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Doctor Who Recap: Season 4, Episode 13, “Journey’s End”

At some point the Season Four finale of Doctor Who, “Journey’s End,” will stand on its own.

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Doctor Who Recap: Season 4, Episode 13, “Journey’s End”
Photo: BBC

At some point the Season Four finale of Doctor Who, “Journey’s End,” will stand on its own, but many involved in the zeitgeist of the series currently recall the week building up to its transmission on BBC1. The close of “The Stolen Earth” saw several cliffhangers, but none more powerful and mysterious than David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor regenerating. What the hell was going on? As Steven Cooper wrote to me in an e-mail: “… you have to admire RTD’s skill in engineering the biggest Doctor Who cliffhanger ever seen, that generated an absolute avalanche of publicity in the UK. No matter how many times rationality insisted that David Tennant had already been seen filming the Christmas special and that there was just no way a new Doctor could be kept secret, for that whole week little paranoid doubts kept creeping in.” There’s no better way to put it. Was a new Doctor mere moments away?

Yes, for anyone who was right there on top of it for that week, it was a maddening seven days. I was reasonably sure that Tennant wasn’t exiting the TARDIS for good, mainly because logic dictated that a Dalek blast to the side would have been a ridiculously undignified and anticlimactic exit for him—but if he wasn’t, what the hell was going on? The Doctor’s regenerating, for fuck’s sake! This has to go somewhere. The Internet exploded with theories vast and wide. My personal fanboy wish involved the temporary return of Doctor #8, Paul McGann … but silly me—I failed to heed my own theory on Who cliffhangers, which I wrote right here at the House earlier this season. So yeah, I gotta give Davies credit for creating drama that made me forget my own philosophy. If you were caught up in that seven day tour of madness, the first minute of “Journey’s End” might have had you screaming out loud—maybe out of anger, maybe out of joy—but probably out of both. Nobody really wanted to see David Tennant leave, but we did want something more than a quick fix resolution. I knew the Doctor’s severed hand would play into this “regeneration” (given that it bubbled away over and over in “The Stolen Earth”), but it never occurred to me that it would be such a ludicrously simple fix. This intro/resolution could be nitpicked to death. For instance, wouldn’t the Doctor be wise in the future to lob off a hand within the first 24 hours of each regeneration? Clearly severed Time Lord body parts come in handy. Davies has rewritten the Time Lord rules, and in all fairness he’s entitled to do so. Part of the show’s survival has always been tied to its morphing mythology. This is just another layer.

Once the regeneration is taken care of, so are the cliffhangers involving Sarah Jane and Torchwood, and each just as quickly as you’d expect. Torchwood (i.e. Gwen and Ianto) are essentially removed from the storyline until the end; Sarah Jane is saved by (surprise!) Mickey (Noel Clarke) and Jackie (Camille Coduri), who just swing in from the other universe. The developments of the first five or so minutes of “Journey’s End” choreograph what the entire episode is largely about: 1) Character and 2) Dramatic resolution that’s an extension of #1. The episode, despite its 60-plus minute running time, is not terribly concerned with plot, and having viewed the episode several times, I think it’s exactly as it should be, given the setup in “The Stolen Earth.” As soon as Torchwood, Sarah Jane, Rose and Martha became players in this season finale, the only road to travel down was character-driven. And why not?

After overseeing four seasons of Who, two seasons of Torchwood and one season of The Sarah Jane Adventures—after building a dramatic empire of the likes that’s never before been seen on the various BBCs, isn’t Russell T Davies entitled to be more than a little self-indulgent for his finale of the series that started it all? (OK, it’s not quite his swan song—more on that later—but it’s his last full season of Doctor Who.) He hasn’t created an ongoing sturdy arc as much as he’s built this wonderful universe of characters and ideas. And so he chose to throw a party with all those characters, and throw down even more “out there” ideas. The last two episodes of Season Four are Davies’ version of “The Five Doctors.” They’re his celebration of all the work he’s put into regenerating the Doctor Who universe, which he’s been immensely successful at doing. He didn’t start from scratch. He didn’t ignore the previous 26 seasons. He built on the mythology that came before—a ballsy fucking move—and had a field day doing it. I’ve had my fair share of criticisms of Davies’ tenure, but they are minor in the grand scheme. The guy envisioned and executed what nobody before him was able to do, and if Doctor Who runs for another fifteen or twenty years, it’s because of the groundwork he laid. If you’re an old school fan who still hasn’t grooved with the new series, then seriously, why are you still watching? If you feel it isn’t like “old Doctor Who,” then I got news for you: It’s unlikely to ever be (and who knows what weirdness Steven Moffat’s going to unleash?). It reflects a vision of the present and future, not 1977. When Trek revamped in ’86, the Captain didn’t fuck aliens and when Ron Moore revamped Galactica, Starbuck was Katee Sackhoff. I love where Doctor Who is now and its future has never been brighter.

But back to “Journey’s End.” The episode is full of all sorts of silly MacGuffins that substitute for the missing plot—the Osterhagen Key, the Warp Star, that gun the “other” Tenth Doctor cobbles together, and my fan-fucking favorite of them all, The Reality Bomb, to which I literally yelled at my TV, “Not The Reality Bomb!!!” Hey, if you’ve got a bomb that can destroy all of reality, it’d be stupid to call it anything else, especially if you’re as self-centered and pompous as Davros. All these trinkets are disposed of with swift efficiency to serve the dramatic potential of the characters. They don’t really mean anything other than “the ultimate threat(s).” It’s the people behind those threats that matter, and that’s what the episode’s about.

Take Davros and his silly Reality Bomb for instance. It’s possible that for some viewers his bomb is goofy as all hell. (Well it is for me too, but bear with…) Allow me to quote from Genesis … ummm, “Genesis of the Daleks,” that is:

The Doctor: “Davros, if you had created a virus in your laboratory—something contagious and infectious that killed on contact—a virus that would destroy all other forms of life, would you allow its use?”
Davros: “It is an interesting conjecture.”
The Doctor: “Would you do it?”
Davros: “The only living thing … a microscopic organism … reigning supreme. A fascinating idea!”
The Doctor: “But would you do it?”
Davros: “Yes … yes … to hold in my hand a capsule that contained such power. To know that life and death on such a scale was my choice. To know that the tiny pressure of my thumb, enough to break the glass, would end … everything. Yes! I would do it! That power would set me above the gods! And through the Daleks I shall have that power!”

That’s how fucking mad Davros is, and the Reality Bomb is merely Davies taking that virus from 1975 to its ultimate dramatic conclusion … and I love him for it. It’s all about being true to Davros’ character. There’s no need to revamp or reimagine a guy who’s already the ideal madman; Davros hasn’t changed a bit in 33 years. He’s the ultimate villain. The Master, the Cybermen, and the Daleks themselves pale in comparison to his utter disregard for existence. Look at the guy—can you blame him?

With all the trumpeting of the return of Rose Tyler (Billie Piper)—admittedly, much of it from me—it was refreshing that her relationship with the Doctor was actually never allowed to dominate the finale. This was, after all, Donna’s season. We were given just enough Rose to make it right, but it never really became heavy-handed … until perhaps her last scene, which I understand didn’t work for some viewers. For me, however, the return to Bad Wolf Bay was an ideal sendoff, as was the concept of the second, part human Tenth Doctor, who stays with her in the other universe so they can fall in love, grow old and die together. What ended on a bittersweet note can easily be envisioned to turn into something ideal for both characters. It also makes for a perfect setup for David Tennant, who can now theoretically return to the series at some point even after the Tenth Doctor regenerates, and even any aging that might occur has been accounted for. I’d love to see the show return to both characters someday and show them as an “old married couple.” Since this Doctor doesn’t have a TARDIS, his life’s going to be fairly unexciting compared to the memories he’s got floating around inside his head, but now he can finally have the one adventure he before could only dream of. If there’s one misstep made here, it was the playing of this splinter Doctor as somehow being inferior to the real deal, but I suspect in a very short amount of time Rose will come to see that the magic of the Doctor works in mysterious ways.

The presence of Captain Jack (John Barrowman), Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) and Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) are great fun, even if at times they aren’t given a whole lot to do. Of course, with a cast this big, this was always going to be a problem. Jack gets to get killed and resurrect once again, which is frankly underwhelming because we’re so used to it at this point. Gwen and Ianto are effectively removed from nearly the entire episode, which was probably a good thing as the story was crowded already. There’s that lovely little moment when the Doctor and Rose see Gwen (Eve Myles) for the first time, do a double take and make the familial connection to Gwyneth from “The Unquiet Dead.” Martha’s trip to Germany is a strange diversion, and aside from the German-speaking Daleks (which are a novelty at best), I’m not entirely sure it works on the whole, especially the stuff with the woman who sticks out like an unattractive throbbing member in a sea of pretty titties. (Speaking of, it’s a shame that we still haven’t seen the return of Martha’s beau, Thomas Milligan, from last season.) It seems all but obvious that Martha and Mickey are being set up to join Torchwood, which makes perfect sense since the team recently lost their doctor and computer expert. From a geek standpoint, the scene where Davros recognizes Sarah Jane’s voice (another nice nod to “Genesis”) is fan-friggin’-tastic. I think I may even have wet myself in that moment. And just when you think the show can’t pull any more surprises, K-9 shows up once again—though whether or not that even counts as a surprise is debatable. At the end, Sarah’s line about the Doctor having the biggest family on Earth is especially touching and it’s made even moreso because she doesn’t see how it’s in the midst of unraveling for him in those very moments.

Donna’s experiences with the Doctor have been unique, and it’s probable she changed through him more than any other companion before her. If not emotionally, then certainly literally in “Journey’s End.” I’ve no idea what exactly a “Human-Time Lord meta-crisis” is, but it sounds vaguely convincing, and enough so that we buy into it here without it ever getting too obtuse. Like Rose absorbing the time vortex in “The Parting of the Ways,” Donna absorbs a part of the Doctor’s mental self and it becomes too much for her to handle. With death imminent, the Doctor has no choice but to pull out his Spock wares and cure what ails her, but in the process she must revert back to a Donna who never encountered the Doctor. It’s a crushing development, marred only by Dalek Caan’s ongoing goofy prediction about a companion dying. A similar card was played in season two, and it just shouldn’t have been played twice. That said, Catherine Tate is just fabulous in this episode, running the gamut of emotions and styles, and in the final moments she’s back to being exactly the same vacuous Donna first seen in “The Runaway Bride.” I’m sure that nothing quite this cruel has ever been done to a companion on Doctor Who, and the development gives the episode a much-needed dose of gravitas.

In a story with many heroes and villains, Dalek Caan stands at the top of the heap as a little bit of both. The portrayal of the character is so weirdly over the top you can’t help but enjoy every moment he’s onscreen. But the conundrum of what was done with his character is more than a little bizarre. He flew back into the Time War, saved Davros’ life, and Davros in turn created a whole new race of Daleks that Caan foresaw the eventual end of—and didn’t bother to warn anyone about it. I suppose the only way to rationalize any of it is to simply rely on his being utterly whacked in the cranium. Another story highlight is the piloting of the TARDIS by the Doctor and his many companions by using all six sides of the console to literally drag Earth back to its proper place in space. It’s not at all believable, but then again, this is a show about a dimensionally transcendental time and space machine and its 900-year-old alien owner who can grow new bodies out of severed hands. Sure, I’ll go ahead and buy that the TARDIS could drag an entire planet across the galaxy. The thing with this episode is that you simply don’t want to look at the mechanics of it too closely or it will surely fall apart. But as I said, it’s all about character, not plot; if I’m wrong in that assertion, then the episode is a disaster. It’s not as good as “The Parting of the Ways” or “Last of the Time Lords,” but it’s considerably better than “Doomsday.” From a strict entertainment standpoint, however, it might be the best of all four. There’s certainly never a dull moment.

On the whole, Season Four was probably not quite as inventive as I’d hoped for. In fact, aside from most everything about the character of Donna Noble, the season often times played a little too safely for my liking, but perhaps after the darkness of Season Three, the show needed some sunshine, and aside from the double whammy of “Midnight” and “Turn Left,” it was mostly sunny fare. More than anything else, what Season Four proved is that Russell T Davies has done about all he can do with Doctor Who and that it’s time for a new creative lead for the series. That’s how it always worked in the past, and typically producers stayed on average about four seasons (give or take a season), until John Nathan-Turner, who was the textbook example of what happens when a showrunner stays too long on this program. Of course Davies isn’t quite yet done with Doctor Who. He’ll be overseeing five 60-minute specials over the next year and half before Season Five begins in 2010. As I understand it, two of the specials will be broadcast at Christmas 2008 and 2009, one will debut at Easter of 2009, and the dates of the other two are unknown. Davies will be writing three of them solo, and co-writing the other two with Gareth Roberts and Phil Ford. It will be interesting to see what exactly Davis unveils over the course of those five hours, and while “Journey’s End” was the big finish for his final season, I’m relatively sure that that fifth special (presumably the one at Christmas 2009) is going to be huge.

Of course the biggest question Sci-Fi viewers may have is, “When are we going to get to see them?” It’s a good question, too. I implore you Sci-Fi—don’t wait until they’re all broadcast and then run them as some kind of mini season, or even worse, wait until Season Five is ready to go and run them as a prelude to that season. Instead, run them right after they’re broadcast in the U.K. Treat them as the specials they are—as events. Promote them as movies—they’ll fit into 90-minute slots. You can’t afford to have Doctor Who off the air for nearly two years, as you’ll lose a lot of the audience you’ve built up, and from what I’ve read, you were very happy with the ratings for “Journey’s End.” Don’t lose the momentum. Keep up with the show and don’t encourage fans to seek out the episodes through alternate means. It would be so nice to see a Doctor Who Christmas special play on Sci-Fi when it’s still cold outside, there’s snow on the ground, and the tree is still up in the living room.

Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: Three new R1 DVDs hit the streets today: “The Five Doctors” (Special Edition), “The Time Meddler,” and the superb “Black Orchid.” Choose your poison!

For more Doctor Who recaps, click here.

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Review: Mrs. America Reckons with the Squandered Potential for Women’s Rights

The series suggests that winning hearts and minds is a naïve pipe dream, a strategy more fit for TV than for electoral politics.

3.5

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Mrs. America
Photo: Sabrina Lantos/FX

In the 1950s, two decades before FX’s Mrs. America takes place, future congresswoman Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale) braved death threats while appealing the case of Willie McGee, a black man convicted of raping a white woman and sentenced to death in Mississippi after a mere hours-long trial and a jury deliberation that lasted less than three minutes. Late in the series, Abzug recalls her past idealism as she mulls cutting the contentious gay rights resolution from the 1977 National Women’s Conference. Visiting Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), Abzug asks, “Does it bother you that no one calls you a radical anymore?” To which Friedan answers, “The movement is getting down to middle America. We’re mainstream, that’s a good thing.” The congresswoman nods with heartbreaking subtlety, recognizing that what’s become mainstream remains insufficient.

Mrs. America, the creation of writer-producer Dahvi Waller, deftly reckons with decades of squandered political potential, both in its depiction of the ‘70s and in the parallels it draws with the present. At the core of the series is the Equal Rights Amendment and the vigorous opposition it met from conservative author and activist Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett), first in Illinois and then around the nation. The series charts Schlafly’s mobilization of housewives against the amendment out of a purported belief that the women’s liberation movement rivaled the Soviets in the danger it posed to American life. Over the course of Mrs. America’s nine episodes, she builds the “pro-family,” doggedly anti-abortion, predominantly Christian coalition that helps thwart the ERA and land Ronald Reagan in the White House.

Of course, that same coalition has played an instrumental role in Donald Trump’s ascendance to the presidency. Here, Schlafly resembles Trump in her truth-flexing fearmongering, but unlike him, she’s not a man and must deal with the consequences. Though Schlafly mentions at one point that she’s never been discriminated against, her interactions with chauvinist politicians like Republican congressman Phil Crane (James Marsden), and even with her well-meaning but insensitive husband, Fred (John Slattery), serve as nauseating evidence to the contrary. Schlafly’s face regularly strains under the forced smile she wears around these men, and the consistency with which she masks her responses makes the moments in which her façade briefly cracks all the more evocative. At times, her smile gives way to a blankness that suggests frustration, quiet anger, or despair—or, perhaps, resignation.

Mrs. America reflects on the injustices that Schlafly experiences but refuses to romanticize her or her work. Plot beats expose Schlafly’s intellectual dishonesty and tacit acceptance of the Ku Klux Klan’s endorsement. Schlafly’s conversations with Lottie Beth Hobbs (Cindy Drummond), a collaborator based in Texas, particularly shatter the duo’s claims of moral high ground. Hobbs gives strikingly lucid insight into reactionary strains of Christianity, a faith she argues relies not only on love, but also on hate.

The sober approach of Mrs. America’s historical accounting extends across the political expanse. The series highlights the failings of the women’s liberation movement in the ‘70s, namely its solipsistic centering of whiteness. Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba) serves as a primary vector for the series’s exploration of race as she mounts a presidential campaign, competing against frontrunner George McGovern in the Democratic primary—and becoming the first-ever black candidate for the Democratic or Republican nomination. In the third episode, with her run collapsing around her, Chisholm vents in her hotel room and rails against the allies abandoning her. Aduba wondrously channels Chisholm’s frustration, inhaling sharply between lines and raising her voice as she builds momentum, each incremental increase in volume giving fuller form to her ire.

Mrs. America chronicles endless missed opportunities in U.S. politics but also includes a more hopeful and inspiring personal journey: that of Alice Macray (Sarah Paulson), Schlafly’s best friend and supporter. Initially a Schlafly stalwart up in arms against the ERA, Macray gradually exhibits an openness to new perspectives and compromise. Her growth is admirable but proves to be a false comfort; it turns out that she’s a fictional character created for the series. In one of its most intriguing political statements, Mrs. America suggests that winning hearts and minds is a naïve pipe dream, a strategy more fit for TV than for electoral politics.

Cast: Cate Blanchett, Rose Byrne, Sarah Paulson, Margo Martindale, Uzo Aduba, Elizabeth Banks, Tracey Ullman, John Slattery, Ari Graynor, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Melanie Lynskey, Kayli Carter, Niecy Nash, Cindy Drummond, James Marsden, Adam Brody, Jay Ellis, Bria Samoné Henderson Network: FX

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Review: Will & Grace Effortlessly Channels the Spirit of I Love Lucy

The episode is a reminder of just how influential I Love Lucy still is, and a testament to Will & Grace’s own legacy.

3.5

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Will & Grace
Photo: Chris Haston/NBC

By the end of its original eight-season run, Will & Grace had long since jumped the shark, plagued by stunt casting, back-from-the-dead husbands, and, of course, that finale, which the 2017 revival of the show wisely sought fit to pretend never happened. Prompted in part by the 2016 election, Will & Grace found new purpose in the Trump era, thoughtfully navigating topics like conversion therapy, the Me Too movement, and religious freedom—the latter of which was depicted in a shrewd inversion of recent wedding cake discrimination cases, with a lesbian baker refusing to fill an order honoring the president.

With only three episodes left, however, Will & Grace has decided to pull one last stunt, and it’s one that, surprisingly, the series has never tried before: a tribute to I Love Lucy. Since the show’s inception, critics have been wont to liken Debra Messing to Lucille Ball, not just because of her fiery red hair, but her deft mix of self-deprecation and broad slapstick. The latter quality, best exemplified in a season-two episode in which Grace’s water bra springs a leak to uproarious effect, would eventually become the province of dysfunctional sidekicks Jack and Karen, played by Sean Hayes and Megan Mullally, respectively.

It would have been easy enough to simply recast Will & Grace’s central foursome as Lucy, Ricky, Fred, and Ethel. But the reverently titled “We Love Lucy” gives Messing, Mullally, and Hayes each their own crack at Lucy, as their characters spar over which one of them is most similar to the famous ‘50s TV wife. (Ever the straight man, no pun intended, Eric McCormack plays Ricky—with a dubious Cuban accent—for the entirety of the episode.)

“We Love Lucy” faithfully reconstructs iconic scenes from I Love Lucy, with Mullally stomping grapes with perennial archrival Beverley Leslie (Leslie Jordan) and Hayes, in Lucy drag, stuffing chocolate bon bons in his mouth like a squirrel hoarding nuts. But it’s Messing, who’s always been Will & Grace’s unsung secret weapon, who pitch-perfectly fills Lucy’s shoes in a recreation of the famous Vitameatavegamin bit from I Love Lucy, in which Lucy drunkenly stumbles her way through a TV commercial for the elixir.

For this episode, Will & Grace’s production team painstakingly created replicas of I Love Lucy’s sets, costumes, and props (including 1,200 pounds of black grapes), and the scenes themselves are nearly shot-for-shot recreations of the originals. Messing’s mimicry is similarly uncanny: Her performance pays tribute to both Ball and her own gift for physical comedy, right down to her quivering grimace and inebriated slur.

Recent episodes of Will & Grace have fallen back on old tricks: Guest stars abound, from Gus Kentworthy to Demi Lovato, who plays a surrogate-slash-cam-girl throughout the season, but aside from a clever cameo by Lucie Arnaz, “We Love Lucy” lets its four leads shine as they alternate roles. In contrast to Messing’s spot-on embodiment of Lucy, Mullally hilariously imbues every character she plays with a little bit of Karen Walker, deadpanning a signature quip about Lucy’s quilted frock and playing Fred in full makeup and martini in hand.

Will & Grace hit its stride during the early years of the George W. Bush presidency, serving as a weekly declaration that—despite the administration’s campaign to erase LGBTQ people—we’re here, some of us are queerer than others, and we might just help your daughter get her shit together. While Karen’s casual pill-popping feels out of touch in the age of rampant opioid addiction, the show’s revival has confronted hot topics more unapologetically than ever, most memorably in last season’s “Grace’s Secret,” in which Grace tearfully confides in her father about a sexual assault. So it’s both ironic and fitting that “We Love Lucy” is one of the show’s final episodes—a reminder of just how influential I Love Lucy still is, and a testament to Will & Grace’s own, albeit very different, legacy.

Cast: Eric McCormack, Debra Messing, Sean Hayes, Megan Mullally Network: NBC

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Review: Tales from the Loop Explores the Complexities of Human Connection

The series is a character study in which wounded introverts wrestle with their inability to connect with others.

3

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Tales from the Loop
Photo: Amazon

Amazon’s Tales from the Loop is set in a pastoral farm community that seems to simultaneously embody the past and future. There are no cellphones here, and bars and diners have a rustic ‘50s-era feel. However, large robots also populate the area, often seen in the backgrounds of compositions, suggesting solitary guards. The robots also feel rustic, nearly forgotten, like broken-down tractors. Rather than serve as conventionally awe-inspiring special effects, the robots appear to be taken for granted by the human characters, and the casualness of their presence is one of the show’s enchantments. The robots have a metaphorical weight, echoing the uncertainty and melancholia of the humans.

High-concept sci-fi is often heavy with exposition. By contrast, Tales from the Loop’s creator, Nathaniel Halpern, and his various collaborators allow the mysteries of the central premise to hang, barely explained, throughout the three episodes made available to press. The town exists above a secret lab, created by Russ (Jonathan Pryce), which is said to explore the properties of the universe. And at the center of the lab is the sort of mystical huge orb that’s been featured in countless genre stories, and which can apparently alter the space-time continuum.

The town’s citizens have come to accept the extraordinariness of certain things as ordinary, which also spares the series from having to spell things out. And the sci-fi window dressing is gradually revealed to be misdirection anyway, as Tales from the Loop, which is based on Simon Stålenhag’s 2014 narrative art book, is mostly a character study, in which wounded introverts and workaholic intellectuals wrestle with their inability to connect with others.

A major theme of the series is the relationship between children and their parents, the latter of which spend long hours obsessing over projects at the lab. In the premiere episode, a young girl, Loretta (Abby Ryder Fortson), loses her mother, Alma (Elektra Kilbey), who’s disappeared after stealing a crystal from the orb. In a haunting image, potentially a vision, or maybe a projection or a memory, Loretta sees her house floating upward toward the sky in pieces. Distraught and homeless, Loretta is helped by a boy, Cole (Duncan Joiner), and his mother (Rebecca Hall). Eschewing the cuteness of other kids’ quest series like Stranger Things, director Mark Romanek fashions an earnest, somber portrait of neglect and regret, in which a woman is afforded the ability to see herself through the lens of the past. Forston and Hall hit striking notes of despair, each dramatizing a war between intellectuality and emotion.

Each episode of Tales from the Loop is standalone yet interconnected. A minor character in one episode, seemingly a background actor, becomes the star of another—a device that casually illustrates how we are all alternatingly the protagonists of our own lives and bit players in the lives of others, and how many of us are dogged by similar existential issues. The series suggests that we’re together in our aloneness, an idea that’s reminiscent of the stories of Raymond Carver. At one point, Cole’s mother is revealed to be Loretta as a grownup—a twist, in the key of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, that’s telegraphed by Fortson and Hall’s remarkable resemblance to one another, and various other characters are brought, via the lab’s technology, into confrontations with alternate versions of themselves.

In another episode, Cole shouts into a hollowed out thing that resembles a wrecked miniature Death Star. The echoes he hears are his voice across the various stages of his life, which director Andrew Stanton fashions into a moving symbol of a boy’s grappling for the first time with aging, loss, and impermanency. Given center stage, Joiner, like Fortson before him, offers an unsentimentally stoic portrait of yearning.

As themes go, “life goes on” would surely rank as one of the least profound, but Tales from the Loop continues to offer details that resonate. We’re allowed to understand that Cole’s father and Russ’s son, George (Paul Schneider), resents the connection between Cole and Russ, as well as between Russ and Loretta, a prized employee at the lab. This resentment is barely articulated, but Schneider informs George with a heartbreaking dwarfed quality, which is affirmed by the show’s most poignant special effect: the mechanical arm that George, an amputee, wears. The arm physicalizes his sense of being eclipsed by everyone around him.

Such body language is also evident in Gaddis (Ato Essandoh), a guard at the lab. Gay and terminally single, Gaddis tells Loretta that it must be nice to come home to an already lit house, signifying familial presence. She says what many married people have said to lonely-hearts over the years, in TV and real life: It’s not as easy as it looks.

Tales from the Loop recalls the spirit of the films of executive producer Matt Reeves, especially Let Me In, which could serve as the title of this series as well. Both productions imbue familiar genre tropes with restlessness, with a wandering sense of irresolution. The landscapes of Tales from the Loop are beautiful but somehow unwelcoming in their sense of lonely sparseness—echoing the imagery of the source material, Simon Stålenhag’s illustrated book of the same name—while Philip Glass and Paul Leonard-Morgan’s score practically subsumes the series in longing. For Tales from the Loop, the mysteries of the universe play second fiddle to the perils of giving up, of resigning oneself to solitary nights in a town that suggests a perpetual past.

Cast: Rebecca Hall, Paul Schneider, Jonathan Pryce, Abby Ryder Fortson, Duncan Joiner, Ato Essandoh, Jane Alexander, Elektra Kilbey, Shane Carruth, Jodi Lynn Thomas, Victor J. Ho, Brian Mallard, Leann Lei Network: Amazon

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Review: HBO’s Run Doesn’t Sustain Itself Beyond Its Initially Thrilling Premise

The long-form storytelling obligations of a TV series soon overwhelm this simple but compelling premise.

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Run
Photo: Ken Woroner/HBO

Ruby (Merritt Wever) once made a pact with her ex-boyfriend, Billy (Domhnall Gleeson): If both text the word “RUN” to each other within a certain period of time, they will drop everything and travel together across America for one week, after which they must decide if they want to part ways for good. Commencing right after they exchange that fateful texts 17 years after college, HBO’s Run plays like a consciously frazzled version of Before Sunset. Like that film, Run depicts romance as messy and complicated, especially on such short notice: Not only is Ruby in a parking lot when she receives Billy’s text, prompting her to open the door of her minivan and hit an adjacent vehicle, but she’s also married.

Once reunited, Ruby and Billy fall easily into flirty old habits, but the series keeps an intriguing focus on the tension and awkwardness of their situation. “Who does this?” Ruby says aloud at one point, in disbelief of their impulsive behavior. They’re desperate to get away from their humdrum lives, and they’re doing their best to make a good impression on each other while gingerly broaching the potential for sex, which leads to one of Run’s most amusing scenes: the pair flailing around in a private train compartment, accidentally turning on sinks and bumping against the top bunk in the heat of the moment. Full of fraught, longing looks and palpable chemistry, the start of the series sweeps us up right alongside the characters, who rediscover one another while dancing around the developments of the intervening years.

But the long-form storytelling obligations of a TV series soon overwhelm this simple but compelling premise: Billy has larger problems than he initially lets on, and those reveals trickle out in piecemeal fashion alongside his former assistant Fiona’s (Archie Panjabi) determined attempts to halt his escapade. There’s a sense that the series doesn’t quite trust itself to subsist merely on the lower-stakes drama of Ruby and Billy running away together. Run’s tone abruptly shifts after the first two episodes, with the introduction of more urgent, suspenseful elements like Billy inexplicably fighting to keep the sizable contents of his bank account away from Fiona. Much of the interpersonal humor gives way to wackier situations meant to heighten both the stakes and the characters’ reactions, but the results are too broadly comedic while nudging the characters to new heights of self-absorption.

Many of the sillier comic situations simply involve being shitty to wage workers, but Run also tosses off issues about the morality of Billy’s self-help business with little mind for their seriousness. Though the series certainly isn’t blind to Ruby and Billy’s rather pronounced sense of entitlement, the chaos piling up in their wake becomes far less endearing than it’s seemingly meant to be. Ruby and Billy’s actions make them harder and harder to root for, and Run becomes unable to sustain itself beyond the initial thrill of their reunion.

Cast: Merritt Wever, Domhnall Gleeson, Archie Panjabi, Rich Sommer, Phoebe Waller-Bridge Network: HBO

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Review: In The Virtues, Transience Is a Path to Personal Redemption

The series is a reminder that facing up to one’s problems doesn’t guarantee release, but does allow for the possibility of moving forward.

3.5

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The Virtues
Photo: Topic

Transience is a recurring motif in Shane Meadows’s The Virtues. The four-episode series is filled with scenes in which recovering alcoholic Joseph (Stephen Graham) trudges through city streets and countryside roads toward an uncertain future. Unmoored after his ex-wife, Debbie (Juliet Ellis), announces that she’s moving with their son, Shea (Shea Michael Shaw), to Australia, Joe relapses in a big way. Seeking to regain some hold of his life, he decides to return to his native Ireland to track down his sister, Anna (Helen Behan), whom he hasn’t seen since he was sent to an orphanage after their parents’ deaths. Joe’s return home triggers confrontations with traumatic memories warped and repressed by time, suggesting that the only way to overcome one’s past is to confront it head on.

Meadows’s work as a filmmaker has charted how misery and hopelessness manifests in post-imperial Britain. He’s always had an intuitiveness that transcends the ostensible realism of his desaturated palettes and handheld camerawork, and here he shows a new level of aesthetic subjectivity. When Joe is sober, his tremors rhyme with the shaking of the camera; when Joe drinks, however, the camera turns sedate, swaying more slowly as the relief of intoxication washes over him, followed by sudden, erratic cuts when he inevitably blacks out.

Meadows visualizes Joe’s repressed memories with snatches of home-video-grade images of the man’s childhood. The blotchy, low-resolution of the video, redolent of Harmony Korine’s early work, manifests Joe’s hazy grasp on his past, and the escalating intercutting of such clips with the present-day material as the series progresses mimics the overwhelming rush of his recalling the full extent of his trauma. Meadows parcels out this footage with precision, teasing us with the indecipherable images until what’s being depicted becomes all too clear.

As nervous as Joe is in conversations with others, he’s also quick to befriend strangers. And he has a special affinity for children, at once playfully immature and genuinely tender and caring toward them. In his farewell with Shea, Joe humbly reassures him that it’s okay if he calls his stepfather, David (Vauxhall Jermaine), “dad.” Like many an addict, Joe can be overwhelming and caustic, but Graham foregrounds the man’s unending attempts to tamp down his worst impulses, focusing less on Joe’s capacity for overbearing behavior and more on his shame and ability to charm people in spite of his withdrawn, nervous energy.

As the series progresses, Joe’s struggles are contrasted with other characters dealing with their own suppressed issues. His sister-in-law, Dinah (Niamh Algar), is introduced as a brash, sarcastic self-starter who can punch out any man who hassles her, but she nurses a brooding shame over having to give up a baby she had as an unwed teen. Meanwhile, Joe gets a job at his brother-in-law’s (Frank Laverty) construction business, where he meets Craigy (Mark O’Halloran), a tetchy worker with a checkered past who remembers living with Joe in the orphanage as kids. Craigy is even more of a nervous wreck than Joe, often barely able to get to the end of a sentence without circumnavigating the globe to get to the point. Joe and Craigy are kindred spirits, as they understand each other’s pain, but they’re also triggers for one another, leading to as many moments of strife as camaraderie.

With This Is England and its various TV spinoffs, Meadows tracked the political and social upheavals of modern England through an intimate network narrative of closely entwined stories. The Virtues isn’t particularly concerned with the political history of Ireland, but rather the lingering pressures of the religious shame and abuse that shape addled individuals. The finale brings the tacit influence of such personal and institutional manipulations into clarity along with the full extent of the characters’ trauma in a tautly edited climax that bridges Joe, Dinah, and Craigy’s struggles into a series of tense confrontations in which grace is either bestowed or brutally withheld. Like much of Meadows’s work, the series has a clear ending, but the characters remain irresolute. It’s a reminder that even facing up to one’s problems doesn’t guarantee release, but it does at least allow for the possibility of moving forward.

Cast: Stephen Graham, Niamh Algar, Helen Behan, Mark O’Halloran, Frank Laverty, Juliet Ellis, Shea Michael Shaw Network: Topic

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Review: One Day at a Time Remains a Comforting Mix of Head and Heart

The show’s fourth season serves as a reliable and comforting balm suited for the current moment.

3

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One Day at a Time
Photo: Pop

In the aftermath of 9/11, audiences sought solace in familiar shows like Friends, which took place in a world untouched by the tragic event and populated with beloved characters who were confronting more mundane, everyday problems. Today’s television landscape is too diffuse to point to a single, obvious source of comfort, but as Americans face the expanding COVID-19 crisis, self-isolating and assessing the risks of death and economic disaster, shows like One Day at a Time, now in its fourth season, serve as a welcome balm.

The series follows the Alvarez family as they confront social issues that, while timely and relevant, feel entirely manageable when compared to a global pandemic. The tight-knit family reflects on topics like sex, relationships, and money through an intergenerational lens, as Penelope (Justina Machado) absorbs blows from two age-divided fronts: her teenage children, Elena (Isabella Gomez) and Alex (Marcel Ruiz), and her mother, Lydia (Rita Moreno).

In one episode, Alex walks in on a family member masturbating, triggering a discussion about female sexuality and self-pleasure. “Sex is between people who are married,” Lydia says. “It is Adam and Eve, not ‘bzzzt’ and Eve.” As in previous seasons of One Day at a Time, Moreno’s riotous line readings and her character’s hijinks—shopping for crabs at the fish market, catfishing Penelope’s potential suitors—imbue the show with endearing archness. But every member of the family gets their fair share of deviously funny verbal jabs, punching up or down a generation to reject what they deem naïve or reactionary.

When the blowups cool down, as they always do, Penelope summarizes the takeaways with a blend of sweetness and didacticism that falls just on the right side of a public service announcement. Real-world context renders these resolutions reassuring rather than trite: No difficulty in the series is impossible to overcome, so long as the Alvarezes stick together.

The promise of unconditional unity that permeates One Day at a Time comes through not only in grand apologies and lessons, but also in subtler interactions. In season one, Lydia worked through her religious objections to Elena’s coming out in less than a minute; here, when she speaks to Elena and her significant other, Syd (Sheridan Pierce), she refers to Syd by their preferred pronoun. Lydia’s casual use of the word “them” reflects her ability to internalize practices and behavior that make her loved ones feel safe. The moment understatedly captures Lydia’s radical personal growth, the kind people achieve when they demand the best of each other. That, One Day at a Time insists, is what love looks like.

Cast: Justina Machado, Rita Moreno, Isabella Gomez, Marcel Ruiz, Todd Grinnell, Stephen Tobolowsky, Sheridan Pierce Network: Pop

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Review: Devs Is an Exposition-Heavy Rumination on the Nature of Humanity

The series’s synthesis of aesthetic, plot, and subtext slowly starts to pull apart in its exposition-heavy second half.

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Devs
Photo: Raymond Liu/FX

Alex Garland’s Devs is the writer-director’s latest rumination on the nature of humanity in the face of both technology and the unknown. As in much of Garland’s prior work, the Hulu limited series uses speculative fiction to address both contemporary social malaise and deeper metaphysical questions on the nature of human life.

The show’s title alludes to the deliberately generic, misleading name of a supercomputer capable of peering into the past and predicting the future, a MacGuffin that allows for a treatise on determinism. Using quantum algorithms, Forest (Nick Offerman), the mysterious owner of a computing company named Amaya, can trace the chains of cause and effect that guide our lives beneath the illusion of free will. Or, as Forest himself says to a new programmer, Sergei (Karl Glusman), our lives aren’t chaotic, but rather ordered “on tramlines.”

Sergei is swiftly revealed to be a corporate spy who infiltrated Amaya to steal code for Russia. Outed almost immediately, he finds himself confronted by Forest and Amaya’s head of security, Kenton (Zach Grenier), who kills the would-be thief and stages his death as a spectacular suicide, much to the confusion and grief of Sergei’s girlfriend, Lily (Sonoya Mizuno), a software engineer at Amaya who sets about digging into the truth.

At first, Devs’s straightforward murder mystery and broader philosophical questions dovetail seamlessly. Lily’s amateur sleuthing around Amaya’s compound and a thoroughly gentrified San Francisco positions the series as pure noir, a genre quite conducive to exploring existential and metaphysical quandaries. It’s especially fitting for a consideration of determinism, with Lily’s attempt to work out what happened to Sergei aligning with the supercomputer’s ability to reconstruct the past based on behavioral clues. This represents the ultimate endpoint of technology’s capability to reshape humanity’s self-conception, demonstrating that you can program software so intricately that it can disprove free will. As Lily struggles to make sense of her life being turned upside down, Devs regularly returns to Forest and his sedate, wizened calm, that of a man who sits upon the mountaintop and sees all.

Garland, as ever, devotes a great deal of care to the show’s sense of atmosphere. Set in and around Silicon Valley, Devs reflects the modern look of the tech industry in much the same way that Spike Jonze’s Her used hazy, soft lighting and warm colors to evoke the sleekness and comfort of Apple’s aesthetic. People arrive at Amaya’s main building, all glass windows and open desks, as if to a college campus. The Devs building itself, with its Brutalist exterior and series of cube-shaped rooms and gold-lined walls, is a radical break from reality that nonetheless manifests the internal logic of tech culture. At heart, it’s a giant computer that programmers work within, a windowless space where humans are at once spying and being spied upon in an extreme visualization of our surveillance society.

This initial synthesis of aesthetic, plot, and subtext slowly starts to pull apart, however, as Devs drags into its second half. Garland frontloads the series with narrative exposition, revealing to the audience (and Lily) most of the mystery behind Sergei’s death, the depth of his clandestine connections, and the totality of influence that a mega-rich CEO like Forest can exert in the late-capitalist Shangri-la of Silicon Valley. That leaves the series to start spiraling into stranger and ever more forced twists, from an awkward romantic subplot between Lily and her cybersecurity ex, Jamie (Jin Ha), to Kenton’s increasingly ludicrous omnipresence and seeming invulnerability to physical harm (one starts to expect a Westworld-like twist to reveal him as a robot). Similarly, Forest’s motivating obsession over his lost child is telegraphed by the colossal statue in the girl’s image that looms over the Amaya compound.

Early on, the balance between open discussion of Devs’s themes and the use of setting and tone to convey said themes is a careful one, but soon the series gives itself over to long-winded monologues that make the subtext text. The later episodes grind to a halt as the contours of a philosophy that were already neatly summarized in the pilot are more arduously explained to viewers. The series momentarily rebounds when it starts to consider the role that chaos plays in shaping the supposedly absolute tramlines of existence, using clever editing and doubling effects to show all the various permutations that any given moment of a person’s life could have gone depending on small variations of behavior. Soon, though, this provocative visualization of unpredictability and random chance gives way to characters standing around debating such ideas, reducing the surreal to the academic.

Devs frustratingly comes too sharply into focus at the expense of leaving some of its more evocative ideas unsaid. The story’s metaphors become increasingly obvious, such as Forest’s long hair and beard turning him into a cult-like leader, an image regularly juxtaposed with his team’s repeated projections of Christ’s crucifixion. As the show’s visual storytelling is increasingly subsumed by explanatory dialogue, the more tragic insinuations of Forest’s obsessions become lugubriously spelled out as others tie the Devs project ever more explicitly to his personal trauma. There’s plenty to chew on in Devs, but the protracted serial format robs Garland of his best trait, of knowing when to let the audience fill in the gaps on their own.

Cast: Nick Offerman, Sonoya Mizuno, Jin Ha, Zach Grenier, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Cailee Spaeny, Alison Pill, Karl Glusman Network: FX

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The 25 Best Netflix Original Series to Watch Right Now

These 25 Netflix original shows prove the marathon-watching juggernaut’s equal concern for both quantity and quality.

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The 25 Best Netflix Original Shows
Photo: Netflix
Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on February 20, 2019.

Like Google, Netflix has evolved over two decades from a Silicon Valley venture to a legitimate verb in the cultural lexicon. Ten years after expanding from DVD-by-mail to streaming service, and four since debuting its first original series with House of Cards, Netflix all but dominates the online TV landscape. While competitors like Amazon Prime and Hulu certainly vie for our time with their own in-house programs, the sheer inundation of Netflix originals requires its very own examination. The animated seriocomic genius of BoJack Horseman, the tech horrors that Black Mirror situates on the near horizon, and the earnestness and dramatic sprawl of Sense8 are merely a few of the storytelling pleasures available to anyone with a WiFi connection and a (potentially borrowed) Netflix login. These 25 Netflix original shows prove the marathon-watching juggernaut’s equal concern for both quantity and quality. Nathan Frontiero


I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson

25. I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson

Social discomfort leaks out of each and every sketch of I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson, as characters constantly double down, then triple down, then quadruple down on their inane schemes and insecurities. Throughout, already bizarre situations escalate to truly profound degrees of obstinance and delusion: denying responsibility for a crashed hot dog car while dressed in a hot dog costume, incessantly responding to a “honk if you’re horny” bumper sticker, vowing revenge on a magician who publicly humiliated you, attempting to assassinate baby bad boy Bart Harley Jarvis, and defiantly, inexplicably singing about the reanimation of some skeletons. The series reaches such dizzying, quotable absurdity that it seems to inhabit an abrasive and uncomfortable universe all its own. Steven Scaife


Marvel's Luke Cage

24. Luke Cage

The way Luke Cage at once embraces blaxploitation tropes and transcends them completely isn’t necessarily its triumph. It is, however, the element that speaks most directly to what the series, based on the Marvel Comics character that first appeared back in 1972 with Luke Cage: Hero for Hire, is attempting to accomplish. Cage, as portrayed by Mike Colter, is a wrongly convicted ex-con and certified ladies’ man who makes rent and some meager pocket change by sweeping up hair at a barber shop and doing dishes at the restaurant owned by Harlem crime lord Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali). He’s also attempting to be a role model and a hard-working member of his local community in the aftermath of his time in jail and the life he left behind when his wife was murdered. Above all else, Luke Cage is about what, if any, qualifications there are for being a hero. Chris Cabin


Lady Dynamite

23. Lady Dynamite

Her endearing eagerness to please, extreme social awkwardness, and hopeless inability to camouflage her feelings makes the semi-fictionalized version of her bipolar self that actor-writer-comedian Maria Bamford plays in Lady Dynamite a kind of human emoji factory, her unguarded face expressing a kaleidoscope of comically intense emotions. Her bafflement and improvised solutions to uncomfortable situations make things we have all struggled with, like dating, feel as freshly and insightfully witnessed as her wide-eyed adventures in Hollywood. Though she’s anything but a stone face, Bamford has more than a little Buster Keaton in her, her cosmic befuddlement and heroic efforts to navigate even the simplest situation highlighting the absurdity in just about everything. Elise Nakhnikian


The Crown

22. The Crown

Once again, The Queen‘s Peter Morgan combines extensive research with a highly empathetic understanding of human nature to create a fascinating exploration of the capabilities and limitations of Britain’s monarchy in the 20th century, the enormous personal sacrifices that monarchy required of Elizabeth II, and the strains it exerted on her family. The Crown opens with Elizabeth’s (Claire Foy) beloved father, king George (Jared Harris), another reluctant monarch who inherited the role only after his older brother renounced it. It then follows the young queen as, forced to give up her cherished private life after her father’s demise, she grows into the role of queen—and into a form of greatness distinguished by genuine humility and common-sense values. A feminist tale of a patronized, undereducated, and perpetually underestimated young woman who learns to rely on her native intelligence and good sense to help lead a besieged country through perilous times, The Crown makes the case that the best rulers may be those who never wanted the role. Nakhnikian


Seven Seconds

21. Seven Seconds

The dichotomy between Isaiah (Russell Hornsby) and Latrice Butler (Regina King) and the police is rooted in privilege, and while Seven Seconds resists a systemic view of Jersey City’s racial landscape, it’s thorough in its outlining of the biases that affect the Butlers’ lives. And none is more insulting than the way Brenton, even in death, is denied the same benefit of the doubt that’s readily afforded to his killer. The series presents a sympathetic likeness of real-world victims of police brutality, but by eschewing a broad view of race relations in our nation, it risks affirming the ubiquitous “few bad apples” apologia that’s often put forward when police wrongdoing comes to light. Ultimately, though, the detailed character portrayals at the heart of Seven Seconds invest us into the Butlers’ search for justice, while poignantly illustrating that in the real world, that justice is rare. Haigis

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Review: HBO’s The Plot Against America Offers a Flattened Take of a Prescient Novel

The series feels ordinary, so of a piece with other politically engaged prestige television.

2.5

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The Plot Against America
Photo: Michele K. Short/HBO

Philip Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America imagines a world in which aviation hero and Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh beats Franklin D. Roosevelt to become president of the United States in 1940. In the author’s terrifying alternate history, Lindbergh forges an “understanding” with Adolf Hitler in Iceland, and the Axis powers gradually take over the world while America celebrates its isolationism and economic robustness. And Roth adds to this high concept a meta-textual wrinkle: The narrator of the book is himself as a young boy, and the protagonists are the Roth family, whose names correspond with the author’s real relatives. The book, then, is an imagining not only of a global atrocity, but of the atrocity’s effect on the psychology of a Jewish family in Newark, New Jersey that increasingly feels the threats of a country turning to fascism. The use of real names suggests that Roth is wrestling personally with the lingering emotional effects of his country’s not-so-hidden possibility for evil, memorably calling these emotions a “perpetual fear.”

The Plot Against America scans differently in 2020 than in 2004, now that Americans are familiar with the consequences of electing a famous person with fascist, purposefully divisive tendencies to the presidency. Roth’s prose, especially pertaining to how quickly an electorate rationalizes once-forbidden behavior, now feels eerily prescient—until one considers that rulers with fascistic tendencies often follow the same playbook. In HBO’s six-episode adaptation of Roth’s novel, showrunners David Simon and Ed Burns have occasional, wicked fun rhyming Lindbergh’s America with Trump’s. The characters here talk of what is “presidential,” and someone remarks of how the press repeatedly promotes Lindbergh’s signature publicity stunt, and no matter how many times he does it—a pointed reference to the gargantuan amount of free press that Trump continues to enjoy. The series’s ending also delivers a sick punch, referencing contemporary voter fraud and gerrymandering while denying the viewer the reassuring closure that Roth offered his readers.

In many fashions, however, Simon and Burns vastly simplify Roth’s vision. There’s a sense of casualness in the novel, a casualness that Simon and Burns conjured in The Wire, that’s missing from this production. Much of the book, written in a kind of oratorical style that’s characteristic of Roth’s work, is devoted to the quotidian of American life, especially from the perspective of American Jews. There are ritualistic celebrations of every element of day-to-day routine, from the buying of food, to the performance of chores, to the nightly listening to the radio, to strange sexual urges, to the tensions that arise when some family members are more successful than others. Above all, Roth celebrates America even as it succumbs to insanity, dramatizing the allure of actualization and improvement, bolstered by the sensuality of pop culture, which continues to be the nucleus of the American ideal. Such rituals often occur in the background of the limited series, but Simon and Burns are more concerned with narrative, and as a result they iron out many of Roth’s fascinating ambiguities and details. Roth created characters of many contradictions and particulars as well as a society of many procedural contours, while Simon and Burns move markers through a great tangle of plot developments.

This is no longer a story of the Roth family, as Simon and Burns have given them the surname Levins, and Lindbergh’s ascension is no longer framed as a haunted reminiscence. Philip (Azhy Robertson), the novel’s central consciousness, is now a cutely wide-eyed boy who observes much but says little. His father, Herman (Morgan Spector), is furious with Lindbergh’s rise, though the man’s fury is also linked to his struggles as a low-paid insurance man living in the shadow of his mercenary brother, Monty (David Krumholtz). Simon and Burns dial down Herman’s anger, positioning the father in hero poses, and his rivalry with Monty is referenced but minimized. Philip’s mother, Bess (Zoe Kazan), a source of great, powerful reverence for Roth in the book, is imbued by Kazan with masterful vulnerability, though the character’s great scene—a phone call that potentially saves a boy’s life—is intercut with other moments for the sake of an efficiently momentous climax. Philip’s cousin, Alvin (Anthony Boyle), a scoundrel turned patriot turned scoundrel again, is also sentimentalized into a more or less conventional hero, while the flirtation of Philip’s brother, Sandy (Caleb Malis), with Lindbergh worship—that is, a desire to live as a gentile or a “normal American”—is also reduced.

Two other pivotal characters are also flattened, further sanitizing Roth’s fury. The true villain of the novel isn’t Lindbergh, but Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro), a Jewish intellectual who allows himself to be used by the Lindbergh administration so as to “kosher” the president, giving Christians permission to vote for the candidate and indulge their anti-Semitism. Roth’s portrait of Bengelsdorf verges on a Dickensian caricature of opportunism, though in the series he appears to authentically believe in Lindbergh. This alteration renders him a poignant yet vaguely defined fool, as Simon and Burns have largely elided the character’s frustration and near-contempt for lower-class Jews—a thorny and resonant conceit that Roth acutely dramatized. Meanwhile, Bengelsdorf’s wife and Bess’s sister, Evelyn (Winona Ryder), is sapped of the ugly shrewdness that she possessed on the page. (A brilliant scene in the novel, in which Philip feels stirrings of sexual desire as he hugs his aunt, while simultaneously understanding her to be a traitor, has been unforgivably jettisoned.)

The novel serves to explain why HBO’s The Plot Against America feels so ordinary, so of a piece with other politically engaged prestige television. Collectively, Simon and Burns’s alternations serve to contort the narrative into a story of good guys against bad guys, flattering our distanced 21st-century perspective and comfortably preaching to Americans who’re fed up with Trump’s cruelty and incompetency. Roth uncomfortably understands that for people who aren’t white male Christians, there can exist an either/or divide between “American” and whatever portion of their identity that’s easily vilified by the Lindberghs and Trumps of the world. The quest in Roth’s novel becomes a desire to unify Jewish with American, which leads to much internal turmoil in the community. By contrast, the series is more concerned with the quest to stop Lindbergh. The neurotic, hallucinatory, surreal power of Roth’s prose vanishes, and is replaced by forgettable televisual stylistics (that distinctly gauzy, over-produced period HBO atmosphere) and quite a bit of speechifying. Though Simon and Burns at least understand that the sleeper-cell hatred that Lindbergh unleashes is intensely real, and has been unlocked by another enterprising charlatan.

Cast: Morgan Spector, Zoe Kazan, John Turturro, Anthony Boyle, Azhy Robertson, Caleb Malis, David Krumholtz, Ben Cole, Steven Maier, Michael Kostroff, Ed Moran, Graydon Yosowitz, Keilly McQuail, Lee Tergesen Network: HBO

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Review: Little Fires Everywhere’s Study of Race and Class Is Doused in Melodrama

The show’s strength lies in the rich context that surrounds its occasionally melodramatic conflicts.

2.5

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Little Fires Everywhere
Photo: Hulu

The Shaker Heights of Little Fires Everywhere is the sort of suburban hamlet that requires homes to keep their grass below six inches. Its duplexes are even designed to disguise themselves as single-family homes, as upstairs and downstairs entrances are quietly consolidated behind a single outward door in order to, as Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon) explains to artist Mia Warren (Kerry Washington), “avoid any stigma of renting.” But Elena’s own unacknowledged prejudices—against people of color and the lower “class”—are matched only by her white guilt. She recognizes Mia’s dirty hatchback as the one she reported to authorities earlier that day after noticing someone who appeared to be sleeping in it. So Elena rents one side of her duplex to Mia, and from there, everything changes.

The biggest change, of course, is the mysterious fire that consumes the separate, much-larger Richardson residence in the flash-forward scene that opens the first episode. But much of the Hulu series, based on Celeste Ng’s novel of the same name, covers the various smaller changes in the leadup to the fire. For example, Mia’s daughter, Pearl (Lexi Underwood), falls in with the Richardson kids, enchanted by their comparative lux lifestyle. Until settling in Shaker Heights, Mia and Pearl lived a transient lifestyle, with Mia taking odd jobs like waitressing to supplement sales of her art. Pearl has never, until now, even had a room of her own.

Mia is thus confronted with the byproduct of her hectic lifestyle, where Pearl has been left lonely and quite susceptible to the Richardsons’ glamorous upper-class privilege. She grows wary of the family that so enraptures her daughter, though she also takes a shine to Elena’s youngest child, Izzy, (Megan Stott), a rebellious and artsy kindred spirit. The tensions between these characters—along lines of class, race, and wherever they intersect—simmer and eventually boil over, landing the families on opposing sides of a legal battle that only tangentially concerns them. Bebe (Huang Lu), Mia’s co-worker and an illegal Chinese immigrant, fights for custody of the daughter she once abandoned with a white family, the McCulloughs, who are friends of the Richardsons and eager to adopt.

The show’s strength lies in the rich context that surrounds these occasionally melodramatic conflicts, rendering Mia in particular with vivid detail. In its best moments, Little Fires Everywhere resists drawing clear lines between who’s right and who’s wrong: Mia’s reservations about the Richardsons are totally justifiable, though her reactions sometimes feel overprotective, like when she takes a job in the Richardson house primarily to keep an eye on Pearl. She can be cold and even cruel, but she’s also given to a quiet kindness toward Izzy and Bebe due to a sense of solidarity. Far from some angelic portrait of the lower class, Mia is a fascinating, complex character, and Washington modulates her stoicism with no small amount of disdain, anger, and apprehension.

The series, however, too often paints with a broad brush, particularly where the Richardsons are concerned. Fleeting anecdotes tossed off in the novel by an omniscient narrator to shade in the characters’ backstories feel goofy and extraneous when depicted here via full-fledged, fleshed-out scenes, like when Izzy refuses to play a concert and writes “NOT YOUR PUPPET” on her forehead. Elena’s tidiness is meant to signify her upper-class privilege; she has more than enough means to micromanage every facet of her life. When she does things like strictly schedule sex with her husband (Joshua Jackson), though, the series ventures into caricature.

For however much Elena’s own habits are clearly tinged with privilege and solipsism, she provides refuge for Pearl and the McCulloughs in a way that doesn’t seem entirely self-serving. Yet some of those nuances dissipate as the custody battle consumes the series. Though Bebe and the McCulloughs initially feel like pawns in the larger Warren/Richardson feud, the conflict eventually flattens into a more rigid portrait of right and wrong as the script reveals Elena and Mia’s backstories and motivations. Little Fires Everywhere never quite resists the occasional hokey flourish either, from sappy dream sequences visualizing Mia’s fears to the various on-the-nose cover songs that conclude each episode. The series never loses sight of its fraught interplay of race and class, but the initial intensity with which it explores those subjects dims as melodramatic coincidences and speeches accumulate.

Cast: Kerry Washington, Reese Witherspoon, Joshua Jackson, Lexi Underwood, Megan Stott, Jade Pettyjohn, Gavin Lewis, Jordan Elsass, Huang Lu, Rosemarie DeWitt Network: Hulu

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