“Okay kid, this is where it gets complicated.” Given the way things stood after last week’s cliffhanger, it was obvious that “The Big Bang” would have to be quite a different kind of episode from “The Pandorica Opens”, but I doubt anyone watching would have guessed just how different it would be. Writer and showrunner Steven Moffat keeps the threat level set to “universal,” but the canvas of the story radically shrinks to contain just our regular characters—the Doctor (Matt Smith), Amy (Karen Gillan), Rory (Arthur Darvill), and River Song (Alex Kingston). It’s the most intimate of apocalypses—for a large part of the episode, there simply is no one else on screen. Or off it, for that matter—the rest of the universe is gone, reduced to a memory; and indeed, as I highlighted last week, memory turns out to be the crux of the story. It’s also the story of the Doctor repairing the damage he caused to Amy when he first met her as a child, when he flew off in the TARDIS promising to return in five minutes, and didn’t come back for twelve years. It ties up the whole season excellently—though not without leaving a couple of threads dangling, to be taken up next year—and gives us the first completely happy season ending for the new Doctor Who.
A montage from “The Pandorica Opens” brings us back to that tremendous cliffhanger, with the Doctor sealed away in the Pandorica by a grand alliance of all his foes, Amy having been shot dead by a plastic Auton replica of her fiancé Rory, and the TARDIS exploding with River Song inside, causing the entire universe to unravel and dissolve into nothingness. Whatever viewers were expecting to happen next, it’s unlikely to have been what we actually see… a caption saying “1,894 years later.” It seems like we’re starting the season all over again with the opening moments of “The Eleventh Hour”, as seven-year-old Amelia Pond (Caitlin Blackwood) prays to Santa to send someone to fix the sinister crack in her bedroom wall. But now, things are different; this time, there’s no TARDIS falling from the sky to crash-land in her backyard. In fact, the night sky is totally empty apart from the moon; Amelia makes paintings of stars which no one has ever seen, and her aunt Sharon worries about her growing up to join a “star cult” (“I don’t trust that Richard Dawkins,” she says, hilariously). But then a museum flyer carrying a handwritten message—“Come along, Pond”—is slipped through her door, leading to Amelia dragging her aunt off to the building where the huge black Pandorica cube is exhibited, looking as ominous as it did the last time we saw it when the Doctor was imprisoned within it. Amelia hides until the building is empty, then goes up to the Pandorica and touches it. In response, it slowly opens—to reveal Amy, very much alive, whose first words are the line I’ve quoted at the top of this recap. As the opening titles crashed in, I realised my jaw was literally hanging open—I can’t remember the last time a TV show took me by surprise like that.
Who expected the end of the universe to be so much fun? The first half of the episode is a dazzling exercise in plot pyrotechnics, as the Doctor uses the vortex manipulator acquired by River Song last week to zip back and forth through his timeline and set up both his escape from the Pandorica and Amy’s survival and eventual reappearance in the box. This had the potential to be utterly confusing for the audience, but Steven Moffat has a genius for writing these jigsaw-puzzle plots—as he has shown not only in his Doctor Who work, but also in Jekyll, and even in some episodes of his sitcom Coupling. Here, the pieces may arrive in a mystifying non-chronological sequence, but it’s always eventually clear how everything connects up, thanks to the use of props such as a mop and a fez to make it clear where the Doctor is in his personal timeline. Also, sequences that initially appear without context (like the Doctor’s initial appearances to Rory) will be at least partially repeated once their proper place in the timeline arrives, just to make sure everyone keeps up.
Provided you accept the paradox of a circle of cause and effect, with no beginning or end (an idea Moffat also employed in “Blink”), the cliffhanger resolution—Rory releases the Doctor from the Pandorica with the sonic screwdriver, which the Doctor then goes back and gives to Rory so he can release him—works very well. Of course, there’s always a danger with this sort of “cheating” that the question of why the Doctor doesn’t do this all the time will arise. Moffat at least tries to address this with a line to the effect that this sort of pinpoint time-jumping is only possible now that the universe is a considerably smaller place. For in another twist, the entire alliance of aliens from the climax of the last episode turns out to be a huge red herring; the Pandorica chamber now contains only a few remnants, frozen in stone form:
The Doctor: “History has collapsed. Whole races have been deleted from existence. These are just like afterimages, echoes. Fossils in time, the footprints of the never-were.”
Rory: “Uh… what does that mean?”
The Doctor: “Total event collapse. The universe literally never happened.”
Rory: “So how can we be here? What’s keeping us safe?”
The Doctor: “Nothing. Eye of the storm, that’s all. We’re just the last light to go out.”
There are lots of clever, inventive moments in passing, like the Doctor realizing he doesn’t have the sonic screwdriver any more, having given it to Rory back in 102 AD, so he pops back to tell Rory to put it in Amy’s coat pocket after using it, returns to 1996, calmly retrieves the screwdriver from Amy’s coat and moves on. In the course of joining up all the events we’ve already seen, there’s even room for some farce-style comedy: Amelia tugs at the Doctor’s sleeve and demands a drink because she’s thirsty, because earlier in the day someone plucked her drink out of her hand while she was looking at the Pandorica, so the Doctor jumps back to that moment, steals her drink, returns and gives it back to her. And just as in “The Eleventh Hour,” Caitlin Blackwood gives a wonderfully natural and believable performance as Amelia; she’s certainly one of the best child actors ever to have appeared in the series.
The only gripes I had with this part of the episode concerned some of the set-up for Amy’s survival. The idea that the Pandorica has the ability to keep its occupant in stasis (“This box is the ultimate prison—you can’t even escape by dying”) is reasonable enough, but it should have been established previously—an uncharacteristic lapse from Moffat, who is usually meticulous about setting up his plot elements in advance. More importantly, last week it seemed quite clear that Amy had been killed; now we’re told that she’s only “mostly dead” and that the Pandorica can hold her and use a “scan of her living DNA” (provided, of course, by Amelia’s touch 1,894 years later) to restore her. The Princess Bride reference is cute, but doesn’t make up for retconning the cliffhanger as brazenly as any old-fashioned movie serial.
Amy’s story does, however, provide the central character focus for this part of the episode. Rory decides he must stay with the box and guard it through the centuries. The sight of him in his Roman garb, left silently sitting by the Pandorica as the Doctor departs for the future by the quick route, is a memorable image (as with last week’s episode, Toby Haynes’ direction is exemplary throughout). Moffat seems to have a fascination with exploring the concept of romance across time—see “The Girl in the Fireplace”, “Blink,” and most importantly River Song’s temporally mixed up relationship with the Doctor. Here, when Amy awakes there’s a lovely scene where she finds a display in the museum telling the story of the Lone Centurion and his mission to guard the Pandorica, and this proof of Rory’s devotion to her results in her final commitment to them being a couple—something which the season has been working toward since “The Vampires of Venice”. When Rory meets up with her again they’re immediately in a passionate lip-lock, as the Doctor looks on impatiently. (“And… breathe! Well, someone didn’t get out much in two thousand years.”)
Despite the impending universal oblivion, the predominant tone of the episode so far is comedic, with many funny lines and bits of business along the way. Some favorites, in no particular order: “Come along, Ponds!”; Amy figuring out what year she’s in by checking her younger self’s height and hair length; the Doctor trying to work out what to do with the fez he’s accidentally grabbed, before just plonking it on his head; and the one that makes me laugh every time, when Amelia demands a drink while Amy and Rory are kissing in the background, and the Doctor says, “Oh, it’s all mouths today, isn’t it?” and shoves the fez onto her head so it comes down over her whole face. When Moffat is firing on all cylinders, as here, he seems incapable of writing a dull moment.
A certain level of menace is provided by one of the stone Daleks, which, having been hit by the “restoration field” from the open Pandorica, comes back to life and starts trundling around the museum after them, but what really brings the comic shenanigans to an end is one final time-jumping sequence. A duplicate Doctor, injured and dying, from twelve minutes in the future suddenly appears and collapses in front of them, and young Amelia silently disappears from the story, wiped from existence.
Amy: “But how can I still be here if she’s not?”
The Doctor: “You’re an anomaly—we all are. We’re all just hanging on at the eye of the storm, but the eye is closing and if we don’t do something fast, reality will never have happened. Today, just dying is a result!”
The scope of the story expands again on the roof of the museum as the Doctor goes looking for his TARDIS, and finds it… in the sky. The idea that the exploding TARDIS serves in place of the sun in this alternate reality is not only a fine piece of Big Ideas storytelling, but also neatly plugs what would have been an obvious plot hole—namely, how humanity could possibly have survived if no stars ever existed in this universe. The Doctor also detects a voice coming from the “sun”—River’s last line from the previous episode: “I’m sorry, my love”—and realizes that the TARDIS has protected River by sealing off the console room in a time loop. I suppose this is as arbitrary a solution to River’s cliffhanger as the revival of Amy was, but as a long-term fan it’s one I’m more inclined to forgive because throughout the classic series, the TARDIS had a long history of capabilities that got conveniently introduced to serve the plot of one story and were then rarely (or never) mentioned again.
The Doctor uses the vortex manipulator again to retrieve River. It’s been interesting to observe the Doctor’s increasing warmth toward River over the four episodes she’s appeared in this season. Certainly the banter between them when he turns up in the TARDIS (“Hi honey, I’m home!” “And what sort of time do you call this?”), and the way they materialize arm-in-arm back on the roof, is as relaxed as they’ve ever been. I also loved the way she and Amy intuitively teamed up to destroy the fez (“What in the name of sanity have you got on your head?!”). But when the Dalek finally catches up to them and fires at the Doctor, badly injuring him, he disappears twelve minutes into the past, and River demonstrates a side of herself we haven’t previously seen. Furious, she squares off against the Dalek and prepares to kill it while it’s gathering power for another shot.
Dalek: “RECORDS INDICATE YOU WILL SHOW MERCY. YOU ARE AN ASSOCIATE OF THE DOCTOR’S.”
River: “I’m River Song. Check your records again.”
Dalek: (beat) “MERCY.”
River: “Say it again.”
River: “One more time.”
When she rejoins Amy and Rory and they ask what happened to the Dalek, she just says flatly, “It died.” The idea of River being able to make a Dalek beg for mercy moves her several notches up the scale of awesomeness, and I’m looking forward to finding out how she got that reputation, and how it ties in to what we discovered in “Flesh and Stone” about her being in prison for killing “a good man”—who may or may not be the Doctor. But that’s for later; right now, Amy and Rory discover that the “dead” Doctor’s body is no longer where they left it.
Amy: “But he was dead.”
River: “Who told you that?”
Amy: “He did.”
River: “Rule One: the Doctor lies.”
Cleverly, the injured Doctor was using his earlier counterpart and his companions to distract the Dalek while he got on with fixing the real problem. They find him slumped over inside the Pandorica, having wired the vortex manipulator into it in order to carry out his plan, which is to fly the Pandorica into the exploding TARDIS. The Pandorica, being the ultimate inescapable prison, carries within it a memory of the old universe, and this, together with its restoration field, will be propagated simultaneously to every point in history by the explosion, thus producing “the Big Bang, mark two” and restoring the old universe. It’s a solution which kinda, sorta, maybe makes sense if you squint and resolutely refrain from examining it closely, but the amount of handwaving involved may surprise some viewers, who might have been expecting something from Moffat with more science-fictional rigor. This season finale resolution is very much of the same type as those we’ve seen previously from Russell T Davies, where the real significance lies not in how the particular plot problem is solved, but in the effect of that solution on the Doctor and his companions. In “Journey’s End”, for instance, the threat of Davros and the Daleks is dealt with quite perfunctorily, but the consequences of the events, especially for Donna, are profound.
Over and over again in interviews, Moffat and his fellow executive producers used the phrase “dark fairytale” to describe what they were attempting to achieve in this season. Indeed, this final story is the best example of Doctor Who moving away from science fiction and into a realm of Terry Pratchett-like fantasy. Events on Pratchett’s Discworld are heavily influenced by “narrativium”—the shape of a story can force things to happen, rather than the other way around. Here, the power of memory is able to restore to reality things and people which have been lost to the cracks in the universe. (Amusingly, Terry Pratchett wrote a column for SFX back in May, where he praised the series for its entertainment value, but bemoaned the fact that it is still generally considered science fiction. Naturally, one British newspaper couldn’t resist spinning this into PRATCHETT ATTACKS ’LUDICROUS’ DOCTOR WHO, considerably overstating the case.)
The Doctor’s final scene with Amy before he puts his plan into action is an emotional high point, brilliantly played by both Matt Smith and Karen Gillan as well as being beautifully directed. With the greenish light from the Pandorica interior making even his youthful features look haggard and wan, the Doctor resumes the conversation they were having last episode before they were interrupted by a Cyber-attack:
The Doctor: “Amy Pond. The girl who waited. All night, in your garden. Was it worth it?”
Amy: “Shut up. Of course it was.”
The Doctor: “You asked me why I was taking you with me, and I said: no reason. I was lying.”
Amy: “It’s not important.”
The Doctor: “It’s the most important thing left in the universe. It’s why I’m doing this. Amy, your house was too big. That big, empty house. Just you.”
Amy: “And Aunt Sharon.”
The Doctor: “Where were your mum and dad? Where were they? Everybody who lived in that big house?”
Amy: “I lost my mum and dad.”
The Doctor: “How? What happened to them? Where did they go?”
Amy: “I… I don’t…”
The Doctor: “It’s okay, it’s okay. Don’t panic, it’s not your fault.”
Amy: “I don’t even remember…”
With the gentleness that seems to have become a central facet of this Doctor’s character, he steers Amy to the realization that the crack in time in the wall of her bedroom has been eating away at her life for years, removing even the memory of her parents. But the upcoming “big bang” will give her the chance to restore them, just as her memories effectively restored Rory after they were used as the basis for constructing his Auton duplicate.
The Doctor: “Just remember, and they’ll be there.”
Amy: “You won’t.”
The Doctor: “You’ll have your family back. You won’t need your imaginary friend any more.” (beat) “Aha. Amy Pond, crying over me, eh? Guess what?”
The Doctor: “Gotcha.” (The Pandorica closes.)
With that final echo of their first sparring in “The Beast Below,” and a last message of GERONIMO, the Doctor launches the Pandorica into the explosion. The huge explosion reverses itself as the universe gets back on track, and the cracks start closing. But now the Doctor no longer belongs in this universe, and his timeline is unravelling. He starts to rewind through his recent adventures—after a brief stop in the TARDIS, he finds himself back in a suburban street just after the events of “The Lodger”. He sees Amy and calls out to her, and realizes that she can hear but not see him. This leads to his ingenious, last-ditch plan to save himself, and the most cunning of all Moffat’s connections between this episode and the earlier ones. When “Flesh and Stone” aired, I (and many others) noticed an anomalous scene in the forest, where after the Doctor has left Amy behind to go off with River and Father Octavian, he suddenly turns up again and talks to Amy with an entirely different demeanor. Now we finally get the context for that scene—it’s this Doctor, traveling backwards through his timeline, speaking to Amy, taking advantage of the fact that Amy has to keep her eyes closed (to avoid activating the Weeping Angel which is within her at this point). It was a particularly clever trick of Moffat that the Doctor so emphatically tells Amy she has to remember what he told her when she was seven, which led to much speculation about what precisely we had seen in the Doctor’s interaction with Amelia in the first episode that could be so significant. We had no way of knowing then that deducing the significant thing was impossible, because we hadn’t actually seen it yet; the crucial thing the Doctor wants Amy to remember is what we are about to see him tell her.
The unravelling continues, and finally delivers the Doctor to Amelia’s house on the fateful night in “The Eleventh Hour.” Out in the yard, little Amelia has fallen asleep on her suitcase, having waited in vain for her friend to return after five minutes as he promised. Gently, the Doctor picks her up and takes her back to her bed. And now, a moment of pure magic, as the Doctor simply sits down and addresses the sleeping girl with a valedictory speech that is both brilliantly written and superbly delivered:
The Doctor: “It’s funny… I thought if you could hear me I could hang on somehow. Silly me. Silly old Doctor… When you wake up, you’ll have a mum and dad, and you won’t even remember me. Well, you’ll remember me a little. I’ll be a story in your head. That’s okay. We’re all stories in the end. Just make it a good one, eh? ’Cause it was, you know. It was the best. A daft old man, who stole a magic box, and ran away. Did I ever tell you I stole it? Well, I borrowed it—I was always going to take it back. Oh, that box. Amy, you’ll dream about that box. It’ll never leave you. Big, and little, at the same time. Brand new and ancient, and the bluest blue ever. And the times we had, eh… would have had. Never had. In your dreams they’ll still be there. The Doctor, and Amy Pond. And days that never came.”
In moments like this it’s incredibly hard to comprehend that Matt Smith is still not yet 28. His control of his performance is such that he can perfectly evoke this old, old man who has experienced hundreds of years, and now knows his time has run out. (And, of course, it’s typical of Moffat’s—and the Doctor’s—cleverness that hidden within this emotional climax are the key words that will trigger the Doctor’s return.)
Deciding that there’s no point in holding out any longer (“I think I’ll skip the rest of the rewind. I hate repeats”), the Doctor finally accepts his fate, and walks toward the crack in the wall. As he disappears, so does the crack, and the music (which has been wonderfully effective throughout this episode, but particularly in the second half) underscores a lovely transition from a view of the night sky—showing that the stars are back—into morning, the morning of Amy’s wedding.
Karen Gillan subtly indicates how Amy is different in this new, restored timeline. She is still a strong personality, but the brittleness and tendency to flare up at the slightest provocation are gone. The momentary disorientation she experiences when she wakes up to discover that her parents have been restored to her life would have caused the old Amy to be instantly suspicious, and probably snap at Rory on the phone, instead of bantering with him. Amy truly has now been healed of the damage accidentally inflicted by the Doctor all those years ago.
We cut to the wedding reception, where Amy’s happiness at listening to her father bumble through giving his speech is cut short by the sight of River Song—dressed in mourning black—walking past outside. She has left her diary for Amy, and the sight of the book—its pages now all blank—triggers her memories.
Amy: “I remember! I brought the others back, I can bring you home too. Raggedy man, I remember you and you are late for my wedding!!”
(Glasses rattle as a wind starts up. The chandelier starts to swing.)
Amy: “I found you in words, like you knew I would. That’s why you told me the story—the brand new, ancient blue box. Oh, clever, very clever.”
Rory: “Amy? What is it?”
Amy: “Something old. Something new. Something borrowed. And something blue.”
What a punch-the-air moment. I’d almost be prepared to believe that the realization—that the old traditional wedding rhyme was also a perfect description of the TARDIS—came to Steven Moffat first, and he then worked out the rest of the season to lead up to this moment. At any rate, the TARDIS materializes, and the Doctor steps out, cutting a dashing figure in his white-tie wedding finery. From this point on it’s all celebration as the Doctor enthusiastically joins in the dancing (remarkably badly) and contemplates the happy couple (“Two thousand years; the boy who waited. Good on you, mate”). The sight of a relaxed Amy laying back in her new husband’s arms and laughing at the Doctor’s dancing is a fitting conclusion to the emotional journey that she and Rory have taken through this season.
Things only turn serious again when the Doctor heads back to the TARDIS. River is there, and he gives her back the diary (“The writing’s all back, but I didn’t peek”) and the vortex manipulator. They share a teasing exchange, full of implications for the future:
The Doctor: “Are you married, River?”
River: “Are you asking?”
The Doctor: “Yes.”
The Doctor: “No, hang on. Did you think I was asking you to marry me, or asking if you were married?”
The Doctor: “No, but was that yes, or… yes?”
The Doctor: “River… who are you?”
River: “You’re going to find out very soon now. And I’m sorry, but that’s when everything changes.” (She disappears)
Alex Kingston and Matt Smith have shown such great chemistry this season that I almost don’t want their relationship to change, but it seems that the Doctor’s growing ease around River will soon be shaken up. Doctor Who has never really done multi-season arcs before, but the true identity of River Song is one thread that is being explicitly held over until next year. The other one is the question of what’s going on with the Silence—the mysterious disembodied voice that proclaimed “Silence will fall.” As the Doctor says, “The TARDIS exploded for a reason. Something drew the TARDIS to this particular date and blew it up. Why? And why now?” Back in “The Eleventh Hour,” Prisoner Zero told the Doctor: “The universe is cracked. The Pandorica will open. Silence will fall.” The first two of those have now been dealt with, and apparently the third will be the big bad for next season.
But for the moment, we end on a note of happiness, with the cracks in the universe repaired, and the Doctor and his newlywed companions taking off on a journey which we’ll rejoin at Christmas. For the first time since the new Doctor Who series started, there are no cast members departing at the end of the season. Overall, despite a few humdrum episodes (mainly in the first half), it’s been a very successful year, for Steven Moffat and especially for Matt Smith, who quickly moved out of the shadow of David Tennant and established his own interpretation of the Doctor. You don’t see many people worrying about him being too young for the role any more. I can’t wait to see where these guys take us next.
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: “Pyramids of Mars,” starring Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen. If pressed to nominate one favorite story from the classic series, I’d pick this one. It’s drenched in period atmosphere, and the acting from the whole cast, especially the regulars, is top class. And it’s also the only other Doctor Who story to feature a fez. Fezzes are cool.
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Review: The Third Day Leans Heavily on Mystery at the Expense of Human Drama
Much of the show’s drama pivots around how successful it will be at slowly pulling back the curtain.2.5
The premiere episode of HBO’s limited series The Third Day, in which a man fighting off sadness and potentially madness finds himself on a mysterious island just off the English coast, goes longer on mystery and mood than it does on plot. The feel of the series is richly atmospheric, filled with oversaturated colors and quaint cottages that would make for a nice weekend getaway were it not for the inhospitable, antagonistic, and slightly cult-ish locals. Despite the show’s unsettling backdrop, though, the circular nature of the story keeps any appreciable amount of tension from building over the course of the five episodes were made available for review.
The first episode throws a lot at the audience before even getting to the island. Sam (Jude Law) is a raggedy-looking guy who volleys quickly between moods. First there’s inchoate fury, as he screams into a phone about money being stolen from an office, and then irredeemable and inexplicable sadness, as he collapses by the side of a stream. Snapped out of his chaotic collapse by the sight of a teenage girl, Epona (Jessie Ross), hanging herself from a tree in the woods, he saves her life and drives her home, even as she murmurs, “They’ll kill me.”
Epona lives in a self-contained island community called Osea that’s accessible only for a short time each day when the ocean tide uncovers a Roman-era causeway. Once there, Sam is flooded with conflicting sensations. The first is that it all feels somewhat familiar, even though as far as he knows his only connection to Osea is his grandfather being stationed there during World War II. The second is a low kind of foreboding that will be well-known to viewers of many a horror movie about urbanites stuck in remote locations. Sam knows something is amiss about this strange place with its quasi-pagan traditions and its people’s alternating suspicion and over-friendliness toward outsiders, but he somehow conveniently keeps missing the short windows of time when he could just drive back to the mainland.
Triangulating a creepy space located somewhere between Ari Aster’s Midsommar, Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, and the TV cult classic The Prisoner, The Third Day works hard to not give too much away while still trying to pull viewers in. It’s a difficult act, given that Sam’s manic behavior and the show’s intentional and often fairly clichéd attempts to blur the lines between reality and fantasy make it somewhat difficult to invest in what happens to him.
Generally more engaging are the side characters who start popping in to further confuse an already muddle-headed Sam, including the ever-bickering Martins (Paddy Considine and Emily Watson), the cosmically mismatched pair who run Osea’s one pub and ricochet from suspicious to trustworthy in an instant. Jess (Katherine Waterston), an American researcher doing work on the island’s traditions both ancient (Celtic bacchanals, sacrifices, and the like) and newer (a Burning Man-like festival designed to drum up tourism), is ostensibly the standard alluring woman of mystery but has grim secrets of her own that mimic Sam’s dark past.
Like the stories that The Third Day appears on its surface to be emulating, much of the drama here will ultimately pivot around just how successful it will be at slowly pulling back the curtain until its final reveal. The series is certainly committed to the slow burn, with too much of its running time given over to Sam’s punchy befuddlement as he tries to separate dream from reality. Further slowing down the momentum is the show’s structure: The first three episodes (gathered together as “Summer”) are separated from a second set of three (“Winter”), in which another outsider (Naomie Harris) traps herself on Osea by a single linking episode (“Autumn”), which is planned to screen live from London in early October.
The Third Day works best when it’s not teasing out this or that secret about Osea and its cagey inhabitants. A strong undercurrent in which characters wrestle with their grief keeps wrenching the story away from its somewhat ambling mystery plot. Sam is given one of the show’s most impactful lines when he tries to explain the sadness he carries: “Pain doesn’t work that way, you can’t share it…agony is bespoke.” Although Osea is studded with gothic signposts that should be warning characters like Sam away from the place, as the series continues it zeroes in less on the horror elements and more on the more quotidian and human conflicts that keep threatening to tear the island apart. Though viewers may stick with The Third Day to the end to discover what Osea’s deepest and darkest secrets might be, its human drama is more compelling than any suggestion of the unworldly.
Cast: Jude Law, Katherine Waterston, Paddy Considine, Emily Watson, Naomie Harris, John Dagleish, Nico Parker, Freya Allan Network: HBO
Review: We Are Who We Are Perceptively Homes in on the Malleability of Boundaries
The series concerns itself with boundaries between the different cultural standards of young adulthood.3
With his loud clothes and bleached hair, 14-year-old Fraser Wilson (Jack Dylan Grazer) sticks out on the U.S. Army base where he lives. He spends much of the first episode of director and co-writer Luca Guadagnino’s We Are Who We Are in animal-print shorts long enough to function as pants, being restless and fidgety and a detached nuisance in that post-adolescent sort of way, taking pictures of people inside classrooms or running through the middle of a basketball game between recruits. One of his mothers, Colonel Sarah Wilson (Chloë Sevigny), has been put in charge of a garrison in Italy, so they—he, Sarah, and his other mom, Maggie (Alice Braga)—have relocated from New York, to Fraser’s dismay.
Especially when its yoked to Fraser’s perspective, the series makes the base feel vibrant and alive, given the Altmanesque use of overlapping conversations and diegetic music. Peripheral characters are always conspicuously doing things in the background, like buying food or running drills. The boy seems volatile and strange, in ways perhaps explained by the sensory overload of his POV; he’s an observer and there’s almost too much to observe, with dialogue and actions often carrying on out of frame. Fraser feels compelled to center himself in his own world, doing things like balancing precariously on a bridge railing or intruding on Italian homeowners sewing outside, though sometimes he allows himself to be guided by new acquaintances, like fellow army brat Britney (Francesca Scorsese).
When the second episode of the series replays many of these same overlapping events from the perspective of Caitlin Harper (Jordan Kristine Seamón), the repetitions don’t feel gimmicky so much as a natural result of the show’s densely packed structure. Conversations that were tangential and difficult to follow for the easily distracted Fraser are given clearer focus due to Caitlin’s more confident, pensive demeanor. She’s already familiar with the environment, having been at the base long enough to form a friend group that includes other teens like Britney and Caitlin’s high-strung brother, Danny (Spence Moore II). And with the additional perspective, throwaway lines from the first episode take on new meanings. For example, Sarah’s remark to Jenny (Faith Alabi) about respecting faiths other than the base’s dominant Christian demographic gains a patronizing quality when we learn that Jenny is Danny’s mother and that he’s experimenting with the Islamic faith that she left behind, seemingly at the behest of her domineering husband, Richard (Scott Mescudi, a.k.a. Kid Cudi).
Of the four episodes made available to critics ahead of We Are Who We Are’s premiere, the other two sync up more traditionally as Caitlin and Fraser begin to spend time with one another. Being the new kid on the base, Fraser lacks any of the preconceptions of Caitlin’s friend group, so he becomes an ideal confidante for her experiments with gender expression. Going by just “Harper,” Caitlin tucks her long hair beneath a hat and hits on Italian girls in town, while subtly rebuffing guys elsewhere with a quick, “I don’t speak Italian.”
The series concerns itself with boundaries and the way they blur, namely the differing standards of young adulthood between Italy and the base that technically functions as the United States. In one scene, Britney drags Fraser to the beach because he’s allowed to drink off base. By spotlighting this interplay, the series emphasizes how we create so many of these boundaries ourselves, whether in our own heads, through procedures, or in accordance with society at large, along lines of political affinity, relationships, and sexuality.
The most significant boundary separation in the series, then, is the one between childhood and adulthood, which is hardly a rigid one. Accordingly, the kids sometimes seem wise and mature and accepting beyond their years only to fly off the handle and engage in that distinctly teenage brand of solipsism, where the people around you don’t matter nearly as much as you and your own feelings. They’re able to be pretentious and profound on entirely their own terms, rather than seeming like mouthpieces for middle-aged screenwriters. They leave atrocious messes in their wake, badger a lot of people, and act downright annoying, which feels true and honest in a broader sense than the occasional small detail that rings false. They have the space to change, while the adults ruminate on the decisions—the marriages, the jobs, the beliefs—that they’ve long since committed to. We Are Who We Are explores a world that’s opening up to these kids just as it is, in many ways, preparing to snap closed.
Cast: Jack Dylan Grazer, Jordan Kristine Seamón, Chloë Sevigny, Alice Braga, Spence Moore II, Kid Cudi, Faith Alabi, Francesca Scorsese, Ben Taylor, Corey Knight Network: HBO
Review: I May Destroy You Boldly Dissects Notions of Sexual Assault and Consent
The series draws one of the most nuanced portraits of sexual assault ever depicted on TV.4
In “Ego Death,” the final episode of the British comedy-drama I May Destroy You, actress, writer, and series creator Michaela Coel confidently defies convention and, with it, any expectation that the events of the series, like life, can be tied into a tidy knot. Privileging character over plot, I May Destroy You has no need for the kinds of melodramatic reveals on which other cable dramas like Big Little Lies rely, and it proves no less revelatory on that front.
Coel draws one of the most nuanced portraits of sexual assault and its psychological fallout ever depicted on TV, and along the way captures the milieu of Black millennial Londoners with precise and vivid detail. For all the lived-in verisimilitude of its world, though, I May Destroy You also smoothly incorporates psychologically subjective and allegorical elements: The bar in which Arabella is assaulted is called Ego Death (a perfect summation of the consequent disintegration of her identity), and the book on sexual assault that she’s writing throughout the series is likely an in-text reflection of the creation of I May Destroy You itself.
In the first episode, “Eyes, Eyes, Eyes, Eyes,” we join the Ghanaian-British Arabella (Coel) as she returns to London from Italy, where she’s been working on a follow-up to her published collection of social-media musings, Chronicles of a Fed-Up Millennial. Or at least that’s what she’s told her literary agent (Adam James) and financier (Natalie Walter), as the trip was actually motivated by a visit to her on-again, off-again beau, Biagio (Marouane Zotti), who remains noncommittal about their relationship as she departs. Back in London, she’s welcomed by her group of steadfast friends, including Simon (Aml Ameen), who convinces her to suspend her all-night scramble to finish her book draft and join him at the Ego Death.
There, Arabella’s drink is spiked and, as she later comes to remember and even more slowly comes to accept, raped in a bathroom stall by an unknown assailant. Brief point-of-view flashbacks to the attack that recur throughout the series complement Coel’s larger fascination with the role that memory and its interpretation play in the formation of identity. Longer, structural flashbacks in many episodes challenge our perspective on Arabella’s present and often serve to undermine our presumptions about victimhood and blame.
Hardly a cowed victim, but shaken and traumatized, Arabella reevaluates and rebuilds her life after her attack. It’s been said that the world is revealed in breakdown—that you don’t know how a car works until your carburetor fails. Arabella’s assault forces her and her closest friends, Terry (Weruche Opia) and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), to examine their own sexual encounters, relationships, and histories, leading them to disconcerting conclusions about the various roles they play in relation to each other and their sexual partners.
Similar to its exploration of the multiple dimensions of a person’s identity, I May Destroy You depicts the different forms that sexual assault can take, not all of it as immediately readable as Arabella’s violent rape, and not always committed by obvious villains like the man (Lewis Reeves) in Arabella’s flashbacks. The series delivers an illustration of how someone can be violated even after consent is given: We repeatedly see men use deception to get people in bed, or deploy it once they’ve already starting hooking up. Kwame finds it impossible to process his own sexual assault, personally or legally—in part because the justice system proves to have even less infrastructure for dealing with the rape of gay men—and diverts his anguish into a distasteful act of sexual mendacity. Terry comes to rethink a threesome she ostensibly opted into, whose circumstances we explore in a flashback to her and Arabella’s first trip to Italy.
But Coel isn’t simply out to demonstrate the many variations of sexual assault in the manner of a sex education video; rather, I May Destroy You examines how sexual, racial, and gender exploitation weave themselves into people’s identities and attitudes. Episode three, “Don’t Forget the Sea,” crucially plants the seed of the unexamined tension within Arabella and Terry’s friendship. As in almost any long-term close friendship, both have committed inconsiderate slights against the other, but, as two black women in a sexist and racist society, such petty affronts come with high stakes. Allowing her characters to respond imperfectly to each others’ crises, Coel foregrounds the importance of forgiving individuals within a broken society—daringly including among the forgiven characters who have unambiguously crossed a sexual “line spectrum border” (the title of the show’s eighth episode).
I May Destroy You doesn’t define its characters through moral dichotomies. Episode six, “The Alliance,” poignantly explores the tangled social hierarchy that gives a measure of institutional power to white girls, but also can allow black boys to assert a form of male privilege, as a flashback to a racially and sexually charged incident that occurred when Arabella was in high school blurs the line between victim and perpetrator. And the tenth episode, “The Cause the Cure,” presents what’s probably the show’s most moving representation of the yin-and-yang influence that loved ones can have on the course of our lives, juxtaposing Arabella’s realization of a truth about her beloved father (Yinka Awoni) with her processing of her and Terry’s own betrayals of each other’s sisterly trust.
Arabella’s circuitous route to recovery feels deeply personal, but at the same time, her story touches on more universal aspects of life for someone of her gender, race, and age. At once hyper-local and global in its concerns, I May Destroy You feels eminently contemporary, a necessary artistic distillation of a distinctly modern form of life. With the series, Coel gives voice to a generation of black and brown millennials whose realities don’t reflect the fantasy of a post-racial, post-feminist society that many have tried to wish into being.
Cast: Michaela Coel, Weruche Opia, Paapa Essiedu, Aml Ameen, Marouane Zotti, Harriett Webb, Stephen Wight, Natalie Walter, Adam James Network: HBO
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
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
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
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
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.2
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
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
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
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
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+
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
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
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
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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