In one of the more blatant cases of Doctor Who using a B-movie style episode title to pull in the viewers, âDinosaurs on a Spaceshipâ lets us know up front that this is going to be a ârompââbig, loud, and hopefully fun. Writer Chris Chibnall, starting from that bare four-word premise given to him by showrunner Steven Moffat, has come up with a very enjoyable stand-alone adventure that lumbers a bit in the set-up (as is usual with Chibnall) but ultimately delivers some excellent tension and excitement, making good use of previously established Who continuity along the way.
The start, though, is frankly unpromising, as we find ourselves in ancient Egypt, with the Doctor (Matt Smith) having apparently just saved its people from disaster, burbling something about a plague of alien locusts. Queen Nefertiti (Riann Steele) intercepts him as he returns to the TARDIS and comes on to him in exactly the same way Amy did at the end of 2010âs âFlesh and Stoneâ. When he receives a sudden temporal newsflash on his psychic paper, she forces her way into the TARDIS to accompany him. Her appearance is striking (and faithfully recreated from the famous limestone bust currently in a Berlin museum), and she is certainly not badly acted, but her dialogue conveys no sense of another time or placeâshe comes across as just a standard present-day âfeistyâ female character who happens to be wearing a blue wastebasket on her head. Later, the story does find a way to use her that justifies her inclusion, but at the beginning âNeffyâ (as the Doctor calls her) feels like a bizarre, fan fiction-style indulgence.
We next see them in 2367 A.D., where an enormous unknown spaceship (âthe size of Canadaâ) is on course for Earth. The necessary ticking clock for the story is set up right awayâin six hours, the ship will be close enough to Earth that missiles will have to be launched to destroy it. I liked the nicely unexplained touch that the organization handling the planetâs defences is the ISAâwhich turns out to stand for not the International but the Indian Space Agency. It doesnât make any difference to the actual plot, but it helps make the futuristic environment a little more distinctive than usual, with the understated but effective Indian influence in the background set architecture and graphics.
Despite the Doctor saying heâs ânot really had a gang before,â the rest of the teaser rather unwisely invites comparison to the first part of last yearâs âA Good Man Goes to Warâ, with the Doctor collecting people from various times and places to accompany him. He arbitrarily stops off in 1902 to pick up John Riddell (Rupert Graves), an English big-game hunter who is evidently a prior acquaintance, and then pays a surprise visit to the home of his friends Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill). Not bothering to explain whatâs going on, and presuming that Amy and Rory will be happy to drop whatever theyâre doing to go along with him (as Rory later says, âWhy canât you just phone ahead, like any normal person?â), he simply materializes the TARDIS around them, meaning that Roryâs father Brian (Mark Williams) gets dragged along for the ride as they all arrive on the mysterious spaceship. Almost immediately, they discover what sort of life forms are on board this shipâdinosaurs!
As Chibnall has noted in various interviews, while the âdinosaurs on a spaceshipâ premise forms a great hook to bring in the audience, itâs not enough on its own to sustain a 45-minute episode. So the main thrust of the story is the mystery of who built the ship, why itâs heading to Earth, and how it can be saved from the threatened destruction by missiles. In the course of investigating, the group is split up, with the Doctor, Rory and Brian being unexpectedly teleported to a beach that is actually just another part of the huge ship.
One of the things that quickly distinguished the new Doctor Who from the classic series was its approach to the emotional life of companions, outside their relationship with the Doctor. The original series took almost no interest in companionsâ family lives, but already by âAliens of Londonâ in 2005 Russell T Davies was building major plot arcs around Jackie Tyler finding out about her daughter Roseâs involvement in the bizarre world of the Doctor. As succeeding companions came and went, various permutations of the same dramatic idea were used. Since Steven Moffat took over as showrunner, the companions have become more like those of the classic series, with Amyâs parents having appeared only very briefly (in the 2010 season finale âThe Big Bangâ) and Roryâs parents being absent altogether. It was time for the idea to be revisited, although here itâs mostly presented in a comic mannerâafter the requisite boggling at the inside of the TARDIS and the idea of time/space travel, Brian very quickly settles down to become a useful member of the Doctorâs team.
Mark Williams presents a very likable, warm character, and he and Arthur Darvill make a very believable father and son. The episode gets a lot of fun out of the traits Brian and Rory have in common, notably their efforts to be ready for all eventualities. When Rory notices that the beach seems to be humming, Brian produces a handy trowel he happened to have with him (âWhat sort of a man doesnât carry a trowel? Put it on your Christmas list!â) so he can dig down and find there is a metal floor under the sand. Later, Brian gets injured, and itâs Roryâs turn to show his preparedness when he pulls out some medical supplies he has picked up in his travelsâa nice character touch that makes good use of Roryâs nursing background.
Meanwhile, Amy and the others manage to find the shipâs data records and discover its true nature. Unfortunately, this section in particular exposes Chibnallâs weaknesses with dialogue and characterization. As I mentioned above, Nefertiti gives practically no sense of being a person from the remote pastâin fact, she is more modern in outlook than Riddell is, leading to a great deal of tedious âbattle of the sexesâ bantering between them. As they wander through the ship with Amy, all three are exchanging quips as if they were in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I did get a laugh from Amyâs reaction when she realizes that Nefertiti and Riddell are (clichĂ© alert) starting to become attracted to each other (âNo, no, noâI will not have flirting companions!â), but on the whole Amy is a more superficial character here than at any time since the last time Chibnall wrote for her.
At least, unlike in that 2010 two-parter (âThe Hungry Earthâ and âCold Bloodâ), Amy manages to actually contribute to the story and uncover whatâs really going on. And here I have to give praise to Chibnallâthe revelation that this ship was a creation of the Silurians, a space-going ark containing samples of Earth animals in search of a colony planet, perfectly explains the dinosaursâ presence aboard and is a lovely usage of the previously established reptilian species. It was a nice touch to bring back Richard Hope, one of the main Silurian actors seen previously, to play the recorded Silurian who delivers the necessary information (heâs credited as âBleytal,â but I donât think the name is actually mentioned in the episode). Even better, Amy then gets to use her brain and perform some detective work with the shipâs sensors that reveals another, much smaller ship attached to this one.
The occupant of this intruding ship has been following all the action thus far on his monitors, and overhears Rory calling to the Doctor. Being in need of medical help, he sends his pet robots to fetch them. These hulking, nine-foot-tall creations, with their oversized upper bodies and tiny heads, recall the Mondoshawan aliens from The Fifth Element (1997), but their menace is hilariously undermined when their first words to the Doctor are âWeâre very cross with youâŠâ in a deliberately camp voice. Even as they are escorting their prisoners, they are tossing insults back and forth, providing a very funny element which heightens the contrast with some of the darker moments to come.
The robotsâ master is Solomon (David Bradley), and the Doctor finds him immobilized in his ship with badly injured legsâthe result, he says, of an encounter with some of the dinosaurs. At first the Doctor is enjoying good-naturedly sparring with him, but thereâs a sudden shocking change of tone as Solomon reveals he is a much more dangerous man than was first apparent. Bradley expertly conveys the moment, when the Doctor tells Solomon heâll fix his legs âif you tell me how you came by so many dinosaursââat this slightest hint of opposition, his face slowly hardens, he harshly orders the robots, âInjure the older one,â and then he calmly threatens to kill Brian unless the Doctor does as he says.
With all the characters and pieces of the plot now set up, the remainder of the episode is very well worked out and was a pleasure to watch. This is where Chris Chibnall shinesâwhatever his shortcomings in other areas, he is very good at structuring a story and building a plot to a climax. The driving force of this plot, of course, is the battle of wills between Solomon and the Doctor. Matt Smith and David Bradley have a string of excellent scenes, in many of which Solomon seems to have the upper handâsuch as when the profit-at-all-costs trader smugly describes how he disposed of the Silurians he found on board the ship. (âWe ejected them. The robots woke them from cryo-sleep a handful at a time and jettisoned them from the airlocks. We must have left a trail of dust and boneâŠâ) The Doctorâs disgust is palpable, but he can only bide his time.
Director Saul Metzstein, new to the show, does well at creating an expansive feel for the huge spaceship; the unusually large sets give an appropriate sense of scale, and the exterior is a lovely computer-generated creation, looking like an enormous seed cluster floating in space. He also has a high-quality and high-profile ensemble cast to work withâRupert Graves is easily recognisable as Lestrade from Steven Moffatâs Sherlock, and both Mark Williams and David Bradley are playing characters not dissimilar to those they portrayed in the Harry Potter films. As a final touch (and one that was not announced before the episodeâs broadcast), Solomonâs bickering robots are voiced by the British comedy duo David Mitchell and Robert Webb.
As for the dinosaurs themselves, they are effective creationsâperhaps not up to the latest blockbuster movie state-of-the-art, but very well done given the resources of a TV seriesânot to mention being several orders of magnitude more impressive than those in the classic seriesâs most notorious previous attempt at portraying the giant lizards. The mid-â70s tale âInvasion of the Dinosaursâ remains one of Doctor Whoâs most embarrassing visual effects failures, with the creatures represented via small-scale, slow-moving rod puppets, unconvincingly green-screened into the action. Nevertheless, âDinosaurs on a Spaceshipâ shares with âInvasionâ the feature that the titular monsters are actually only a small part of the plot. The story reserves them for set pieces, ranging from their opening appearance which allows the Doctor to name-drop the storyâs title, a flock of pterodactyls on the beach menacing the Doctor, Rory and Brian, a sleeping T-Rex, and a group of velociraptors which Riddell and Amy have to hold at bay with stun-guns.
The major featured dinosaur is a triceratops, beautifully rendered with a seamless mixture of prosthetics and CGI. Itâs the only one that the characters interact with to any real extent, and it is amusingly given the personality of an over-affectionate puppy, slobbering over Brian and happily chasing after thrown golf balls. After the Doctor, Rory and Brian escape from Solomon, the storyâs biggest set piece occurs as they ride the triceratops to get away from the robots chasing them. If you ignore the fact that they could quite obviously have gotten away more effectively just by walking briskly, itâs a delightfully fun sequence.
The levity soon evaporates as the Doctor confronts Solomon again. He realizes that Solomon hasnât been able to change the course of the shipâitâs heading back to Earth automatically, and when the ISA launch their missiles as planned, it looks like Solomon will have to leave empty-handed. But now he has a new target; he has discovered Nefertitiâs presence on board and wants to take her with him. In another escalation of menace, he casually has his robots kill the triceratops. David Bradley resolutely refuses to indulge in any pantomime-villain histrionics, instead keeping Solomonâs voice level and low, letting his actions speak for him, and thereby makes the man genuinely threatening.
Solomon: âI like my possessions to have spirit. Means I can have fun breaking them.â
In actual history, Nefertitiâs fate is undocumentedâshe disappears from the historical record around 1330 B.C. This of course provides an irresistible opportunity for a Doctor Who episode to play with, as with the similar case of the pirate captain Henry Avery in 2010âs âThe Curse of the Black Spotâ. As I alluded to earlier, itâs a clever piece of scripting to have Solomon spot her unique value, and thereby justify her presence in the storyâfor a moment, it looks as if he will be the one responsible for her disappearance.
The Doctor manages to stop Solomonâs ship from leaving, but the missiles are still coming. In a final twist, it emerges that the reason Solomon couldnât change the shipâs course is that it requires two pilots from the same âgene chainâ (a nice use of previously established Silurian terminology) to control itâand the plot reaches a neat resolution as Brian and Rory, who have exactly the kind of connection needed, take control and turn the ship away from Earth. The Doctor, meanwhile, manages to rescue Nefertiti and plant the signal emitter that the missiles are locked onto on Solomonâs ship. He then releases it, sending the trader off to meet his richly deserved doom.
A brief epilogue shows that Nefertiti has decided to stay with Riddell, while we see Brian sitting in the doorway of the TARDIS in space, sipping tea, looking at the Earth suspended below. Itâs a nice, upbeat ending to a cheerful adventure. Despite my various complaints noted above, I ended up enjoying âDinosaurs on a Spaceshipââit fulfils the promise of the title with admirable efficiency and a certain amount of cleverness in the plotting. Thereâs only one thread I havenât yet mentionedâone obvious connection to wider eventsâand thatâs the moments the Doctor has with Amy.
Early in the episode, she tells him itâs been ten months since she and Rory last saw him, and wonders if the presence of other people traveling with the Doctor means that she and Rory have been replaced. The Doctor replies, âNo, theyâre just people, theyâre not Ponds.â They are separated for most of the episode, but in the lead-up to the climax they finally have a chance to discuss things. I may be doing Chris Chibnall a disservice here, but I strongly suspect that this conversation was inserted by Steven Moffat to lay the groundwork for upcoming events. Itâs clearly Karen Gillanâs best moment of the episode, as Amy confesses she gave up the modeling job we saw her doing last week:
Amy: âI canât settle. Every minute, Iâm listening out for that stupid TARDIS sound.â
The Doctor: âRight, so itâs my fault now, is it?â
Amy: âI canât not wait for youâeven now. And theyâre getting longer, you know, the gaps between your visitsâŠ I think youâre weaning us off you.â
When Amy tells of her fear that one day heâll simply stop showing up and sheâll be left waiting forever, he promises her, âCome on, Pond. Youâll be there till the end of me.â Amy cheerfully replies, âOr vice versa,â and then thereâs an odd, rather horrible pause until the Doctor finally says softly, âDoneâŠâ He immediately pretends that he just meant he had finished what he was working on, but itâs obvious that something important has been set in motion. An ominous portent for the future, and a signal that the time for carefree adventuring is over.
Next Week: Weâre off to the Wild West, as the Doctor arrives in âA Town Called Mercy.â
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: As mentioned above, see 1974âs âInvasion of the Dinosaurs,â starring Jon Pertwee and Elisabeth Sladen, for some considerably less convincing giant reptiles. Even by the standards of the time, the creature effects are excruciatingly bad, but the story itself is actually quite goodâa conspiracy-based eco-thriller that not even ridiculous puppet dinosaurs can quite spoil.
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Review: Legionâs Unhinged Final Season Plunges Us into an Unknowable Mind
The showâs third and final season is a visual achievement, typified by imaginative flights of absurdism.3
After Legionâs shocking second season finale, in which it was revealed that David (Dan Stevens) had sexually assaulted his girlfriend, Syd (Rachel Keller), the series enters its third and final season with a lingering ambiguity: Is David, the showâs titular telepath and diagnosed schizophrenic, redeemable? Furthermore, to what extent is he responsible for his actions? Throughout season three, in which David is hunted by the Shadow King (Navid Negahban) and Division Three while he attempts to travel back in time to rectify his misdeeds, Legion struggles to answer these questions, which serve as the crux of the series.
Certainly, by framing Davidâs efforts to alter the past as self-serving and expedient, Legion maintains one view of its protagonist as an egomaniac and probable sociopath. In conversations with a rightly unmoved Syd, Davidâs protestations and glib promises to simply undo the past reflect his inability to grasp the gravity of his crime. And the characterâs first effort at time travel, in which he attempts to protect his infant self from the Shadow King, is tinged with both self-interest and an attempt to shift the blame for his actions.
From this perspective, Legionâs depiction of David is a trenchant critique of toxic masculinity. But the series also suggests that David, while impurely motivated, might not be wrong to seek an excuse for his behavior. Nothing in the season dispels the notion that he could, by preserving his own innocence from the Shadow Kingâs influence, prevent himself from becoming a manipulative and self-obsessed personâor one who would commit sexual assault.
This conflicted portrayal at least makes Legion extremely effective as a plunge into sheer narcissism. To engage with David, and the showâs ever-shifting reality, is to experience the sensation of being gaslit firsthand. His passionate pleas when enlisting the help of a young time-traveling mutant, Switch (Lauren Tsai), are backed by rousing strings on the soundtrack, which imply virtue in his determination. Similarly, when David professes his love for Syd, Stevens strips David of his usual guile, offering an earnest portrayal of heartbroken regret. Such moments, which tempt us to empathize with David, and maintain the idea of him as the showâs hero, are contrasted by deflating glimpses of his selfishness. When he thoughtlessly implores an exhausted, injured Switch to bring him back to the past after a failed attempt, the series punishes us for having trusted David to consider anything beyond his own self-interest.
Legion remains a visual achievement, typified by the imaginative settings and flights of absurdism which, at their most effective, serve to illuminate Davidâs mental state. Season three finds David with a new cult of followers, who surround him in a ramshackle house that acts as both plot device and canvas for his volatile emotions. The houseâs exposed pipes, which resemble veins or synapses, glow neon blue with a substance revealed to be a sedative drug created by David. While the drugged cult evinces Davidâs craving for any kind of admiration, the claustrophobic space is a realization of his addled mind. When the character is at one point consumed by rage, the pipes turn a foreboding shade of red, and his followers begin to froth at the mouthâan effectively unsettling metaphor for Davidâs chaotic instability.
Some of the seasonâs other oddball incursions are less thematically coherent or informative, especially as the series builds toward its ostensible conclusion. Series creator Noah Hawley has publicly cited David Lynch as an inspiration for the series, and while Legion does possess a Lynchian sense of unmooring suspense, the weirdness can also merely forestall whatever intelligible vision of Davidâs arc the series is approaching. In one such instance, a confrontation between Switch and David pushes him toward self-assessment, but the conversation quickly evolves into the entire cast singing a melancholic version of â(Whatâs So Funny âbout) Peace, Love and Understanding?â In a series with so little peace, love, or understanding, the wry song choice is clearly meant to be ironic, but the whimsical indulgence serves no purpose except to reinforce Davidâs already well-established inability to learn.
Season three includes more than one such musical number, which consistently resemble escapes from the character resolutions the series simultaneously inches toward and avoids. Surreal tangents once provided crucial insights into Davidâs mind, yet now they just as often distract from the showâs emerging assessment of the character. Legion alternately views the very act of telepathy as a violation, and David as a victim of his own abilities. Crucially, the series, by building toward a conventional showdown between David and the Shadow King, seems unsure as to which character is ultimately responsible for Davidâs past actions.
As the season approaches its conclusion, Legion occasionally hints at offering elusive truths about Davidâs nature, but just as often seems to be building toward an opaque conclusion for the character: one in which David, and his fragmented mind, simply might not be understandable in any conventional sense. Still, in its attempt to provide both character study and pure, unhinged abstraction, Legion has fashioned yet another visually distinct and uniquely bizarre season around a manâs unknowable mind.
Cast: Dan Stevens, Aubrey Plaza, Rachel Keller, Jean Smart, Amber Midthunder, Bill Irwin, Jemaine Clement, Hamish Linklater, Navid Negahban Network: FX
Review: City on a Hill Is a Bonanza of Character Detail and Hammy Thrills
When the series isnât immersed in pulpy shenanigans, it aspires to be a sort of Bostonian The Wire.3
Not since Gerard Butlerâs riotous, bloody doughnut-eating turn in Christian Gudegastâs Den of Thieves last year has an actor plumbed the scumbag depths quite like Kevin Bacon does as wayward F.B.I. agent Jackie Rohr in Showtimeâs City on a Hill. Everyone within the showâs various layers of Boston law enforcement seems to know Rohr, and not a single person likes the guyânot the co-workers who bristle at his presence, not the people who return his greeting with an immediate âfuck off,â and certainly not his mother-in-law, Rose (Catherine Wolf), who threatens to expose his serial infidelity by telling his wife, Jenny (Jill Hennessy), about his recent STD test. In retaliation, he grabs a model Red Baron planeâa memento from Roseâs late husbandâfrom the mantelpiece and makes like heâs going to smash it. âYou put me in the fucking doghouse,â he growls in his hoarse Boston accent, âand Iâm gonna be like Snoopy and blow your shit right the fuck out of the sky.â
When City on a Hill isnât immersed in such pulpy shenanigans, which find the casually racist Rohr doing things like brandishing a fish at an angry old woman who calls him a âwhite devil,â it aspires to be a sort of Bostonian The Wire. The series, set in the early â90s 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 cityâs rot as it moves through a fictionalized account of the âBoston Miracleâ police initiative that statistically reduced violence in the city. One-eyed District Attorney Decourcy Ward (Aldis Hodge) is an idealist beaten down by what he sees, given to statements such as âI like what my job should beâ to justify why he thanklessly works to improve the system. Heâs black, so he gets the kind of scrutiny that doesnât afford him any goofy bad-cop antics, but Hodge dials up the searing intensity with a wide-eyed stare, the only window to the drive and the outrage bubbling beneath his no-nonsense exterior. Every so often, it leaks through with a shouted line like, âIâm not their boy.â
Rohr and Ward fall into a mismatched partnership thatâs surprisingly absent any of the explosive confrontations that typically characterize odd-couple pairings in film and TV. Their hesitant camaraderie just sort of happens as they recognize their mutual interests; even if they donât like each other, they understand one another. And from there, the series unfolds the complications (of which there are many) and the key players (of which there are even more) that will figure into a wider arc that begins with a simple armored car robbery. Laying out all the different systems that figure into the story, though, makes the first few episodes somewhat slow-going; some scenes tend to devolve into a lot of bureaucratic jargon and off-the-cuff mentions of Boston locations that might lose anyone unfamiliar with the city.
Where the series excels, however, is in the level of detail it brings to its individual characters. Armored car robber Frankie Ryan (Jonathan Tucker), for example, works stocking a grocery store, and heâs often seen doing lottery scratch cards as if constantly on the lookout for alternative cash flow. When he cuts himself putting up a bathroom cabinet, it figures into foreplay with his wife, Cathy (Amanda Clayton); he holds up his bandaged hand to say heâs not afraid of a little blood while she goes to pull out a tampon âthe size of a frigginâ bus.â And when Cathy suspects her screw-up brother-in-law, Jimmy (Mark OâBrien), of absconding with their money, she yanks the cabinet out of the wall to reveal the nook where they keep unlaundered cash. Here, Frankieâs cut hand, bathroom cabinet, and working-class lifestyle converge to describe his relationship with Cathy and the exact degree of her complicity in his operation. Elsewhere, Rohrâs menacing of the model plane neatly (and hilariously) outlines his living situation and the strained relationships that encompass it.
While itâs true that none of these characters are particularly unique even within the setting (Affleckâs own The Town features a similarly honorable robber stuck with a volatile sidekick), they feel dynamic enough that their familiarity ceases to matter. They all know their way around a punchy, profane turn of phrase, and theyâre usually good for some kind of amusing sight, whether itâs Rohrâs coked-up air-drumming to a Rush song or Jimmy driving to see his kids in a car filled with balloons, singing along to Marky Markâs âGood Vibrationsâ with a mouthful of Bubble Tape. Such a confident grasp of character goes a long way toward smoothing over the showâs somewhat clumsier big-picture narrative, as City on a Hill proves itself as effective at small, interlocking details as it is at purely hammy thrills.
Cast: Kevin Bacon, Aldis Hodge, Jonathan Tucker, Mark OâBrien, Lauren E. Banks, Amanda Clayton, Jere Shea, Kevin Chapman, Jill Hennessy, Blake Baumgartner, Catherine Wolf Network: Showtime
Review: Years and Years Is a Captivating Dystopian Family Drama
The series manages to pile on the cataclysms without taking pleasure in the pain of its characters.3
In his memoir Self-Consciousness, John Updike describes his early adulthood by saying, âI turned thirty, then forty,â and in doing so skips over a decadeâs worth of information unnecessary to the reader. Russell T Daviesâs miniseries Years and Years, which will launch on HBO following its run on BBC One, similarly makes economic use of time, but where Updike jumps into the future, the series sprints. Every so often throughout the four episodes made available to press, a searing montage pushes the world a few years forward, relaying key geopolitical developmentsâa landmark legal decision, a diplomatic falling out, an environmental crisisâbefore settling back down in a global order even shakier than before.
We experience these changes through the perspective of Britainâs Lyons family, which includes tough but caring matriarch Muriel Deacon (Anne Reid) and her grandchildren: Stephen (Rory Kinnear), a banker; Daniel (Russell Tovey), a housing officer; Rosie (Ruth Madeley), a school cafeteria manager; and Edith (Jessica Hynes), an activist. The siblings, their partners, and their children are Years and Yearsâs primary concern, and with each lurch into the future, their lives tend to get worse rather than better. All the while, Vivienne Rook (Emma Thompson), a fear-mongering pseudo-populist, launches and advances her political career, deploring the worldâs degradation and promising to represent the true wishes of the British people.
At one point, the Lyons siblings hop on a conference call to react to one of Rookâs appearances on the news. Rosie appreciates Rookâs straightforwardnessâthe series opens with a shockingly candid and unempathetic on-air comment that Rook makes about the Israeli-Palestinian conflictâDaniel is horrified by it, and others lie somewhere in between. Rook is more than a little Trumpian, a resonant representation of the crassness that heâs made politically viable. And as Years and Years proceeds, this much becomes clear: Although it largely centers around the Lyonses, the series isnât really about them, but about Rook. Itâs about the potential for the world to operate in a way that enables Rookâs ascent and leaves people like the Lyons family staring slack-jawed at her demagoguery and electoral swashbuckling.
As Rook, Thompson seems to multiply the minutes she gets on screen with the ferocity and sheer gravitational pull that the actress brings to the politician. When sheâs on television, Rook looks directly into the camera, at the Lyonses and at the viewer. And when sheâs participating in a local debate, she defiantly stands at the center of the stage, in the middle of the screen, her opponents surrounding her like planets stalled in orbit.
The rest of the castâs performances similarly ground the seriesâs socio-political thought experiment in human experiences. Kinnear, as Stephen, realizes a soft stoicism, a resilience undergirded by subdued positivity. When that faĂ§ade finally cracks, following a death in the family, we know that Stephen doesnât cry solely because of the loss; heâs also grieving a financial crash along with his increasingly fraught marriage, which together contribute to the gulf separating what he thought his life would be and what it has become.
Though thoughtful and moving in its exploration of such suffering, both individual and collective, Years and Years occasionally stumbles by insufficiently using its characters to contextualize its political world-building. At Rookâs debate, which Rosie and Edith attend, Rook wins over her detractors in the crowd with a swiftness thatâs jarring given the weakness of her argument, which essentially justifies authoritarianism as a bulwark against the proliferation of porn. Rookâs victory feels artificial, like she manages to sway her doubters purely because the series needs her to in order to demonstrate the shortsightedness of voters. Rosie and Edithâs presence should, in theory, render Rookâs beguiling charm more believable, but the series fails to interrogate the reasons for the pairâs attraction to her.
Two monologues that Daniel delivers encapsulate the seriesâs sporadic inconsistency. In one, he holds Rosieâs newborn baby while questioning, aloud and at length, if itâs right to bring a child into a deteriorating world. As Daniel bemoans the banks and the corporations and fake news and more, he ceases to blink, his voice rising and quickening. He becomes a machine unleashing a diatribe thatâs too neat to be convincing, the character of Daniel giving way to a Daniel-shaped megaphone. Later, though, Daniel tells off a xenophobic visitor to the refugee camp he works at in his capacity as a housing officer. This scene, in contrast to the earlier one, doesnât burden Daniel with the weight of the world. Rather, it gives him the freedom to discuss what heâs personally and passionately invested in: the idea that refugees deserve allâand more thanâthe help they receive. Here, Danielâs dialogue and Toveyâs performance are vastly more organic, emerging from within the character as opposed to simply flowing through him.
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 personalânuclear weapon launches, deaths, infidelitiesâto err on the side of sadism in its depiction of that turmoil. But it takes no pleasure in the pain of the Lyonses. 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.
Cast: Emma Thompson, Rory Kinnear, TâNia Miller, Russell Tovey, Jessica Hynes, Ruth Madeley, Anne Reid, Dino Fetscher, Lydia West, Jade Alleyne, Maxim Baldry, Sharon Duncan-Brewster Network: HBO
Review: Euphoriaâs Depiction of Teen Hedonism Is Both Frank and Lurid
Euphoriaâs central relationship is luminous, but the series struggles to develop its other characters.2.5
Sam Levinsonâs Euphoria announces its self-consciously provocative nature within its first minute, when Rue Bennett (Zendaya) says that she was happy once, over an image of the girl, in fetus form, about to be born. Airplane engines begin to howl alongside baby Rueâs POV as she exits the birth canal, at which point the episode transitions to a shot of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center. She was born three days after 9/11. The juxtaposition here is loud and in-your-face, and though itâs tonally similar to the deluge of ironic trigger warnings that open Levinsonâs film Assassination Nation, it has the benefit of some actual thematic coherence, for the way the open-with-a-literal-bang image acknowledges 9/11 as the unmistakable divide between Euphoriaâs teens and everyone else.
Rue characterizes the world she grew up in as a chaotic, aimless place devoid of much understanding for her people her age, which leaves her generation concerned mainly with wringing out as much enjoyment from it as they can. And the series, which is adapted from an Israeli drama of the same name, depicts such 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 nature of these occasionally graphic depictions is complicated by Levinsonâs consciously âattitudeâ-laden stylings: Are they graphic purely to shock, or to authentically portray what todayâs young people go through, or both? Regardless, 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.
Rue, we learn, is a drug addict fresh out of rehab whoâs largely uninterested in getting clean. And while the showâs other teens feel their way through seedy meet-ups with older men, pursue self-actualization through porn, and cope with invasions of privacy, Rue provides the perspective through which we view nearly everything and everyone else. She narrates even the events that donât involve her, lending them a general vibe of playful, sarcastic worldliness. She determines the flow of the action, freezing a sex scene outright for a digression on modern porn habits or summoning a cutaway gag, like a lecture on dick pics complete with projector slides. Zendaya plays Rue with a perpetual murmur and effortless remove, like an observer sitting on the sidelines watching the world go by, until she succumbs to a desperate, drug-seeking freak-out or one of the panic attacks those drugs are meant to distance her from.
The series 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 charactersâ ears, the result is that Euphoriaâs 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 ânext.â Thereâs only the all-encompassing ânow.â âThe world is coming to an end,â Rue says to justify her drug use, âand I havenât even graduated high school yet.â
Euphoriaâs best scenes are its oases of joy and humor, particularly the luminous relationship between Rue and Jules (Hunter Schafer), the new-in-town trans girl whose sunny disposition contrasts Rueâs overall remove yet masks a deeper restlessness. The chemistry between Zendaya and Schafer paints a believable portrait of a companionship only possible before adulthood, when you have as much free time as you have affection to distribute.
The two might have sustained the series by themselves, though Euphoria struggles to develop its other characters. Cassie (Sydney Sweeney), for example, is largely undefined beyond the sexual history sheâs trying to move beyond, while her boyfriend, Chris (Algee Smith), seems to exist only to express discomfort about that history. Beneath his football-playing faĂ§ade, Nate (Jacob Elordi) has a streak of violent calculation that dances on the edge of caricature. Only Kat (Barbie Ferreira) seems to develop beyond her basic template of virginal angst, mainly because the series resolves the issue almost immediately before sending her down a Pornhub rabbit hole on an amusing journey of self-discovery; her burgeoning sexuality comes to encompass an attractive classmate as much as a man on Skype who wants to be her âcash pig.â
The fourth episode only emphasizes the disparity between the showâs development of the teens. As the camera glides between multiple perspectives at the same carnival event, Jules has a scary revelation about an older, married man, Cal (Eric Dane), she recently hooked up with, while a panicked Rue searches for her sister, Gia (Storm Reid), whoâs still reeling from Rueâs overdose prior to the events of the series. However, the more half-sketched characters, such as Cassie and Nateâs long-suffering girlfriend, Maddy (Alexa Demie), take drugs seemingly so theyâll have something to do for the duration of the episode. While itâs realistic that not all the characters would have intricate stories to engage in (Katâs storyline is also comparably low-stakes), sidelining Cassie and Maddy feels like a concession that the series isnât totally sure what to do with them beyond displaying their suffering.
The success of Euphoriaâs teen drama ultimately depends on which teen it focuses on at any given moment. With Rue and Jules at the center, you feel the exhilaration of their friendship as much as a real concern for their growing troubles. But with its less fully developed characters, the series can feel like little more than a lurid performance of teenage pain.
Cast: Zendaya, Maude Apatow, Angus Cloud, Eric Dane, Alexa Demie, Jacob Elordi, Barbie Ferreira, Nika King, Storm Reid, Hunter Schafer, Algee Smith, Sydney Sweeney, Austin Abrams, Alanna Ubach Network: HBO
Review: Huluâs Das Boot Forfeits the Telescoped Focus of Its Source Material
The series transforms a story that captured something of the experience of war into a familiar melodrama.1.5
One of the strengths of Wolfgang Petersenâs classic submarine drama Das Boot, based on Lothar-GĂŒnther Buchheimâs novel of the same name, is that itâs no glorification of the German war machine. Indeed, its shocking ending underlines the absolute senselessness of war and the meaninglessness of heroism. Das Boot is a war film that could only be made in a country where virtually everyone had experienced the horror of war firsthand, whether it was on the frontlines or cowering in a bomb shelter. But itâs also a story told strictly from the perspective of the gentile German sailor; women appear quite literally on the marginsâat beginning and end, when the boat disembarks and returnsâand non-gentiles are neither seen nor mentioned. War crimes are far from the filmâs purview, and its sailors are, for the most part, not terribly interested in Nazism.
Johannes W. Betzâs new series solves this problem by flashing back and forth between the crew of a U-Boot captained by the young Captain Klaus Hoffmann (Rick Okon) and a plot of betrayal and subterfuge in the shipâs port in La Rochelle, France, centered around German Navy translator Simone Strasser (Vicky Krieps). In doing so, however, Betzâs Das Boot eschews much of what made the original film effective: the feeling that the viewer is stranded in the narrow gangways of the submarine on a mostly blind journey through treacherous waters.
Forfeiting the telescoped focus that keeps the film engrossing, the series substitutes hidden backstories and interpersonal melodrama that feels like it was pulled from the prestige-drama handbook. As the crew is assembled in the first episode, âNew Paths,â we learn that the long-serving First Officer Karl Tennstedt (August Wittgenstein), a familiar Nazi type whoâs been passed over for command of the ship in favor Hoffmann, is the son of a WWI hero. Tennstedtâs simmering resentment plays out, over the course of the four episodes available for review, as an escalating crisis of authority, as he grows increasingly bold in his defiance of the noble-minded Hoffmann, and sways the minds of several (rather easily convinced) enlisted men.
Meanwhile, Simone arrives in La Rochelle, where she expects to live and work alongside her younger brother, Frank (Leonard Scheicher), a radio engineer. When an accident on board Hoffmann and Tennstedtâs U-Boot damages the radio and seriously injures the shipâs engineer, Tennstedt summarily decides to assign Frank to the vessel. With no choice in the matter and suddenly facing an uncertain fate, Frank hands over to Simone a cache of materials he was supposed to deliver in a post-curfew rendezvous later that night.
In the second episode, âSecret Missions,â itâs revealed that Frankâs mission had something to do with a French girl heâs been seeing, Natalie (Clara Ponsot), and with a mysterious American resistance fighter named Carla Monroe (Lizzy Caplan)âwell, only âmysteriousâ inasmuch as the series clumsily cultivates an air of mystique around her, all oblique camera angles and vague dialogue. On the brink of explaining her intentions to Simone, Monroe stops herself, mostly, it seems, to extend the mystery for another episode or two. âProbably better if you donât know,â she says, though she might as well be addressing the camera.
Itâs in this episode that the seams of Das Boot really begin to showâor, rather, its bulkheads start to crack. Almost every aspect of the shorebound storyline, which becomes the showâs main focus, is an exaggerated contrivance. In a scenario painfully familiar from a dozen cable dramas that have pulled it off more convincingly (see The Americans, Breaking Bad, Barry), Simone conducts her illegal dealings with Monroeâs resistance cell under the nose of Gestapo inspector Hagen Forster (Tom Wlaschiha). Forster has a professional relationship with Simone, and, he hopes, a burgeoning personal one. As heâs drawn ever closer to her, Forster becomes increasingly blind to her traitorous activitiesâthough, naturally, episode four, âDoubts,â ends with him coming one step closer to discovering them.
This adaptation of Das Boot, which also incorporates elements from Buchheimâs 1995 novel Die Festung, transforms a story that endeavored to capture something of the experience of war into an overly familiar melodrama of obscure motivations, hidden backstories, and broadly sketched interpersonal conflict. The series may try to address Nazi terror in a way Petersenâs film leaves beyond its margins, but even its depiction of atrocity serves merely as a convenient motivator for familiar twists and turns. The sense of cheapness and naked commercialism that pervades the series makes its explicit depiction of disturbing violenceâa death by firing squad, the gang rape of a Jewish woman by German sailorsâfeel unearned and, particularly in the latter case, completely irresponsible. The series canât be counted on to deliver any insights on history or war, but compelling drama may be even further beyond its capabilities.
Cast: Vicky Krieps, Tom Wlaschiha, Lizzy Caplan, Vincent Kartheiser, James DâArcy, Thierry FrĂ©mont, August Wittgenstein, Rainer Bock, Rick Okon, Leonard Scheicher, Robert Stadlober, Franz Dinda, Stefan Konarske Network: Hulu
Review: Jessica Jonesâs Third and Final Season Feels Like an Afterthought
As it nears the end of its run, the series doesnât seem to have much more to say about trauma.2
The third and final season of Jessica Jones feels more like an afterthought than a farewell, an unevenly written retread thatâs uninterested in breaking out of a well-worn groove. Trauma is at the center of the Netflix showâs world, with the eponymous superpowered private eye (Krysten Ritter) having conquered the lingering pain of sexual abuse and childhood domestic strife across the first two seasons. And it being a Marvel Comics property, Jessica Jones predictably scrutinizes such personal trauma through the lens of highly literal metaphor: In the first season, an evil ex-loverâs telepathic powers represent the way that abusers get into our heads, and in the second, an abusive motherâs super strength stands for the seemingly indominable power parents have over their children.
The new season saddles its hero with more trauma, both psychological and physical, but loses the real-life resonance of the showâs previous themes, becoming an exercise in self-reflexivity. Jessica Jones now squares off against a serial killer, Gregory Salinger (Jeremy Bobb), whoâs the embodiment of misogynist male geekdomâwhich is to say, that corner of the internet thatâs predisposed to objecting to woman-driven action properties like Jessica Jones.
In the seasonâs first episode, âA.K.A. The Perfect Burger,â Jessica is taken by surprise when Salinger shows up at her apartment in the middle of the night, hunting her one-night stand, Erik (Benjamin Walker). The encounter leaves Jessica injured and newly traumatized, and Salinger psychotically obsessed with his incidental victim. Salinger resents Jones for being what real-world toxic nerds would call a âMary Sueââor, as Salinger puts it, for âcheating,â for not appropriately earning her powers, and for being a âfeminist vindicator.â
This new seasonâs use of allegory is a bit on the nose, which isnât the worst sin for a superhero property, but Jessica Jones clearly has aspirations to be a character-driven drama. Itâs an intent undermined by its charactersâ tendency to feel like little more than signposts directing us to the showâs message. In contrast to David Tenantâs chilling performance as misogynist villain Killgrave in season one, Bobb doesnât convey the menace or malicious seductiveness that might enliven Salingerâs often blandly scripted rants against womenâs empowerment.
Salinger also targets Erikâs wayward sister, Brianna (Jamie Neumann), a sex worker whom Jessica tries to protect by foisting her upon Malcolm (Eka Darville), Jessiscaâs neighbor and former assistant. This all intersects conveniently (and problematically) with Malcolmâs subplot, which concerns his flirtation with moral corruption as he works as a fixer for Jeri Hogarthâs (Carrie-Anne Moss) law firm. Brianna is stereotyped as an erratic, trashy prostitute whoâs sexually available to Malcolm simply because sheâs hiding out in his apartment. Sheâs characterized as a nuisance who becomes a kind of punching bag for the other characters, who talk about her poor life decisions in front of her as if she isnât there.
Malcolmâs is one of three major subplots that take up much of the run time of the eight episodes of the new season made available to press. In the others, both Jeri and Jessicaâs ex-bestie, Trish (Rachael Taylor), deal with their own moral transgressions. Of these, Trishâs story is the strongest. Newly equipped with (vaguely defined) superpowers, she aims to join Jessica as a superhero on the streets of Hellâs Kitchen, and sheâs given a satisfying and resonant origin story in episode two, the Ritter-directed âA.K.A Youâre Welcome.â
Jeriâs subplot, on the other hand, adds very little to a character already understood from previous seasons as self-serving and morally compromised. This arc, hardly more than filler, also features one of the seasonâs most regrettable scenes: a painfully kitschy seduction that involves Jeriâs former lover, Kith Lyonne (Sarita Choudhury), badly faking a cello performance as Jeri caresses her and the low-angle camera slowly tracks around them.
As for Jones herself, the series canât shake the feeling that its main character has simply become her outfit. The seasonâs opening shot, which has her leather boot stomp into the frame in close-up against the unaccustomed environs of a sunny beach, even evokes the way her personality is summed up by tattered jeans and grimy leather. In the form of Salingerâs initial attack, sheâs given a new trauma to work through, but after three seasons, this form of motivation seems more like an obligatory gesture than an exploration of character. By the time sheâs brutally besting Salinger in an amateur wrestling match in front of the pre-teen wrestling team he coaches in episode seven, âThe Double Half-Woppinger,â itâs clear that, as it nears the end of its run, Jessica Jones doesnât have much more to say.
Cast: Krysten Ritter, Rachael Taylor, Eka Darville, Carrie-Anne Moss, Rebecca De Mornay, Jeremy Bobb, Benjamin Walker, Sarita Choudhury, Jamie Neumann Network: Netflix
Review: Pose Season Two Looks to the Future with Its Head Held High
The series empathetically attests to the agonies that queer people to this day often have no choice but to suffer in silence.2.5
One notable arc of the second season of Pose traces the success of Madonnaâs âVogue,â from the song premiering on radio in March 1990 to the moment it hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart less than two months later. The show understands the songâs lucid appreciation of the ballroom as an aspirational space. Madonnaâs dance-pop anthem was like a lifeline to those in the house-ball community, and almost all of Poseâs characters celebrate it without reservation. âEverything is about to change. I can see it clear as day!â says Blanca (Mj Rodriguez), emboldened by the song to chase after her dreams.
Which is to say that Pose doesnât bow before the altar of wokeism, at least not in the four episodes made available to press ahead of the new seasonâs premiere, knowing that the conversation about the song erasing voguingâs roots in a communityâs daily struggles wasnât one that many people were having in 1990. But the show does seem interested in the idea that the global success of âVogueâ was blinding to some in the drag-ball community. Can a queer person of color living on the fringes of society actually harness Madonnaâs blond ambition? And from the spectacle of drag emcee Pray Tell (Billy Porter) reading the riot act to Candy (Angelica Ross) for coming to one show as a simulacrum of Madonna, voguing while dressed as one of the singerâs âExpress Yourselfâ personas, the answer would seem to be a resounding no.
Thereâs a sense that Pray is being rough on Candy because he recognizes what weâve long known about her, and what the seasonâs third episode makes sure that we donât forget: that she has no problem distinguishing fantasy from reality. Witten by Our Lady J and directed by Janet Mock, the episode splits its time between the budding romance between Angel (Indya Moore) and Lil Papi (Angel Bismark Curiel) and the aftermath of a client (Frank De Julio) dying during one of Elektra Abundanceâs (Dominique Jackson) shifts at the Hellfire Club. Tonally, the episode walks a high-wire act thatâs empoweringâfor the way it regards Angel and Lil Papi in their bliss as stars of a Hollywood melodrama that never wasâand ballsyâfor the way it unearths humor and pathos in equal measure from everything that leads up to Candy convincing Elektra to not report her clientâs death to the authorities.
The episode is perhaps too easily understood as an imagining of what must have led to one Paris Is Burning participant, drag performer and dressmaker Dorian Corey, possibly murdering and storing an ex-loverâs dead body in a closest inside her apartment for approximately 15 years. (The manâs mummified corpse was only discovered after Coreyâs AIDS-related death.) But the point of the episode, like some long-delayed eulogy, is to empathetically attest to the agonies that queer people to this day often have no choice but to suffer in silence. Too often, though, the series goes one step further by blaring that message out loud, with dialogue that suggests a kind of PSA speak. That isnât so much an issue in scenes that see the characters fighting the menace of AIDS, as Pose knows that the gay community raised awareness of the disease in the bluntest of ways, but in various scenarios, like Angelâs pursuit of her modeling career, that are beholden to all manner of coming-of-age and aspirational clichĂ©s.
The cast list for the new season reveals that Charlayne Woodard, as Helena St. Rogers, will be returning at some point, which goes a long way toward explaining why it appears as if Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain) and Ricky (Dyllon Burnside) are just hanging around in the background of the first four episodes as if theyâre waiting for something, anything, to bring them to the foreground. The stage may be lovingly ceded to Angel and Lil Papi, but after a while, it just feels as if the lovebirds are going through all the same soap-operatic motions that Damon and Ricky did in the first season: Angel is so desperate to be a star that she opens herself up to being exploited by a smarmy photographer (Alexander DiPersia), and after she and her friends hand him his ass in a proud show of unity, Angel gets her first break, which just so happens to occur at the exact moment of a date she has with Lil Papi.
Something, though, that we do know for sure by the end of the fourth episode is that Pose isnât concerned with putting any allies on blast. If youâre in the know about the history of New York and the AIDS crisis, then youâll instantly recognize nurse and activist Judy Kubrak (Sandra Bernhard) and dog-toting real estate agent Frederica Norman (Patti LuPone) as stand-ins for Linda Laubenstein and Leona Helmsley, respectively. And if Judy, who joins Blanca in a crusade to get Pray Tell to start taking AZT, is celebrated for being a small-scale hero, Linda very easily invites the audienceâs scorn for threatening Blanca after discovering sheâs trans. But itâs an invitation that feels too easy, too cartoonish, especially in the context of the showâs almost Disney-fiedâor Glee-fulâdepiction of New York during this time period.
Thereâs a disconnect between the showâs aesthetics and its subject matter that feels especially apparent when one major character shows up dead in episode four. The moment certainly lacks the immediacy of the horrific moment from The Deuceâs first season when a john throws Pernell Walkerâs Ruby out of a window like a piece of trash. Director Ryan Murphy knows that you can assert such a womanâs humanity in more than one way, but the sentimentalized theater of this episode is the stuff of cognitive dissonance. Because the prior three episodes give the short shrift to the characterâs investment in changing ball culture, to tailoring it to her strengths, the moment that sheâs celebrated for influencing that culture feels unearned. If hers wasnât a dream that ever felt like it was her own, thatâs because itâs the stuff of narrative convenience, a setup for a fall that, in the depiction of its aftermath, ironically links Pose to Madonnaâs âVogueâ by making reality seem a little less dark than it really is.
Review: Season Five of Black Mirror Regards Our Grim Future with a Smirk
The new season recalls the most human elements of past episodes while levying urgent indictments of the present.3.5
Season five of Black Mirror offers three new episodes that envision a predictably worrisome slate of side effects to humanityâs technological reach outpacing its intellectual grasp. But in offering dystopian visions that hew closer to reality than they have in past seasons, these episodes exceed the showâs promise of nightmarish hypotheticals. While the series has on occasion veered toward alienating, high-concept bleaknessâas in season threeâs âPlaytestâ and season twoâs âWhite Bearââseason five maintains an empathetic focus on the characters struggling to navigate grim new worlds.
Series creator and writer Charlie Brooker employs a variety of familiar storytelling models to construct the seasonâs overarching theme, which generally concerns the unforeseen fallout of our shifting media diets. In the melancholic âStriking Vipers,â a marriage is endangered by the husbandâs new obsession with a virtual reality game. Brooker moves his focus to social media in âSmithereens,â a claustrophobic hostage thriller, and to the music industry in the darkly comic caper âRachel, Jack and Ashley Too.â Each episode envisions upheavals in a different social construct, from traditional masculinity to celebrity culture, but Brookerâs consistent focus on media as the trigger for transformation lends the stories a foreboding thread.
The showâs directors match Brookerâs ingenuity, tailoring an immersive style for each episode. In âStriking Vipers,â Owen Harris fixates on the alienation felt by Danny (Anthony Mackie), a man experiencing a crisis of conscience, by framing the character in wide shots set against drab backdrops and cityscapes; itâs a pointed contrast to the colorful environments and dynamic camera movements Harris employs when Danny is gaming. In âSmithereens,â which follows a distraught rideshare driver (Andrew Scott) who takes a customer hostage (Damson Idris), director James Hawes presents the driver either in tight close-up or from the far-away perspective of police and gawking onlookers, highlighting the gulf between how the world perceives the manâas a terrible curiosityâand his own intense sense of victimization.
The relationship between perspective and perception is similarly central in âRachel, Jack and Ashley Too,â the episode with the most complicated premise of the season. Miley Cyrus stars as Ashley, a singer who wants to transition from glittery pop to more challenging material, much to the horror of her exploitative handlers. As the episode evolves into a scathing indictment of the celebrity industry (and offers a startling vision of artificial intelligence), âRachel, Jack and Ashley Tooâ fosters our genuine concern for Ashleyâs mental stateâin part as a result of the savvy casting of Cyrus, a transformative pop star herself, but also, and more crucially, because the episode reveals much of what happens to Ashley from the relatable perspective of Rachel (Angourie Rice), a lonely and adoring teenage fan.
While none of these episodes are as nihilistic as the showâs grimmest installments to date, they remain imbued with snarky, topical satire and dogged cynicism. âSmithereensâ portrays a social media network that, with its scrolling newsfeed and reliance on hashtags, is unsubtly modeled after Twitter. Even less subtle is the character of the platformâs man-bunned creator, Billy Bauer (Topher Grace), whoâs clearly a sketch of Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey. Brooker doesnât veil his view of the real-life tech mogul: When Bauerâs service ignites (and acts as a livestream of) an international hostage situation, heâs pictured peacefully meditating in Utah, both figuratively and literally above the fray he helped create. When eventually called for help, the communications magnate is powerless, no longer able to grasp the magnitude of his creation, and reduced to speaking in platitudes.
By targeting forces (and people) who already exist in reality, Brooker couples the showâs broad anxieties with a tinge of righteous anger. Coupled with the seasonâs character-driven focus, the specificity of the showâs grievances represents a welcome evolution. With stories that recall the most human elements of Black Mirrorâs past episodes, while levying urgent indictments of the present, the series thatâs always worked to imagine a dark future seems to be wondering if we havenât already crossed into the dystopian abyss.
Cast: Andrew Scott, Anthony Mackie, Miley Cyrus, Topher Grace, Damson Idris, Angourie Rice, Madison Davenport, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II Network: Netflix
Review: Season Five of Luther Is Undermined by a Sense of Inevitability
As the series has continued, itâs grown more outlandish, oppressive, and removed from the things that made it so captivating.1
Time has not been kind to John Luther (Idris Elba), the wool-coated supercop haunted by the horrors of all the things heâs seen on the job. To be fair, what detective wouldnât be traumatized living and working in the version of London offered up by BBCâs Luther? Itâs a concrete sprawl where every crack in every grimy back alley seems to conceal some ultraviolent psychosexual serial killer. This is a gloomy, frequently ridiculous series that survives on the back of Elbaâs staggering intensity as a volatile, obsessive detective more than willing to skirt the law as long as it catches him a killer. But as the series has continued, itâs only grown more outlandish, more oppressive, and more removed from the things that made its inaugural season so captivating. And the showâs belated fifth season, coming over three years after the two-part fourth season, hardly closes the distance.
Itâs not for lack of trying, of course. For the first time since the beginning of the series, Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson) returns to the center of the story to throw a wrench into Lutherâs professional and private life. Wilson is, expectedly, adept at selling her characterâs amusing sociopathy with every thin, dark smirk. Unfortunately, though, Aliceâs storyline entirely concerns her attempted revenge against East End gangster George Cornelius (Patrick Malahide), whose repetitive, nonsensical attempts to murder Luther were the most tiresome element of the prior season. With Luther now caught in the crossfire, the resulting feud is so central to the season that it all but pushes the seasonâs murder investigation to the side in favor of various square-offs with Corneliusâs gun-toting goons.
Luther has always worked best as a trashy mystery series because its main characterâs explosive, extralegal tendencies contrast most sharply with the showâs depiction of a structured, by-the-book police world. The supporting characters, when they arenât being killed off with alarming frequency, marvel at Lutherâs alternately clever and outrageous attempts to flout the rules. However, writer and creator Neil Crossâs growing reliance on action elements has come to mean abandoning the contrast between Lutherâs methods and expected police procedure in favor of throwing him into a murky criminal underworld. Thereâs simply less dramatic intrigue and less of an audacious thrill when heâs breaking out of his restraints to fight a room full of gangsters than when heâs punching a murder suspect in the street to get a sample from the manâs bloody nose in an absurd evidence-planting gambit.
Alice previously served a similar juxtaposing function. Despite her chemistry with Luther and their mutual attraction, her teasing, nihilistic amorality and even-more-extreme methods conflicted with his determination to protect life; their developing relationship threatened his job, his loved ones, and his own beliefs. But at this point, the two simply know each other too well for her wild-card antics to surprise Luther, and by extension the audience. Her ability to throw him off balance is muted since he mostly just seems tired of putting up with her rather than shocked at her insistent, ultimately predictable attempts to lash out at Cornelius.
That same sense of exhaustion and inevitability hangs over the entire season, undermining its usual attempts to shock us with plot twists that bring death and violence. The serial killer this time around, a surgeon (Enzo Cilenti) with a fetish for turning people into pincushions, may have strong visual iconography through the eerie combination of a clown mask and a glowing hood meant to fool CCTV, but his grisly compulsion is more of the same for a series that loves to plumb the depths of how gory a series can get. Once Cornelius becomes the umpteenth person to seriously threaten the lives of the supporting characters, you arenât surprised so much as left to ruminate on the diminishing returns, remembering just how many names have already been scratched out of the showâs opening credits. The showâs concept has long revolved around how everything Luther has been through has left him haunted, but now, in the fifth season, it does little more for viewers than leave them numb.
Cast: Idris Elba, Ruth Wilson, Dermot Crowley, Michael Smiley, Wunmi Mosaku, Enzo Cilenti, Hermione Norris, Patrick Malahide Network: BBC America
Review: Season Two of Big Little Lies Fails to Justify Its Existence
The series works best when it focuses on intimate, human moments rather than on broad social critiques.2
Directed by Jean-Marc VallĂ©e and adapted by David E. Kelley from Liane Moriartyâs novel, the first season of Big Little Lies told a complete story, resolving the murder mystery that drove its primary storyline and successfully exploring the bleak underbelly of the affluent coastal city of Monterey, California. As such, the foremost question facing the showâs second seasonâdirected by Andrea Arnold and based on a story by Moriarty and Kelleyâis an existential one: Is this follow-up really necessary? Though the three episodes made available to press are enjoyable enough, thanks largely to the castâs continued strong performances, theyâre weighed down by heavy-handed writing and an inchoate grasp of what powered the first seasonânamely, its subtlety, surprise, and emotional murkiness.
Season two begins about a year after the so-called Monterey Five conspired to cover up the circumstances of Perry Wrightâs (Alexander SkarsgĂ„rd) death. Some of the groupâs members have fared better than others in the time since: Madeline Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon) is thriving as a real estate agent, Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) has settled into a job at the aquarium, and corporate hotshot Renata Klein (Laura Dern) is being featured on magazine covers. But Bonnie Carlson (ZoĂ« Kravitz), who pushed the abusive Perry down a flight of stairs to protect his wife, Celeste (Nicole Kidman), struggles with the guilt of her actions, while Celeste doesnât quite know how to grieve for the man she still loves.
Perryâs mother, Mary Louise (Meryl Streep), has come to stay with Celeste and help her care for her twin sons (Cameron and Nicholas Crovetti). She also suspects that Perryâs death wasnât a total accident and works to find out the truth. Mary Louise is a master of aggression, both passive and active, and Streep delivers the characterâs critiques of Madeline with a quiet monotone thatâs at once grandmotherly and acidic. Even among a cast as strong as the one assembled here, the veteran actress commands every scene sheâs in. But as Mary Louise resists Celesteâs narrative of abuseâshe wonders, for instance, why her Celeste didnât tell the police that Perry beat herâher dialogue grows so tired, so backward, as to feel purely mechanical. Mary Louise as an acerbic grandma is compelling, but Mary Louise as a Me Too bogeywoman is a bore, little more than a repository of eye-roll-inducing, reactionary pushback against abuse victims. Her symbolic significance comes at the cost of her personhood.
Which is to say that Big Little Lies works best when it focuses on intimate, human moments rather than on the social critiques that it clumsily handles. For one, watching Madeline and her husband, Ed (Adam Scott), face a personal reckoning is engaging because we care about these characters and understand the stakes of their conflictâand the series doesnât compromise their interiority by forcing them to represent a broader social issue. The poignancy of their disillusionment suggests that the season might, in fact, justify its own existence. But the series consistently undercuts that potential. Bonnieâs mother, Elizabeth (Crystal Fox), accurately remarks that there arenât many black people in Monterey, but then it errs uneasily close to stereotype by giving herâone of only a small handful of black charactersâpossibly prophetic visions and an affinity for healing crystals and other talismans.
The showâs themes of abuse and sexual violence are urgent and timely, which makes its shoddy treatment of them all the more disappointing. Big Little Lies also takes on matters of desire, wealth, and sexism, but does so with brute force and repetition. When Madeline rails against the unfairly different expectations people have for fathers and mothers, she offers no original perspective on that common double standard; in the end, itâs as if the scene is relying solely on Madelineâs zeal to hide its trite writing. Later, a young field-tripper at the aquarium asks Jane why pretty things tend to be dangerous. Itâs a lazy exchange thatâs similarly emblematic of the showâs insistence on shouting its themes.
Save the occasional cinematographic flourish, the non-spoken tools of film and television have come to kneel before the power of the word in the second season of Big Little Lies. Even the showâs soundtrack serves as a way to squeeze more words in: While the songs featured throughout these episodes are definitely capable of generating moodâas was the case last seasonâtheir lyrics regularly and agonizingly describe the drama that weâre witnessing. The spectral cover of REO Speedwagonâs âKeep on Loving Youâ that plays during a conversation about a crumbling marriage is haunting, but its beauty is shorn by how on the nose it is. The song, in this context, is exceptionally pretty but ultimately meaningless, a bunch of notes vanishing into the nearly hollow shell where Big Little Lies used to be.
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, ZoĂ« Kravitz, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, Alexander SkarsgĂ„rd, Adam Scott, James Tupper, Jeffrey Nordling, Kathryn Newton, Sarah Sokolovic, Crystal Fox, Iain Armitage, Darby Camp, Cameron Crovetti, Nicholas Crovetti, Ivy George, Chloe Coleman, Robin Weigert, Douglas Smith Network: HBO
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