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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: HBO’s Lovecraft Country Confronts the Evil Lurking Beneath American Life

The series eclipses its source material in capturing the omnidirectional dread of Lovecraftian horror.

3

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Lovecraft Country
Photo: Eli Joshua Ade/HBO

The horror of Lovecraft Country, Misha Green’s adaptation of Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel of the same name, is at first all too real. Set in the 1950s, it introduces Korean War veteran Atticus “Tic” Freeman (Jonathan Majors) as he returns to his hometown of Chicago after receiving news of his father’s (Michael Kenneth Williams) disappearance. Left a note pointing to the man’s possible location in a Massachusetts town called Ardham, Tic journeys across 1950s Jim Crow America with an old friend, Letitia Lewis (Jurnee Smollett), and his uncle, George (Courtney B. Vance), a travel agent who contributes to a guidebook, similar to The Negro Motorist Green Book, of safe places to eat and lodge for Black roadtrippers.

The first episode of the series generates much dread from Tic, Letitia, and George passing through towns as white people turn their heads in eerie unison and police cars seemingly materialize out of nowhere. Close-ups of the white walls of a diner that was previously welcoming of Black customers reveal scorch marks that were barely painted over, telling us all that we need to know about how the locals here felt about integration. Cops pull out their guns the moment they set eyes on Tic and his associates, and conversations between the main characters and white people are marked by eye-averting submissiveness and fear. In fact, when the other shoe finally drops and the monsters we expect to encounter in an H.P. Lovecraft story finally materialize, the additional layer of terror heaped onto the protagonists is somewhat offset by the relief of seeing some of their white tormenters become prey.

As Lovecraft’s influence on horror continues to grow in the decades since his death, artists have attempted to reckon with his racism and xenophobia, namely by recognizing that the pagan cults and corrupted humanoid monsters that make the author’s work so chilling also provide insights into his pathological hatred of the Other. Lovecraft Country understands that in a world filled with underground occultists who wield strange power, such groups aren’t made up of tired and huddled masses, but of folks in the upper echelons of wealth and authority. If anything, the racially and culturally diverse people whom Lovecraft saw as social pollutants would be the most routine victims of these organizations—second-class citizens whose disappearances would never be investigated by the powers that be.

The series has its share of CGI monsters, from many-limbed creatures to undead spirits, but its most compelling visual scares involve the cold framing of remote manors owned by cult leaders like Samuel Braithwhite (Tony Goldwyn) and his daughter, Christina (Abbey Lee). These individuals, with their Aryan features and stiff countenances, never betray any emotion or urgency, for they know that they live in a world where they can have whatever they want. And their sense of superiority informs Lovecraft Country’s most blackly comedic moment, when Christina objects to Tic comparing their group to the KKK by saying, “My father and his associates would never fraternize with the Klan. They’re too poor.”

The first five episodes of the series made available to press branch out from the central plotline to cover such topics as haunted houses and body transformation, which allows Lovecraft Country to change up its scares as well as broaden its allegorical range. The realistic harassment suffered by the Black residents of a boarding house in a white neighborhood, for example, is thrown into even sharper relief by the mutilated ghosts who stalk its halls. And throughout these episodes, characters encounter gruesome objects connected to the order that hunts them, reflecting the long history of slavery and Manifest Destiny.

Green makes some significant changes to the novel, but her most rewarding come in the form of the extra time she devotes to tracking the emotional fallout of the characters’ experiences, not only in relation to the horrors they witness, but the everyday degradations they suffer. One can see, for example, how an older man like George is so deeply inculcated in a racist system that, even at the height of his fear, he remains obsequious around whites. Comparatively, there’s something rousing, and more than a little funny, in seeing Tic and Leti so addled by the unearthly terrors they face that they become less dutiful in abiding by the mores of Jim Crow. Eventually, they begin to lash out at harassing whites, who are so used to the power dynamics of American society that they’re almost too stunned at the backtalk to be enraged by it.

Early in the first episode, a woman riding next to Tic on a bus to Chicago sees that he’s reading one of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter novels and expresses her disapproval of such a work with an ex-Confederate for a hero. “Stories are like people,” he says. “Loving them doesn’t make them perfect. You just try to cherish them and overlook their flaws.” The old woman responds: “Yeah, but the flaws are still there.” That exchange could be the thesis of Lovecraft Country, which eclipses even its source material in capturing the all-encompassing dread of Lovecraft’s fiction while at the same time confronting head-on the most problematic aspects of his writing. The author feared America becoming infected with evil that would sink it asunder, while Green’s series operates from the opposite point of view: that evil was integral to the nation’s creation and that it must be fought, however futilely, to be overcome.

Cast: Jonathan Majors, Jurnee Smollett, Aunjanue Ellis, Abbey Lee, Jada Harris, Michael Kenneth Williams, Courtney B. Vance, Jordan Patrick Smith Network: HBO

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Review: In My Skin Is a Bitingly Poignant, If Cluttered, Coming-of-Age Story

Though it doesn’t provide room for a fully formed character arc, the series is driven by its performances and mordant humor.

2.5

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In My Skin
Photo: BBC

Sixteen-year-old Bethan Gwyndaf (Gabrielle Creevy), the protagonist of Hulu’s In My Skin, has a lot going on in her life. She’s the only responsible member of her household, essentially acting as caretaker for her bipolar mother, Trina (Jo Hartley), and constantly at odds with her layabout, alcoholic father, Dilwyn (Rhodi Meilir). And she’s often the only voice of reason among her best friends, Travis (James Wilbraham) and Lydia (Poppy Lee Friar), who seem to always get into trouble whenever she’s not around. She’s also nursing a desperate crush on Poppy (Zadeia Campbell-Davies), the popular girl at school.

Bethan is a compulsive liar, so obsessed with fitting in at school that she spins elaborate stories of a home life filled with cultural activities and fancy renovations to cover for the reality that she spends much of her time taking care of Trina and tracking down Dilwyn. Her obsession with crafting a perfect external image of herself makes it impossible for her to form emotional connections with anyone, even people who genuinely care for her. Travis and Lydia, for example, want to support her in the same way she supports them, brushing off their questions about her family life and never even letting them inside her house.

Bethan is smart and sensitive, and Creevy makes the character, with her conspiratorial smile and natural aversion to being told what she can and can’t do, easy to like—even as Bethan frustratingly and steadfastly refuses to let anyone in. In My Skin’s Welsh-born creator, Kayleigh Llewellyn, based Bethan and Trina on herself and her own bipolar mother, and there’s a lot of raw emotion in the interactions between the two characters, ranging from tender and loving to harsh and hurtful. The short-tempered Dilwyn, inspired by Llewellyn’s late father, has no patience for Trina’s unstable mental state, leaving her to wander the streets or tying her to the radiator to make sure she stays in the house. Her parents’ combative dynamic often leaves Bethan stuck in the middle of them, attempting to play peacemaker.

As volatile as Bethan’s family relationships can be, In My Skin still has plenty of humor, emanating from Bethan’s biting wit and frequent flights of imagination, during which she casts herself as the romantic hero in Poppy’s life, as well as a poet whose words are illustrated with perfume commercial-style images. Bethan’s occasional voiceover narration is an inconsistent element of the series, but her self-aware commentary is a welcome counterpoint to her infuriatingly self-sabotaging behavior. While having Bethan explain her inner thoughts can easily become a narrative crutch, In My Skin could have benefited more from Bethan’s reflective observations, which give us a deeper understanding of her often impulsive decisions.

All the more important since the first season’s five half-hour episodes don’t provide enough room for Bethan’s arc to fully take shape, moving her only a short way down the path toward maturity and ending just as she’s starting to assert herself at school, harnessing her way with words to run for student body. Her relationships with her fellow teens remain stunted, and her potential coming-out journey takes a back seat to her need to care for Trina and insulate her from trauma. Llewellyn isn’t afraid to confront the dark elements of Bethan’s life—the way poverty, mental illness, homophobia, and substance abuse combine to weigh her down. That her personality shines through at all is both a testament to Creevy’s performance and the character’s determination to make a better life for herself, however misguided.

That personality is what drives In My Skin, and Bethan’s self-sufficiency is a big part of what makes her so compelling. No matter what delusion or altercation Trina involves her in throughout the show’s first season, Bethan always comes back, taking on a responsibility that she never asked for and shouldn’t have to handle on her own. If she doesn’t always know how to balance that responsibility with everything else going on in her life, at least she’s approaching every new setback with appealingly mordant humor.

Cast: Gabrielle Creevy, James Wilbraham, Jo Hartley, Poppy Lee Friar, Zadeia Campbell-Davies, Rhodri Meilir, Alexandra Riley, Di Botcher, Aled ap Steffan Network: Hulu

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Review: Peacock’s The Capture Wears Its Topicality Impersonally on Its Sleeve

The series sucks the juice out of its pop-cultural reference points, failing to mine our current nightmares on its own terms.

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The Capture
Photo: BBC/Heyday Films/Nick Wall

Ben Chanan’s The Capture wears its topicality on its sleeve, principally concerning the CCTV security cameras that monitor London’s streets and which number in the hundreds of thousands, averaging out to one camera per dozen or so people. The casualness of the cameras’ presence throughout the Peacock series is unnerving, suggesting how easily privacy can be annihilated with little in the way of pushback from the populace.

Chanan’s concerns, though, aren’t existential ones, as he’s fashioned a murder mystery that laboriously connects modern surveillance to social media, war crimes committed in the Middle East, rising notions of fake news, and whistleblowers like Edward Snowden—all of which are referenced explicitly in the show’s dialogue. Weirdly, the sociopolitical Easter eggs often feel beside the point, serving as window dressing for an impersonal game of cat and mouse.

Shaun Emery (Callum Turner) is a British soldier accused of killing a member of the Taliban during a tour of duty in Afghanistan after the man had already surrendered. Surveillance footage from a body camera seems to validate this assertion, until Shaun’s bannister, Hannah Roberts (Laura Haddock), establishes a lag between the audio and the video feeds of the footage, casting doubt on the evidence. Shaun, Hannah, and others celebrate his acquittal at a local pub, after which the two kiss on the street, pointedly in view of a CCTV camera. She leaves, never to be seen again. When footage surfaces of Shaun hitting Hannah and dragging her out of the camera’s sight, he denies any involvement, but he’s immediately accused of a second crime that’s supported by theoretically objective evidence.

This is all essentially setup, and Chanan threatens to stuff his concept up to the breaking point of contrivance. Investigating the case is Rachel Carey (Holliday Grainger), a brilliant and ambitious detective inspector with a stereotypical taste for stylish jackets and a penchant for playing by her own rules. Her superiors and peers castigate Rachel for her drive, which scans less as an acknowledgement of sexist double standards than as Chanan’s need to define his characters by signpost dialogue. Shaun eludes Rachel, who’s convinced of his guilt, until she begins to uncover a wealth of evidence that connects Shaun’s two murder investigations, as well as a celebrated case in which Rachel foiled a potential terrorist attack.

The twist-a-minute The Capture is compulsively watchable, but we’ve seen much of this before. In addition to 24, which similarly pulled the rug out from under its audience with endless, sometimes ingenious reversals, The Capture also recalls Andrew Davis’s The Fugitive, as well as seemingly every jargon-laden investigative crime show on TV.

Shaun and Rachel are ciphers with stock backstories, and the show’s dozens of other characters often fit into easily recognizable archetypes, from the jealous sidekick to the estranged, earnest wife, to the icy authority figure with shady motives. As the latter, Detective Superintendent Gemma Garland, Lia Williams acquits herself better than much of the rest of the cast, commanding the screen with seeming ease. And in a small, mysterious role, Ron Perlman revels in a sense of understatement, suggesting a bored, bureaucratic comfort with authoritarianism that’s both eerie and funny.

What The Capture doesn’t have is the sense of violation that made 24 such an unmooring experience in its best seasons. That show’s protagonist, Jack Bauer, was a charismatic hawk who did things that most people to the left of Dick Cheney would find monstrous. Kiefer Sutherland allowed you to see the humanity and the savagery of Bauer, which rendered the character all the more disturbing. Whatever its faults, 24 is a distinctive, authentic reaction to the political atrocities that marked the post-9/11 world.

By contrast, the violence of The Capture is just noise to further the plot. Even the notion of doctored surveillance footage has been examined before and more artfully, especially in Philip Kaufman’s atmospheric Rising Sun. A newer element of our surveillance state, social media, is mentioned obligatorily but is barely explored. The Capture sucks the juice out of its pop-cultural reference points, failing to mine our current nightmares on its own terms.

Cast: Holliday Grainger, Callum Turner, Laura Haddock, Cavan Clerkin, Ginny Holder, Barry Ward, Ben Miles, Peter Singh, Lia Williams, Sophia Brown, Ron Perlman, Famke Jansen Network: Peacock

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Review: The Optimism of Japan Sinks: 2020 Leads to a Curious Emotional Remove

The show’s reticence to dig into hopelessness and pain leaves its admirable optimism to feel strangely artificial.

2.5

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Japan Sinks 2020
Photo: Netflix

The latest adaptation of Japanese science-fiction writer Sakyo Komatsu’s 1973 disaster novel Japan Sinks comes to us in animated form, overseen by prolific director Masaaki Yuasa at Science Saru, the studio he co-founded. The Netflix series wastes little time dishing out the apocalyptic imagery promised by its title: Soon after a low-level earthquake hits Japan, a stronger one follows, causing buildings to crumble and pound bystanders into a gory paste beneath the rubble. The Earth vomits gas and magma, and the ground violently splits open, only to be jammed back together into new, alien configurations.

Rather than the scientific and political perspectives of Komatsu’s novel and its previous adaptations, however, Japan Sinks: 2020 takes a markedly more personal viewpoint of the mixed-race Muto family and the companions they pick up along the way. Coupled with some surprisingly spare and soothing music on the soundtrack, the depictions of the family’s early reunion suggest a defiantly optimistic take on the large-scale disaster story, a focus on togetherness and a celebration of the human capacity to adapt even amid utter turmoil. In one scene, the Muto patriarch, Koichiro (Masaki Terasoma), uses colored lights to illuminate some trees the way he once did at their ruined home, guiding the family back together.

As bodies rain from the sky, though, Japan Sinks: 2020 shows its teeth. Characters die in sudden, jarring ways, disorienting the viewer in a similar fashion to these travelers whose only option is to press forward on an island that can offer them no refuge. Throughout the series, these characters are mostly defined by archetypal qualities, with new ones introduced almost as soon as others are lost. This gives the Muto clan’s odyssey something of a mythic quality as they make their way through symbolic destinations, from an open, seemingly empty grocery store to a community that practices kintsugi, a Japanese art of pottery repair.

The show’s limitations become apparent when it slows down midway through the season, no longer relying on the pure momentum of its plot twists and striking images of environmental devastation. When Japan Sinks 2020 actually allows space for us to absorb the characters’ deaths, you may feel as if there’s little to mourn. With a few exceptions, they’re primarily vehicles for shock and dire twists of fate rather than people to empathize with.

Yuasa’s prior Netflix series, the gonzo Devilman Crybaby, injected some disarming positivity into its own increasingly bleak premise, and in a way that made its tragedies feel even more devastating. But the optimism of Japan Sinks: 2020 doesn’t function quite the same way since, here, it’s the overriding ethos, with characters who are more than willing to come together despite catastrophe and pain and displays of self-interest like nationalism.

While this idea is noble, the series moves on from the tragedy of these characters’ lives so quickly that we never get a sense of the totality of their grief. The result, despite no shortage of daring escapes, is a disaster story whose harried pace and reticence to grapple with hopelessness and pain renders it artificial, keeping us at an emotional remove.

Cast: Reina Ueda, Tomomi Muranaka, Yuko Sasaki, Masaki Terasoma, Kensho Ono, Umeji Sasaki, Nanako Mori Network: Netflix

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Review: Little Voice Is a Twee, Navel-Gazing Depiction of Creative Struggle

Created by Sara Bareilles and Jessie Nelson, the series positions its protagonist as a bastion of artistic purity.

1.5

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Little Voice
Photo: Apple TV+

As the first episode of Little Voice begins, aspiring singer-songwriter Bess King (Brittany O’Grady) is still traumatized from being laughed off stage after attempting to perform one of her original songs. Bess’s fragile ego is a major impediment to the launching her music career, and it takes the rest of the season for her to just feel truly comfortable on stage again, a pretty meager payoff considering it takes nine episodes to reach that point.

Bess’s friend and manager, Benny (Phillip Johnson Richardson), assures her in a later episode of the series that artists are meant to be moody, but Bess goes beyond that, as she’s an entitled, ungrateful narcissist, petulantly pushing away friends and family if they don’t conform to her arbitrary moral standards. Even worse, there’s very little about her supposed talent that could justify the behavior that Benny excuses on the basis of artistic brilliance.

Created by singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles and filmmaker Jessie Nelson (who previously collaborated on the Broadway musical Waitress), Little Voice positions Bess as a bastion of artistic purity, first asserting that she writes songs only for herself, and later fending off industry figures’ attempts to have her record songs written by other people or compose music for others. When she gets a chance to record in the legendary Electric Lady Studios, she rebuffs suggestions from a jaded engineer (Luke Kirby) and her guitarist, Samuel (Colton Ryan), to make changes to one of her songs, and both men later acknowledge that she was right.

But there’s little sense that Bess has anything of importance to say with her music, which at one point she describes as “Alessia Cara meets Carole King” but just sounds like Sara Bareilles B-sides. Her precious piano-driven dirges all sound the same, which makes it tough to feel the intended emotional impact of songs often written in response to the events of a particular episode. O’Grady, who was a regular on Fox’s musical drama Star, has a clear, resonant voice, and it’s easy to envision her as a mainstream pop singer, but Bess’s songs always sound smooth and polished, which contradicts their supposed purpose as messy personal statements.

The audiences arrives at an understanding of just how messy Bess’s personal life is through a tedious dramatization of love triangle that puts her in the middle of two bland, sensitive hunks. She first connects with video editor Ethan (Sean Teale), who works in a storage unit next to the one that Bess rents as a practice space (the series emphasizes her financial hustle with jobs as a bartender, dog walker, music tutor, and busker, but she somehow affords rent for both a storage space and half of a gorgeous New York City apartment). Of course, Ethan has a girlfriend, and Bess is later romantically drawn to Samuel, but both men mostly pine from the sidelines while Bess strings them along for the entire season.

Being inconsiderate and presumptuous seems to run in Bess’s family, and the show’s most frustrating character is her mentally disabled brother, Louie (Kevin Valdez), who lives in a group home but constantly relies on Bess for every pretty much everything. Louie is obsessed with Broadway and even has his own catch phrase (“Wonder of wonders!”), and his relationship with Bess is meant to display her compassion and dedication, but it mostly just proves that she’s incapable of holding him accountable for his behavior. Just as Bess seems to expect her friends to cater to her every shift in mood, Louie expects the same from his sister.

Their relationship comes off as a codependent nightmare, and Louie’s blind faith in Bess’s talent is as misguided as her indulgence of his every whim. At one point in the series, a music executive condescendingly describes Bess’s music as “darling.” While that’s intended as a dubious insult, it captures the twee, navel-gazing tone of Little Voice.

Cast: Brittany O’Grady, Phillip Johnson Richardson, Colton Ryna, Sean Teale, Kevin Valdez, Luke Kirby Network: Apple TV+

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Review: HBO’s Perry Mason Examines Power and Faith Amid a Fog of Decay

The series is gory and dour with a bone-deep cynicism, but it’s also optimistic in its own small way.

3

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Perry Mason
Photo: HBO

A dead baby appears not five minutes into HBO’s reboot of Perry Mason. Left on a rail car at Angels Flight in Los Angeles, the child’s eyes are stitched open in hopes of fooling the frantic parents just long enough for the kidnappers to abscond with the ransom money. The grotesque image is certainly far from the show’s last, but it functions as a statement of purpose: Creators Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald intend to grit up the world of Erle Stanley Gardner’s criminal defense lawyer, who was most famously depicted on the CBS television series starring Raymond Burr that aired from 1957 to 1966.

The new Perry Mason is set in 1932, and at the outset, the eponymous character is a private investigator, and hardly the respectable kind. Paired up with the sardonic Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham), he’s not above taking illicit photos of a movie star at a studio’s behest, hoping to prove a morals clause violation. Matthew Rhys brings a thick haze of disillusionment to his character, who wears a lot of stubble and an expression of perpetual weariness. Reconceived in the mold of reluctant prestige TV heroes, Mason is a man adrift, with few opportunities during the Great Depression, and so he tries (unsuccessfully) to squeeze his employers for more cash, though he still misses out on paying the child support he owes.

Mason’s lawyer pal, E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow), brings him in to work with E.B.’s associate, Della Street (Juliet Rylance), on the kidnapping case. The law jabs an accusatory finger at the grieving parents, Matthew and Emily Dodson (Nate Corddry and Gayle Rankin), leaving the defense to contend with dirty cops and cover-ups in addition to following a trail of money that loops through the local evangelical church. A lot of the story beats are the usual stuff of noir, with people you can’t trust mixed up in systems you can trust even less, but the series uses its central case and characters to tug at the different threads of a rich societal tapestry, deftly posing questions about religion, race, sexuality, and gender roles as the world unravels.

Amid dramatic courtroom monologues from E.B. and various scenes of Mason probing crime scenes, the case quickly becomes a media circus. Reporters mob the courthouse steps alongside throngs of protestors howling for blood; the Dodson kidnapping captures the imagination of the public because, despite multiple scenes that show people gasping at others dropping profanities, their interests run toward the morbid and the salacious.

The spotlight throws marriage dynamics into sharp relief, with Emily Dodson vilified on the stand for displaying sexual agency or disinterest in a husband who keeps her in the dark about their finances. Any guilt or shame over their child’s death on her part is framed as a confession in the eyes of the vicious, grandstanding district attorney (Stephen Root). Reactions from the main characters and the general public depict a wider culture of apathy, bigotry, and especially misogyny amid an economic downturn that stokes everyone’s most desperate instincts for survival. The show’s world is a richly rendered fog of decay and hopelessness; people who can make a living do so off secrets, as with E.B.’s questionable financial records or the compromising photos that Mason develops at his dead parents’ desolate farm.

The public hungers for escape, and they get it from the movies, sensational newspaper stories, or from the sense of community provided by a religion that demands their money and devotion in return. They fixate on violence, on victims and victimizers as expressions of their own powerlessness, while others take whatever small power they can, under whatever label. Officially, Della Street is E.B.’s secretary, but it’s immediately clear that the scatterbrained old-timer couldn’t run the office without her, as she empathizes with and advocates for women like Emily in a way that the men often don’t. Paul Drake (Chris Chalk), who goes on to be a frequent investigator in Mason’s employ, is here reconceived as a black cop, an outsider in a system that wants little to do with him beyond what it can use. He becomes disillusioned with his place in that system, as the other characters similarly confront their own powerlessness.

Perry Mason’s concern with power is most clearly seen in Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany), who gets to stand on the evangelical church’s stage and theatrically preach, her position as the church’s mouthpiece sometimes clashing with the moneymen who run the place behind the scenes. The show’s focus on religion can be strained at times, as the church subplots feel tangential to the main case, but its prominence clarifies Perry Mason as a series that’s also about faith, religious and otherwise. Here, faith is eminently vulnerable, often taken advantage of by charlatans but also necessary to keep a person going—a faith in humanity to look beyond societal conditioning and the corruption snaking its way through every angle of civilization. Faith isn’t always rewarded. The series is gory and dour with a bone-deep cynicism, but it’s also optimistic in its own small way, an origin story that chronicles how its characters find a means to fight rather than serving as dejected, disgusted observers.

Cast: Matthew Rhys, Juliet Rylance, Chris Chalk, Shea Whigham, Tatiana Maslany, John Lithgow, Gayle Rankin, Stephen Root, Lili Taylor, Nate Corddry Network: HBO

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Review: Season Three of Search Party Embraces a More Madcap Sensibility

Season three rivals its predecessors in its intoxicating blend of bleak cynicism and irreverent comedy.

3.5

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Search Party
Photo: Jon Pack

The third season of Search Party, the exceptionally nimble dramedy created by Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers, and Michael Showalter, returns after a hiatus of two and a half years but begins right after the events of the second season’s finale. Dory (Alia Shawkat) has just been arrested for the murder of her quasi-associate and ex-lover, Keith, and as a cop takes her mugshot, she chuckles at something he says—resulting in a beguiling portrait of Dory, wearing dark red lipstick, with one eyebrow raised and a roguish half-smile fixed on her face.

The ever-ravenous press and public latch on to Dory’s mugshot, turning her and the legal case against her and her boyfriend, Drew (John Reynolds), into a national spectacle. The series, in turn, takes a gripping dive into Dory’s psyche, sharply revealing how her place in the spotlight magnifies her anxieties. In contrast to the defining visual of Search Party’s first two seasons—a tracking shot of Dory, which prioritized her reactions and impressions over the stimuli eliciting them—season three often depicts her in faux news reels and talk-show clips. Rather than centering Dory as she moves through the world, these sequences freeze her in a still image, embodying her objectification at the hands of the media frenzy. The alienation she feels as tabloid fodder eclipses what she once felt as an aimless personal assistant.

But Dory is far from powerless, as she’s remarkably adept at steering the narrative of both her life and the trial. One of her most formidable feats is a television interview alongside her estranged parents (Jacqueline Antaramian and Ramsey Faragallah), which successfully presents the illusion of a unified front. And she seems to like the attention, as when she humors the paparazzi posted outside her apartment, or when she melodramatically regales the partygoers encircling her at a friend’s wedding with tales of fame’s woes.

Search Party’s earlier seasons found joltingly dark humor in the absurdity of four clueless, sheltered, relatively young adults playing detective and then committing and covering up a murder. This season rivals its predecessors in its intoxicating blend of bleak cynicism and irreverent comedy, but embraces a more exaggerated, madcap sensibility. Recognizing that court is an inherently theatrical space—and a magnet for outsized personalities—the series drops Dory down the rabbit hole and surrounds her with near-unbelievable weirdos. Bob (Louie Anderson), Drew’s lawyer, spouts a wonderful blend of banal aphorisms and pulpy zingers. “Oh, this city,” he drones upon arriving in New York from Chicago, “so much chaos out there.” And Bob is joined in court by two other similarly odd and hilarious attorneys: Cassidy (Shalita Grant), Dory’s rookie lawyer, and the overzealous prosecutor, Polly (Michaela Watkins). The trial, shepherded as it is by a trio of clowns, drives the season’s tonal shift as it quickly devolves into a circus-like farce of shoddy evidence and shaky testimonies.

Dory and Drew’s friends Elliott (John Early) and Portia (Meredith Hagner) are back, but where past seasons deepened their outwardly shallow personalities, this season frequently relegates them to inconsequential, if funny, subplots. The treatment of Portia is particularly disappointing: Previously, a surprising acuity flickered within her, but the series tosses that potential nuance aside, doubling down on the ditzy obliviousness at her surface.

Ultimately, though, the simplicity of the non-Dory narratives is of a piece with the trajectory that Search Party has outlined over its run thus far. The series is Dory’s story, told in an obsessive manner as befits her swelling narcissism. And the strangeness of the trial hints, perhaps, at the world as seen through Dory’s eyes—and as tinged by her growing delusion. Dory is prone to hallucinations and fantasies, and her mental state only worsens under the psychological toll of the trial. At one point, Drew wonders if Dory’s claims of innocence are just a legal strategy, or if she really believes that she didn’t do anything.

And she’s still keeping her greatest secret—that she killed April, the neighbor who knew about Keith’s murder—but Drew is on to her. That Dory remains at least slightly sympathetic throughout all this is a testament to the subtle expressiveness of Shawkat’s performance. Dory’s torn emotions course through Shawkat’s face; the character’s survival instincts flash in her eyes when she’s cornered, when her control of situations starts to falter.

Rare are the moments, however, in which Dory’s power is truly at risk of slipping. One of the season’s most striking shots embodies her insidious influence on those around her. Dory, Portia, and Elliot sit and lie down in a line, playing with each other’s hair; Dory combs Portia’s while Portia runs her fingers through Elliott’s. Drew is opposite them, on the couch. They’re all quiet, thoughtful, reflective. But Dory, with Portia’s hair in her hand, resembles a puppet master. As the camera slowly zooms out, the moody electronic soundtrack kicks in, an echo of Dory’s unceasing calculations. Aspects of the blocking recall Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam: Drew’s no God, but Elliot stretches out like the first man—and Dory is behind both him and the woman closest to him, plotting, the serpent just off-canvas.

Cast: Alia Shawkat, John Reynolds, Meredith Hagner, John Early, Shalita Grant, Michaela Watkins, Louie Anderson, Raphael Nash Thompson, Clare McNulty, Brandon Micheal Hall, Claire Tyers, Christine Taylor Network: HBO Max

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Review: Hulu’s Love, Victor Is a Likable, If Timid, Exploration of Sexual Identity

The show’s episodic sitcom rhythms allow for an easier access point to the narrative about identity and prejudice.

2.5

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Love, Victor
Photo: Mitchell Haaseth/Hulu

“Screw you,” texts 16-year-old Victor Salazar (Michael Cimino) to the mostly unseen Simon Spier (Nick Robinson) in Love, Victor, a spin-off of the gay teen rom-com Love, Simon. The 2018 film’s white, upper-middle-class protagonist, with his perfectly accepting parents, had a relatively easy coming-out journey compared to Victor, whose Colombian-American working-class mother and father cling closely to traditional religious values and aren’t exactly about to buy him a car for his birthday. “My story is nothing like yours,” Victor tells Simon at the end of the first episode of the Hulu series.

Victor reaches out to Simon via text message after starting at Creekwood High School, where his mentor was once cheered on by the entire student body for finally connecting with his secret paramour, Bram. Victor has moved from Texas to the Atlanta suburbs with his parents, Isabel (Ana Ortiz) and Armando (James Martinez), his sullen teenage sister, Pilar (Isabella Ferreira), and his quirky little brother, Adrian (Mateo Fernandez), for reasons that are slowly revealed over the course of the season. Like Simon, Victor comes from a loving home, but his parents’ discomfort with non-heteronormative modes of expression—like Adrian’s preoccupation with the Disney princess Elsa—are made clear to him.

While the stakes for Victor’s coming out are clear, though, that doesn’t make his journey of acceptance any less tedious to witness, stretched out as it is over the course of 10 episodes. Created by Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger (who also adapted Love, Simon, based on Becky Albertalli’s novel), Love, Victor was originally slated for Disney+ before being shifted to Hulu due to its supposedly mature themes. But aside from some strong language and pretty vague sex talk, the series could easily be a companion to High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. Its upbeat tone keeps Victor’s journey from feeling dour and didactic, even though the series is designed to partially provide easily digestible life lessons to a teen audience.

Love, Victor hints at some slightly more nuanced versions of those life lessons in the season’s first half, when Victor begins researching pansexuality. Still attempting to convince others (and himself) that he could be straight, he decides to pursue the popular, studious Mia (Rachel Naomi Hilson). But the messy possibilities of a pansexual teen drama fall away the more Victor becomes obsessed with his openly gay classmate and co-worker, Benji (George Sear), who’s such an idealized object of affection that he’s shown multiple times flipping his luxurious hair in slow motion. In Love, Simon, the connection between Simon and Bram felt genuine and vital, but here Victor and Benji seem destined to get together solely based on proximity.

With its brisk half-hour episodes, and appearances from veteran comedic performers including Andy Richter, Ali Wong, Beth Littleford, and Natasha Rothwell (whose scene-stealing drama teacher from the film has been promoted to vice principal), Love, Victor is structured like your average TV comedy. The episodic sitcom rhythms allow for an easier access point to the narrative about identity and prejudice—both internal and external. But it seems frustratingly hesitant to assert itself as a mainstream teen dramedy with an openly gay protagonist, returning to the starting line of Love, Simon rather than building forward from it.

Cast: Michael Cimino, Mateo Fernandez, Isabella Ferreira, Mason Gooding, Rachel Hilson, James Martinez, Ana Ortiz, Nick Robinson, George Sear, Anthony Turpel, Bebe Wood, Lukas Gage Network: Hulu

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Review: Netflix’s The Woods Spins a Monotonously Grim but Addictive Mystery

The story’s rush of exposition can be dizzying, but the pieces fall into place in ways that aren’t entirely unbelievable.

2.5

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The Woods
Photo: Krzysztof Wiktor

Harlan Coben’s work has been adapted across various European markets, always retaining the same commitment to formula regardless of location or language. The American writer trades in superficial but addictive tales about long-buried secrets, mysterious disappearances, and murderous betrayals, and Netflix’s The Woods is no exception.

The six-episode Polish miniseries is more streamlined than prior Coben adaptations, spending less time getting sidetracked from its central mystery. The story, based on the author’s 2007 novel of the same name, is split between two time periods, opening with a flash-forward to prosecutor Pawel Kopinski (Grzegorz Damiecki) with a gun pressed to his head before flashing back to 1994, when a teenage Pawel (Hubert Milkowski) was at summer camp. Something very bad happened in the woods there, leaving two teens dead and two others—including Pawel’s sister, Kamila (Martyna Byczkowska)—missing, and the discovery of a dead body potentially connected to the murders brings Pawel back to the case in 2019.

In the present-day timeline, Pawel reconnects with his former girlfriend, Laura Goldsztajn (Agnieszka Grochowska), who’s now a college professor, and the two attempt to figure out what happened all those years ago. Pawel has been prosecuting a rape case in which one of the accused perpetrators is the son of a rich TV personality, Krzysztof (Cezary Pazura), who’s vowed to use his resources to ruin Pawel’s life if he won’t drop the charges. This is all familiar ground for Coben, from the gradual unearthing of secrets that often tie together in unexpected (and unlikely) ways to the rather steady doling out of sudden reversals and revelations.

The change of setting from New Jersey to Poland has little impact on the story. The most distinctive local element here is an exploration of anti-Semitic attitudes as grieving families search for someone to blame following the initial crimes. But even that turns out to be just one of many bits of misdirection, a hallmark of Coben stories that often presents solutions to other horrific crimes in the margins, distracting the audience from the true culprits.

Coben may not have much interest in social commentary, but his characters, even the ostensible heroes, are always morally compromised, and finding out who killed or kidnapped a story’s central victim doesn’t necessarily lead to catharsis. Here, Pawel’s handling of the rape case is especially thorny, and his determination to stand up for the accuser is as much about his own pride as it is about seeking justice for a young woman who’s been attacked.

The Woods, part of a 14-book deal between Coben and Netflix, can be monotonously grim, with no mischievously charismatic villains to compare to the antagonist of Coben stories like The Stranger, but Damiecki and Grochowska sharply convey the anguish that their characters have carried with them for decades via haunted glances and halting speech patterns. Pawel and Laura aren’t clever detectives spouting off one-liners, and their personal connection to every aspect of the case provides a kind of revelation that feels earned. By the end, the story’s rush of exposition can be dizzying, but the pieces fall into place in ways that aren’t entirely unbelievable. And the details, remixed from so many other mystery stories by Coben and others, will make sense in almost any language.

Cast: Grzegorz Damiecki, Agnieszka Grochowska, Hubert Milkowski, Martyna Byczkowska, Cezary Pazura Network: Netflix

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Review: Crossing Swords’s Pleasant Exterior Hides a Predictable Core of Vulgarity

Even the jokes that land mostly emphasize how complacent the series is to coast on its crassness.

1

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Crossing Swords
Photo: Sony/Hulu

Hulu’s Crossing Swords, created by Robot Chicken’s John Harventine IV and Tom Root, depicts a beautiful stop-motion fantasy world where the characters have big round heads plastered with simplistic facial expressions. These toy-like peg people have no arms, their swords and such floating in midair beside them as if held by invisible hands. The show’s handcrafted animation is charmingly scrappy, from the cardboard textures of the environments to fire being rendered as globs of colored fuzz. But Crossing Swords’s pleasant exterior hides a core of vulgarity, alluded to by the sexual euphemism of its title.

This same brand of humor runs through so much adult-oriented animation, where gore, nudity, and profanity is juxtaposed with what might appear to be cuddly and kid-friendly at first glance. Crossing Swords’s protagonist, a peasant named Patrick (Nicholas Hoult), represents the perceived experience of watching the show, as his good-hearted aspirations to be the king’s squire plunge him into a world of hedonistic nobility.

The series is full of liars, narcissists, and people comedically abusing power to arbitrary, often violent ends. A squire contest in the first episode indulges in what quickly becomes tiresome standbys: Everyone cheats at fighting by kicking each other in the genitals, and one later challenge involves contestants having sex with the queen, who gives them gonorrhea.

Though Crossing Swords is briskly paced and filled with rapid-fire jokes, there’s little shock or surprise to be had once a cute little peg man calls someone a motherfucker and then pulls out his penis for the umpteenth time. The show’s comedy becomes rote, with a dreary predictability that extends even to more elaborate setups. For example, when one character requires snakeskin for a spell in the same episode where Patrick agonizes over circumcision, it’s not particularly hard to connect the dots of the plot long before the script does.

The rest of Crossing Swords’s humor hinges on a comingling of the show’s medieval aesthetic with consciously modern touches, as in Patrick needing to ask for snakeskin at a pharmacy, or a hippie professor in a tie-dyed shirt using his class to hijack a ship in the interest of saving humongous krakens the way one might try to save whales. Although some of these concepts head in sporadically amusing directions, as when the professor demands to reinstate virgin sacrifices to the krakens, the show inevitably returns to predictable raunchiness (in this case, the promiscuous queen is no good for a sacrifice, so the job naturally falls to Patrick).

In a typical early gag, one character in a runaway wagon veers out of the way of an orphanage only to careen toward…a kitten orphanage. Upon hopping into the wagon, she shouts, “See ya, fucksticks,” and then, when she spots the kitten orphanage, she sighs, “Well, shit.” On paper, the sheer immediacy of this bait-and-switch is funny, but the dialogue bogs down the pacing for yet another example of how supposedly hilarious it is for these cutesy characters to use profanity. The series isn’t without moments of cleverness, but even the jokes that land mostly just emphasize how complacent the remainder of Crossing Swords is to coast on its crassness.

Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Luke Evans, Tony Hale, Adam Pally, Adam Ray, Tara Strong, Alanna Ubach Network: Hulu

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