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Doctor Who Recap: Season 6, Episode 6: “The Almost People”

“The Almost People” is an episode with a dual function.

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Doctor Who Recap: Season 6, Episode 6: “The Almost People”
Photo: BBC

“The Almost People” is an episode with a dual function. It wraps up the story started in “The Rebel Flesh”, with the Doctor (Matt Smith), Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill) getting mixed up with acid miners and doppelgangers on 22nd-century Earth, but also unveils one hell of a surprise in the season’s ongoing story. The way in which this turning point of the season arc is integrated into (and arises from) the individual story of these two episodes is very satisfying—even though some of the potential inherent in the story of humans being forced to confront a group of “imitations” who are in fact just as worthy of being considered independent entities in their own right gets passed over in favor of the season arc plot.

I mentioned in my recap for the previous episode that the story bears some similarities to last season’s Silurian two-parter. Structurally, “The Almost People” shares with “Cold Blood” the way in which, once the stand-alone story is wrapped up, the overarching plot of the season moves to the foreground and takes over the climax of the episode. One of the best twists the show has ever pulled off is the revelation that the Amy Pond we have been watching for the whole season up until now was not in fact Amy, but a duplicate constructed from the ’Flesh’—the “fully programmable matter” which was shown in the last episode to be capable of being formed into doppelgänger versions of people. The real Amy—heavily pregnant and about to give birth as the episode ends—has been held captive somewhere else, and has been unknowingly controlling this “gänger” duplicate all the time.

There are a couple of reasons I found this twist so satisfyingly ingenious. The first is the way clues seeded through previous episodes were paid off. Several times we have seen the Doctor puzzling over the TARDIS scanner simultaneously showing Amy to be both pregnant and not pregnant. At the beginning of “The Rebel Flesh,” the Doctor has clearly worked out what’s going on, and takes the TARDIS to this island monastery in order to investigate the Flesh technology and find out enough to safely block the signal to the false Amy. (This is a distinct improvement on “Cold Blood,” where there was no connection between the Silurian story and the sudden appearance of the crack in the universe at the end.) Then there are the strange glimpses of a woman (credited simply as “Eye Patch Lady”) peering at Amy through what looks like a small hatchway, which Amy has experienced several times in different places. These weird manifestations led to much fan speculation about parallel universes or multiple time-streams, but the actual explanation turned out to be far more straightforward: the view from where Amy’s real body was located was simply breaking through every so often into the consciousness of her duplicate.

We don’t yet have enough information to say exactly when Amy was kidnapped and replaced with a Flesh duplicate. Obviously it has to be before the first appearance of the Eye Patch Lady, which was early in “Day of the Moon.” At the moment, I lean toward the substitution taking place during the three months when the companions were on the run at the start of that episode. However, executive producer Beth Willis, in the episode of Doctor Who Confidential accompanying “The Almost People,” stated that the false Amy has been shown throughout the entire season so far, including the first episode. This would imply that the switch probably took place during the gap between the last Christmas special and the start of the season.

A second reason to admire the ingenuity of this plot twist is that it manages to have its cake and eat it too: we have the shock of finding out that the Amy we’ve been watching for six episodes is not the real Amy, but at the same time none of the experiences we’ve seen Amy having in those episodes are invalidated—which otherwise would have been very frustrating for the audience, given the character development for Amy and Rory which occurred in them. It would have been most unfair if, say, the Amy/Rory interplay in “The Doctor’s Wife” was suddenly retconned out of existence.

However, there is a conflict between the aims of this individual story and the aims of the season arc plot which leads to an unfortunate confusion and blurring of focus. It’s absolutely necessary for the arc that the Doctor can dissolve the false Amy at the end without any ethical qualms about ending the life of a sentient being, and yet writer Matthew Graham has just spent two episodes telling a story about how Gängers Are People Too. The story does attempt to balance these cross-purposes by treating the acquisition of free will and consciousness by this particular group of gängers as a freak occurrence, a result of the solar tsunami we saw in “The Rebel Flesh.” But then it goes on to muddy the waters considerably when the main antagonist, Jennifer (Sarah Smart), shows Rory a pile of distorted Flesh apparently consisting of the remains of old, discarded gängers (“Left to rot, fully conscious. Can you imagine what kind of hell they’re in?”). Rory naturally is filled with righteous indignation and falls in with Jennifer’s plans—which unfortunately means he’s left looking rather weak through most of the episode, having been duped by the Jennifer gänger into thinking she’s the real woman. This strand of the plot almost feels like it’s wandered in from a different episode entirely, and has no real effect on the story. When Rory tells the Doctor about the Flesh-pile, he is more concerned with escaping from the room he’s in at the time; admittedly, it’s about to be filled with boiling acid, but even after escaping he shows no inclination to investigate Rory’s information. Even at the end, he leaves the human survivors with no more than a vague admonition to “make the Company understand what they’re doing to the Flesh, make them stop”—which seems an uncharacteristically restrained response to the sort of horror we saw.

Even if it’s ultimately undercut somewhat by the arc plot, the actual telling of the story still has quite a lot of tension and excitement. It’s another instance of that venerable Doctor Who staple, the “base under siege” story, with a small group of characters trapped in an isolated setting. The human crew spend the episode trying to avoid their gängers and get evacuated from the island, while the Jennifer-gänger wants the gängers to take their counterparts’ places on the evacuation flight, get back to the mainland, and start a wider human/gänger conflict. The Doctor and the humans end up trapped in a room about to be flooded with acid thanks to Rory’s entertainingly embarrassed betrayal (“Uh, Doctor, look… I’d better tell you, I haven’t been quite straight with you…”). But despite all the rushing around and the potential world-shaking implications, the story is played out more like a group of character studies, as each of the crew members—and their duplicates—respond in different ways to the situation. For example, Jimmy (Mark Bonnar) and his gänger seem the most likely to be able to come to an understanding, thanks to their shared memories of Jimmy’s son Adam—they both react with happiness to the bells which signal midnight, and the start of what will be Adam’s fifth birthday. The Doctor sets up a video call to the boy, and coolly prods the gänger Jimmy when Adam (Edmond Moulton) asks to speak to his father: “You’ll do, Jimmy. What does the other Jimmy matter now? You’re both the same dad, aren’t you?” The gänger Jimmy realizes he can’t leave his counterpart to be killed, and rushes off to save him.

Jennifer: “You tricked him into an act of weakness, Doctor.”
The Doctor: “No. I’ve helped him into an act of humanity.”

Ironically, the real Jimmy gets blasted by the acid and dies in his gänger’s arms, giving his blessing to the duplicate to take over his life (“Be a dad. You remember how”). He at least gets as happy a resolution as can be expected—effectively, Jimmy survives what would have been a fatal accident and makes it home to his son.

It’s annoying that the most provocative question arising from the whole situation—what happens if two copies of the same person have to share one life?—ends up being evaded, since the script ensures that no more than one member of each human/gänger pair survives to the end. Buzzer (Marshall Lancaster) and Dicken (Leon Vickers) are both more or less cannon fodder. Buzzer saw his duplicate die in the last episode, and here he eventually gets killed off when he runs into the gänger Jennifer. For an actor who was such a memorable part of Matthew Graham’s Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, Marshall Lancaster has disappointingly little to work with in these two episodes—his best line (“Should have been a postman, like me dad”) is almost his last. Meanwhile, the original Dicken dies in a rather perfunctory act of self-sacrifice, leaving his gänger counterpart to carry on in his place, just like Jimmy.

Most of the conflict that drives the story forward comes from the young girl, Jennifer. The body of the original Jennifer is discovered halfway through “The Almost People”; the multiple Jennifers seen in this episode are all gängers. She descends into somewhat hammy villainous speeches at times, but Sarah Smart certainly puts a lot of energy into the role. As I said above, the whole strand of the story involving the mistreatment of the Flesh is left rather undeveloped and confusing, and it’s not clear how much of Jennifer’s words about the villainy of the humans can be relied upon. She is certainly willing to go to extreme lengths to express hatred of them; we see her creating a bizarre wall of Flesh eyes, which turn to accuse the humans going past them. In the end, she becomes a literal monster, an enormous, grotesque dog-like creature with her human face stuck on the front. The CGI for this monster was much improved from the last time a similar creature appeared, in 2007’s “The Lazarus Experiment”. Although it still failed to be fully convincing in sharp close-up, the initial backlit, defocused shots of the human form stretching and distorting into the monstrous shape were creepily effective.

The head of the human crew, Miranda Cleaves, gets the most interesting character work, and Raquel Cassidy puts in a great double performance. Despite the fact that Cleaves basically set off the whole conflict last episode by killing the duplicate Buzzer, both versions of her turn out to be rather reluctant warriors. They both provide good leadership for their respective groups, and they are certainly well matched—the human Cleaves is smart enough to type a password instead of speaking it in her communication to the mainland, suspecting her counterpart to be eavesdropping, but the gänger Cleaves is able to correctly guess the password she’s chosen. Then both versions begin suffering headaches, and the Doctor discovers she has an inoperable blood clot in her brain—news which she ruefully breaks to her gänger when they come face to face (“Of all the humans in all the worlds, you had to pick the one with the clot. But hey, them’s the breaks. Welcome to the human race”). The gänger Cleaves, deciding she just wants to be left alone in peace, declines to join Jennifer’s “revolution” against the humans:

Gänger Cleaves: “I’ve had it with this. What’s the point in this ridiculous war? Look at you, Jen. You were a sweet kid. Look at you now: the stuff of nightmares. I don’t want my world populated by monsters.”

True to her word, the gänger Cleaves eventually gives her life to stop the Jennifer-monster, after which (in what was definitely the most irritating occurrence of this script’s compulsion to unnecessarily tidy away loose ends) the Doctor casually produces a bit of magic from the TARDIS that will cure the original’s blood clot.

But by far the most interesting exploration of original/gänger duality in the story is that relating to the Doctor himself. From the beginning of this episode, he reaches out and tries to help his counterpart as the gänger-Doctor takes a few minutes to stabilize—the Flesh struggles to cope with the Time Lord’s multiple lives, and he starts spouting lines and catch-phrases from the Doctor’s past incarnations. Some of these (like Jon Pertwee’s infamous “Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow”) are imitated by Matt Smith, while others are actual archive sound, such as Tom Baker’s “Would you like a jelly baby?” I particularly enjoyed hearing David Tennant’s “Hello, I’m the Doctor” being immediately followed by “No, no, let it go, we’ve moved on!” Once the gänger-Doctor is fully present, the Doctor shows no sign of the fear or distrust displayed by the others towards his doppelgänger. In fact, he is delighted to have a literal equal to bounce off, and the two Doctors are soon tossing ideas back and forth and completing each other’s sentences, much to Amy’s irritation (“You know, I’m starting to get a sense of just how impressive it is to hang out with me”). The Eleventh Doctor has always tended to speak his thoughts out loud, rambling on as if having a conversation with himself, and a lot of the interaction between the two Doctors is an amusing externalization of that tendency. It’s also an impressive technical achievement; thanks to Matt Smith’s superb timing and very good work from director Julian Simpson, there was never a moment where the illusion of these two separate but identical beings was threatened.

The idea that the Doctor and his Flesh counterpart are, in fact, identical—that they deserve to be treated with complete equality—is actually quite an alien one to accept, and Amy no doubt speaks for most of the audience when she seizes on a way of distinguishing them:

Amy: “No getting away from it. One of you was here first.”
Doctor 1: “Well, OK, after the Flesh scanned me I had an accident with a puddle of acid. Now, new shoes. A situation which does not confront m’learned self, here.”
Doctor 2: “That satisfy you, Pond?”
Amy: “Don’t call me Pond, please.”
Doctor 2: “Interesting. You definitely feel more affection for him than me.”
Amy: “No, no… you’re fine and everything. But he’s… the Doctor. No offense; being almost the Doctor’s pretty damn impressive.”
Doctor 2: “Being almost the Doctor’s like being no Doctor at all. You might as well call me… Smith! John Smith!”

(Was I the only one thinking it would have been hilarious if he had said “Matt Smith” at the end there?)

Of course, one of the staple devices of a doppelgänger story is misleading either the audience or the other characters about which is which. At the end, the rug is pulled out from under Amy, as the Doctors confess they swapped shoes—they had to know whether they were truly the same, and needed Amy’s outside perspective to make sure. It’s worth watching the episode a second time once you know the truth, to see how Matthew Graham and Matt Smith maintain the ambiguity. Smith has fun giving what we think is the gänger Doctor a slightly dangerous edge, particularly when he is found by the other gängers and plays along with them (“Call me Smith”), menacing the captured Rory. His repeated non sequitur “Ring ring!” before his prearranged phone call from Adam arrives was really rather sinister.

There’s only one scene which becomes problematic after the switch is revealed, and that’s the Doctor’s attack on Amy outside the monastery. She thinks it’s the gänger Doctor, and when he suddenly seems to telepathically sense the anguish of Jennifer’s Flesh-pile and slams Amy against the wall, she is naturally alarmed and runs back inside to ’her’ Doctor. But once it becomes clear that that was actually the original Doctor, it’s never properly explained why he should have such a dangerous response to the Flesh when his counterpart does not (especially when, at the beginning of the episode, it was the gänger Doctor doing all the “Why, why, why?” emoting). However, there are a couple of other things going on in this scene, too. First, it provides the Doctor with the information that the Flesh is developing the desire to grow and divide at will—which explains Jennifer’s abilities to create extra gängers and (possibly) the pile of Flesh bodies. Also—and this may turn out to be of crucial importance—Graham (or possibly showrunner Steven Moffat) cleverly advances the season arc plot, as Amy inadvertently reveals the details of the Doctor’s death from “The Impossible Astronaut” to him, under the impression she’s talking to the gänger Doctor. The final conversation between the Doctors, as the gänger Doctor prepares to sacrifice himself to stop the Jennifer-monster, shows that the Doctor certainly took notice of what he heard:

Gänger Doctor: “Well, my death arrives, I suppose.”
The Doctor: “But this one we’re not invited to.”
Gänger Doctor: “Pardon?”
The Doctor: “Nothing… Your molecular memory can survive this, you know. It may not be the end.”
Gänger Doctor: “Yeah, well, if I turn up to nick all your biscuits then you’ll know you were right, won’t you?”
(The Doctor chuckles, and gives a final nod of acknowledgement to his other self, which is returned.)

The gänger Doctor uses the sonic screwdriver to destroy the monster, which also causes himself and the Cleaves gänger with him to dissolve. This seems to preclude the possibility that the gänger Doctor was the one who died in the season premiere, and leaves us no closer to the solution of that mystery. However, the fairly obvious hinting in the above quote suggests that we may not have seen the last of him after all…

In the end, it’s undeniable that the final three minutes, after the story proper has concluded, are the most memorable in the entire episode. In the TARDIS, all three regulars give brilliant performances as, impossibly, Amy feels herself going into labor. The Doctor finally explains that he deliberately brought them to this time and place:

The Doctor: “I needed to see the Flesh in its early days. That’s why I scanned it; that’s why we were there in the first place. … I needed enough information to block the signal to the Flesh.”
Amy: “What signal?”
The Doctor: “The signal to you.”

He hasn’t had a lot of good material in this episode, but Arthur Darvill seizes the chance to show Rory’s slowly dawning understanding as the Doctor orders him to stand away from his wife. It’s an absolutely chilling moment, as Amy is shocked and bewildered at what’s happening to her.

Amy: “Doctor, I am frightened. I am properly, properly scared.”
The Doctor: “Don’t be. Hold on. We’re coming for you, I swear it. Whatever happens, however hard, however far, we will find you.”
Amy: “I’m right here…”
The Doctor: “No, you’re not. You haven’t been here for a long, long time.”

The final, soft “Oh, no…” from Karen Gillan as the Doctor levels the sonic screwdriver at Amy is extremely telling. The whole scene is a brilliant payoff for the season arc story so far—but even as the duplicate Amy dissolves, we’re off into a new phase of the story as the real Amy suddenly wakes up in a bare white chamber with no idea where she is. The final moments, as the mysterious Eye Patch Lady looks in on her—for real, this time—and tells her to “Puuusssshhhhh,” are the stuff of nightmares.

Although the story was wrapped up a little too easily in order to make room for the arc plot, I thought this two-parter was pretty successful. The production values were again impressive, the setting and ideas were intriguing (albeit not explored as well as they could have been), and the regular cast—Matt Smith in particular—were all given great material. And the ending, with Amy’s terrified scream followed by the dreaded “TO BE CONTINUED,” launches us once again into the unknown…

Next Week: It’s the mid-season finale. River Song is back, and at least some of the outstanding questions about her will be answered when “A Good Man Goes to War.”

Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: Another occurrence of a doppelgänger for the Doctor can be found in “Meglos,” starring Tom Baker and Lalla Ward.

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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