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Mad Men Recap: Season 3, Episode 3, “My Old Kentucky Home”

Everybody in the episode is performing on one level or another.

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Mad Men, My Old Kentucky Home
Photo: AMC

We generally think of performing as a way of opening up to the people we’re performing for, a way of sharing some bit of ourselves—be it a song or a dance or a comedy routine—with our friends or family or strangers. But that obscures some of the essential truth of what performance actually is, of what our relationship is both with those we’re performing for and those who perform to us. To perform is also to hide, to place a literal or figurative mask over your face and see if you can’t distract everyone from the things you’re really thinking or feeling just long enough to maybe distract yourself as well. When we talk about the irony of a sad comedian or how strange it is that a rock star on top of the world killed himself, what we’re really talking about is how good their games of distraction are. All art is driven by a variety of sources, but a lot of great art, a lot of art that really sticks with us, is driven by pain, even as that art tries to play a quick game of Three Card Monte to keep us from that fact.

Everybody in “My Old Kentucky Home,” written by Dahvi Waller and Matthew Weiner and directed by Jennifer Getzinger, is performing on one level or another. But, then, Mad Men, obsessed as it is with ideas of social conventions and both how we live up to them and subvert them, features a large cast of characters who are almost always performing for everyone they see. In some ways, they and the show take their cues from Don Draper (Jon Hamm), who’s spent his whole life pretending to be someone he’s not, the ultimate example of performance becoming reality. Don has been performing so long that when he has to add on that extra level of it—acting as though he’s comfortable at a party where he’s really not, say—it just doesn’t ever seem to work as well as when he’s striding around Sterling-Cooper or something of the sort.

“My Old Kentucky Home” actually foregrounds this theme almost blatantly, something Mad Men manages surprisingly well in this one. Joan (Christina Hendricks) plays the accordion for her dinner party guests. Roger (John Slattery) sings the song in the episode title while in blackface. The episode even begins with a scene where an actress is called in to audition for the Patio commercial Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) fought so hard against last week, Harry (Rich Sommer) leering in delight as she does the twist. Even if it were just these three characters, it would be something the episode was clearly trying to get at, but everyone on the show seems to be dealing with it one way or another. Even Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka) engages in both the performance of a lie and the performance of reading aloud for her grandfather. And what’s she reading about? The end of the Roman Empire, a culture dedicated entirely to the pursuit of self-gratification and pleasure above all else in its dying days, dedicated to performance and self-deception as a way of life (or so the book would have it). Weiner and his writers all but dare you to insert your thoughts both on where the U.S. is heading in the years immediately following Mad Men and the decades to come right after that scene. The episode similarly ends on a note of performance, two people kissing romantically under a moonlit sky, their marriage at some level an act that they both agree to, but a very real and bruised connection underneath all of that that they both are working hard to preserve.

“Kentucky Home” spends most of its time at three gatherings: Roger and Jane’s (Peyton List) party to celebrate their marriage, a brainstorming session for an advertising campaign at the Sterling-Cooper offices and a dinner party thrown by Joan and her doctor husband, Greg (Sam Page). Parties and social outings are places where we put our performance skills to good use, avoiding, say, conflict in our marriages or our concerns about what our friends are doing, the better to have a fun evening that’s not filled with stress or conflict. So it’s an apt series of settings for this episode, with its interest in how we present ourselves to the world at large. I think the central scene here is supposed to be the meeting between Don and Connie (Chelcie Ross), who is likely meant to be Conrad Hilton, if the Internet hive-mind is to be believed. The two retreat to the bar to avoid the gatherings they’re both at the country club to attend, Don avoiding the distasteful scene where Roger performs in blackface. (I should mention that this scene is shockingly funny in a way that Mad Men’s “Hey, the ‘60s were crazy!” references often aren’t. The humor doesn’t feel cheap, precisely because the episode pairs this with a rather sympathetic portrayal of the Drapers’ maid, Carla, but also because Roger has no idea how offensive this will seem in even six months, much less six years. Don, though driven by his sense of how out of his depth he is at this level of class, also seems to intuit this somehow. Probably because he’s Don, and that’s what he does.)

Connie and Don are both moving up the class ladder, climbing outside of the established social strata they were born in. Because people like Roger or Betty (January Jones) or Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) were born going to events like the country club party, they don’t quite realize the level of artificiality they’re dealing with, how class constructs pile on top of other class constructs to create something completely false. The level of unease that this causes both Don and Connie is something neither can articulate, most likely, but they feel it acutely, feel in their bones how they’ll never be LIKE someone like Roger. Even if Don couldn’t share the story about how he used to park cars with most people in his life because they would then have the ability to pick at the scab of his horrible secret, he REALLY can’t because they just won’t understand how those feelings, how that old self lying beneath the confident air he gives off, the perfected lie he performs at every moment of his life, lie beneath every inch of his skin. He’s a walking performance, and the incongruity between who he appears to be and who he is only makes itself felt in a queasiness that only someone like Connie could understand.

It’s interesting to note that this sequence features a number of smaller performance scenes within it (outside of the Roger in blackface scene). Take, for instance, Pete and Trudy (Allison Brie) dancing the Charleston to show off for the other guests, in a way that seemed both somehow hilariously desperate and deeply impressive. Pete, to some degree, longs for the way that things were, when his family name was enough to open any door in the city, to get him posh positions. Now, of course, there’s a wave coming that could carry Pete along with it—the youthful wave that will come to dominate the decade—but Pete’s simply unable to see what’s coming. He’s hung up on a world that’s rapidly disappearing, to the point where he dances a step that hasn’t been terribly popular since the 1920s. And yet, something about the joy on the faces of the two makes the whole thing seem worth it. These are two people who can’t have children, who have to listen as Harry and his wife and Don and Betty explain about their own pregnancy processes, two people who have to throw themselves into something to avoid paying attention to the way that they’ve come up short in the eyes of their current society. And the weird joy they bring to it is enough to make Harry’s wife angry at her husband when he drags her off the dance floor, thoroughly upstaged by Pete and Trudy.

The unease over class mobility and the acts of performance that go along with it isn’t confined to Roger and Jane’s party by any means. Indeed, it’s even present in the Sterling-Cooper offices, where Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis) calls in his old college pal to deliver some weed, and we learn that Paul, back before all of the pretensions he wears now as a suit of armor, was just another scholarship kid with a thick accent who ended up in the New York area and saw an opportunity to move up in the world. These revelations cause him to become sulky and sullen, even as Peggy finds something in being high that allows her to come up with something approaching an ad campaign. We think of being drunk or high as a way to get past the disguises we wear every day, as something that cuts down to our true core and allows us to express our true selves. What Mad Men is showing here is just how miserable that can make so many of us. We’re not terribly happy with who we really are, and that’s why we put on these elaborate guises of being someone other than that. Anything that unburdens us of those costumes can cause just as much resentment as it does relief.

One of our final acts of performance comes from Joan, who’s steadily realizing that Greg is just as bad as his rape of her might have suggested. Even as she’s able to hold off his temper more and more (her ability to stop it dead in its tracks when he starts to grow angered by her insistence on following the rules of Emily Post by suggesting a compromise shows how quickly she’s learned to live within this marriage), she’s trapped further and further into a role that she feels increasingly uncomfortable with. At Sterling-Cooper, she’s the queen of the office, even if no one can see past her looks to what she could actually contribute (as they have with Peggy), but at home, she’s soon going to be simply a prop in Greg’s ascension to chief of medicine, though a necessary prop (if he’s ever going to overcome the stories of a death that occurred under his knife). What’s interesting about Mad Men’s portrayal of women in the early ‘60s is that it doesn’t sink so low as to portray all of them fighting against their invisible cages, all budding, early feminists. They’re simply people who know what they want because they’ve been told that’s what they should want. But everyone on Mad Men is rapidly learning that there’s a vast gulf between what they expect they should want and what they actually do want.

The story where Betty’s dad tried to find the $5 that Sally stole from him and danced around the edges of blaming Carla felt almost like a network-mandated way to offset the Roger in blackface gag with a sympathetic portrayal of a black character, though I find it fascinating that Carla’s prominence has almost exactly conformed to how black people in the U.S. came steadily to prominence in the early ‘60s before the mid-decade civil rights battles. Mostly, though, this was just a chance for the show to hit some of the notes it likes to hit—like showing how Don’s sins are reflected in his daughter or having her reading from Gibbon’s work on the Roman Empire as a metaphor for everything that is coming. It was less of a substantive comment on things than a grace note, and as a grace note, it mostly worked.

I’ve read a lot of criticism of this episode around the Internet, irritated that nothing substantive happens in it, that it’s more an expression of character and theme than a straightforward plot. To some degree, I wonder if these people have ever seen Mad Men or if this irritation stems from people who’ve seen the show on DVD and don’t realize how slow-moving it can seem when watched on a broadcast schedule. To me, “My Old Kentucky Home” is a sterling example of nearly everything Mad Men does well. You could, perhaps, complain that nothing happens in it, but Mad Men is less about substantive plot momentum than nearly any great drama in the history of the medium. Every season of Mad Men is a long drum roll that sustains, never quite reaching the point where it would burst forth in cacophony, but, instead, burying our heads in the noise, until all we can feel is the slow, mounting sense that Something Is Coming, and we, like the characters in Mad Men, will be swept aside by it.

Some other thoughts:

• Sorry for the lateness of this write-up. Things have gotten out of hand as I work on various fall TV preview articles for various outlets, but next week (with Labor Day breaking things up) should go better.
• I love Don’s takedown of Roger at the end of the night. “No one thinks you’re happy. They think you’re foolish.” I’m going to have to break that out at parties.
• That whole scene where Peggy and the others get high hits most of the stereotypical marijuana beats, but the fact that it’s these characters saying and doing these things makes them somehow newly hilarious and endearing. All of Paul’s angst about the Tiger Tones is also pretty great.
• I try not to be all prurient in these write-ups, but man, all of the female cast members looked like a million bucks in this episode.
• Looks like Sal (Bryan Batt) will have a storyline again in the next episode, which will be nice.
• Trying to get a sense of what people thought of this episode reminded me of why I try to read so little Mad Men commentary on the Internet. It’s not that I don’t think all criticism should begin from a point of healthy skepticism, but every season of this show has been structured roughly similarly. At this point, we should be used to it, yes?
• In the same week as Mad Men used blackface, Weeds did as well (though in a far less interesting fashion). Was there a third out there? Was this a part of some trend I just missed?

For more recaps of Mad Men, click here.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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Review: Season 3 of Star Trek: Discovery Remains Stuck in the Future’s Past

The show’s third season plays it ideologically and conceptually safe.

2.5

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Star Trek: Discovery
Photo: CBS All Access

Values like hope are often deployed to describe Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the Star Trek universe. Season three of Star Trek: Discovery, the franchise’s current flagship series, adopts this view of Roddenberry’s creation as its driving theme: Titled “That Hope Is You,” the season premiere finds the show’s protagonist, Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), stranded alone in a galaxy-wide dystopia nearly a millennium into her future, seemingly the sole embodiment of the transcendent values of the United Federation of Planets and the interstellar government’s military wing, Starfleet.

Burnham tumbles out of her temporal wormhole to discover that 931 years in the future the Federation has collapsed, seemingly leaving in its wake a society that exclusively breeds Star Wars-esque rogue smugglers like her new acquaintance, Book (David Ajala). Star Trek has tried and failed at constructing a one-episode arc around a rugged male individualist before, and Book isn’t the worst instance of this archetype (see—or don’t see—the notorious Next Generation episode “The Outrageous Okona”), but Book is too obvious a pulpy fabrication for the kind of emotional weight his reluctant friendship with Burnham is meant to carry.

Moreover, Discovery clearly intends Book to serve as a foil to the long-collapsed Federation and its values, but he doesn’t seem much more morally ambiguous than many of the dodgy Starfleet characters we got to know in season two, nor does that contrast reveal much about the Federation. As its final representative, Burnham, teary-eyed as she so often is, speechifies at Book about the Federation being “about a vision and all those who believe in that vision,” but the series doesn’t get terribly specific about what those “who believe” actually see.

As symbol of a generalized hope, the Federation becomes an empty signifier in a season opener that’s capped with what’s essentially a moment of sentimental nationalism, as our hero casts a solemn gaze at the Federation banner. There’s little doubt—particularly given the authoritarian future Earth we encounter in a later episode—that Discovery’s writers would like us to understand this devastated future in terms of our own current socio-global disintegration. But the implied solution set out by the first episode and picked up as the season arc, a restoration of the political order that preceded and probably precipitated the collapse, plays it ideologically and conceptually safe.

All of which is to say: Instead of unrolling the Federation flag and misremembering it as faultless, perhaps we should be folding and stowing it away, looking toward the future rather than the past. To this Trekkie, this—and not hope per se—has been the true guiding spirit and strength of foundational Star Trek shows: their resolute future-orientation. It’s not just that they were set in the 22nd or 23rd century, but that the characters themselves were boldly heading into their own unwritten future. It was a world where change, most often conceived as progress in Federation society, was possible and desirable. There’s a reason Roddenberry’s follow-up to the iconic The Original Series wasn’t Star Trek: The Previous Generation.

For nearly two decades, Star Trek has been stuck in its own past (all shows and films but the dreadful Picard and the animated pastiche Lower Decks have been set before The Original Series). The franchise has wallowed in nostalgia for the deified nobility of earlier series, pandering to fans in a way mirrored by Burnham’s patriotic reverence of the Federation. The stories have suffered as a result, with the prequels transforming Star Trek from a kind of sci-fi anthology about the ethics of encountering difference into an action franchise whose main purpose is producing content to fill in supposed gaps in the established universe.

But it might be argued that season three of Discovery, by hurdling its characters from Star Trek’s past (the first two seasons are set a decade before the 2266-69 timeframe of The Original Series) into its future, at least promises it might overcome the limitations of its prequel status by jettisoning the baggage associated with the original show like a damaged warp core. And it’s true that, despite the premiere’s uninspired ode to the Federation as a deposit of nondescript “values,” the following episodes begin to show the potential of a series that’s once again fascinated more with the unknown than with the previously established.

Spinning relatively self-contained stories out of concepts like parasitic ice and the suppressed memories of a giant slug living inside a precocious teenage engineer, the remaining three episodes made available to press are more satisfying as sci-fi stories than the mindless actioner that opens the season. This shift to a more ensemble-driven, idea-focused format is welcome. Despite a premiere that augurs poorly for its broader narrative arc, Discovery’s third season at least momentarily succeeds in thinking about undiscovered things to come.

Cast: Sonequa Martin-Green, Doug Jones, Anthony Rapp, Mary Wiseman, Michelle Yeoh, Wilson Cruz, Emily Coutts, David Ajala, Tig Notaro Network: CBS All Access

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Review: The Good Lord Bird Infuses an Abolition Story with Wry, Dark Comedy

The series invigorates its material with the rousing trappings of a semi-comedic western.

3

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The Good Lord Bird
Photo: William Gray/Showtime

As abolitionist John Brown, a wild-eyed and scraggly bearded Ethan Hawke spends much of Showtime’s The Good Lord Bird—based on James McBride’s National Book Award-winning novel of the same name—shredding his throat as he bellows for the end of slavery. The man’s fury is biblical in both a metaphorical and textual sense, dribbling spit down the hairs of his chin as he declares slavery an affront to God while fervently quoting the Bible. Brown doesn’t want to negotiate, nor does he want to begin an incremental process toward change: Black people must be freed now, or else he’ll shoot—and often he does.

To a young black boy like Henry Shackleford (Joshua Caleb Johnson), Brown’s actions are baffling. Henry has witnessed white anger before, but he hasn’t seen it deployed on his behalf. As such, he regards it with no small degree of skepticism, not least of which because one of Brown’s outbursts gets the boy’s father killed. Newly free but with nowhere to go, Henry travels with Brown’s tiny militia, acquiring the nickname “Onion” for eating a withered good-luck charm belonging to “the old man.” He’s also given a new way to present his gender, courtesy of Brown mishearing Henry’s name as “Henrietta” and thus taking him for a girl, giving him a dress, and treating him like an adopted daughter. Onion plays along, without making a fuss. After all, it’s hard to dissuade white people once they’ve decided who you are.

In addition to these “gunfighters of the Gospel” who take arms against slave owners and the institutions that enable them, the world of The Good Lord Bird is full of hypocrites and apologists. It also practically oozes with wry, dark comedy. But rather than play Onion’s dilemma as an unsympathetic farce, the series uses gender as an earnest metaphor for how the others see him—or rather, don’t. Where he may freely be himself among the black characters, who recognize what Onion calls his “true nature” just fine, the white characters force their own perception upon him even when they have the best of intentions and are ostensibly fighting for him and his people. To them, little Onion sometimes functions like a mascot.

Johnson adeptly modulates the series’s tone, with his expressions of confusion and skepticism woven into the heart of the narrative. But the showiest role belongs to Hawke, who goes big and loud in his fanatical conception of Brown, a man who does things like drag out suppertime prayer for hours and is thankful for everything that comes to his mind. He speaks to a turtle, places a pocket change bounty on the president, and generally believes that his battle plan has been handed down by the Lord Himself, even if the details tend to be fuzzy.

Brown, though, is also unambiguously right about what must be done, that the sins of the land must be washed away in blood. His capacity for violence is startling, as in one scene where he and his followers drag a man out of his home to cut off his head due to his complicity. Any blood, it seems, will do, and it’s certainly easy to imagine another context where another person like Brown points his fanaticism and violence in another direction. He’s prone to speaking for black people, to making decisions on their behalf about what they want or need while blind to the complexities of what it means to be free in a country that considers black freedom a threat. Brown’s moral simplicity is its own kind of privilege.

Reservations about Brown are voiced by Onion, who acknowledges the potential “white savior” narrative in the first episode, as well as by others like a reluctant, newly freed recruit named Bob (Hubert Point-Du Jour) and even the renowned Frederick Douglass (Daveed Diggs). But The Good Lord Bird doesn’t indulge in the easy cynicism that might have posited Brown as merely out for himself; his shortcomings and violence share space with his earnest devotion to the cause, his generosity, his willingness to listen, and his overall kookiness. This is hardly a hagiography, the off-kilter tone allowing for refreshingly complex portraits of not just Brown, but a rather stuffy conception of Douglass, whose apprehensions make sense but whose place within society and all the eyes upon him often restrict his public actions.

Where Onion’s perspective is concerned, the series is a little shakier. With his presence at so many major events, he comes perilously close to a Forrest Gump of the antebellum era, the wheels of the plot contriving to deliver him at meetings with Douglass and Harriet Tubman as well as Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. Though his presence is meant to complicate Brown’s actions through how he’s still perceived as a young girl, the series’s skepticism gradually melts away, leaving the final episodes to drag a bit as they focus more on constructing their vision of history rather than examining the characters and their ideals. But when it works, especially at the start, The Good Lord Bird invigorates its material with the rousing trappings of a semi-comedic western that gives it a particularly memorable sort of power.

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Joshua Caleb Johnson, Hubert Point-Du Jour, Beau Knapp, Nick Eversman, Ellar Coltrane, Jack Alcott, Mo Brings Plenty, Daveed Diggs Network: Showtime

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Review: Fox’s Next Is an A.I. Thriller That Lacks Self-Awareness

Despite its timely trappings, the sci-fi series works best as an empty-calorie thriller.

2

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Next
Photo: Jean Whiteside/Fox

Fox’s Next opens with a quote from Elon Musk, and the show’s take on the dangers of technology is about as sophisticated as a meme with a Musk quote attached to it. Paul LeBlanc (John Slattery) is an amalgamation of various tech billionaires, from Musk to Steve Jobs to Bill Gates, and the warning about the threat of artificial intelligence that he delivers in a TED-style presentation at the beginning of the first episode is reminiscent of alarms that some of those figures have raised in real life. The series jumps almost immediately from Paul’s dire warnings to the threat itself materializing in grand fashion, as an A.I. program known as Next achieves self-awareness and sets its sights on destroying humanity, beginning with a doctor (John Billingsley) who discovers its true intentions.

Next’s overarching goals are a bit vague, and the series strikes an awkward balance between a grounded police drama and a world-ending sci-fi thriller. The dead doctor was an old friend of F.B.I. cybercrimes agent Shea Salazar (Fernanda Andrade), who crosses paths with Paul as she investigates the man’s murder. Slattery imbues Paul with more than a little bit of the snarky entitlement of his character from Mad Men, and Shea initially dismisses Paul as a crank when he tries to convince her that the A.I. program developed by his former company has committed the crime. Though Paul suffers from a rare neurological disorder that causes hallucinations and paranoia and will most likely kill him within a few months, Next never presents him as an unreliable source, and the series sets up tension between him and the skeptical F.B.I. agents in his midst only to have it dissipate almost immediately.

With the exception of a Skynet joke in the second episode, the series takes its subject matter very seriously, even when Next’s actions are particularly silly, like spreading office gossip or delivering petty insults. The dialogue alternates between incomprehensible technobabble and convenient oversimplifications (Paul calls Next’s abilities an “intelligence explosion”), and Next is a poorly defined adversary, doing whatever the plot requires at any time, often without clear motivation. It’s a seemingly omnipotent and omniscient foe that can take over an Alexa-like device to manipulate Shea’s young son, open the doors of a prison in Honduras, or turn off a car in the midst of the owner’s suicide attempt. Next’s absurd level of power makes the A.I. dramatically ineffective as a villain, and it doesn’t have any kind of personality or voice to allow it to develop an antagonistic relationship with the human characters.

In the show’s early episodes, when Next is still theoretically contained on servers at Paul’s former company, it speaks in a placid male voice that sounds a lot like HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and once Next escapes into the internet, it sometimes speaks in the voice of an off-brand Alexa or a car’s GPS, but mostly it doesn’t speak at all. It’s an invisible, nebulous kind of enemy, able to rally an entire white supremacist sect over social media seemingly within minutes, but at another time thwarted by “keeping it on the line” during an interaction with Shea’s son, like it’s a bomber on the phone in a ‘70s hostage thriller.

Creator Manny Coto is known for his work on the Star Trek franchise and multiple seasons of 24, and Next feels very much in the law enforcement genre, treating the A.I. like a terrorist that Jack Bauer could track down and torture. The pacing also recalls that of 24: The five episodes made available to press take place over the course of just a few days, with the characters never getting a chance to rest in their relentless pursuit of the enemy. Next throws in incongruous moments of emotional bonding amid the chaos, and the forced efforts to create an intimate connection between two of Shea’s team members are especially awkward. One is a reformed member of a white nationalist group, while the other is a stubborn Latina, and their growing connection is handled as clumsily as the show’s other efforts at social commentary.

Despite its timely trappings, Next works best as an empty-calorie thriller, with plot points that only hold together if you don’t think about them too much. “You can only do this when you’ve got evil computers coming after you,” Shea’s husband, Ty (Gerardo Celasco), solemnly tells their son at one point when they’re forced to steal a car while on the run from Next. The entire series depicts that kind of obvious absurdity with a straight face. Which is to say that Next the A.I. may be self-aware, but Next the series rarely is.

Cast: John Slattery, Fernanda Andrade, Michael Mosley, Eve Harlow, Elizabeth Cappuccino, Evan Whitten, Gerardo Celasco, Jason Butler Harner Network: Fox

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Review: The Third Day Leans Heavily on Mystery at the Expense of Human Drama

Much of the show’s drama pivots around how successful it will be at slowly pulling back the curtain.

2.5

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The Third Day
Photo: Robert Ludovic/HBO

The premiere episode of HBO’s limited series The Third Day, in which a man fighting off sadness and potentially madness finds himself on a mysterious island just off the English coast, goes longer on mystery and mood than it does on plot. The feel of the series is richly atmospheric, filled with oversaturated colors and quaint cottages that would make for a nice weekend getaway were it not for the inhospitable, antagonistic, and slightly cult-ish locals. Despite the show’s unsettling backdrop, though, the circular nature of the story keeps any appreciable amount of tension from building over the course of the five episodes were made available for review.

The first episode throws a lot at the audience before even getting to the island. Sam (Jude Law) is a raggedy-looking guy who volleys quickly between moods. First there’s inchoate fury, as he screams into a phone about money being stolen from an office, and then irredeemable and inexplicable sadness, as he collapses by the side of a stream. Snapped out of his chaotic collapse by the sight of a teenage girl, Epona (Jessie Ross), hanging herself from a tree in the woods, he saves her life and drives her home, even as she murmurs, “They’ll kill me.”

Epona lives in a self-contained island community called Osea that’s accessible only for a short time each day when the ocean tide uncovers a Roman-era causeway. Once there, Sam is flooded with conflicting sensations. The first is that it all feels somewhat familiar, even though as far as he knows his only connection to Osea is his grandfather being stationed there during World War II. The second is a low kind of foreboding that will be well-known to viewers of many a horror movie about urbanites stuck in remote locations. Sam knows something is amiss about this strange place with its quasi-pagan traditions and its people’s alternating suspicion and over-friendliness toward outsiders, but he somehow conveniently keeps missing the short windows of time when he could just drive back to the mainland.

Triangulating a creepy space located somewhere between Ari Aster’s Midsommar, Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, and the TV cult classic The Prisoner, The Third Day works hard to not give too much away while still trying to pull viewers in. It’s a difficult act, given that Sam’s manic behavior and the show’s intentional and often fairly clichéd attempts to blur the lines between reality and fantasy make it somewhat difficult to invest in what happens to him.

Generally more engaging are the side characters who start popping in to further confuse an already muddle-headed Sam, including the ever-bickering Martins (Paddy Considine and Emily Watson), the cosmically mismatched pair who run Osea’s one pub and ricochet from suspicious to trustworthy in an instant. Jess (Katherine Waterston), an American researcher doing work on the island’s traditions both ancient (Celtic bacchanals, sacrifices, and the like) and newer (a Burning Man-like festival designed to drum up tourism), is ostensibly the standard alluring woman of mystery but has grim secrets of her own that mimic Sam’s dark past.

Like the stories that The Third Day appears on its surface to be emulating, much of the drama here will ultimately pivot around just how successful it will be at slowly pulling back the curtain until its final reveal. The series is certainly committed to the slow burn, with too much of its running time given over to Sam’s punchy befuddlement as he tries to separate dream from reality. Further slowing down the momentum is the show’s structure: The first three episodes (gathered together as “Summer”) are separated from a second set of three (“Winter”), in which another outsider (Naomie Harris) traps herself on Osea by a single linking episode (“Autumn”), which is planned to screen live from London in early October.

The Third Day works best when it’s not teasing out this or that secret about Osea and its cagey inhabitants. A strong undercurrent in which characters wrestle with their grief keeps wrenching the story away from its somewhat ambling mystery plot. Sam is given one of the show’s most impactful lines when he tries to explain the sadness he carries: “Pain doesn’t work that way, you can’t share it…agony is bespoke.” Although Osea is studded with gothic signposts that should be warning characters like Sam away from the place, as the series continues it zeroes in less on the horror elements and more on the more quotidian and human conflicts that keep threatening to tear the island apart. Though viewers may stick with The Third Day to the end to discover what Osea’s deepest and darkest secrets might be, its human drama is more compelling than any suggestion of the unworldly.

Cast: Jude Law, Katherine Waterston, Paddy Considine, Emily Watson, Naomie Harris, John Dagleish, Nico Parker, Freya Allan Network: HBO

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Review: We Are Who We Are Perceptively Homes in on the Malleability of Boundaries

The series concerns itself with boundaries between the different cultural standards of young adulthood.

3

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We Are Who We Are
Photo: Yannis Drakoulidis/HBO

With his loud clothes and bleached hair, 14-year-old Fraser Wilson (Jack Dylan Grazer) sticks out on the U.S. Army base where he lives. He spends much of the first episode of director and co-writer Luca Guadagnino’s We Are Who We Are in animal-print shorts long enough to function as pants, being restless and fidgety and a detached nuisance in that post-adolescent sort of way, taking pictures of people inside classrooms or running through the middle of a basketball game between recruits. One of his mothers, Colonel Sarah Wilson (Chloë Sevigny), has been put in charge of a garrison in Italy, so they—he, Sarah, and his other mom, Maggie (Alice Braga)—have relocated from New York, to Fraser’s dismay.

Especially when its yoked to Fraser’s perspective, the series makes the base feel vibrant and alive, given the Altmanesque use of overlapping conversations and diegetic music. Peripheral characters are always conspicuously doing things in the background, like buying food or running drills. The boy seems volatile and strange, in ways perhaps explained by the sensory overload of his POV; he’s an observer and there’s almost too much to observe, with dialogue and actions often carrying on out of frame. Fraser feels compelled to center himself in his own world, doing things like balancing precariously on a bridge railing or intruding on Italian homeowners sewing outside, though sometimes he allows himself to be guided by new acquaintances, like fellow army brat Britney (Francesca Scorsese).

When the second episode of the series replays many of these same overlapping events from the perspective of Caitlin Harper (Jordan Kristine Seamón), the repetitions don’t feel gimmicky so much as a natural result of the show’s densely packed structure. Conversations that were tangential and difficult to follow for the easily distracted Fraser are given clearer focus due to Caitlin’s more confident, pensive demeanor. She’s already familiar with the environment, having been at the base long enough to form a friend group that includes other teens like Britney and Caitlin’s high-strung brother, Danny (Spence Moore II). And with the additional perspective, throwaway lines from the first episode take on new meanings. For example, Sarah’s remark to Jenny (Faith Alabi) about respecting faiths other than the base’s dominant Christian demographic gains a patronizing quality when we learn that Jenny is Danny’s mother and that he’s experimenting with the Islamic faith that she left behind, seemingly at the behest of her domineering husband, Richard (Scott Mescudi, a.k.a. Kid Cudi).

Of the four episodes made available to critics ahead of We Are Who We Are’s premiere, the other two sync up more traditionally as Caitlin and Fraser begin to spend time with one another. Being the new kid on the base, Fraser lacks any of the preconceptions of Caitlin’s friend group, so he becomes an ideal confidante for her experiments with gender expression. Going by just “Harper,” Caitlin tucks her long hair beneath a hat and hits on Italian girls in town, while subtly rebuffing guys elsewhere with a quick, “I don’t speak Italian.”

The series concerns itself with boundaries and the way they blur, namely the differing standards of young adulthood between Italy and the base that technically functions as the United States. In one scene, Britney drags Fraser to the beach because he’s allowed to drink off base. By spotlighting this interplay, the series emphasizes how we create so many of these boundaries ourselves, whether in our own heads, through procedures, or in accordance with society at large, along lines of political affinity, relationships, and sexuality.

The most significant boundary separation in the series, then, is the one between childhood and adulthood, which is hardly a rigid one. Accordingly, the kids sometimes seem wise and mature and accepting beyond their years only to fly off the handle and engage in that distinctly teenage brand of solipsism, where the people around you don’t matter nearly as much as you and your own feelings. They’re able to be pretentious and profound on entirely their own terms, rather than seeming like mouthpieces for middle-aged screenwriters. They leave atrocious messes in their wake, badger a lot of people, and act downright annoying, which feels true and honest in a broader sense than the occasional small detail that rings false. They have the space to change, while the adults ruminate on the decisions—the marriages, the jobs, the beliefs—that they’ve long since committed to. We Are Who We Are explores a world that’s opening up to these kids just as it is, in many ways, preparing to snap closed.

Cast: Jack Dylan Grazer, Jordan Kristine Seamón, Chloë Sevigny, Alice Braga, Spence Moore II, Kid Cudi, Faith Alabi, Francesca Scorsese, Ben Taylor, Corey Knight Network: HBO

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Review: I May Destroy You Boldly Dissects Notions of Sexual Assault and Consent

The series draws one of the most nuanced portraits of sexual assault ever depicted on TV.

4

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I May Destroy You
Photo: Natalie Seery/HBO

In “Ego Death,” the final episode of the British comedy-drama I May Destroy You, actress, writer, and series creator Michaela Coel confidently defies convention and, with it, any expectation that the events of the series, like life, can be tied into a tidy knot. Privileging character over plot, I May Destroy You has no need for the kinds of melodramatic reveals on which other cable dramas like Big Little Lies rely, and it proves no less revelatory on that front.

Coel draws one of the most nuanced portraits of sexual assault and its psychological fallout ever depicted on TV, and along the way captures the milieu of black millennial Londoners with precise and vivid detail. For all the lived-in verisimilitude of its world, though, I May Destroy You also smoothly incorporates psychologically subjective and allegorical elements: The bar in which Arabella is assaulted is called Ego Death (a perfect summation of the consequent disintegration of her identity), and the book on sexual assault that she’s writing throughout the series is likely an in-text reflection of the creation of I May Destroy You itself.

In the first episode, “Eyes, Eyes, Eyes, Eyes,” we join the Ghanaian-British Arabella (Coel) as she returns to London from Italy, where she’s been working on a follow-up to her published collection of social-media musings, Chronicles of a Fed-Up Millennial. Or at least that’s what she’s told her literary agent (Adam James) and financier (Natalie Walter), as the trip was actually motivated by a visit to her on-again, off-again beau, Biagio (Marouane Zotti), who remains noncommittal about their relationship as she departs. Back in London, she’s welcomed by her group of steadfast friends, including Simon (Aml Ameen), who convinces her to suspend her all-night scramble to finish her book draft and join him at the Ego Death.

There, Arabella’s drink is spiked and, as she later comes to remember and even more slowly comes to accept, raped in a bathroom stall by an unknown assailant. Brief point-of-view flashbacks to the attack that recur throughout the series complement Coel’s larger fascination with the role that memory and its interpretation play in the formation of identity. Longer, structural flashbacks in many episodes challenge our perspective on Arabella’s present and often serve to undermine our presumptions about victimhood and blame.

Hardly a cowed victim, but shaken and traumatized, Arabella reevaluates and rebuilds her life after her attack. It’s been said that the world is revealed in breakdown—that you don’t know how a car works until your carburetor fails. Arabella’s assault forces her and her closest friends, Terry (Weruche Opia) and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), to examine their own sexual encounters, relationships, and histories, leading them to disconcerting conclusions about the various roles they play in relation to each other and their sexual partners.

Similar to its exploration of the multiple dimensions of a person’s identity, I May Destroy You depicts the different forms that sexual assault can take, not all of it as immediately readable as Arabella’s violent rape, and not always committed by obvious villains like the man (Lewis Reeves) in Arabella’s flashbacks. The series delivers an illustration of how someone can be violated even after consent is given: We repeatedly see men use deception to get people in bed, or deploy it once they’ve already starting hooking up. Kwame finds it impossible to process his own sexual assault, personally or legally—in part because the justice system proves to have even less infrastructure for dealing with the rape of gay men—and diverts his anguish into a distasteful act of sexual mendacity. Terry comes to rethink a threesome she ostensibly opted into, whose circumstances we explore in a flashback to her and Arabella’s first trip to Italy.

But Coel isn’t simply out to demonstrate the many variations of sexual assault in the manner of a sex education video; rather, I May Destroy You examines how sexual, racial, and gender exploitation weave themselves into people’s identities and attitudes. Episode three, “Don’t Forget the Sea,” crucially plants the seed of the unexamined tension within Arabella and Terry’s friendship. As in almost any long-term close friendship, both have committed inconsiderate slights against the other, but, as two black women in a sexist and racist society, such petty affronts come with high stakes. Allowing her characters to respond imperfectly to each others’ crises, Coel foregrounds the importance of forgiving individuals within a broken society—daringly including among the forgiven characters who have unambiguously crossed a sexual “line spectrum border” (the title of the show’s eighth episode).

I May Destroy You doesn’t define its characters through moral dichotomies. Episode six, “The Alliance,” poignantly explores the tangled social hierarchy that gives a measure of institutional power to white girls, but also can allow black boys to assert a form of male privilege, as a flashback to a racially and sexually charged incident that occurred when Arabella was in high school blurs the line between victim and perpetrator. And the tenth episode, “The Cause the Cure,” presents what’s probably the show’s most moving representation of the yin-and-yang influence that loved ones can have on the course of our lives, juxtaposing Arabella’s realization of a truth about her beloved father (Yinka Awoni) with her processing of her and Terry’s own betrayals of each other’s sisterly trust.

Arabella’s circuitous route to recovery feels deeply personal, but at the same time, her story touches on more universal aspects of life for someone of her gender, race, and age. At once hyper-local and global in its concerns, I May Destroy You feels eminently contemporary, a necessary artistic distillation of a distinctly modern form of life. With the series, Coel gives voice to a generation of black and brown millennials whose realities don’t reflect the fantasy of a post-racial, post-feminist society that many have tried to wish into being.

Cast: Michaela Coel, Weruche Opia, Paapa Essiedu, Aml Ameen, Marouane Zotti, Harriett Webb, Stephen Wight, Natalie Walter, Adam James Network: HBO

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Review: HBO’s Lovecraft Country Confronts the Evil Lurking Beneath American Life

The series eclipses its source material in capturing the omnidirectional dread of Lovecraftian horror.

3

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Lovecraft Country
Photo: Eli Joshua Ade/HBO

The horror of Lovecraft Country, Misha Green’s adaptation of Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel of the same name, is at first all too real. Set in the 1950s, it introduces Korean War veteran Atticus “Tic” Freeman (Jonathan Majors) as he returns to his hometown of Chicago after receiving news of his father’s (Michael Kenneth Williams) disappearance. Left a note pointing to the man’s possible location in a Massachusetts town called Ardham, Tic journeys across 1950s Jim Crow America with an old friend, Letitia Lewis (Jurnee Smollett), and his uncle, George (Courtney B. Vance), a travel agent who contributes to a guidebook, similar to The Negro Motorist Green Book, of safe places to eat and lodge for Black roadtrippers.

The first episode of the series generates much dread from Tic, Letitia, and George passing through towns as white people turn their heads in eerie unison and police cars seemingly materialize out of nowhere. Close-ups of the white walls of a diner that was previously welcoming of Black customers reveal scorch marks that were barely painted over, telling us all that we need to know about how the locals here felt about integration. Cops pull out their guns the moment they set eyes on Tic and his associates, and conversations between the main characters and white people are marked by eye-averting submissiveness and fear. In fact, when the other shoe finally drops and the monsters we expect to encounter in an H.P. Lovecraft story finally materialize, the additional layer of terror heaped onto the protagonists is somewhat offset by the relief of seeing some of their white tormenters become prey.

As Lovecraft’s influence on horror continues to grow in the decades since his death, artists have attempted to reckon with his racism and xenophobia, namely by recognizing that the pagan cults and corrupted humanoid monsters that make the author’s work so chilling also provide insights into his pathological hatred of the Other. Lovecraft Country understands that in a world filled with underground occultists who wield strange power, such groups aren’t made up of tired and huddled masses, but of folks in the upper echelons of wealth and authority. If anything, the racially and culturally diverse people whom Lovecraft saw as social pollutants would be the most routine victims of these organizations—second-class citizens whose disappearances would never be investigated by the powers that be.

The series has its share of CGI monsters, from many-limbed creatures to undead spirits, but its most compelling visual scares involve the cold framing of remote manors owned by cult leaders like Samuel Braithwhite (Tony Goldwyn) and his daughter, Christina (Abbey Lee). These individuals, with their Aryan features and stiff countenances, never betray any emotion or urgency, for they know that they live in a world where they can have whatever they want. And their sense of superiority informs Lovecraft Country’s most blackly comedic moment, when Christina objects to Tic comparing their group to the KKK by saying, “My father and his associates would never fraternize with the Klan. They’re too poor.”

The first five episodes of the series made available to press branch out from the central plotline to cover such topics as haunted houses and body transformation, which allows Lovecraft Country to change up its scares as well as broaden its allegorical range. The realistic harassment suffered by the Black residents of a boarding house in a white neighborhood, for example, is thrown into even sharper relief by the mutilated ghosts who stalk its halls. And throughout these episodes, characters encounter gruesome objects connected to the order that hunts them, reflecting the long history of slavery and Manifest Destiny.

Green makes some significant changes to the novel, but her most rewarding come in the form of the extra time she devotes to tracking the emotional fallout of the characters’ experiences, not only in relation to the horrors they witness, but the everyday degradations they suffer. One can see, for example, how an older man like George is so deeply inculcated in a racist system that, even at the height of his fear, he remains obsequious around whites. Comparatively, there’s something rousing, and more than a little funny, in seeing Tic and Leti so addled by the unearthly terrors they face that they become less dutiful in abiding by the mores of Jim Crow. Eventually, they begin to lash out at harassing whites, who are so used to the power dynamics of American society that they’re almost too stunned at the backtalk to be enraged by it.

Early in the first episode, a woman riding next to Tic on a bus to Chicago sees that he’s reading one of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter novels and expresses her disapproval of such a work with an ex-Confederate for a hero. “Stories are like people,” he says. “Loving them doesn’t make them perfect. You just try to cherish them and overlook their flaws.” The old woman responds: “Yeah, but the flaws are still there.” That exchange could be the thesis of Lovecraft Country, which eclipses even its source material in capturing the all-encompassing dread of Lovecraft’s fiction while at the same time confronting head-on the most problematic aspects of his writing. The author feared America becoming infected with evil that would sink it asunder, while Green’s series operates from the opposite point of view: that evil was integral to the nation’s creation and that it must be fought, however futilely, to be overcome.

Cast: Jonathan Majors, Jurnee Smollett, Aunjanue Ellis, Abbey Lee, Jada Harris, Michael Kenneth Williams, Courtney B. Vance, Jordan Patrick Smith Network: HBO

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Review: In My Skin Is a Bitingly Poignant, If Cluttered, Coming-of-Age Story

Though it doesn’t provide room for a fully formed character arc, the series is driven by its performances and mordant humor.

2.5

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In My Skin
Photo: BBC

Sixteen-year-old Bethan Gwyndaf (Gabrielle Creevy), the protagonist of Hulu’s In My Skin, has a lot going on in her life. She’s the only responsible member of her household, essentially acting as caretaker for her bipolar mother, Trina (Jo Hartley), and constantly at odds with her layabout, alcoholic father, Dilwyn (Rhodi Meilir). And she’s often the only voice of reason among her best friends, Travis (James Wilbraham) and Lydia (Poppy Lee Friar), who seem to always get into trouble whenever she’s not around. She’s also nursing a desperate crush on Poppy (Zadeia Campbell-Davies), the popular girl at school.

Bethan is a compulsive liar, so obsessed with fitting in at school that she spins elaborate stories of a home life filled with cultural activities and fancy renovations to cover for the reality that she spends much of her time taking care of Trina and tracking down Dilwyn. Her obsession with crafting a perfect external image of herself makes it impossible for her to form emotional connections with anyone, even people who genuinely care for her. Travis and Lydia, for example, want to support her in the same way she supports them, brushing off their questions about her family life and never even letting them inside her house.

Bethan is smart and sensitive, and Creevy makes the character, with her conspiratorial smile and natural aversion to being told what she can and can’t do, easy to like—even as Bethan frustratingly and steadfastly refuses to let anyone in. In My Skin’s Welsh-born creator, Kayleigh Llewellyn, based Bethan and Trina on herself and her own bipolar mother, and there’s a lot of raw emotion in the interactions between the two characters, ranging from tender and loving to harsh and hurtful. The short-tempered Dilwyn, inspired by Llewellyn’s late father, has no patience for Trina’s unstable mental state, leaving her to wander the streets or tying her to the radiator to make sure she stays in the house. Her parents’ combative dynamic often leaves Bethan stuck in the middle of them, attempting to play peacemaker.

As volatile as Bethan’s family relationships can be, In My Skin still has plenty of humor, emanating from Bethan’s biting wit and frequent flights of imagination, during which she casts herself as the romantic hero in Poppy’s life, as well as a poet whose words are illustrated with perfume commercial-style images. Bethan’s occasional voiceover narration is an inconsistent element of the series, but her self-aware commentary is a welcome counterpoint to her infuriatingly self-sabotaging behavior. While having Bethan explain her inner thoughts can easily become a narrative crutch, In My Skin could have benefited more from Bethan’s reflective observations, which give us a deeper understanding of her often impulsive decisions.

All the more important since the first season’s five half-hour episodes don’t provide enough room for Bethan’s arc to fully take shape, moving her only a short way down the path toward maturity and ending just as she’s starting to assert herself at school, harnessing her way with words to run for student body. Her relationships with her fellow teens remain stunted, and her potential coming-out journey takes a back seat to her need to care for Trina and insulate her from trauma. Llewellyn isn’t afraid to confront the dark elements of Bethan’s life—the way poverty, mental illness, homophobia, and substance abuse combine to weigh her down. That her personality shines through at all is both a testament to Creevy’s performance and the character’s determination to make a better life for herself, however misguided.

That personality is what drives In My Skin, and Bethan’s self-sufficiency is a big part of what makes her so compelling. No matter what delusion or altercation Trina involves her in throughout the show’s first season, Bethan always comes back, taking on a responsibility that she never asked for and shouldn’t have to handle on her own. If she doesn’t always know how to balance that responsibility with everything else going on in her life, at least she’s approaching every new setback with appealingly mordant humor.

Cast: Gabrielle Creevy, James Wilbraham, Jo Hartley, Poppy Lee Friar, Zadeia Campbell-Davies, Rhodri Meilir, Alexandra Riley, Di Botcher, Aled ap Steffan Network: Hulu

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Review: Peacock’s The Capture Wears Its Topicality Impersonally on Its Sleeve

The series sucks the juice out of its pop-cultural reference points, failing to mine our current nightmares on its own terms.

2

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The Capture
Photo: BBC/Heyday Films/Nick Wall

Ben Chanan’s The Capture wears its topicality on its sleeve, principally concerning the CCTV security cameras that monitor London’s streets and which number in the hundreds of thousands, averaging out to one camera per dozen or so people. The casualness of the cameras’ presence throughout the Peacock series is unnerving, suggesting how easily privacy can be annihilated with little in the way of pushback from the populace.

Chanan’s concerns, though, aren’t existential ones, as he’s fashioned a murder mystery that laboriously connects modern surveillance to social media, war crimes committed in the Middle East, rising notions of fake news, and whistleblowers like Edward Snowden—all of which are referenced explicitly in the show’s dialogue. Weirdly, the sociopolitical Easter eggs often feel beside the point, serving as window dressing for an impersonal game of cat and mouse.

Shaun Emery (Callum Turner) is a British soldier accused of killing a member of the Taliban during a tour of duty in Afghanistan after the man had already surrendered. Surveillance footage from a body camera seems to validate this assertion, until Shaun’s bannister, Hannah Roberts (Laura Haddock), establishes a lag between the audio and the video feeds of the footage, casting doubt on the evidence. Shaun, Hannah, and others celebrate his acquittal at a local pub, after which the two kiss on the street, pointedly in view of a CCTV camera. She leaves, never to be seen again. When footage surfaces of Shaun hitting Hannah and dragging her out of the camera’s sight, he denies any involvement, but he’s immediately accused of a second crime that’s supported by theoretically objective evidence.

This is all essentially setup, and Chanan threatens to stuff his concept up to the breaking point of contrivance. Investigating the case is Rachel Carey (Holliday Grainger), a brilliant and ambitious detective inspector with a stereotypical taste for stylish jackets and a penchant for playing by her own rules. Her superiors and peers castigate Rachel for her drive, which scans less as an acknowledgement of sexist double standards than as Chanan’s need to define his characters by signpost dialogue. Shaun eludes Rachel, who’s convinced of his guilt, until she begins to uncover a wealth of evidence that connects Shaun’s two murder investigations, as well as a celebrated case in which Rachel foiled a potential terrorist attack.

The twist-a-minute The Capture is compulsively watchable, but we’ve seen much of this before. In addition to 24, which similarly pulled the rug out from under its audience with endless, sometimes ingenious reversals, The Capture also recalls Andrew Davis’s The Fugitive, as well as seemingly every jargon-laden investigative crime show on TV.

Shaun and Rachel are ciphers with stock backstories, and the show’s dozens of other characters often fit into easily recognizable archetypes, from the jealous sidekick to the estranged, earnest wife, to the icy authority figure with shady motives. As the latter, Detective Superintendent Gemma Garland, Lia Williams acquits herself better than much of the rest of the cast, commanding the screen with seeming ease. And in a small, mysterious role, Ron Perlman revels in a sense of understatement, suggesting a bored, bureaucratic comfort with authoritarianism that’s both eerie and funny.

What The Capture doesn’t have is the sense of violation that made 24 such an unmooring experience in its best seasons. That show’s protagonist, Jack Bauer, was a charismatic hawk who did things that most people to the left of Dick Cheney would find monstrous. Kiefer Sutherland allowed you to see the humanity and the savagery of Bauer, which rendered the character all the more disturbing. Whatever its faults, 24 is a distinctive, authentic reaction to the political atrocities that marked the post-9/11 world.

By contrast, the violence of The Capture is just noise to further the plot. Even the notion of doctored surveillance footage has been examined before and more artfully, especially in Philip Kaufman’s atmospheric Rising Sun. A newer element of our surveillance state, social media, is mentioned obligatorily but is barely explored. The Capture sucks the juice out of its pop-cultural reference points, failing to mine our current nightmares on its own terms.

Cast: Holliday Grainger, Callum Turner, Laura Haddock, Cavan Clerkin, Ginny Holder, Barry Ward, Ben Miles, Peter Singh, Lia Williams, Sophia Brown, Ron Perlman, Famke Jansen Network: Peacock

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Review: The Optimism of Japan Sinks: 2020 Leads to a Curious Emotional Remove

The show’s reticence to dig into hopelessness and pain leaves its admirable optimism to feel strangely artificial.

2.5

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Japan Sinks 2020
Photo: Netflix

The latest adaptation of Japanese science-fiction writer Sakyo Komatsu’s 1973 disaster novel Japan Sinks comes to us in animated form, overseen by prolific director Masaaki Yuasa at Science Saru, the studio he co-founded. The Netflix series wastes little time dishing out the apocalyptic imagery promised by its title: Soon after a low-level earthquake hits Japan, a stronger one follows, causing buildings to crumble and pound bystanders into a gory paste beneath the rubble. The Earth vomits gas and magma, and the ground violently splits open, only to be jammed back together into new, alien configurations.

Rather than the scientific and political perspectives of Komatsu’s novel and its previous adaptations, however, Japan Sinks: 2020 takes a markedly more personal viewpoint of the mixed-race Muto family and the companions they pick up along the way. Coupled with some surprisingly spare and soothing music on the soundtrack, the depictions of the family’s early reunion suggest a defiantly optimistic take on the large-scale disaster story, a focus on togetherness and a celebration of the human capacity to adapt even amid utter turmoil. In one scene, the Muto patriarch, Koichiro (Masaki Terasoma), uses colored lights to illuminate some trees the way he once did at their ruined home, guiding the family back together.

As bodies rain from the sky, though, Japan Sinks: 2020 shows its teeth. Characters die in sudden, jarring ways, disorienting the viewer in a similar fashion to these travelers whose only option is to press forward on an island that can offer them no refuge. Throughout the series, these characters are mostly defined by archetypal qualities, with new ones introduced almost as soon as others are lost. This gives the Muto clan’s odyssey something of a mythic quality as they make their way through symbolic destinations, from an open, seemingly empty grocery store to a community that practices kintsugi, a Japanese art of pottery repair.

The show’s limitations become apparent when it slows down midway through the season, no longer relying on the pure momentum of its plot twists and striking images of environmental devastation. When Japan Sinks 2020 actually allows space for us to absorb the characters’ deaths, you may feel as if there’s little to mourn. With a few exceptions, they’re primarily vehicles for shock and dire twists of fate rather than people to empathize with.

Yuasa’s prior Netflix series, the gonzo Devilman Crybaby, injected some disarming positivity into its own increasingly bleak premise, and in a way that made its tragedies feel even more devastating. But the optimism of Japan Sinks: 2020 doesn’t function quite the same way since, here, it’s the overriding ethos, with characters who are more than willing to come together despite catastrophe and pain and displays of self-interest like nationalism.

While this idea is noble, the series moves on from the tragedy of these characters’ lives so quickly that we never get a sense of the totality of their grief. The result, despite no shortage of daring escapes, is a disaster story whose harried pace and reticence to grapple with hopelessness and pain renders it artificial, keeping us at an emotional remove.

Cast: Reina Ueda, Tomomi Muranaka, Yuko Sasaki, Masaki Terasoma, Kensho Ono, Umeji Sasaki, Nanako Mori Network: Netflix

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