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Doctor Who Recap: Season 5, Episode 4: “The Time of Angels”

The marvelous pre-titles sequence is a classic five minutes of Doctor Who.

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Doctor Who Recap: Season 5, Episode 4: “The Time of Angels”
Photo: BBC

Now that’s more like it. After a couple of lesser episodes over the last two weeks that failed to match the level reached by “The Eleventh Hour,” showrunner Steven Moffat returns with the kind of story he used to provide once a year for the Russell T Davies era—virtuoso plotting, brilliant dialogue, and an emphasis on scares and surprises. Indeed, this one builds directly on two of those previous high points: 2007’s “Blink” and 2008’s two-parter consisting of “Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead.” With a top-quality script from Moffat, combined with excellent production values, “The Time of Angels” is the highlight of the season so far.

The marvelous pre-titles sequence is a classic five minutes of Doctor Who. It shows Moffat’s plotting at its most exuberant; right from the get-go he’s tossing out one plot element after another at high speed, keeping the audience off-balance and challenging us to keep up. It opens with a deliberately baffling shot of a dazed security guard (an improbable cameo from British rapper Mike Skinner) staggering around in an open field, approached by a tuxedo-wearing man named Alistair. The James Bond feel of this opening is only enhanced by the fact that the suave Alistair is played by Simon Dutton, alias TV’s The Saint. In reality, they are not in a field but in the metal corridors of a spaceship; the guard has been affected by “hallucinogenic lipstick… She’s here.” Cut to a woman striding along in an evening gown and a pair of killer stiletto heels. She comes to a locked door, takes out a futuristic pistol, and shoots it open. Inside is a box-like piece of equipment; her pistol converts into a cutting torch, and she begins carving strange letters into it.

Then suddenly, a caption pops up which could surely only appear in Doctor Who: “12,000 years later.” As he did in “The Girl in the Fireplace” and “Silence in the Library,” Moffat is using temporal trickery at the beginning of an episode to draw the audience in. The Doctor (Matt Smith), accompanied by a bored Amy Pond (Karen Gillan), is looking through a museum when he discovers the box—now ancient and decayed, but with the letters still visible—and tells her it’s a flight recorder from “one of the old starliners.”

Amy: “So?”
The Doctor: “The writing. The graffiti. Old High Gallifreyan! The lost language of the Time Lords. There were days—there were many days—these words could burn stars, and raise up empires, and topple gods.”
Amy: “What does this say?”
The Doctor: “…’Hello, Sweetie.’”

Those of us who remember “Silence in the Library” will immediately know what those last words portend—and why the Doctor says them with such hilarious resignation in his voice. The woman is River Song (Alex Kingston), using the flight recorder to send a message to the Doctor across time. Back in the TARDIS, they replay the recorder’s security footage, showing Alistair and his guards confronting River at an airlock door. She tells him she wanted to see what was in the ship’s vault, and warns, “This ship won’t reach its destination.” Then she simply says, “As I said on the dance floor… you might want to find something to hang on to,” blows the airlock open, and is launched into space. Naturally the TARDIS is there to catch her, and she lands in the Doctor’s arms, jumping up with a cry of “Follow that ship!” And so the adventure begins…

It’s a perfect teaser, somehow seeming like quintessential Doctor Who while at the same time having a style and pace that are quite new, and more akin to some of Moffat’s sitcom work. I’m thinking especially of Coupling, where he would often play with techniques like out-of-sequence storytelling, or multiple viewpoints, or in one case even have a whole episode in split-screen. The sitcom style continues into the first part of the episode, which is dominated by the comic sparring between the Doctor and River Song. When we met her previously in the Library story, it was obvious that she had had a long and intimate relationship with the Doctor, even though for him, it was his first meeting with her. As he says here, “Time travel—we keep meeting in the wrong order.” In that story she mentioned “the crash of the Byzantium” as something in her past, and now we get to see it.

So this is a younger, more playful version of River, who delights in constantly scoring points off the Doctor. Smith and Kingston seem to fall with great ease into a very funny “bickering married couple” dynamic, despite their twenty-year age difference. The Doctor is most annoyed when it turns out she can fly the TARDIS better than him. When she parks it with great precision next to the wreck of the Byzantium, he is hilariously discomfited:

The Doctor: “But… it didn’t make the noise.”
River: “What noise?”
The Doctor: “You know. The…” (makes wheezing, groaning sound)
River: “It’s not supposed to make that noise. You leave the brakes on.”
The Doctor: “Yeah, well it’s a brilliant noise. I love that noise. Come along Pond, let’s have a look.”

The Doctor’s habit of calling Amy by her surname was apparently something Matt Smith came up with in rehearsals, and it fits his “mad professor” persona very well. By this stage, it’s almost alarming how quickly I’ve come to accept Smith as the Doctor—there’s hardly been a single moment in all the episodes so far where he struck a false note.

This two-parter was actually the first story filmed for the season, but you’d never know it from the assurance of the performances, and the direction. The production team took the risk of going with an entirely new team of directors for this season, and Adam Smith (who also directed “The Eleventh Hour”) is a real find for the show. The whole story is filled with memorable, beautiful images; in particular, the stupendous effects shot of the enormous crashed ship, sticking up vertically out of an ancient temple set into a cliff face. I gather that, due to the current recession, the budget for Doctor Who has been trimmed somewhat compared with previous years, and it’s true that in the first three episodes of this season, some economizing seems to have been made—for instance, compare the bare, empty set for the Dalek ship in last week’s episode with similar sets in “The Parting of the Ways” or “Journey’s End.” This story, though, looks as though it’s had a decent amount of money spent on it—and it certainly deserved it.

It turns out that River is here to meet up with a team of soldier-clerics, led by Father Octavian (Iain Glen). The idea of religious fighters of course resonates with medieval orders such as the Knights Templar, but I suspect Moffat simply wanted the amusing incongruity of a “bishop second class” in modern-day camouflage gear barking orders like, “Verger, how’re we doing with those explosives?” Octavian and his men are here on a mission to neutralize the dangerous creature in the vault of the Byzantium—a Weeping Angel.

In 2007, Moffat scored a huge success with “Blink,” creating an episode which appears on many people’s Top Ten lists, and also won him a third consecutive Hugo award. A large part of its success was due to the stunningly original Weeping Angels. A creature which can only move when you’re not looking at it, otherwise it’s frozen into stone—a wonderful concept, executed brilliantly in the form of beautiful statues which can turn, literally in the blink of an eye, into hideous fanged monsters. However, when the news came that the Angels would be returning in this new story, there was some concern that Moffat might simply be repeating himself, attempting to take advantage of a previous success by churning out a lesser sequel. He avoids that danger, though, by putting the Angels in a completely different setting and introducing several new abilities for them, providing just as many scares—but in new ways—as their previous episode.

In particular, the very image of an Angel now becomes dangerous. River provides a four-second loop of security camera footage of the Angel in the ship’s vault, and Amy discovers that, impossibly, the recorded image keeps changing. According to a book about the Angels discovered by River, “That which holds the image of an Angel becomes itself an Angel”—and Amy, trapped in a locked shuttle pod with the recording, finds herself unable to escape as the Angel starts to actually come out of the screen, as in the climax of the horror movie The Ring. Then the creepiness gets amped up even further. Whereas in “Blink” if you made sure to keep staring at an Angel it was harmless, now if you stare at an Angel’s eyes for too long you can become “infected”—as the Doctor reads, “The eyes are not the windows of the soul, they are the doors. Beware what may enter there.” Amy manages to deactivate the recording of the Angel, but she starts to experience hallucinations such as a stream of stone dust falling from her eye (an excellently done effect) and her hand turning to stone.

Karen Gillan, like Matt Smith, gives an excellent performance in her first-filmed episode. She is greatly intrigued by River and quickly bonds with her, and enjoys teasing the Doctor over his attitude towards her. When River asks the Doctor to “sonic her” to boost her communicator’s homing signal for the clerics and he grumpily complies, her delivery of “Oooh Doctor, you soniced her” is a delight. Amy is so direct and child-like (as if part of her is still very much the seven-year-old girl she was when she first met the Doctor) as she asks the questions we all want answered, in one of my favorite sequences of the whole episode:

The Doctor: “You’re still here. Which part of ’Wait in the TARDIS till I tell you it’s safe’ was so confusing?”
Amy: “Aww… are you all Mister Grumpyface today?”
The Doctor: “A Weeping Angel, Amy, is the deadliest, most powerful, most malevolent life form evolution has ever produced and right now one of them is trapped inside that wreckage and I’m supposed to climb in after it with a screwdriver and a torch and assuming I survive the radiation long enough and assuming the whole ship doesn’t just blow up in my face, do something incredibly clever which I haven’t actually thought of yet. That’s my day; that’s what I’m up to. Any questions?”
Amy: “Is River Song your wife?”
The Doctor: (sigh)
Amy: “’Cause she’s someone from your future. And the way she talks to you, I’ve never seen anyone do that. … She’s Mrs Doctor from the future, isn’t she? Is she gonna be your wife one day?”
The Doctor: “Yes… you’re right. I am definitely Mister Grumpyface today.”

Matt Smith perfectly times the last line there, leaving a long enough pause after “Yes” for Amy (and the audience) to think for a moment that he might actually be answering her question about River Song. In fact, rather than answering questions, the episode introduces still more mysteries about River; when Amy directly challenges her about being the Doctor’s future wife, she replies, “This is the Doctor we’re talking about—do you really think it could be anything that simple?” She certainly has one particular secret she’s keeping from the Doctor, as a conversation between her and Father Octavian reveals:

Octavian: “He doesn’t know yet, does he? Who and what you are.”
River Song: “It’s too early in his time stream.”
Octavian: “Well, make sure he doesn’t work it out, or he’s not going to help us.”
River Song: “I won’t let you down. Believe you me, I have no intention of going back to prison.”

The party find their way into a labyrinth of passages leading up from the base of the cliff to the crashed ship, and begin to make their way through the maze. It’s a “mortarium” created by the Aplans, the dead-and-gone native species of this planet, and is filled with decayed statues—an ideal hiding place for a stone Angel. As with the earlier exterior matte shot of the crashed ship, the wide shots of the labyrinth interior, illuminated by a floating “gravity globe” (a nice bit of future-tech continuity with season two’s “The Impossible Planet”) are eerily beautiful.

We have the familiar, but always effective scenario of a small group trapped in hostile territory, being picked off one by one. Several of the cleric cannon-fodder succumb to the hidden Angel as the tension increases. And unlike the ones in “Blink,” which didn’t kill people but just banished them backwards in time, this Angel definitely kills its victims, nastily. Amazingly enough, Moffat managed to write eight episodes before this one without a single character being killed on screen—most unusual for Doctor Who which, even though it’s often thought of as a kids’ show, generally has at least one character meeting a horrible fate each episode.

And he’s still expertly controlling the mix of light-hearted adventure and sudden shocks. The Doctor is busy cheerfully burbling on about how he once had dinner with the chief architect of the Aplans, and how the Aplans all had two heads (“You’re never short of a snog with an extra head”) and how that led to the church introducing laws against self-marriage (“No offense, bishop.” “Quite a lot taken, if that’s all right, Doctor”). Then, suddenly, he and River simultaneously come to the realization that all the statues they’ve seen only have one head… One quick experiment with momentarily switching their torches off, and the truth is revealed—all the statues are Weeping Angels. Their decayed state means that they can only move slowly—in a neat continuation of the “image” theme, the fact that they’ve lost their image means they have also lost most of their power. At least, for the moment—it becomes clear that the Angel in the Byzantium deliberately cuased the crash of the ship into the temple so that these Angels could drain the ship’s power and recover their own.

One of the clerics left behind to guard the entrance, Bob (David Atkins), is used by the Angel to communicate with the Doctor and Octavian. This could be considered another case of Moffat recycling a previous idea—the data ghosts from the Library story, which also provided a means for characters to speak from beyond death. But it’s not quite the same, and in any case it’s a supremely creepy moment as his calm voice emerges from the communicator:

The Doctor: “Bob, keep running, but tell me: how did you escape?”
Bob: “I didn’t escape, sir. The Angel killed me too. … Snapped my neck, sir. Wasn’t as painless as I expected, but it was pretty quick, so that was something.”
The Doctor: “If you’re dead, how can I be talking to you?”
Bob: “You’re not talking to me, sir. The Angel has no voice. It stripped my cerebral cortex from my body and reanimated a version of my consciousness to communicate with you. Sorry about the confusion.”
The Doctor: “So when you say you’re on your way up to us…?”
Bob: “It’s the Angel that’s coming, sir, yes.”

The party finally reach the top of the maze, but the base of the crashed ship is thirty feet above them, out of reach. With no way out, the Angels surrounding them and their torches and gravity globe being drained, it’s up to the Doctor to find a way out. “Angel Bob” continues taunting him over the communicator, telling him how Bob died in fear and pain, and how the rest of them will suffer the same fate now that they are trapped. In response, the Doctor borrows Octavian’s gun and delivers a rousing, “Bad Wolf”-style speech to lead up to the cliffhanger. It’s an effective enough ending, but its impact is somewhat reduced for anyone who has seen it constantly in trailers for the past month or so:

The Doctor: “Didn’t anyone ever tell you? There’s one thing you never put in a trap, if you’re smart. If you value your continued existence. If you have any plans about seeing tomorrow, there’s one thing you never ever put in a trap.”
Bob: “And what would that be, sir?”
The Doctor: “Me.”

He fires at the gravity globe, which explodes. What happens next? Tune in next week to find out

Next Week: The story concludes, in “Flesh and Stone.”

Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: “The Key to Time” boxset, consisting of six stories making up Doctor Who’s sixteenth season. Principally because of the relationship between the Doctor and his assistant, Romana, which is very reminiscent of his sparring here with River Song.

For more Doctor Who recaps, click here.

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Every BoJack Horseman Episode, Ranked

As the series comes to a conclusion, we take a look back and rank all 77 episodes.

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Every BoJack Horseman Episode Ranked
Photo: Netflix

Netflix’s BoJack Horseman is about many things. How we make sense of a senseless world. How we find happiness amid constant crisis. How we assert and give others power. That’s a lot for any show, let alone the animated misadventures of a famous horseman, one whose life stands on the razor’s edge of celebrity privilege and deeply internalized emotional self-abuse. Contending with BoJack Horseman, now as it comes to its conclusion, has meant contending with my own life these past six years, which have been made markedly better by this series. This exercise would have been much more difficult had the final episodes failed to deliver. (Spoiler alert: They don’t.)



Bojack Horseman

77. “BoJack Hates the Troops,” Season 1, Episode 2

First, let me be clear: I love this episode, which feels like an early performance by a beloved artist who went on to greater and more daring things. Maybe there’s a note or two out of place. Maybe they aren’t stretching their talent as much as you think they can. BoJack’s (Will Arnett) profound pettiness makes him an asshole to many—here, it’s the contested dibs over a box of muffins at the grocery store that lands our remorseful horse in the national spotlight—and it’s admirable how this episode leads the charge in painting that fact unambiguously. In a way, it feels like a foundation stone of sorts (one of several), featuring as it does BoJack’s decision to open up to Diane (Alison Brie) for his memoir. Full truth: From here, mountains are made.



Bojack Horseman

76. “Sabrina’s Christmas Wish”

The mere existence of this holiday episode made it unambiguous that BoJack Horseman was created out of love. Further enriching the world so thoughtfully laid out in the first season, this metatextual holiday episode, in which BoJack and Todd (Aaron Paul) watch one of the Christmas episodes from Horsin’ Around, came as an unannounced Christmas gift in 2014. It also, hopefully, satisfies those who will inevitably be curious about what a proper episode of the show-within-the-show looks like, and Todd’s four-word refutation (“I can’t, can’t I?”) of BoJack’s faulty logic stands with the funniest moments of the series.



Bojack Horseman

75. “The BoJack Horseman Show,” Season 3, Episode 2

A novel exposition dump, this episode goes back to 2007, when BoJack and Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), a cat, first slept together. Its title refers to the name of BoJack’s sophomore TV series, a vulgar satire that tanked and was promptly canceled. This episode also lays general groundwork for episodes and seasons to come. Lots of obvious references abound—e.g., Princess Carolyn pitches scripts for No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, though films actually being shopped around at that time instead of those just arriving in theaters might’ve been a better touch—not unlike a Trojan horse for the ongoing world building. The highlight herein is an updated version of the show’s end credits song, adapted to underscore BoJack’s much less successful follow-up to Horsin’ Around.



Bojack Horseman

74. “The BoJack Horseman Story, Chapter One,” Season 1, Episode 1

This first episode doesn’t get its due. Brilliantly juxtaposing scenes from BoJack’s interview on The Charlie Rose Show with a gotcha shot from this world’s version of Maury, this first look at BoJack’s anxiety-ridden existence had the difficult task of establishing the show’s very particular tone (think Chuck Jones meets Don Hertzfeldt meets Albert Brooks) while also making blatant the sadness beneath it. The serious and silly rub shoulders here, like travelers on a crowded bus trip. It’s subversive, too, in warning against the dangers of over-binging; BoJack re-watches his old show obsessively, including the finale in which his character dies, at the expense of almost everything else in his life. This episode features Patton Oswalt in three parts, a Sellers-esque stunt that will prove to be one of the show’s regular hat tricks, while the closing gag exhibits the raw confidence required to deploy both guffaws and sobs with such simultaneous precision. In hindsight, it’s no surprise.



Bojack Horseman

73. “Zoës and Zeldas,” Season 1, Episode 4

It was a small stroke of genius to introduce early in the series a pop-cultural dichotomy specific to this world. Leonard Cohen sang of a bird on a wire, and here the either/or stems from characters on Mister Peanutbutter’s House, a knockoff of BoJack’s sitcom in which the eponymous canine raised two little girls: Zelda, a fun extrovert, and Zoë, a cynical introvert. This episode features some of BoJack’s funniest quips and nastiest deeds. As for Todd’s rock opera, I’d be lying if I suggested that I didn’t want to see it brought to greater fruition. This episode does a lot of prep work for the season and the series, and does it well, while Wyatt Cenac’s performance as one of Diane’s exes provides a weary vantage point, effectively underscoring what makes this world feel so emotionally real in the first place.



Bojack Horseman

72. “BoJack Kills,” Season 3, Episode 3

Plot-wise, this is a lowkey key episode in the series, establishing the source of the heroin that ultimately causes Sarah Lynn’s death. That would be Richie Osborne (Fred Savage), former Horsin’ Around cast member and current proprietor of Whale World, a family-friendly strip club that doubles as a drug front. BoJack and Diane get to catch up and establish a greater understanding of themselves (“I can’t keep asking myself if I’m happy, it just makes me more miserable,” says Diane, summarizing my 30s so far in 14 words), but my favorite moment is probably the chef’s-kiss perfection of Mister Peanutbutter’s LL Cool J reference (a close second is Angela Bassett’s line delivery on “you betcha”).



Bojack Horseman

71. “Our A-Story Is a ‘D’ Story,” Season 1, Episode 6

If BoJack Horseman’s flair for wordplay wasn’t already clear, this episode is tantamount to a flag planted on the moon for all to see. Hollywood becomes Hollywoo when BoJack steals the “D” from the Hollywood sign in a drunken stupor, all in the hopes of impressing Diane after squaring off with Mister Peanutbutter—and buying the restaurant Elefante in the process. Todd, having found himself in prison at the end of the previous episode, navigates the various gangs courting him in sublimely naïve fashion, while BoJack’s backup plan to fix the “D” situation results in a tragedy befalling Beyoncé and, relatedly, one of the very best verbal gags in the entire series.

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Review: Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet Takes Aim at the Gaming Industry

The series dives into megalomania and workplace chaos with eccentric, frenzied energy.

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Mythic Quest
Photo: Apple TV+

The titular video game in Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet is a phenomenal success. Mythic Quest boasts tens of millions of players and, perhaps more impressive, the invaluable endorsement of Pootie Shoe (Elisha Henig), a young streamer with tremendous clout. Pootie praises the game in delectably over-the-top live streams; he’s both crudely inclusive (he shouts out LGBTQ fans, or “Pootie Fruities”) and just crude (he rates games on a “b-hole” scale, four being outstanding). Even Rachel (Ashly Burch) and Dana (Imani Hakim), the studio’s quality assurance testers, steadfastly love the game, despite the fact that they spend all day, every day cooped up in a small room playing it to discover bugs.

One could be forgiven for assuming that Mythic Quest’s universal acclaim has been earned by a diligent, well-oiled, in-sync team of creatives and business people. But the studio behind the game, it turns out, is a site of enormous turbulence. The mayhem trickles down from the top: Mythic Quest’s creator, the vainglorious auteur Ian Grimm (Rob McElhenney), whose every whim is sacrosanct. When lead engineer Poppy Li (Charlotte Nicdao) designs a shovel with which players can exert unprecedented influence over their environments in the game (by digging), Ian isn’t satisfied. The shovel, he says, should also be able to kill things—and his desire to get the feature just right threatens to push back the release date for the game’s imminent expansion, to the ire of Poppy and others in Ian’s orbit.

The Apple TV+ show, co-created by Rob McElhenney and his It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia co-star Charlie and executive producer Megan Ganz, often resembles the FXX series in its energy. Minor issues escalate feverishly, as characters cross wires and talk at rather than with each other. Some of the studio’s higher-ups are unbothered by the dysfunction, like soulless monetizer Brad Bakshi (Danny Pudi) and writer C.W. Longbottom (F. Murray Abraham), a slimy, old-timey fantasy author. But Poppy is consistently exasperated, as is David Brittlesbee (David Hornsby), the game’s meek executive producer. Others thrive on the chaos, like Ian (it seems to foster his creativity) and Jo (Jessie Ennis), David’s mercurial assistant. Conflict brings the worst out of her, to uproarious effect. When the studio’s coders threaten to unionize, she shouts, “The workers are grist for the mill!”

The first half of the season leverages these characters less as nuanced people than as bundles of eccentricities. The most notable exceptions are Poppy, Rachel, and Dana, who prove more humane and grounded than the megalomaniacal or otherwise maladjusted men around them. The video game industry is as tenaciously male-dominated here as it is in reality, and by dialing up the worst tendencies of the men in the studio—C.W.’s casual sexism, David’s faux man-of-the-people shtick, Ian’s remarkable ability to hear whatever he wants when Poppy speaks to him—the series smartly satirizes a world in desperate need of overhaul.

The second half of the season more deeply examines the ambitions and fears of its characters, as well as the video game industry’s power dynamics. Poppy’s frustration builds as she’s constantly spoken over and ignored not only by Ian, but also by the other men she works with, and C.W. wonders if the development of A.I. writing has rendered him obsolete. Eventually, Ian meets with a long-estranged family member in a scene that’s equally poignant and hilarious. But not all of these arcs are sufficiently thought out. When the coders prepare to strike for overtime pay, which infuriates Jo, Grimm secures their demands in an off-screen call to corporate. The conclusion serves to convey Grimm’s cachet but feels reductive, particularly given how widespread and entrenched abusive labor practices continue to be in the industry.

Separating the two halves of the season is its best episode, “A Dark Quiet Death.” Directed by McElhenney, it’s a significant tonal shift that centers on understated rather than exaggerated characters. The episode follows two video game developers (Cristin Milioti and Jake Johnson) with no apparent connection to Ian or anyone else in the series, beginning with their meeting in 1993 and extending through their work on an indie passion project. This isn’t an uninspired entry in the expanding genre of “watching Jake Johnson fall in love with people”; Johnson and Milioti’s chemistry is wildly charming, and their relationship grows increasingly gripping as the duo navigates questions of artistic integrity and corporate oversight.

The episode’s virtuosity is a bit awkward, in that the season’s apex is the piece that least fits in with the whole. But the intermission, of sorts, comes to feel like the crux of the matter: It’s the necessary historical context for Ian and Poppy’s working relationship, for Ian’s unwavering devotion to the product of his vision, for the stakes of his call to corporate on behalf of his employees. Though the episode is self-contained, it infuses the rest of the season with subtle weight and sympathy. It suggests that, by virtue of their striving for lasting art and legacy, Mythic Quest’s borderline sociopaths are, if barely, on the right side of irredeemable.

Cast: Rob McElhenney, Charlotte Nicdao, David Hornsby, F. Murray Abraham, Jessie Ennis, Danny Pudi, Elisha Henig, Imani Hakim, Ashly Burch, Caitlin McGee Network: Apple TV+

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Review: The New Pope Depicts the Church with a Graceful Cynicism

Despite the sordid, festering material that the series explores, what ultimately emerges is sheer beauty.

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The New Pope
Photo: Gianni Fiorito/HBO

Having collapsed at the end of The Young Pope, Lenny Belardo (Jude Law), also known as Pope Pius XIII, is in a coma at the start of The New Pope. He’s being looked over by a nun and illuminated by a bright, neon cross straight out of David Fincher’s Seven. His involuntary sighs and twitches are fraught with meaning; at one point, a usually pragmatic man (Mark Ivanir) claims that the pope killed someone with the quiver of a finger. Idolatrous followers stand vigil in the square outside his chambers, donning sweatshirts with his face on them. The pope’s wild charisma survives the apparent death of his consciousness.

Seeing no improvement in Belardo’s condition after nine months, the cardinals decide to elect a successor, whose fleeting, radical papacy briefly opens the Vatican to refugees and risks bankrupting it. The cardinals then opt for a more moderate replacement: Sir John Brannox (John Malkovich), an oft-depressed priest who wears eyeliner and lives on his family’s sprawling English estate. With Belardo on a respirator and Brannox headed to Rome, the series imagines a world with two popes—setting up a compelling conflict over legitimacy, poised to erupt if Belardo wakes up, of the kind unseen since the Western Schism ended 600 years ago.

Brannox is less charismatic than seductive. Fond of poetry, he speaks haltingly, as if waiting for words to come to and flow through him. He’s haunted by an evident pain, communicated in flashbacks of the twin brother he lost long ago and across lonely nights spent struggling to fall asleep. Malkovich, his eyes at times hollow, at others alight with a furtive spark, imbues the character with profound vulnerability and depth.

Beyond the issue of what to do with the pope on life support, the Holy See faces numerous challenges: ongoing sexual abuse scandals; the so-called “caliph,” who issues anti-Christian threats in videotaped messages; the cataclysmic prospect that Italy will begin retroactively taxing the Vatican; nuns who go on strike to demand equal rights; and more. If anyone is capable of restoring order, it’s Angelo Voiello (Silvio Orlando), the Vatican’s alternatingly ruthless, patronizing, and surprisingly tender—and regularly hilarious—cardinal secretary of state, who’s a singular presence throughout the series.

Most of the cardinals wrestle with personal demons and try to lead virtuous lives, like Voiello—whose harshness is a function of his office—and the supremely empathetic Gutierrez (Javier Cámara). Others, though, are unapologetically vile: They have sex with minors and snort cocaine and blackmail and blaspheme. The irreverence with which the series portrays the church results in not only bleak cynicism, but also unexpected images of feverish, dreamy splendidness. The first episode’s opening credits depict relatively scantily clad nuns dancing to a song by electronic duo Sofi Tukker in a dark room while a cross-turned-strobe light pulses, a slow zoom-in building momentum that culminates in an explosive bass drop.

The nuns play a not-insignificant role in The New Pope, but its treatment of them and other female characters is shallow at best. The series often dehumanizes women in scenes that lean on needless nudity—of which there’s no shortage here—or with imagery that prioritizes symbolism over personality. At times, The New Pope manages to incorporate both nakedness and perfunctory iconography in the same shot: In one instance, a bare woman is juxtaposed with a statue of the Madonna. Even key figures who carry over from The Young Pope suffer from halfhearted characterization, including savvy marketer Sofia (Cécile de France) and Esther (Ludivine Sagnier), the woman whose pregnancy may have been the result of a miracle performed by Belardo. (The New Pope also leaves the caliph’s antagonism underdeveloped, causing terrorism and nudity to resemble one another: stimuli deployed to elicit cheap reactions.)

Despite these failings, and despite the sordid, festering material that the series explores, what ultimately emerges from The New Pope is sheer beauty. It’s an understated grace, one that director Paolo Sorrentino and cinematographer Luca Bigazzi effect with an eye to intimacy. In a late scene, the camera cuts between tight profiles of Brannox, dressed in white, and Belardo, dressed in black, as they face each other in front of a painting whose background is a black-and-white swirl. The dichromatic canvas envelops Brannox and Belardo, seemingly transporting the pair to an abyss, or the cosmos, or some other otherworldly space. Perhaps it’s easier to find God there, away from the Earth, the Vatican, and the depravity plaguing them. The sequence is an obliterating burst of pathos that pierces and lingers.

Cast: Jude Law, John Malkovich, Silvio Orlando, Javier Cámara, Cécile de France, Ludivine Sagnier, Mark Ivanir, Maurizio Lombardi, Antonio Petrocelli, Jessica Piccolo Valerani, Kiruna Stamell, Ulrich Thomsen, Yulia Snigir Network: HBO

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The 50 Best TV Shows of the 2010s

The decade proved that the future of TV lies in its ability to democractize via technological expansion.

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Hannibal
Photo: NBC

We will likely look back at the 2010s as a simpler time, when sea levels remained relatively stable, Disney hadn’t decimated the last remaining movie houses, and there were only three networks: Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. Two thousand and nineteen was a watershed year for the expansion of streaming, so it seems like a fitting moment to reflect on the events that led to the Great War.

If the aughts represented a new golden age of television, then the following decade proved that the future of the medium lies in its ability to democractize via technological growth. Event television has replaced appointment television, as the sheer volume of content continues to balloon and more viewers shift to on-demand viewing. Our expectations, too, have evolved as the format bends and morphs to adapt to its new environment, with years-long gaps between ever-shorter seasons and shows once thought dead resurrected like zombies from our salad days.

And yet, humans crave familiarity: Game of Thrones reinvented the viewing party; networks rebooted or revived well-known properties, albeit to varying degrees of success; and we’ve replaced our old cable bill with an à la carte menu of streaming options that add up to more or less the same price. More importantly, as we venture out into the proverbial Wild West, and as the boundaries between TV and film continue to vanish, one thing remains constant: our desire for stories that reflect who we are, what we fear, what we treasure, and what we find side-splittingly funny. But then, even those lines have begun to blur. Sal Cinquemani



Portlandia

50. Portlandia

The array of archetypes portrayed by Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen on Portlandia aren’t impressive in their scope so much as their narrow specificity, each one delicately carving Portland’s milieu into a well-observed sub-niche. Armisen plays multiple variations of the emasculated goof while Brownstein portrays a bevy of self-righteous killjoys with great aplomb. Yet Portlandia is so much greater than the sum of its caricatures. That the show’s humor is entirely derived from its two co-creators gives it a winning constancy, while the improvisational aspect adds an almost surreal element to much of the dialogue. In fact, the bizarre obsession with food (a mixologist crafts a cocktail with rotten banana and eggshells, 911 dispatchers are inundated with calls from beet-eaters) suggests the fever dream of a very hungry hipster. Peter Goldberg



House of Cards

49. House of Cards

House of Cards allowed David Fincher’s seductive aesthetic sway to carry on well beyond the inaugural diptych he helmed, despite TV’s well-noted preference for story over artistic signature, but that’s almost besides the point. The scheming exploits of Kevin Spacey’s silver-tongued congressman-devil provide a galvanic shock of political satire and thrillingly modern melodrama, but the real hook is Robin Wright’s stirring performance as the politician’s better half—and worse half in the show’s botched final season. In the thick of it, this addictive series convincingly depicts a shifting political landscape, wherein an ascending class of strong and brilliant women retools man’s ruthless personal and professional strategies to better advance a contentious, testosterone-weary nation. Chris Cabin



Jessica Jones

48. Marvel’s Jessica Jones

Marvel’s Jessica Jones breaks so many molds, and with such brio, that it feels almost super-heroic. In immediately denying us Jessica’s (Krysten Ritter) origin story, it keeps her at arm’s length—a masterstroke because the series understands that it’s a story Jessica isn’t ready to give yet, freely and under her own terms. If the violence on Marvel’s Daredevil, no matter how kinetic and operatic in its brushstrokes, is primed to excite, the violence on Jessica Jones seeks to disarm our pleasure centers. And if this violence is so discomforting, it’s because of how hauntingly, stubbornly, necessarily it’s rooted in the traumas that connect the victims of the ominous Kilgrave (David Tennant). The aesthete in me wishes the series exhibited a more uncommon visual style. At the same time, maybe the show’s portrait of abuse, of heroes and villains whose shows of strength and mind control are so recognizably human, wouldn’t exert half the chill that it does it didn’t approach us so unassumingly. Ed Gonzalez



Killing Eve

47. Killing Eve

With Killing Eve—which Phoebe Waller-Bridge adapted from author Luke Jennings’s Villanelle series—she uses the whip-smart voice she employed in Fleabag to explore women whose bad behavior extends beyond the limits of rapacious sexuality and crass humor: specifically, to murderous psychopaths. The series suggests a delightfully demented, considerably more violent spin on Broad City, Insecure, and Fleabag. Those shows are wryly comical and sexually frank, with complex female relationships at their center, and Killing Eve brings us all those attributes in the guise of a crackerjack mystery. The series combines a dry comedy’s affection for the mundane with the slick look and tone of a psychosexual thriller, and the result is something wholly original, suspenseful, and caustically funny. Julia Selinger



Sherlock

46. Sherlock

Sherlock has always shown a keen but loving disregard for its source material. Despite serving up a bevy of classical crime-solving tropes, its fluid aesthetic and modern-day realism eschew the stuffy reverence of countless other re-toolings of Arthur Conan Doyle’s celebrated series. Instead, co-creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat have allowed Benedict Cumberbatch to chart his own course as a character who’s become a landmark of fiction. The actor effortlessly owns the role with his ice-cold stares and burly voice, and yet what makes the series such a distinct interpretation is how it envisions the complicated relationship between Sherlock Holmes and his partner, John Watson (Martin Freeman), whose everyman humanity serves as a spiritual contrast to the impenetrable title character’s isolated genius. Ted Pigeon



Ramy

45. Ramy

It’s the tension between Ramy’s (Ramy Youssef) secular and spiritual leanings that serves as the thrust of the Hulu series that bears his name, as he considers what kind of person—what kind of Muslim, son, and man—he wants to be. Intensely critical of himself, Ramy recognizes that he’s done much self-mythologizing, mostly in regard to his religious observance, and acutely feels his lapses in judgment, and Ramy derives its soulfulness from the ruins of the myths that Ramy and his family and friends tell themselves and those around them. There’s profound pain to be found amid the rubble. And, maybe, peace. Niv M. Sultan



Treme

44. Treme

David Simon and Eric Overmeyer’s abbreviated fade-out on post-Katrina New Orleans is tattered yet hopeful, perfect in its soulful imperfections. Decisions in the Big Easy are slowed down by good booze and better boogie, and by the time the Big Chief (Clark Peters) bows out, very little about this intoxicating menagerie of musicians and other truth-seekers has been convincingly settled on. Life’s not tidy in the Treme and the show’s creators let all the bad omens hang out, including the impending birth of Delmond’s (Rob Brown) first child and Janette’s (Kim Dickens) third restaurant opening. Of course, all the trouble made the music sound all the sweeter, as careers begin to congeal and legacies found (temporary) footing amid the city’s riotous buzz. The fat lady is singing for Treme, and she’s belting it out loud, if not for long. Cabin



The Handmaid’s Tale

43. The Handmaid’s Tale

Few television shows can match the commitment of The Handmaid’s Tale to withholding catharsis from audiences. The series, which maintains a visual lyricism that both clashes with and magnifies the brutality on screen, is most heartbreaking during moments of doubt, when Elisabeth Moss’s June appears resigned to her fate. Yet it consistently obscures her true motivation, mining mystery from her submissiveness: Is it genuine, or another tactic? When she’s able to seize, however briefly, the upper hand from her tormentors, the series offers tantalizing glimpses of their chagrin. For a moment, we’re prompted to envision that chagrin morphing into sorrow, shame, maybe even fear. That would spell some kind of catharsis, but until it actually arrives, The Handmaid’s Tale remains intellectually nourishing, easy to admire, and difficult to endure. It’s a beautiful test of stamina, offering only small reprieves from June’s suffering. It embeds us alongside her, and remains dedicated to illustrating how exactly the villains can win. Michael Haigis



High Maintenance

42. High Maintenance

High Maintenance more than made good on its transition from the Internet to HBO. Its intimacy has been retained, and yet the narrative strands have grown more thoughtfully variable and distinct in their reflection of the adult rituals, wild yearning, and long-overdue release that power the denizens of New York City’s boroughs, revealing their neuroses, deep-seated fears, self-delusions, and artful exercises. More than ever, the show’s tapestry of unexpected connections and backstories reach deeper into the quotidian experiences of city life. Cabin



Primal

41. Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal

Genndy Tartakovsky’s work as an animator is most striking for its embrace of silence. Even in the cacophonous realm of children’s cartoons, the Samurai Jack creator favors wordless moments that lean on the flapping of cloth in the wind or the exaggerated sounds of a clenching fist. Adult Swim’s Primal, then, feels like something Tartakovsky has been building to for much of his career, a dialogue-free miniseries following a caveman and his T. rex partner fighting to survive in a violent, unforgiving world. The show’s violence is a reflection of its characters’ existence, a cycle from which there’s no escape. Children are swallowed whole, prey is devoured on the spot, eyeballs are smashed in by rocks, and dino jaws are smeared in vivid red blood. The story of the caveman and T. rex’s survival, in Tartakovsky’s hands, is totally enthralling, as terrible as it is beautiful. Steven Scaife

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Review: HBO’s The Outsider Conjures Mysterious Tableaux of Dread

The series preserves Stephen King novel’s ingenious plot while entirely altering its tone.

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The Outsider
Photo: Bob Mahoney/HBO

HBO’s The Outsider represents a merging of two singular writers: Richard Price, the lively and profoundly detailed and precise crime novelist and screenwriter, and Stephen King, the one-man pop-culture industry who specializes in horror novels. Price adapted the series from King’s 2018 novel and wrote five of the six episodes that were screened for press. Immediately one feels the sense of freedom that separates this from many other King adaptations. A colossus in his own right, Price doesn’t feel the need to court King’s approval in the tradition of the many young filmmakers who’ve grown up on the author’s novels, dreaming of an opportunity to take a crack at his work. As a showrunner, Price makes bold moves, preserving King’s ingenious plot while entirely altering the novel’s tone.

The Outsider is a mystery with a crackerjack hook: Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman) is accused of raping and murdering a young boy, and he appears to have been at two places at once, with each location abounding in concrete proof of his presence. Maitland is a pillar of Flint City, Oklahoma, an English teacher and little league coach who’s arrested in a ballfield in the middle of a game by detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendolsohn). Price and Bateman, who directed the first two episodes, alternate between the arrest and Anderson’s discovery of the little boy and the gathering of evidence. Multiple witnesses saw Terry speaking with the boy and driving a van that would later be found drenched in the child’s blood.

This opening displays the novel’s surgical attention detail, as in Anderson’s pointed order that Terry be arrested in public and handcuffed with his hands in front of his body. Sure that he’s got his man, Ralph launches a brutal character assassination, which Bateman stages in long, foreboding takes that capture the weight of a community curdling on an individual.

As in many crime shows, especially Law & Order, the first arrest is fraudulent. Aided by his attorney, Howie Gold (Bill Camp), Terry springs a startling alibi while in prison: that he was attending a literary conference out of town on the day of the boy’s murder. Besides video proof supporting his alibi, there’s dozens of witnesses and a fingerprint he left on a book in a hotel lobby. Ralph’s certainty, cemented by his grief over his own son’s death a year earlier, begins to crack, and then something terrible happens that convinces him to look further into the Maitland case. Unexpectedly working with Howie and a private investigator, Alec Pelley (Jeremy Bobb), who in turn hires another private investigator, Holly Gibney (Cynthia Erivo), Ralph and his team uncover a chain of child murders across the country that are characterized simultaneously by iron-clad proof of guilt and innocence. Gibney, a socially awkward eccentric genius, eventually comes to believe that they’re dealing with a shapeshifter who feeds on grief.

This narrative business comes from King’s novel and is quite redolent of his 1986 opus It, but Price alters the story’s mood and speed. King’s signature sensibility—his interest in the quotidian of small-town average people facing otherworldly nightmares—has been pruned away, and not always for the better. In the series, many of the characters are smoldering, movie-ready badasses reminiscent of the protagonists of countless prestige crime dramas, and who utter clipped, chicly tortured dialogue in the key of the characters in Price’s own film scripts. This tendency is especially evident in Price’s conception of Holly. In the novel, she’s a thin, young white woman on the spectrum who’s poignantly possessed of no confidence except when piecing together evidence; for Price, however, Holly is a sexy woman of color fending off the advances of men, whose anti-sociality is offered up, a la Hugh Laurie’s character in House, as yet another element of her supreme agency. Collectively, such character changes make the narrative feel less eccentric and personal than that of King’s novel.

On the other hand, Price also throws out King’s bad habits—gimmicky character shtick, embarrassingly contrived dialogue, certain routine plotting—fashioning a mood piece that gradually becomes less about the investigation of the murders than the paralysis of grief. The Outsider’s title has multiple meanings. The notion of grief and trauma divorcing people from society, turning them into outsiders, is in King’s book, but Price and the show’s directors—Bateman, Andrew Bernstein, and Karyn Kusama—bring that theme to fuller bloom. Certain characters feel functional at first but gain a surprising pathos, such as Ralph’s wife, Jeannie, whom Mare Winningham invests with a hauntingly inquisitive ruefulness. Holly also grows in stature, as Erivo transcends an initial stock type, imbuing her character with a tremulous unease, a fragility that becomes more and more moving as the series progresses.

The Outsider also features wonderful tableaux of dread. Bateman sets the stage early on, utilizing the various planes of the widescreen image for unmooring flourishes, such as when a woman jogs toward the camera as a man attempting suicide crashes through the window of a house in the middle ground of the frame. Subsequent episodes physicalize grief by emphasizing the emptiness of farmhouses, the undersides of bridges, and the condemned homes of the damned, suggesting a hellish netherworld that exists just out of plain sight. The cinematography, heavily indebted to the work of David Fincher, is awash in eerie grays and blues, as well as negative space that might potentially obscure the shapeshifter.

Given the wildness of the story, The Outsider sometimes feels ludicrously tony, but it’s undeniably gripping—a beach read rendered by real artists. The series is so clever that it might take you a while to realize that it’s essentially Dracula, what with all the Renfield types and secret nesting sites, only dressed up as a police procedural. Or, perhaps even more fitting, The Outsider suggests a merging of Kolchak with Price’s The Night Of.

Cast: Ben Mendelsohn, Cynthia Erivo, Bill Camp, Jason Bateman, Mare Winningham, Paddy Considine, Julianne Nicholson, Yul Vazquez, Jeremy Bobb, Marc Menchaca, Frank Deal, Hettienne Park, Derek Cecil, Summer Fontana

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Review: BBC and Netflix’s Dracula Is a Gory but Banal Adaptation of a Classic

The series feels tiresome in its relentless pleading with us to be impressed.

1.5

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Dracula
Photo: Netflix

The first episode of BBC One and Netflix’s Dracula finds sickly Jonathan Harker (John Hefferman) interred at a convent. Gesturing toward the pile of pages in front of her, the chipper, irreverent Sister Agatha (Dolly Wells) says that Jonathan’s account of his imprisonment in Dracula’s (Claes Bang) castle may have left out some relevant information. Then she asks him if he had sex with the vampire. With this, Sherlock creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat announce their intent to push the expected boundaries of Bram Stoker’s oft-adapted novel by bringing a lot of the subtext to the forefront. But the bizarrely passionless scenes that ultimately follow in no way match those performative declarations.

It’s not that Bang’s hammy Dracula fails to do suggestive things throughout the entirety of the 90-minute episode made available to press. It’s that when he hovers over Jonathan and tries to get him to write a letter with a pen that they’re both holding, there’s no palpable sexual tension. The actors’ rigid body language seems fundamentally at odds with the proceedings, though that impression may stem from the cinematography. Indeed, the characters are constantly framed from unflattering angles or cut off from one another altogether, and despite being far more vocal about the subtext of Stoker’s novel than almost any adaptation before it, the series isn’t half as provocative as something like Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal.

Whether he’s sharing space with Jonathan or even Sister Agatha, Bang’s handsome, domineering Dracula radiates no lust or desire. When the vampire calls his guest things like “Johnny” or his “bride,” the pronounced eroticism feels forced and artificial. In one scene, Dracula stands naked before Agatha and licks a bloody knife, but the camera conceals everything below his neck and cuts to a more obscure angle from the moment he touches his tongue to the blade, effectively dialing back the moment’s camp factor.

Some of Dracula’s images might sound gross on the page—a fly crawling across an eyeball, a mangled body shoved into a box, a peeled fingernail—but these moments pass by so quickly and with such visible fuss, courtesy of the jittering camera and clanging soundtrack, that they’re robbed of any horror. Dracula’s groan-inducing wordplay (“You look drained”) only further saps the gothic atmosphere of any dread. The series is as ostentatious with its apparent sexual overtones as its horror, displaying a showiness that comes off more like a substitute for real depravity, a cry for help in the notable absence of any writer or director capable of teasing out the material’s sensuality.

All that’s left of Dracula is its declaration of cleverness, as it bobs and weaves through expectations as Sister Agatha does the whole fast-talking genius shtick. Did you think crucifixes repel vampires? Well, the series makes sure to tell us they don’t. And then, suddenly, they do, with Dracula all but goading viewers into guessing why. In multiple scenes, characters drag out their introduction of a problem and then badger others for input and theories like an irritatingly persistent street performer. Whether it’s introducing farcical, overwritten solutions to things like navigating Dracula’s mazelike castle or miniature plot twists that are easy to guess, the series simply feels tiresome in its relentless pleading with us to be impressed.

Cast: Claes Bang, Dolly Wells, John Heffernan, Corrina Wilson, Matthew Beard, Morfydd Clark, Lyndsey Marshal Network: Netflix

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Review: The Witcher Favors Fierce Fight Scenes Over World-Building

The series taps into violence like a lifespring, finding its footing with energetic fight sequences.

2.5

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The Witcher
Photo: Katalin Vermes/Netflix

Henry Cavill’s character in The Witcher, Netflix’s adaptation of the series of fantasy novels and short stories by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, could scan as a spin on the actor’s most notable prior role. Monster hunter Geralt of Rivia resembles a reclusive medieval Superman—all principle, brawn, and jawline—clad in a white wig and cat-like contact lenses. But rather than reheating the Man of Steel, Cavill quickly melts into Geralt, capturing his aloof yet winsome confidence with sardonic one-liners and baritone grunts.

Geralt roams a land known as the Continent, sniffing out fantastical happenings and dealing with the responsible entities like a sword-swinging private eye. It’s how he makes a living as a witcher: a rare, highly trained beast slayer both blessed with and cursed by enigmatic mutations. These mutations afford witchers preternatural strength and litheness, night vision, and a host of other powers—as well as the scorn of countless villagers who’ve heard vile tales of witchers’ supposed inhumanity. The series uses the hate directed toward Geralt to offer intriguing, if inconsistently fleshed-out, reflections on discrimination.

The Witcher’s two female principal characters also face oppressive difficulties. Sorceress Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra), who undergoes a vicious education in the art of magic, navigates the challenges of dysmorphism and her part-Elven heritage in a sexist and racist society, and young princess Ciri (Freya Allan) turns runaway after her home gets razed by the mysterious Nilfgaardian Empire. While the empire—the Continent’s strongest political and military force—is eager to track down Ciri, its aims beyond territorial growth are shadowy.

Geralt, Yen, and Ciri spend most of the season isolated from each other. When Geralt and Yen finally meet, they share a warm, sexually charged bath, in a nod to a similar moment in the 2015 video game adaptation The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. But bath time offers more than cheap fan service here, as the scene also delivers the lighthearted charm that The Witcher’s various manifestations insist upon amid their overall bleakness. Geralt and Yen’s banter moves briskly, propelled by Yen’s playful aggression and Geralt’s wry half-smiles.

The three protagonists’ narratives momentously and giddily merge near the end of the season, but what comes before sometimes feels like a stretched-out primer. Many conversations proceed lifelessly, purely to provide exposition, doing a disservice to the show’s thoughtful exploration of gender, free will, and classism. The laziness accompanies another storytelling flaw: The series is often too slow to elucidate the logic at play in its world. This first season pays welcome attention to Yen’s history and psyche but chooses not to concretely explain what it means to be a witcher, granting the audience little insight into Geralt’s origins, the reasons for his itinerance, or the nature of his otherness.

In contrast to its halfhearted approach to exposition, The Witcher finds its footing in the graphic depiction of violence. The show’s energetic battle scenes, set to a stirring score by composers Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli, create the impression that the burly, snow-caked background actors of Game of Thrones were moving at three-quarters speed. An early duel between Geralt and a rogue princess (Emma Appleton)—there are many princesses—escalates with breakneck cuts and tight shots of the warriors. Later, as the ghastly spawn of a cursed woman stalks a victim, the creature’s still-attached umbilical cord flashes at the edge of the frame, smartly giving shape to the specter of loss and grief.

However enthralling it is to watch him in action, Geralt is central to relatively few fight sequences throughout the season. He generally refrains from involving himself in the conflicts of others, less out of a commitment to neutrality than out of what appears to be an overwhelming indifference. And by avoiding excessive bloodshed early on, The Witcher demarcates the stakes necessary for Geralt to unsheathe his blade—gradually revealing his motivations and making the scattered moments of butchery all the more alluring.

Cast: Henry Cavill, Anya Chalotra, Freya Allan, Jodhi May, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson, Adam Levy, MyAnna Buring, Emma Appleton, Joey Batey, Anna Shaffer, Mimi Ndiweni, Royce Pierreson, Wilson Radjou-Pujalte, Eamon Farren Network: Netflix

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Review: Work in Progress Confronts Mental Illness with Heart and Barbs

The series never loses sight of its premise, though it remains bleak without beating you over the head.

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Work in Progress
Photo: Adrian S. Burrows/Showtime

Abby (Abby McEnany) is planning to kill herself. She’s 45, a devoted journaler, and quite miserable. Her first line of dialogue in Showtime’s Work in Progress is a comically extended shout of “Wazzup!,” and she buys her nephew a megaphone for his birthday, but being loud and fun masks her inner turmoil. She feels totally unaccomplished as a self-described “fat, queer dyke” with OCD. And though she has yet to decide on a suicide method, 180 almonds are key. They’re a “gift” from an insipid co-worker as a commentary on her weight, and Abby decides to use them to mark time: Throw out one almond per day until there are none left, and if things haven’t gotten better, then it’s time to pack it all in.

McEnany is an improv comic and the series, created with director Tim Mason and produced by co-showrunner Lilly Wachowski, is semi-autobiographical. Scenes are often broken up by title cards that list everything from the day of the week to the almond count to a public bathroom’s capacity, with frequent detours into flashbacks of past relationships and confrontations. These situations are heightened, laced with humor that’s both frank and self-deprecating. In one sequence, Abby insists on having sex in total darkness despite multiple resulting injuries, and we see her cycle through various slings and bandages over various body parts.

Work in Progress never loses sight of its premise, though it remains bleak without beating you over the head. After all, Abby copes through humor and, often, by yelling at people. She has boxes upon boxes of journals packed in a barricaded closet, expressing her feelings almost in spite of herself, and to the point where she speaks to a cellphone wallpaper pic of her dead therapist. McEnany is such an immediately gripping comedic presence because she’s unwilling to back down even when confrontations spiral out of control or she initially faints from the stress. Her suicide scheme, for example, is meant to continue for months while building slowly to a direct, hilariously petty response to her almond-purveying co-worker: “In my note, I’m gonna tell that woman that the almonds were what pushed me over the edge.”

Things do seem to get better for Abby. She finds unexpected romance with Chris (Theo Germaine), a trans man half her age. He pushes her into situations where she isn’t totally comfortable, like going to a nightclub or confronting SNL alum Julia Sweeney (playing herself), whose most famous character on that show, the androgynous Pat, became a reference point for bullying gender non-conforming people like Abby. The first few episodes of the season don’t yet characterize Chris beyond some catalyst for Abby’s change, but the two have such a charming chemistry that their connection feels believable.

More than the considerable pain at the center of Work in Progress, you can feel the joy of new love, of potentially moving past the baggage of the past. But all the while, the almonds loom in the background, at first spread out on a table and later consigned to a jar but never truly gone. It’s a sobering, subtle way to tackle mental illness because Abby doesn’t throw out her whole plan upon meeting Chris; the possibility of death is still there like a backup, due to her uncertainty. Things may be better, but how long will they last? Like the flashbacks and all those journals stored away in Abby’s closet, the baggage is never totally gone.

Cast: Abby McEnany, Karin Anglin, Celeste Pechous, Julia Sweeney, Theo Germaine, Armand Fields Network: Showtime

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The 25 Best TV Shows of 2019

Our favorite shows of 2019 resist easy categorization, and they attest to a medium in transformation.

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The Best TV Shows of 2019
Photo: Amazon

Our favorite television shows of 2019 resist easy categorization, and they attest to a medium in transformation. On our list, the old and new sit side by side, as do the challenging and the inspirational, the urgent and the offbeat. These 25 shows speak to the medium’s consistently stimulating sense of variety, and to the fact that as one golden age of television yields to the demands of an era of endless content, resonant voices and bold ideas can still find their audience. While these shows are diverse in subject matter and style, the best offerings of the year were characterized by clear, well-honed perspectives, often engaging the big questions of our present-day human existence.

The year’s best TV programming gave voice to a breadth of ideas and experiences, even those which might not reasonably be considered “issue-driven.” Consider the Netflix sketch show I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson, which couched a canny indictment of male egoism and fragile masculinity in fart jokes and absurdist cringe humor. Or Pamela Adlon’s Better Things, which launched an incisive and frank portrayal of menopause in its third season. HBO’s Succession, perhaps the only series on the list that might be classified as a reaction to Trumpism, supplanted Game of Thrones as the network’s crown dramatic jewel by offering viewers the repugnant, terrifyingly cut-throat palace intrigue that the latter series long-ago turned its back to.

The immersive Russian Doll operated as an Escher painting turned dramedy, slowly and thoughtfully eroding the affected abrasiveness of its main character. And while that series was just one of the year’s many surprising breakthroughs, 2019 also found well-established shows in peak form, from BoJack Horseman, newly alive with a deep sense of hope for its eponymous character, to Bob’s Burgers, richer and funnier in what it has to tell us about family life. Whether tackling existential issues or providing a reprieve from them, the year’s best shows comprise a multitude of voices, which flowed forth from the most prestigious platforms to the smallest, strangest niches of the medium—all of them demanding, in one way or another, to be heard. Michael Haigis


City on a Hill

25. City on a Hill

When City on a Hill isn’t immersed in pulpy shenanigans, which find Kevin Bacon’s casually racist F.B.I. agent Jackie Rohr doing things like brandishing a fish at an angry old woman who calls him a “white devil,” it aspires to be a Bostonian spin on The Wire. The series, set in the early ‘90s and based on an original idea by creator Chuck MacLean and executive producer Ben Affleck, constantly keeps one eye on the systems that contribute to the city’s rot as it moves through a fictionalized account of the “Boston Miracle” police operation that statistically reduced violence in the city. The series excels in the level of detail it brings to its characters, and proves itself as effective at small, interlocking details as it is at purely hammy thrills. Steven Scaife


Years and Years

24. Years and Years

Perhaps the most significant aspect of Years and Years is the compassion with which it considers its characters. It would be easy for a series filled with so many cataclysms, both global and personal—nuclear weapon launches, deaths, infidelities—to err on the side of sadism in its depiction of that turmoil. But it takes no pleasure in the pain of its central family. Instead, Years and Years recognizes that pain is edifying as well as transient, and it accordingly gives the pain that it inflicts space to evolve: to form, to torment, and to pass, like each year that comes and goes, taking more and more away with it. Niv M. Sultan


On Becoming a God in Central Florida

23. On Becoming a God in Central Florida

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 pyramid scheme whose promises of wealth and prosperity prompted him to dump the family’s life savings into the organization’s coffers, leaving Krystal holding both the bag and their baby. As conceived by 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. It keenly captures our dubious relationship with the prospect of wealth; 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. Scaife


Big Mouth

22. Big Mouth

Netflix’s Big Mouth is continued evidence against the dubious argument that P.C. culture has made it impossible for comedians to be edgy. As a subject for an animated sitcom, the sex lives of 13-year-olds constitutes an ethical, political, and cultural minefield—one that the graphic and logorrheic Big Mouth gives the impression of approaching blindfolded and in a headlong rush. But there’s a method to its mania: Even while firing an entire volley of cum jokes at viewers every few seconds, the new season covers topics like female masturbation, slut shaming, incel masculinity, biphobia, social media addiction, and the gay teen experience with a heartening frankness that belies its apparent irreverence. Pat Brown


Euphoria

21. Euphoria

Sam Levinson’s Euphoria depicts teenage hedonism in frank, explicit terms: a high school world awash in pills, sex, and nude photos thrown to the winds of social media. The series finds its character-driven groove by turning an empathetic eye toward the inner lives of its principal teens, observing their listlessness and small moments of solace as much as their outward pain. It tempers some of its heavier material with an often laidback atmosphere, a world of deep shadows drenched in multi-colored hues and dreamy hip-hop beats that belie the darkness in its corners. If the universe is falling apart around the characters’ ears, the result is that Euphoria’s characters see little reason to consider what encroaching adulthood will mean, to ruminate on what will come next when there might as well be no “next.” There’s only the all-encompassing “now.” Scaife

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Review: Truth Be Told Is Uninterested in the Malleable Nature of Truth

The series attempts to derive excitement solely from its overly calibrated performances.

1.5

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Truth Be Told
Photo: Apple TV+

As Octavia Spencer’s journalist turned podcaster Poppy Parnell leads her listeners through the shadowy histories of gruesome criminal cases in Truth Be Told, the actress perfectly mimics the warmly grave vocal delivery that’s a hallmark of the true-crime podcast genre. Yet, while the Apple TV+ series understands this genre’s allure, it fails to replicate the enduring insights of podcasts like Serial—insights which pertain to the opacity of fact and the idea that the truth can be shaped by the whims of institutions, such as jury selection and the preservation of crime-scene evidence. Truth Be Told eschews the fixations of the nonfiction works that it apes, focusing on lurid gossip and incredulous plot twists and, as a result, proving uninterested in the malleable nature of truth itself.

Truth Be Told follows Poppy as she reassesses a grisly suburban murder from 20 years ago—one she mined for professional success at the time, penning a series of columns which helped turn the public tide against Warren Cave (Aaron Paul), the teenager who was convicted of the crime. A nagging flaw in Truth Be Told emerges early on, as the series fails to elucidate exactly why Poppy is convinced of Cave’s innocence. Reference is made to a key witness who may have been coached, but that inconclusive new development seemingly confirms Poppy’s long-harbored suspicions, which exist for reasons that are never made clear.

The show’s contrived central mystery, then, pertains to who really killed Chuck Buhrman (Nic Bishop). It’s a question that’s far less complex than that of many high-profile true-crime mysteries, and Truth Be Told attempts to derive excitement solely from its overly calibrated performances. Indeed, the direction given to a majority of the actors seems to have been to glower more, act shiftier, or seem more agitated. The series suggests Buhrman’s killer could have been any of the figures Poppy encounters, but because they’re all so obviously creepy, a pervasive sense emerges, unintentionally, that they’re all engaged in some kind of conspiracy.

Paul bizarrely plays Cave as a feral presence, growling and tilting his head during his character’s interviews with Poppy. Incarceration, the series unsubtly suggests, has made him an animal. Likewise, Buhrman’s daughters, Josie and Lanie (both played by Lizzie Caplan), are a pair of incessant liars who’re still grappling with the trauma of their father’s death. Other characters seem to simply be evil, none more so than Cave’s father, who’s the show’s plainly obvious red herring. All of these figures are suspects, yet the persistent suggestion that that we might also empathize with many of them results in Truth Be Told vacillating between conflicting viewpoints: one that sees these characters’ flaws are the resultant damage of Buhrman’s murder, and one that sees their flaws as inherent and may have led them to kill. But the series lacks the tact or nuance to investigate the idea of inherent evil, and what’s left is a rather muddled whodunit in which the answer ceases to be very interesting.

While the show’s reliance on easy misdirection and incredulous plot dynamics are an understandable hallmark of its genre, Truth Be Told similarly fails to distinguish itself in cinematic or thematic terms. Shot in an exceedingly workmanlike fashion, the series is designed to offer boatloads of information and little else. Every conversation unfolds in rote over-the-shoulders shots, and exteriors are plagued by the copious drone shots that have become a kind of shorthand for high production value in prestige television. Even the rare bursts of action unfold mechanically, with twists telegraphed by the show’s performances and scenes either being marred by slow motion or shaky-cam obfuscation.

Coherent cinematic flourishes would have been a welcome addition, because much of what’s being captured here seldom exceeds matters of exposition. For instance, every discussion between Poppy and her private investigator, Markus (Mekhi Phifer), includes clumsy references to their past romantic history, as if we might forget. Seemingly every conversation that Poppy has with anyone includes a statement of their current emotional dynamic. While Spencer’s warmth and wit hint at Poppy’s skill as an investigator, the actress is too often left delivering dialogue that merely states what’s happening around her or in her head.

Throughout Truth Be Told, Poppy constantly explicates her guilt, yet the series doesn’t seem sure what exactly is prompting those feelings. The show flattens its performers’ unique personalities, utilizing them simply in service of engendering suspicion. Ostensibly about the nature of fact and the spiraling effects of dishonesty, Truth Be Told is actually much less thought-provoking than all that, and simply erects a byzantine rumor mill around one man’s death and then mining those rumors for cheap thrills.

Cast: Octavia Spencer, Aaron Paul, Lizzie Caplan, Elizabeth Perkins, Michael Beach, Mekhi Phifer, Tracie Thoms, Ron Cephas Jones, Nic Bishop Network: Apple TV+

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