Jenna-Louise Coleman, playing the Doctor’s new companion Clara, has certainly received the most protracted and complex introduction into the series of any regular cast member ever. She made a surprise appearance in the opening episode of this season, “Asylum of the Daleks”, portraying not Clara but a different character named Oswin Oswald, a crew member of a far-future spaceship who died after having been captured by the Daleks. This year’s Christmas special (like “Asylum,” written by showrunner Steven Moffat), was expected to be the episode that would see Clara introduced and begin her traveling with the Doctor. But Moffat, the master of unexpected plot twists, has faked us out again—apart from one brief glimpse, the Clara we see in this episode is not the companion-to-be. After the events of “The Snowmen,” while we can definitely welcome Jenna-Louise Coleman aboard Doctor Who, Clara remains, for both us and the Doctor, an enigma.
Coleman showed in “Asylum”—where she spent the whole story isolated from the rest of the cast – that she has a mesmerizing screen presence, even confined to sitting in a chair, communicating with other characters only over monitor screens. Given far more scope in this episode, she is even more impressive, right from Clara’s first appearance. A barmaid working in a London tavern of 1892, her attention is caught by an odd snowman that seems to have appeared instantaneously, just as her back was turned. The Doctor (Matt Smith), happening to pass by, takes a brief interest in the snowman, and there is an immediate spark between him and Clara. However, the Doctor has changed—he is no longer interested in solving mysteries, or in making new friends, and simply walks off. Intrigued, Clara impulsively pursues him, leaps onto his carriage, and an amusing shot of her upside-down face saying “Doctor who?” launches us into the titles.
The feeling of the show entering a new era is only increased by the unveiling of a new title sequence and theme music. During the five previous episodes, the production team experimented a little with the titles, fiddling with the colors and the texture of the logo, but now we have an entirely new sequence. On the whole I like the changes, particularly the toning down of the bombast of the previous titles—no thunderclaps or lightning flashes, and the blaring fanfares are also now not so prominent. The last part of the sequence (also utilized for the closing credits) is particularly effective, strongly evoking the vortex used in the title sequences of the 1970s. But the first half is a bit of a mess—it seems to be just a random assortment of images swirling around without much rhyme or reason. It is nice, though, to have a brief glimpse of the Doctor’s face in the titles for the first time since the show was brought back (something that was a fixture of the classic series for all the Doctors apart from the very first one). On the other hand, I could have done without the final gimmick, in which the TARDIS flies towards the camera and the doors open to reveal the opening shot of the first Act in exactly the same way the menus appear for the DVD releases of the classic series.
Later in the episode, we will discover that the interior of the TARDIS has also been completely revamped. Michael Pickwoad, the vastly talented production designer largely responsible for Doctor Who being one of the best-looking shows on television over the last two years, finally gets the chance to put his stamp on the show’s only standing set. In keeping with the changes in the Doctor’s character shown in this episode, the whimsy of the previous interior has been dialed back to something much more austere and streamlined. The feeling is once again of being at the control center of a machine, a vehicle, rather than entering a wizard’s home. The only part of the new interior I don’t like is the set of counter-rotating rings of lights at the top of the time rotor—an unnecessary embellishment that would be more at home on a game show. Hopefully, directors of future episodes will not feel the need to show these things spinning around madly every time the TARDIS takes off. Other than that minor complaint, though, I have nothing but praise for Saul Metzstein’s direction of this episode.
As I wrote in my piece on “Closing Time” last year, the idea of the Doctor going into retirement—becoming fed up with his unending life of travel, exploration and (usually) doing good deeds throughout the universe—dates back as far as Douglas Adams’ tenure as Doctor Who script editor in the late 1970s. Adams, advancing the idea in his characteristic comic manner, had the Doctor retiring more or less on a whim. Moffat, however, makes it a logical development of recent events. In the wake of the loss of his close friends Amy and Rory in “The Angels Take Manhattan”—a loss at least partly attributable to his inability to keep himself from dropping into their lives and dragging them into his adventures—it’s not at all surprising that the Doctor has become disillusioned and withdrawn. As he says, “Over a thousand years of saving the universe… Do you know the one thing I learned? The universe doesn’t care.”
It seems very appropriate that the Doctor creates a retreat for himself in the London of 1892. The Victorian era is a period that the show has always had an affinity for, with the classic series setting stories there several times—“The Evil of the Daleks” (1967), “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” (1977), and “Ghost Light” (1989) are all high points in Doctor Who’s run. In 2005, Victorian-era Cardiff provided the backdrop for the revived series’s first historical episode, “The Unquiet Dead.” The period is also the source of a lot of our standard Christmas imagery, making it particularly fitting for a Christmas special (as seen in 2008’s “The Next Doctor,” and even the ersatz Victoriana of 2010’s “A Christmas Carol”).
But the significance of the Victorian milieu goes beyond providing the opportunity for the show to present a sumptuously realized period background for the story (something at which the BBC costume and production design departments have always excelled). The Doctor himself has always borne the influence of this period in his manner of dress, especially the original Doctor, William Hartnell. His successors in the classic series tended to tone down or caricature the Victorian element in their costumes, but it returned in full force with Paul McGann’s short-lived Eighth Doctor in the telemovie that failed to lead to a revival of the series in 1996. When the show actually returned nine years later, it made a deliberate break with the past by putting Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor into a leather jacket. Only in the last year or so, with Matt Smith sporting a long green coat in some of the later episodes of the 2011 series, has the Victorian element slowly crept back into the Doctor’s silhouette.
In this episode, though, the Doctor is presented as fully Victorian, a rather grumpy figure in a dark frock coat and a tall hat that recalls one occasionally worn by Patrick Troughton. Sometimes in Doctor Who, it’s necessary to suspend one’s disbelief at how the people the Doctor encounters generally seem to cope with his odd outfits without comment, but not here. It’s disconcerting to see the Doctor, whose clothes usually set him apart from the times and places he finds himself in, fitting in so well. No better method could have been found to visually indicate how the Doctor is trying to suppress his usual nature. And, of course, there’s a lovely payoff later when he finally takes an active part in the story, and discovers he has unconsciously put on his normal bow-tie before doing so. As he turns back towards the Doctor we know, so too does his outward appearance.
With the Doctor initially refusing to get involved, Moffat needed someone else to take over his usual role of getting mixed up in strange events and setting the story into motion. For this purpose, he makes great use of three characters that he created for 2011’s mid-season finale “A Good Man Goes to War”. The pairing of the Silurian investigator, Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh) and her maid/lover, Jenny Flint (Catrin Stewart), had made a great impression on their first appearance and were a natural choice to bring back for this story, since they were already based in the correct time period. Adding the Sontaran warrior Strax (Dan Starkey) to serve as their butler was an inspired touch. Together, the three make a kind of steampunk Scooby Gang, no doubt already inspiring plenty of fan-fiction writers. It’s certainly easy to imagine a spinoff series being developed around these characters.
Vastra, in a very Doctor-like manner, confronts the villain of the piece, Dr. Walter Simeon (Richard E. Grant), who she has determined has some connection with the strange snowmen that have been appearing. The concept of snow (or rather, an alien intelligence distributed among snow-like flakes) that can mirror the thoughts and feelings of those near it is another neat idea of Moffat’s, and he develops it well. The snowmen, with their wide, grinning mouths full of shark-like teeth, are a quirky and memorable monster design, no doubt appropriately scary for Doctor Who’s younger viewers. It’s probably fortunate, though, that we never see them actually move—like many other Who monsters, they are at their best when looming menacingly, rather than lumbering slowly in pursuit of some luckless victim. In fact, apart from the implied massacre of a few nameless workers in the teaser, the snowmen have a fairly minor role in the story. The main focus is a contest of wills between the mysterious intelligence, Simeon, and the Doctor.
Richard E. Grant has had two previous, rather tangential brushes with Doctor Who—although both of them, oddly, involved playing the Doctor. Back in 1999, in Steven Moffat’s hilarious spoof of the show written for Comic Relief, The Curse of Fatal Death, he was one of a whole line of well-known actors playing later regenerations of the Doctor, being given about a minute of screen time. Then, in 2003, he created a putative Ninth Doctor for a web-based animation, Scream of the Shalka by Paul Cornell, which would have led to further adventures had the whole project not been derailed by the announcement of Doctor Who’s return to television under Russell T Davies, and relegated to a footnote in Who history. He certainly makes more of an impact playing a villain, giving Simeon an appropriately frozen intensity at all times that suggests this man hasn’t so much as smiled in decades. The flashback scene at the top of the show makes it clear that as a boy, the painfully shy, introverted Simeon avoided all other company, making him an easy target for the manipulations of the intelligence behind the snow. (Incidentally, while it’s great that the show managed to get such a high-profile actor as the wonderful Ian McKellen to provide the voice of the intelligence, hearing Gandalf’s distinctive tones emanating from a giant snowglobe wanting to rule the world was possibly the most unsettling aspect of the whole episode.)
The Doctor: “Don’t try to run away; stay where you are.”
Clara: “Why would I run? I know what’s going to happen next, and it’s funny.”
Meanwhile, the Doctor tries to deal with Clara, in a laugh-out-loud sequence involving Strax and a “memory worm”—a not very convincing alien which looks like an escapee from the late, lamented Sarah Jane Adventures. The scene is particularly admirable not only for the comedy, which Dan Starkey and Matt Smith execute with impeccable timing, but also because of the way that (in retrospect) Moffat uses it to hide in plain sight the method by which the Doctor will deal with Simeon. As always with Moffat episodes, the script is packed full of plot elements and lines of dialogue with multiple purposes.
The interaction between Smith and Coleman fizzes along, and they already feel like a well-practiced team as the Doctor and Clara face their first shared danger: the snow starts picking up thoughts from Clara and creates a horde of the menacing snowmen around them. After they escape, the Doctor still wants nothing to do with any possibility of companionship, but Clara easily evades Strax and follows the Doctor back to his hidden TARDIS. There’s some lovely imagery as she finds herself climbing a ladder and a huge, invisible spiral staircase leading to a cloud-like platform, and knocking on the door of the police box. At this point it’s easy to imagine this girl as the Doctor’s new companion, but Moffat has something more complex in mind. And so she reconsiders, and heads back down the staircase before the Doctor can find her.
The next day, we discover that Clara is leading a double life—in the course of a carriage ride, she transforms herself from Oliver Twist’s Nancy into a prim Mary Poppins. Both the character and the actress playing her get to show off their versatility as, with sculpted enunciation worthy of Julie Andrews, Clara resumes her role of governess to the two children of Captain Latimer (Tom Ward), a widower who is clearly smitten with her—when his house is later invaded by all manner of weirdness, the thing that most arrests his attention is the Doctor trying to pass himself off as Clara’s “gentleman friend.”
Clara learns that one of her young charges, Francesca (Ellie Darcey-Alden), has been having nightmares about their previous governess, who drowned some weeks ago in the ornamental pond in front of their house. When she notices that the pond is still frozen over even though the snow everywhere around it has thawed, Clara realizes she needs the Doctor’s help. But attempting to find the TARDIS again soon brings her to the notice of Jenny, who takes her to see Vastra. The Silurian tells Clara that she, Jenny and Strax act as the Doctor’s gatekeepers: “We assist him in his isolation, but that does not mean we approve of it.”
The scene between Vastra and Clara is an excellent one that gives Coleman her first chance to portray Clara as something deeper than cute and perky. Vastra demands that she restrict herself to one-word answers to her questions (“Truth is singular; lies are words, words, words”), and Coleman adroitly shows Clara carefully thinking through each response. She even sometimes gains the upper hand; when she suggests that the Doctor should help her out of kindness, Vastra is goaded into expressing her own disappointment with the Doctor’s inactivity (“The Doctor is not kind… He stands above this world and doesn’t interfere in the affairs of its inhabitants. He is not your salvation nor your protector. Do you understand what I am saying to you?”). Clara’s retort is simply: “Words.” Impressed, Vastra proposes a final test:
Vastra: “Give me a message for the Doctor. Tell him all about the snow and what fresh danger you believe it presents. And above all, explain why he should help you.” (As Clara starts to speak, Vastra stops her.) “But do it in one word.” (Off Clara’s expression:) “You’re thinking it’s impossible such a word exists, or that you could even find it. Let’s see if the gods are with you.”
This powerful scene is a great example of Moffat’s talent for adding depth to his plotting by seizing the chance to create resonances with earlier stories—resonances that can’t possibly have been planned in advance. Here, he must surely have started from the realization of the coincidence that Amy’s surname could also signify one of the crucial elements of this story. From there, the whole one-word-only thing must have been built up, so that the scene could reach its climax with Clara producing the only word that could break through the Doctor’s isolation: “Pond.” A costuming choice adds the final touch: up to this point we have seen the Doctor using the glasses he took from Amy in the previous episode—his only physical memento of her. After he hears the magic word, the glasses come off, and are not seen again.
With the turning point reached, the Doctor leaps into action, and almost immediately penetrates to the heart of Simeon’s scheme, running rings around the man with the sort of hyperactive wackiness (“Big globe-y thing!”) which normally sets my teeth on edge. Here, though, it works well, feeling like a release after the Doctor’s previous glum disposition. It’s also helped along by a very funny nod to Moffat’s other hit series, Sherlock. Accompanied by a music cue very reminiscent of that show, the Doctor enters dressed as the classic Sherlock Holmes, deerstalker and all, and starts throwing out deductions—all of them comically wrong—to keep Simeon off-balance. (Amusingly, earlier Simeon had told Vastra that Conan Doyle was “almost certainly” basing his Sherlock Holmes stories on her exploits.)
Finding a clue that leads him to the Latimer estate, the Doctor quickly works out that the drowned governess in the pond was being used by the alien intelligence to gain an understanding of the human form, so that it could create an army of minions more capable than the clumsy snowmen. Sure enough, Clara and the children are soon being menaced by a living ice sculpture in the shape of the woman (a beautiful effect, although unfortunately its movement can’t help betraying its CGI nature). The Doctor manages to temporarily disable it, but the house is surrounded by snowmen as Simeon arrives and demands that the creature be surrendered to him.
Another wonderful, extended two-hander scene between Smith and Coleman follows as the Doctor, followed by Clara, leads the ice creature up to the roof of the house to keep it isolated. Clara impresses the Doctor greatly with her quick-fire deduction that he has moved the cloud platform holding his TARDIS to hover over the house, and they escape up the ladder and staircase, drawing the creature after them. At the top, the Doctor quickly immobilizes the creature, and Clara finally gets to see inside the TARDIS. (And I must compliment director Metzstein here on showing the Doctor walking into the console room from outside the box, right up to the console and operating the controls, all in one seamless shot. I don’t remember that ever being achieved on the show before.)
The scene where someone gets introduced to the TARDIS is one of those fundamental Doctor Who sense-of-wonder moments that never gets old, and Smith and Coleman play this one perfectly. When the Doctor gives her a TARDIS key (“I never know why; I only know who”), the reappearance of the sweet, wistful theme we have already heard a couple of times in this episode (and also in “Asylum of the Daleks”)—clearly destined to be Clara’s personal theme—makes it a magic moment.
Clara: “What’s this?”
The Doctor: “Me, giving in.”
It’s a real moment of triumph for both of them, and it seems that now the Doctor has definitely acquired his new companion. But again, Moffat has something else in mind. In the most shockingly unexpected plot turn of the episode, the ice creature, having escaped its confinement, grabs Clara and drags the two of them off the cloud platform, falling to the ground far below. The creature is smashed, but Clara is also fatally injured. The Doctor uses the TARDIS to retrieve her and bring her back inside the house.
With the story we were expecting suddenly twisting into something darker and more tragic, a guilt-ridden Doctor coaxes Clara into agreeing to come away with him if he saves the world, the way “the green lady” told her he used to do. Vastra points out that he is trying to make a bargain with the uncaring universe—he’ll save the world if it lets Clara live—and “I don’t think the universe makes bargains.” The Doctor reacts angrily, but that’s at least partly because he knows that she is right, and they head off in the TARDIS to confront Simeon in his office. It has to be said that Simeon is probably not the most challenging role Richard E. Grant has ever had to play, but he makes the most of his final scene, when he shows the man almost visibly collapsing into himself as the Doctor reveals how the intelligence has been manipulating him since childhood.
It would be thematically appropriate for the controlling intelligence to be finally vanquished at this point. The Doctor has been prodded into action, breaking him out of his apathy; he has penetrated the lair of the villain and revealed its true nature; and he has found a way to defeat it by breaking its link with Simeon. It would take only a few trivial changes to the script to end the snowy menace once and for all here, leaving the remaining events of the episode unaltered. But Moffat has one more clever twist he wants to show off.
In late 1967, in the fifth season of the classic series, Patrick Troughton’s Doctor paid a visit to Tibet in the 1930s, where he faced a threat from monstrous Yeti controlled by a mysterious “Great Intelligence”—a strange, bodiless force that had the ability to mentally dominate its human servants, and wanted to generate a physical form for itself to enable it to take over the Earth. (In true Doctor Who style, underneath their furry exteriors the Yeti actually turned out to be robots.) “The Abominable Snowmen” was considered such a success by the production team that even before it was broadcast its writers, Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln, were commissioned to produce a sequel. And so, just three months later, Troughton faced the Yeti again in “The Web of Fear.” This time the story took place in London, in what was then the near-future year of 1975, and the Intelligence was using the Yeti and an ever-expanding flood of web-like fungus to attack the city through the tunnels of the London Underground system. “The Web of Fear” turned out to be one of the most memorable and important stories of that era, not least because it introduced a character—Colonel (later Brigadier) Lethbridge-Stewart, played by the late Nicholas Courtney—who would become one of the linchpins of the series in the 1970s.
Haisman and Lincoln left the origin of their “Great Intelligence” as a complete mystery, providing an opening for someone like Steven Moffat to come along and advance his own explanation. As a long-time fan, I loved the ingenious payoff signalled by these knowing lines:
Jenny: “Well, we can’t be in much danger from a disembodied intelligence that thinks it can invade the world with snowmen.”
Vastra: “Or that the London Underground is a key strategic weakness.”
The Doctor: (examining Simeon’s business card) “The Great Intelligence… rings a bell…”
Regrettably, this payoff does come at a cost. Giving the Intelligence the capacity to survive independently of Simeon—in fact, to take him over and control him, zombie-style, to provide a few moments of further menace—means that the Doctor doesn’t actually get to achieve the neutralization of the threat. Instead, we have an unwelcome intrusion from the kind of bathos that doomed last year’s Christmas special. Somehow Latimer and his family’s reaction to the dying Clara (“a whole family crying on Christmas Eve”) creates an emotional force which overwhelms the snow at the house, and somehow this gets fed back into the controlling Intelligence, which somehow leads to all the snow suddenly just melting away into salty rain… Not even Matt Smith’s best efforts can make this remotely convincing. Fortunately, unlike with “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe”, this bogus fairytale ending does not undo all the consequences of the story. Clara is still dying, and there is nothing the Doctor can do about it.
It’s Clara’s death that prevents her story being a simple duplication of what Moffat did with River Song. Her full name—revealed to be Clara Oswin Oswald—and her final words to the Doctor (“Run, you clever boy… and remember”), link her beyond doubt with the Oswin who died in “Asylum of the Daleks.” Before this episode aired, speculation was rife about what the connection could be between the two characters, with a favorite theory being that Clara would travel with the Doctor for a time, then eventually, under the name Oswin, join the crew of the starship Alaska and—just as with River—meet her end in the encounter which was their first meeting from the Doctor’s perspective. But it’s clear now that something much stranger is going on:
The Doctor: “Oswin… It was her… I never saw her face the first time, with the Daleks, but her voice… it was the same voice. The same woman, twice! And she died, both times. The same woman!”
A shot of Clara’s gravestone (which, incidentally, gives her birthdate as November 23—the same as Doctor Who itself) dissolves to the same shot of it, now overgrown and weathered, in the present day. Another Clara—finally, the real companion-to-be—pauses next to it, oblivious, as she is telling a friend, “I don’t believe in ghosts.” Meanwhile, the Doctor is back in his TARDIS, setting off on his mission to find Clara—no longer avoiding his future, but running toward it.
The trailer which aired after this episode for the second half of Season 7 (which will start showing around Easter 2013) makes it clear that the mystery of “the woman twice dead” will be an important component in the next story arc. It’s exactly the kind of puzzle that was needed to bring the Doctor back to himself, and in the final analysis that is the main accomplishment of this episode. Taken as a stand-alone story, “The Snowmen” would be well-made and entertaining but nothing more—a traditional ’romp’ of a Christmas special no more significant than, say, 2007’s “Voyage of the Damned.” It’s the connections to the past and the inescapable set-up for the future that are the real meat of the episode—as well as the demonstration that with the pairing of Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman, the Doctor Who producers have come up with another winning team. April can’t come soon enough.
Classic Who DVD Recommendation: Unfortunately, the Yeti stories of the 1960s mentioned above were victims of the BBC archive purges of decades ago—in both cases, just one episode out of six is all that remains. So instead I’m going to recommend another icy story with a (literally) cold-hearted villain—check out 1987’s “Dragonfire” starring Sylvester McCoy, with Bonnie Langford and Sophie Aldred.
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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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