Connect with us

TV

Doctor Who Specials Recap: “The End of Time, Part Two”

One point that the script doesn’t make sufficiently clear—at least, it confused me on first viewing—is that the initial Time Lord scenes take place before the three pieces of narration in Part One.

Published

on

Doctor Who Specials Recap: “The End of Time, Part Two”
Photo: BBC

At the end of Part One of “The End of Time,” the fact that the Master (John Simm) had transformed every human being on Earth (except two) into a copy of himself turned out to be small potatoes next to the revelation that the Doctor’s people, the Time Lords—thought to have been destroyed at the Doctor’s own hand in the final battle of a great Time War against the Daleks—had seemingly found a way to return to the universe, with the intention of bringing about “the end of time itself.” In this, David Tennant’s final episode as the Doctor, the epic scale increases even further. The Doctor’s past returns to haunt him, and finally, the long-foreshadowed event—“He will knock four times”—comes to pass, signaling his final fall.

Writer Russell T Davies has said many times that he had no intention of showing the events of the Time War on screen, for the very good reason that any attempted depiction of this universe-shattering cataclysm would be feeble compared to what could be conjured up by the viewer’s imagination. He has been content to provide various tantalizing hints over the years, mostly by unexplained name-dropping (the fall of Arcadia, the Medusa Cascade, etc.)—and there are plenty more to come here. In this episode, he comes as close as anyone should to actually showing the Time War, opening with a CGI vista of the Time Lord citadel burning, with wrecked Dalek ships crashed outside its protective force-field bubble.

We cut inside to the Narrator from Part One (Timothy Dalton), now revealed to be the President of the Time Lords, holding a council of war. An oracle-like Visionary (Brid Brennan), whose unerring prophecies have guided the council, has decreed that today is the last day of the Time War. One of the council (Julie Legrand) paints a picture of a truly apocalyptic conflict: “This is only the furthest edge of the Time War. But at its heart, millions die every second, lost in bloodlust and insanity. With time itself resurrecting them, to find new ways of dying, over and over again. A travesty of life. Isn’t it better to end it, at last?”

The President is wearing a gauntlet similar to those that have featured in several Torchwood episodes, and uses it to destroy the voice of dissent. Passionately he declares, “I WILL NOT DIE!…A billion years of Time Lord history riding on our backs. I will not let this perish. I. Will. Not.” Another Time Lord mentions a prophecy of two of the “Children of Gallifrey” escaping the Time War—the Doctor and the Master—and a connection to the planet Earth.

Back on Earth, the Master is in control, with Wilf (Bernard Cribbins) tied up and the Doctor strapped into the Hannibal Lecter-like wheelchair contraption that Naismith imprisoned the Master in last episode. There’s a brief diversion to deal with Donna (Catherine Tate); as with Part One, she remains on the periphery of the story. Being chased by multiple Masters awakens her buried memories and threatens to kill her, but the energy is released and knocks out the Masters, before Donna faints. As the Doctor says, “Do you think I’d leave my best friend without a defense mechanism?”

Suddenly the Vinvocci, the two green spiky aliens we met last week, manage to knock out the Master and rescue Wilf and the Doctor. After a bit of comedy with the Doctor still strapped into the wheelchair (“Worst. Rescue. Ever!”) they teleport to the Vinvocci ship over the Doctor’s protests. The Doctor quickly disables the ship to prevent the Master—who has control of every radar and missile system on Earth—from detecting them.

One point that the script doesn’t make sufficiently clear—at least, it confused me on first viewing—is that the initial Time Lord scenes take place before the three pieces of narration in Part One. Apart from that glitch, though, I enjoyed the way that the two plot threads, of the Time Lords and the Master, even though they take place in different time frames, run in parallel with cross-links between them. When the Master is telling of first hearing the drumbeats in his head as a child (a flashback to “The Sound of Drums”), we cut to the President learning from the Visionary about “the rhythm of four—the heartbeat of a Time Lord.” They send that signal back in time so the Master will be infected, forming a link that will allow them to escape the “time lock” which encloses the entire Time War. Knowing the Master’s location, the Time Lords send a special diamond (a “white-point star”) through to Earth, which he can use to amplify the drumbeat signal and create a pathway they can follow.

Wilf, wandering the Vinvocci ship looking for the Doctor, encounters the strange woman in white (Claire Bloom) again, warning him that the Doctor’s final battle is here. When he finds the Doctor, there’s another classic scene between David Tennant and Bernard Cribbins, moving through so many emotions. Earlier, the Master had sneeringly referred to Wilf in front of the Doctor as “your Dad,” and Wilf had said he’d be proud to be. Now, as Wilf takes in the vista of the Earth as seen from space, the Doctor returns the compliment—“I’d be proud if you were my dad.” The Doctor tells Wilf his age, to Wilf’s amazement:

Wilf: “We must look like insects to you.”
The Doctor: “I think you look like giants.”

Wilf tries several times to give the Doctor his gun—if the prophecy says the Master will kill you, then kill him first, says Wilf. The Doctor keeps refusing, each time trying a different way to explain why. “That’s how the Master started.” “It’s not that I’m an innocent; I’ve taken lives. But I got worse—I got clever. Manipulated people into taking their own.” “Sometimes, I think a Time Lord lives too long.” Even after Wilf gets the Doctor to admit that killing the Master would restore humanity, he still refuses to take the gun. His final “I can’t. I just can’t,” sounds so tired, as though this dogged assertion of principle is a thin thread to which he is desperately clinging. But then, when the Master broadcasts a message, telling the Doctor about the diamond from Gallifrey, the Doctor immediately realizes what must be happening and grabs the gun from Wilf. After his earlier pained refusals, this moment has a real impact.

Wilf: “But I’ve heard you talk about your people like they’re wonderful.”
The Doctor: “That’s how I choose to remember them. The Time Lords of old. But then they went to war. An endless war, and it changed them. Right to the core. You’ve seen my enemies, Wilf. The Time Lords are more dangerous than any of them.”

This is the thematic link between the Master and the Time Lords which makes sense of the double plot—they have both been driven by events into an obsession with survival at any cost. The only difference, as we will find out, is one of scale.

On Gallifrey, contact is made with the Master’s transmission. The President addresses the great council chamber and calls for a vote on whether the plan should continue. (The narrated bits from Part One probably belong either just before or just after this.)

The Doctor reactivates the ship and plunges it into the atmosphere. An enjoyable action sequence follows of the ship dodging and destroying missiles—obviously inspired by Star Wars, with Wilf as an unlikely Luke Skywalker in his laser turret.

“The vote is taken. Only two stand against, and will stand as monument to their shame, like the Weeping Angels of old.” There are two Time Lords covering their faces standing behind the President (they were first seen in the final shot of Part One). On Earth, the Gate is replaced by an endless white void, the Time Lords approaching as if from a great distance.

The Doctor jumps from the ship and smashes through the Gate Room roof. It’s the first of a couple of teases in this episode—everyone knows this is Tennant’s last stand, so when the Doctor crashes to the floor in a shower of glass and lies there stunned, we can’t help but wonder—is this it? Is it time for the new Doctor now? But no, it’s not yet.

Amusingly, the Master turns out to be as much out of his league with the Time Lords as Naismith was in trying to handle him in Part One. (Incidentally, I guessed correctly last week that Naismith and his daughter were pure plot devices, rather than real characters. We’re told at the end that they have been arrested for “crimes undisclosed” and that’s all we ever hear of them.) The power of the Time Lords is convincingly established when, after the Master threatens to transfer himself into all of them, the President easily undoes the whole of the “Master race” and restores humanity with one wave of his magic gauntlet. The Master is shocked when the Doctor tells him the true meaning of the prophecy. “Something is returning. Don’t you ever listen?…Not someone, something.” It’s not just the Time Lords that are coming back—the entire planet of Gallifrey appears in the sky, and begins to devastate the world.

As all the extras stampede out of the Gate room, clearing the stage for the final confrontation, Wilf runs in and releases the terrified technician in the power booth, thereby trapping himself. The Doctor notices, but can’t do anything about it. When these twin booths were introduced in Part One, with their idiosyncratic locking system ensuring someone is locked inside one at all times, I’m sure many people worked out that they would have some part to play in the plot resolution. I was reminded of the Torchwood Institute in “Doomsday,” where the rift was controlled by two great big levers simply because Davies was working backwards from the climax where Rose needed to be holding onto one, which she could then lose her grip on and be dragged into the void. In this story the plotting is not so arbitrary, since (a) it’s plausible to require someone to be monitoring the Gate’s power source at all times, and (b) we’ve already seen the booths used to shield Wilf from the Master’s transforming signal.

The Master: “But this is fantastic, isn’t it? The Time Lords restored.”
The Doctor: “You weren’t there, in the final days of the war. You never saw what was born. But if the time lock’s broken then everything’s coming through—not just the Daleks, but the Skaro Degradations, the Horde of Travesties, the Nightmare Child, the Could-Have-Been King with his army of Meanwhiles and Never-Weres…The war turned into hell. And that’s what you’ve opened. Right above the Earth. Hell is descending!”

I love the writing of this final confrontation. That list of terrors sounds exactly right for an unfilmable Time War. Then, even the Master is horrified when the President announces the Time Lords’ plan—to rip open the Time Vortex and end time itself, to ascend to godhood.

The Doctor: “You see now? That’s what they were planning, in the final days of the war. I had to stop them.”

Finally, after five years, the whole story is laid bare. The Doctor destroyed his own people, not as some kind of bitterly regretted sacrifice, a Pyrrhic victory to end the Time War, but to stop them from destroying themselves and taking the whole universe with them. It’s an excellent twist which I don’t think many saw coming.

The Doctor is stood between them, pointing the gun at each in turn. The Master taunts him (“You never would, you coward”—bringing to mind dialogue in “The Doctor’s Daughter” and “The Parting of the Ways”). On some level, the Master wants to die and be released—earlier he said, “This body was born out of death. All it can do is die.”

The President: “The final act of your life is murder. But which one of us?”

One of the two Time Lords who voted against the plan uncovers her face—revealing the mysterious Woman who’s been haunting Wilf. A tear is on her cheek as she looks at the Doctor. Her eyes flick to indicate something which sends the Doctor spinning the gun back toward the Master—“Get out of the way.” The Master smiles as understanding dawns; he dodges, and the Doctor fires at the diamond behind him and destroys the link. “Back into the Time War, Rassilon—back into hell!” (At the name of Rassilon, fifty-seven thousand old Doctor Who fans just punched the air.) The Visionary wails, “Gallifrey falling!”

The President prepares to kill the Doctor in revenge—but in a final twist, the Master saves him, furiously firing his lightning bolts at the President and being drawn back into the void with the Time Lords. The symmetry of the Master saying in turn, “Get out of the way,” was very clever. It’s a wonderfully fitting end to the Master’s conflict with the Doctor, although of course he’ll be back if Steven Moffat decides he wants to use him—as the beginning of this very story showed, the Master has come back from far less ambiguous deaths than this before. The spectre of Gallifrey vanishes; the void is gone; the Earth is saved.

As the triumphant music continues, the Doctor slowly comes to on the floor of the Gate Room. “I’m alive! I’m still alive!” He’s laughing with relief, he can’t believe it. And then he hears four knocks. The music downshifts into painful discords and vanishes, and in a superlative piece of acting by David Tennant, all the vitality drains away from the Doctor’s face as he recognizes the arrival of his unavoidable fate. I haven’t singled out Euros Lyn’s direction much in these recaps, but there is a superb shot as the camera slowly tracks around the Doctor until, inevitably, Wilf is revealed, still in the booth, repeatedly tapping four times on the glass to be let out.

In quiet conversation, the mechanics of the plot work themselves out. The nuclear vault powering the Gate is going critical, and lethal radiation will vent through the booths. Any attempt to interfere with the controls will release it. Of course they both know the Doctor will save Wilf, but first he rails and rages against his fate—as we saw in the cafe scene in Part One, the Tenth Doctor really doesn’t want to die. The emotions fly freely as he berates Wilf for getting himself into this—“You were always this. Waiting for me, all this time.” He yells at Wilf and the universe generally—“It’s not fair!”—before finally coming back to himself, recognizing that he has just illustrated the point he made to Wilf in their earlier conversation: “Lived too long…” With a quick action, he opens the booth, lets Wilf out, and accepts his fate. The staging, with the Doctor slumping down unconscious inside the glass booth, is obviously inspired by The Wrath of Khan, but this is no case of “the needs of the many”—the Tenth Doctor gives up his life to save one man. “Wilfred—it’s my honor.”

The Gate machinery goes dead. The Doctor is still lying in a heap at the bottom of the booth. So, is it time for Matt Smith now? No, still not yet—the Doctor gets back up and steps out of the booth. (“Oh…now it opens, yeah.”) Wilf notices that his scarred face is repairing itself, and he realizes: “It’s started.”

Back in Chiswick, Donna is awakened by the sound of the TARDIS. A moment of humor, as she says, “Did I miss something…again?” As the Doctor drops Wilf back home, he says they will meet one more time.

Wilf: “Where are you going?”
The Doctor: “To get my reward.”

And so begins a fifteen-minute Epilogue, as the Tenth Doctor holds off his regeneration to pay a final visit to his friends and companions. I guess some might find this section to be overly indulgent or sentimental, but I absolutely loved it. Given that most of these characters will, in all likelihood, never be seen in Doctor Who again, it also provides closure for us.

The first stop is to meet Martha (Freema Agyeman) and Mickey (Noel Clarke)—now married! Apparently they’re both freelance alien hunters now—the Doctor steps in to save them from a Sontaran they’re chasing. (This might have come as less of a surprise had both actors been able to appear in the last series of Torchwood, as was originally planned.)

A brief sidestep into The Sarah Jane Adventures as the Doctor saves Luke Smith (Thomas Knight) from a traffic accident. Sarah sees the Doctor—and somehow she knows this will be the last time; a lovely moment from Elisabeth Sladen.

Cut to Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) nursing a drink in what’s basically the Star Wars cantina, with the musical number from “Daleks in Manhattan” playing in the background. He’s still recovering from the events of Torchwood: Children of Earth. A note from the Doctor sets him up with Alonso Frame (Russell Tovey), the young midshipman from “Voyage of the Damned.”

The Doctor visits author Verity Newman (Jessica Hynes) at a book signing for her Journal of Impossible Things, based on the diary her great-grandmother was given by John Smith in “Human Nature.” I liked the shout-out to one of David Tennant’s most powerful performances during his time on the show, and also the fact that the author’s name is a salute to Verity Lambert, the original producer, and Sydney Newman, the main creator of Doctor Who back in 1963.

Now we go to the long-awaited wedding of Donna Noble. Sylvia (Jacqueline King) and Wilf notice the TARDIS. The Doctor still can’t approach Donna, but he leaves them a present for her—a lottery ticket bought with a pound given to him by the late Geoff Noble. This scene got me choked up more than any other, with Sylvia’s reaction and Wilf silently mouthing, “Thank you.” And Wilf gets to give one final salute to his friend.

The tour ends, of course, with Rose Tyler (Billie Piper). Wisely, Davies does not mess with the complicated ending of Rose’s story, but takes us back to where we began five years ago. It’s New Year’s Day 2005 on the Powell Estate, and Rose and Jackie (Camille Coduri) are about to go celebrating. Rose encounters a stranger who tells her, “Tell you what, I bet you’re going to have a really great year.” Billie gets to give one last brilliant smile and ends with the same parting words as Donna last year, but so different in connotation—“See ya.”

Finally, the Doctor sees Ood Sigma for the last time, and a gorgeous piece of music supports him as he staggers back to the TARDIS. “This song is ending, but the story never ends.”

In the TARDIS, the Doctor can’t hold off the regeneration any longer—the Tenth Doctor’s final words are a plaintive, “I don’t want to go!” This time, the explosion of pent-up energy is violent enough to take the TARDIS with it—flames shoot out of the windows of the police box, the console room is engulfed in fire, one of the pillars comes crashing down. It’s all change for next year…

For me, this was the most successful of the Russell T Davies finales since the first one, “The Parting of the Ways”—and considering “The End of Time” is on a vastly bigger scale, it was a very impressive feat of storytelling. After some rough patches while the story was getting started, this week’s conclusion seemed to flow smoothly and logically, making good use of the plot elements set up previously. There were just a couple of loose ends from Part One—the church with its stained glass window, and the tale of the Doctor fighting a demon in the 1300s, turned out to be just background detail. And I guessed wrongly that the Ood would be more significant.

About the only thing I had a problem with is the Woman who appears to Wilf. Her various appearances turn out to be not for Wilf’s benefit, but for ours—so that we will instantly recognize her when she uncovers her face in the final confrontation. Apart from prompting Wilf to bring the gun, her scenes were basically just mystification for its own sake. Though I did like the ending scene when Wilf asked, “That woman—who was she?” The Doctor glances toward Sylvia, then Donna in the background. Is the Woman his mother? You decide—Davies isn’t saying.

Trying to sum up David Tennant’s contribution in a paragraph or two is hopeless. The revived series was already a huge success when he joined, but he has taken it to a level no one could have dreamed of. In the UK the series has steadily increased its audience every year, unlike practically every other show on television.

He was given the most incredible variety of stories in which to display his range—comedy, action-adventure, dark sci-fi, historical, romance, and just about any other genre you care to name. In his first year he could sometimes be unconvincing in the shouty moments, but once he settled into the role he was consistently brilliant. It’s been a wonderful ride, and for a lot of people I’m sure David Tennant will be their favorite Doctor for life. He’s certainly in the top group on my list, joining the Doctors I knew growing up, Tom Baker and Peter Davison.

I understand Tennant is currently exploring options in America, having recently shot a pilot for NBC (Rex is Not Your Lawyer). Wherever his future career takes him, I hope he continues to enjoy every possible success. Thanks, David.

But with the tears still falling, the mood shifts abruptly as Steven Moffat takes over, arriving with a bang (he’s not credited on screen, but he wrote the script for and oversaw the shooting of everything after the regeneration). We get our first glimpse of the Eleventh Doctor as Matt Smith provides a huge burst of new life, checking out his legs, arms, hands, ears, eyes, nose, mouth (“Chin…blimey!”), and hair (“Still not ginger!”). It’s basically a re-working of the little scene written for the Children in Need charity night in 2005 which introduced David Tennant (and can be found on the Series Two DVD box set), so we end the era as we began, crashing down to Earth in an out-of-control TARDIS. One Doctor is gone, but Doctor Who keeps going—there’s already been a trailer released for the next series, due to premiere in the UK in a few months’ time, showing Matt Smith and Karen Gillan in a whole new set of adventures.

As the Tenth Doctor would say…Allons-y!

Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: “The War Games,” starring Patrick Troughton, Frazer Hines and Wendy Padbury. Recently released in North America, this is where the Time Lords first appeared, in the epic conclusion to the Second Doctor’s era.

For more Doctor Who recaps, click here.

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Advertisement
Comments

Features

Every BoJack Horseman Episode, Ranked

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

Published

on

Every BoJack Horseman Episode Ranked
Photo: Netflix

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



Bojack Horseman

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

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



Bojack Horseman

76. “Sabrina’s Christmas Wish”

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



Bojack Horseman

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

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



Bojack Horseman

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

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



Bojack Horseman

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

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



Bojack Horseman

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

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



Bojack Horseman

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

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

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

TV

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

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

3

Published

on

Mythic Quest
Photo: Apple TV+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

TV

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

Published

on

The New Pope
Photo: Gianni Fiorito/HBO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Features

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.

Published

on

Hannibal
Photo: NBC

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

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

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



Portlandia

50. Portlandia

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



House of Cards

49. House of Cards

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



Jessica Jones

48. Marvel’s Jessica Jones

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



Killing Eve

47. Killing Eve

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



Sherlock

46. Sherlock

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



Ramy

45. Ramy

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



Treme

44. Treme

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



The Handmaid’s Tale

43. The Handmaid’s Tale

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



High Maintenance

42. High Maintenance

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



Primal

41. Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal

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

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

TV

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

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

3

Published

on

The Outsider
Photo: Bob Mahoney/HBO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

TV

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

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

1.5

Published

on

Dracula
Photo: Netflix

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

TV

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

Published

on

The Witcher
Photo: Katalin Vermes/Netflix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

TV

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

Published

on

Work in Progress
Photo: Adrian S. Burrows/Showtime

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Features

The 25 Best TV Shows of 2019

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

Published

on

The Best TV Shows of 2019
Photo: Amazon

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

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

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


City on a Hill

25. City on a Hill

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


Years and Years

24. Years and Years

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


On Becoming a God in Central Florida

23. On Becoming a God in Central Florida

Florida water park employee Krystal Stubbs (Kirsten Dunst) earns the nickname “the alligator widow” after her husband, Travis (Alexander Skarsgård), works himself into bleary-eyed exhaustion and, then, gator-inhabited waters. Travis fell victim to a pyramid scheme whose promises of wealth and prosperity prompted him to dump the family’s life savings into the organization’s coffers, leaving Krystal holding both the bag and their baby. As conceived by On Becoming a God in Central Florida, this vision of 1992 America is a morass of hucksters and hollow promises, and the series explores that world with both a sharp eye and a peculiar sense of humor. It keenly captures our dubious relationship with the prospect of wealth; its myriad absurdities are resonant reminders of how tough it is to “get ahead,” and how easy it is to get lost in the labyrinth of capitalism. Scaife


Big Mouth

22. Big Mouth

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


Euphoria

21. Euphoria

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

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

TV

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

Published

on

Truth Be Told
Photo: Apple TV+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Trending