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Doctor Who Recap: Season 5, Episode 1, “The Eleventh Hour”

Welcome to the first of a series of weekly recaps for the latest season of Doctor Who, now being broadcast on Saturday nights by BBC America.

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Doctor Who Recap: Season 5, Episode 1, “The Eleventh Hour”
Photo: BBC

Welcome to the first of a series of weekly recaps for the latest season of Doctor Who, now being broadcast on Saturday nights by BBC America. This opening episode lives up to its title by being an hour long rather than the standard 45 minutes, and introduces our all-new regular cast line-up of Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor and Karen Gillan as his new companion Amy Pond.

Before we begin, I’ll note that BBC America are showing these episodes two weeks after they’ve been seen in the UK—this episode, for instance, premiered over there on Easter Saturday. So even if you’ve seen later episodes in the series, please keep spoilers out of the comments for episodes which have not yet aired in the USA. Also, there’s been a certain amount of confusion (some of it emanating from the BBC itself) over whether this batch of episodes should be called Season 5 at all—other designations like “Season 11.1,” “Season 31” etc. have been advanced for various reasons and argued over with the usual intensity you would expect from an Internet debate over any topic, no matter how unimportant. As it happens, I’m sticking to calling it Season 5 because: (a) it makes perfect sense to me to do so; and (b) that’s what the BBC America schedule page is calling it.

Whatever you call it, this is the first episode to be overseen by new showrunner Steven Moffat, taking over from Russell T Davies, the man behind Doctor Who’s incredibly successful resurrection over the last five years. Moffat contributed one story to each of the last four seasons, to great acclaim each time. He was the natural and popular choice to take over the top job, and this year he is writing six episodes, overseeing the other seven, and devising the season arc into which they all fit. Naturally, the change of showrunner brings with it one of Doctor Who’s periodic shifts in style and emphasis, which is apparent even in this first episode. The Davies era was concerned (particularly at the start) with embedding the essential strangeness of the Doctor within the context of normal urban life that the non-fan audience could relate to—as exemplified by the central character of Rose Tyler. Moffat seems more willing to embrace strangeness for its own sake; his episodes often seemed to stand apart from the overall narrative lines of Davies’ seasons (I’m thinking particularly of “The Girl in the Fireplace” and “Blink”). In terms of its basic plot, “The Eleventh Hour” parallels the 2007 season opener “Smith and Jones”—an escaped alien prisoner is hiding on Earth, other aliens pursuing it arrive trying to track it down, and the situation escalates into a threat to the entire planet—but the differences in tone are striking. Instead of taking place in London, the whole story is contained within a quiet English village, with almost no reference to the wider world at all.

We pick up just after “The End of Time” left off, with the wrecked, burning TARDIS tumbling down to Earth. What will be our last sight of the familiar control room has the Doctor dangling from the open doorway and hanging on for dear life, as the console succumbs to gigantic explosions in a “we’re never going to be needing this set again” manner. This sequence segues into what turned out to be my least favorite thing in the whole episode—the revamped title sequence. The visuals are mostly fine, with the TARDIS now being tossed around through a much stormier vortex than before, although the big metallic blue font in which our stars’ names zap into view (complete with lightning bolts) makes the Superman-style zooming in the previous title sequence look like a model of restraint. No, the real problem is the music. I’ve enjoyed the various orchestral arrangements of the Doctor Who theme used over the past five years, but I was hoping for a turn back towards the spooky original Delia Derbyshire version—still the best after nearly fifty years. Instead, Murray Gold has come up with a Hooked on Classics rendition which buries the actual theme under a pile of extraneous noise. Particularly unwelcome are the brass fanfares blaring over the opening bars, and the drum machine obscuring the melody line. It gets a little better towards the end, with an interesting choral bit, but it’s still one of the weakest versions of the theme I’ve heard. A pity, because I thought Gold’s incidental music for this episode was generally excellent.

Of course, the most important facet of this new-look Doctor Who is the new Doctor himself. Everyone was waiting to see how relative unknown Matt Smith would cope with the task of taking over the role from the incredibly popular David Tennant. Most of the misgivings were over his age—at 27, he is the most youthful Doctor ever. For all Moffat’s statements about how Smith had blown them away in his audition, instantly getting the character of the Doctor, the concerns remained—just how believable could this guy be playing a 900-and-something-year-old alien?

Well, after just this one episode, I’m prepared to deliver a verdict—Moffat and co. have got it spectacularly right. Matt Smith has absolutely grabbed the role of the Doctor and made it his own, with an assurance and confidence rivalling that in Tom Baker’s arrival 35 years ago. He certainly doesn’t play it as young in any way. In fact, he seems to me a quieter, more cerebral Doctor than either Eccleston or Tennant, with his mind constantly whirring away observing and making connections, staying one step ahead of everyone else; I had no trouble believing he could be the smartest guy in any room. Combined with this is an amusing eccentricity in his movements—an “elegant shambles,” to use Moffat’s own excellent description—that makes him continually watchable. It’s a truly impressive performance, and I’m genuinely looking forward now to seeing where he takes the Doctor over the course of this season.

One thing the producers did to help him was to employ the strategy also used back in 1982 when Peter Davison (at that time, the youngest Doctor ever) had the same challenge, following on from the iconic Tom Baker. Davison filmed three later stories, allowing him to fine-tune his characterisation and performance, before going back to tackle his debut adventure. In the same way, episodes 2 through 5 of this season were in the can before “The Eleventh Hour” started filming. It’ll be interesting to see over the next few weeks whether there’s any sign of tentativeness or indecision in Smith’s earlier episodes, because he seemed totally in command of his performance through every moment of this one.

He’s also helped by the structure of the script, which gives him the space to show off what he can do by starting with an uninterrupted fifteen-minute section where we see only his Doctor, interacting with one other character. The TARDIS ends up crashed on its side in the garden of a home-alone seven-year-old Scottish girl, Amelia Pond, who has been praying for someone to come and fix an odd crack in her bedroom wall. She’s initially wary of the strange man who climbs out of the box demanding apples and falls to the ground (“Who are you?” “I don’t know yet. I’m still cooking”), but his manner is so direct and child-like that they immediately connect, and he sets off to investigate the crack—though not before walking straight into a tree. (“Early days…steering’s a bit off.”)

In the kitchen, the physical comedy continues as the girl tries to keep up with his cravings for various foods—apples, yogurt, bacon (“You’re Scottish, fry something”), baked beans, bread and butter—with him deciding he hates each one and spitting them out or making disgusted faces. My favorite part was the flinging of the plate of bread and butter out into the night (“And stay out!”)—followed, naturally, by off-screen crash and yowling cat noises. He finally settles on a couple of quintessential childhood foods, fish fingers and custard—together. They sit down companionably to eat at the kitchen table, where we learn that Amelia is an orphan, living with her aunt. So far this scene might seem like a prolonged comic diversion, but now comes a great payoff:

The Doctor: “So, your aunt. Where’s she?”
Amelia: “She’s out.”
The Doctor: “And she left you all alone?”
Amelia: “I’m not scared.”
The Doctor: “Course you’re not, you’re not scared of anything. Box falls out of the sky, man falls out of a box, man eats fish custard…and look at you. Just sitting there. So you know what I think?”
Amelia: “What?”
The Doctor: “Must be a hell of a scary crack in your wall.”

The last line, suddenly pulling us back to the plot with a suitably ominous musical cue, is perfectly played by Smith. It was not long after this point that I realized any worries I’d had about whether he was up to the role had completely disappeared.

Steven Moffat is a master of using fears children can relate to to fuel his stories—in “The Girl in the Fireplace” it was monsters under the bed; here it’s a weird crack in a bedroom wall through which strange noises can be heard. The Doctor manages to repair the crack, but not before discovering that it’s a “crack in the skin of the universe” leading to another place entirely, and hearing an alien voice saying, “Prisoner Zero has escaped.” This leads to another creepy idea, of some presence lurking in your house unseen, never able to be glimpsed except out of the corner of your eye.

But before the Doctor can investigate further, the TARDIS cloister bell sounds, warning that the machine faces imminent destruction. The Doctor rushes back inside; Amelia asks to come with him, but he says it’s not safe yet, making a fateful promise to her that he’ll be back in five minutes. The TARDIS vanishes; Amelia rushes to pack a little suitcase, takes it down to the garden, and sits on it, waiting for her friend to return…

Doctor Who hasn’t always had the best fortune with child actors, but they really lucked out with Caitlin Blackwood as young Amelia. She gives a perfect natural, open performance—especially impressive considering she had no prior acting experience. (She’s also, coincidentally, a cousin of Karen Gillan, and the family resemblance really helps to sell the idea that they’re the same person.) I particularly loved her deadpan delivery of “What…a real one?” when the Doctor told her his box was actually a time machine.

The TARDIS returns, belching smoke and needing to shut down and rebuild itself. The Doctor manages to not notice that it’s now daylight outside as he runs into the house yelling for Amelia, having realized that this “Prisoner Zero” must have been hiding in there. Someone knocks him out from behind, and he wakes up to find himself handcuffed to a radiator by an attractive policewoman wearing a very non-regulation skirt. She is, of course, the now grown-up Amy Pond. Most of the Doctor’s female companions tend to get tagged with the description “feisty” (actually, is there any young female lead character who isn’t described as “feisty” these days?), but rather than just present that as a given, the story shows us how she got that way. This time, the Doctor has managed to change the course of his companion’s life even before she joins him.

The Doctor: “You’re Amelia!”
Amy: “You’re late.”
The Doctor: “Amelia Pond. You’re the little girl!”
Amy: “I’m Amelia, and you’re late!”
The Doctor: “What happened?”
Amy: “Twelve years.”
The Doctor: “You hit me with a cricket bat!”
Amy: “Ha! Twelve years.”
The Doctor: “A cricket bat!”
Amy: “Twelve years. And four psychiatrists.”
The Doctor: “Four?”
Amy: “I kept biting them.”
The Doctor: “Why?”
Amy: “They said you weren’t real.”

She eventually has to abandon the pretence of being a policewoman, crying “I’m a kissogram!” before pulling off her hat and letting loose a mass of ginger hair with a swish worthy of a shampoo advert. Karen Gillan and Matt Smith have a tremendous chemistry together, batting Moffat’s comic dialogue back and forth (“Why a policewoman?” “You broke into my house—it was this or a French maid!”) while showing how the initial spikiness between them slowly eases as the Doctor wins Amy’s trust. This culminates in a hilarious scene where Amy, still not quite believing that this man is her childhood friend come back, traps the Doctor’s tie in a car door in order to get him to talk sense. In a typical piece of Moffat cleverness, he wins her over by producing an apple which Amelia gave him earlier. It’s a lovely bonding moment between them, which works even in spite of the director resorting to slow motion and lens flares in a misguided attempt to make it “magical.”

Apart from the sheer enjoyability of Moffat’s dialogue (I’ve had to severely resist the temptation to quote more of my favorite moments, or this recap would end up twice as long), there are any number of places where lines will link up with or reflect others elsewhere—this script has clearly been polished to within an inch of its life. For example:

The Doctor: “Who’s Amy? You were Amelia.”
Amy: “Yeah, and now I’m Amy.”
The Doctor: “Amelia Pond. That was a great name!”
Amy: “Bit fairytale.”

This is an ironic reference back to the kitchen table scene, where the Doctor delightedly told young Amelia Pond her name was “like a name in a fairytale.” What an efficient way of showing how the disappointment of the Doctor’s failure to return for her would lead Amy to grow up burying her dreams beneath a brittle, somewhat cynical personality. Or there’s this, which will come back at the end:

Amy: “You told me you had a time machine.”
The Doctor: “And you believed me.”
Amy: “Then I grew up.”
The Doctor: “Oh, you never want to do that.”

Once Amy’s trust is regained, we get into the actual plot part of the story—the Doctor tracking down Prisoner Zero before the pursuing aliens, the Atraxi, lose patience and burn the planet. Although the plotting fizzes along with Moffat’s usual ingenuity, this stuff can’t help but be less interesting, partly because the only real characters in the story are the Doctor, Amy, and Amy’s “kind of” boyfriend, Rory (Arthur Darvill). Everyone else is strictly functional, even when they’re being played by Annette Crosbie, Nina Wadia, or Olivia Colman—and not forgetting a bonkers cameo from the great Patrick Moore. The Doctor quickly hacks into a worldwide videoconference call to release a computer virus which will reset all clocks and displays to zero in order to get the Atraxi’s attention. It’s interesting that neither Torchwood nor UNIT, which loomed so large in the previous era, are so much as mentioned—Moffat seems to be recalibrating the world of the show away from the situation that developed over the last five years, where pretty much everyone in the world was aware of both the existence of aliens and the organizations that deal with them.

Prisoner Zero itself makes for a somewhat underwhelming foe—rather like the skeletons in spacesuits in “Silence in the Library,” it tends to not actually do anything apart from look menacing. The concept of a shapechanging creature which can look like multiple creatures at once, e.g. a man and a dog, is very good, and it’s nicely unsettling when the man and dog keep moving their heads in sync. Later, it takes the form of a mother and her two girls, and it’s momentarily chilling when the mother’s voice comes out of one of the children’s mouths. And I liked the final twist where it takes the form of the Doctor, thanks to its link with Amy, and young Amelia peeks out from behind him (again, cleverly reflecting a shot from earlier). But the creature’s natural form is a rather unimpressive CGI snake, and the idea of having the human disguises suddenly open their mouths to reveal the alien’s fangs gets way overused. (While I’m on the subject of the CGI, the Atraxi ships themselves are one of the goofiest designs ever seen in Doctor Who—basically a giant eyeball inside a spinning snowflake. It almost works in spite of itself out of sheer oddness.)

The intricate plot mechanism finally works itself out as Prisoner Zero, tracked to a hospital where it has been using coma patients as sources for its disguises, is tricked into reverting to its natural form, when it is detected and recaptured by the Atraxi. Before it disappears, however, it provides some mysterious hints of something big to come. “The universe is cracked, Doctor. The Pandorica will open. Silence will fall.” What does that mean? At this stage, I’ve no idea…

Up until now, the Doctor has been borne along by the plot, but now, with his regeneration almost complete, he finally takes control. First, he orders the Atraxi to come back and face him because of their threat to burn “a fully established Level Five planet.” Then he casts off the persona of the “raggedy Doctor” as he finds some new clothes in the hospital lockers (following a precedent set by the third and eighth Doctors). Up on the roof of the hospital, he confronts the Atraxi.

Amy: “So this was a good idea, was it? They were leaving.”
The Doctor: “Leaving is good. Never coming back is better.”

Matt Smith is given an iconic moment, as he tells the Atraxi to check whether the Earth is protected, and they project holograms of the ten previous Doctors. He walks through the image of David Tennant to reveal the Eleventh Doctor, complete at last in his professorial costume with tweed jacket, braces and bow tie, ready to see off these aliens with one simple line:

The Doctor: “Hello. I’m the Doctor. Basically… run.”

With the threat over, the Doctor is delighted to discover that the TARDIS has finished repairing itself. Immediately forgetting everything else, he dashes off. Amy runs after him, but to her astonished dismay the box dematerializes in front of her.

In the next scene, Amy is woken in the night by the sound of the TARDIS arriving back in her garden. The Doctor apologizes for rushing off—he was only taking his brand new time machine on a “quick hop” to the moon and back. But—surprise!—erratic navigation has struck again…“That was two years ago!” As the saying goes, history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.

The Doctor: “Oops.”
Amy: “Yeah.”
The Doctor: “So that’s…”
Amy: “Fourteen years.”
The Doctor: “Fourteen years since fish custard. Amy Pond, the girl who waited. You’ve waited long enough.”

Finally, Amy gets her chance to enter the magic box. But she’s no longer sure she really wants to.

The Doctor: “So, coming?”
Amy: “No.”
The Doctor: “You wanted to come fourteen years ago.”
Amy: “I grew up.”
The Doctor: “Don’t worry. I’ll soon fix that.”

With a snap of the fingers, the Doctor opens the door (a nice callback to Moffat’s “Forest of the Dead”). The new interior is a warmer, more magical space than the single echoing chamber of the previous era. There are now multiple levels, stairways leading off to other areas, and a console full of strange objects—levers, gauges, hot and cold taps, a typewriter, even an old gramophone horn.

These last few scenes are played perfectly by Smith and Gillan. They already seem like a great Doctor/companion team, falling into an easy banter, and yet they are both keeping information from each other. Just as the Doctor is promising he had no ulterior motive for asking Amy along, the TARDIS scanner screen beside him is showing an image of a line in the exact same shape as the crack in the bedroom wall. Cue ominous music…

And Amy asks him to agree to get her back tomorrow morning, but won’t say why—“Just…you know, stuff.” After the TARDIS has left, we pan across Amy’s room to reveal…a wedding dress hanging in her wardrobe. She has run away on the night before her wedding…why? For one final childhood adventure before she has to finally grow up? Or for some other reason? I can’t wait to find out.

Next Week: The Doctor takes Amy on a trip centuries into the future; they find themselves in a space-going United Kingdom overseen by the sinister Smilers in “The Beast Below.”

Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: “Robot,” starring Tom Baker in his very first story as the Doctor. As I mentioned above, Baker’s performance in this story, where he just completely inhabits the role of the Doctor from the off, came strongly to mind when I saw Matt Smith’s debut.

For more Doctor Who recaps, click here.

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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

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The Boys
Photo: Jan Thijs/Amazon

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

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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

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GLOW
Photo: Ali Goldstein/Netflix

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

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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

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Harlots
Photo: Monumental Television/Hulu

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

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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.

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The Loudest Voice
Photo: JoJo Whilden/Showtime

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

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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.

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Legion
Photo: Suzanne Tenner/FX

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

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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.

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City on a Hill
Photo: Claire Folger/Showtime

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

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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.

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Years and Years
Photo: Matt Squire/HBO

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

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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

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Euphoria
Photo: HBO

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

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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

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Das Boot
Photo: Hulu

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

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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.

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Jessica Jones
Photo: David Giesbrecht/Netflix

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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