Connect with us


Fly, Ryan Murphy! Be Free!

Be crazy. And by crazy, I mean unhinged, unpredictable and inspired.



Fly, Ryan Murphy! Be Free!
Photo: FOX

Dear Ryan Murphy:

Be crazy.

By crazy, I mean unhinged, unpredictable and inspired. Think Bob Clampett going full-tilt surreal in Porky in Wackyland. Or Chuck Jones starting out spoofing opera in What’s Opera, Doc?, then building to a climax of thunderous spectacle and heartfelt emotion that wipes the smile off your face (until Bugs Bunny restores it with, “Well, what did you expect in an opera…a happy ending?”) Think Frank Tashlin building a live-action cartoon around his already-cartoony leading man, Jerry Lewis. Or Bob Fosse directing an autobiographical musical fantasia while he was still alive, and structuring the entire thing as a deathbed flashback, and devoting the film’s final third to musical hospital staff and equipment as bits of mise-en-scène. Think Alfred Hitchcock staging entire feature films in single locations (Lifeboat, Rope, Rear Widow), ending The Birds with an eerie, almost European-art-film-like anticlimax, and killing off his leading lady in Psycho 40 minutes into the film and turning his focus to her killer, and making you think he’d killed his leading lady in Vertigo only to have her show up again during the film’s second half, by way of setting up an even darker, sicker, more moving story than the one you were already watching.

What stones. What great filmmakers. They made works that lodge in your brain like shrapnel.

Or, closer to your creative home, television, you could be crazy like Matt Groening’s early-‘90s writing staff on The Simpsons, which aired its first-ever Halloween anthology 20 years ago this month—suddenly treating their beloved characters as repertory company actors and having them play monsters and zombies, get mutilated and killed, grow to giant size, re-enact Edgar Allen Poe, acquire a third dimension, feast on human flesh. Be crazy like M*A*S*H*, which, among other inspired gambits, told a whole episode from the point of view of a horribly wounded soldier, and another through the lenses of documentary filmmakers (fresh sets of eyes, both). Be crazy like The Sopranos, which thought nothing of spending an entire episode with a handful of regular characters and leaving the rest off screen that week, or delving into its main character’s dreams for five or 10 or even 20 minutes at a stretch, or ending the finale with a cut to black so abrupt that millions of viewers thought their cable had gone out. Or crazy like Twin Peaks, which hung bizarre, often daringly protracted little character moments along the loosely-strung clothesline of Laura Palmer’s unsolved murder—and which had its hero, Agent Dale Cooper, getting shot by an unknown assailant at the end of season one, then picked up again a few months later with Cooper bleeding on the floor, and then, instead of moving the plot forward, tortured audiences by having Cooper get lost in more Lynchian dream images and engage in an endless, dithering conversation with a senile old man. (So many viewers were absolutely livid at David Lynch for toying with them so flagrantly—but they remember every second of that sequence, and 20 years later, they don’t hate Lynch, they chuckle at his audacity and adore what he represents.)

These shows had imagination. They had originality. They had a sense of play. They had the courage to go wherever they felt like going.

And they went all the way.

They never would have put their names on a travesty like last night’s Rocky Horror Picture Show-themed episode of Glee.

What was wrong with that episode? I could micro-analyze at least two dozen irritations at length, but to conserve my righteous anger, I’ll just focus on a few. For starters, there’s the arms-length treatment of the Frank N. Furter character, the most dynamic and transgressive personality in Rocky Horror; the casting of Frank was fobbed off from scene to scene like a rancid pair of lace panties, passing from Mike Chang to Mercedes—a potentially terrific development short-circuited by giving the truly and explosively musical Amber Riley just one solo number and replacing the word “transsexual” with “sensational” because…well, Jesus, I have no idea; the script used the word “tranny,” so why the squeamishness? By the episode’s final number—very possibly the weakest, most uninspired rendition of “Let’s Do the Time Warp Again” that I’ve ever seen, and God knows I’ve seen more than a few contenders while attending Rocky Horror midnight shows in four U.S. states; Mercedes was reduced to bystander status yet again, and Kurt, who as Riff-Raff was supposed to own this number and hunchback-prance the living hell out of it, was likewise sidelined while most of the song’s lines were subcontracted to other players (mainly Finn).

Then there’s the illogic (and believe me, I rarely invoke that word when the subject is Glee) of Will Schuester risking censure by his school and his community by staging a gender-bending cult musical to impress his would-be sweetheart, the OCD-addled guidance counselor Emma Pillsbury (who, talk about unbelievable, would not be caught dead at a Rocky Horror midnight screening where people throw food and beverages). Yes, I know. Character continuity isn’t high on the show’s list of things to worry about. But that business about Emma being “cured” by her relationship with John Stamos’s hunky dentist Dr. Carl was beyond lame, and clearly just a pretext for the “Touch-a, Touch-a Touch Me” number—so why not stage the exact same number but have it be a fantasy, thereby preserving the dramatic integrity of the character’s debilitating condition? Or something? Anything? Anything but that? Jayma Mays was so charming that she almost, almost saved it—why isn’t she allowed to sing more often?—and the cutaways to Brittany/Santana peeping in like Magenta/Columbia were amusing. But it wasn’t worth the audience-insulting motivational contortions to which you subjected your characters. And let’s not even get into Sue’s plan to win a local Emmy by denouncing the very production that she theoretically okayed, a production put on by the very student organization over which she holds complete dictatorial power.

And Jesus H. Christ in a rowboat, how can you cast Meatloaf in a cameo and not let him sing? You and I both know that it should have been him crashing through that wall on a chopper, not John mufuggin’ Stamos.

[Rolls eyes. Sighs dramatically. Resumes typing.]

But none of that really matters. It’s all just details. Nitpicks.

The real problem, Mr. Murphy, is that you picked the wrong pop culture property against which to measure your own creation’s fitful genius.

Rocky Horror, both the stage and film versions, were created by outsiders with nothing to lose, and at every stage of the game, they held their heads up high and tottered out into the spotlight on nosebleed heels and sounded their barbaric yawps across the roofs of the world.

Rocky Horror was crazy in the sense that I meant in my opening sentence—artist crazy, showman crazy. It was unhinged. It was inspired. And it understood the first rule of show business: act like you own the goddamn stage, and you’ll own the stage. Period! Carry yourself with confidence, with fierce disdain for what anyone out there in the dark thinks, and the audience will give you the benefit of the doubt, maybe warm up to you, perhaps even fall hopelessly in love with you and be willing to follow you anywhere. Granted, the crowd may not like where you take them. But they will absolutely follow you. And they’ll respect you for having the stones to grab them by the lapels and toss them headfirst through the double-doors leading to The Great Unknown.

This episode showed no such confidence. It hedged its bets in every possible way. It played like the anticlimactic end product of one of those ubiquitous and seemingly never-ending advance PR campaigns for a blockbuster summer movie—you know, the kind that kicks off interest with a Super Bowl ad buy, then rolls out spectacular teasers and trailers in the late winter and video games and posters and soundtrack CDs in the spring, then finally unveils the film itself, which pretty much sucks. That was your Rocky Horror episode, from the initial announcement through the “leaking” of photos and clips to the mysterious arrival of Rocky Horror tie-in songs on iTunes and on retail store shelves. It was outsider art reconfigured as corporate product—so much so that halfway through the hour I regretted ever sensing an affinity between Rocky Horror and Glee in the first place, notwithstanding its militantly cuddly enthusiasm for gay boys, bisexuals, plus-sized African-American girls, nerdy hip-hop crooners in wheelchairs, OCD-afflicted guidance counselors, people with Down’s Syndrome and other representatives of groups that Will linked—cornily but correctly—with the more baroque and abrasive outsiders depicted in the film.

This episode was to Rocky Horror as Brad and Janet are to Frank N. Furter. And that’s just sad.

You remember what it felt like seeing Rocky Horror at midnight the first time, Mr. Murphy. From the instant those ruby-red lips materialized in black space lip-synching “Science Fiction Double Feature,” you knew you weren’t in Kansas anymore. And from then on, it didn’t matter that the film cost about 10 bucks, and that most of the actors couldn’t dance and a few of them couldn’t even sing. They carried themselves as if they were the Tony-winning cast of a Guys and Dolls revival heading into their 100th performance en route to a victory lap on The Charlie Rose Show. And the film carried itself with even more swagger. It marched onto the screen with the ludicrously unselfconscious abandon of Tim Curry’s Dr. Frank N. Furter making his grand entrance, stepping off that elevator, sauntering through the set like the sci-fi offspring of Holly Woodlawn and Mick Jagger, and crowing, “I’m a sweet transvestite/From Traaaaaan-sexual /Transyl-vayyy-heen-YUUHHHHHHH!”

It brought the crazy.

And I’m sorry to have to say this, Mr. Murphy, but this tribute episode did not bring the crazy.

Not at all.

As problems go, that’s huge. In fact, it’s the umbrella under which all the episode’s other flaws can be grouped.

The real source of the trouble wasn’t that you decided to yoke your show to one of the most beloved and iconic cult films—a film without which (as I pointed out in a Salon article that seems way too optimistic in retrospect) Glee might never have existed. The problem wasn’t even that you dared invited comparisons between Rocky Horror and Glee, knowing there was a good chance the comparison wouldn’t tip in your show’s favor. No, the problem was more basic than that: Rocky Horror had imagination, originality, a sense of play, and most of all the courage to go wherever it felt like going. But your tribute to Rocky Horror had none of those qualities. There were clever moments, but nothing one could call inspired.

And that’s a shame.

I’ve been a vocal defender of Glee throughout its run, even when—especially when—it seemed to lose interest in melodramatic plot mechanics about halfway through season one and increasingly veered off into some freakishly demented fairy-tale head space. I loved the Madonna episode, particularly the “Like a Virgin” number cross-cutting between three anxious, horny couples. I enjoyed “Britney/Brittany,” which got off to a slow start but stuck with its stubbornly video-centric structure and slowly rallied throughout its remaining two-thirds, eventually becoming—to quote my friend Ian Grey—“pop Dada-rific.” And I thought “Grilled Cheesus” was close to brilliant. Some criticized it as being too, well, preachy, indulging your “Afterschool Special” tendencies to the nth degree. But I adored it for precisely that reason; it was like a parody of such a program, one that went from earnest to giddily, even cruelly parodic, and back around the bend again, becoming, during that final Mercedes-powered gospel rendition of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” transcendently powerful, and articulating, with piercing clarity, the episode’s true message—that God is love and love is God, and that once you get that, the differences between Christians and Jews and Muslims, believers and agnostics and atheists just don’t matter.

And Kurt’s performance of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” at his comatose father’s bedside? Exquisite. Stunning. No network series in history has ever gotten as close to primordial feelings as Glee does at moments like that. “I don’t believe in God, Dad. But I believe in you.”

Mr. Murphy, it’s precisely that quality—the unabashed, unironic, undiluted feeling expressed in Kurt’s performance of the Beatles classic—that you should have tapped throughout the Rocky Horror episode, because if you think about it, the movie’s secret ace card is the same as that of Glee: Sincerity. It’s the great leveler, the great transmogrifier, the fuel source that makes all artistic ambitions come true. Say what you mean and mean what you say and anything becomes possible.

Don’t dream it. Be it.

You already know that, Mr. Murphy, not just from running Glee, but from having seen Rocky Horror. Think of Frank N. Furter, the trampy despot, being usurped by his much-abused henchman Riff-Raff at the end of Rocky Horror, then seizing the opportunity to perform one more smashing musical number, “I’m Going Home,” and pulling off the same kind of parody-into-naïvete-into-tragedy alchemy that Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd managed in the final minutes of What’s Opera, Doc? It doesn’t matter that the character is a preening buffoon, a lascivious rake, and a blood-spattered pickaxe-murderer. For a few startling minutes, you get inside his heart. You want what he wants, feel what he feels.

You don’t need soap-opera plotting, or even sitcom plotting, to achieve such dazzling feats. You just need nerve and imagination.

Narrative and character can be conveyed solely through acting, music, choreography and feeling. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg proved this. So did Once and Hairspray, Tommy and Rent, Jesus Christ Superstar and Pink Floyd’s The Wall. And so, in its overstuffed, Attention Deficit Disordered way, did Moulin Rouge, a fragmented mess that works in spite of itself because the emotions are simple and epic—and the filmmakers and the performers take them seriously, even when they’re making awful puns and mincing around like brain-damaged vaudeville wannabes.

You could make episodes of Glee in the spirit of any of the aforementioned musicals, Mr. Murphy. Or you could do an entire episode that was mostly one big dream sequence—the Glee equivalent of the “Test Dream” episode of The Sopranos. Or you could do a whole episode that had no music, only expressive (and charmingly awkward) dancing, and perhaps no words at all. You could do a whole episode with no songs, just rapid-fire dialogue that achieved its own sideways sort of musicality. You could do five little short films, one about a different character, and link them by a common event, a la Jim Jarmusch’s great anthology film Mystery Train. You could have a character die slowly and send them off over a full hour with your own salute to All That Jazz (although hopefully you will have learned your lesson from Rocky Horror and used Fosse’s masterwork as rough inspiration rather than as something to piggyback on).

And if you carried yourself with the swanky, imperious confidence of Dr. Frank N. Furter, the audience would follow. Yes, they would.

What, you think they’re suddenly going to stop watching Glee because you started throwing curveball after curveball? Hell, no. They’d be on the edges of their seats every single week. They’d approach each new episode with a sense of nervous delight, wondering, “What the hell is Glee going to try to get away with this week?”

That’s how the truly great shows do it, Mr. Murphy. They don’t half-ass it like Glee, trying to please (or coddle) everybody, and often ending up pleasing no one.

Glee could be Dennis Potter plus Twin Peaks plus American Idol plus Hairspray plus about 10 other things that haven’t been invented yet. Right now what you’ve got is a compulsively watchable show that’s stunning about twenty percent of the time and disappointing otherwise, not because the remainder is completely worthless—far from it—but because that 20 percent set the bar so high.

So be crazy. Show us what you’ve got—everything you’ve got. Don’t hold back. Don’t play it safe. You’ve got the clout. You’ve got the riches. You’ve got the following.

But based on what I’ve seen over the last two seasons, you don’t have the nerve.

And that baffles me.

It’s as if you’ve built yourself a jetpack but you’re afraid of flying. You totter around squeezing off little bursts of flame here and there, just enough to raise people’s hopes of seeing you blast off into the stratosphere. And then you don’t.

Fly, Ryan Murphy! Be free!

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


Review: The Deuce’s Final Season Prioritizes Anthropology Over Character

The show’s third and final season struggles to consistently build gripping stories for its vivid characters to inhabit.




The Deuce
Photo: Paul Schiraldi/HBO

With the first two seasons of The Deuce, showrunners David Simon and George Pelecanos offered glimpses of Times Square at critical inflection points. The series convincingly positioned real estate investment—not public morals, community policing, or mafia vagaries—as the preeminent engine for the corporate sanitization of the neighborhood. The third and final season jumps to 1984, yet another important historical moment, and continues to memorialize a time and place erased by corporatization. As always, the show’s characters remain romantic visions of largely extinct New York types. And while the series mourns their disappearance, the characters themselves, even after three seasons, tend to occupy frustratingly static stories—even as the world transforms around them.

Which isn’t to say that The Deuce lacks a compelling hook. Season three provides typically revealing insights into elements of ‘80s New York City that are underserved even in other texts which seek to lionize the era. The show’s presentation of Times Square entails a kind of shadow history, about everything from cops harassing building owners to the nascent AIDS crisis. Increasingly common random assaults—muggings, performed mostly by young black men who the NYPD refer to as “wolf packs”—forces the police to consider aggressive new strategies, and foreshadows real-life political handwringing over emerging “super predators.”

The wolf packs are introduced in season three’s first scene, which unfolds with the bruising clarity of many David Simon theses. A group of kids targets Tommy Longo (Daniel Sauli), a low-level mobster, before being dissuaded by the gun in his waistband. As a literal confrontation between criminals from different generations, the scene reflects the passing of time—perhaps the show’s second most pressing concern, after capitalism. As the season wears on, though, cops ratchet their focus on the wolf packs, and that early scene assumes a new racial significance: Tommy and his mob paid for police protection and helped erode Times Square in seasons one and two, yet it seems that the presence of black muggers might finally prompt urgency in the city’s glacial effort to transform the neighborhood.

The Deuce argues convincingly for the macro-level importance of what’s happening in Times Square, even if the neighborhood’s inhabitants, despite being interesting types, rarely do interesting things. The series positions its prostitutes, porn stars, mobsters, and bohemians as dinosaurs, mostly unaware of their looming extinction, from disease, the advent of home video, and the real estate boom. There’s an elegiac sensibility to the first three episodes of the season made available to press, but The Deuce, beyond offering remembrance, is less clear about how it feels about the impending extinction event—or why the characters are worthy of our attention, beyond their lifelike representations of a forgotten time and place.

Because the series is ambitiously structured, in order to tell the unwieldy story of an entire city ecosystem, around three disparate years across three decades, it’s struggled to consistently build gripping stories for these vivid characters to inhabit. Vincent’s (James Franco) quiet drama with Abby (Margarita Levieva), his twin brother Frankie’s (Franco) attempts to sell porn, Rudy’s (Michael Rispoli) struggle to maintain mob influence—all are storylines that relate to capitalism, in the sense that every element of life is tangentially related to capitalism. Yet the series doesn’t always connect its storylines to the broader transformation of New York, and, as a result, story arcs such as Vincent’s can feel like afterthoughts, overshadowed by both the show’s central narrative and its overarching theme.

Simon and Pelecanos, in their attempts to venerate this era of New York, occasionally misstep in assuming that their characters remain interesting by virtue of their inspirations having merely existed in an iconic city at an interesting time. Eileen (Maggie Gyllenhaal) remains the most captivating figure in the series because she’s one of the rare characters who’s managed to escape the narrative quagmire of the show’s Times Square scene: In season three, she acquires a wealthy new boyfriend, Hank (Corey Stoll), and the series deploys their relationship to reveal her mixture of shame and pride in her past. And an emerging conflict arises between gender expectations in a modernizing world: Can she keep chasing her filmmaking dream, or must she settle for the financial comforts of her new romance?

Conversely, Vincent, Frankie, and their mob associates toil in storylines which have developed only slightly over The Deuce’s decades-spanning arc. One could interpret this as intentional on behalf of its creators. By continuing to confine its totemic New York figures—the mobsters, barmen, and sleaze-balls—to plodding and static storylines, the series demythologizes them, suggesting that the cultural touchstones of New York history were just subjects to the fiscal whims of the city’s influential, faceless money movers—or “they,” as Abby vaguely refers to the corporate encroachers in one episode. Such an argument could feasibly be made, though, without relegating many of the show’s characters to mere observers. Even the reemergence of Vincent’s ex-wife, Andrea (Zoe Kazan), isn’t treated as a story hook as much as an event that merely happens, was always inevitable, and carries no tangible stakes. The stakes in the series are reserved for the neighborhood as a whole. The meteor is approaching Times Square, and The Deuce seems destined to conclude with a resigned shrug toward many of its inhabitants.

Cast: James Franco, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Margarita Levieva, Emily Meade, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Chris Coy, Chris Bauer, Michael Rispoli, Daniel Sauli, Corey Stoll, Zoe Kazan Network: HBO

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


Review: Unbelievable Is a Wikipedia Article Dressed Up As a TV Show

The series feels like a vehicle built merely to convey the information dug up by its progenitors.




Photo: Beth Dubber/Netflix

Successful adaptations can unlock something new within texts through the translation to another medium. But Netflix’s Unbelievable, based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning account of a rape investigation and an ensuing episode of This American Life, feels like a vehicle built merely to convey the information dug up by its progenitors. It’s a bunch of bullet points wrapped up in Toni Collette’s leather-jacket cool and Merritt Wever’s practiced do-goodery.

The series begins in 2008, when Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever), a teen in a support program for young adults who grew up in foster care, reports a rape and is bullied by police into recanting her story. It then moves to 2011, when two detectives, badass Grace Rasmussen (Collette) and self-flagellating Karen Duvall (Wever), investigate a handful of rape cases that eerily recall what happened to Marie. Jumping back and forth between the two periods, Unbelievable commits to shedding light on the shortcomings of law enforcement, from the mishandling of sexual violence cases to the prevalence of so-called “bad apples” within police forces.

The series, however, addresses these systemic issues heavy-handedly and delivers its didacticism in stilted dialogue. At one point, speaking with Billy Taggart (Scott Lawrence), an F.B.I. agent supporting the case, Rasmussen reminds him that “cops beat up their partners at two to four times the rate of the general population.” Such inorganic dialogue permeates the series and lends a wooden quality to Collette and Wever’s performances.

Unbelievable deems no detail or false lead too minor, and so the audience is forced to endure an agonizingly slow drip of facts, figures, and theories throughout Rasmussen and Duvall’s investigation. Where the show’s depiction of police work is lethargic, Marie’s arc is exceedingly repetitive, if occasionally poignant. The series seems to value her less as a person than as a recipient of endless injustices. When we see Marie, chances are that she’ll get some bad news, her eyes will well up, and the series will cut back to 2011 until it’s time for her to suffer anew.

Despite the emotional cheapness of her story arc, Marie remains a captivating presence, thanks largely to how the cinematography frames her reaction to her ordeal. Unbelievable’s first episode relays the agony of Marie’s police questioning with particular deftness. When Marie talks to the cops, primarily the well-intentioned but insensitive Detective Parker (Eric Lange), we frequently see her from low angles, as though the camera is spying on her from underneath a table. These shots, along with close-ups of Marie—of her wide-eyed face, of her fidgeting hands, of her restless, shaking legs—emphasize her vulnerability. She’s alone and in way over her head, abandoned by her friends, doubted by her former foster mothers (Elizabeth Marvel and Bridget Everett), losing control as she gets picked apart.

Unbelievable is at its most capacious in its last two episodes, directed by creator Susannah Grant. The pace quickens as Rasmussen and Duvall narrow in on their suspect, and we get our first look at Marie in 2011, years older and at some kind of peace. The show’s shift from the toil of investigation to the climax of apprehension finally frees the detectives to feel rather than edify. Duvall’s revelry and newfound relief during a celebratory night out underscore the emotional burdens of the investigation far more than her series-long frustration does.

The final episodes also feature moments that capitalize on the show’s dual-timeline structure. During a counseling session, Marie delivers a harrowing monologue about trust and loneliness that cuts in and out of Duvall and Rasmussen reviewing the nauseating photos the perpetrator took of his victims. The sequence is stirring in its understatement: in Marie’s matter-of-fact expression of her cynicism, in Duvall’s nods and grimaces as Rasmussen clicks and clicks through the pictures, and in Rasmussen’s glazed-over eyes, slow blinks, and deep breaths.

In the first episode, we see obfuscated glimpses of Marie being raped as she recalls the attack. We watch her focus on a framed picture in her bedroom, getting lost in it. She’s at the beach, happily skipping into the waves. The episode ends with a splendid overhead shot of Marie, at wits’ end, leaning over the edge of a bridge, looking into the churning water below. The water, in both scenes, signifies escape—and whether calm or crushing, it’s a reprieve from what she’s experiencing. But the series lazily handles that motif, as it mostly disappears until the very last episode, where the water predictably underlines that Marie’s found a hint of closure. What exists in-between—nearly the entire series—is an overwhelming dryness.

Cast: Toni Collette, Merritt Wever, Kaitlyn Dever, Danielle Macdonald, Eric Lange, Elizabeth Marvel, Bridget Everett, Scott Lawrence, Dale Dickey, Liza Lapira, Omar Maskati, Austin Hébert, Kai Lennox, Annaleigh Ashford, Max Arciniega, Jayne Taini, Vanessa Bell Calloway Network: Netflix

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


Review: Mindhunter Season 2 Grapples with Identity and the Power of Words

The show’s second season reveals the intricate intersections between personal and political neuroses.




Photo: Netflix

The first season of Mindhunter distinguished itself from other crime shows by offering an origin story, dramatizing how the F.B.I. forged its Behavioral Science Unit. At its most resonant, the season reminded audiences that institutions and corresponding notions of reality have to be invented and manipulated, and creator Joe Penhall and co-executive producer David Fincher rhymed this social invention with one of a more personal sort. The F.B.I. agents pioneering criminal profiling, Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), had to fine-tune their personalities in order to realize their vision, particularly when interviewing the captured killers who gave the men insight. The B.S.U.’s resident psychiatrist, Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), also engaged in role-play, hiding her homosexuality from a traditionally reactionary arm of the American government.

Season one was driven, then, by unreleased tension, especially as the killers offered extreme and distorted windows into repressed desires that are more common than Tench would prefer to admit. It was, in the tradition of Fincher’s Zodiac, an epic and neurotic procedural that, in the vein of the director’s The Social Network, understood the power of words, especially as Ford and Tench gradually fashioned an iconic term: “serial killer.”

Mindhunter’s second season doesn’t have the same benefit of novelty as the first, as the B.S.U. is now established, if still fledgling. Correspondingly, we have a better idea of how the unit works, and Ford, Tench, and Carr’s dynamic has solidified to suggest relationships that are reminiscent of other crime series. Ford is the wild card, a man who uses his lack of social grace to forge a kinship with others even more profoundly alienated from society. Tench is the old-school G man, who often uses his credibility—professional as well as masculine—to keep Ford’s superiors from reining him in. Also seeking to rein Ford and Tench in is Carr, who naïvely believes that the men can glean more insight from the killers by sticking to a script.

Penhall, Fincher, and the show’s high-profile guest directors, Andrew Dominik and Carl Franklin, challenge these relationships by splintering them. Ford and Tench’s volatile buddy routine, one of the primary pleasures of Mindhunter’s first season, is largely absent here, as the men are chasing their own respective obsessions. The first three episodes of the season, directed by Fincher, are piercing essays on isolation and sadness. Fincher, who has a reputation as an exacting formalist in the key of Kubrick, favors sculptural compositions that invest even routine actions with elements of menace and poignancy. When Ford flies to Atlanta, Fincher dollies in on his seat from the front of the plane, fashioning a diagonal image that emphasizes the tightness and the anonymous discomfort of the vehicle. This scene lasts only a few seconds, and for many directors it would be a routine transition shot, but Fincher uses it to affirm Ford’s torment as well as the general grind of endless travel.

In the second episode, Fincher fashions the finest moment of the entire season, which rivals the best sequences of his films, when Ford and Tench interview Kevin Bright (Andrew Yackel), a survivor of the BTK Killer. Kevin is framed in a ghostly silhouette in the back of a car, while the F.B.I. men sit in front, and as he describes the atrocities he witnessed, Fincher emphasizes the sound of a train passing by on the bridge overhead, suggesting Kevin’s painful transition into the past. Characteristically of Mindhunter, a moment that crime shows tend to take for granted—the interviewing of a witness—is itself turned into a set piece, which dramatizes a victim’s distress and the immensity of Ford and Tench’s quest to quantify madness. Notably it’s Tench, rather than Ford, who proves to be the empathetic talker this time.

Narratively, Ford’s alienation is expressed via a startling gambit, as he’s essentially reduced to a supporting character in the second season. In its first, Mindhunter was driven by his sense of discovery, by his yearning to see his own disaffection in mad men. By contrast, Ford still seems somewhat reduced here by his climactic meeting with Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton) in last season’s finale, and he’s fragile, even more egotistical than usual, and distracted, searching for something. And so season two is hung, emotionally, on Tench’s shoulders.

McCallany gives a beautiful and moving performance, informing Tench with a vulnerability and decency that many characters—so taken with his profession, big frame, square jaw, and crew cut—happen to overlook. (Carr’s new girlfriend, Kat, played by Lauren Glazier, smugly refers to Tench as “General Patton.”) More than ever, Mindhunter is obsessed with the systemic discrimination of law enforcement, yet it doesn’t turn its law enforcers into racist, sexist caricatures—slobbering monsters ready for our distanced disdain. Tench is a likeable character who also casually sees homosexuality as deviancy, which periodically limits his scope, as a law man and a man in general, and which also challenges our own empathetic tendencies and idea of who we should find likeable. Tench inadvertently hurts Carr with certain comments, especially when she gets in the field herself and uses her experience with an older woman (played in the first season by Lena Olin) to bond with an incarcerated young man who helped an elder lure, torture, and rape other children. The show dares to rhyme Tench, straight man incarnate, with Carr, as they’re both consigned to play stereotypes.

Tench faces a wrenching familial crisis this season, and few notice his pain, which he wears in his tight shoulders. Nancy (Stacey Roca), so devoted to their unraveling adopted son, Brian (Zachary Scott Ross), neglects her husband’s escalating misery as well as Brian’s potential devolution into a predator. (Nancy isn’t as well-drawn as Tench, and she borders on becoming the cliché of the cop’s nagging housewife.) Meanwhile, Carr must play the intellectual, the gatherer and sorter, though she yearns to return to the field again and shows a flair for improvisation that rivals Ford himself. The irony of Carr outing herself in an interview with a killer is considerable, as she uses a realm of role-play as a confessional, throwing the killer a crumb of authentic human feeling only to walk it back later with her professional peers.

The lengthy interviews that Ford, Tench, and Carr conduct are more exactingly rendered and theatrical this season, which features a who’s-who of killers, including David Berkowitz (Oliver Cooper), William “Junior” Pierce (Michael Filipowich), Tex Watson (Christopher Backus), and Charles Manson (Damon Herriman), each of whom have special vanities that must be satisfied. Berkowitz admits that calling himself the “Son of Sam”—that a dog ordered him to murder his victims—was a con when Holden flatters his shrewdness. Pierce opens up to another F.B.I. agent, Jim Barney (Albert Jones), when the investigator gives him candy, which he pops into his mouth with memorably childish, nearly dainty relish. Manson, played with ferocious gravity by Herriman, disarms Tench when his anti-capitalist, everyone-is-violent-but-me shtick happens to stir Tench’s guilt over Brian. These sequences are dramatic in the moment but collectively suggest the emotional wear and tear of Ford and Tench’s profession, as they experience behavioral extremis over and over with results of questionable value.

Mindhunter is still exhilaratingly occupied with detail, which becomes particularly evident in the season’s main arc, where Tench, Ford, and Barney help local law enforcement investigate the Atlanta child murders, in which dozens of children of color were killed from 1979 to 1981. This investigation involves the navigation of multiple planes of government and law enforcement with many agendas, and these negotiations come to drive the show nearly as much as the hunt for the killer. Some of the victims’ families believe the K.K.K. to be involved, but local politicians, many of whom are people of color, don’t want to blow a potential social powder keg, though they also don’t wish to commit political suicide by abiding Ford’s conviction that the killer is a black man. This is the sort of Catch-22 with which Mindhunter is obsessed, and such difficulties are intensified by bureaucratic minutiae. In a prolonged and amusing moment, Ford is notified of all the departments he must contact simply to distribute flyers. Most of these episodes are directed by Franklin, who has a subtler visual palette than Fincher and who evinces a powerful delicacy with racial tensions that’s reminiscent of his most acclaimed works of Southern noir, One False Move and Devil in a Blue Dress.

Mindhunter’s second season is both epic and intimate in its sprawl, collapsing dozens of famous crime stories together, revealing the intricate intersections between personal and political neuroses. Tench and Carr’s senses of repression are rhymed with that of Barney, a black man who’s implicitly charged with keeping the peace between the Atlanta politicians, the mothers of the murdered and missing children, and the F.B.I. at Quantico. According to the series, as the B.S.U. expands, it moves away from its primary, idealistic promise to become vulnerable to both the necessary as well as the petty limitations of any public service body. The BTK Killer (Sonny Valicenti), who still haunts the series in the episode prologues, wouldn’t be caught for decades, and 22 of the unsolved cases in the Atlanta child murders were hastily closed in order to keep Atlanta’s political tensions at a simmer, the latter of which Mindhunter acknowledges in a finale that’s every bit as deliberately and poignantly unsatisfying as Zodiac’s. This series is so stirring for showing how murder mysteries reflect every element of society, and are therefore on certain levels almost inherently unsolvable. To understand an element of human nature is to know how truly little one knows.

Cast: Jonathan Groff, Holt McCallany, Anna Torv, Stacey Roca, Michael Cerveris, Joe Tuttle, Cameron Britton, Sonny Valicenti, Zachary Scott Ross, Christopher Grove, Regi Davis, Christopher Livingston, Crystal Lee Brown, Siovhan Christensen, Sierra Aylina McClain, Brent Sexton Network: Netflix

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


Review: On Becoming a God in Central Florida Sees the Cult in Capitalism

The show’s myriad absurdities are resonant reminders of how tough it is to get lost in the labyrinth of capitalism.




On Becoming a God in Central Florida
Photo: Patti Perret/Sony/Showtime

Florida water park employee Krystal Stubbs (Kirsten Dunst) earns the nickname “the alligator widow” after her husband, Travis (Alexander Skarsgård), works himself into bleary-eyed exhaustion and, then, gator-inhabited waters. Travis fell victim to a friendly neighborhood pyramid scheme, Founders American Merchandise, whose promises of wealth and prosperity prompted him to dump the family’s life savings—including their mortgage and life insurance—into FAM’s coffers, leaving Krystal holding both the bag and their baby. As conceived by Showtime’s On Becoming a God in Central Florida, this vision of 1992 America is a morass of hucksters and hollow promises, and the series explores that world with both a sharp eye and a peculiar sense of humor.

FAM is fronted by Obie Garbeau II (Ted Levine), a mustachioed messiah figure whose plans and philosophies are distributed via cassette tape to the pyramid scheme’s participants. Fueled by a volatile combo of spite and desperation, Krystal has had all she can stand of Garbeau and true believers like her husband’s “upline” supplier, Cody Bonar (Théodore Pellerin). As Krystal, Dunst is a whirlwind of charisma, and she makes you believe that the character, as her mask of Southern-accented politeness dangles by a thread, can take on the whole system by herself. Yet her schemes to do so often send her tumbling back to the bottom time and again, dragging people like her manager and neighbor, Ernie (Mel Rodriguez), down with her.

Krystal doesn’t even want to get rich, much less do it quick; she just wants some stability, to the point where she takes on odd jobs like teaching a water aerobics class. But through some cruel confluence of fate and capitalism, she has to get in deep with FAM to get permission to fill her class with the people below her on the FAM pyramid. She’s paid two dollars per aerobics attendee, after all, and that’s nothing to sneeze at when she needs to get her home’s utilities turned back on and doesn’t want to sleep in the water park’s supply room.

What keeps On Becoming a God from succumbing to suffocating bleakness is its silly tone, that toothy, dead-eyed smile with which it regards a faintly psychopathic Americana. It’s filled with weird cult terminology and self-consciously goofy names, from a FAM blasphemer being called a “stinker-thinker” to characters frequently mistaking Bonar for various pronunciations of “boner.” Even Garbeau’s name sounds like “garbage.” The show’s imagery grows more dreamlike and hallucinatory as the season progresses, from Garbeau viciously smashing all the fruit in his refrigerator to Krystal being immersed in a womb-like tub that’s supposed to let her re-experience her own birth. When you follow the myth of exceptional American individualism this far into the weeds, the series posits, nothing makes sense anymore.

The show’s brand of dark, quirky comedy, however, feels stretched a bit thin over 10 episodes of at least 40 minutes each. Suggesting an excellent half-hour comedy saddled with an excess of incident, On Becoming a God doesn’t always know when to pull back on its weird developments and ironical names, resulting in a tone that can feel as derisive as it does empathetic toward people struggling to survive under capitalism. The longer people drone on about “the Garbeau system,” innocently suggest Olive Garden is their idea of fancy, and use “stinker-thinker” with real conviction, the fuzzier the line gets between laughing at the system’s absurdity and just laughing at people we’re supposed to see as suckers.

When the comedy does work, the series keenly captures our dubious relationship with the prospect of wealth, as when Cody praises Krystal by calling her a “millionaire in waiting.” She and the others under FAM’s thumb aren’t kept down by any dearth of ingenuity so much as their lack of power. At worst, they’re naïve due to immersion in a culture that encourages them to regard the wealthy with adulation rather than skepticism, and in such moments, the series engenders sympathy: If the show’s eccentric world hardly makes sense to us, how can it make sense to the characters caught up in its various scams? On Becoming a God may take place in 1992, but its myriad absurdities are resonant reminders of how tough it is to “get ahead,” and how easy it is to get lost in the labyrinth of capitalism.

Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Théodore Pellerin, Mel Rodriguez, Beth Ditto, Ted Levine, Usman Ally, Eric Allan Kramer, Cooper Jack Rubin, Alexander Skarsgård Network: Showtime

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


Review: Carnival Row Is a Haphazardly Stitched-Together Genre Pastiche

The series is a genre patchwork whose individual elements fail to coalesce into a coherent whole.




Carnival Row
Photo: Jan Thijs/Amazon

Among Carnival Row’s fantastic creatures is an especially monstrous one made of sewn-together bits of dead things: centaurs, humans, a sea animal, and so on. The beast, the exact nature of which is the subject of sustained buildup and disappointing payoff, proves a fitting avatar of Amazon’s fantasy series, a genre patchwork whose individual elements, though compelling in bursts, fail to coalesce into a coherent and satisfying whole.

Prior to the events of the series, the Pact and the Burgue, two human empires, waged a colonialist war to control Tirnanoc, the home of a winged, fairy-like race called the Fae. The Burgue falsely claimed to be fighting to protect the Fae, and following the Pact’s victory, refugees have fled to the Burgue’s capital city, where they’re oppressed and indentured. Now, a series of violent murders are being committed against the city’s non-humans, and while the tribalist all-human constabulary can’t be bothered to investigate them, detective Rycroft Philostrate (Orlando Bloom), or Philo, relentlessly pursues the cases.

Throughout its loosely connected storylines, Carnival Row fully and melodramatically commits to diverse genre traditions. Imogen Spurnrose (Tamzin Merchant), a vilely racist socialite, engages in a taboo romance with a non-human, and the series soaks her arc in a vat of wondrously cheesy monologues that embody the most exaggerated tendencies of period dramas. Philo’s sleuthing, while grim, is peppered with the delicious clichés of hard-boiled noir. At one point, the police chief tells Philo that he can’t save all of the non-humans in danger, and Philo slams his fists on the chief’s desk and roars, “Damn it, I can save one!”

The series, however, suffers from the fundamental tension between its over-the-top genre tropes and the gravity with which it handles its socio-political allegory. A group of kobolds—teeny, trollish bipeds—is “deported,” and the event is initially quite poignant. But the histrionics of Imogen, Philo, and others, as well as the show’s frequently shallow development of its characters, undermine that pathos. The series bewilderingly deems the hateful Imogen worthy of redemption solely on the grounds that she has sex with a non-human. Such context renders the deportation, and events like it, more glib than reflective.

Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevingne), a newly arrived Fae refugee and Philo’s former lover, grants the audience its most immediate view into the oppression of non-humans, primarily through her indentured servitude to Imogen and her domineering brother, Ezra (Andrew Gower). When working, Vignette is made to wear tight clothing that binds her wings. This restrains not only Vignette’s ability to fly, but also her sense of self. Unfortunately, the show’s writing similarly limits Delevingne, tying her performance down with overwrought dialogue that undercuts the emotional climaxes she’s routinely tasked with delivering.

Carnival Row prioritizes a certain kind of messiness: not the mess of feeling and thought, but that of the body. Over the course of Philo’s investigation, we get up-close looks at each murder victim’s mangled corpse, and these moments put the weaknesses of the show’s direction on full display. In addition to having the cadavers shoved in our faces, we’re repeatedly smacked in the head with testaments to the violence’s gruesomeness: At one point, a police officer vomits at a crime scene, and later, a child witnessing a killing urinates in his pants, the resulting puddle filling the frame. The emphasis on excretions, perhaps meant to contextualize the violence to viewers all but desensitized to butchery, feels lazy and unsubtle.

The show’s world-building feels haphazard rather than meticulous. We see, in a single episode, a few shots of a religious icon: a Christ-like figure, who’s hanged instead of crucified. Thereafter, dumbfounded characters exclaim “By the martyr!” at every opportunity—but who’s the martyr? When a radical religious group poised to play a key role in the second season reveals itself, it does so toward the very end of the season in cursory, tacked-on fashion. Maybe most egregious is the early promise of Lovecraftian horror that dissipates almost instantly. The antagonist’s brand of evil, it turns out, is too familiar to inspire cosmic horror.

Not an episode goes by that doesn’t make one wonder what Carnival Row could have been had it not bitten off far more than it can chew. There’s much to like here—mostly the kaleidoscopic genre-mixing—but not enough to overcome the show’s confused handling of the socio-political allegory at its core. Would that this beast were more thoughtfully stitched together.

Cast: Orlando Bloom, Cara Delevingne, Tamzin Merchant, Andrew Gower, Indira Varma, Jared Harris, Karla Crome, David Gyasi, Arty Froushan, Caroline Ford, Simon McBurney, Ariyon Bakare Network: Amazon

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


Review: Season Two of Succession Paints a Humanizing Portrait of the Billionaire Class

The series demystifies the billionaire class while simultaneously painting a terrifying picture of their unstoppable momentum.




Photo: Peter Kramer/HBO

HBO’s Succession, which concluded its first season after media scion Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) bungled a coup of his father Logan’s (Brian Cox) conglomerate, Waystar Royco, derives its acerbic satire from envisioning real-world corporate mergers as hostile takeovers performed by bullies and proxy wars waged between families with the wealth of developing nations. The morally bankrupt, mostly bumbling, but never harmless Roy family constitutes a garish caricature of billionaire excess. In season two, as they attempt to stave off their company’s acquisition by absorbing a news competitor called Pierce Media, Succession underlines the moral bankruptcy which flows from the Roys’ unfettered avarice, while simultaneously lamenting the poisonous toll such greed takes on the family.

To the limited extent that Succession is interested in the humanity of its characters, Kendall is the only member of the Roy clan who could ostensibly be considered a protagonist. He’s self-destructive, addicted to booze and cocaine, and the Jesse Armstrong-created series draws a direct line between Logan’s abusive nature and Kendall’s substance abuse. Strong’s performance emphasizes Kendall’s fear and self-loathing; the character carries himself like a beaten dog throughout most of the season, cowing to his father’s verbal abuse and stoically absorbing various retributions from his family after his failed corporate coup. Kendall’s suffering stems directly from his past ambitions, yet he remains pitiable.

Which is why, in the rare moments when Kendall seems to feel anything other than crippling fear and humiliation, such as when he connects emotionally with another wealthy addict at a corporate retreat, the series is imbued with a surprising pathos. The character, who has cruelly shuttered start-ups, attempted to overthrow his own father, and left a man for dead in last season’s climax, is a reflection of one-percent privilege. And yet, even as Succession deploys the Roy family’s inconceivable wealth as a get-out-of-jail free card for Kendall, it also portrays the Waystar heir as acknowledging and hating his privilege. He’s the sole character here who seems to know shame, which makes him the show’s most complex figure.

Of course, though it locates the humanity in Kendall’s character, the series has no interest in humanizing anyone else in the Roy clan. It frames their family meetings—which often entail board meetings, corporate retreats, or strategy briefings—as lawless war games. Rarely do any of them speak honestly, unless it’s to insult one another. The Roy siblings never take statements at face value; each one has a unique agenda, and the series derives thrills from watching this toxic family attempt to further deepen their pockets. While the family’s attempt to acquire Pierce Media constitutes a trenchant critique of capitalistic impulse (the foundering Waystar can survive only by acquiring Pierce, a company that Succession portrays as honest and civically valuable), the series derives suspense by suggesting that any of the terrible Roys could potentially sink the deal—or emerge as a family hero.

While dark humor and palace intrigue are the cornerstones of Succession, season two develops a sense of lingering melancholy that, while not aimed at making its main characters more sympathetic, imparts a poignancy to the never-ending conflicts within the Roy family. In such moments as when Shiv (Sarah Snook), Kendall’s sister and the savviest Roy, is shocked and skeptical when hugged by her brother, the series underlines the way the Roys have forfeited even their familial bonds in the service of greed. They never let their guard down, and in such instances, Succession whittles the brokenness of the Roy family to its most essential level, and imparts an elegiac sensibility: that these emotionally stunted people operate solely with regard to their appetites, and define themselves entirely by their status as winners or losers.

The Roy family members are sincere only in their insults, and their attempts to undercut each other works to take each seemingly innocuous conversation between them into the realm of real stakes. They speak almost exclusively in slights, from the unimaginative (“asshole”) to the poetic (“pusillanimous piece of fucking fool’s gold”) to the tasteless (“cumdump”), and the series revels in the way they tear at each other. The scenes which feature the entire family in a room together, supposedly acting as one entity on behalf of Waystar but undermining each other at each turn, exude an enthralling quality; such meetings devolve into hideous curiosities, layered with malevolence and bitter humor.

In the season’s most memorable sequence, the Roys have a dinner with the Pierces, the family who own the news company they wish to acquire. It’s a moral vetting, in which the Pierces are discerning just how corrupt their suitors are. For long stretches, the show’s camera bounces around a dinner table, as the Roy family, with all its conflicting agendas and glaring character flaws, implodes. It’s a breathtaking, grotesque sight, which tidily sums up Succession’s ethos: The Roys might be unworthy of their fortune, but that fortune ensures that they’ll never have to answer for their shortcomings. As they fail upward, the series demystifies the billionaire class while simultaneously painting a terrifying picture of their unstoppable momentum.

Cast: Brian Cox, Kieran Culkin, Jeremy Strong, Sarah Snook, Matthew Macfadyen, Alan Ruck, Nicholas Braun, Hiam Abbass, Peter Friedman, Natalie Gold, Rob Yang Network: HBO

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


Review: The Righteous Gemstones Is an Uneven but Compelling Study of Faith

The series is a compelling and humanizing study of its characters, the faith they profess, and the world they strive to proselytize.




The Righteous Gemstones
Photo: Fred Norris/HBO

One could frame the premise of The Righteous Gemstones as a question: What if Danny McBride played another unduly self-assured dolt overflowing with machismo—but this time a pastor? Created by McBride, the series initially seems content to coast on the humor of that premise. But it gradually cracks the cynicism with which it frames its characters and their work, offering poignant glimpses into their inner lives. Despite its proclivity for forced, flat subplots, The Righteous Gemstones is a compelling and humanizing study of its characters, the faith they profess, and the world they strive to proselytize.

The series follows the Gemstones, a Southern family of televangelists as successful as they are crass, avaricious, and blasphemous. Led by widowed patriarch Dr. Eli Gemstone (John Goodman), whose network of mega-churches generates millions of dollars a day, the three Gemstone kids help run the family business: prodigal son Jesse (McBride) and boyish goof Kelvin (Adam DeVine) are pastors, while Judy (Edi Patterson) works behind the scenes, her dreams of preaching stifled by a tradition of misogynistic paternalism.

The myriad tensions that boil between the Gemstones are the source of much hilarity, but the show’s non-familial conflicts vary in the quality of their execution. Kelvin’s mission to save the soul of a big donor’s teenage daughter—she parties, curses, and has sex—benefits from its short-and-sweet screen time and inclusion of Kelvin’s right-hand man, Keefe Chambers, an ex-Satanist played by Tony Cavalero, who infuses Keefe’s awkward, deadpan drawl with bewitching earnestness. There’s also the escalating turf war with John Seasons (Dermot Mulroney), the pastor of a parish in which the Gemstones open a new worship center led by Baby Billy (Walter Goggins), Eli’s conniving and just-shy-of-smooth brother-in-law. But most prominent is the far too time-intensive blackmailing of Jesse, a central storyline that almost never warrants the space devoted to it, thanks to its particularly sluggish pacing and the shallow characterization of the lead blackmailer, Scotty (Scott MacArthur).

As the season progresses, the flimsiness of the blackmail plot is rendered all the more conspicuous by the strength of the show’s intra-family drama. Eli has been in a perpetual state of mourning since the death of his wife, Aimee-Leigh (Jennifer Nettles), and his grief distances him from his children, who are constantly at each other’s throats. After the first episode, which suffers from stilted writing that leaves the Gemstone siblings’ relationships feeling rather inorganic, the series settles into a delightful groove of caustic one-liners and the sort of McBrideisms—from characters’ confoundingly lofty language to their intense, unwarranted self-seriousness—that permeate the writer-actor’s work with longtime collaborator Jody Hill. After calling a meeting and, at its start, playing an excruciatingly prolonged series of notes on a xylophone, Jesse says, “Music has always soothed my vicious temper,” with McBride delivering the line wonderfully aware of his character’s ridiculousness. The whole cast pulls from McBride’s playbook and demonstrates similar comedic deftness as their characters add to the show’s manic verbal storm of insults and misplaced haughtiness.

For all the glee that it derives from the cruelty of its characters, though, The Righteous Gemstones refuses to damn them outright. It quietly gives the audience reasons to sympathize with the family and the people in their orbit—or, at least, to feel something closer to sympathy than antipathy: Jesse’s bedtime kisses on his kids’ foreheads; Kelvin’s wholehearted acceptance of Keefe; Judy’s frustration with the family’s sexism; Baby Billy’s wrathful reminder to Eli that he was Aimee-Leigh’s brother before Eli was her husband. These people, the series suggests, might not be charlatans. They seem to believe in what they’re doing, merely practicing their faith, albeit loudly and passionately and opulently. They’re chasing genuine Christian goodness as they conceive it, however dubious that conception may be.

All of the Gemstones have moments of vulnerability, but the series is at its kindest, and most poignant, when exploring Eli’s grief. If his motivations don’t serve God, it’s because they serve Aimee-Leigh, whose memory he labors to honor. At one point, Eli sits alone at a candle-lit dinner table, facing a portrait of him and his late wife. He speaks to her, his tired baritone reaching for nothing, resounding in the silence. Later, after getting into a dust-up with Judy, Eli watches her sing and dance onstage alongside Baby Billy. She’s talented, like her mother was. Eli looks on, smiling for a moment longer than he usually does. The scene’s use of slow motion allows his joy—as well as Judy’s—to last for ages. It’s a stirring, cathartic image that reveals the Gemstones’ squabbles for what they truly are: trifling, fleeting things.

Cast: Danny McBride, John Goodman, Edi Patterson, Adam DeVine, Walton Goggins, Cassidy Freeman, Tim Baltz, Tony Cavalero, Gregory Alan Williams, Skyler Gisondo, Valyn Hall, Scott MacArthur, Dermot Mulroney, Jennifer Nettles, Kelton DuMont, Troy Anthony Hogan, Gavin Munn, James DuMont Network: HBO

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


Review: The Terror: Infamy Excels as an Indictment of American Oppression

The series is striking not only for its scope, but for how uncompromising it is.




The Terror: Infamy
Photo: Ed Araquel/AMC

In American history books, it’s no more than a footnote that, in a fit of racist paranoia after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government corralled Japanese-Americans like animals into concentration camps. And in the white-dominant engine of American pop culture, it’s been barely represented. In this context, The Terror: Infamy is striking not only for its scope, but for how uncompromising it is. Its radicalism for taking place primarily in those camps feels matter-of-fact, with a cast dominated by non-white actors, many of whom go long stretches speaking in subtitled Japanese. There is, in the six episodes provided to critics, no POV for some complicit yet intended-to-be-sympathetic outsider, and the series portrays Japanese traditions without breaking them down for an unfamiliar audience. There is, after all, scarcely anyone living in the camps who might need those traditions explained to them.

The Terror’s prior season, which fictionalized the disappearance of Sir John Franklin’s expedition to the Arctic in the mid-1800s, was also concerned with race; the ordeals of its characters invoked themes of colonialist hubris, the very specific terror of white men arriving by boat to new lands, eyes alight with thoughts of conquest. Though Infamy moves to another time, story, and place, its mind for terror is similar: What is the dominant race capable of when the minority is under its boot? It’s another “people are the real monsters” story, albeit one of impressive thematic weight, plus unfortunate modern relevance, given the resurgence of internment camps under the current presidential administration.

Displacement runs deep through Infamy, not just in the literal sense of how its characters are forcibly relocated, but in how—no matter where they go—they’re never really at home. Chester Nakayama (Derek Mio) is a nisei, or second-generation, Japanese-American man who, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, is constantly regarded with suspicion, followed by accusatory eyes set above mouths that spit “Japanese” like a dirty word. He and others like him are caught in between, rejected by the only place he’s called home under unfounded suspicions of espionage and disconnected from the culture that birthed his ancestors.

For Chester, there’s nowhere left to go save for the fenced-in purgatory of those internment camps. Infamy understands the anxieties of race-related displacement, of not being accepted in places you naïvely believed would appreciate you, and with that understanding it builds a narrative of painful resonance. It gives form to the fears and hardships of Chester and his acquaintances both through family drama and violent, existential horror where people lose control of themselves, as their identities and actions are subsumed by something else.

Infamy is a story about exclusion and the cultural clashes it fuels, portraying not just conflict between the Japanese-Americans and their captors, but between old ways and new opportunities. Chester is stalked, seemingly no matter where he goes, by a mysterious woman (Kiki Sukezane)—a metaphorical specter of his heritage and a remnant of “the old country”—whose presence seems to bring only death. The Japanese-American characters embrace traditions and beliefs they expected to leave behind, like sprinkling rice to purify a household after seeing evidence of a malevolent force. They also reckon with new values, as Chester openly argues with his father, Henry (Shingo Usami, fantastic as a man boiling with feelings of confusion, grief, and anger), about going to college and leaving their small community on Terminal Island. The two have been shaped quite differently by upbringings that manifest contrasting expectations for their lots in life, and you feel the histories that inform their relationships, how the men are constantly pushed into reluctant positions by necessity.

Horror is more of a presence on Infamy than it was on The Terror’s first season, though to somewhat mixed success. Grisly deaths and general scares tend to arrive suddenly, with only the most basic moody buildup of anticipation. The series is prone to cutting to a character wandering around an empty space for a few moments, all the while leaning on eerie music and jarring sound effects in an attempt to pull atmosphere out of thin air. And such scenes are too clearly delineated from the central drama and character interactions to fuel any dreadful tension of what’s next; they mostly take place on the periphery, giving the impression that the series is stopping every so often, remembering it has to provide the terror promised by its title. Particularly in later episodes, some scenes are legitimately disturbing, offsetting the impatient pacing with imagery like a gnarled finger slowly unzipping a duffel bag from within. But on the whole, where Infamy excels is in its depiction of more earthly horrors.

Cast: Derek Mio, Kiki Sukezane, Cristina Rodlo, Shingo Usami, Naoko Mori, Miki Ishikawa, George Takei Network: AMC

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


Review: Dear White People Continues to Fight the Power in Season Three

In its third season, the series weaves social critique into its narrative with a newfound subtlety.




Dear White People
Photo: Lara Solanki/Netflix

Twice during the first episode of Dear White People’s third season, characters unfavorably compare life’s banalities to “the third season of a Netflix show.” These self-referential moments suggest a certain cynicism on the part of the series, as if it were preemptively excusing its continued existence, maybe compensating for a dearth of new ideas. But while the show’s new season doesn’t assume the pointed, instructional posture of its previous ones, no such throat-clearing is necessary. Dear White People maintains its sardonic wit and insightfulness, and though the series weaves social critique into its narrative with a newfound subtlety, it formulates a damning portrait of Winchester University as an institution concerned primarily with preserving its entrenched power structure.

Dear White People has always focused on the tinder-box tension derived from racial identity—consider season one’s calamitous blackface party, or season two’s alt-right campus insurgence—but this time around the cultural and interpersonal obstacles of Winchester’s students seem comparatively low-stakes: Gabe (John Patrick Amedori), the show’s chief representative of white privilege, faces a financial burden for the first time in his life after his family goes broke; Troy (Brandon P. Bell) confronts his role as a token black voice at Pastiche, a campus humor magazine; and Sam (Logan Browning), throughout the majority of the season, tries to pinpoint a theme for her student film. Having depicted Winchester’s overt hostility toward its black community in past seasons, the series now draws considerable emotional gravitas and compelling commentary from the quotidian struggles of its characters and the insidious influence of the school administration—while maintaining that, though they may carry less potential for tragedy, such everyday obstacles are nonetheless informed by issues of identity.

Perhaps the biggest divergence from the show’s past incendiary posturing is reflected in the way Sam has been repositioned: While hosting the titular campus talk show on issues of race, the character was often deployed as a literal delivery system for much of the show’s polemical heat. But for much of Dear White People’s third season, Sam is seen quietly grieving her father’s passing—and this shift in temperament doubles as the show’s self-reflexive acknowledgement of its own evolution. She resists supporting various causes throughout the season, opting against signing a fellow student’s petition, and remains averse to even guest-hosting her old radio show. Similarly, Lionel (DeRon Horton), who as a campus reporter was in the past deployed as a handy plot device, spends the season simply searching for love. His attempts to locate his niche within Winchester’s gay community are portrayed with an earnest warmth, as the series derives sweet humor and intimate character moments from his story.

Although Dear White People reformulates its narrative emphases in season three, the show’s buoyant humor and dynamic visual flair remain consistent. A restless camera follows the students of the Armstrong-Parker House as they move swiftly through campus spaces and lob witticisms at one another, almost as if they were on an Aaron Sorkin show. All of them continue to speak with a voluminous knowledge of pop culture and capacity for barbed quips. Their cleverness and cultural knowledge would be easier to dismiss as aspirational flourishes designed to reflect creator Justin Simeon’s ideals if the heady repartee between students didn’t ensconce even the show’s most trenchant critiques in ebullience and communicate them with clarity. Everyday life for Winchester’s black students, though often marked by adversity, is also characterized by a resilient, intoxicating humor and confidence.

The series most overtly bristles against racism and corruption in peripheral subplots and extended comedic bits this season. In one such bit, Sam watches a fictional prestige drama that’s a pointed caricature of Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. She’s unable to look away from it, even after agreeing with her roommate, Joelle (Ashley Blaine Featherson), that it’s “tragedy porn…porn,” for the way it both appeals to its audience’s righteousness and appetite for sensationalism. As a sexual assault rumor emerges on campus, the Handmaid’s Tale spoof throws Dear White People’s frank portrayal of college rape into stark relief. And while Troy’s experience at Pastiche and Gabe’s struggles with newfound poverty would appear to have little bearing on the central plot, the series cannily uses both characters’ arcs to explore the myriad ways that institutions preserve a status quo—from Gabe using the results of a DNA test to dubiously help secure grant funding for his thesis, to Troy’s ouster from Pastiche after he attempts to bring to it a uniquely black perspective.

Through ancillary plot threads such as these, Dear White People attempts to parse the most effective means, and the most urgent reasons, to challenge institutional power. For example, after the sexual assault claim is dismissed by the administration for fear of what a serious inquiry might do to the university’s power structure, Sam is effectively put into the position of giving a voice to every assault survivor who’s been denied a voice on campus. In this and other subplots, the series is as adept as ever at distilling broad, topical conflicts to their essence, and it maintains its heartening faith in the liberal arts bubble to double as a petri dish for a substantive exchange of ideas and personal growth.

Still, Dear White People feels newly meandering in its third season. Much like the rough cut of Sam’s film, which begins as a powerful collection of humanistic vignettes rather than a well-honed documentary, these episodes offer a boggle of slightly underdeveloped narrative arcs. Although they comprise a varying and empathetic portrait of millennial anxiety, season three falls short of the show’s benchmark for narrative tension. The sexual assault arc is left mostly unresolved, while the story of a mysterious order of black elites, which began in season two, is left undeveloped in the background. Despite never attaining its usual insistent thrust, however, Dear White People locates poignancy in characters who, after fighting unwieldy, important battles for two years, confront their own waning momentum—and begin to wonder if personal fulfillment and cultural progress are not, necessarily, correlated.

Cast: Logan Browning, Brandon P Bell, Antoinette Robertson, Marque Richardson, Ashley Blaine Featherson, DeRon Horton, John Patrick Amedori, Giancarlo Esposito, Nia Jervier Network: Netflix

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


Review: Four Weddings and a Funeral Is a Bloated, Unimaginative Slog

The miniseries is a cautionary tale of how ballooning a story’s size doesn’t inherently improve its telling.




Four Weddings and a Funeral
Photo: Jay Maidment/Hulu

Beyond the requisite weddings and funeral, Hulu’s remake of director Mike Newell’s romantic comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral freely departs from its source. Rather than tracking a man’s various relationships almost exclusively through those social gatherings, the miniseries, co-created and co-written by Mindy Kaling, casts a much wider net by following the romances of four American friends in London, as well as a neighbor, an ex-fiancée, and others, none of whom have exact analogues in the original film. At 10 episodes, the series certainly has more than enough space to explore the depths of these characters, but it fails to put that extra time to effective use, ending up as yet another cautionary tale of how ballooning a story’s size for television doesn’t inherently improve its telling.

The 1994 film’s at once limited and expansive scope—multiple weddings across multiple months but with few scenes in between—is its hook as well as its biggest flaw, as the story rarely stops long enough to develop the relationships between its characters. So the series’s decision to spend so much time on the spaces between those weddings is an ostensibly savvy one. Not long after Maya (Nathalie Emmanuel) meets cute with restless aspiring actor Kash (Nikesh Patel), the series details her job in politics, her current relationship with her married boss (Tommy Dewey), and the dynamic with her estranged college pals, who all moved to London while she stayed in New York City for her job (and boyfriend). But the series never accumulates enough such details to make its characters feel particularly defined. Flimsy depictions of characters at work and becoming romantically entangled are clearly meant to stand in for any deeper characterization.

To be fair, the most average examples of the romantic comedy tend to function this way; like middle-of-the-road action heroes or interchangeable slasher victims, the star-crossed lovers of a rom-com are often cardboard vehicles on a collision course with their genre-mandated fates over the course of two hours or less. Such characters may be functional enough to hold together a comparatively short film, but they’re hardly up to the task of anchoring a miniseries of such stupefying length as this one. Rather than dig deeper into their personalities and backstories to accommodate the extra screen time, the series opts to simply add more characters: more pretty people, more couplings, more romantic snags.

Everything quickly devolves into a parodically huge pile-up of distended will-they-or-won’t-they dramas that mingle with the dregs of the series’s mugging sitcom cartoonishness and reference-heavy banter. Where the film addresses a peripheral unrequited romance between two friends through a single conversation, the miniseries version of this subplot encompasses multiple episodes. And despite the show’s overtures about personal growth, everyone’s insipid work-related problems are all so ludicrously self-inflicted that they seem designed to pad the running time: Maya spends an episode learning that having sex with her boss doesn’t endear her to future employers, and Kash realizes that putting in his two weeks’ notice to pursue acting when he has no experience is, in fact, a bad idea.

Jettisoning the film’s narrow focus on social gatherings doesn’t free up the series so much as leave it unmoored, a muddled spiderweb of relationships that only occasionally manifests some moving development, as in the sweet, unexpected trajectory of Kash’s arranged marriage through his mosque. There are times when the series manages to balance relatable emotions of longing, devastation, and indecision with inventive comedy, like the bizarre entanglement of Craig’s (Brandon Mychal Smith) love life with a reality TV show. But the most galling thing about this new Four Weddings and a Funeral is how downright unimaginative the rest of it is, as if simply drawing out various predictable conclusions will enrich the eventual catharsis. But when distributed across so many episodes, the lovelorn spark that fuels romantic comedy doesn’t get brighter so much as dim until you hardly notice it at all.

Cast: Nathalie Emmanuel, Nikesh Patel, Rebecca Rittenhouse, John Reynolds, Brandon Mychal Smith, Zoe Boyle, Sophia La Porta, Harish Patel, Guz Khan Network: Hulu

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