Watching Dollhouse over these past few weeks—as FOX hurriedly burned off the last few episodes after giving up any hope that the show would build an audience—has been a strange, almost schizophrenic experience. With each new episode, my opinion of the show has jumped between considering it to be a slightly flawed masterpiece or a fascinating failure. Not that there’s anything unusual about a television show finding or losing its sense of direction in a short period of time: I’ve seen plenty of shows that needed time to make good on their potential (as Parks and Recreation has done in its second season) or that peaked early and then screwed up so royally you have to wonder if the creators ever understood what made them successful in the first place (Heroes being the obvious example). With Dollhouse, however, creator Joss Whedon and his team of writers responded to the threat of cancellation by throwing out new plot twists and character developments at a break-neck pace, about half of which I’ve found thrilling and half of which have me asking a question I’m not certain that Whedon himself could answer: What is Dollhouse really about?
I’m sure the immediate response is to say that the show is about the search for identity, or more specifically that it’s an examination of how fragmented our identities have become in this media-saturated age. But that’s an argument I’ve never really bought. To briefly summarize: The show centers around a secretive, morally ambiguous organization (the Dollhouse of the title) that hires out “Dolls”—young men and women so attractive they look like they’ve stepped out of a commercial for facial cleanser—on assignments that range from assassinations to kinky sex. Before each assignment, the Dolls are imprinted with a new personality tailored to the client’s specifications, but they have no larger awareness that these memories are a lie. When they’re not on an assignment, the Dolls exist in a childlike state of blinkered innocence and spend their free time doing Kindergarten activities such as finger painting and crafts.
Whedon has used this setup as a springboard into some twisty ideas—if you download your memories into more than one body, are both of those people still you?—but I think it’s a stretch to claim there’s a ton of real-world relevance here. Many of Dollhouse’s episodes involve the characters receiving new personalities that are then discarded by episode’s end, which tells us nothing about who these people really are. And while the show eventually explores the Dolls’ capacity to learn and grow—Echo (Eliza Dushku) achieves self-awareness and remembers her past identities, while Sierra (Dichen Lachman) and Victor (Enver Gjokaj) fall in love during their time in their childlike states—all this really adds up to is the idea that we are more than the sum of our memories. The technology in Dollhouse is just too theoretical to act as a metaphor for anything else, except maybe as a commentary on how actors and actresses play different roles for an audience that can be fooled into developing feelings for someone they don’t know.
Just compare Dollhouse to Virtuality, another mind-bending sci-fi show centered on the theme of identity that was canceled prematurely (after just one episode!) by FOX. Virtuality revolves around the crew of a spaceship on a multiyear mission who are being filmed for a reality show that’s broadcast back on Earth, and who are also equipped with virtual-reality headsets that allow them to relax in their own private fantasy worlds in order to deal with their claustrophobia. In its single episode, Virtuality does a brilliant job of exploring how these three different layers of reality—the quotidian nature of life aboard the ship, the manufactured drama of the reality show, the daydreams made real—each contain aspects of who these people are, even though none of them represent the whole picture. Although we spend more time interacting with our co-workers than our friends or family, the mundane tasks we share with them usually only reveal the surface of our personalities. Likewise, while we might kid ourselves that our daydreams are the truest representation of who we are, there are plenty of people who imagine themselves as charismatic extroverts yet are stuck as wallflowers in real life. Virtuality’s look at the fragmentation of the self yields some fascinating character insights, but Dollhouse’s attempt at the same subject is mostly just a launching pad for a high-concept procedural.
Joss Whedon spent the first half of his television career telling stories about the pain of growing up (Buffy the Vampire Slayer focused on adolescence; Angel on early adulthood), but, intriguingly, almost all of his later work has focused on how the rich and powerful are able to subjugate the masses. Firefly and its cinematic continuation Serenity take place in a future in which mankind has colonized a handful of planets, all of which are controlled by a monolithic government known as the Alliance; the wealthier citizens live on worlds that look like high-tech utopias, while the poor eke out a hardscrabble existence on the undeveloped outer planets. The fifth and final season of Angel (in retrospect, a sort of dry run for the conspiracy aspects of Dollhouse) has the main characters taking over a demonic law firm and questioning whether they’ll be able to do good with their new connections or become compromised themselves; the series finale sees Angel and his friends realizing that working within the system to achieve progress is impossible and they must destroy the law firm from the inside out. Even Fray, his comic book series about a futuristic vampire slayer, was set in a world that Whedon described thusly: “The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and there are flying cars.”
I’m curious if this obsession was inspired by Whedon’s frustration at dealing with the Hollywood suits who control the purse strings or by current events (the mendacity and arrogance of the Bush administration, the Enron scandal, the financial meltdown of 2008), but either way, Dollhouse is the purest expression yet of this theme. The Dollhouse is secretly owned by the Rossum Corporation, which, in addition to procuring hookers for its rich and connected friends, is using its technology to achieve immortality (by downloading the memories of its founders into new bodies) and to quietly take over the world (they have a brainwashed U.S. senator among their collection of Dolls). Ultimately, this plotline has become the strongest element of the show, revealing a nightmarish and almost believable vision of the end of civilization in which the powerful are content to treat everyone else like slaves and fighting back is impossible. The technology in Dollhouse doesn’t exist, but it’s all too easy to imagine it being abused on a grand scale if it did.
But for all of Whedon’s noble intentions at speaking truth to power, there’s something a little simplistic in examining massive social problems by reducing them to a conspiracy involving a shadowy supervillain. In some ways, Whedon is too much of an optimist: He imagines that the Rossum Corporation needs to completely control a U.S. senator (whom they eventually set up to become president) in order to pass the legislation it wants. But in real life, special interests are able to get much the same effect by simply funding political campaigns. The truth isn’t just stranger than fiction, it’s usually more depressing too: The HBO series The Wire offers a view of society that’s less scary on a visceral level but far more damning in the end, a mind-bogglingly complex and thorough look at how bureaucracy crushes progress that makes the good vs. evil dynamic in Dollhouse seem relatively shallow.
Is it unfair to compare Dollhouse to The Wire, arguably the best television show ever made (and one that benefited from the different expectations HBO has)? Maybe. But these comparisons are necessary because it’s clear from interviews that Joss Whedon intended for Dollhouse to be something tougher, more relevant and more nuanced than the work he had done in the past. He didn’t quite succeed, and I’m not sure who’s to blame: Whedon for falling back on his old tricks, or FOX for not having faith in him and forcing him to regress creatively. Perhaps the answer to this question lies in the behind-the-scenes drama of the show, which has been almost as complicated and interesting as what made it onto the screen.
Dollhouse first began life at a 2008 lunch meeting between Whedon and his former Buffy alum Eliza Dushku. At that point in their careers, both of them were finding it difficult to transition from television to the movies: Whedon had spent the past few years working on screenplays for Wonder Woman and an original project called Goners that were never developed, while Dushku, dealing with Hollywood’s dearth of intelligently written female roles, was being offered little more than playing the main character’s girlfriend or the eye candy in slasher films. Dollhouse was meant to solve both of their problems, giving Dushku a chance to show off her acting range by playing a different role every week and allowing Whedon to make a subversive fantasy entertainment that questioned the very nature of fantasy entertainment.
More specifically, Dollhouse was meant to examine human sexuality and its place in a society in which everything has been commoditized. The Dollhouse staff claim that the Dolls are all volunteers who agreed to sign up in exchange for a generous payment (although it later turns out this isn’t always true), but there’s still the disturbing subtext that these people have sold away their ability to act or think for themselves. Do the sexual encounters that the Dollhouse arranges constitute rape? The Dolls may have agreed to join the organization, but they can’t really give their consent to any individual assignment. It’s made even more ambiguous by the clients themselves, who run the gamut from those who are interested in elaborate fetishes to those who want to feel some sort of intimacy, however artificial it might be. The original premise for the series even included a Doll named November whose specialty was long-term assignments with clients who wanted more than just a one-night stand (her character was eventually rewritten as a Doll assigned to spy on an F.B.I. agent).
Unfortunately, FOX eventually backtracked on their support for the show and decided they weren’t crazy about the heavy focus on commercial sex. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune’s Maureen Ryan, Whedon lamented, “It’s the classic American double standard: torture—great. Sex—oh, that’s so bad!” I can understand his frustration, but at the same time, it’s partly his fault for not going to Showtime, or at least FX, with this idea in the first place. If Whedon truly believed that a major network was going to air a primetime show about kinky sexuality and the nuances of sexual consent, told using a fictional business that combines human trafficking and prostitution, then the dude must have been hitting the crack pipe pretty hard. There was probably no way FOX would have ever aired the program he had in mind, and so Dollhouse was reconfigured before the first episode as a personality-of-the-week adventure show.
Since the show was telling episodic stories with very little character development to link them together, the success or failure of Dollhouse essentially hinged on Whedon’s ability to write a procedural. And the results were, to put it mildly, underwhelming: The first five episodes ranged in quality from watchable to mediocre to outright awful. Even the Whedon faithful began to despair that the show was a perverse mistake, and the party line from the cast and crew was to wait for the sixth episode, when, allegedly, things started to heat up and the master plot kicked in.
That episode, written and directed by Whedon, was indeed the game changer everyone was hoping for, and it transformed the show once more, this time into a serialized thriller that investigated the inner workings of the Dollhouse. The focus was now on the staff and its ethical dilemmas rather than the clients themselves, a massive change from what the show was once supposed to be. But gutted of its initial creative spark, Dollhouse slowly began to feel more and more derivative of Whedon’s past works, a fact which exposed his strengths and weaknesses as a storyteller.
First of all, let it be said that Whedon is a tremendously gifted writer, one who has shown, over the course of four different television series, a remarkable range of talents. He’s written a musical, a silent-horror episode, a surrealistic dream episode worthy of comparison to David Lynch, science-fiction westerns, screwball comedies, conspiracy thrillers and detective stories. His dialogue, though occasionally a bit overcooked, is able to turn on a dime from humor to pathos and back again. He’s a master of the serialized form, able to hook viewers into caring about his characters with one entertaining adventure after another, gradually setting us up for the emotional gut punch when tragedy befalls them.
But any writer’s style, no matter how impressive, will begin to show its cracks after overseeing so many television shows, and I’ve come to realize that Whedon spent his time on Dollhouse rebelling against, and ultimately succumbing to two shortcomings in his storytelling.
The first is a reluctance to fully embrace moral ambiguity in his work. Whedon has spent the last few years raving about the recent remake series of Battlestar Galactica, which he’s declared his favorite television show of all time. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Battlestar may have inspired Whedon to create Dollhouse, or at least that Battlestar showed him just how far a science-fiction show could push the envelope in terms of commenting on real-world issues like the compromises of politics, the fragile nature of social order, and the terror of living under life-or-death circumstances for years at a time. The shows even have similar plot elements: Just as Battlestar Galactica generated a great deal of suspense by introducing characters and then revealing them to be Cylons (robots who look human and who are responsible for a nuclear holocaust that wiped out most of civilization), so has Dollhouse shocked its audience by introducing characters and then revealing them as Dolls on assignments.
But more than copying Battlestar’s plot twists or its aesthetics, Dollhouse is interested in the precise tone that the show created: a sense of moral freefall, in which its characters are forced over and over again to make tough decisions in situations where all of their options are bad. Likewise, the Dollhouse is meant to be a creepy, morally ambiguous environment where the staff members are confronted with the ethical compromises of dealing with society’s power elite and giving them what they want—or else.
In one episode, the boss of the Los Angeles Dollhouse, Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams), tells one of her employees, “The cold reality is that everyone here was chosen because their morals have been compromised in some way.” Sounds good, but the show keeps bringing up moral dilemmas and then allowing the characters to escape with their dignity and scruples intact. A prominent businessman demands that Sierra be released from the Dollhouse and made into his sex slave for life, but the staff members instead allow Sierra to murder the man and they clean up the aftermath without suffering any consequences. Adelle spends part of the second season sucking up to her superiors after she learns how much power they wield, but her toadying is later revealed as part of a larger endgame to take down the Rossum Corporation. Echo’s original personality, Caroline, is hinted at first to have been a selfish, manipulative woman, but subsequent flashbacks show her reasons for the more unethical things she’s done. Even Topher Brink (Fran Kranz), the Dollhouse’s programmer, is constantly described as an amoral genius, yet when push comes to shove he’s fiercely protective of the welfare of the Dolls under his care. On the other hand, when one of the main characters is eventually revealed as a traitor, he suddenly turns into a supervillain who’s been pulling the strings all along. So much for shades of gray.
In an interview with Salon.com just before the premiere of Dollhouse, Whedon said that he thinks of moral ambiguity as one of the defining characteristics of his shows. But just as people in real life don’t always know their own personalities, so too can artists misunderstand their own work. I don’t know if Whedon would see this as an insult, but I’ve always considered him to be a fervent moralist, someone who truly believes that human beings cannot be happy without acting according to their conscience (or without being sociopaths). This sense of morality doesn’t necessary have to be connected to religion—Whedon has never been shy about admitting that he’s an atheist—but it is rigidly defined, and he seems uncomfortable at putting his characters into no-win situations without giving them a way out involving self-sacrifice. This is true of almost all of his work, with the possible exceptions of a few storylines in Angel (which has always been the black sheep among his shows, since it’s the one that was most clearly influenced by his collaborators) and the film Serenity, which didn’t have enough time to set up the ruthlessness of its milieu without forcing the characters to get their hands dirty. I don’t know if Whedon has it in him to develop a character as conflicted as Battlestar’s Lt. Felix Gaeta (Alessandro Juliani), an idealist who does terrible things in the name of what he believes is right, and who is neither reduced to a villain nor offered any sort of redemption in the end.
However, it’s Whedon’s other shortcoming as a writer that has me worried about his future: a heavy reliance on the traditional Hollywood three-act structure and a tendency to resolve almost all conflicts with an action climax between the hero and villain. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that formula in abstract, and Whedon has shown that he’s able to rise above it on occasion (for example, with the Buffy episode “The Body,” in which Buffy copes with the death of her mother). But Dollhouse was supposed to be his chance to completely move beyond these clichés and replace the fisticuffs and shootouts with something more substantial. Again, compare Dollhouse to Battlestar: The second-season finale of the latter centered on a presidential election, while the third-season finale saw a former political leader on trial for crimes against humanity. These events demanded more than just a fight scene to resolve them, and they were more interesting because they forced the characters to confront their own beliefs and how far how they would be willing to compromise their ethics for what they believed was right.
As a result, it’s a little disappointing that a show about the existential horror of not being able to trust one’s memories keeps falling back on action scenes to wrap everything up, especially since its reduced budget during the second season meant that a lot of the shootouts looked like B-roll footage from Walker: Texas Ranger. In addition to the formulaic nature of the action scenes, there’s a certain “been there, done that” feeling to the episodes themselves. My favorite episode of Dollhouse from the second season was probably “The Attic,” a genuinely creepy and disorienting story in which Echo, Sierra and Victor are trapped in a dungeon-like facility and hooked up to a machine that’s powered by their nightmares. Yet look at the plot piece by piece: It’s a surreal dream episode in which the protagonists are chased by a mysterious killer who turns out to be an ally (like the Buffy episode “Restless”) and they must wake themselves up from their enslavement in a virtual reality that powers a machine (like the plot of The Matrix, Whedon’s favorite movie). At the end of the episode, Adelle reveals that she sent the Dolls to the Attic in order to gain more information about the Rossum Corporation (similar to a plotline from the final season of Angel), and Echo learns that a crucial piece of information can only be accessed by an alternate personality of hers (exactly like a plotline from the fourth season of Angel).
Other fans have pointed out allusions to The Road Warrior and X-Men’s “The Dark Phoenix Saga” in the final stretch of Dollhouse episodes. Maybe all of these references are just signs that Whedon’s heart wasn’t in it by the time FOX canceled the show and his enthusiasm was running on empty (or that my fellow Internet geeks and I have too much time on our hands). Really, that’s understandable—Whedon set out to do something new and found himself slowly boxed in by the demands of the network and a shrunken budget. And while I honestly enjoyed the FOX-approved version of Dollhouse and thought it had its moments of weird poetry and skin-crawling horror, I really wish I could have seen his original, R-rated vision instead, if only to measure how much Whedon has grown as an artist since he was a wunderkind who practically reshaped the television landscape with Buffy.
Regardless, the biggest question now that Dollhouse has been canceled is: Where does Whedon go from here? The current rumor is that he’s in discussions to develop a show for FX; he’s also been talking about creating content for the Internet, although it’s not clear if there will be a viable financial model for supporting such an endeavor anytime in the near future. Both possibilities would offer him more creative control than he’s had in the past, albeit less money. But artistic freedom should be much higher on his list of priorities than having a major-network budget. I’ve been watching Whedon’s work for over a decade now, and while it’s always been consistently entertaining, I have to admit that the thrill of seeing something new, of recognizing an original voice amid a glut of anonymously produced television, has been replaced with playing “spot the reference.” He needs to move out of his comfort zone and develop a television show that doesn’t rely on the formulas that he’s perfected and worn out. The man who created Dollhouse might, ironically, be in the midst of an identity crisis himself: Who is Joss Whedon, and who does he want to become next?
Jack Patrick Rodgers is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. His work has been published in Slate, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Geek Monthly and Popmatters. You can follow him on Twitter or contact him via email at [email protected].
Review: Legion’s Unhinged Final Season Plunges Us into an Unknowable Mind
The show’s third and final season is a visual achievement, typified by imaginative flights of absurdism.3
After Legion’s shocking second season finale, in which it was revealed that David (Dan Stevens) had sexually assaulted his girlfriend, Syd (Rachel Keller), the series enters its third and final season with a lingering ambiguity: Is David, the show’s titular telepath and diagnosed schizophrenic, redeemable? Furthermore, to what extent is he responsible for his actions? Throughout season three, in which David is hunted by the Shadow King (Navid Negahban) and Division Three while he attempts to travel back in time to rectify his misdeeds, Legion struggles to answer these questions, which serve as the crux of the series.
Certainly, by framing David’s efforts to alter the past as self-serving and expedient, Legion maintains one view of its protagonist as an egomaniac and probable sociopath. In conversations with a rightly unmoved Syd, David’s protestations and glib promises to simply undo the past reflect his inability to grasp the gravity of his crime. And the character’s first effort at time travel, in which he attempts to protect his infant self from the Shadow King, is tinged with both self-interest and an attempt to shift the blame for his actions.
From this perspective, Legion’s depiction of David is a trenchant critique of toxic masculinity. But the series also suggests that David, while impurely motivated, might not be wrong to seek an excuse for his behavior. Nothing in the season dispels the notion that he could, by preserving his own innocence from the Shadow King’s influence, prevent himself from becoming a manipulative and self-obsessed person—or one who would commit sexual assault.
This conflicted portrayal at least makes Legion extremely effective as a plunge into sheer narcissism. To engage with David, and the show’s ever-shifting reality, is to experience the sensation of being gaslit firsthand. His passionate pleas when enlisting the help of a young time-traveling mutant, Switch (Lauren Tsai), are backed by rousing strings on the soundtrack, which imply virtue in his determination. Similarly, when David professes his love for Syd, Stevens strips David of his usual guile, offering an earnest portrayal of heartbroken regret. Such moments, which tempt us to empathize with David, and maintain the idea of him as the show’s hero, are contrasted by deflating glimpses of his selfishness. When he thoughtlessly implores an exhausted, injured Switch to bring him back to the past after a failed attempt, the series punishes us for having trusted David to consider anything beyond his own self-interest.
Legion remains a visual achievement, typified by the imaginative settings and flights of absurdism which, at their most effective, serve to illuminate David’s mental state. Season three finds David with a new cult of followers, who surround him in a ramshackle house that acts as both plot device and canvas for his volatile emotions. The house’s exposed pipes, which resemble veins or synapses, glow neon blue with a substance revealed to be a sedative drug created by David. While the drugged cult evinces David’s craving for any kind of admiration, the claustrophobic space is a realization of his addled mind. When the character is at one point consumed by rage, the pipes turn a foreboding shade of red, and his followers begin to froth at the mouth—an effectively unsettling metaphor for David’s chaotic instability.
Some of the season’s other oddball incursions are less thematically coherent or informative, especially as the series builds toward its ostensible conclusion. Series creator Noah Hawley has publicly cited David Lynch as an inspiration for the series, and while Legion does possess a Lynchian sense of unmooring suspense, the weirdness can also merely forestall whatever intelligible vision of David’s arc the series is approaching. In one such instance, a confrontation between Switch and David pushes him toward self-assessment, but the conversation quickly evolves into the entire cast singing a melancholic version of “(What’s So Funny ‘bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?” In a series with so little peace, love, or understanding, the wry song choice is clearly meant to be ironic, but the whimsical indulgence serves no purpose except to reinforce David’s already well-established inability to learn.
Season three includes more than one such musical number, which consistently resemble escapes from the character resolutions the series simultaneously inches toward and avoids. Surreal tangents once provided crucial insights into David’s mind, yet now they just as often distract from the show’s emerging assessment of the character. Legion alternately views the very act of telepathy as a violation, and David as a victim of his own abilities. Crucially, the series, by building toward a conventional showdown between David and the Shadow King, seems unsure as to which character is ultimately responsible for David’s past actions.
As the season approaches its conclusion, Legion occasionally hints at offering elusive truths about David’s nature, but just as often seems to be building toward an opaque conclusion for the character: one in which David, and his fragmented mind, simply might not be understandable in any conventional sense. Still, in its attempt to provide both character study and pure, unhinged abstraction, Legion has fashioned yet another visually distinct and uniquely bizarre season around a man’s unknowable mind.
Cast: Dan Stevens, Aubrey Plaza, Rachel Keller, Jean Smart, Amber Midthunder, Bill Irwin, Jemaine Clement, Hamish Linklater, Navid Negahban Network: FX
Review: City on a Hill Is a Bonanza of Character Detail and Hammy Thrills
When the series isn’t immersed in pulpy shenanigans, it aspires to be a sort of Bostonian The Wire.3
Not since Gerard Butler’s riotous, bloody doughnut-eating turn in Christian Gudegast’s Den of Thieves last year has an actor plumbed the scumbag depths quite like Kevin Bacon does as wayward F.B.I. agent Jackie Rohr in Showtime’s City on a Hill. Everyone within the show’s various layers of Boston law enforcement seems to know Rohr, and not a single person likes the guy—not the co-workers who bristle at his presence, not the people who return his greeting with an immediate “fuck off,” and certainly not his mother-in-law, Rose (Catherine Wolf), who threatens to expose his serial infidelity by telling his wife, Jenny (Jill Hennessy), about his recent STD test. In retaliation, he grabs a model Red Baron plane—a memento from Rose’s late husband—from the mantelpiece and makes like he’s going to smash it. “You put me in the fucking doghouse,” he growls in his hoarse Boston accent, “and I’m gonna be like Snoopy and blow your shit right the fuck out of the sky.”
When City on a Hill isn’t immersed in such pulpy shenanigans, which find the casually racist Rohr doing things like brandishing a fish at an angry old woman who calls him a “white devil,” it aspires to be a sort of Bostonian 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 initiative that statistically reduced violence in the city. One-eyed District Attorney Decourcy Ward (Aldis Hodge) is an idealist beaten down by what he sees, given to statements such as “I like what my job should be” to justify why he thanklessly works to improve the system. He’s black, so he gets the kind of scrutiny that doesn’t afford him any goofy bad-cop antics, but Hodge dials up the searing intensity with a wide-eyed stare, the only window to the drive and the outrage bubbling beneath his no-nonsense exterior. Every so often, it leaks through with a shouted line like, “I’m not their boy.”
Rohr and Ward fall into a mismatched partnership that’s surprisingly absent any of the explosive confrontations that typically characterize odd-couple pairings in film and TV. Their hesitant camaraderie just sort of happens as they recognize their mutual interests; even if they don’t like each other, they understand one another. And from there, the series unfolds the complications (of which there are many) and the key players (of which there are even more) that will figure into a wider arc that begins with a simple armored car robbery. Laying out all the different systems that figure into the story, though, makes the first few episodes somewhat slow-going; some scenes tend to devolve into a lot of bureaucratic jargon and off-the-cuff mentions of Boston locations that might lose anyone unfamiliar with the city.
Where the series excels, however, is in the level of detail it brings to its individual characters. Armored car robber Frankie Ryan (Jonathan Tucker), for example, works stocking a grocery store, and he’s often seen doing lottery scratch cards as if constantly on the lookout for alternative cash flow. When he cuts himself putting up a bathroom cabinet, it figures into foreplay with his wife, Cathy (Amanda Clayton); he holds up his bandaged hand to say he’s not afraid of a little blood while she goes to pull out a tampon “the size of a friggin’ bus.” And when Cathy suspects her screw-up brother-in-law, Jimmy (Mark O’Brien), of absconding with their money, she yanks the cabinet out of the wall to reveal the nook where they keep unlaundered cash. Here, Frankie’s cut hand, bathroom cabinet, and working-class lifestyle converge to describe his relationship with Cathy and the exact degree of her complicity in his operation. Elsewhere, Rohr’s menacing of the model plane neatly (and hilariously) outlines his living situation and the strained relationships that encompass it.
While it’s true that none of these characters are particularly unique even within the setting (Affleck’s own The Town features a similarly honorable robber stuck with a volatile sidekick), they feel dynamic enough that their familiarity ceases to matter. They all know their way around a punchy, profane turn of phrase, and they’re usually good for some kind of amusing sight, whether it’s Rohr’s coked-up air-drumming to a Rush song or Jimmy driving to see his kids in a car filled with balloons, singing along to Marky Mark’s “Good Vibrations” with a mouthful of Bubble Tape. Such a confident grasp of character goes a long way toward smoothing over the show’s somewhat clumsier big-picture narrative, as City on a Hill proves itself as effective at small, interlocking details as it is at purely hammy thrills.
Cast: Kevin Bacon, Aldis Hodge, Jonathan Tucker, Mark O’Brien, Lauren E. Banks, Amanda Clayton, Jere Shea, Kevin Chapman, Jill Hennessy, Blake Baumgartner, Catherine Wolf Network: Showtime
Review: Years and Years Is a Captivating Dystopian Family Drama
The series manages to pile on the cataclysms without taking pleasure in the pain of its characters.3
In his memoir Self-Consciousness, John Updike describes his early adulthood by saying, “I turned thirty, then forty,” and in doing so skips over a decade’s worth of information unnecessary to the reader. Russell T Davies’s miniseries Years and Years, which will launch on HBO following its run on BBC One, similarly makes economic use of time, but where Updike jumps into the future, the series sprints. Every so often throughout the four episodes made available to press, a searing montage pushes the world a few years forward, relaying key geopolitical developments—a landmark legal decision, a diplomatic falling out, an environmental crisis—before settling back down in a global order even shakier than before.
We experience these changes through the perspective of Britain’s Lyons family, which includes tough but caring matriarch Muriel Deacon (Anne Reid) and her grandchildren: Stephen (Rory Kinnear), a banker; Daniel (Russell Tovey), a housing officer; Rosie (Ruth Madeley), a school cafeteria manager; and Edith (Jessica Hynes), an activist. The siblings, their partners, and their children are Years and Years’s primary concern, and with each lurch into the future, their lives tend to get worse rather than better. All the while, Vivienne Rook (Emma Thompson), a fear-mongering pseudo-populist, launches and advances her political career, deploring the world’s degradation and promising to represent the true wishes of the British people.
At one point, the Lyons siblings hop on a conference call to react to one of Rook’s appearances on the news. Rosie appreciates Rook’s straightforwardness—the series opens with a shockingly candid and unempathetic on-air comment that Rook makes about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—Daniel is horrified by it, and others lie somewhere in between. Rook is more than a little Trumpian, a resonant representation of the crassness that he’s made politically viable. And as Years and Years proceeds, this much becomes clear: Although it largely centers around the Lyonses, the series isn’t really about them, but about Rook. It’s about the potential for the world to operate in a way that enables Rook’s ascent and leaves people like the Lyons family staring slack-jawed at her demagoguery and electoral swashbuckling.
As Rook, Thompson seems to multiply the minutes she gets on screen with the ferocity and sheer gravitational pull that the actress brings to the politician. When she’s on television, Rook looks directly into the camera, at the Lyonses and at the viewer. And when she’s participating in a local debate, she defiantly stands at the center of the stage, in the middle of the screen, her opponents surrounding her like planets stalled in orbit.
The rest of the cast’s performances similarly ground the series’s socio-political thought experiment in human experiences. Kinnear, as Stephen, realizes a soft stoicism, a resilience undergirded by subdued positivity. When that façade finally cracks, following a death in the family, we know that Stephen doesn’t cry solely because of the loss; he’s also grieving a financial crash along with his increasingly fraught marriage, which together contribute to the gulf separating what he thought his life would be and what it has become.
Though thoughtful and moving in its exploration of such suffering, both individual and collective, Years and Years occasionally stumbles by insufficiently using its characters to contextualize its political world-building. At Rook’s debate, which Rosie and Edith attend, Rook wins over her detractors in the crowd with a swiftness that’s jarring given the weakness of her argument, which essentially justifies authoritarianism as a bulwark against the proliferation of porn. Rook’s victory feels artificial, like she manages to sway her doubters purely because the series needs her to in order to demonstrate the shortsightedness of voters. Rosie and Edith’s presence should, in theory, render Rook’s beguiling charm more believable, but the series fails to interrogate the reasons for the pair’s attraction to her.
Two monologues that Daniel delivers encapsulate the series’s sporadic inconsistency. In one, he holds Rosie’s newborn baby while questioning, aloud and at length, if it’s right to bring a child into a deteriorating world. As Daniel bemoans the banks and the corporations and fake news and more, he ceases to blink, his voice rising and quickening. He becomes a machine unleashing a diatribe that’s too neat to be convincing, the character of Daniel giving way to a Daniel-shaped megaphone. Later, though, Daniel tells off a xenophobic visitor to the refugee camp he works at in his capacity as a housing officer. This scene, in contrast to the earlier one, doesn’t burden Daniel with the weight of the world. Rather, it gives him the freedom to discuss what he’s personally and passionately invested in: the idea that refugees deserve all—and more than—the help they receive. Here, Daniel’s dialogue and Tovey’s performance are vastly more organic, emerging from within the character as opposed to simply flowing through him.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of Years and Years is the compassion with which it considers its characters. It would be easy for a series filled with so many cataclysms, both global and 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 the Lyonses. Instead, Years and Years recognizes that pain is edifying as well as transient, and it accordingly gives the pain that it inflicts space to evolve: to form, to torment, and to pass, like each year that comes and goes, taking more and more away with it.
Cast: Emma Thompson, Rory Kinnear, T’Nia Miller, Russell Tovey, Jessica Hynes, Ruth Madeley, Anne Reid, Dino Fetscher, Lydia West, Jade Alleyne, Maxim Baldry, Sharon Duncan-Brewster Network: HBO
Review: Euphoria’s Depiction of Teen Hedonism Is Both Frank and Lurid
Euphoria’s central relationship is luminous, but the series struggles to develop its other characters.2.5
Sam Levinson’s Euphoria announces its self-consciously provocative nature within its first minute, when Rue Bennett (Zendaya) says that she was happy once, over an image of the girl, in fetus form, about to be born. Airplane engines begin to howl alongside baby Rue’s POV as she exits the birth canal, at which point the episode transitions to a shot of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center. She was born three days after 9/11. The juxtaposition here is loud and in-your-face, and though it’s tonally similar to the deluge of ironic trigger warnings that open Levinson’s film Assassination Nation, it has the benefit of some actual thematic coherence, for the way the open-with-a-literal-bang image acknowledges 9/11 as the unmistakable divide between Euphoria’s teens and everyone else.
Rue characterizes the world she grew up in as a chaotic, aimless place devoid of much understanding for her people her age, which leaves her generation concerned mainly with wringing out as much enjoyment from it as they can. And the series, which is adapted from an Israeli drama of the same name, depicts such teenage hedonism in frank, explicit terms: a high school world awash in pills, sex, and nude photos thrown to the winds of social media. The nature of these occasionally graphic depictions is complicated by Levinson’s consciously “attitude”-laden stylings: Are they graphic purely to shock, or to authentically portray what today’s young people go through, or both? Regardless, the series finds its character-driven groove by turning an empathetic eye toward the inner lives of its principal teens, observing their listlessness and small moments of solace as much as their outward pain.
Rue, we learn, is a drug addict fresh out of rehab who’s largely uninterested in getting clean. And while the show’s other teens feel their way through seedy meet-ups with older men, pursue self-actualization through porn, and cope with invasions of privacy, Rue provides the perspective through which we view nearly everything and everyone else. She narrates even the events that don’t involve her, lending them a general vibe of playful, sarcastic worldliness. She determines the flow of the action, freezing a sex scene outright for a digression on modern porn habits or summoning a cutaway gag, like a lecture on dick pics complete with projector slides. Zendaya plays Rue with a perpetual murmur and effortless remove, like an observer sitting on the sidelines watching the world go by, until she succumbs to a desperate, drug-seeking freak-out or one of the panic attacks those drugs are meant to distance her from.
The series tempers some of its heavier material with an often laidback atmosphere, a world of deep shadows drenched in multi-colored hues and dreamy hip-hop beats that belie the darkness in its corners. If the universe is falling apart around the 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.” “The world is coming to an end,” Rue says to justify her drug use, “and I haven’t even graduated high school yet.”
Euphoria’s best scenes are its oases of joy and humor, particularly the luminous relationship between Rue and Jules (Hunter Schafer), the new-in-town trans girl whose sunny disposition contrasts Rue’s overall remove yet masks a deeper restlessness. The chemistry between Zendaya and Schafer paints a believable portrait of a companionship only possible before adulthood, when you have as much free time as you have affection to distribute.
The two might have sustained the series by themselves, though Euphoria struggles to develop its other characters. Cassie (Sydney Sweeney), for example, is largely undefined beyond the sexual history she’s trying to move beyond, while her boyfriend, Chris (Algee Smith), seems to exist only to express discomfort about that history. Beneath his football-playing façade, Nate (Jacob Elordi) has a streak of violent calculation that dances on the edge of caricature. Only Kat (Barbie Ferreira) seems to develop beyond her basic template of virginal angst, mainly because the series resolves the issue almost immediately before sending her down a Pornhub rabbit hole on an amusing journey of self-discovery; her burgeoning sexuality comes to encompass an attractive classmate as much as a man on Skype who wants to be her “cash pig.”
The fourth episode only emphasizes the disparity between the show’s development of the teens. As the camera glides between multiple perspectives at the same carnival event, Jules has a scary revelation about an older, married man, Cal (Eric Dane), she recently hooked up with, while a panicked Rue searches for her sister, Gia (Storm Reid), who’s still reeling from Rue’s overdose prior to the events of the series. However, the more half-sketched characters, such as Cassie and Nate’s long-suffering girlfriend, Maddy (Alexa Demie), take drugs seemingly so they’ll have something to do for the duration of the episode. While it’s realistic that not all the characters would have intricate stories to engage in (Kat’s storyline is also comparably low-stakes), sidelining Cassie and Maddy feels like a concession that the series isn’t totally sure what to do with them beyond displaying their suffering.
The success of Euphoria’s teen drama ultimately depends on which teen it focuses on at any given moment. With Rue and Jules at the center, you feel the exhilaration of their friendship as much as a real concern for their growing troubles. But with its less fully developed characters, the series can feel like little more than a lurid performance of teenage pain.
Cast: Zendaya, Maude Apatow, Angus Cloud, Eric Dane, Alexa Demie, Jacob Elordi, Barbie Ferreira, Nika King, Storm Reid, Hunter Schafer, Algee Smith, Sydney Sweeney, Austin Abrams, Alanna Ubach Network: HBO
Review: Hulu’s Das Boot Forfeits the Telescoped Focus of Its Source Material
The series transforms a story that captured something of the experience of war into a familiar melodrama.1.5
One of the strengths of Wolfgang Petersen’s classic submarine drama Das Boot, based on Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s novel of the same name, is that it’s no glorification of the German war machine. Indeed, its shocking ending underlines the absolute senselessness of war and the meaninglessness of heroism. Das Boot is a war film that could only be made in a country where virtually everyone had experienced the horror of war firsthand, whether it was on the frontlines or cowering in a bomb shelter. But it’s also a story told strictly from the perspective of the gentile German sailor; women appear quite literally on the margins—at beginning and end, when the boat disembarks and returns—and non-gentiles are neither seen nor mentioned. War crimes are far from the film’s purview, and its sailors are, for the most part, not terribly interested in Nazism.
Johannes W. Betz’s new series solves this problem by flashing back and forth between the crew of a U-Boot captained by the young Captain Klaus Hoffmann (Rick Okon) and a plot of betrayal and subterfuge in the ship’s port in La Rochelle, France, centered around German Navy translator Simone Strasser (Vicky Krieps). In doing so, however, Betz’s Das Boot eschews much of what made the original film effective: the feeling that the viewer is stranded in the narrow gangways of the submarine on a mostly blind journey through treacherous waters.
Forfeiting the telescoped focus that keeps the film engrossing, the series substitutes hidden backstories and interpersonal melodrama that feels like it was pulled from the prestige-drama handbook. As the crew is assembled in the first episode, “New Paths,” we learn that the long-serving First Officer Karl Tennstedt (August Wittgenstein), a familiar Nazi type who’s been passed over for command of the ship in favor Hoffmann, is the son of a WWI hero. Tennstedt’s simmering resentment plays out, over the course of the four episodes available for review, as an escalating crisis of authority, as he grows increasingly bold in his defiance of the noble-minded Hoffmann, and sways the minds of several (rather easily convinced) enlisted men.
Meanwhile, Simone arrives in La Rochelle, where she expects to live and work alongside her younger brother, Frank (Leonard Scheicher), a radio engineer. When an accident on board Hoffmann and Tennstedt’s U-Boot damages the radio and seriously injures the ship’s engineer, Tennstedt summarily decides to assign Frank to the vessel. With no choice in the matter and suddenly facing an uncertain fate, Frank hands over to Simone a cache of materials he was supposed to deliver in a post-curfew rendezvous later that night.
In the second episode, “Secret Missions,” it’s revealed that Frank’s mission had something to do with a French girl he’s been seeing, Natalie (Clara Ponsot), and with a mysterious American resistance fighter named Carla Monroe (Lizzy Caplan)—well, only “mysterious” inasmuch as the series clumsily cultivates an air of mystique around her, all oblique camera angles and vague dialogue. On the brink of explaining her intentions to Simone, Monroe stops herself, mostly, it seems, to extend the mystery for another episode or two. “Probably better if you don’t know,” she says, though she might as well be addressing the camera.
It’s in this episode that the seams of Das Boot really begin to show—or, rather, its bulkheads start to crack. Almost every aspect of the shorebound storyline, which becomes the show’s main focus, is an exaggerated contrivance. In a scenario painfully familiar from a dozen cable dramas that have pulled it off more convincingly (see The Americans, Breaking Bad, Barry), Simone conducts her illegal dealings with Monroe’s resistance cell under the nose of Gestapo inspector Hagen Forster (Tom Wlaschiha). Forster has a professional relationship with Simone, and, he hopes, a burgeoning personal one. As he’s drawn ever closer to her, Forster becomes increasingly blind to her traitorous activities—though, naturally, episode four, “Doubts,” ends with him coming one step closer to discovering them.
This adaptation of Das Boot, which also incorporates elements from Buchheim’s 1995 novel Die Festung, transforms a story that endeavored to capture something of the experience of war into an overly familiar melodrama of obscure motivations, hidden backstories, and broadly sketched interpersonal conflict. The series may try to address Nazi terror in a way Petersen’s film leaves beyond its margins, but even its depiction of atrocity serves merely as a convenient motivator for familiar twists and turns. The sense of cheapness and naked commercialism that pervades the series makes its explicit depiction of disturbing violence—a death by firing squad, the gang rape of a Jewish woman by German sailors—feel unearned and, particularly in the latter case, completely irresponsible. The series can’t be counted on to deliver any insights on history or war, but compelling drama may be even further beyond its capabilities.
Cast: Vicky Krieps, Tom Wlaschiha, Lizzy Caplan, Vincent Kartheiser, James D’Arcy, Thierry Frémont, August Wittgenstein, Rainer Bock, Rick Okon, Leonard Scheicher, Robert Stadlober, Franz Dinda, Stefan Konarske Network: Hulu
Review: Jessica Jones’s Third and Final Season Feels Like an Afterthought
As it nears the end of its run, the series doesn’t seem to have much more to say about trauma.2
The third and final season of Jessica Jones feels more like an afterthought than a farewell, an unevenly written retread that’s uninterested in breaking out of a well-worn groove. Trauma is at the center of the Netflix show’s world, with the eponymous superpowered private eye (Krysten Ritter) having conquered the lingering pain of sexual abuse and childhood domestic strife across the first two seasons. And it being a Marvel Comics property, Jessica Jones predictably scrutinizes such personal trauma through the lens of highly literal metaphor: In the first season, an evil ex-lover’s telepathic powers represent the way that abusers get into our heads, and in the second, an abusive mother’s super strength stands for the seemingly indominable power parents have over their children.
The new season saddles its hero with more trauma, both psychological and physical, but loses the real-life resonance of the show’s previous themes, becoming an exercise in self-reflexivity. Jessica Jones now squares off against a serial killer, Gregory Salinger (Jeremy Bobb), who’s the embodiment of misogynist male geekdom—which is to say, that corner of the internet that’s predisposed to objecting to woman-driven action properties like Jessica Jones.
In the season’s first episode, “A.K.A. The Perfect Burger,” Jessica is taken by surprise when Salinger shows up at her apartment in the middle of the night, hunting her one-night stand, Erik (Benjamin Walker). The encounter leaves Jessica injured and newly traumatized, and Salinger psychotically obsessed with his incidental victim. Salinger resents Jones for being what real-world toxic nerds would call a “Mary Sue”—or, as Salinger puts it, for “cheating,” for not appropriately earning her powers, and for being a “feminist vindicator.”
This new season’s use of allegory is a bit on the nose, which isn’t the worst sin for a superhero property, but Jessica Jones clearly has aspirations to be a character-driven drama. It’s an intent undermined by its characters’ tendency to feel like little more than signposts directing us to the show’s message. In contrast to David Tenant’s chilling performance as misogynist villain Killgrave in season one, Bobb doesn’t convey the menace or malicious seductiveness that might enliven Salinger’s often blandly scripted rants against women’s empowerment.
Salinger also targets Erik’s wayward sister, Brianna (Jamie Neumann), a sex worker whom Jessica tries to protect by foisting her upon Malcolm (Eka Darville), Jessisca’s neighbor and former assistant. This all intersects conveniently (and problematically) with Malcolm’s subplot, which concerns his flirtation with moral corruption as he works as a fixer for Jeri Hogarth’s (Carrie-Anne Moss) law firm. Brianna is stereotyped as an erratic, trashy prostitute who’s sexually available to Malcolm simply because she’s hiding out in his apartment. She’s characterized as a nuisance who becomes a kind of punching bag for the other characters, who talk about her poor life decisions in front of her as if she isn’t there.
Malcolm’s is one of three major subplots that take up much of the run time of the eight episodes of the new season made available to press. In the others, both Jeri and Jessica’s ex-bestie, Trish (Rachael Taylor), deal with their own moral transgressions. Of these, Trish’s story is the strongest. Newly equipped with (vaguely defined) superpowers, she aims to join Jessica as a superhero on the streets of Hell’s Kitchen, and she’s given a satisfying and resonant origin story in episode two, the Ritter-directed “A.K.A You’re Welcome.”
Jeri’s subplot, on the other hand, adds very little to a character already understood from previous seasons as self-serving and morally compromised. This arc, hardly more than filler, also features one of the season’s most regrettable scenes: a painfully kitschy seduction that involves Jeri’s former lover, Kith Lyonne (Sarita Choudhury), badly faking a cello performance as Jeri caresses her and the low-angle camera slowly tracks around them.
As for Jones herself, the series can’t shake the feeling that its main character has simply become her outfit. The season’s opening shot, which has her leather boot stomp into the frame in close-up against the unaccustomed environs of a sunny beach, even evokes the way her personality is summed up by tattered jeans and grimy leather. In the form of Salinger’s initial attack, she’s given a new trauma to work through, but after three seasons, this form of motivation seems more like an obligatory gesture than an exploration of character. By the time she’s brutally besting Salinger in an amateur wrestling match in front of the pre-teen wrestling team he coaches in episode seven, “The Double Half-Woppinger,” it’s clear that, as it nears the end of its run, Jessica Jones doesn’t have much more to say.
Cast: Krysten Ritter, Rachael Taylor, Eka Darville, Carrie-Anne Moss, Rebecca De Mornay, Jeremy Bobb, Benjamin Walker, Sarita Choudhury, Jamie Neumann Network: Netflix
Review: Pose Season Two Looks to the Future with Its Head Held High
The series empathetically attests to the agonies that queer people to this day often have no choice but to suffer in silence.2.5
One notable arc of the second season of Pose traces the success of Madonna’s “Vogue,” from the song premiering on radio in March 1990 to the moment it hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart less than two months later. The show understands the song’s lucid appreciation of the ballroom as an aspirational space. Madonna’s dance-pop anthem was like a lifeline to those in the house-ball community, and almost all of Pose’s characters celebrate it without reservation. “Everything is about to change. I can see it clear as day!” says Blanca (Mj Rodriguez), emboldened by the song to chase after her dreams.
Which is to say that Pose doesn’t bow before the altar of wokeism, at least not in the four episodes made available to press ahead of the new season’s premiere, knowing that the conversation about the song erasing voguing’s roots in a community’s daily struggles wasn’t one that many people were having in 1990. But the show does seem interested in the idea that the global success of “Vogue” was blinding to some in the drag-ball community. Can a queer person of color living on the fringes of society actually harness Madonna’s blond ambition? And from the spectacle of drag emcee Pray Tell (Billy Porter) reading the riot act to Candy (Angelica Ross) for coming to one show as a simulacrum of Madonna, voguing while dressed as one of the singer’s “Express Yourself” personas, the answer would seem to be a resounding no.
There’s a sense that Pray is being rough on Candy because he recognizes what we’ve long known about her, and what the season’s third episode makes sure that we don’t forget: that she has no problem distinguishing fantasy from reality. Witten by Our Lady J and directed by Janet Mock, the episode splits its time between the budding romance between Angel (Indya Moore) and Lil Papi (Angel Bismark Curiel) and the aftermath of a client (Frank De Julio) dying during one of Elektra Abundance’s (Dominique Jackson) shifts at the Hellfire Club. Tonally, the episode walks a high-wire act that’s empowering—for the way it regards Angel and Lil Papi in their bliss as stars of a Hollywood melodrama that never was—and ballsy—for the way it unearths humor and pathos in equal measure from everything that leads up to Candy convincing Elektra to not report her client’s death to the authorities.
The episode is perhaps too easily understood as an imagining of what must have led to one Paris Is Burning participant, drag performer and dressmaker Dorian Corey, possibly murdering and storing an ex-lover’s dead body in a closest inside her apartment for approximately 15 years. (The man’s mummified corpse was only discovered after Corey’s AIDS-related death.) But the point of the episode, like some long-delayed eulogy, is to empathetically attest to the agonies that queer people to this day often have no choice but to suffer in silence. Too often, though, the series goes one step further by blaring that message out loud, with dialogue that suggests a kind of PSA speak. That isn’t so much an issue in scenes that see the characters fighting the menace of AIDS, as Pose knows that the gay community raised awareness of the disease in the bluntest of ways, but in various scenarios, like Angel’s pursuit of her modeling career, that are beholden to all manner of coming-of-age and aspirational clichés.
The cast list for the new season reveals that Charlayne Woodard, as Helena St. Rogers, will be returning at some point, which goes a long way toward explaining why it appears as if Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain) and Ricky (Dyllon Burnside) are just hanging around in the background of the first four episodes as if they’re waiting for something, anything, to bring them to the foreground. The stage may be lovingly ceded to Angel and Lil Papi, but after a while, it just feels as if the lovebirds are going through all the same soap-operatic motions that Damon and Ricky did in the first season: Angel is so desperate to be a star that she opens herself up to being exploited by a smarmy photographer (Alexander DiPersia), and after she and her friends hand him his ass in a proud show of unity, Angel gets her first break, which just so happens to occur at the exact moment of a date she has with Lil Papi.
Something, though, that we do know for sure by the end of the fourth episode is that Pose isn’t concerned with putting any allies on blast. If you’re in the know about the history of New York and the AIDS crisis, then you’ll instantly recognize nurse and activist Judy Kubrak (Sandra Bernhard) and dog-toting real estate agent Frederica Norman (Patti LuPone) as stand-ins for Linda Laubenstein and Leona Helmsley, respectively. And if Judy, who joins Blanca in a crusade to get Pray Tell to start taking AZT, is celebrated for being a small-scale hero, Linda very easily invites the audience’s scorn for threatening Blanca after discovering she’s trans. But it’s an invitation that feels too easy, too cartoonish, especially in the context of the show’s almost Disney-fied—or Glee-ful—depiction of New York during this time period.
There’s a disconnect between the show’s aesthetics and its subject matter that feels especially apparent when one major character shows up dead in episode four. The moment certainly lacks the immediacy of the horrific moment from The Deuce’s first season when a john throws Pernell Walker’s Ruby out of a window like a piece of trash. Director Ryan Murphy knows that you can assert such a woman’s humanity in more than one way, but the sentimentalized theater of this episode is the stuff of cognitive dissonance. Because the prior three episodes give the short shrift to the character’s investment in changing ball culture, to tailoring it to her strengths, the moment that she’s celebrated for influencing that culture feels unearned. If hers wasn’t a dream that ever felt like it was her own, that’s because it’s the stuff of narrative convenience, a setup for a fall that, in the depiction of its aftermath, ironically links Pose to Madonna’s “Vogue” by making reality seem a little less dark than it really is.
Review: Season Five of Black Mirror Regards Our Grim Future with a Smirk
The new season recalls the most human elements of past episodes while levying urgent indictments of the present.3.5
Season five of Black Mirror offers three new episodes that envision a predictably worrisome slate of side effects to humanity’s technological reach outpacing its intellectual grasp. But in offering dystopian visions that hew closer to reality than they have in past seasons, these episodes exceed the show’s promise of nightmarish hypotheticals. While the series has on occasion veered toward alienating, high-concept bleakness—as in season three’s “Playtest” and season two’s “White Bear”—season five maintains an empathetic focus on the characters struggling to navigate grim new worlds.
Series creator and writer Charlie Brooker employs a variety of familiar storytelling models to construct the season’s overarching theme, which generally concerns the unforeseen fallout of our shifting media diets. In the melancholic “Striking Vipers,” a marriage is endangered by the husband’s new obsession with a virtual reality game. Brooker moves his focus to social media in “Smithereens,” a claustrophobic hostage thriller, and to the music industry in the darkly comic caper “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too.” Each episode envisions upheavals in a different social construct, from traditional masculinity to celebrity culture, but Brooker’s consistent focus on media as the trigger for transformation lends the stories a foreboding thread.
The show’s directors match Brooker’s ingenuity, tailoring an immersive style for each episode. In “Striking Vipers,” Owen Harris fixates on the alienation felt by Danny (Anthony Mackie), a man experiencing a crisis of conscience, by framing the character in wide shots set against drab backdrops and cityscapes; it’s a pointed contrast to the colorful environments and dynamic camera movements Harris employs when Danny is gaming. In “Smithereens,” which follows a distraught rideshare driver (Andrew Scott) who takes a customer hostage (Damson Idris), director James Hawes presents the driver either in tight close-up or from the far-away perspective of police and gawking onlookers, highlighting the gulf between how the world perceives the man—as a terrible curiosity—and his own intense sense of victimization.
The relationship between perspective and perception is similarly central in “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too,” the episode with the most complicated premise of the season. Miley Cyrus stars as Ashley, a singer who wants to transition from glittery pop to more challenging material, much to the horror of her exploitative handlers. As the episode evolves into a scathing indictment of the celebrity industry (and offers a startling vision of artificial intelligence), “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” fosters our genuine concern for Ashley’s mental state—in part as a result of the savvy casting of Cyrus, a transformative pop star herself, but also, and more crucially, because the episode reveals much of what happens to Ashley from the relatable perspective of Rachel (Angourie Rice), a lonely and adoring teenage fan.
While none of these episodes are as nihilistic as the show’s grimmest installments to date, they remain imbued with snarky, topical satire and dogged cynicism. “Smithereens” portrays a social media network that, with its scrolling newsfeed and reliance on hashtags, is unsubtly modeled after Twitter. Even less subtle is the character of the platform’s man-bunned creator, Billy Bauer (Topher Grace), who’s clearly a sketch of Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey. Brooker doesn’t veil his view of the real-life tech mogul: When Bauer’s service ignites (and acts as a livestream of) an international hostage situation, he’s pictured peacefully meditating in Utah, both figuratively and literally above the fray he helped create. When eventually called for help, the communications magnate is powerless, no longer able to grasp the magnitude of his creation, and reduced to speaking in platitudes.
By targeting forces (and people) who already exist in reality, Brooker couples the show’s broad anxieties with a tinge of righteous anger. Coupled with the season’s character-driven focus, the specificity of the show’s grievances represents a welcome evolution. With stories that recall the most human elements of Black Mirror’s past episodes, while levying urgent indictments of the present, the series that’s always worked to imagine a dark future seems to be wondering if we haven’t already crossed into the dystopian abyss.
Cast: Andrew Scott, Anthony Mackie, Miley Cyrus, Topher Grace, Damson Idris, Angourie Rice, Madison Davenport, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II Network: Netflix
Review: Season Five of Luther Is Undermined by a Sense of Inevitability
As the series has continued, it’s grown more outlandish, oppressive, and removed from the things that made it so captivating.1
Time has not been kind to John Luther (Idris Elba), the wool-coated supercop haunted by the horrors of all the things he’s seen on the job. To be fair, what detective wouldn’t be traumatized living and working in the version of London offered up by BBC’s Luther? It’s a concrete sprawl where every crack in every grimy back alley seems to conceal some ultraviolent psychosexual serial killer. This is a gloomy, frequently ridiculous series that survives on the back of Elba’s staggering intensity as a volatile, obsessive detective more than willing to skirt the law as long as it catches him a killer. But as the series has continued, it’s only grown more outlandish, more oppressive, and more removed from the things that made its inaugural season so captivating. And the show’s belated fifth season, coming over three years after the two-part fourth season, hardly closes the distance.
It’s not for lack of trying, of course. For the first time since the beginning of the series, Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson) returns to the center of the story to throw a wrench into Luther’s professional and private life. Wilson is, expectedly, adept at selling her character’s amusing sociopathy with every thin, dark smirk. Unfortunately, though, Alice’s storyline entirely concerns her attempted revenge against East End gangster George Cornelius (Patrick Malahide), whose repetitive, nonsensical attempts to murder Luther were the most tiresome element of the prior season. With Luther now caught in the crossfire, the resulting feud is so central to the season that it all but pushes the season’s murder investigation to the side in favor of various square-offs with Cornelius’s gun-toting goons.
Luther has always worked best as a trashy mystery series because its main character’s explosive, extralegal tendencies contrast most sharply with the show’s depiction of a structured, by-the-book police world. The supporting characters, when they aren’t being killed off with alarming frequency, marvel at Luther’s alternately clever and outrageous attempts to flout the rules. However, writer and creator Neil Cross’s growing reliance on action elements has come to mean abandoning the contrast between Luther’s methods and expected police procedure in favor of throwing him into a murky criminal underworld. There’s simply less dramatic intrigue and less of an audacious thrill when he’s breaking out of his restraints to fight a room full of gangsters than when he’s punching a murder suspect in the street to get a sample from the man’s bloody nose in an absurd evidence-planting gambit.
Alice previously served a similar juxtaposing function. Despite her chemistry with Luther and their mutual attraction, her teasing, nihilistic amorality and even-more-extreme methods conflicted with his determination to protect life; their developing relationship threatened his job, his loved ones, and his own beliefs. But at this point, the two simply know each other too well for her wild-card antics to surprise Luther, and by extension the audience. Her ability to throw him off balance is muted since he mostly just seems tired of putting up with her rather than shocked at her insistent, ultimately predictable attempts to lash out at Cornelius.
That same sense of exhaustion and inevitability hangs over the entire season, undermining its usual attempts to shock us with plot twists that bring death and violence. The serial killer this time around, a surgeon (Enzo Cilenti) with a fetish for turning people into pincushions, may have strong visual iconography through the eerie combination of a clown mask and a glowing hood meant to fool CCTV, but his grisly compulsion is more of the same for a series that loves to plumb the depths of how gory a series can get. Once Cornelius becomes the umpteenth person to seriously threaten the lives of the supporting characters, you aren’t surprised so much as left to ruminate on the diminishing returns, remembering just how many names have already been scratched out of the show’s opening credits. The show’s concept has long revolved around how everything Luther has been through has left him haunted, but now, in the fifth season, it does little more for viewers than leave them numb.
Cast: Idris Elba, Ruth Wilson, Dermot Crowley, Michael Smiley, Wunmi Mosaku, Enzo Cilenti, Hermione Norris, Patrick Malahide Network: BBC America
Review: Season Two of Big Little Lies Fails to Justify Its Existence
The series works best when it focuses on intimate, human moments rather than on broad social critiques.2
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and adapted by David E. Kelley from Liane Moriarty’s novel, the first season of Big Little Lies told a complete story, resolving the murder mystery that drove its primary storyline and successfully exploring the bleak underbelly of the affluent coastal city of Monterey, California. As such, the foremost question facing the show’s second season—directed by Andrea Arnold and based on a story by Moriarty and Kelley—is an existential one: Is this follow-up really necessary? Though the three episodes made available to press are enjoyable enough, thanks largely to the cast’s continued strong performances, they’re weighed down by heavy-handed writing and an inchoate grasp of what powered the first season—namely, its subtlety, surprise, and emotional murkiness.
Season two begins about a year after the so-called Monterey Five conspired to cover up the circumstances of Perry Wright’s (Alexander Skarsgård) death. Some of the group’s members have fared better than others in the time since: Madeline Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon) is thriving as a real estate agent, Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) has settled into a job at the aquarium, and corporate hotshot Renata Klein (Laura Dern) is being featured on magazine covers. But Bonnie Carlson (Zoë Kravitz), who pushed the abusive Perry down a flight of stairs to protect his wife, Celeste (Nicole Kidman), struggles with the guilt of her actions, while Celeste doesn’t quite know how to grieve for the man she still loves.
Perry’s mother, Mary Louise (Meryl Streep), has come to stay with Celeste and help her care for her twin sons (Cameron and Nicholas Crovetti). She also suspects that Perry’s death wasn’t a total accident and works to find out the truth. Mary Louise is a master of aggression, both passive and active, and Streep delivers the character’s critiques of Madeline with a quiet monotone that’s at once grandmotherly and acidic. Even among a cast as strong as the one assembled here, the veteran actress commands every scene she’s in. But as Mary Louise resists Celeste’s narrative of abuse—she wonders, for instance, why her Celeste didn’t tell the police that Perry beat her—her dialogue grows so tired, so backward, as to feel purely mechanical. Mary Louise as an acerbic grandma is compelling, but Mary Louise as a Me Too bogeywoman is a bore, little more than a repository of eye-roll-inducing, reactionary pushback against abuse victims. Her symbolic significance comes at the cost of her personhood.
Which is to say that Big Little Lies works best when it focuses on intimate, human moments rather than on the social critiques that it clumsily handles. For one, watching Madeline and her husband, Ed (Adam Scott), face a personal reckoning is engaging because we care about these characters and understand the stakes of their conflict—and the series doesn’t compromise their interiority by forcing them to represent a broader social issue. The poignancy of their disillusionment suggests that the season might, in fact, justify its own existence. But the series consistently undercuts that potential. Bonnie’s mother, Elizabeth (Crystal Fox), accurately remarks that there aren’t many black people in Monterey, but then it errs uneasily close to stereotype by giving her—one of only a small handful of black characters—possibly prophetic visions and an affinity for healing crystals and other talismans.
The show’s themes of abuse and sexual violence are urgent and timely, which makes its shoddy treatment of them all the more disappointing. Big Little Lies also takes on matters of desire, wealth, and sexism, but does so with brute force and repetition. When Madeline rails against the unfairly different expectations people have for fathers and mothers, she offers no original perspective on that common double standard; in the end, it’s as if the scene is relying solely on Madeline’s zeal to hide its trite writing. Later, a young field-tripper at the aquarium asks Jane why pretty things tend to be dangerous. It’s a lazy exchange that’s similarly emblematic of the show’s insistence on shouting its themes.
Save the occasional cinematographic flourish, the non-spoken tools of film and television have come to kneel before the power of the word in the second season of Big Little Lies. Even the show’s soundtrack serves as a way to squeeze more words in: While the songs featured throughout these episodes are definitely capable of generating mood—as was the case last season—their lyrics regularly and agonizingly describe the drama that we’re witnessing. The spectral cover of REO Speedwagon’s “Keep on Loving You” that plays during a conversation about a crumbling marriage is haunting, but its beauty is shorn by how on the nose it is. The song, in this context, is exceptionally pretty but ultimately meaningless, a bunch of notes vanishing into the nearly hollow shell where Big Little Lies used to be.
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Zoë Kravitz, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, Alexander Skarsgård, Adam Scott, James Tupper, Jeffrey Nordling, Kathryn Newton, Sarah Sokolovic, Crystal Fox, Iain Armitage, Darby Camp, Cameron Crovetti, Nicholas Crovetti, Ivy George, Chloe Coleman, Robin Weigert, Douglas Smith Network: HBO
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