Once upon a time, stories of the Old West were the epitome of straightforward, uncomplicated adventure storytelling. Then, in the last two decades or so, the long out of fashion genre was revived, demythologised, and put to use to tell deeper stories in movies like Clint Eastwood’s magnificent Unforgiven, or the more recent television series Deadwood. In the science fiction arena, Joss Whedon’s ill-fated Firefly constructed its background universe using an intriguing mix of Western and SF elements. Now Doctor Who has taken its turn to use a Western backdrop to present a story with some moral complexity. It’s not quite as compelling as it could have been, with the ultimate resolution being taken out of the Doctor’s hands, but “A Town Called Mercy” is still a beautifully produced and well told tale.
This is an episode that is, first and foremost, a pure pleasure to look at. The story is given an expansive canvas thanks to an extended location shoot in Almería, Spain. The little frontier town of Mercy (population 81) in the year 1870 looks totally authentic—if not to what the Old West was really like, then at least to our shared cultural impression of it, due to the Who team being able to make use of many of the locations and sets used in classic Westerns like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. This production is full of wide open, sunny vistas that are even more striking coming after the dark interiors that dominated the previous two episodes.
The Doctor (Matt Smith) and his companions Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill) have arrived outside the town by accident—apparently, they had intended to visit Mexico for the Day of the Dead festival. Oddly, Amy and Rory’s relationship with the Doctor in this episode doesn’t really feel like it’s following up on the recent hints that the Doctor is gradually disengaging himself from their lives (“weaning us off you,” as Amy said to him last week). Instead, it’s as if we’ve gone back to when they were permanent travelers aboard the TARDIS, before last year’s “The God Complex”. On the other hand, the Doctor does let slip the fact that he’s now 1200 years old—considerably older than the age he claimed to be at the time of his “death” last season—which may or may not become significant later. It’s still an open question exactly where these last few adventures for Amy and Rory take place along their and the Doctor’s timeline—or even what order they are taking place in. Hopefully the next two episodes will make that clear.
Writer Toby Whithouse’s previous Doctor Who episodes (“School Reunion” in 2006, “The Vampires of Venice” in 2010, and the abovementioned “The God Complex”) have all been heavily concerned with Doctor/companion relationships, but this one is different. Apart from one scene between Amy and the Doctor, she and (especially) Rory are very much in the background here.
Their initial entry into the town gives director Saul Metzstein the first of several chances to riff on classic Western tropes—the slow tracking shots following them down the empty main street, the suspicious stares of the townsfolk watching them, and so on. Naturally, when they enter the saloon, the honky-tonk piano immediately stops and everyone turns to look at the strangers in the sudden silence. Matt Smith’s skill at physical comedy makes for a wonderfully hilarious moment as he saunters over to the bar and growls to the barmaid, “Tea, but the strong stuff. Leave the bag in”—and then gets the toothpick he had been chewing stuck with his mouth wide open. (Incidentally, it was interesting to hear him called “Son” a couple of times in this episode—one of the relatively few occasions when the youthful appearance of Smith’s Doctor has actually been commented on. As usual, when the story turns serious, Smith has no difficulty in being a dominating presence even opposite much older actors.)
It becomes apparent that this is not going to be just a historical tourist visit to the Wild West when the Doctor’s announcement of his title brings an immediate reaction from the townsfolk, and one of them asks him straight out, “Are you an alien?” When the Doctor admits he is, they grab him, carry him to the edge of the town and throw him across the line of sticks and rocks marking the town’s boundary. Prevented at gunpoint from coming back in, he can only watch as a menacing figure—the Gunslinger (Andrew Brooke)—comes out of the desert towards him. This creature is a hugely effective piece of costume and make-up design, with the silhouette of a classic Western gunfighter augmented by technological components such as a bionic eye reminiscent of the Borg from Star Trek. We had already seen him in the teaser at the top of the episode, at the end of a battle in some other place, killing a man with the futuristic weapon built into his right arm. When his victim asked if he was “the last one,” the Gunslinger replied, “There’s one more—the Doctor.”
The Doctor is saved by the town’s marshall, Isaac, who allows him back inside the boundary. The episode’s most hyped guest star, Ben Browder (of Farscape and Stargate SG-1 fame), is surprisingly underused in this role—his main function, at least initially, is to deliver some necessary exposition. Isaac explains that the Gunslinger has kept the town isolated for three weeks—he put up the boundary line around the town and has been preventing anyone from going in or out. Everyone will die of starvation unless they hand over the “alien Doctor” the Gunslinger is demanding.
There’s a moment of humor from Amy (“Why would he want to kill you? Unless he’s met you…”), but the confusion is soon resolved as Isaac introduces a man named Kahler-Jex (Adrian Scarborough). He is indeed an alien, the last survivor of a group targeted by the Gunslinger, who crashed here and has become accepted as a valued member of the town, thanks to his medical skills which saved the people during a cholera outbreak, and the lighting and heating he has provided for the town using the power from his ship. The episode will end up exploring Jex in depth, and Scarborough gives a brilliant performance throughout, bringing out all the many facets of this complex, contradictory man.
To start with, though, it looks like a simple rescue operation is in order, and with Rory and Isaac distracting the Gunslinger, the Doctor borrows a horse (whose name is a clever riff on the Johnny Cash hit “A Boy Named Sue”) to ride back to the TARDIS. Meanwhile, Jex and Amy share a moment, as he tells her why he is happy to stay here rather than return home. “Here I could start afresh—could remember myself and help people. That’s all I ever wanted to do, end suffering.”
Ironically, Jex’s own compassion for the town ends up being the seed of his downfall, as the Doctor stumbles across the cable running from his ship to the town, follows it back to the crashed ship, and manages to access Jex’s personal files. He rushes back to confront Jex with the truth—Kahler-Jex’s people were involved in a years-long war, and Jex was a member of a weapons development team conducting experiments on people in order to develop cyborgs like the Gunslinger. At a horrific cost, they won their war, after which the cyborgs were decommissioned—except for one which went rogue, hunting down and killing its creators.
The Doctor: “What I don’t understand is why you haven’t just walked into town and killed him.”
The Gunslinger: “People will get in the way.”
The Doctor: “Look, you want justice, you deserve justice. But this isn’t the way. We can put him on trial…”
The Gunslinger: “When he starts killing your people, you can use your justice.”
And so the scene is set for the central conflict of the story—a debate on whether Jex’s undoubtedly good acts since he arrived in the town can balance his deeds of the past, and what, if anything, should be done to punish him—and indeed, who has the right to make that judgment. The varied ethics of all the characters (including the Gunslinger, who deliberately refrains from attacking Jex while there is a chance that innocents might be caught in the crossfire) are examined. Isaac sticks to his contention that Jex’s past is irrelevant (“America’s the land of second chances”). Rory is quite willing to hand Jex over to the Gunslinger for execution, to Amy’s dismay—but one can imagine him, as a medical man himself, being particularly revolted by Jex’s actions. Amy demands another solution be found, and turns to the Doctor—but he’s brooding in silence, having already figured out that there are no good options.
As for Jex himself, he first expresses an “ends justify the means” attitude, telling how the cyborgs’ creation actually saved lives by bringing a quick end to the war (an obvious parallel to the arguments over the atomic bombing of Japan in 1945). But when the Doctor angrily yells at him (“How many died screaming on the operating table before you had found your advantage?”), he fires back, showing a perceptive insight into the similarities between them:
Jex: “Looking at you, Doctor, is like looking into a mirror—almost. There’s rage there, like me. Guilt, like me. Solitude. Everything but the nerve to do what needs to be done. Thank the gods my people weren’t relying on you to save them.”
The Doctor: “No, but these people are!”
It’s an excellent piece of scripting that turns the Gunslinger’s search for an “alien Doctor” from a bit of clever plotting sleight-of-hand (designed to mislead the audience into thinking at first that he’s after our Doctor) into a central thematic strand of the episode. The Doctor’s harshness toward Jex is driven partly by his consciousness of his own questionable past actions—in particular, of course, the destruction of his own people in the Time War, which has hung over him since the beginning of the revived series in 2005. Matt Smith does a fine job of showing the Doctor’s disturbance at the parallels between himself and Jex; after Jex’s taunt he erupts into anger, dragging Jex to the town boundary and throwing him across it.
In her best scene of the episode, Amy grabs a gun and orders the Doctor to let Jex back inside. The Doctor explodes at her, yelling about all the people who have died because he showed mercy to villains like the Daleks or the Master, who have killed again after he has let them go. I got the impression that the Doctor knew he was not being entirely reasonable here, since Jex is clearly not like those unrepentant enemies at all—and indeed, Amy manages to snap him out of it with an unwitting callback to the dangerous psychological places David Tennant’s Doctor went to at the end of his tenure (“The Waters of Mars”): “See, this is why you shouldn’t travel alone.”
The Doctor: “Fine, we think of something else. But frankly, I’m betting on the Gunslinger.”
At this point events spiral out of control, as Jex is confronted by the Gunslinger, and Isaac is accidentally killed protecting him. Before he dies, Isaac makes the Doctor promise to protect Jex—even as the Gunslinger threatens to kill everyone unless Jex is surrendered to him by noon tomorrow. Now the acting marshall of the town, the Doctor orders Jex placed in a cell, as the townsfolk become nervous and a lynch mob forms. In a nice reversal of the confrontation with Amy, the Doctor manages to talk them down from violence—so much so that the young guy (Sean Benedict) who is (somewhat implausibly) their spokesman becomes an active ally. On the whole, though, the townspeople are very much in the background during the second half of the episode—although there is a nice touch for classic series fans as the town’s undertaker (with his running gag of measuring the Doctor for a coffin) is played by Garrick Hagon, looking considerably different than when he was a fresh-faced rebel leader in the 1972 story “The Mutants.”
The debate between the Doctor and Jex continues, in an extended scene where both Smith and Scarborough are brilliant. Toby Whithouse is excellent at distilling the essence of his story down to a one-on-one confrontation between the Doctor and his opponent (there are similar scenes in “School Reunion” and “The Vampires of Venice”). After his outburst of anger earlier, Scarborough keeps Jex carefully restrained, needling the Doctor (though not really maliciously), until a crucial moment:
Jex: “It would be so much simpler if I was just one thing, wouldn’t it? The mad scientist who made that killing machine, or the physician who’s dedicated his life to serving this town. The fact that I’m both bewilders you.”
The Doctor: “Oh, I know exactly what you are, and I see this reformation for what it really is. You committed an atrocity and chose this as your punishment.”
The Doctor’s passionate climax (“Justice doesn’t work like that. You don’t get to decide when and how your debt is paid!”) seems to impress Jex enough that he opens up about his true fears. Scarborough is particularly moving as Jex tells how his culture believes that the soul after death must climb a mountain carrying the souls of all the people it has wronged: “Imagine the weight I will have to lift.”
By the end of the scene, they have both come to an understanding that the Doctor is not going to give Jex up to the Gunslinger. Jex tells him, “We all carry our prisons with us. Mine is my past, yours is your morality.” It’s a slightly forced moment, but this gives the Doctor an idea for how to get Jex past the cyborg—a creature whose “prison” is its reluctance to risk harm to innocents. In another excellent usage of a standard Western trope, we have a high-noon showdown between the Doctor and the Gunslinger in the center of town. Except that instead of him using a gun, the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver disorientates the creature, and the Doctor and his friends provide a distraction that allows Jex to flee back to his ship.
As I suggested at the top of this piece, the conclusion of the story is a slight let-down after the excellence of what has preceded it. The Doctor doesn’t manage to come up with a real conclusion for the story; the best he can do is ensure that Jex escapes, drawing the Gunslinger after him to continue their fight elsewhere. The town and its people are saved, but the issues between the Doctor and Jex that loomed so large earlier are basically left unresolved, thereby allowing the story to avoid making a specific commitment about who is right and who is wrong. Instead, a definite ending is provided by having Jex decide to activate his ship’s self-destruct sequence. Scarborough sells the moment very well, but it makes nonsense of the whole elaborate showdown scene—Jex could simply have walked up to the Gunslinger and given himself up.
The framing sequence enclosing the whole tale, where a woman’s voice tells us how the Gunslinger became an almost mythological figure—the outsider perpetually protecting the town of Mercy—seemed like an unnecessarily sentimental finishing touch. But on the whole, “A Town Called Mercy” is a very enjoyable episode, with a great guest cast and an excellent production. Despite the Western background, it’s not action-packed—an unusually talky episode, in fact. But then, it’s an episode with quite a lot to say.
Next Week: It’s back to the present day, with the Doctor, Amy and Rory dealing with an unusual alien invasion, in “The Power of Three.”
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: Doctor Who’s previous foray into the Western genre came way back in 1966, during the classic series’s very eclectic (and, alas, now mostly lost) third season. “The Gunfighters,” starring William Hartnell, with Peter Purves and Jackie Lane, places the Doctor and co. among the events of the famous 1881 gunfight at the O.K. Corral. It’s also a deliberate comedy, which for a long time had the reputation in Who fandom as the worst Doctor Who story ever made. Once it actually became available again on video (and later DVD), though, it was rapidly rehabilitated as its wit and charm were recognized. It’s not without its goofy aspects (the American accents, in particular, range from hilarious to painfully bad), but I think it’s great fun and well worth watching.
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Review: One Day at a Time Remains a Comforting Mix of Head and Heart
The show’s fourth season serves as a reliable and comforting balm suited for the current moment.3
In the aftermath of 9/11, audiences sought solace in familiar shows like Friends, which took place in a world untouched by the tragic event and populated with beloved characters who were confronting more mundane, everyday problems. Today’s television landscape is too diffuse to point to a single, obvious source of comfort, but as Americans face the expanding COVID-19 crisis, self-isolating and assessing the risks of death and economic disaster, shows like One Day at a Time, now in its fourth season, serve as a welcome balm.
The series follows the Alvarez family as they confront social issues that, while timely and relevant, feel entirely manageable when compared to a global pandemic. The tight-knit family reflects on topics like sex, relationships, and money through an intergenerational lens, as Penelope (Justina Machado) absorbs blows from two age-divided fronts: her teenage children, Elena (Isabella Gomez) and Alex (Marcel Ruiz), and her mother, Lydia (Rita Moreno).
In one episode, Alex walks in on a family member masturbating, triggering a discussion about female sexuality and self-pleasure. “Sex is between people who are married,” Lydia says. “It is Adam and Eve, not ‘bzzzt’ and Eve.” As in previous seasons of One Day at a Time, Moreno’s riotous line readings and her character’s hijinks—shopping for crabs at the fish market, catfishing Penelope’s potential suitors—imbue the show with endearing archness. But every member of the family gets their fair share of deviously funny verbal jabs, punching up or down a generation to reject what they deem naïve or reactionary.
When the blowups cool down, as they always do, Penelope summarizes the takeaways with a blend of sweetness and didacticism that falls just on the right side of a public service announcement. Real-world context renders these resolutions reassuring rather than trite: No difficulty in the series is impossible to overcome, so long as the Alvarezes stick together.
The promise of unconditional unity that permeates One Day at a Time comes through not only in grand apologies and lessons, but also in subtler interactions. In season one, Lydia worked through her religious objections to Elena’s coming out in less than a minute; here, when she speaks to Elena and her significant other, Syd (Sheridan Pierce), she refers to Syd by their preferred pronoun. Lydia’s casual use of the word “them” reflects her ability to internalize practices and behavior that make her loved ones feel safe. The moment understatedly captures Lydia’s radical personal growth, the kind people achieve when they demand the best of each other. That, One Day at a Time insists, is what love looks like.
Cast: Justina Machado, Rita Moreno, Isabella Gomez, Marcel Ruiz, Todd Grinnell, Stephen Tobolowsky, Sheridan Pierce Network: Pop
Review: Devs Is an Exposition-Heavy Rumination on the Nature of Humanity
The series’s synthesis of aesthetic, plot, and subtext slowly starts to pull apart in its exposition-heavy second half.2
Alex Garland’s Devs is the writer-director’s latest rumination on the nature of humanity in the face of both technology and the unknown. As in much of Garland’s prior work, the Hulu limited series uses speculative fiction to address both contemporary social malaise and deeper metaphysical questions on the nature of human life.
The show’s title alludes to the deliberately generic, misleading name of a supercomputer capable of peering into the past and predicting the future, a MacGuffin that allows for a treatise on determinism. Using quantum algorithms, Forest (Nick Offerman), the mysterious owner of a computing company named Amaya, can trace the chains of cause and effect that guide our lives beneath the illusion of free will. Or, as Forest himself says to a new programmer, Sergei (Karl Glusman), our lives aren’t chaotic, but rather ordered “on tramlines.”
Sergei is swiftly revealed to be a corporate spy who infiltrated Amaya to steal code for Russia. Outed almost immediately, he finds himself confronted by Forest and Amaya’s head of security, Kenton (Zach Grenier), who kills the would-be thief and stages his death as a spectacular suicide, much to the confusion and grief of Sergei’s girlfriend, Lily (Sonoya Mizuno), a software engineer at Amaya who sets about digging into the truth.
At first, Devs’s straightforward murder mystery and broader philosophical questions dovetail seamlessly. Lily’s amateur sleuthing around Amaya’s compound and a thoroughly gentrified San Francisco positions the series as pure noir, a genre quite conducive to exploring existential and metaphysical quandaries. It’s especially fitting for a consideration of determinism, with Lily’s attempt to work out what happened to Sergei aligning with the supercomputer’s ability to reconstruct the past based on behavioral clues. This represents the ultimate endpoint of technology’s capability to reshape humanity’s self-conception, demonstrating that you can program software so intricately that it can disprove free will. As Lily struggles to make sense of her life being turned upside down, Devs regularly returns to Forest and his sedate, wizened calm, that of a man who sits upon the mountaintop and sees all.
Garland, as ever, devotes a great deal of care to the show’s sense of atmosphere. Set in and around Silicon Valley, Devs reflects the modern look of the tech industry in much the same way that Spike Jonze’s Her used hazy, soft lighting and warm colors to evoke the sleekness and comfort of Apple’s aesthetic. People arrive at Amaya’s main building, all glass windows and open desks, as if to a college campus. The Devs building itself, with its Brutalist exterior and series of cube-shaped rooms and gold-lined walls, is a radical break from reality that nonetheless manifests the internal logic of tech culture. At heart, it’s a giant computer that programmers work within, a windowless space where humans are at once spying and being spied upon in an extreme visualization of our surveillance society.
This initial synthesis of aesthetic, plot, and subtext slowly starts to pull apart, however, as Devs drags into its second half. Garland frontloads the series with narrative exposition, revealing to the audience (and Lily) most of the mystery behind Sergei’s death, the depth of his clandestine connections, and the totality of influence that a mega-rich CEO like Forest can exert in the late-capitalist Shangri-la of Silicon Valley. That leaves the series to start spiraling into stranger and ever more forced twists, from an awkward romantic subplot between Lily and her cybersecurity ex, Jamie (Jin Ha), to Kenton’s increasingly ludicrous omnipresence and seeming invulnerability to physical harm (one starts to expect a Westworld-like twist to reveal him as a robot). Similarly, Forest’s motivating obsession over his lost child is telegraphed by the colossal statue in the girl’s image that looms over the Amaya compound.
Early on, the balance between open discussion of Devs’s themes and the use of setting and tone to convey said themes is a careful one, but soon the series gives itself over to long-winded monologues that make the subtext text. The later episodes grind to a halt as the contours of a philosophy that were already neatly summarized in the pilot are more arduously explained to viewers. The series momentarily rebounds when it starts to consider the role that chaos plays in shaping the supposedly absolute tramlines of existence, using clever editing and doubling effects to show all the various permutations that any given moment of a person’s life could have gone depending on small variations of behavior. Soon, though, this provocative visualization of unpredictability and random chance gives way to characters standing around debating such ideas, reducing the surreal to the academic.
Devs frustratingly comes too sharply into focus at the expense of leaving some of its more evocative ideas unsaid. The story’s metaphors become increasingly obvious, such as Forest’s long hair and beard turning him into a cult-like leader, an image regularly juxtaposed with his team’s repeated projections of Christ’s crucifixion. As the show’s visual storytelling is increasingly subsumed by explanatory dialogue, the more tragic insinuations of Forest’s obsessions become lugubriously spelled out as others tie the Devs project ever more explicitly to his personal trauma. There’s plenty to chew on in Devs, but the protracted serial format robs Garland of his best trait, of knowing when to let the audience fill in the gaps on their own.
Cast: Nick Offerman, Sonoya Mizuno, Jin Ha, Zach Grenier, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Cailee Spaeny, Alison Pill, Karl Glusman Network: FX
The 25 Best Netflix Original Series to Watch Right Now
These 25 Netflix original shows prove the marathon-watching juggernaut’s equal concern for both quantity and quality.
Like Google, Netflix has evolved over two decades from a Silicon Valley venture to a legitimate verb in the cultural lexicon. Ten years after expanding from DVD-by-mail to streaming service, and four since debuting its first original series with House of Cards, Netflix all but dominates the online TV landscape. While competitors like Amazon Prime and Hulu certainly vie for our time with their own in-house programs, the sheer inundation of Netflix originals requires its very own examination. The animated seriocomic genius of BoJack Horseman, the tech horrors that Black Mirror situates on the near horizon, and the earnestness and dramatic sprawl of Sense8 are merely a few of the storytelling pleasures available to anyone with a WiFi connection and a (potentially borrowed) Netflix login. These 25 Netflix original shows prove the marathon-watching juggernaut’s equal concern for both quantity and quality. Nathan Frontiero
25. I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson
Social discomfort leaks out of each and every sketch of I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson, as characters constantly double down, then triple down, then quadruple down on their inane schemes and insecurities. Throughout, already bizarre situations escalate to truly profound degrees of obstinance and delusion: denying responsibility for a crashed hot dog car while dressed in a hot dog costume, incessantly responding to a “honk if you’re horny” bumper sticker, vowing revenge on a magician who publicly humiliated you, attempting to assassinate baby bad boy Bart Harley Jarvis, and defiantly, inexplicably singing about the reanimation of some skeletons. The series reaches such dizzying, quotable absurdity that it seems to inhabit an abrasive and uncomfortable universe all its own. Steven Scaife
24. Luke Cage
The way Luke Cage at once embraces blaxploitation tropes and transcends them completely isn’t necessarily its triumph. It is, however, the element that speaks most directly to what the series, based on the Marvel Comics character that first appeared back in 1972 with Luke Cage: Hero for Hire, is attempting to accomplish. Cage, as portrayed by Mike Colter, is a wrongly convicted ex-con and certified ladies’ man who makes rent and some meager pocket change by sweeping up hair at a barber shop and doing dishes at the restaurant owned by Harlem crime lord Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali). He’s also attempting to be a role model and a hard-working member of his local community in the aftermath of his time in jail and the life he left behind when his wife was murdered. Above all else, Luke Cage is about what, if any, qualifications there are for being a hero. Chris Cabin
23. Lady Dynamite
Her endearing eagerness to please, extreme social awkwardness, and hopeless inability to camouflage her feelings makes the semi-fictionalized version of her bipolar self that actor-writer-comedian Maria Bamford plays in Lady Dynamite a kind of human emoji factory, her unguarded face expressing a kaleidoscope of comically intense emotions. Her bafflement and improvised solutions to uncomfortable situations make things we have all struggled with, like dating, feel as freshly and insightfully witnessed as her wide-eyed adventures in Hollywood. Though she’s anything but a stone face, Bamford has more than a little Buster Keaton in her, her cosmic befuddlement and heroic efforts to navigate even the simplest situation highlighting the absurdity in just about everything. Elise Nakhnikian
22. The Crown
Once again, The Queen‘s Peter Morgan combines extensive research with a highly empathetic understanding of human nature to create a fascinating exploration of the capabilities and limitations of Britain’s monarchy in the 20th century, the enormous personal sacrifices that monarchy required of Elizabeth II, and the strains it exerted on her family. The Crown opens with Elizabeth’s (Claire Foy) beloved father, king George (Jared Harris), another reluctant monarch who inherited the role only after his older brother renounced it. It then follows the young queen as, forced to give up her cherished private life after her father’s demise, she grows into the role of queen—and into a form of greatness distinguished by genuine humility and common-sense values. A feminist tale of a patronized, undereducated, and perpetually underestimated young woman who learns to rely on her native intelligence and good sense to help lead a besieged country through perilous times, The Crown makes the case that the best rulers may be those who never wanted the role. Nakhnikian
21. Seven Seconds
The dichotomy between Isaiah (Russell Hornsby) and Latrice Butler (Regina King) and the police is rooted in privilege, and while Seven Seconds resists a systemic view of Jersey City’s racial landscape, it’s thorough in its outlining of the biases that affect the Butlers’ lives. And none is more insulting than the way Brenton, even in death, is denied the same benefit of the doubt that’s readily afforded to his killer. The series presents a sympathetic likeness of real-world victims of police brutality, but by eschewing a broad view of race relations in our nation, it risks affirming the ubiquitous “few bad apples” apologia that’s often put forward when police wrongdoing comes to light. Ultimately, though, the detailed character portrayals at the heart of Seven Seconds invest us into the Butlers’ search for justice, while poignantly illustrating that in the real world, that justice is rare. Haigis
Review: HBO’s The Plot Against America Offers a Flattened Take of a Prescient Novel
The series feels ordinary, so of a piece with other politically engaged prestige television.2.5
Philip Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America imagines a world in which aviation hero and Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh beats Franklin D. Roosevelt to become president of the United States in 1940. In the author’s terrifying alternate history, Lindbergh forges an “understanding” with Adolf Hitler in Iceland, and the Axis powers gradually take over the world while America celebrates its isolationism and economic robustness. And Roth adds to this high concept a meta-textual wrinkle: The narrator of the book is himself as a young boy, and the protagonists are the Roth family, whose names correspond with the author’s real relatives. The book, then, is an imagining not only of a global atrocity, but of the atrocity’s effect on the psychology of a Jewish family in Newark, New Jersey that increasingly feels the threats of a country turning to fascism. The use of real names suggests that Roth is wrestling personally with the lingering emotional effects of his country’s not-so-hidden possibility for evil, memorably calling these emotions a “perpetual fear.”
The Plot Against America scans differently in 2020 than in 2004, now that Americans are familiar with the consequences of electing a famous person with fascist, purposefully divisive tendencies to the presidency. Roth’s prose, especially pertaining to how quickly an electorate rationalizes once-forbidden behavior, now feels eerily prescient—until one considers that rulers with fascistic tendencies often follow the same playbook. In HBO’s six-episode adaptation of Roth’s novel, showrunners David Simon and Ed Burns have occasional, wicked fun rhyming Lindbergh’s America with Trump’s. The characters here talk of what is “presidential,” and someone remarks of how the press repeatedly promotes Lindbergh’s signature publicity stunt, and no matter how many times he does it—a pointed reference to the gargantuan amount of free press that Trump continues to enjoy. The series’s ending also delivers a sick punch, referencing contemporary voter fraud and gerrymandering while denying the viewer the reassuring closure that Roth offered his readers.
In many fashions, however, Simon and Burns vastly simplify Roth’s vision. There’s a sense of casualness in the novel, a casualness that Simon and Burns conjured in The Wire, that’s missing from this production. Much of the book, written in a kind of oratorical style that’s characteristic of Roth’s work, is devoted to the quotidian of American life, especially from the perspective of American Jews. There are ritualistic celebrations of every element of day-to-day routine, from the buying of food, to the performance of chores, to the nightly listening to the radio, to strange sexual urges, to the tensions that arise when some family members are more successful than others. Above all, Roth celebrates America even as it succumbs to insanity, dramatizing the allure of actualization and improvement, bolstered by the sensuality of pop culture, which continues to be the nucleus of the American ideal. Such rituals often occur in the background of the limited series, but Simon and Burns are more concerned with narrative, and as a result they iron out many of Roth’s fascinating ambiguities and details. Roth created characters of many contradictions and particulars as well as a society of many procedural contours, while Simon and Burns move markers through a great tangle of plot developments.
This is no longer a story of the Roth family, as Simon and Burns have given them the surname Levins, and Lindbergh’s ascension is no longer framed as a haunted reminiscence. Philip (Azhy Robertson), the novel’s central consciousness, is now a cutely wide-eyed boy who observes much but says little. His father, Herman (Morgan Spector), is furious with Lindbergh’s rise, though the man’s fury is also linked to his struggles as a low-paid insurance man living in the shadow of his mercenary brother, Monty (David Krumholtz). Simon and Burns dial down Herman’s anger, positioning the father in hero poses, and his rivalry with Monty is referenced but minimized. Philip’s mother, Bess (Zoe Kazan), a source of great, powerful reverence for Roth in the book, is imbued by Kazan with masterful vulnerability, though the character’s great scene—a phone call that potentially saves a boy’s life—is intercut with other moments for the sake of an efficiently momentous climax. Philip’s cousin, Alvin (Anthony Boyle), a scoundrel turned patriot turned scoundrel again, is also sentimentalized into a more or less conventional hero, while the flirtation of Philip’s brother, Sandy (Caleb Malis), with Lindbergh worship—that is, a desire to live as a gentile or a “normal American”—is also reduced.
Two other pivotal characters are also flattened, further sanitizing Roth’s fury. The true villain of the novel isn’t Lindbergh, but Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro), a Jewish intellectual who allows himself to be used by the Lindbergh administration so as to “kosher” the president, giving Christians permission to vote for the candidate and indulge their anti-Semitism. Roth’s portrait of Bengelsdorf verges on a Dickensian caricature of opportunism, though in the series he appears to authentically believe in Lindbergh. This alteration renders him a poignant yet vaguely defined fool, as Simon and Burns have largely elided the character’s frustration and near-contempt for lower-class Jews—a thorny and resonant conceit that Roth acutely dramatized. Meanwhile, Bengelsdorf’s wife and Bess’s sister, Evelyn (Winona Ryder), is sapped of the ugly shrewdness that she possessed on the page. (A brilliant scene in the novel, in which Philip feels stirrings of sexual desire as he hugs his aunt, while simultaneously understanding her to be a traitor, has been unforgivably jettisoned.)
The novel serves to explain why HBO’s The Plot Against America feels so ordinary, so of a piece with other politically engaged prestige television. Collectively, Simon and Burns’s alternations serve to contort the narrative into a story of good guys against bad guys, flattering our distanced 21st-century perspective and comfortably preaching to Americans who’re fed up with Trump’s cruelty and incompetency. Roth uncomfortably understands that for people who aren’t white male Christians, there can exist an either/or divide between “American” and whatever portion of their identity that’s easily vilified by the Lindberghs and Trumps of the world. The quest in Roth’s novel becomes a desire to unify Jewish with American, which leads to much internal turmoil in the community. By contrast, the series is more concerned with the quest to stop Lindbergh. The neurotic, hallucinatory, surreal power of Roth’s prose vanishes, and is replaced by forgettable televisual stylistics (that distinctly gauzy, over-produced period HBO atmosphere) and quite a bit of speechifying. Though Simon and Burns at least understand that the sleeper-cell hatred that Lindbergh unleashes is intensely real, and has been unlocked by another enterprising charlatan.
Cast: Morgan Spector, Zoe Kazan, John Turturro, Anthony Boyle, Azhy Robertson, Caleb Malis, David Krumholtz, Ben Cole, Steven Maier, Michael Kostroff, Ed Moran, Graydon Yosowitz, Keilly McQuail, Lee Tergesen Network: HBO
Review: Little Fires Everywhere’s Study of Race and Class Is Doused in Melodrama
The show’s strength lies in the rich context that surrounds its occasionally melodramatic conflicts.2.5
The Shaker Heights of Little Fires Everywhere is the sort of suburban hamlet that requires homes to keep their grass below six inches. Its duplexes are even designed to disguise themselves as single-family homes, as upstairs and downstairs entrances are quietly consolidated behind a single outward door in order to, as Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon) explains to artist Mia Warren (Kerry Washington), “avoid any stigma of renting.” But Elena’s own unacknowledged prejudices—against people of color and the lower “class”—are matched only by her white guilt. She recognizes Mia’s dirty hatchback as the one she reported to authorities earlier that day after noticing someone who appeared to be sleeping in it. So Elena rents one side of her duplex to Mia, and from there, everything changes.
The biggest change, of course, is the mysterious fire that consumes the separate, much-larger Richardson residence in the flash-forward scene that opens the first episode. But much of the Hulu series, based on Celeste Ng’s novel of the same name, covers the various smaller changes in the leadup to the fire. For example, Mia’s daughter, Pearl (Lexi Underwood), falls in with the Richardson kids, enchanted by their comparative lux lifestyle. Until settling in Shaker Heights, Mia and Pearl lived a transient lifestyle, with Mia taking odd jobs like waitressing to supplement sales of her art. Pearl has never, until now, even had a room of her own.
Mia is thus confronted with the byproduct of her hectic lifestyle, where Pearl has been left lonely and quite susceptible to the Richardsons’ glamorous upper-class privilege. She grows wary of the family that so enraptures her daughter, though she also takes a shine to Elena’s youngest child, Izzy, (Megan Stott), a rebellious and artsy kindred spirit. The tensions between these characters—along lines of class, race, and wherever they intersect—simmer and eventually boil over, landing the families on opposing sides of a legal battle that only tangentially concerns them. Bebe (Huang Lu), Mia’s co-worker and an illegal Chinese immigrant, fights for custody of the daughter she once abandoned with a white family, the McCulloughs, who are friends of the Richardsons and eager to adopt.
The show’s strength lies in the rich context that surrounds these occasionally melodramatic conflicts, rendering Mia in particular with vivid detail. In its best moments, Little Fires Everywhere resists drawing clear lines between who’s right and who’s wrong: Mia’s reservations about the Richardsons are totally justifiable, though her reactions sometimes feel overprotective, like when she takes a job in the Richardson house primarily to keep an eye on Pearl. She can be cold and even cruel, but she’s also given to a quiet kindness toward Izzy and Bebe due to a sense of solidarity. Far from some angelic portrait of the lower class, Mia is a fascinating, complex character, and Washington modulates her stoicism with no small amount of disdain, anger, and apprehension.
The series, however, too often paints with a broad brush, particularly where the Richardsons are concerned. Fleeting anecdotes tossed off in the novel by an omniscient narrator to shade in the characters’ backstories feel goofy and extraneous when depicted here via full-fledged, fleshed-out scenes, like when Izzy refuses to play a concert and writes “NOT YOUR PUPPET” on her forehead. Elena’s tidiness is meant to signify her upper-class privilege; she has more than enough means to micromanage every facet of her life. When she does things like strictly schedule sex with her husband (Joshua Jackson), though, the series ventures into caricature.
For however much Elena’s own habits are clearly tinged with privilege and solipsism, she provides refuge for Pearl and the McCulloughs in a way that doesn’t seem entirely self-serving. Yet some of those nuances dissipate as the custody battle consumes the series. Though Bebe and the McCulloughs initially feel like pawns in the larger Warren/Richardson feud, the conflict eventually flattens into a more rigid portrait of right and wrong as the script reveals Elena and Mia’s backstories and motivations. Little Fires Everywhere never quite resists the occasional hokey flourish either, from sappy dream sequences visualizing Mia’s fears to the various on-the-nose cover songs that conclude each episode. The series never loses sight of its fraught interplay of race and class, but the initial intensity with which it explores those subjects dims as melodramatic coincidences and speeches accumulate.
Cast: Kerry Washington, Reese Witherspoon, Joshua Jackson, Lexi Underwood, Megan Stott, Jade Pettyjohn, Gavin Lewis, Jordan Elsass, Huang Lu, Rosemarie DeWitt Network: Hulu
Review: Breeders Finds Catharsis Amid the Agony of Parenthood
The lighting-strike chemistry of the show’s central couple fuels its exploration of parenthood’s highs and lows.3.5
Throughout FX’s Breeders, golden-hued flashbacks contrast the idyllic past of Paul (Martin Freeman) and Ally (Daisy Haggard) with the couple’s present, an epoch marked by the din of their sweet, utterly exhausting children: seven-year-old Luke (George Wakeman) and four-year-old Ava (Jayda Eyles). Paul and Ally used to wake up with giddy energy, eager to call out of work in order to stay in bed together. Now they start the day defeated, having barely rested after soothing Luke’s nighttime fears of being burned or burgled to death. Which is to say that, for Paul and Ally, parenthood has meant giving up a great deal of things—not just sleep, but also romance, liberty, and impulsivity, to name a few.
The series, co-created by Simon Blackwell, Chris Addison, and Freeman, primarily deals in dark comedy, with much of its humor stemming from Paul’s often vitriolic parenting style. Where Ally is cool and lighthearted, Paul suffers from an especially quick temper: When the kids are too loud for too long, he shouts at them with riotous zeal that he instantly regrets. Paul’s outbursts are hilarious and relatively rare. More common are his equally funny, gentler rejoinders to the kids. Freeman skips the beats that usually separate stimuli and responses, making each yell and hiss feel particularly authentic and acerbic—like when Luke asks to go home while Ally sobs at a deceased pet’s burial, and Paul urges him to “sense the tone.”
Paul’s and Ally’s behavior is contextualized by the presence of their own parents, who weave in and out of the show’s episodes. Ally, for one, both channels and rejects the parenting methods of her itinerant father, Michael (Michael McKean), who was absent in her youth but whose beatnik chill we recognize in her calm and unwavering devotion to her children. Elsewhere, Paul’s parents—the endearingly foul-mouthed Jackie (Joanna Bacon) and Jim (Alun Armstrong)—are regular springboards for his ruminations on life. In conversations with them, he wonders if the elementary school he went to led to his uninspiring career and if his father’s approach to discipline inescapably shaped his own.
The latter line of thought comes to a head when a doctor expresses her concern about Luke’s oddly frequent accidents (he fell down the stairs this time), forcing Paul to face the possibility that he’s abusive. Paul’s resultant introspection misses the mark by a bit: Instead of reconsidering his verbal tirades, he ponders whether he could be hurting his kids by subconsciously creating an environment rife with potential slips and trips and batterings. The series takes this sequence seriously, and initiates a compelling tonal shift from grim humor to pensive reflections on trauma and psychology. Though Paul and Ally face the risk of governmental intervention in their family, the predicament does little to change Paul’s parenting—an acknowledgment of the near impossibility of change, or of the way that one’s upbringing can permanently shape one’s inner circuitry.
With the abuse arc and other storylines, the series grows increasingly capacious over the five episodes made available to press. It moves from the clamorous frenzy of its opening scene—in which Paul goes on one of his most extreme and delightful screamologues—to more tender examinations of characters and relationships. Flashbacks begin to not only explore the myriad repercussions of childbirth, but also touch on quotidian interactions between Paul and Ally, and between each of them and their parents—the exact kinds of unexceptional moments in life that tend to linger when one’s memory stretches years into the past. In addition to lending a striking layer of poignancy to the series, these flashbacks add nuance to Paul’s and Ally’s inner lives. Despite Paul’s apparent lack of growth, he truly does try to be better, and despite Ally’s nonchalance, she does have fears and regrets and hang-ups.
This fleshing-out is crucial given Paul and Ally’s place at the core of Breeders. Their relationship is the show’s unifying thread, cutting through time and tone. The audience observes the couple in multiple phases and modes: blissful courtship, childbirth, acute grief, grief-induced horniness. Haggard and Freeman’s lightning-strike chemistry fuels their supersonic banter and warm, softer exchanges. Perhaps most charming are the instances in which Ally teases Paul, homing in on a deep and undeniable flaw, and Paul smiles in full recognition of how right she is, then and always. Such moments are reminders that these two could never really hurt each other—not even by damning themselves to parenthood.
Cast: Martin Freeman, Daisy Haggard, Michael McKean, Joanna Bacon, Alun Armstrong, Stella Gonet, George Wakeman, Jayda Eyles, Patrick Baladi, Tim Steed Network: FX
Review: The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez Stokes Outrage but Fits a Predictable Mold
The Netflix miniseries suggests a sort of virtual, one-stop-shop Wikipedia page.2
Netflix’s The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez will stoke your outrage, and it should. The six-part limited series provides what feels like an expansive primer on one of the most horrific child abuse cases in the history of the United States, and there’s a sense that it wants to fill in gaps for those who might have been swept up by some other outrage shortly after eight-year-old Gabriel Fernandez’s death made national news in 2013, or just weren’t privy to the ins and outs of the case as reported by Los Angeles news outlets.
The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez suggests, like the recent Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez, a sort of virtual, one-stop-shop Wikipedia page about an infamous case, though it arguably goes further by indicting the faceless systemic forces that aligned in cruel harmony to crush a human life. At one point, the series even delves into the 2018 abuse case of Anthony Avalos, the 10-year-old Lancaster boy who was also tortured to death by his mother and boyfriend, to get at how the cracks in the child protective services system that cost Gabriel his life in nearby Palmdale were barely patched up in the five years following his death.
Gabriel died on May 24, 2013 after years of torture and abuse at the hands of his mother, Pearl Sinthia Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre. As detailed by various individuals, including Deputy District Attorney Jon Hatami, Pearl and Aguirre starved Gabriel, fed him cat litter, shot him with a B.B. gun, and burned him with cigarettes all over his body. They even bound and gagged him in a cubby. The series isn’t shy about providing us with photo evidence of that horrifying abuse, and it spends much time simply sitting with people and those photos, trying to fathom how a parent could do such things to a child. In one episode, Hatami opens up at length about his own abuse at the hands of his father, and in the moment, the prosecutor’s outrage in the courtroom is tinged with a wrenching melancholy, as if he’s fighting on behalf of a pain that he only recently came to understand.
The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez is at its strongest in such periods of reflection, when it’s trying to understand that which would appear to defy understanding. It lingers on the visible pain of those who came into Gabriel’s orbit, in life and in death, from those who tried to give him a chance at a happy life before he was placed in his mother’s care, to those who tried to report to police and the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) that he was being abused, to those who wanted justice for his torture and murder. Impressively, too, it makes space for interviews with a character witness who testified on Aguirre’s behalf and several jurors in his case, including the man who couldn’t initially bring himself to sentence Aguirre to death. The series has us grapple with questions of justice and morality, and there comes a point in the final episode where calling Aguirre “evil” feels as if it has no meaning given that the word can just as easily be applied to so many who turned their backs to Gabriel’s abuse.
Throughout The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez, you will know how responsible some of those individuals probably feel for the little boy’s death simply by their not having given interviews to the filmmakers. But those aren’t the only elisions here, and some aren’t so easy to rationalize. For one, the series never really gives a particularly concrete sense of who Aguirre was before he met Pearl, and after a while it feels as if the only systemic issues it cares to confront are those that prevented police and DCFS from properly responding to reports of Gabriel’s abuse. Though it mounts a strong case for why the boy and not his two older siblings were targets of their parents’ abuse, The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez doesn’t contend with the systemic social contexts that made Aguirre and Pearl’s violence an inevitability. And had it done so, the series might have reached the magisterial heights of Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America, which found new ground on the oft-reported case of O.J. Simpson by framing the fallen star’s life against the violence of L.A. and the ideals of a nation, its moral rot.
During Aguirre’s trial, Hatami argued that the man not only liked what he did to Gabriel, but that he did so because he perceived the boy to be gay, though the series tells the story of that perception in half-shades. From birth, Gabriel was raised for several years by his gay great-uncle, Michael Lemos Carranza, and his boyfriend, David Martinez, so we can intuit that the boy’s torture was at least in part an attempt at a correction. While Gabriel was in Pearl’s custody, someone reported that Michael molested the child, and it’s an allegation that journalist Melissa Chadburn states hasn’t been confirmed nor disproven. There’s a sense that no one in Gabriel’s family who had his best interests at heart seem to believe the allegation to be true, and while the series attests to the kindness Michael and David showed Gabriel, it does conspicuously glance past discussion of this matter, as well as the methods, legal and otherwise, by which the boy was able to land and remain in their care for so long.
Nor is mention made of Michael and David’s advocacy work as part of Gabriel’s Justice, or that Michael died of cancer in 2014. In San Salvador, the filmmakers interview an agonized David about what happened to Gabriel, and you may be frustrated by the missed opportunity to explore why and how David came to be deported by ICE and connect that to the other systemic forces of race and class that contributed to Gabriel’s death. There are times throughout the series where it’s difficult to tell if a story—like the one about Gabriel’s first-grade teacher posing with a noose alongside three other teachers—was swept under the rug because the filmmakers simply didn’t know how to incorporate it into the series or because it might have undermined the dominant narrative they’re seeking to put forth.
The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez, though, does find time for the sort of aesthetic bells and whistles that have become de rigueur for projects such as this since The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, whose lurid reenactments could at least be justified because Andrew Jarecki’s entire project was to ascertain the exact nature of Durst’s crimes. But the uncomfortably ominous reenactments of this series—by and large suturing devices between interviews and courtroom footage—do nothing to enhance our understanding of the Gabriel Fernandez case. At times, they even work against what we already do know, such as the sight of the actor who plays Aguirre mostly from the neck down quaking in his cell with the sort of fear that’s never evident in Aguirre’s body as he sits still and silent in court.
But that’s nothing compared to the tactlessness of the show’s title sequence, which heavy-handedly literalizes the idea that Gabriel “fell through the cracks” before ending dramatically, distastefully with the sight of the cubby where he was imprisoned by his torturers. In such moments, when it’s trying to summon an aura of mystery—that there’s something here that’s waiting to be cracked open, something to be solved—it’s as if the desire of The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez to entertain, to ensure that we are as spellbound as possible by yet another example of the atrocities that humans are capable of, is greater than any need to inform and educate.
Review: Netflix’s I Am Not Okay with This Mostly Transcends Its Familiar Concept
The series at its best when characters are hanging out, doing nothing, or struggling with feeling trapped.2.5
Seventeen-year-old Sydney Novak (Sophia Lillis) has powers that she can’t quite control. In Netflix’s adaptation of Charles Forsman’s graphic novel I Am Not Okay with This, those powers become a metaphor for such stock things as mental illness, social discomfort, emotional repression, body changes, sexual discovery, and adolescence in general. Even putting aside the obvious superhero comparisons, there are other parallels, to Carrie and, in turn, Netflix’s own Stranger Things, which shares some producers with this series. But by focusing on the emotional turmoil deftly conveyed by its cast and leaning on a wicked sense of humor, I Am Not Okay with This mostly transcends its pat concept.
Some of the credit goes to Lillis, who spends much of the series glowering in the camera’s general direction. She’s expressive without ever losing that root of discontent and exasperation, as you can always see things like anxiety, bemusement, and concern poking through her disaffected exterior. Even before Sydney develops wayward telekinesis, she has a lot to contend with, such as her mother, Maggie (Kathleen Rose Perkins), having to work long hours at a diner in order to keep the lights on. Sydney is also infatuated with her best friend and only real confidante, Dina (Sofia Bryant), and the two have drifted apart as the latter has begun spending more time with her douchey boyfriend, Brad (Richard Ellis).
And so, Sydney starts hanging out with her eccentric neighbor and local weed dealer, Stan (Wyatt Olef), whose weird outfits and ever-pining ways recall Ducky from Pretty in Pink. But the show’s wry tone ends up closer to that of Heathers than that of the John Hughes classic: Though the ‘80s-teen-movie-plus-superpowers mash-up is almost certainly the intended hook for I Am Not Okay with This, what resonates most is its general sense of ennui. Sydney and Stan in particular are low-income kids in a town that’s far from well-to-do; when Maggie works late, she leaves enough money behind for Sydney and her little brother, Liam (Aidan Wojtak-Hissong), to subsist on convenience store hot dogs. Beyond have sex, do drugs, and listen to music, there’s little to do in this town but head to the school and listlessly watch the football games. For Sydney and Stan, their hometown is a trap that’s slowly snapping shut.
Forsman’s source material is quite bleak, with a spare style of simple character designs and roomy panels sprinkled with snappy, abrasive snippets of dialogue and narration. Though series creators Jonathan Entwistle (who also worked on another adaptation of a Forsman graphic novel, The End of the F***ing World) and Christy Hall depart significantly from the comic at times, they nevertheless maintain its feel, especially in those moments when characters are hanging out and leave so many things unspoken. Sydney’s surly narration moves things along at a wonderfully brisk pace that’s faithful to the original material. Of the seven episodes, most of them clock in at around 20 minutes; they leave plenty of space to suggest angst and disillusionment around the edges without simply wallowing in misery.
Unfortunately, I Am Not Okay with This is so good at establishing character and place that the rumblings of a larger plot feel extraneous. Sydney thinks somebody might be following her, and there are some lingering questions and mysteries meant to carry over into a future season. But the series never feels like it needs these threads; most of the moments where it sets up higher-stakes conflicts, particularly where Brad is concerned, sputter into silly romantic melodrama. It’s at its best when the characters are hanging out, doing nothing, or struggling with feeling trapped or bottling up what they want to say to each other. It’s disappointing to see the first season wrap up with an apparent attempt to chase the shadow of Stranger Things, as its atmosphere and rich characters are what set this otherwise familiar story apart.
Cast: Sophia Lillis, Wyatt Oleff, Sofia Bryant, Kathleen Rose Perkins, Richard Ellis, Aidan Wojtak-Hissong Network: Netflix
Review: Amazon’s Hunters Blends Comedy and Violence to Diminishing Returns
The series is so ploddingly manufactured from familiar parts that it feels like it was spat out by an algorithm.1
Following a group of vigilantes in hot pursuit of Nazis living in 1977 New York, Amazon’s Hunters is so ploddingly manufactured from familiar parts that it feels like it was spat out by an algorithm. The show’s setting provides no shortage of bright, hokey Americana and ironic needle drops set to bloody violence. The late ‘70s is long enough ago to evoke nostalgia while simultaneously nodding toward our enduring obsessions, as the characters make reference to Star Wars and rarely shut up about various superheroes.
Comic store clerk Jonah Heidelbaum (Logan Lerman) has that most time-tested of motivations for seeking vengeance: avenging a dead woman. Unbeknownst to Jonah, his grandmother, Ruth (Jeannie Berlin), worked in a Nazi-hunting crew with her fellow Holocaust refugee, Meyer Offerman (Al Pacino). After Granny is mysteriously murdered, Jonah learns of her double life and joins up with Meyer’s ragtag band of vigilantes in pursuit of justice.
Meyer’s crew is a diverse bunch, made up of young and old alike. As the youngest, 19-year-old Jonah is considered something of a liability due to his inexperience, as well as his tendency to let his emotions run high. So begins the usual adjustment period for the proverbial hothead, in which he learns to fight while doing the expected bits of soul-searching once he discovers that killing people is, in fact, a messy business. More excruciatingly predictable flourishes follow: Somebody tells him relationships are baggage, someone else refers to Meyer’s group as “judge, jury, and executioner,” and an F.B.I. agent (Jerrika Hinton) naturally sniffs around, potentially mucking up the works of their well-oiled Nazi-hunting machine.
None of this is a jumping-off point for some complex meditation on vengeance, as the series largely consists of scenes of ironical Nazi comeuppance sandwiched between the sort of uninspired character drama where people wash blood off their hands while discussing the powers of good and evil. The show’s investigative segments are so obvious that they border on laughable, since the Nazis leave things like their medals and trophies of Jewish children’s teeth lying around (there’s even a jovial photo of one character hanging out with Adolf Hitler).
At certain points, Hunters seems like it’s trying to evoke the comparatively simple storytelling of early comic books or exploitation films of the ‘70s era like, say, Death Wish. Cutaways place the characters in fake movie trailers with superhero-esque names, using bursts of comedy and karmic violence to create a somewhat heightened tone. But the series never reconciles these rather sporadic moments of levity with its default mode of turgid drama, where Jonah broods about what he’s done or how he’s affecting the people closest to him.
Though the series doesn’t shy away from depicting how Nazis dehumanized Jews, it also feels the bizarre need to cartoonishly heighten those atrocities. In flashbacks, we see concentration camp prisoners forced to serve as literal pawns in a human chess game, stabbing one another to capture a “piece.” Another camp broadcasts a live singing contest over the speakers, with losers eliminated one by one. Where Inglourious Basterds and even the recent Wolfenstein games manage to ground their flights of fancy in unexpected sincerity and tragedy, Hunters traffics in insipid dramatic cliché. The result is by-the-numbers drama that veers every so often into baffling pulp, as though the series is cobbled together from mismatched parts.
Hunters clearly aims to be subversive and of the moment, but its every element feels so calculated as to be nauseatingly safe. Its villains are broadly acceptable targets, its moral conflict feels obligatory, and its forward-facing monologues about diversity seem designed only to mark off a checklist. The series makes the occasional gesture to present-day politics, as when one character incongruously name-checks “false news,” but it’s otherwise content merely to skim the surface of these parallels in service of an easily marketable premise. Though clearly gifted with more time and money than any of the exploitation films it references, Hunters has only a fraction of the things to say.
Cast: Logan Lerman, Al Pacino, Jerrika Hinton, Lena Olin, Saul Rubinek, Carol Kane, Josh Radnor, Greg Austin, Tiffany Boone, Louis Ozawa, Kate Mulvany, Dylan Baker, Jeannie Berlin Network: Amazon
Every BoJack Horseman Episode, Ranked
As the series comes to a conclusion, we take a look back and rank all 77 episodes.
Netflix’s BoJack Horseman is about many things. How we make sense of a senseless world. How we find happiness amid constant crisis. How we assert and give others power. That’s a lot for any show, let alone the animated misadventures of a famous horseman, one whose life stands on the razor’s edge of celebrity privilege and deeply internalized emotional self-abuse. Contending with BoJack Horseman, now as it comes to its conclusion, has meant contending with my own life these past six years, which have been made markedly better by this series. This exercise would have been much more difficult had the final episodes failed to deliver. (Spoiler alert: They don’t.)
77. “BoJack Hates the Troops,” Season 1, Episode 2
First, let me be clear: I love this episode, which feels like an early performance by a beloved artist who went on to greater and more daring things. Maybe there’s a note or two out of place. Maybe they aren’t stretching their talent as much as you think they can. BoJack’s (Will Arnett) profound pettiness makes him an asshole to many—here, it’s the contested dibs over a box of muffins at the grocery store that lands our remorseful horse in the national spotlight—and it’s admirable how this episode leads the charge in painting that fact unambiguously. In a way, it feels like a foundation stone of sorts (one of several), featuring as it does BoJack’s decision to open up to Diane (Alison Brie) for his memoir. Full truth: From here, mountains are made.
76. “Sabrina’s Christmas Wish”
The mere existence of this holiday episode made it unambiguous that BoJack Horseman was created out of love. Further enriching the world so thoughtfully laid out in the first season, this metatextual holiday episode, in which BoJack and Todd (Aaron Paul) watch one of the Christmas episodes from Horsin’ Around, came as an unannounced Christmas gift in 2014. It also, hopefully, satisfies those who will inevitably be curious about what a proper episode of the show-within-the-show looks like, and Todd’s four-word refutation (“I can’t, can’t I?”) of BoJack’s faulty logic stands with the funniest moments of the series.
75. “The BoJack Horseman Show,” Season 3, Episode 2
A novel exposition dump, this episode goes back to 2007, when BoJack and Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), a cat, first slept together. Its title refers to the name of BoJack’s sophomore TV series, a vulgar satire that tanked and was promptly canceled. This episode also lays general groundwork for episodes and seasons to come. Lots of obvious references abound—e.g., Princess Carolyn pitches scripts for No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, though films actually being shopped around at that time instead of those just arriving in theaters might’ve been a better touch—not unlike a Trojan horse for the ongoing world building. The highlight herein is an updated version of the show’s end credits song, adapted to underscore BoJack’s much less successful follow-up to Horsin’ Around.
74. “The BoJack Horseman Story, Chapter One,” Season 1, Episode 1
This first episode doesn’t get its due. Brilliantly juxtaposing scenes from BoJack’s interview on The Charlie Rose Show with a gotcha shot from this world’s version of Maury, this first look at BoJack’s anxiety-ridden existence had the difficult task of establishing the show’s very particular tone (think Chuck Jones meets Don Hertzfeldt meets Albert Brooks) while also making blatant the sadness beneath it. The serious and silly rub shoulders here, like travelers on a crowded bus trip. It’s subversive, too, in warning against the dangers of over-binging; BoJack re-watches his old show obsessively, including the finale in which his character dies, at the expense of almost everything else in his life. This episode features Patton Oswalt in three parts, a Sellers-esque stunt that will prove to be one of the show’s regular hat tricks, while the closing gag exhibits the raw confidence required to deploy both guffaws and sobs with such simultaneous precision. In hindsight, it’s no surprise.
73. “Zoës and Zeldas,” Season 1, Episode 4
It was a small stroke of genius to introduce early in the series a pop-cultural dichotomy specific to this world. Leonard Cohen sang of a bird on a wire, and here the either/or stems from characters on Mister Peanutbutter’s House, a knockoff of BoJack’s sitcom in which the eponymous canine raised two little girls: Zelda, a fun extrovert, and Zoë, a cynical introvert. This episode features some of BoJack’s funniest quips and nastiest deeds. As for Todd’s rock opera, I’d be lying if I suggested that I didn’t want to see it brought to greater fruition. This episode does a lot of prep work for the season and the series, and does it well, while Wyatt Cenac’s performance as one of Diane’s exes provides a weary vantage point, effectively underscoring what makes this world feel so emotionally real in the first place.
72. “BoJack Kills,” Season 3, Episode 3
Plot-wise, this is a lowkey key episode in the series, establishing the source of the heroin that ultimately causes Sarah Lynn’s death. That would be Richie Osborne (Fred Savage), former Horsin’ Around cast member and current proprietor of Whale World, a family-friendly strip club that doubles as a drug front. BoJack and Diane get to catch up and establish a greater understanding of themselves (“I can’t keep asking myself if I’m happy, it just makes me more miserable,” says Diane, summarizing my 30s so far in 14 words), but my favorite moment is probably the chef’s-kiss perfection of Mister Peanutbutter’s LL Cool J reference (a close second is Angela Bassett’s line delivery on “you betcha”).
71. “Our A-Story Is a ‘D’ Story,” Season 1, Episode 6
If BoJack Horseman’s flair for wordplay wasn’t already clear, this episode is tantamount to a flag planted on the moon for all to see. Hollywood becomes Hollywoo when BoJack steals the “D” from the Hollywood sign in a drunken stupor, all in the hopes of impressing Diane after squaring off with Mister Peanutbutter—and buying the restaurant Elefante in the process. Todd, having found himself in prison at the end of the previous episode, navigates the various gangs courting him in sublimely naïve fashion, while BoJack’s backup plan to fix the “D” situation results in a tragedy befalling Beyoncé and, relatedly, one of the very best verbal gags in the entire series.