Every Doctor sooner or later has to face the Daleks. The great space dustbins are so fundamental a part of Doctor Who that they have appeared every year since the series was revived in 2005. The notion introduced by Russell T Davies that the Daleks were the opponents of the Time Lords in the great Time War which destroyed both species cemented their status as the Doctor’s greatest enemies, but also meant that the writers had to keep finding new ways of bringing them back from total extinction, only to be defeated again by the Doctor. This story finally breaks out of that cycle of the Daleks repeatedly being completely-but-not-really destroyed by giving them, as the title suggests, an actual, unambiguous victory. Unfortunately, although “Victory of the Daleks” successfully accomplishes this main purpose, it has so many flaws elsewhere that it’s clearly the weakest episode of the season so far.
The episode is bizarrely structured, falling into three quite separate pieces which hit completely different levels with regard to tone, atmosphere, and effectiveness. The first third is by far the best part, taut and gripping as the Doctor and the Daleks maneuver around each other—the Doctor knows the Daleks are up to something, but can’t figure out what, or convince anyone of the danger. The middle stretch is when the Daleks’ plans reach fruition and the Doctor leads the fight against them in a silly but fun action sequence. But then everything goes pear-shaped, and the climax of the episode is a terrible, mawkish miscalculation, probably the worst misstep since the ending of “Fear Her” four years ago.
By coincidence, the structure of the first part of this season corresponds closely with that of the Christopher Eccleston season back in 2005, with the showrunner writing the season opener to introduce the new Doctor and companion, then following that up with a weird far-future adventure, and then an excursion into history written by Mark Gatiss (and, to complete the analogy, Steven Moffat is back next week writing the first two-parter of the season). Back then, “The Unquiet Dead” gave us Charles Dickens fighting ghosts in Cardiff; here, it’s Winston Churchill leading Britain through the dark days of World War Two. As usual, the BBC design, costume, and make-up departments have done an excellent job of recreating the period setting. Much of the episode takes place in the Cabinet War Rooms underneath central London, and the narrow, drab corridors, the cramped rooms packed full of people and smoke, the dust drifting down as German bombs impact overhead, are all perfectly depicted.
Ian McNeice presents a Churchill who is very much the legendary icon—all cigar-chomping, bulldog determination, in bowler hat and bow tie—rather than a realistic portrait of the complex, contradictory man he actually was. I suspect this is partly because the story makes the interesting choice of having the Doctor already well-known to Churchill; in fact, they’re almost old cronies, with Churchill totally unfazed by his changing appearance or his TARDIS—as we saw last week, he was even able to phone the Doctor far in the future and call him back to Earth. They wrangle, but not in an unfriendly manner, over the Doctor’s refusal to put the TARDIS at Churchill’s disposal for the war effort. (“Must I take it by force?” “I’d like to see you try…”) It’s all very cosy.
The Doctor is taken outside the Cabinet bunker to witness an incoming squadron of German bombers being wiped out by Britain’s new secret weapon—a very familiar-looking death ray. One of the “secret weapons” trundles into view—a Dalek, looking surprisingly fitting in this environment in khaki colors with a Union Jack painted underneath its eyestalk; I particularly loved the little blackout covers placed over its head lights. Horrified, the Doctor demands to know what the Daleks are doing here, but it shows no sign of recognizing him, simply repeating, “I-AM-YOUR-SOLDIER.”
The Doctor: “Stop that… You know who I am. You always know.”
The scientist who apparently developed these weapons, Professor Edwin Bracewell (Bill Paterson), explains how his “Ironsides” will win the war. The Doctor immediately declares to Churchill that the Daleks are aliens and Bracewell must be some kind of dupe, but the PM replies with the story of how Bracewell approached the government some months ago with the plans and blueprints for the machines. As they argue, the Daleks in the background are keeping a careful watch on the Doctor.
This first section is very reminiscent of “The Power of the Daleks,” a classic story from the 1960s, which introduced Patrick Troughton as the Doctor and showed the Daleks at their scheming best. The basic ideas of Daleks pretending to be subservient to humans for their own purposes (the repeated “I-AM-YOUR-SOLDIER” here corresponds to a similar refrain of “I-AM-YOUR-SERVANT” in the older story), and the Doctor’s warnings of danger going unheeded, are reused, and are just as effective. In “Power,” they played on human greed in order to buy time to make themselves stronger; here, they are relying on Churchill’s desperate need to seize any advantage he can find to defend against the Nazis. When pressed by the Doctor, he makes this explicit (neatly making use of a famous quote from the real-life Churchill, about allying with Stalin):
The Doctor: “The Daleks have no conscience, no mercy, no pity. They are my oldest and deadliest enemy. You cannot trust them.”
Churchill: “If Hitler invaded Hell, I would give a favorable reference to the Devil. These machines are our salvation.”
The Doctor can do nothing but watch as the Daleks glide around with impunity, carrying out their menial tasks (and hearing a Dalek voice asking “WOULD-YOU-CARE-FOR-SOME-TEA?” is actually quite unsettling). He also discovers something even more disturbing, when he tries to get Amy to warn Churchill about the Daleks.
Amy: “What would I know about the Daleks?”
The Doctor: “Everything. They invaded your world, remember. Planets in the sky—you don’t forget that.”
Amy: (looks blank)
The Doctor: “Amy. Tell me you remember the Daleks.”
Amy: “Nope… Sorry.”
The Doctor: “That’s not possible…”
Clearly something has happened to the timeline which has meant that, for Amy (and perhaps for her entire world), the events of “The Stolen Earth” didn’t happen. No doubt this is related to the “cracks in the universe,” which have appeared in both the last two episodes, and will be further developed over the rest of the season…
Eventually the Doctor’s frustration at not being able to convince anyone of the danger boils over. He grabs a huge wrench and attacks one of the Daleks (“YOU-DO-NOT-REQUIRE-TEA?”), taunting the creature and demanding that it acknowledge him. Matt Smith is good throughout the episode, but is particularly excellent here, managing to conjure up the same combination of frenzied fear and loathing as Christopher Eccleston showed when his Doctor met a Dalek for the first time in 2005. You really get a sense that the Daleks unleash something frighteningly primal in the Doctor.
The Doctor: “You! Are! My! Enemy! And I am yours! You are everything I despise. The worst thing in all creation. I’ve defeated you time and time again… I sent you back into the Void. I saved the whole of reality from you. I am the Doctor, and you are the Daleks!”
And now the Daleks make their move. The one he attacked simply replies, “CORRECT.” They transmit the Doctor’s “testimony” about their identity to their waiting ship, hiding behind the moon, and teleport away after revealing to the shocked Bracewell that, far from being the Daleks’ creator, he is in fact an android created by them and programmed with human-seeming memories.
Amy: “What just happened, Doctor?”
The Doctor: “I wanted to know what they wanted, what their plan was. I was their plan.”
The Doctor quickly uses the TARDIS to travel to the Dalek ship, where he holds off the Daleks by pretending that a jammie dodger (a jam-filled biscuit) is a TARDIS self-destruct switch. I really liked this bit of whimsy—recalling a time when Tom Baker’s Doctor once held a group of savage warriors at bay with “a deadly jelly baby”—and especially the punchline when his bluff is eventually called, taking a bite from it and saying, “All right, it’s a jammie dodger. But I was promised tea!”
While they are engaged in this standoff, the Daleks admit what they are up to. They are the only survivors from their last encounter with the Doctor (“Journey’s End”), trying as usual to rebuild their race. But this time they have found a Progenitor device, an ancient Dalek gene bank (presumably dating from the Time War) which can be used as the source for a whole new army of Daleks. There’s only one problem—the Progenitor doesn’t recognize them, since they are not pure Dalek (the ones we saw in “Journey’s End” were created by Davros using his own cells), and will not function for them. Hence the whole elaborate scheme to lure the Doctor to them and obtain the “testimony” of the Daleks’ great enemy which will confirm to the Progenitor their identity. I thought this was a very clever idea, and certainly the craftiest the Daleks have been for years.
The Doctor can only look on as the Progenitor gets to work, and eventually out from the machine emerges “a new Dalek paradigm.” Deciding to launch a redesigned version of the Daleks was a risk for the show to take—not only has the original been a design icon for decades, but it had been reintroduced to a whole new generation of viewers with massive success—and it has to be said that the new Daleks have received a more negative reaction than just about anything else in the new series so far. They’re significantly larger than the old ones, which can make them look nicely imposing, particularly when they’re shot from a low angle, but also gives them an unwanted ponderous, lumbering quality. The idea of having them in different colors to differentiate them into functional categories (scientist, drone, soldier etc.) harks back to the earliest Dalek stories—and in particular, to the two cinema films, Doctor Who and the Daleks and Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 AD, starring Peter Cushing and made in the mid-‘60s at the height of the Daleks’ initial popularity. However, the bright primary colors chosen make them look rather plastic and lightweight next to the metallic bronze Daleks we’ve gotten used to, not to mention raising the suspicion that merchandising considerations may have played a part (“Hey kids, collect the whole set!”). My least favorite change, though, is the alteration to the proportions of the creatures. From the front they’re fine, but in profile they now present a rather hulking, even humpbacked appearance, thanks to the increased size of the back section. Maybe it’s just the unfamiliarity, and I’ll get used to them over time (I complained about the new theme tune a couple of weeks ago, but I have to report that it’s now beginning to grow on me), but I really don’t see them as an advance on the originals. It is a nice touch, though, that their first action is to exterminate the previous versions for being “impure,” and that the old Daleks immediately accept their fate with no argument.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, Amy and Churchill talk the shattered Bracewell out of killing himself by telling him they need his advanced technical knowledge to find a way of attacking the Dalek ship. Earlier he had talked of possibilities for hypersonic flight and “gravity bubbles” enabling flight into space, and what do you know, that’s exactly what’s needed to soup up a squadron of Spitfires so that they can take on a Dalek spaceship. It’s best not to dwell on the question of how this advanced tech progressed from a theoretical possibility to being deployed in actual airplanes over the course of a couple of scenes—we’ve crossed over fully into pulp adventure serial mode now. Murray Gold provides a fine Dam Busters-style score as the Spitfires strafe the Dalek ship with cries of “Tally ho” and “Let’s go, chaps”—and there’s a lovely Where Eagles Dare reference (“Broadsword calling Danny Boy”) stuck in as well. With the Doctor helping by deactivating its shields, the planes eventually threaten to destroy the Dalek ship.
And now the story takes a really crazy turn, as the Daleks buy time to escape the Spitfire attack by suddenly revealing that the Bracewell android is powered by something called an “oblivion continuum” which they threaten to detonate—effectively making him a massive bomb that can destroy the entire planet. This is supposed to set up the critical dilemma for the Doctor—let the new Daleks escape, to rebuild their forces anew, or destroy them forever (again) but allow the Earth to be shattered. Unfortunately, despite Matt Smith’s best efforts at showing the Doctor’s anguish, the scene falls flat, because (a) we’ve seen the same situation at the climax of “The Parting of the Ways,” where it was much more personal and emotional for the Doctor; (b) the ridiculous technobabble (“oblivion continuum”—really?) makes it impossible to take seriously; and (c) the whole situation is thrown in with absolutely no foreshadowing, as if the writer had suddenly discovered that the script was running short.
Anyway, the Doctor calls off the attack, returns to Earth, and with one punch knocks down Bracewell and starts trying to defuse him, since the Daleks have naturally triggered the countdown to detonation. This turns out to involve getting him to talk about his human memories and feelings, since somehow if he becomes more “human” then the Daleks won’t be able to remotely explode him. The idea of talking a bomb out of exploding is frankly impossible to take seriously, especially for anyone who’s seen John Carpenter’s Dark Star, which did the same thing as a comedy. The only reason the whole thing doesn’t fail completely is Bill Paterson’s performance—he manages to make Bracewell’s bewildered desperation compelling despite the preposterous situation.
After the Doctor fails to stop the countdown with appeals to Bracewell’s humanity and pushing him to recall memories of his early life, his parents’ deaths, and so on, Amy asks him, “Ever fancied someone you know you shouldn’t?” with a glance at the Doctor. This prompts Bracewell to reminisce about an old flame named Dorabella, which somehow proves to be enough to abort the countdown. (As I mentioned at the top of this review, this resolution brought back unwanted memories of the sickly sentimental “power of love” ending to “Fear Her.”) With their bomb having failed, the new Daleks head off into the universe to rebuild their forces, no doubt in preparation for a resumption of hostilities further down the line this season or the next.
As with last week’s episode, Amy ends up providing the solution by contributing a viewpoint that the Doctor lacks. She’s turning out to be surprisingly competent at this adventuring business, but I only hope her look toward the Doctor here doesn’t indicate that there’s another Doctor/companion romance on the cards. We’ve had quite enough of that for the time being. Karen Gillan is once again excellent, although it’s pushing the bounds of belief that her miniskirt barely attracts a second glance from anyone in 1940. Perhaps it has its own inbuilt perception filter.
There’s a drawn-out ending, or rather a string of endings—first some business with Churchill once again trying to get the TARDIS key before going back to his war, then some rather labored comedy with the Doctor, having removed all the advanced Dalek tech Bracewell created, deciding not to dismantle the android and letting him go instead. Finally, back at the TARDIS, the Doctor returns to a matter that’s been nagging him:
Amy: “You’re worried about the Daleks?”
The Doctor: “I’m always worried about the Daleks.”
Amy: “It’ll take time though, won’t it? I mean, there’s still not many of them. They’ll need a while to build themselves up.”
The Doctor: “It’s not that, there’s something else. Something we’ve forgotten—or rather, you have.”
The Doctor: “You didn’t know them, Amy. You’d never seen them before. And you should have done. You should.”
And so the episode finishes on an unresolved note, as the TARDIS vanishes, leaving another crack in the universe behind—unfinished business. The Daleks have their victory. But it must be said, it’s a rather hollow one.
Next Week: Two of Steven Moffat’s greatest creations return. The Weeping Angels from the acclaimed “Blink” are back, and so is the mysterious River Song, in “The Time of Angels.”
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: I’d love to be able to recommend “The Power of the Daleks,” but unfortunately it no longer exists in the BBC archives. For those who’d like to check out the soundtrack (recorded off-air at the time of transmission, and carefully cleaned up for commercial release), it is available on audio CD, and the story is actually strong enough to stand up even without its visuals. But, sticking with DVDs, to see how the classic series visited World War Two, try “The Curse of Fenric,” starring Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred.
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Review: Shudder’s Creepshow Anthology Series Does Its Pulpy Namesake Proud
The series bottles the original’s pulpy spirit and atmosphere for an irresistibly macabre package.3
George A. Romero and Stephen King’s 1982 horror anthology film Creepshow, which consists of five stories that each hinge on some striking image or plot twist, is a triumph of atmosphere. Its vibrant comic-book aesthetic verges on goofy archness, and it prioritizes the wraparound E.C. Comics homage in such a way that even the lesser tales of terror are elevated simply by association with that good-natured tone of “fun” horror.
Shudder’s episodic revival does its namesake proud. With page-turn transitions, fake comic-book ads, and interludes featuring The Creep, the series faithfully replicates the film’s atmosphere, albeit with one meaningful tweak to the format. Rather than only adapt King’s stories under a single director, the series gives multiple directors a shot at helming segments written by various authors, including Joe R. Lansdale, Christopher Buehlman, and Joe Hill.
The first segment of the one episode provided to critics is a King joint, an adaptation of his 1973 story “Gray Matter,” directed by Walking Dead vet Greg Nicotero (who also did makeup effects for Creepshow 2). In it, a horrified boy (Christopher Nathan) relates the mysterious fate of his hard-drinking father (Jesse C. Boyd) to a kindly shop owner (Adrienne Barbeau, who appeared in the original film). There’s a gee-whiz quality to the dialogue that might have been grating in another context, but it feels appropriate amid the show’s heightened mood created by deep shadows and rich, bright colors. Even when the segment isn’t outright depicting narration boxes and comic panels, the actors capture just the right tone of hammy seriousness.
In “Gray Matter,” the subtext about alcoholism and grief doesn’t go anywhere particularly noteworthy, as the series is clearly more interested in simply shouting “boo!” while showing off some marvelously squishy special effects. But the episode becomes an efficient delivery mechanism for pleasantly cheesy horror that’s comforting in its own way, like a tale told around the campfire or a story read under the blanket via flashlight.
The second segment, “House of the Head,” directed by John Harrison and written by Josh Malerman, differs wildly in concept from “Gray Matter.” It follows a young girl (Cailey Fleming) who watches a frightful drama unfold inside her dollhouse after a tiny severed head starts to terrorize her doll family. Harrison films the girl’s face through the dollhouse so that we discover the grisly scenes as she does, turning us into a kind of second participant as we follow her gaze from room to room. The tale’s ending is an unfortunate whimper, but its inventive concept underscores the anthology’s sense of variety, both in terms of setups and horrors.
The original film excels at doling out such small doses of horror—odd images, like a birthday cake topped with a human head or a farmer subsumed by plant growth, that stick in the brain. The breezy, pulpy nature of the revived series accomplishes this just as well with its severed doll head and one particularly gooey monstrosity. Shudder’s Creepshow bottles the original’s pulpy spirit, using the atmosphere and variety provided by shorter segments for an irresistibly macabre package.
Cast: Bruce Davison, Hannah Barefoot, David Arquette, Adrienne Barbeau, Big Boi, Kid Cudi, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Nathan, Jesse C. Boyd, Cailey Fleming, Tobin Bell Network: Shudder
Review: Undone Is a Rich, Complicated Character Piece About Mental Illness
The series is both beautiful and inventive, even if it uses the mental health of its protagonist as a story hook.3
Rotoscope animation gives Amazon’s Undone an appropriately in-between feel, its not-quite-animated yet not-quite-live-action style a metaphor for protagonist Alma’s (Rosa Salazar) state of mind. Following a car crash, she becomes unmoored in time, seeming to travel to the past and go through life events out of order. Whether due to schizophrenia or because she’s some sort of time wizard, the point is that Alma isn’t in total control. The series, the brainchild of Bojack Horseman writers Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg, is certainly complicated, but it makes for an unexpectedly rich character piece about processing mental illness and the way it affects those around us.
Alma is, at turns, playfully sarcastic and pessimistic or withdrawn, if not a little self-destructive. Her family’s history of mental illness naturally scares the young woman; she wears a cochlear implant and views her deafness and other facets of what she calls her “broken brain” as potential warning signs that she, too, may develop schizophrenia one day. All these factors complicate Alma’s relationships with her devoutly religious mother, Camila (Constance Marie), and her buttoned-up sister, Becca (Angelique Cabral).
The newest entry in Alma’s network of relationships is her long-dead father, Jacob (Bob Odenkirk), who manifests alongside his daughter’s apparent time-jumping powers. Much of the series is dedicated to Alma developing her abilities under his tutelage and investigating his untimely demise, sliding in and out of oil-painted dreamscapes and memories. At one point, father and daughter levitate within an enlarged version of the hand-drawn meadow of a Get Well Soon card from her boyfriend, Sam (Siddharth Dhananjay). Then, at another, a person ages into a skeleton only for a baby to sprout from the pile like the skull is an egg.
But there’s always a lingering question mark over the whole experience, of whether her powers and newfound special-ness are real or whether they’re the imagined result of Alma’s desire for control and self-actualization, her rebellion against her mundane life and general lack of agency. Undone slyly keeps itself from answering this question, or even if Jacob’s teachings are healthy; when he’s not nudging her in the direction of becoming some kind of emotionless time monk, he’s warning her about how harmful it is to have relationships at all.
The series breaks up what can feel like long stretches of semi-scientific explanations with frequent comedic asides or images of Alma simply living her life, which is inevitably affected by her abilities. Sometimes Undone’s tonal balance can feel off, jokey to a point that undercuts the seriousness of Alma’s investigation into her father’s death. But such interludes are mostly a welcome relief, as when Jacob stops one particular explanation dead in order to incredulously focus on how his daughter was never taught to drive stick-shift.
Rather than simply giving Alma a “superpower,” Purdy and Bob-Waksberg structure the series in such a way that makes the grounded relationships uniformly more engrossing than the mystery of Jacob’s death. A common refrain is that “ordinary life” is just as appealing as the powers that reframe Alma’s perception of reality, and the series takes great pains to depict the way others react to her behavior. On some level, it doesn’t matter whether she’s schizophrenic or a time-traveler so much as the fact that she and her loved ones are affected all the same.
Even so, the show’s sporadic claims to the appeal of “ordinary life” ring a bit hollow, particularly in the midst of lavish animation meant to aid the depiction of its time-travel conceit. The is-she-or-isn’t-she-crazy premise creates an inherent division where time travel is the ideal option and schizophrenia is the tragic alternative. While it’s certainly possible that this dichotomy merely reflects Alma’s current perception of mental illness, Undone asks the viewer to take it on faith that it’s approaching the topic with sensitivity.
There are no mentally ill characters to offer an alternate perspective, nor are there any significant indigenous characters to flesh out the way the series uses such cultures’ beliefs, particularly shamanism, as essentially wallpaper for time travel lore. Undone can be beautiful and inventive, but rather than directly confront such concerns, it mostly just kicks each can of worms a little further down the road, to perhaps be addressed in a future season while it continues to use the question of Alma’s sanity as a story hook.
Cast: Rosa Salazar, Bob Odenkirk, Angelique Cabral, Constance Marie, Siddharth Dhananjay, Daveed Diggs, Luna-Marie Katich, Kevin Bigley Network: Amazon
Review: The Deuce’s Final Season Prioritizes Anthropology Over Character
The show’s third and final season struggles to consistently build gripping stories for its vivid characters to inhabit.2.5
With the first two seasons of The Deuce, showrunners David Simon and George Pelecanos offered glimpses of Times Square at critical inflection points. The series convincingly positioned real estate investment—not public morals, community policing, or mafia vagaries—as the preeminent engine for the corporate sanitization of the neighborhood. The third and final season jumps to 1984, yet another important historical moment, and continues to memorialize a time and place erased by corporatization. As always, the show’s characters remain romantic visions of largely extinct New York types. And while the series mourns their disappearance, the characters themselves, even after three seasons, tend to occupy frustratingly static stories—even as the world transforms around them.
Which isn’t to say that The Deuce lacks a compelling hook. Season three provides typically revealing insights into elements of ‘80s New York City that are underserved even in other texts which seek to lionize the era. The show’s presentation of Times Square entails a kind of shadow history, about everything from cops harassing building owners to the nascent AIDS crisis. Increasingly common random assaults—muggings, performed mostly by young black men who the NYPD refer to as “wolf packs”—forces the police to consider aggressive new strategies, and foreshadows real-life political handwringing over emerging “super predators.”
The wolf packs are introduced in season three’s first scene, which unfolds with the bruising clarity of many David Simon theses. A group of kids targets Tommy Longo (Daniel Sauli), a low-level mobster, before being dissuaded by the gun in his waistband. As a literal confrontation between criminals from different generations, the scene reflects the passing of time—perhaps the show’s second most pressing concern, after capitalism. As the season wears on, though, cops ratchet their focus on the wolf packs, and that early scene assumes a new racial significance: Tommy and his mob paid for police protection and helped erode Times Square in seasons one and two, yet it seems that the presence of black muggers might finally prompt urgency in the city’s glacial effort to transform the neighborhood.
The Deuce argues convincingly for the macro-level importance of what’s happening in Times Square, even if the neighborhood’s inhabitants, despite being interesting types, rarely do interesting things. The series positions its prostitutes, porn stars, mobsters, and bohemians as dinosaurs, mostly unaware of their looming extinction, from disease, the advent of home video, and the real estate boom. There’s an elegiac sensibility to the first three episodes of the season made available to press, but The Deuce, beyond offering remembrance, is less clear about how it feels about the impending extinction event—or why the characters are worthy of our attention, beyond their lifelike representations of a forgotten time and place.
Because the series is ambitiously structured, in order to tell the unwieldy story of an entire city ecosystem, around three disparate years across three decades, it’s struggled to consistently build gripping stories for these vivid characters to inhabit. Vincent’s (James Franco) quiet drama with Abby (Margarita Levieva), his twin brother Frankie’s (Franco) attempts to sell porn, Rudy’s (Michael Rispoli) struggle to maintain mob influence—all are storylines that relate to capitalism, in the sense that every element of life is tangentially related to capitalism. Yet the series doesn’t always connect its storylines to the broader transformation of New York, and, as a result, story arcs such as Vincent’s can feel like afterthoughts, overshadowed by both the show’s central narrative and its overarching theme.
Simon and Pelecanos, in their attempts to venerate this era of New York, occasionally misstep in assuming that their characters remain interesting by virtue of their inspirations having merely existed in an iconic city at an interesting time. Eileen (Maggie Gyllenhaal) remains the most captivating figure in the series because she’s one of the rare characters who’s managed to escape the narrative quagmire of the show’s Times Square scene: In season three, she acquires a wealthy new boyfriend, Hank (Corey Stoll), and the series deploys their relationship to reveal her mixture of shame and pride in her past. And an emerging conflict arises between gender expectations in a modernizing world: Can she keep chasing her filmmaking dream, or must she settle for the financial comforts of her new romance?
Conversely, Vincent, Frankie, and their mob associates toil in storylines which have developed only slightly over The Deuce’s decades-spanning arc. One could interpret this as intentional on behalf of its creators. By continuing to confine its totemic New York figures—the mobsters, barmen, and sleaze-balls—to plodding and static storylines, the series demythologizes them, suggesting that the cultural touchstones of New York history were just subjects to the fiscal whims of the city’s influential, faceless money movers—or “they,” as Abby vaguely refers to the corporate encroachers in one episode. Such an argument could feasibly be made, though, without relegating many of the show’s characters to mere observers. Even the reemergence of Vincent’s ex-wife, Andrea (Zoe Kazan), isn’t treated as a story hook as much as an event that merely happens, was always inevitable, and carries no tangible stakes. The stakes in the series are reserved for the neighborhood as a whole. The meteor is approaching Times Square, and The Deuce seems destined to conclude with a resigned shrug toward many of its inhabitants.
Cast: James Franco, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Margarita Levieva, Emily Meade, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Chris Coy, Chris Bauer, Michael Rispoli, Daniel Sauli, Corey Stoll, Zoe Kazan Network: HBO
Review: Unbelievable Is a Wikipedia Article Dressed Up As a TV Show
The series feels like a vehicle built merely to convey the information dug up by its progenitors.2
Successful adaptations can unlock something new within texts through the translation to another medium. But Netflix’s Unbelievable, based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning account of a rape investigation and an ensuing episode of This American Life, feels like a vehicle built merely to convey the information dug up by its progenitors. It’s a bunch of bullet points wrapped up in Toni Collette’s leather-jacket cool and Merritt Wever’s practiced do-goodery.
The series begins in 2008, when Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever), a teen in a support program for young adults who grew up in foster care, reports a rape and is bullied by police into recanting her story. It then moves to 2011, when two detectives, badass Grace Rasmussen (Collette) and self-flagellating Karen Duvall (Wever), investigate a handful of rape cases that eerily recall what happened to Marie. Jumping back and forth between the two periods, Unbelievable commits to shedding light on the shortcomings of law enforcement, from the mishandling of sexual violence cases to the prevalence of so-called “bad apples” within police forces.
The series, however, addresses these systemic issues heavy-handedly and delivers its didacticism in stilted dialogue. At one point, speaking with Billy Taggart (Scott Lawrence), an F.B.I. agent supporting the case, Rasmussen reminds him that “cops beat up their partners at two to four times the rate of the general population.” Such inorganic dialogue permeates the series and lends a wooden quality to Collette and Wever’s performances.
Unbelievable deems no detail or false lead too minor, and so the audience is forced to endure an agonizingly slow drip of facts, figures, and theories throughout Rasmussen and Duvall’s investigation. Where the show’s depiction of police work is lethargic, Marie’s arc is exceedingly repetitive, if occasionally poignant. The series seems to value her less as a person than as a recipient of endless injustices. When we see Marie, chances are that she’ll get some bad news, her eyes will well up, and the series will cut back to 2011 until it’s time for her to suffer anew.
Despite the emotional cheapness of her story arc, Marie remains a captivating presence, thanks largely to how the cinematography frames her reaction to her ordeal. Unbelievable’s first episode relays the agony of Marie’s police questioning with particular deftness. When Marie talks to the cops, primarily the well-intentioned but insensitive Detective Parker (Eric Lange), we frequently see her from low angles, as though the camera is spying on her from underneath a table. These shots, along with close-ups of Marie—of her wide-eyed face, of her fidgeting hands, of her restless, shaking legs—emphasize her vulnerability. She’s alone and in way over her head, abandoned by her friends, doubted by her former foster mothers (Elizabeth Marvel and Bridget Everett), losing control as she gets picked apart.
Unbelievable is at its most capacious in its last two episodes, directed by creator Susannah Grant. The pace quickens as Rasmussen and Duvall narrow in on their suspect, and we get our first look at Marie in 2011, years older and at some kind of peace. The show’s shift from the toil of investigation to the climax of apprehension finally frees the detectives to feel rather than edify. Duvall’s revelry and newfound relief during a celebratory night out underscore the emotional burdens of the investigation far more than her series-long frustration does.
The final episodes also feature moments that capitalize on the show’s dual-timeline structure. During a counseling session, Marie delivers a harrowing monologue about trust and loneliness that cuts in and out of Duvall and Rasmussen reviewing the nauseating photos the perpetrator took of his victims. The sequence is stirring in its understatement: in Marie’s matter-of-fact expression of her cynicism, in Duvall’s nods and grimaces as Rasmussen clicks and clicks through the pictures, and in Rasmussen’s glazed-over eyes, slow blinks, and deep breaths.
In the first episode, we see obfuscated glimpses of Marie being raped as she recalls the attack. We watch her focus on a framed picture in her bedroom, getting lost in it. She’s at the beach, happily skipping into the waves. The episode ends with a splendid overhead shot of Marie, at wits’ end, leaning over the edge of a bridge, looking into the churning water below. The water, in both scenes, signifies escape—and whether calm or crushing, it’s a reprieve from what she’s experiencing. But the series lazily handles that motif, as it mostly disappears until the very last episode, where the water predictably underlines that Marie’s found a hint of closure. What exists in-between—nearly the entire series—is an overwhelming dryness.
Cast: Toni Collette, Merritt Wever, Kaitlyn Dever, Danielle Macdonald, Eric Lange, Elizabeth Marvel, Bridget Everett, Scott Lawrence, Dale Dickey, Liza Lapira, Omar Maskati, Austin Hébert, Kai Lennox, Annaleigh Ashford, Max Arciniega, Jayne Taini, Vanessa Bell Calloway Network: Netflix
Review: Mindhunter Season 2 Grapples with Identity and the Power of Words
The show’s second season reveals the intricate intersections between personal and political neuroses.3.5
The first season of Mindhunter distinguished itself from other crime shows by offering an origin story, dramatizing how the F.B.I. forged its Behavioral Science Unit. At its most resonant, the season reminded audiences that institutions and corresponding notions of reality have to be invented and manipulated, and creator Joe Penhall and co-executive producer David Fincher rhymed this social invention with one of a more personal sort. The F.B.I. agents pioneering criminal profiling, Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), had to fine-tune their personalities in order to realize their vision, particularly when interviewing the captured killers who gave the men insight. The B.S.U.’s resident psychiatrist, Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), also engaged in role-play, hiding her homosexuality from a traditionally reactionary arm of the American government.
Season one was driven, then, by unreleased tension, especially as the killers offered extreme and distorted windows into repressed desires that are more common than Tench would prefer to admit. It was, in the tradition of Fincher’s Zodiac, an epic and neurotic procedural that, in the vein of the director’s The Social Network, understood the power of words, especially as Ford and Tench gradually fashioned an iconic term: “serial killer.”
Mindhunter’s second season doesn’t have the same benefit of novelty as the first, as the B.S.U. is now established, if still fledgling. Correspondingly, we have a better idea of how the unit works, and Ford, Tench, and Carr’s dynamic has solidified to suggest relationships that are reminiscent of other crime series. Ford is the wild card, a man who uses his lack of social grace to forge a kinship with others even more profoundly alienated from society. Tench is the old-school G man, who often uses his credibility—professional as well as masculine—to keep Ford’s superiors from reining him in. Also seeking to rein Ford and Tench in is Carr, who naïvely believes that the men can glean more insight from the killers by sticking to a script.
Penhall, Fincher, and the show’s high-profile guest directors, Andrew Dominik and Carl Franklin, challenge these relationships by splintering them. Ford and Tench’s volatile buddy routine, one of the primary pleasures of Mindhunter’s first season, is largely absent here, as the men are chasing their own respective obsessions. The first three episodes of the season, directed by Fincher, are piercing essays on isolation and sadness. Fincher, who has a reputation as an exacting formalist in the key of Kubrick, favors sculptural compositions that invest even routine actions with elements of menace and poignancy. When Ford flies to Atlanta, Fincher dollies in on his seat from the front of the plane, fashioning a diagonal image that emphasizes the tightness and the anonymous discomfort of the vehicle. This scene lasts only a few seconds, and for many directors it would be a routine transition shot, but Fincher uses it to affirm Ford’s torment as well as the general grind of endless travel.
In the second episode, Fincher fashions the finest moment of the entire season, which rivals the best sequences of his films, when Ford and Tench interview Kevin Bright (Andrew Yackel), a survivor of the BTK Killer. Kevin is framed in a ghostly silhouette in the back of a car, while the F.B.I. men sit in front, and as he describes the atrocities he witnessed, Fincher emphasizes the sound of a train passing by on the bridge overhead, suggesting Kevin’s painful transition into the past. Characteristically of Mindhunter, a moment that crime shows tend to take for granted—the interviewing of a witness—is itself turned into a set piece, which dramatizes a victim’s distress and the immensity of Ford and Tench’s quest to quantify madness. Notably it’s Tench, rather than Ford, who proves to be the empathetic talker this time.
Narratively, Ford’s alienation is expressed via a startling gambit, as he’s essentially reduced to a supporting character in the second season. In its first, Mindhunter was driven by his sense of discovery, by his yearning to see his own disaffection in mad men. By contrast, Ford still seems somewhat reduced here by his climactic meeting with Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton) in last season’s finale, and he’s fragile, even more egotistical than usual, and distracted, searching for something. And so season two is hung, emotionally, on Tench’s shoulders.
McCallany gives a beautiful and moving performance, informing Tench with a vulnerability and decency that many characters—so taken with his profession, big frame, square jaw, and crew cut—happen to overlook. (Carr’s new girlfriend, Kat, played by Lauren Glazier, smugly refers to Tench as “General Patton.”) More than ever, Mindhunter is obsessed with the systemic discrimination of law enforcement, yet it doesn’t turn its law enforcers into racist, sexist caricatures—slobbering monsters ready for our distanced disdain. Tench is a likeable character who also casually sees homosexuality as deviancy, which periodically limits his scope, as a law man and a man in general, and which also challenges our own empathetic tendencies and idea of who we should find likeable. Tench inadvertently hurts Carr with certain comments, especially when she gets in the field herself and uses her experience with an older woman (played in the first season by Lena Olin) to bond with an incarcerated young man who helped an elder lure, torture, and rape other children. The show dares to rhyme Tench, straight man incarnate, with Carr, as they’re both consigned to play stereotypes.
Tench faces a wrenching familial crisis this season, and few notice his pain, which he wears in his tight shoulders. Nancy (Stacey Roca), so devoted to their unraveling adopted son, Brian (Zachary Scott Ross), neglects her husband’s escalating misery as well as Brian’s potential devolution into a predator. (Nancy isn’t as well-drawn as Tench, and she borders on becoming the cliché of the cop’s nagging housewife.) Meanwhile, Carr must play the intellectual, the gatherer and sorter, though she yearns to return to the field again and shows a flair for improvisation that rivals Ford himself. The irony of Carr outing herself in an interview with a killer is considerable, as she uses a realm of role-play as a confessional, throwing the killer a crumb of authentic human feeling only to walk it back later with her professional peers.
The lengthy interviews that Ford, Tench, and Carr conduct are more exactingly rendered and theatrical this season, which features a who’s-who of killers, including David Berkowitz (Oliver Cooper), William “Junior” Pierce (Michael Filipowich), Tex Watson (Christopher Backus), and Charles Manson (Damon Herriman), each of whom have special vanities that must be satisfied. Berkowitz admits that calling himself the “Son of Sam”—that a dog ordered him to murder his victims—was a con when Holden flatters his shrewdness. Pierce opens up to another F.B.I. agent, Jim Barney (Albert Jones), when the investigator gives him candy, which he pops into his mouth with memorably childish, nearly dainty relish. Manson, played with ferocious gravity by Herriman, disarms Tench when his anti-capitalist, everyone-is-violent-but-me shtick happens to stir Tench’s guilt over Brian. These sequences are dramatic in the moment but collectively suggest the emotional wear and tear of Ford and Tench’s profession, as they experience behavioral extremis over and over with results of questionable value.
Mindhunter is still exhilaratingly occupied with detail, which becomes particularly evident in the season’s main arc, where Tench, Ford, and Barney help local law enforcement investigate the Atlanta child murders, in which dozens of children of color were killed from 1979 to 1981. This investigation involves the navigation of multiple planes of government and law enforcement with many agendas, and these negotiations come to drive the show nearly as much as the hunt for the killer. Some of the victims’ families believe the K.K.K. to be involved, but local politicians, many of whom are people of color, don’t want to blow a potential social powder keg, though they also don’t wish to commit political suicide by abiding Ford’s conviction that the killer is a black man. This is the sort of Catch-22 with which Mindhunter is obsessed, and such difficulties are intensified by bureaucratic minutiae. In a prolonged and amusing moment, Ford is notified of all the departments he must contact simply to distribute flyers. Most of these episodes are directed by Franklin, who has a subtler visual palette than Fincher and who evinces a powerful delicacy with racial tensions that’s reminiscent of his most acclaimed works of Southern noir, One False Move and Devil in a Blue Dress.
Mindhunter’s second season is both epic and intimate in its sprawl, collapsing dozens of famous crime stories together, revealing the intricate intersections between personal and political neuroses. Tench and Carr’s senses of repression are rhymed with that of Barney, a black man who’s implicitly charged with keeping the peace between the Atlanta politicians, the mothers of the murdered and missing children, and the F.B.I. at Quantico. According to the series, as the B.S.U. expands, it moves away from its primary, idealistic promise to become vulnerable to both the necessary as well as the petty limitations of any public service body. The BTK Killer (Sonny Valicenti), who still haunts the series in the episode prologues, wouldn’t be caught for decades, and 22 of the unsolved cases in the Atlanta child murders were hastily closed in order to keep Atlanta’s political tensions at a simmer, the latter of which Mindhunter acknowledges in a finale that’s every bit as deliberately and poignantly unsatisfying as Zodiac’s. This series is so stirring for showing how murder mysteries reflect every element of society, and are therefore on certain levels almost inherently unsolvable. To understand an element of human nature is to know how truly little one knows.
Cast: Jonathan Groff, Holt McCallany, Anna Torv, Stacey Roca, Michael Cerveris, Joe Tuttle, Cameron Britton, Sonny Valicenti, Zachary Scott Ross, Christopher Grove, Regi Davis, Christopher Livingston, Crystal Lee Brown, Siovhan Christensen, Sierra Aylina McClain, Brent Sexton Network: Netflix
Review: On Becoming a God in Central Florida Sees the Cult in Capitalism
The show’s myriad absurdities are resonant reminders of how tough it is to get lost in the labyrinth of capitalism.3
Florida water park employee Krystal Stubbs (Kirsten Dunst) earns the nickname “the alligator widow” after her husband, Travis (Alexander Skarsgård), works himself into bleary-eyed exhaustion and, then, gator-inhabited waters. Travis fell victim to a friendly neighborhood pyramid scheme, Founders American Merchandise, whose promises of wealth and prosperity prompted him to dump the family’s life savings—including their mortgage and life insurance—into FAM’s coffers, leaving Krystal holding both the bag and their baby. As conceived by Showtime’s On Becoming a God in Central Florida, this vision of 1992 America is a morass of hucksters and hollow promises, and the series explores that world with both a sharp eye and a peculiar sense of humor.
FAM is fronted by Obie Garbeau II (Ted Levine), a mustachioed messiah figure whose plans and philosophies are distributed via cassette tape to the pyramid scheme’s participants. Fueled by a volatile combo of spite and desperation, Krystal has had all she can stand of Garbeau and true believers like her husband’s “upline” supplier, Cody Bonar (Théodore Pellerin). As Krystal, Dunst is a whirlwind of charisma, and she makes you believe that the character, as her mask of Southern-accented politeness dangles by a thread, can take on the whole system by herself. Yet her schemes to do so often send her tumbling back to the bottom time and again, dragging people like her manager and neighbor, Ernie (Mel Rodriguez), down with her.
Krystal doesn’t even want to get rich, much less do it quick; she just wants some stability, to the point where she takes on odd jobs like teaching a water aerobics class. But through some cruel confluence of fate and capitalism, she has to get in deep with FAM to get permission to fill her class with the people below her on the FAM pyramid. She’s paid two dollars per aerobics attendee, after all, and that’s nothing to sneeze at when she needs to get her home’s utilities turned back on and doesn’t want to sleep in the water park’s supply room.
What keeps On Becoming a God from succumbing to suffocating bleakness is its silly tone, that toothy, dead-eyed smile with which it regards a faintly psychopathic Americana. It’s filled with weird cult terminology and self-consciously goofy names, from a FAM blasphemer being called a “stinker-thinker” to characters frequently mistaking Bonar for various pronunciations of “boner.” Even Garbeau’s name sounds like “garbage.” The show’s imagery grows more dreamlike and hallucinatory as the season progresses, from Garbeau viciously smashing all the fruit in his refrigerator to Krystal being immersed in a womb-like tub that’s supposed to let her re-experience her own birth. When you follow the myth of exceptional American individualism this far into the weeds, the series posits, nothing makes sense anymore.
The show’s brand of dark, quirky comedy, however, feels stretched a bit thin over 10 episodes of at least 40 minutes each. Suggesting an excellent half-hour comedy saddled with an excess of incident, On Becoming a God doesn’t always know when to pull back on its weird developments and ironical names, resulting in a tone that can feel as derisive as it does empathetic toward people struggling to survive under capitalism. The longer people drone on about “the Garbeau system,” innocently suggest Olive Garden is their idea of fancy, and use “stinker-thinker” with real conviction, the fuzzier the line gets between laughing at the system’s absurdity and just laughing at people we’re supposed to see as suckers.
When the comedy does work, the series keenly captures our dubious relationship with the prospect of wealth, as when Cody praises Krystal by calling her a “millionaire in waiting.” She and the others under FAM’s thumb aren’t kept down by any dearth of ingenuity so much as their lack of power. At worst, they’re naïve due to immersion in a culture that encourages them to regard the wealthy with adulation rather than skepticism, and in such moments, the series engenders sympathy: If the show’s eccentric world hardly makes sense to us, how can it make sense to the characters caught up in its various scams? On Becoming a God may take place in 1992, but its myriad absurdities are resonant reminders of how tough it is to “get ahead,” and how easy it is to get lost in the labyrinth of capitalism.
Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Théodore Pellerin, Mel Rodriguez, Beth Ditto, Ted Levine, Usman Ally, Eric Allan Kramer, Cooper Jack Rubin, Alexander Skarsgård Network: Showtime
Review: Carnival Row Is a Haphazardly Stitched-Together Genre Pastiche
The series is a genre patchwork whose individual elements fail to coalesce into a coherent whole.2
Among Carnival Row’s fantastic creatures is an especially monstrous one made of sewn-together bits of dead things: centaurs, humans, a sea animal, and so on. The beast, the exact nature of which is the subject of sustained buildup and disappointing payoff, proves a fitting avatar of Amazon’s fantasy series, a genre patchwork whose individual elements, though compelling in bursts, fail to coalesce into a coherent and satisfying whole.
Prior to the events of the series, the Pact and the Burgue, two human empires, waged a colonialist war to control Tirnanoc, the home of a winged, fairy-like race called the Fae. The Burgue falsely claimed to be fighting to protect the Fae, and following the Pact’s victory, refugees have fled to the Burgue’s capital city, where they’re oppressed and indentured. Now, a series of violent murders are being committed against the city’s non-humans, and while the tribalist all-human constabulary can’t be bothered to investigate them, detective Rycroft Philostrate (Orlando Bloom), or Philo, relentlessly pursues the cases.
Throughout its loosely connected storylines, Carnival Row fully and melodramatically commits to diverse genre traditions. Imogen Spurnrose (Tamzin Merchant), a vilely racist socialite, engages in a taboo romance with a non-human, and the series soaks her arc in a vat of wondrously cheesy monologues that embody the most exaggerated tendencies of period dramas. Philo’s sleuthing, while grim, is peppered with the delicious clichés of hard-boiled noir. At one point, the police chief tells Philo that he can’t save all of the non-humans in danger, and Philo slams his fists on the chief’s desk and roars, “Damn it, I can save one!”
The series, however, suffers from the fundamental tension between its over-the-top genre tropes and the gravity with which it handles its socio-political allegory. A group of kobolds—teeny, trollish bipeds—is “deported,” and the event is initially quite poignant. But the histrionics of Imogen, Philo, and others, as well as the show’s frequently shallow development of its characters, undermine that pathos. The series bewilderingly deems the hateful Imogen worthy of redemption solely on the grounds that she has sex with a non-human. Such context renders the deportation, and events like it, more glib than reflective.
Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevingne), a newly arrived Fae refugee and Philo’s former lover, grants the audience its most immediate view into the oppression of non-humans, primarily through her indentured servitude to Imogen and her domineering brother, Ezra (Andrew Gower). When working, Vignette is made to wear tight clothing that binds her wings. This restrains not only Vignette’s ability to fly, but also her sense of self. Unfortunately, the show’s writing similarly limits Delevingne, tying her performance down with overwrought dialogue that undercuts the emotional climaxes she’s routinely tasked with delivering.
Carnival Row prioritizes a certain kind of messiness: not the mess of feeling and thought, but that of the body. Over the course of Philo’s investigation, we get up-close looks at each murder victim’s mangled corpse, and these moments put the weaknesses of the show’s direction on full display. In addition to having the cadavers shoved in our faces, we’re repeatedly smacked in the head with testaments to the violence’s gruesomeness: At one point, a police officer vomits at a crime scene, and later, a child witnessing a killing urinates in his pants, the resulting puddle filling the frame. The emphasis on excretions, perhaps meant to contextualize the violence to viewers all but desensitized to butchery, feels lazy and unsubtle.
The show’s world-building feels haphazard rather than meticulous. We see, in a single episode, a few shots of a religious icon: a Christ-like figure, who’s hanged instead of crucified. Thereafter, dumbfounded characters exclaim “By the martyr!” at every opportunity—but who’s the martyr? When a radical religious group poised to play a key role in the second season reveals itself, it does so toward the very end of the season in cursory, tacked-on fashion. Maybe most egregious is the early promise of Lovecraftian horror that dissipates almost instantly. The antagonist’s brand of evil, it turns out, is too familiar to inspire cosmic horror.
Not an episode goes by that doesn’t make one wonder what Carnival Row could have been had it not bitten off far more than it can chew. There’s much to like here—mostly the kaleidoscopic genre-mixing—but not enough to overcome the show’s confused handling of the socio-political allegory at its core. Would that this beast were more thoughtfully stitched together.
Cast: Orlando Bloom, Cara Delevingne, Tamzin Merchant, Andrew Gower, Indira Varma, Jared Harris, Karla Crome, David Gyasi, Arty Froushan, Caroline Ford, Simon McBurney, Ariyon Bakare Network: Amazon
Review: Season Two of Succession Paints a Humanizing Portrait of the Billionaire Class
The series demystifies the billionaire class while simultaneously painting a terrifying picture of their unstoppable momentum.3
HBO’s Succession, which concluded its first season after media scion Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) bungled a coup of his father Logan’s (Brian Cox) conglomerate, Waystar Royco, derives its acerbic satire from envisioning real-world corporate mergers as hostile takeovers performed by bullies and proxy wars waged between families with the wealth of developing nations. The morally bankrupt, mostly bumbling, but never harmless Roy family constitutes a garish caricature of billionaire excess. In season two, as they attempt to stave off their company’s acquisition by absorbing a news competitor called Pierce Media, Succession underlines the moral bankruptcy which flows from the Roys’ unfettered avarice, while simultaneously lamenting the poisonous toll such greed takes on the family.
To the limited extent that Succession is interested in the humanity of its characters, Kendall is the only member of the Roy clan who could ostensibly be considered a protagonist. He’s self-destructive, addicted to booze and cocaine, and the Jesse Armstrong-created series draws a direct line between Logan’s abusive nature and Kendall’s substance abuse. Strong’s performance emphasizes Kendall’s fear and self-loathing; the character carries himself like a beaten dog throughout most of the season, cowing to his father’s verbal abuse and stoically absorbing various retributions from his family after his failed corporate coup. Kendall’s suffering stems directly from his past ambitions, yet he remains pitiable.
Which is why, in the rare moments when Kendall seems to feel anything other than crippling fear and humiliation, such as when he connects emotionally with another wealthy addict at a corporate retreat, the series is imbued with a surprising pathos. The character, who has cruelly shuttered start-ups, attempted to overthrow his own father, and left a man for dead in last season’s climax, is a reflection of one-percent privilege. And yet, even as Succession deploys the Roy family’s inconceivable wealth as a get-out-of-jail free card for Kendall, it also portrays the Waystar heir as acknowledging and hating his privilege. He’s the sole character here who seems to know shame, which makes him the show’s most complex figure.
Of course, though it locates the humanity in Kendall’s character, the series has no interest in humanizing anyone else in the Roy clan. It frames their family meetings—which often entail board meetings, corporate retreats, or strategy briefings—as lawless war games. Rarely do any of them speak honestly, unless it’s to insult one another. The Roy siblings never take statements at face value; each one has a unique agenda, and the series derives thrills from watching this toxic family attempt to further deepen their pockets. While the family’s attempt to acquire Pierce Media constitutes a trenchant critique of capitalistic impulse (the foundering Waystar can survive only by acquiring Pierce, a company that Succession portrays as honest and civically valuable), the series derives suspense by suggesting that any of the terrible Roys could potentially sink the deal—or emerge as a family hero.
While dark humor and palace intrigue are the cornerstones of Succession, season two develops a sense of lingering melancholy that, while not aimed at making its main characters more sympathetic, imparts a poignancy to the never-ending conflicts within the Roy family. In such moments as when Shiv (Sarah Snook), Kendall’s sister and the savviest Roy, is shocked and skeptical when hugged by her brother, the series underlines the way the Roys have forfeited even their familial bonds in the service of greed. They never let their guard down, and in such instances, Succession whittles the brokenness of the Roy family to its most essential level, and imparts an elegiac sensibility: that these emotionally stunted people operate solely with regard to their appetites, and define themselves entirely by their status as winners or losers.
The Roy family members are sincere only in their insults, and their attempts to undercut each other works to take each seemingly innocuous conversation between them into the realm of real stakes. They speak almost exclusively in slights, from the unimaginative (“asshole”) to the poetic (“pusillanimous piece of fucking fool’s gold”) to the tasteless (“cumdump”), and the series revels in the way they tear at each other. The scenes which feature the entire family in a room together, supposedly acting as one entity on behalf of Waystar but undermining each other at each turn, exude an enthralling quality; such meetings devolve into hideous curiosities, layered with malevolence and bitter humor.
In the season’s most memorable sequence, the Roys have a dinner with the Pierces, the family who own the news company they wish to acquire. It’s a moral vetting, in which the Pierces are discerning just how corrupt their suitors are. For long stretches, the show’s camera bounces around a dinner table, as the Roy family, with all its conflicting agendas and glaring character flaws, implodes. It’s a breathtaking, grotesque sight, which tidily sums up Succession’s ethos: The Roys might be unworthy of their fortune, but that fortune ensures that they’ll never have to answer for their shortcomings. As they fail upward, the series demystifies the billionaire class while simultaneously painting a terrifying picture of their unstoppable momentum.
Cast: Brian Cox, Kieran Culkin, Jeremy Strong, Sarah Snook, Matthew Macfadyen, Alan Ruck, Nicholas Braun, Hiam Abbass, Peter Friedman, Natalie Gold, Rob Yang Network: HBO
Review: The Righteous Gemstones Is an Uneven but Compelling Study of Faith
The series is a compelling and humanizing study of its characters, the faith they profess, and the world they strive to proselytize.3
One could frame the premise of The Righteous Gemstones as a question: What if Danny McBride played another unduly self-assured dolt overflowing with machismo—but this time a pastor? Created by McBride, the series initially seems content to coast on the humor of that premise. But it gradually cracks the cynicism with which it frames its characters and their work, offering poignant glimpses into their inner lives. Despite its proclivity for forced, flat subplots, The Righteous Gemstones is a compelling and humanizing study of its characters, the faith they profess, and the world they strive to proselytize.
The series follows the Gemstones, a Southern family of televangelists as successful as they are crass, avaricious, and blasphemous. Led by widowed patriarch Dr. Eli Gemstone (John Goodman), whose network of mega-churches generates millions of dollars a day, the three Gemstone kids help run the family business: prodigal son Jesse (McBride) and boyish goof Kelvin (Adam DeVine) are pastors, while Judy (Edi Patterson) works behind the scenes, her dreams of preaching stifled by a tradition of misogynistic paternalism.
The myriad tensions that boil between the Gemstones are the source of much hilarity, but the show’s non-familial conflicts vary in the quality of their execution. Kelvin’s mission to save the soul of a big donor’s teenage daughter—she parties, curses, and has sex—benefits from its short-and-sweet screen time and inclusion of Kelvin’s right-hand man, Keefe Chambers, an ex-Satanist played by Tony Cavalero, who infuses Keefe’s awkward, deadpan drawl with bewitching earnestness. There’s also the escalating turf war with John Seasons (Dermot Mulroney), the pastor of a parish in which the Gemstones open a new worship center led by Baby Billy (Walter Goggins), Eli’s conniving and just-shy-of-smooth brother-in-law. But most prominent is the far too time-intensive blackmailing of Jesse, a central storyline that almost never warrants the space devoted to it, thanks to its particularly sluggish pacing and the shallow characterization of the lead blackmailer, Scotty (Scott MacArthur).
As the season progresses, the flimsiness of the blackmail plot is rendered all the more conspicuous by the strength of the show’s intra-family drama. Eli has been in a perpetual state of mourning since the death of his wife, Aimee-Leigh (Jennifer Nettles), and his grief distances him from his children, who are constantly at each other’s throats. After the first episode, which suffers from stilted writing that leaves the Gemstone siblings’ relationships feeling rather inorganic, the series settles into a delightful groove of caustic one-liners and the sort of McBrideisms—from characters’ confoundingly lofty language to their intense, unwarranted self-seriousness—that permeate the writer-actor’s work with longtime collaborator Jody Hill. After calling a meeting and, at its start, playing an excruciatingly prolonged series of notes on a xylophone, Jesse says, “Music has always soothed my vicious temper,” with McBride delivering the line wonderfully aware of his character’s ridiculousness. The whole cast pulls from McBride’s playbook and demonstrates similar comedic deftness as their characters add to the show’s manic verbal storm of insults and misplaced haughtiness.
For all the glee that it derives from the cruelty of its characters, though, The Righteous Gemstones refuses to damn them outright. It quietly gives the audience reasons to sympathize with the family and the people in their orbit—or, at least, to feel something closer to sympathy than antipathy: Jesse’s bedtime kisses on his kids’ foreheads; Kelvin’s wholehearted acceptance of Keefe; Judy’s frustration with the family’s sexism; Baby Billy’s wrathful reminder to Eli that he was Aimee-Leigh’s brother before Eli was her husband. These people, the series suggests, might not be charlatans. They seem to believe in what they’re doing, merely practicing their faith, albeit loudly and passionately and opulently. They’re chasing genuine Christian goodness as they conceive it, however dubious that conception may be.
All of the Gemstones have moments of vulnerability, but the series is at its kindest, and most poignant, when exploring Eli’s grief. If his motivations don’t serve God, it’s because they serve Aimee-Leigh, whose memory he labors to honor. At one point, Eli sits alone at a candle-lit dinner table, facing a portrait of him and his late wife. He speaks to her, his tired baritone reaching for nothing, resounding in the silence. Later, after getting into a dust-up with Judy, Eli watches her sing and dance onstage alongside Baby Billy. She’s talented, like her mother was. Eli looks on, smiling for a moment longer than he usually does. The scene’s use of slow motion allows his joy—as well as Judy’s—to last for ages. It’s a stirring, cathartic image that reveals the Gemstones’ squabbles for what they truly are: trifling, fleeting things.
Cast: Danny McBride, John Goodman, Edi Patterson, Adam DeVine, Walton Goggins, Cassidy Freeman, Tim Baltz, Tony Cavalero, Gregory Alan Williams, Skyler Gisondo, Valyn Hall, Scott MacArthur, Dermot Mulroney, Jennifer Nettles, Kelton DuMont, Troy Anthony Hogan, Gavin Munn, James DuMont Network: HBO
Review: The Terror: Infamy Excels as an Indictment of American Oppression
The series is striking not only for its scope, but for how uncompromising it is.3
In American history books, it’s no more than a footnote that, in a fit of racist paranoia after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government corralled Japanese-Americans like animals into concentration camps. And in the white-dominant engine of American pop culture, it’s been barely represented. In this context, The Terror: Infamy is striking not only for its scope, but for how uncompromising it is. Its radicalism for taking place primarily in those camps feels matter-of-fact, with a cast dominated by non-white actors, many of whom go long stretches speaking in subtitled Japanese. There is, in the six episodes provided to critics, no POV for some complicit yet intended-to-be-sympathetic outsider, and the series portrays Japanese traditions without breaking them down for an unfamiliar audience. There is, after all, scarcely anyone living in the camps who might need those traditions explained to them.
The Terror’s prior season, which fictionalized the disappearance of Sir John Franklin’s expedition to the Arctic in the mid-1800s, was also concerned with race; the ordeals of its characters invoked themes of colonialist hubris, the very specific terror of white men arriving by boat to new lands, eyes alight with thoughts of conquest. Though Infamy moves to another time, story, and place, its mind for terror is similar: What is the dominant race capable of when the minority is under its boot? It’s another “people are the real monsters” story, albeit one of impressive thematic weight, plus unfortunate modern relevance, given the resurgence of internment camps under the current presidential administration.
Displacement runs deep through Infamy, not just in the literal sense of how its characters are forcibly relocated, but in how—no matter where they go—they’re never really at home. Chester Nakayama (Derek Mio) is a nisei, or second-generation, Japanese-American man who, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, is constantly regarded with suspicion, followed by accusatory eyes set above mouths that spit “Japanese” like a dirty word. He and others like him are caught in between, rejected by the only place he’s called home under unfounded suspicions of espionage and disconnected from the culture that birthed his ancestors.
For Chester, there’s nowhere left to go save for the fenced-in purgatory of those internment camps. Infamy understands the anxieties of race-related displacement, of not being accepted in places you naïvely believed would appreciate you, and with that understanding it builds a narrative of painful resonance. It gives form to the fears and hardships of Chester and his acquaintances both through family drama and violent, existential horror where people lose control of themselves, as their identities and actions are subsumed by something else.
Infamy is a story about exclusion and the cultural clashes it fuels, portraying not just conflict between the Japanese-Americans and their captors, but between old ways and new opportunities. Chester is stalked, seemingly no matter where he goes, by a mysterious woman (Kiki Sukezane)—a metaphorical specter of his heritage and a remnant of “the old country”—whose presence seems to bring only death. The Japanese-American characters embrace traditions and beliefs they expected to leave behind, like sprinkling rice to purify a household after seeing evidence of a malevolent force. They also reckon with new values, as Chester openly argues with his father, Henry (Shingo Usami, fantastic as a man boiling with feelings of confusion, grief, and anger), about going to college and leaving their small community on Terminal Island. The two have been shaped quite differently by upbringings that manifest contrasting expectations for their lots in life, and you feel the histories that inform their relationships, how the men are constantly pushed into reluctant positions by necessity.
Horror is more of a presence on Infamy than it was on The Terror’s first season, though to somewhat mixed success. Grisly deaths and general scares tend to arrive suddenly, with only the most basic moody buildup of anticipation. The series is prone to cutting to a character wandering around an empty space for a few moments, all the while leaning on eerie music and jarring sound effects in an attempt to pull atmosphere out of thin air. And such scenes are too clearly delineated from the central drama and character interactions to fuel any dreadful tension of what’s next; they mostly take place on the periphery, giving the impression that the series is stopping every so often, remembering it has to provide the terror promised by its title. Particularly in later episodes, some scenes are legitimately disturbing, offsetting the impatient pacing with imagery like a gnarled finger slowly unzipping a duffel bag from within. But on the whole, where Infamy excels is in its depiction of more earthly horrors.
Cast: Derek Mio, Kiki Sukezane, Cristina Rodlo, Shingo Usami, Naoko Mori, Miki Ishikawa, George Takei Network: AMC
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