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Review: Fargo: Season Two

In this incarnation of Fargo, evil isn’t just expressed haphazardly or ineptly through accident or spontaneous acts of violence.

4.0

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Fargo: Season Two
Photo: Chris Large/FX

The second season of Fargo kicks off with an explosion of violence, just the sort of iconic red blood against pristine snow that lovers of the Coen brothers film will recognize. However, showrunner Noah Hawley already showed in the first season that he isn’t content to simply reference his source material. While he does once again make some cute tips of the hat to the 1996 film, such as the casting of lookalikes in supporting roles, Hawley’s aim is broader and deeper, and as a result he supersedes the show’s strong inaugural season both in terms of narrative complexity and storytelling sophistication.

Season two moves back to 1979, and by doing so craftily draws on the ennui of the time in order to tell a story of small-town Minnesotans at the crossroads between the weariness of the late 1970s and the nostalgic but empty coiffure of the Reagan era. Setting the story in the last year of the Carter presidency and using vintage video footage of his famous “malaise” speech in the opening-credits sequence, Hawley capably sets the gritty and unsettled tone for the rest of the season. As a group, the characters are mad as hell and they aren’t going to take it anymore. At the same time, this largely Scandinavian stock plays things pretty close to the vest. Stoicism trumps emotionalism, and violence, threatened or executed, is their ultimate form of expression.

Further announcing Hawley’s determination to up the ante is his use of the visual tropes of 1970s filmmakers such as the deployment of split screen at the beginning of every episode, and the grainy vérité-style cinematography that often attended the work of the decade’s grittiest filmmakers (Scorsese, Peckinpah, Boorman). Narratively, the story opens up as well. The landscape is vast, populated by a wider array of characters and driven by a more complex plot, which centers on the attempt by the Kansas City mafia to take over the successful local Gerhardt operation.

Jean Smart, simultaneously controlled and passionate, is a particular standout: As the matriarch of the Gerhardt clan, she must control her impulsive, violent sons, while cleverly navigating negotiations with the Kansas City crew. In this incarnation of Fargo, evil isn’t just expressed haphazardly or ineptly through accident or spontaneous acts of violence, as was the case in the original film, and to a great extent the first season of the series, but systemic, attacking the heart of the country, both from the inside (the local Gerhardt clan) and out (the encroaching Kansas City mafia).

Caught in their crosshairs are the clumsy but good-hearted butcher, Ed Blomquist (Jesse Plemons), and his wife, Peggy (Kirsten Dunst). Plemons, who looks to have gained a couple of dozen pounds for the part, is particularly convincing in the role of a man trying to please his showcase wife, while desperately and somewhat naïvely clinging to his corner of the American dream. After a bizarre accident puts the couple in the crosshairs of both the Gerhardts and the mafia, Ed and Peggy must paddle madly to stay afloat in a quagmire of moral compromise. Plemons exudes both a basic decency and an essential stubborn cluelessness as to the depth of the shit he’s stepped into. It’s clear that bad things are going to happen to these generally good people mostly through little fault of their own. Such is the way of this world.

Trying to stem the impending tide of violence are state and local authorities Lou Soverson and Hank Larsson (Patrick Wilson and Ted Danson), the former being the only character to reappear from season one (there played by Keith Carradine). Each episode has at least one incredibly tense and often awkward set piece centering on these lawmen confronting the sinister type who move in and around the town, and while outward displays of calm may impress the audience, the show’s made men always seen to have a leg up on the peace keepers. Of this group of thugs, first among his peers is Bokeem Woodbine, who’s equal parts charming and creepy as Mike Milligan, lead man for the KC mob. There’s a creeping sense of inevitability about the ultimate showdown between these two forces, and one gets the feeling we’ll soon learn why, some 30 years down the road, Lou walks with a decided limp.

Fargo expresses a worldview that’s bleak, if not entirely cynical. It is, after all, a world where the lines between good and evil are clearly demarcated, and the audience is given decent people to cheer for. Unfortunately, it’s equally clear that these fine people, despite their competence and intrinsic decency, are outmanned by their sinister opposition. The series is many things, including an astute harbinger of things to come in Reagan’s America.

Cast: Patrick Wilson, Ted Danson, Jesse Plemons, Jean Smart, Kirsten Dunst, Angus Samson, Bokeem Woodbine Airtime: FX, Mondays, 10 p.m. Buy: Amazon

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Review: Black Monday: Season One

Black Monday dabbles in farce, social commentary, and character study, without managing to establish a coherent point of view.

2.0

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Black Monday: Season One
Photo: Erin Simkin/Showtime

The first episode of Showtime’s Black Monday begins with sobering title cards which promise that the series will eventually reveal the reason for the disastrous 1987 stock market crash. But while it might eventually offer real insight into Wall Street malfeasance (only the first three episodes were made available for review), Black Monday quickly establishes a set of alternate priorities: comic caricatures of excess, an unceasing cavalcade of references to 1980s popular culture, and occasional poignant character portraits that, in such a farcical context, appear jarringly out of place.

Black Monday revolves around a small, roguish, and fictional investment firm headed by an insatiable hustler, Maurice (Don Cheadle), who outsmarts rival traders and whose confidence can seem intoxicating. He’s a ruthlessly efficient carnival barker, lording over a kingdom populated by strippers, misogynists, and homophobes, where cocaine and finance crimes are abundant. Indeed, his behavior and milieu are so exaggerated that attempts by creators David Caspe and Jordan Cahan to engender sympathy for Maurice—by revealing his deep emotional vulnerability, or giving him a humble backstory—lack emotional resonance. Black Monday mines humor from its Wall Street cesspool and Maurice’s extravagance, but those two components eventually undermine whatever goodwill the character might inspire.

Black Monday dabbles in farce, simplistic social commentary, and character study, without managing to establish a coherent point of view toward its subjects or their universe. With its eye toward greed and materialism, the series recalls The Wolf of Wall Street, while its breezy pace and comedic flourishes bring to mind The Big Short. Ultimately, it lacks the well-honed moral perspective of either of those films, but it doesn’t commit to the nihilistic reverence of a series such as HBO’s Veep either. Stranded between earnestness and cynicism, Black Monday seems to exist merely to remind us of events that once occurred, and people who once existed.

A screenwriter who appears in the second episode to see if Maurice’s story might be worthy of Hollywood provides a clue for how the series might eventually focus itself: The writer decides that Dawn (Regina Hall), the top broker at Maurice’s firm, is a more fitting figure for adaptation. Indeed, Dawn, as a black woman attempting to crack into an industry which is largely white, male, and insular, is the most plainly sympathetic character in Black Monday. Hall excels as the feisty and competent broker, whose barbed repartee with Maurice provides some of the show’s most heady dialogue. And in the brief moments when the series illustrates the daily indecencies and biases Dawn suffers, even in a humorous light, it manages to derive some actual pathos, and a sense of stakes.

The humor in Black Monday is super-concentrated, laden with witty wordplay and quick retorts. One typical punchline comes when a broker (Horatio Sanz) realizes that the Nintendo game Duck Hunt is not, as he had assumed, titled Da Cunt. Dick jokes abound, and large swaths of an entire episode are devoted to a cartoonish cocaine bender; very little of the show’s humor is original, but even the most simplistic jokes are elevated by familiar, funny performers like Sanz and Paul Scheer, who deliver reliably well-timed line readings.

Such comedy, even when immaterial to Black Monday‘s specific Wall Street milieu, is consistently effective, and the series succeeds as an absurdist reminder of the excesses of the ‘80s. Yet results vary when the writers endeavor to expand on their cartoonish portrayal of Wall Street. By attempting to ground the characters of Dawn and Maurice, and ostensibly working toward some insight into a historical event, the series does occasionally adopt a patina of gravity, or hint at some crystallizing perspective. Mostly, though, such gestures toward a coherent point of view or clear direction are underdeveloped, as the series rushes for another joke or reference, and in the process comes to resemble Maurice himself: exciting and articulate, with little but fool’s gold and hollow promises to sell.

Cast: Don Cheadle, Regina Hall, Andrew Rannells, Paul Scheer, Casey Wilson, Kadeem Hardison, Eugene Cordero, Horatio Sanz Airtime: Showtime, Sundays, 10 p.m.

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Review: True Detective: Season Three

Season three of True Detective plays to the first season’s strengths, but it also feels like an admission of defeat.

2.0

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True Detective: Season Three
Photo: Warrick Page/HBO

In the third installment of HBO’s anthology series True Detective, creator Nic Pizzolatto opts to play to the first season’s strengths: multiple timelines, occult undertones, partnered detectives shooting the philosophical shit while they drive down the road. Even the backwoods setting—this time, the Ozarks—evokes the desolation of the Louisiana bayou that was so evocative in the show’s debut. Viewers might have figured these trappings for series hallmarks had the second season not so consciously distanced itself from them, so it’s hard not to view this return as an admission of defeat, a resignation to the limits of Pizzolatto’s personal storytelling toolbox.

But the familiar elements don’t totally dull the crime show’s construction as a character piece. This season’s protagonist, Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali), is haunted at every stage of his life. In 1980, it’s by the Vietnam War reconnaissance detail that got him the nickname “Purple Hays” and the tracker skillset he now channels into his job as a police detective. In 1990, it’s the reopening of the case at the center of the season: the disappearance of two young children. And in 2015, while grappling with dementia, he’s haunted by the life he’s lived, as it all seems to slip through his fingers. What’s left of the unhappy memories has become his strongest connection to the life he once had. He’s looked inside himself and come out disturbed by how much his insides are tangled around this one case—this fixed point in history.

Hays is a little bit gone a lot of the time, his emotions as bottled up as most of his thoughts. His eyes come alive when his mind is working through something, and they go dead when he’s angry. He’s too buttoned up for the showy soliloquys of a character like Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle from True Detective‘s first season, yet he’s no less conflicted; the three-timeline setup shows the evolution of Hays’s thought process, as he goes from shunning the past to desperately clinging to what he has left.

Despite the occasional line like “I’ve got the soul of a whore,” Pizzolatto has reined in most of his worst instincts as a writer. He gives (some) space to the development of a female character in schoolteacher Amelia Reardon (Carmen Ejogo), but he never strays too far from Hays and the mystery that comes to define the man’s life. The initially welcome focus on Hays, however, continues much longer than the character—or even Ali’s nuanced performance—can ultimately sustain. Large swaths of the season drag as a result, seemingly begging for a more engaging mystery or some other character to latch onto in an equal capacity, or even the pulpy excess of True Detective‘s second season. Dementia quickly begins to feel like a cheap ploy to ensure that certain plot revelations deliver maximum dramatic impact, as well as an excuse to dabble in hacky hallucinations like a room filled with Vietnamese soldiers or an obnoxiously cryptic vision of Hays’s dead wife.

Beyond the preoccupation with time and memory, Pizzolatto does seem to be grasping at something larger than Hays’s personal journey. He just never, at least in the five episodes of the new season made available to critics, seems to find it. The true-crime book that Reardon wrote about the case, for example, promises a look at the crime’s social impact, but True Detective‘s grasp of those broader implications is tenuous at best. In the first two episodes, director Jeremy Saulnier seems to abide with a pleasingly detailed look at the town. People take down Halloween decorations, kids ride bikes and shoot firecrackers near the ranger’s tower, a man hoards trash in a cart. Saulnier has an eye for the Arkansas scenery, as his sedate camera movements frame characters within doorframes and trap them between people’s shoulders. Hay bales sit like behemoths in the mist.

Once Saulnier departs, however, he takes that initially captivating sense of place with him. The things that seemed, at first, like flavor for small-town life end up as mere pieces slotted neatly into the mystery. Pizzolatto relegates the crime’s repercussions to broad portrayals of angry mobs. He makes sporadic, go-nowhere stabs at addressing poverty and race while the series begins to coast through familiar territory. Perhaps Hays will come to terms with the ghosts of his past by the show’s end, but the third season doesn’t suggest True Detective will ever quite reckon with its own.

Cast: Mahershala Ali, Carmen Ejogo, Stephen Dorff, Scoot McNairy, Ray Fisher, Mamie Gummer, Josh Hopkins, Scoot McNairy Airtime: HBO, Sundays, 9 p.m.

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Review: Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

Whatever assemblage of parts make up an individual viewer’s experience of Bandersnatch, it represents the best and worst of Black Mirror.

2.5

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Black Mirror: Bandersnatch
Photo: Netflix

The opening shot of the Black Mirror interactive film Bandersnatch informs us that the story takes place in 1984, the dystopian resonance of which is a bit on the nose. But this is Black Mirror, after all. The show’s formula has relied on various immediately recognizable cultural reference points placed in the context of a speculative high concept. What if Gamergate types could use MMORPGs to replicate consciousness? What if those military robots from Boston Dynamics go rogue and kill everyone? What if streaming and gaming technologies constitute a surveillance network that offers the illusion of choice in a society of creeping totalitarianism?

That last question drives at least parts of Bandersnatch. The film flashes back to the personal-computing and home-gaming revolution to offer a critique of Netflix, its own streaming platform, as a kind of dissimulating game. The ostensibly innocent everyman at the center of the story is Stefan (Fionn Whitehead), an aspiring programmer working on a computer game adaptation of the choose-your-own-adventure novel Bandersnatch by the fictional author Jerome F. Davies. Like Philip K. Dick, Davies saw his interest in free will, technology, and psychedelia notoriously slide into paranoia, dissociation, and delusion—and in ways that, of course, will have import for the film’s plot.

The viewer makes choices for Stefan as he prepares to pitch a local game developer, Tuckersoft. The first choice presented to the viewer, for example, is whether Stefan eats Sugar Puffs or Frosties for breakfast. The inconsequentiality of such initial choices recalls the tired “butterfly effect” trope, as clearly these banal decisions determine our initial path toward the story to an unknown degree. It’s not the only place in which Bandersnatch edges toward the simplistic, but these early choices function like a video game tutorial, which corresponds more interestingly with the film’s themes.

Gradually, Stefan transitions from unaware main character to unwilling avatar of the viewer’s decisions. Tuckersoft offers to publish his game, and as he copes with the months-long process of writing it, we’re asked to decide how he handles the stress: whether he wrecks his computer, pounds his desk, opens up to his therapist (Alice Lowe), or takes his frustration out on his meek father (Craig Parkinson). Stefan begins to suspect that he isn’t in total control of such actions, and this suspicion is encouraged by his new acquaintance, Colin Rockman (Will Poulter), Tuckersoft’s legendary bad-boy game designer.

The wiry, bleached-blond Colin represents the unlikely prophet archetype created by cyberpunk and hacker culture, his transcendent coolness coded in the terms of ‘80s cultural capital: Whereas Stefan listens to mainstream pop like the Thompson Twins, Colin listens to Depeche Mode and Tangerine Dream. Colin also appears to be tapped into a higher reality, as in the film’s most memorable scene, in which he explains to Stefan during an acid trip his Daviesian/Dickian theory that reality is actually made up of the sum of several different branches of reality. His and Stefan’s world, his theory suggests, is little more than a game, a repeatable simulation dependent on a system of rules outside of their control. Depending on the story path the viewer chooses from this point, this system is run by a demon called pAX, a government program called P.A.C.S., or a computer program called Netflix.

Netflix, Bandersnatch reflexively proposes, is one big choose-your-own-adventure story, in which we are presented with a bounty of options construed as our own idea (“Because you liked…”). A streaming service like Netflix, a medium of proscribed choices, offers an experience that’s more like a game than a narrative, and games offer only the illusion of free agency. It’s a fitting point to make with Netflix’s first truly interactive film, but as with many episodes of Black Mirror, there’s also something fairly obvious and one-dimensional about it—or perhaps the problem is in the presentation.

Writer Charlie Booker and director David Slade attempt to manage the potential tediousness of Bandersnatch‘s metatextuality by making the film about metatextuality itself, but in many branches of the story they lapse into using self-reflexivity as a facile punchline. For one, trying to confront Stefan with the reality of his situation leads to a dead-end joke of a conclusion concerning Netflix viewers’ demands for action. Whenever viewers access such a concluding scene, they’re presented with the option of returning to a pivotal decision and pursuing a different path, but each of the five main endpoints feel more like a metatextual short circuit than a completed pathway.

It’s not so much its pat technophobia, then, that makes Bandersnatch unsatisfying. In the tradition of great sci-fi anthology shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, Black Mirror‘s stories are often effective without being subtle. At their worst, they merely recapitulate omnipresent popular anxieties, but at their best they compel critical reflection on the technologies that structure our lives. Whatever assemblage of parts make up an individual viewer’s experience of Bandersnatch, it will likely be a mixture of both.

Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Will Poulter, Alice Lowe, Craig Parkinson, Asim Choudhry, Tallulah Haddon, Jonathan Aris, Suzanne Burden, Jeff Minter Airtime: Netflix

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