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Doctor Who Recap: Season 5, Episode 13: “The Big Bang”

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.”



Doctor Who Recap: Season 5, Episode 13: “The Big Bang”
Photo: BBC

“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.

River: “I’m River Song. Check your records again.”
Dalek: (beat) “MERCY.”
River: “Say it again.”
Dalek: “MERCY.”
River: “One more time.”
Dalek: “MERCYYYY…”

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?”
Amy: “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.”
River: “Yes.”
The Doctor: “No, hang on. Did you think I was asking you to marry me, or asking if you were married?”
River: “Yes.”
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: 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.




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.




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.




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.




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.




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.




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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Review: Netflix’s Space Force Is a Toothless Satire of Political Ineptitude

The series informs sitcom hijinks with a bit of political tension, but the punchlines are diluted for the sake of likability.




Space Force
Photo: Aaron Epstein/Netflix

It’s distracting when a TV series or film pivots on conflicts between politicians whose party affiliation somehow goes unspecified. The motivation behind this vagueness is obvious, as showrunners and filmmakers don’t wish to mire their stories with specifically right- or left-wing baggage, especially in these hyper-partisan times. Greg Daniels and Steve Carell’s Space Force suffers from a similar malady. The Netflix comedy imagines the realization of President Donald Trump’s oft-mocked plan for a sixth branch of the U.S. military, to which over $700 billion has already been allotted. Yet Trump is never explicitly mentioned, referenced by the characters only as POTUS, and his whims are so consciously bland that one wonders if another president has been elected within this show’s world.

The showrunners’ skittishness over the heated subject of Trump is best embodied by a number of gags in which the commander in chief texts Mark R. Naird (Carell), the four-star general newly appointed to lead Space Force’s development. The texts are curt and macho, but they sound like regular sports coach-speak, which is to say that they’re too coherent to suggest the way Trump actually writes or talks—at least in public. If the show’s writers had the daring to imply that Trump’s garbled mixture of slogans and defamation was a public stunt designed to inflame his base, they might have fashioned a resonant recurring joke.

Space Force’s premise, in which a country that’s been in perpetual war for decades develops a blood lust so great it must try to conquer space, boasts a certain Dr. Strangelove-esque potential. Rather than tap into that potential, Space Force proceeds as one of those Daniels/Carell shows, like The Office, where Carell’s blowhard is revealed to be a nice guy underneath. It took The Office a while to lose its teeth and become a perpetual meme and cuddle-fest, while Space Force goes soft within just a few episodes before limping to an embarrassingly inspirational family reunion finale. Daniels and Carell have little interest in the Space Force as a concept; for them, it’s a backdrop for a special effects-driven workplace sitcom, replete with supporting characters who embody the usual sitcom stereotypes.

In Space Force, even potentially scathing punchlines are diluted for the sake of palatability. For instance, a congresswoman, Bryce Bachelor (Tamiko Brownlee), obviously meant to resemble Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez questions Naird about Space Force’s ballooning budget. Like Trump, Naird (initially) shows contempt for research and has done no preparation for this hearing, spiraling off into amusingly ludicrous grandstanding that the congresswoman, astonishingly, just accepts. In such moments, the series wants it both ways: offering lightweight jokes for liberals while essentially validating the Trump playbook of bluffing minute by minute with Naird’s unexpected victory, though the character’s bluster does lead to one prolonged, uproarious sequence involving a chimpanzee astronaut.

Political confrontation is also superficially offered up via Naird’s duels with the chief scientist of Space Force, Dr. Adrian Mallory (John Malkovich), who derides America’s hard-on for the military and contempt for intellectual reason. Malkovich, who’s accorded the show’s most confrontationally partisan dialogue, gives an elegant, thorny performance that’s gradually compromised by the plotting, as Naird and Mallory will, of course, bond, and Naird will learn the errors of his reactionary ways, embracing reason over violent confrontation. In another example of pandering wishy-washiness, the series eventually goes out of its way to celebrate Space Force, un-ironically, after spending so much time mocking it.

Similarly, Carell is so uncertain in this role that he can’t even settle on a voice. Early on, Naird talks in a gruff military-man fashion that suggests George C. Scott’s general in Dr. Strangelove. Otherwise, Naird is just sweet old Steve Carell, though sometimes his voice changes within a scene, suggesting that this device might be an intentional joke. The character, like Mallory, also suffers from increasingly random storylines that strive to humanize Naird in clichéd terms. For some reason, he has a wife, Maggie (Lisa Kudrow), who goes to prison so that Space Force may offer callbacks to the opening season of Netflix’s own Orange Is the New Black.

Space Force renders the architects of our world’s destabilization, like Trump, his enablers, and military hawks, into lovably misguided dads—a common entertainment trope. In 30 Rock, a conservative billionaire gradually became besties with a liberal TV producer, allowing her to feel better about distracting America with pop-cultural detritus. In The Office, the initially moving misery of a group of corporate drones was steadily dialed down for the sake of feel-good sentimentality, as a once-contemptible manager became a poignant goof. Even in an ostensibly edgier film like War Machine, a general’s atrocities are downplayed for the sake of easy caricature. These entertainments suggest that the unmooring turmoil of modern life isn’t so bad, giving us an excuse to write off our blossoming dystopia with a semi-amused “eh.” An act of satirical heartlessness would be more compassionate than fortune-cookie uplift.

Cast: Steve Carell, John Malkovich, Tawny Newsome, Ben Schwartz, Diana Silvers, Jessica St. Clair, Fred Willard, Don Lake, Noah Emmerich, Lisa Kudrow, Owen Daniels, Alex Sparrow, Jimmy O. Yang Network: Netflix

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Review: Hulu’s The Great Revises History with Riotous Irreverence

The series takes on Catherine the Great with off-kilter comedy and startling poignancy.




The Great
Photo: Hulu

Tony McNamara’s alternately riotous and poignant Hulu miniseries The Great begins with the future Catherine the Great (Elle Fanning) leaving Austria for Russia to marry the country’s emperor, Peter (Nicholas Hoult). Catherine wants to bring the Enlightenment to her new home—to abolish serfdom, proliferate literacy, and embrace art and science—but Peter is a doltish man-child more interested in philandering than leading. His governing style is self-serving and myopic; for one, he refuses to pull Russia out of its disastrous war with Sweden, as he’s desperate for a victory akin to those of his late father, Peter the Great. What little progress the young Catherine makes in reforming Peter is fleeting, and because she’s confident that she’s destined to save Russia, she plans a coup.

Like Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite, which McNamara co-wrote and features Hoult in a supporting role as a sycophantic politician, the series rejects the commitment to historical fact that burdens many period pieces. Catherine channels the empress’s ambition and relatively liberal bent, but the characters around her are composites and fabrications; Peter, for instance, is only loosely based on Peter III, and provides a vehicle for Hoult’s unnerving blend of youthful earnestness and wanton cruelty. This historical freewheeling feeds into The Great’s broader irreverence, which comes through in every jarringly crass line coated in period-drama affect—like when Peter tells Catherine, over a meal, that he’s set on producing an heir. “I’d do it now, but I just blew my bag on Madame Dimov,” he says, causing Catherine to nearly choke on her food. “My God,” she says, “a phrase I have never heard.”

The delectably off-kilter dialogue highlights Catherine’s alienation. She first arrives to court a naïve idealist, prim and proper, but as she develops into a skilled politician, she demonstrates growing comfort navigating the crudeness surrounding her. She eventually attempts to win over Grigor (Gwilym Lee), Peter’s best friend, who can’t stand the emperor’s dalliance with his wife, Georgina (Charity Wakefield). “He eats fruits various from your wife’s cunt on a daily basis,” Catherine says to Grigor, egging him on. Grigor’s eyes bulge and his jaw clenches. It’s an almost revelatory moment for Catherine in her quest to wield a less bloody sort of power.

Catherine’s co-conspirators initially consist of Marial (Phoebe Fox), her maid, who hatches the scheme; Count Orlo (Sacha Dhawan), an influential but meek bureaucrat in Peter’s inner circle; and Leo (Sebastian de Souza), the compassionate and winsome lover gifted to Catherine by Peter in accordance with the court’s libertine ethos. These characters contextualize Catherine’s idealism and innocence. Where she’s eager to take the throne and launch her virtuous reign, they recognize that deposing an emperor is slow and messy business.

One of the central elements of Catherine’s political education is figuring out how to seize power as a woman in a thoroughly misogynistic environment, one filled with oafs such as the frequently drunk General Velementov (Douglas Hodge), who’d rather try to seduce Catherine than hear about her ambitions. Catherine and Marial commiserate about the sexism they face, but their discussions expose Catherine’s ignorance of how class difference shapes their distinct experiences. These interactions subtly and effectively cast doubt on Catherine’s claims of readiness by showing that her lofty goals of egalitarianism are far clearer to her than the nuts and bolts of classism, let alone the complexities of ruling an empire.

Catherine’s blind spots come to a head when she addresses a room full of powerful men at a time of profound uncertainty. It’s a crucial opportunity to win their respect, but she flounders: Her instincts are off, she knows nothing of Russia, and the men spurn her. Fanning deftly embodies Catherine’s distress as the character’s sense of self shatters, her breaths turning into gasps and her dreams of leading Russia slipping through her anxiously fidgeting hands.

Catherine’s true exemplar at court is Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow), Peter’s bohemian aunt, who largely shares her progressive politics. Elizabeth is totally unconcerned with what others think about her, and while her boldness can feel unremarkable given the cushy position she occupies at court, it’s marvelous to witness. She airs her perspective most compellingly in scenes with “Archie” the Archbishop (Adam Godley), who represents the church and abhors Catherine’s humanism. The pair are two of the The Great’s sharpest minds, and their absorbing conversations spill tantalizingly into blasphemy and treason, as when Archie floats the possibility of Elizabeth replacing her nephew on the throne.

As for Peter, he tries to better himself under Catherine’s influence—unbanning the printing press, holding art and science fairs—and he shows signs of sweetness, but nothing sticks. The series elucidates his behavior with sympathetic reflections on his inner workings. Peter lives in the shadow of his late parents, suffocated by his father’s outsized legacy and scarred by his mother’s disdain. In one of The Great’s most stirring moments, a shot of Catherine and Leo kissing by firelight cuts to a dark room and pans to reveal Peter curled up on a statue of his father. Such sequences stop short of excusing Peter’s vileness, but they do render his arrested development more tragic than laughable. They also make the tension nestled in the series’s title increasingly plain: Great is both what Catherine will become and what Peter will never be.

Cast: Elle Fanning, Nicholas Hoult, Sebastian De Souza, Sacha Dhawan, Phoebe Fox, Adam Godley, Belinda Bromilow, Douglas Hodge, Gwilym Lee, Charity Wakefield, Bayo Gbadamosi, Louis Hynes Network: Hulu

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Review: HBO’s I Know This Much Is True Is an Unrelenting Catalog of Tragedy

The limited series is a carnival of horrors weighed down by moralizing, hysteria, and cross-associations.




I Know This Much Is True
Photo: Atsushi Nishijima/HBO

Based on Wally Lamb’s 1998 novel of the same name, Derek Cianfrance’s I Know This Much Is True offers an unrelenting carnival of horrors. Throughout the limited series’s six episodes, there are instances of rape, child abuse, death, self-mutilation, suicide, several brutal accidents, even allusions to a family curse. At a certain point, those new to Lamb’s story may anticipate intimations of incest, as that’s about the only shock left for Cianfrance to spring on us—and the subject is eventually toyed with, if ultimately abandoned, in a deeply expendable subplot. If Cianfrance had approached this convoluted narrative as the pulp that it truly is, in the key of, say, Ryan Murphy, the series might’ve emitted a disreputable spark. Unfortunately, I Know This Much Is True is supposed to be “about” something, and so the outlandishness is weighed down by moralizing and fancy cross-associations.

Set primarily in a small Connecticut town in the early 1990s, with flashbacks that span from the 1800s to the 1980s, I Know This Much Is True vaguely parallels a family’s legacy of misery with America’s launching of the Gulf War. President George Bush is seen frequently on televisions in various backgrounds, as are vintage MTV music videos, which Cianfrance will occasionally emphasize to enhance the series’s pervading anti-nostalgic mood, especially in the numerous depictions of people arguing and couples breaking up and storming out on one another. Our narrator and tour guide is Dominick Birdsey (Mark Ruffalo), an aspiring writer who never left town because of his unstable and dependent twin brother, Thomas (also Ruffalo), who was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic as a young adult. Dominick describes his brother as an “anchor,” but it’s evident early on that he loves playing the role of savior as a way of evading his responsibility for the general disappointment of his adult life.

In the series’s ‘90s-era thread, Thomas becomes convinced that he must make a blood sacrifice to end the Gulf War, and he does something shocking that lands him in a high-security mental health hospital. This appears to be a rational decision on the part of the facility’s board, as Thomas is clearly mentally ill, though Dominick is determined to get his brother returned to a low-security hospital. Cianfrance squanders the wrenching potential in this conflict with macho sentimentality. If we were allowed to understand that Dominick’s quest for Thomas is vain and dangerous, rooted in his guilt-ridden hero complex, then we might have been pulled in recognizably contradictory emotional directions, empathizing with both brothers while fearing Dominick’s recklessness. However, this emotional response is only inadvertently triggered, as we’re supposed to see Dominick as trashing his own life to defend his brother against the Man. And in a shameless twist, Dominick’s ire with the new hospital is validated.

Cianfrance is less interested in mining the nuances of mental illness than in wallowing in existential male angst, as he did in films like Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines. In much of his work, Cianfrance appears to be trying to conjure the mood that might arise if one listened to Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run while watching a production of Sam Shepard’s Buried Child. Like those artists, Cianfrance is fixated on the idea of the ever-tormented working-class male representing the heart of the American psyche, but Springsteen and Shepard offered poetry and, in Springsteen’s case, humor and authentic rapture. By contrast, Cianfrance lingers on misery as a signpost of his integrity. The many flashbacks in I Know This Much Is True, involving Dominick and Thomas at various ages (as well as other family members), assert the same point over and over: that this family hurts itself, dashing every moment of hopefulness. (In fairness, the flashbacks are filtered through Dominick’s embittered sensibility, though their validity is generally meant to be taken at face value.)

Other long portions of I Know This Much Is True abound in shaky close-ups of Dominick’s face as he rants against largely caring family members and professionals who’re simply trying to help him. Disturbed individuals like him are certainly capable of irrationally lashing out at their loved ones, but that’s the only quality of such interactions that Cianfrance seems to recognize, and over a several-hour period these sequences come to embody a form of sensory deprivation, which is compounded by the filmmaker’s general aversion to humor. Given the extraordinary images that cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes has fashioned in the past, the self-pitying crabbiness of Cianfrance’s vision is practically offensive.

Still, Ruffalo’s casting was astute, because if Cianfrance had hired an actor with a more conventionally closed-off masculine mystique, the series might’ve been totally unwatchable. Ruffalo gives sensitive, impassioned performances, and he differentiates his characters without making a show of it. Thomas’s slouched, defeated physicality is heartbreaking even in the series’s most categorically insane moments, while Dominick’s thinner, straighter frame signifies his tightly coiled willingness to pounce upon the slightest provocation. Yet, it’s unseemly to watch an actor as thoughtful as Ruffalo submit himself to all this thrashing about, and you may find yourself pulling back from him in a manner akin to how Pauline Kael resisted Robert De Niro’s self-torturing exhibitionism in Raging Bull. (There’s even a reference to the Martin Scorsese film here: a close-up of Dominick’s twisted and gnarled face that’s held for a self-consciously ugly and interminable length of time.)

The most maddening thing about the obviously talented Cianfrance is his refusal to get out of his own way (come to think of it, Kael wrote something similar about Scorsese in her review of Raging Bull). For all of the ostentatious negativity of I Know This Much Is True, there are haunting and subtle flourishes. When eight-year-old Thomas (Rocco Masihi) humiliates himself on a school bus, we casually see another child give him a hug as he walks dejected up to the front of the vehicle. And when Dominick and Thomas’s semi-abusive, sort-of-loving stepfather, Ray (John Proccacino), suffers a heart attack, he speaks to Dominick in a halting manner that suggests his and Dominick’s worst fears of deflated masculinity, and it’s of course at this point that the two men start to bond. As predictable as they might be, these moments come as a relief from the hours of redundant emotional violence and disappointment. It was also astute to cast Rosie O’Donnell as an advocate and Michael Greyeyes as a mysterious janitor, as their poignant underacting briefly offsets the show’s chest-thumping masochism.

But I Know This Much Is True is still a shambles, a catalog of tragic events that’s meant to rhyme the Gulf War, the catalyst for the current endless American war machine, with the modern ennui that’s signified by Dominick’s irritability and Thomas’s madness. And even all that undigested subtext isn’t enough for Cianfrance, who keeps throwing things at the screen, from period flashbacks to an Italian grandfather (Simone Cappo) who’s meant to suggest the seed of American racism, to a missing girl who anticipates the reveal of Dominick and Thomas’s unseen father, who references our nation’s legacy of genocide. In this numbing, ludicrous production, Thomas’s paranoid fantasies become virtually indistinguishable from the hokum that Cianfrance offers up with solemn sincerity.

Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Kathryn Hahn, Rob Huebel, John Procaccino, Melissa Leo, Rosie O'Donnell, Philip Ettinger, Archie Panjabi, Michael Greyeyes, Tom Stratford, Donnie Masihi, Rocco Masihi, Simone Coppo, Aisling Franciosi, Matt Helm, Zaria Degenhardt, Marcello Fonte, Irene Muscara, Agatha Nowicki, Roberta Rigano Network: HBO

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Review: HBO’s Bad Education Paints an Ambiguous Portrait of Greed

Though it needlessly withholds certain details for dramatic effect, the film resists embellishment or caricature.




Bad Education
Photo: JoJo Whilden/HBO

Everybody seems to love Dr. Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman), superintendent of the Roslyn, Long Island school district. He’s personable, impeccably groomed, and responsible for getting the district ranked number four in the state. And over the course of HBO’s true-crime film Bad Education, he scrambles to cover up a potential scandal that could torpedo the school board’s budget: Assistant superintendent Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney) has been embezzling from the district for years. To complicate matters further, an intrepid school newspaper reporter, Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan), is sniffing around, which might just unearth the wide scope of the operation.

Accompanied by ironic classical music cues, Bad Education paints an unattractive portrait of its main characters. The film’s color palette is muted, and the wrinkles on the actors’ faces are featured prominently in close-ups. Their actions are even less flattering: As ludicrously underpaid as teaching may be, the crass extravagance of the town’s embezzlers is made abundantly clear via house renovations, pieds-à-terre, first-class flights, facelifts, and more—all on the school’s dime, written off as some ambiguous charge from a suspicious company.

Though the film needlessly withholds certain details to artificially pump up the drama through eventual plot twists, Bad Education resists embellishment or caricature. Instead, by probing the truly thankless task of teaching kids while under the thumb of district rankings, school board demands, and an endless parade of antagonistic parents, the film presents educators like Gluckin and Tassone with a surprising degree of sincerity and dedication to their jobs. They remember the names, the parents, the hobbies, and the siblings of all the kids who come through Roslyn. They really did get the place ranked number four.

There is, of course, more to Tassone than his composed, genial exterior suggests, most of which should be left for the audience to discover. And though the embezzlers are explicitly in the wrong, their justifications are not so easily shaken off; they are right, after all, in observing that the director of the school board (Ray Romano) makes seven figures selling real estate with values directly tied to the success of Roslyn, while the teachers and administrators remain underpaid and overworked. Rather than a simplistic, straightforward parable of greed, Bad Education depicts its true events with a surprising amount of depth and ambiguity.

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Allison Janney, Ray Romano, Geraldine Viswanathan, Alex Wolff, Rafael Casal, Stephen Spinella, Annaleigh Ashford

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