrettable scenes: a painfully kitschy seduction that involves Jeriâs 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 canât shake the feeling that its main character has simply become her outfit. The seasonâs 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 Salingerâs initial attack, sheâs 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 sheâs brutally besting Salinger in an amateur wrestling match in front of the pre-teen wrestling team he coaches in episode seven, âThe Double Half-Woppinger,â itâs clear that, as it nears the end of its run, Jessica Jones doesnât 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
Review: Pose Season Two Looks to the Future with Its Head Held High
The series empathetically attests to the agonies that queer people to this day often have no choice but to suffer in silence.2.5
One notable arc of the second season of Pose traces the success of Madonnaâs âVogue,â from the song premiering on radio in March 1990 to the moment it hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart less than two months later. The show understands the songâs lucid appreciation of the ballroom as an aspirational space. Madonnaâs dance-pop anthem was like a lifeline to those in the house-ball community, and almost all of Poseâs characters celebrate it without reservation. âEverything is about to change. I can see it clear as day!â says Blanca (Mj Rodriguez), emboldened by the song to chase after her dreams.
Which is to say that Pose doesnât bow before the altar of wokeism, at least not in the four episodes made available to press ahead of the new seasonâs premiere, knowing that the conversation about the song erasing voguingâs roots in a communityâs daily struggles wasnât one that many people were having in 1990. But the show does seem interested in the idea that the global success of âVogueâ was blinding to some in the drag-ball community. Can a queer person of color living on the fringes of society actually harness Madonnaâs blond ambition? And from the spectacle of drag emcee Pray Tell (Billy Porter) reading the riot act to Candy (Angelica Ross) for coming to one show as a simulacrum of Madonna, voguing while dressed as one of the singerâs âExpress Yourselfâ personas, the answer would seem to be a resounding no.
Thereâs a sense that Pray is being rough on Candy because he recognizes what weâve long known about her, and what the seasonâs third episode makes sure that we donât forget: that she has no problem distinguishing fantasy from reality. Witten by Our Lady J and directed by Janet Mock, the episode splits its time between the budding romance between Angel (Indya Moore) and Lil Papi (Angel Bismark Curiel) and the aftermath of a client (Frank De Julio) dying during one of Elektra Abundanceâs (Dominique Jackson) shifts at the Hellfire Club. Tonally, the episode walks a high-wire act thatâs empoweringâfor the way it regards Angel and Lil Papi in their bliss as stars of a Hollywood melodrama that never wasâand ballsyâfor the way it unearths humor and pathos in equal measure from everything that leads up to Candy convincing Elektra to not report her clientâs death to the authorities.
The episode is perhaps too easily understood as an imagining of what must have led to one Paris Is Burning participant, drag performer and dressmaker Dorian Corey, possibly murdering and storing an ex-loverâs dead body in a closest inside her apartment for approximately 15 years. (The manâs mummified corpse was only discovered after Coreyâs AIDS-related death.) But the point of the episode, like some long-delayed eulogy, is to empathetically attest to the agonies that queer people to this day often have no choice but to suffer in silence. Too often, though, the series goes one step further by blaring that message out loud, with dialogue that suggests a kind of PSA speak. That isnât so much an issue in scenes that see the characters fighting the menace of AIDS, as Pose knows that the gay community raised awareness of the disease in the bluntest of ways, but in various scenarios, like Angelâs pursuit of her modeling career, that are beholden to all manner of coming-of-age and aspirational clichĂ©s.
The cast list for the new season reveals that Charlayne Woodard, as Helena St. Rogers, will be returning at some point, which goes a long way toward explaining why it appears as if Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain) and Ricky (Dyllon Burnside) are just hanging around in the background of the first four episodes as if theyâre waiting for something, anything, to bring them to the foreground. The stage may be lovingly ceded to Angel and Lil Papi, but after a while, it just feels as if the lovebirds are going through all the same soap-operatic motions that Damon and Ricky did in the first season: Angel is so desperate to be a star that she opens herself up to being exploited by a smarmy photographer (Alexander DiPersia), and after she and her friends hand him his ass in a proud show of unity, Angel gets her first break, which just so happens to occur at the exact moment of a date she has with Lil Papi.
Something, though, that we do know for sure by the end of the fourth episode is that Pose isnât concerned with putting any allies on blast. If youâre in the know about the history of New York and the AIDS crisis, then youâll instantly recognize nurse and activist Judy Kubrak (Sandra Bernhard) and dog-toting real estate agent Frederica Norman (Patti LuPone) as stand-ins for Linda Laubenstein and Leona Helmsley, respectively. And if Judy, who joins Blanca in a crusade to get Pray Tell to start taking AZT, is celebrated for being a small-scale hero, Linda very easily invites the audienceâs scorn for threatening Blanca after discovering sheâs trans. But itâs an invitation that feels too easy, too cartoonish, especially in the context of the showâs almost Disney-fiedâor Glee-fulâdepiction of New York during this time period.
Thereâs a disconnect between the showâs aesthetics and its subject matter that feels especially apparent when one major character shows up dead in episode four. The moment certainly lacks the immediacy of the horrific moment from The Deuceâs first season when a john throws Pernell Walkerâs Ruby out of a window like a piece of trash. Director Ryan Murphy knows that you can assert such a womanâs humanity in more than one way, but the sentimentalized theater of this episode is the stuff of cognitive dissonance. Because the prior three episodes give the short shrift to the characterâs investment in changing ball culture, to tailoring it to her strengths, the moment that sheâs celebrated for influencing that culture feels unearned. If hers wasnât a dream that ever felt like it was her own, thatâs because itâs the stuff of narrative convenience, a setup for a fall that, in the depiction of its aftermath, ironically links Pose to Madonnaâs âVogueâ by making reality seem a little less dark than it really is.
Review: Season Five of Black Mirror Regards Our Grim Future with a Smirk
The new season recalls the most human elements of past episodes while levying urgent indictments of the present.3.5
Season five of Black Mirror offers three new episodes that envision a predictably worrisome slate of side effects to humanityâs technological reach outpacing its intellectual grasp. But in offering dystopian visions that hew closer to reality than they have in past seasons, these episodes exceed the showâs promise of nightmarish hypotheticals. While the series has on occasion veered toward alienating, high-concept bleaknessâas in season threeâs âPlaytestâ and season twoâs âWhite Bearââseason five maintains an empathetic focus on the characters struggling to navigate grim new worlds.
Series creator and writer Charlie Brooker employs a variety of familiar storytelling models to construct the seasonâs overarching theme, which generally concerns the unforeseen fallout of our shifting media diets. In the melancholic âStriking Vipers,â a marriage is endangered by the husbandâs new obsession with a virtual reality game. Brooker moves his focus to social media in âSmithereens,â a claustrophobic hostage thriller, and to the music industry in the darkly comic caper âRachel, Jack and Ashley Too.â Each episode envisions upheavals in a different social construct, from traditional masculinity to celebrity culture, but Brookerâs consistent focus on media as the trigger for transformation lends the stories a foreboding thread.
The showâs directors match Brookerâs ingenuity, tailoring an immersive style for each episode. In âStriking Vipers,â Owen Harris fixates on the alienation felt by Danny (Anthony Mackie), a man experiencing a crisis of conscience, by framing the character in wide shots set against drab backdrops and cityscapes; itâs a pointed contrast to the colorful environments and dynamic camera movements Harris employs when Danny is gaming. In âSmithereens,â which follows a distraught rideshare driver (Andrew Scott) who takes a customer hostage (Damson Idris), director James Hawes presents the driver either in tight close-up or from the far-away perspective of police and gawking onlookers, highlighting the gulf between how the world perceives the manâas a terrible curiosityâand his own intense sense of victimization.
The relationship between perspective and perception is similarly central in âRachel, Jack and Ashley Too,â the episode with the most complicated premise of the season. Miley Cyrus stars as Ashley, a singer who wants to transition from glittery pop to more challenging material, much to the horror of her exploitative handlers. As the episode evolves into a scathing indictment of the celebrity industry (and offers a startling vision of artificial intelligence), âRachel, Jack and Ashley Tooâ fosters our genuine concern for Ashleyâs mental stateâin part as a result of the savvy casting of Cyrus, a transformative pop star herself, but also, and more crucially, because the episode reveals much of what happens to Ashley from the relatable perspective of Rachel (Angourie Rice), a lonely and adoring teenage fan.
While none of these episodes are as nihilistic as the showâs grimmest installments to date, they remain imbued with snarky, topical satire and dogged cynicism. âSmithereensâ portrays a social media network that, with its scrolling newsfeed and reliance on hashtags, is unsubtly modeled after Twitter. Even less subtle is the character of the platformâs man-bunned creator, Billy Bauer (Topher Grace), whoâs clearly a sketch of Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey. Brooker doesnât veil his view of the real-life tech mogul: When Bauerâs service ignites (and acts as a livestream of) an international hostage situation, heâs pictured peacefully meditating in Utah, both figuratively and literally above the fray he helped create. When eventually called for help, the communications magnate is powerless, no longer able to grasp the magnitude of his creation, and reduced to speaking in platitudes.
By targeting forces (and people) who already exist in reality, Brooker couples the showâs broad anxieties with a tinge of righteous anger. Coupled with the seasonâs character-driven focus, the specificity of the showâs grievances represents a welcome evolution. With stories that recall the most human elements of Black Mirrorâs past episodes, while levying urgent indictments of the present, the series thatâs always worked to imagine a dark future seems to be wondering if we havenât already crossed into the dystopian abyss.
Cast: Andrew Scott, Anthony Mackie, Miley Cyrus, Topher Grace, Damson Idris, Angourie Rice, Madison Davenport, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II Network: Netflix
Review: Season Five of Luther Is Undermined by a Sense of Inevitability
As the series has continued, itâs grown more outlandish, oppressive, and removed from the things that made it so captivating.1
Time has not been kind to John Luther (Idris Elba), the wool-coated supercop haunted by the horrors of all the things heâs seen on the job. To be fair, what detective wouldnât be traumatized living and working in the version of London offered up by BBCâs Luther? Itâs a concrete sprawl where every crack in every grimy back alley seems to conceal some ultraviolent psychosexual serial killer. This is a gloomy, frequently ridiculous series that survives on the back of Elbaâs staggering intensity as a volatile, obsessive detective more than willing to skirt the law as long as it catches him a killer. But as the series has continued, itâs only grown more outlandish, more oppressive, and more removed from the things that made its inaugural season so captivating. And the showâs belated fifth season, coming over three years after the two-part fourth season, hardly closes the distance.
Itâs not for lack of trying, of course. For the first time since the beginning of the series, Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson) returns to the center of the story to throw a wrench into Lutherâs professional and private life. Wilson is, expectedly, adept at selling her characterâs amusing sociopathy with every thin, dark smirk. Unfortunately, though, Aliceâs storyline entirely concerns her attempted revenge against East End gangster George Cornelius (Patrick Malahide), whose repetitive, nonsensical attempts to murder Luther were the most tiresome element of the prior season. With Luther now caught in the crossfire, the resulting feud is so central to the season that it all but pushes the seasonâs murder investigation to the side in favor of various square-offs with Corneliusâs gun-toting goons.
Luther has always worked best as a trashy mystery series because its main characterâs explosive, extralegal tendencies contrast most sharply with the showâs depiction of a structured, by-the-book police world. The supporting characters, when they arenât being killed off with alarming frequency, marvel at Lutherâs alternately clever and outrageous attempts to flout the rules. However, writer and creator Neil Crossâs growing reliance on action elements has come to mean abandoning the contrast between Lutherâs methods and expected police procedure in favor of throwing him into a murky criminal underworld. Thereâs simply less dramatic intrigue and less of an audacious thrill when heâs breaking out of his restraints to fight a room full of gangsters than when heâs punching a murder suspect in the street to get a sample from the manâs bloody nose in an absurd evidence-planting gambit.
Alice previously served a similar juxtaposing function. Despite her chemistry with Luther and their mutual attraction, her teasing, nihilistic amorality and even-more-extreme methods conflicted with his determination to protect life; their developing relationship threatened his job, his loved ones, and his own beliefs. But at this point, the two simply know each other too well for her wild-card antics to surprise Luther, and by extension the audience. Her ability to throw him off balance is muted since he mostly just seems tired of putting up with her rather than shocked at her insistent, ultimately predictable attempts to lash out at Cornelius.
That same sense of exhaustion and inevitability hangs over the entire season, undermining its usual attempts to shock us with plot twists that bring death and violence. The serial killer this time around, a surgeon (Enzo Cilenti) with a fetish for turning people into pincushions, may have strong visual iconography through the eerie combination of a clown mask and a glowing hood meant to fool CCTV, but his grisly compulsion is more of the same for a series that loves to plumb the depths of how gory a series can get. Once Cornelius becomes the umpteenth person to seriously threaten the lives of the supporting characters, you arenât surprised so much as left to ruminate on the diminishing returns, remembering just how many names have already been scratched out of the showâs opening credits. The showâs concept has long revolved around how everything Luther has been through has left him haunted, but now, in the fifth season, it does little more for viewers than leave them numb.
Cast: Idris Elba, Ruth Wilson, Dermot Crowley, Michael Smiley, Wunmi Mosaku, Enzo Cilenti, Hermione Norris, Patrick Malahide Network: BBC America
Review: Season Two of Big Little Lies Fails to Justify Its Existence
The series works best when it focuses on intimate, human moments rather than on broad social critiques.2
Directed by Jean-Marc VallĂ©e and adapted by David E. Kelley from Liane Moriartyâs novel, the first season of Big Little Lies told a complete story, resolving the murder mystery that drove its primary storyline and successfully exploring the bleak underbelly of the affluent coastal city of Monterey, California. As such, the foremost question facing the showâs second seasonâdirected by Andrea Arnold and based on a story by Moriarty and Kelleyâis an existential one: Is this follow-up really necessary? Though the three episodes made available to press are enjoyable enough, thanks largely to the castâs continued strong performances, theyâre weighed down by heavy-handed writing and an inchoate grasp of what powered the first seasonânamely, its subtlety, surprise, and emotional murkiness.
Season two begins about a year after the so-called Monterey Five conspired to cover up the circumstances of Perry Wrightâs (Alexander SkarsgĂ„rd) death. Some of the groupâs members have fared better than others in the time since: Madeline Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon) is thriving as a real estate agent, Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) has settled into a job at the aquarium, and corporate hotshot Renata Klein (Laura Dern) is being featured on magazine covers. But Bonnie Carlson (ZoĂ« Kravitz), who pushed the abusive Perry down a flight of stairs to protect his wife, Celeste (Nicole Kidman), struggles with the guilt of her actions, while Celeste doesnât quite know how to grieve for the man she still loves.
Perryâs mother, Mary Louise (Meryl Streep), has come to stay with Celeste and help her care for her twin sons (Cameron and Nicholas Crovetti). She also suspects that Perryâs death wasnât a total accident and works to find out the truth. Mary Louise is a master of aggression, both passive and active, and Streep delivers the characterâs critiques of Madeline with a quiet monotone thatâs at once grandmotherly and acidic. Even among a cast as strong as the one assembled here, the veteran actress commands every scene sheâs in. But as Mary Louise resists Celesteâs narrative of abuseâshe wonders, for instance, why her Celeste didnât tell the police that Perry beat herâher dialogue grows so tired, so backward, as to feel purely mechanical. Mary Louise as an acerbic grandma is compelling, but Mary Louise as a Me Too bogeywoman is a bore, little more than a repository of eye-roll-inducing, reactionary pushback against abuse victims. Her symbolic significance comes at the cost of her personhood.
Which is to say that Big Little Lies works best when it focuses on intimate, human moments rather than on the social critiques that it clumsily handles. For one, watching Madeline and her husband, Ed (Adam Scott), face a personal reckoning is engaging because we care about these characters and understand the stakes of their conflictâand the series doesnât compromise their interiority by forcing them to represent a broader social issue. The poignancy of their disillusionment suggests that the season might, in fact, justify its own existence. But the series consistently undercuts that potential. Bonnieâs mother, Elizabeth (Crystal Fox), accurately remarks that there arenât many black people in Monterey, but then it errs uneasily close to stereotype by giving herâone of only a small handful of black charactersâpossibly prophetic visions and an affinity for healing crystals and other talismans.
The showâs themes of abuse and sexual violence are urgent and timely, which makes its shoddy treatment of them all the more disappointing. Big Little Lies also takes on matters of desire, wealth, and sexism, but does so with brute force and repetition. When Madeline rails against the unfairly different expectations people have for fathers and mothers, she offers no original perspective on that common double standard; in the end, itâs as if the scene is relying solely on Madelineâs zeal to hide its trite writing. Later, a young field-tripper at the aquarium asks Jane why pretty things tend to be dangerous. Itâs a lazy exchange thatâs similarly emblematic of the showâs insistence on shouting its themes.
Save the occasional cinematographic flourish, the non-spoken tools of film and television have come to kneel before the power of the word in the second season of Big Little Lies. Even the showâs soundtrack serves as a way to squeeze more words in: While the songs featured throughout these episodes are definitely capable of generating moodâas was the case last seasonâtheir lyrics regularly and agonizingly describe the drama that weâre witnessing. The spectral cover of REO Speedwagonâs âKeep on Loving Youâ that plays during a conversation about a crumbling marriage is haunting, but its beauty is shorn by how on the nose it is. The song, in this context, is exceptionally pretty but ultimately meaningless, a bunch of notes vanishing into the nearly hollow shell where Big Little Lies used to be.
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, ZoĂ« Kravitz, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, Alexander SkarsgĂ„rd, Adam Scott, James Tupper, Jeffrey Nordling, Kathryn Newton, Sarah Sokolovic, Crystal Fox, Iain Armitage, Darby Camp, Cameron Crovetti, Nicholas Crovetti, Ivy George, Chloe Coleman, Robin Weigert, Douglas Smith Network: HBO
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