In one of the more blatant cases of Doctor Who using a B-movie style episode title to pull in the viewers, “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” lets us know up front that this is going to be a “romp”âbig, 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 “Flesh and Stone”. 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 “feisty” 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 “Neffy” (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 (“the size of Canada”) 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 “not really had a gang before,” the rest of the teaser rather unwisely invites comparison to the first part of last yearâs “A Good Man Goes to War”, 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, “Why canât you just phone ahead, like any normal person?”), 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 “dinosaurs on a spaceship” 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 “Aliens of London” 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 “The Big Bang”) 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 (“What sort of a man doesnât carry a trowel? Put it on your Christmas list!”) 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 “battle of the sexes” 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 (cliché alert) starting to become attracted to each other (“No, no, noâI will not have flirting companions!”), 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 (“The Hungry Earth” and “Cold Blood”), 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 “Bleytal,” 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 “Weâre very cross with you…” 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 “if you tell me how you came by so many dinosaurs”âat this slightest hint of opposition, his face slowly hardens, he harshly orders the robots, “Injure the older one,” 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. (“We 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 bone…”) 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 “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” 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, “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” shares with “Invasion” 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: “I like my possessions to have spirit. Means I can have fun breaking them.”
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 “The Curse of the Black Spot”. 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 “gene chain” (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 “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”âit 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, “No, theyâre just people, theyâre not Ponds.” 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: “I canât settle. Every minute, Iâm listening out for that stupid TARDIS sound.”
The Doctor: “Right, so itâs my fault now, is it?”
Amy: “I canât not wait for youâeven now. And theyâre getting longer, you know, the gaps between your visits… I think youâre weaning us off you.”
When Amy tells of her fear that one day heâll simply stop showing up and sheâll be left waiting forever, he promises her, “Come on, Pond. Youâll be there till the end of me.” Amy cheerfully replies, “Or vice versa,” and then thereâs an odd, rather horrible pause until the Doctor finally says softly, “Done…” 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 “A Town Called Mercy.”
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: As mentioned above, see 1974âs “Invasion of the Dinosaurs,” 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: 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.3
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. Heâs being looked over by a nun and illuminated by a bright, neon cross straight out of David Fincherâs 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 popeâs wild charisma survives the apparent death of his consciousness.
Seeing no improvement in Belardoâs 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 familyâs sprawling English estate. With Belardo on a respirator and Brannox headed to Rome, the series imagines a world with two popesâsetting 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. Heâs 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 âcaliph,â 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, itâs Angelo Voiello (Silvio Orlando), the Vaticanâs alternatingly ruthless, patronizing, and surprisingly tenderâand regularly hilariousâcardinal secretary of state, whoâs a singular presence throughout the series.
Most of the cardinals wrestle with personal demons and try to lead virtuous lives, like Voielloâwhose harshness is a function of his officeâand the supremely empathetic Gutierrez (Javier CĂĄmara). 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 episodeâs 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 nudityâof which thereâs no shortage hereâor 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 (CĂ©cile 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 caliphâs 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. Itâs 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 itâs 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 CĂĄmara, CĂ©cile de France, Ludivine Sagnier, Mark Ivanir, Maurizio Lombardi, Antonio Petrocelli, Jessica Piccolo Valerani, Kiruna Stamell, Ulrich Thomsen, Yulia Snigir Network: HBO
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.
We will likely look back at the 2010s as a simpler time, when sea levels remained relatively stable, Disney hadnât 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 weâve replaced our old cable bill with an Ă 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
The array of archetypes portrayed by Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen on Portlandia arenât impressive in their scope so much as their narrow specificity, each one delicately carving Portlandâs 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 showâs 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
49. House of Cards
House of Cards allowed David Fincherâs seductive aesthetic sway to carry on well beyond the inaugural diptych he helmed, despite TVâs well-noted preference for story over artistic signature, but thatâs almost besides the point. The scheming exploits of Kevin Spaceyâs silver-tongued congressman-devil provide a galvanic shock of political satire and thrillingly modern melodrama, but the real hook is Robin Wrightâs stirring performance as the politicianâs better halfâand worse half in the showâs 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 manâs ruthless personal and professional strategies to better advance a contentious, testosterone-weary nation. Chris Cabin
48. Marvelâs Jessica Jones
Marvelâs Jessica Jones breaks so many molds, and with such brio, that it feels almost super-heroic. In immediately denying us Jessicaâs (Krysten Ritter) origin story, it keeps her at armâs lengthâa masterstroke because the series understands that itâs a story Jessica isnât ready to give yet, freely and under her own terms. If the violence on Marvelâs 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, itâs because of how hauntingly, stubbornly, necessarily itâs 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 showâs portrait of abuse, of heroes and villains whose shows of strength and mind control are so recognizably human, wouldnât exert half the chill that it does it didnât approach us so unassumingly. Ed Gonzalez
47. Killing Eve
With Killing Eveâwhich Phoebe Waller-Bridge adapted from author Luke Jenningsâs Villanelle seriesâshe 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 comedyâs 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 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 Doyleâs celebrated series. Instead, co-creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat have allowed Benedict Cumberbatch to chart his own course as a character whoâs 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 characterâs isolated genius. Ted Pigeon
Itâs the tension between Ramyâs (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 personâwhat kind of Muslim, son, and manâhe wants to be. Intensely critical of himself, Ramy recognizes that heâs 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. Thereâs profound pain to be found amid the rubble. And, maybe, peace. Niv M. Sultan
David Simon and Eric Overmeyerâs 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. Lifeâs not tidy in the Treme and the showâs creators let all the bad omens hang out, including the impending birth of Delmondâs (Rob Brown) first child and Janetteâs (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 cityâs riotous buzz. The fat lady is singing for Treme, and sheâs belting it out loud, if not for long. Cabin
43. The Handmaidâs Tale
Few television shows can match the commitment of The Handmaidâs 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 Mossâs 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 sheâs able to seize, however briefly, the upper hand from her tormentors, the series offers tantalizing glimpses of their chagrin. For a moment, weâre 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 Handmaidâs Tale remains intellectually nourishing, easy to admire, and difficult to endure. Itâs a beautiful test of stamina, offering only small reprieves from Juneâs suffering. It embeds us alongside her, and remains dedicated to illustrating how exactly the villains can win. Michael Haigis
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 Cityâs boroughs, revealing their neuroses, deep-seated fears, self-delusions, and artful exercises. More than ever, the showâs tapestry of unexpected connections and backstories reach deeper into the quotidian experiences of city life. Cabin
41. Genndy Tartakovskyâs Primal
Genndy Tartakovskyâs work as an animator is most striking for its embrace of silence. Even in the cacophonous realm of childrenâs 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 Swimâs 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 showâs violence is a reflection of its charactersâ existence, a cycle from which thereâs 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. rexâs survival, in Tartakovskyâs hands, is totally enthralling, as terrible as it is beautiful. Steven Scaife
Review: HBOâs The Outsider Conjures Mysterious Tableaux of Dread
The series preserves Stephen King novelâs ingenious plot while entirely altering its tone.3
HBOâs 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 Kingâs 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 doesnât feel the need to court Kingâs approval in the tradition of the many young filmmakers whoâve grown up on the authorâs novels, dreaming of an opportunity to take a crack at his work. As a showrunner, Price makes bold moves, preserving Kingâs ingenious plot while entirely altering the novelâs 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 whoâs 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 Andersonâs 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 childâs blood.
This opening displays the novelâs surgical attention detail, as in Andersonâs pointed order that Terry be arrested in public and handcuffed with his hands in front of his body. Sure that heâs 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 boyâs murder. Besides video proof supporting his alibi, thereâs dozens of witnesses and a fingerprint he left on a book in a hotel lobby. Ralphâs certainty, cemented by his grief over his own sonâs 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 theyâre dealing with a shapeshifter who feeds on grief.
This narrative business comes from Kingâs novel and is quite redolent of his 1986 opus It, but Price alters the storyâs mood and speed. Kingâs signature sensibilityâhis interest in the quotidian of small-town average people facing otherworldly nightmaresâhas 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 Priceâs own film scripts. This tendency is especially evident in Priceâs conception of Holly. In the novel, sheâs a thin, young white woman on the spectrum whoâs 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 Laurieâs 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 Kingâs novel.
On the other hand, Price also throws out Kingâs bad habitsâgimmicky character shtick, embarrassingly contrived dialogue, certain routine plottingâfashioning a mood piece that gradually becomes less about the investigation of the murders than the paralysis of grief. The Outsiderâs title has multiple meanings. The notion of grief and trauma divorcing people from society, turning them into outsiders, is in Kingâs book, but Price and the showâs directorsâBateman, Andrew Bernstein, and Karyn Kusamaâbring that theme to fuller bloom. Certain characters feel functional at first but gain a surprising pathos, such as Ralphâs 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 itâs undeniably grippingâa beach read rendered by real artists. The series is so clever that it might take you a while to realize that itâs 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 Priceâs 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
Review: BBC and Netflixâs 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
The first episode of BBC One and Netflixâs 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 Jonathanâs account of his imprisonment in Draculaâs (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 Stokerâs 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.
Itâs not that Bangâs hammy Dracula fails to do suggestive things throughout the entirety of the 90-minute episode made available to press. Itâs that when he hovers over Jonathan and tries to get him to write a letter with a pen that theyâre both holding, thereâs no palpable sexual tension. The actorsâ 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 Stokerâs novel than almost any adaptation before it, the series isnât half as provocative as something like Bryan Fullerâs Hannibal.
Whether heâs sharing space with Jonathan or even Sister Agatha, Bangâs handsome, domineering Dracula radiates no lust or desire. When the vampire calls his guest things like âJohnnyâ or his âbride,â 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 momentâs camp factor.
Some of Draculaâs images might sound gross on the pageâa fly crawling across an eyeball, a mangled body shoved into a box, a peeled fingernailâbut these moments pass by so quickly and with such visible fuss, courtesy of the jittering camera and clanging soundtrack, that theyâre robbed of any horror. Draculaâs groan-inducing wordplay (âYou look drainedâ) 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 materialâs sensuality.
All thatâs 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 donât. 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 itâs introducing farcical, overwritten solutions to things like navigating Draculaâs 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
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
Henry Cavillâs character in The Witcher, Netflixâs adaptation of the series of fantasy novels and short stories by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, could scan as a spin on the actorâs most notable prior role. Monster hunter Geralt of Rivia resembles a reclusive medieval Supermanâall principle, brawn, and jawlineâclad 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. Itâs 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 powersâas well as the scorn of countless villagers whoâve heard vile tales of witchersâ supposed inhumanity. The series uses the hate directed toward Geralt to offer intriguing, if inconsistently fleshed-out, reflections on discrimination.
The Witcherâs 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 empireâthe Continentâs strongest political and military forceâis 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 Witcherâs various manifestations insist upon amid their overall bleakness. Geralt and Yenâs banter moves briskly, propelled by Yenâs playful aggression and Geraltâs wry half-smiles.
The three protagonistsâ 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 showâs 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 Yenâs history and psyche but chooses not to concretely explain what it means to be a witcher, granting the audience little insight into Geraltâs 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 showâs 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)âthere are many princessesâescalates with breakneck cuts and tight shots of the warriors. Later, as the ghastly spawn of a cursed woman stalks a victim, the creatureâs 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 bladeâgradually revealing his motivations and making the scattered moments of butchery all the more alluring.
Cast: Henry Cavill, Anya Chalotra, Freya Allan, Jodhi May, BjĂ¶rn Hlynur Haraldsson, Adam Levy, MyAnna Buring, Emma Appleton, Joey Batey, Anna Shaffer, Mimi Ndiweni, Royce Pierreson, Wilson Radjou-Pujalte, Eamon Farren Network: Netflix
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.3
Abby (Abby McEnany) is planning to kill herself. Sheâs 45, a devoted journaler, and quite miserable. Her first line of dialogue in Showtimeâs Work in Progress is a comically extended shout of âWazzup!,â 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 âfat, queer dykeâ with OCD. And though she has yet to decide on a suicide method, 180 almonds are key. Theyâre a âgiftâ 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 havenât gotten better, then itâs 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 bathroomâs capacity, with frequent detours into flashbacks of past relationships and confrontations. These situations are heightened, laced with humor thatâs 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 sheâs 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: âIn my note, Iâm gonna tell that woman that the almonds were what pushed me over the edge.â
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 isnât 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 donât yet characterize Chris beyond some catalyst for Abbyâs 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. Itâs a sobering, subtle way to tackle mental illness because Abby doesnât 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 Abbyâs closet, the baggage is never totally gone.
Cast: Abby McEnany, Karin Anglin, Celeste Pechous, Julia Sweeney, Theo Germaine, Armand Fields Network: Showtime
The 25 Best TV Shows of 2019
Our favorite shows of 2019 resist easy categorization, and they attest to a medium in transformation.
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 mediumâs 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 yearâs best TV programming gave voice to a breadth of ideas and experiences, even those which might not reasonably be considered âissue-driven.â 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 Adlonâs Better Things, which launched an incisive and frank portrayal of menopause in its third season. HBOâs Succession, perhaps the only series on the list that might be classified as a reaction to Trumpism, supplanted Game of Thrones as the networkâs 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 yearâs 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 Bobâs 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 yearâs best shows comprise a multitude of voices, which flowed forth from the most prestigious platforms to the smallest, strangest niches of the mediumâall of them demanding, in one way or another, to be heard. Michael Haigis
25. City on a Hill
When City on a Hill isnât immersed in pulpy shenanigans, which find Kevin Baconâs casually racist F.B.I. agent Jackie Rohr doing things like brandishing a fish at an angry old woman who calls him a âwhite devil,â it aspires to be a Bostonian spin on 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 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
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 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 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
23. On Becoming a God in Central Florida
Florida water park employee Krystal Stubbs (Kirsten Dunst) earns the nickname âthe alligator widowâ after her husband, Travis (Alexander SkarsgĂ„rd), 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 familyâs life savings into the organizationâs 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 âget ahead,â and how easy it is to get lost in the labyrinth of capitalism. Scaife
22. Big Mouth
Netflixâs 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 minefieldâone that the graphic and logorrheic Big Mouth gives the impression of approaching blindfolded and in a headlong rush. But thereâs 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
Sam Levinsonâs 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 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 Scaife
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
As Octavia Spencerâs 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 thatâs a hallmark of the true-crime podcast genre. Yet, while the Apple TV+ series understands this genreâs allure, it fails to replicate the enduring insights of podcasts like Serialâinsights 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 agoâone 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 Caveâs innocence. Reference is made to a key witness who may have been coached, but that inconclusive new development seemingly confirms Poppyâs long-harbored suspicions, which exist for reasons that are never made clear.
The showâs contrived central mystery, then, pertains to who really killed Chuck Buhrman (Nic Bishop). Itâs a question thatâs 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 Buhrmanâs killer could have been any of the figures Poppy encounters, but because theyâre all so obviously creepy, a pervasive sense emerges, unintentionally, that theyâre all engaged in some kind of conspiracy.
Paul bizarrely plays Cave as a feral presence, growling and tilting his head during his characterâs interviews with Poppy. Incarceration, the series unsubtly suggests, has made him an animal. Likewise, Buhrmanâs daughters, Josie and Lanie (both played by Lizzie Caplan), are a pair of incessant liars whoâre still grappling with the trauma of their fatherâs death. Other characters seem to simply be evil, none more so than Caveâs father, whoâs the showâs 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 charactersâ flaws are the resultant damage of Buhrmanâs 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 whatâs left is a rather muddled whodunit in which the answer ceases to be very interesting.
While the showâs 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 showâs 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 whatâs 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 Spencerâs warmth and wit hint at Poppyâs skill as an investigator, the actress is too often left delivering dialogue that merely states whatâs happening around her or in her head.
Throughout Truth Be Told, Poppy constantly explicates her guilt, yet the series doesnât seem sure what exactly is prompting those feelings. The show flattens its performersâ 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 manâs 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+
Review: Joe Pera Talks with You Digs Into the Truth About Our Preoccupations
Season two of the series explores how our preoccupations bring us comfort when we might need it most.3.5
As a comedian, Joe Pera is a bit of an enigma. With a hunched-over, ambling gait and a slow, soothing voice, he may be the youngest old man on TV. How much of this is an Andy Kaufman-esque stunt is an open question; Pera is certainly committed to not totally breaking character even outside his TV series Joe Pera Talks with You, as he sustains his grandfatherly persona through stand-up routines, promotional interviews, and appearances on the local news. His website provides a form for fans to guess his age. Heâs almost painfully polite and modest, brimming with a shy, nervous energy, using pauses and stumbling over words to disarm viewers right before he jams in some unexpected joke.
In other words, how much of Joe Pera the man is in Joe Pera the performance art character, and which parts are specifically turned up for comedic value? Watching Joe Pera Talks with You is to simultaneously ponder this question and be so taken with his sweet, earnest persona that the answer seems not to matter. The showâs 11-minute episodes are ostensibly structured around the middle-school choir teacherâs interest in mundane objects and activities: speaking directly into the camera, he discusses beans, hiking, shopping at the grocery store, and other things around his home in Marquette, Michigan.
Other topics and concerns inevitably creep into each episode, whether because Pera is easily distracted by things like the effect of jack-oâ-lanterns on oneâs soul or because other forcesâa boisterous co-worker, an awareness of consumerism, or a disagreement with band teacher Sarah (Jo Firestone)âbriefly throw him off course. Following from the previous season, he and Sarah are newly dating, though their viewpoints sometimes differ as Peraâs apparent frivolity clashes with Sarahâs status as a committed end-of-the-world prepper with a fortified basement and a handgun; in one episode, she asks him if heâs willing to kill to defend his garden.
In another type of series, Pera might be some wacky side character or otherwise relegated to the butt of a joke to contrast a more cynical protagonist, but the brilliance of Joe Pera Talks with You is how he instead provides the dominant perspective. No matter how seemingly insignificant, Pera and his interests are presented with complete sincerity through gentle music and loving close-ups of objects and processes, creating an atmosphere of reserved but infectious passion through his dedication and attention to detail. With a mix of serene images, oddly well-researched facts, and understated visual comedy, episodes play like a mix of Mister Rogersâ Neighborhood, ASMR videos, and Guy Maddinâs My Winnipeg.
An extreme self-awareness fuels the showâs comedy, from the subtle tics and timing of Peraâs speaking style to the use of subtitles and careful compositions that do such things as gradually reveal that heâs wearing shorts. He walks silently in one episode, and as soon as that silence begins to feel awkwardly too long, he begins his monologue about hiking to reveal, simply through impeccable timing, that the silence stems from a weird, adorable belief that before he can discuss hiking, he must first demonstrate what it is. Heâs thorough, this guy. And he makes sure to inform you that heâs just kidding when he says cold beer is nutritious.
Joe Pera Talks with You never feels like itâs making fun of Peraâs demeanor. Though the character is almost childlike in his perpetual wonderment, the parts of him that initially come off as absurd also feel truthful and even aspirational, in how this man has thought long and hard about things like the societal value of beans. Heâs a master of conveying miniature stories in just a few words, like how he has âbeen devastated in the pastâ by experimenting in his garden or how classifying Easter as âthe third most romantic day of the yearâ suggests a considered ranking of dates by such values.
Many of Peraâs observations ring true for their cutting, hilarious simplicity, though much of the comedy comes from how heâs not some inaccessible guru or unsung sage of Michiganâs Upper Peninsula. Some of the showâs funniest lines are when Pera brings up something his outward naivetĂ© suggests he might be ignorant of, like American interventionism. He has his own worries; theyâre just often about whether his beans will grow properly around the wire arch in his garden. He focuses on the beauty in the mundane, the things that bring him quiet joy. Employing warm cinematography, gentle narration, and its lightly absurd portrayal of everyday life, Joe Pera Talks with You digs at a larger existential truth about our own preoccupations and how they bring us comfort when we might need it most.
Cast: Joe Pera, Jo Firestone, Conner OâMalley, Pat Harris, Jo Scott Network: Adult Swim
Review: Servant Is an Unrelentingly Strange Examination of Grief and Denial
The showâs control of tone and atmosphere soon becomes even more engrossing than the storyâs mystery itself.3
On paper, the premise of Apple TV+âs Servant sounds simple enough: New parents Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) and Sean (Toby Kebbell) hire a nanny, Leanne (Nell Tiger Free), to take care of their infant son in their Philadelphia home. Itâs a ritzy place, with a fully stocked wine cellar and a spacious kitchen for chef Sean to test out his elaborate recipes. When coupled with the showâs musical score of discordant, jittery strings and atmosphere of uneasy stillness created by long takes and peculiar camera angles, however, everything simply feels off, even before itâs revealed that the child, Jericho, is dead.
What lays motionless in the crib is actually just a silent, unblinking doll meant to placate Dorothy, who suffered a psychotic break following Jerichoâs sudden death. Beyond a handful of instances throughout the season where she stares listlessly into the distance as if on the cusp of some revelation, she treats the Jericho doll as though itâs alive and well. The bitter, curmudgeonly Sean plays along, but when heâs alone, heâs content to drop the thing on the floor or knock its head against the crib. Hiring Leanne is just one more part of the charade, until one night Sean finds a living, breathing, crying infant in the dollâs place.
Much of the series follows Sean as he tries to figure out whatâs going on, and with the help of Dorothyâs high-strung, perpetually wine-drunk brother, Julian (Rupert Grint). They investigate where the baby could have possibly come from and dig into the background of the prim, devoutly religious Leanne, whose presence coincides not only with the return of the new Jericho, but with Sean getting splinters from nearly every surface he touches. Dorothy resumes her work as a newscaster none the wiser, but her bright, outgoing demeanorâan extreme contrast with the sullen, dickish Seanâkeeps putting their newly living baby at risk of discovery when she invites people over or insists on bringing him to work.
Itâs a supremely weird setup for a series made only weirder by the way it builds atmosphere through the use of jarring sounds and an austere visual language. Though most of the seasonâs episodes noticeably lack the ambitious directorial hand of M. Night Shyamalanâwhoâs an executive producer on the show and helmed two episodesâcinematographer Michael Gioulakis maintains an unnerving mood through close observation of seemingly mundane actions. By holding so long on faces and often employing overhead angles, the camera lends a sort of voyeuristic, almost alien-like tinge to the proceedings.
And the close-ups are uncomfortably close, particularly with the constant focus on Seanâs cooking that finds him meticulously pulling apart the flesh of eels, lobsters, and squids. At other times, heâs seen tugging splinters out from his neck or inside his mouth. Whether something actually does happen when the camera lingers on Sean shoving something into the garbage disposal, the potential for disaster always seems to loom large. In such moments, itâs as though grief, denial, and pain coalesce into one suffocating presence.
Servantâs mystery unfurls at a satisfying clip, since itâs broken up into brisk half-hour chunks that always present some new complication. Episodes rarely leave Dorothy and Seanâs home, locking us inside to watch everyone seethe and fall apart. In the absence of traditionally horrific imagery, the show emphasizes an unrelenting strangeness not only through Seanâs increasingly odd recipes, but through things like a man vigorously dabbing sauce from his slice of chicken before, for no apparent reason, wrapping it in napkins and then squeezing the food between his fingers. The season ends, perhaps expectedly, with more questions than any particularly satisfying answers, but in similar fashion to shows like Twin Peaks, its control of tone and atmosphere soon becomes even more engrossing than the mystery itself.
Cast: Lauren Ambrose, Toby Kebbell, Nell Tiger Free, Rupert Grint, Phillip James Brannon Network: AppleTV+
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