On Mad Men, the drama proceeds directly from the characters. That there are so few external circumstances weighing on them takes some getting used to, especially if you’re more used to shows where the plot twists and turns, zigs and zags. Mad Men does some of that, for sure, but it mostly moves forward, head down, faithful to its vision of these people and the times they live in. To that end, it can be hard to surmise just what the interest in the show should be until you realize that all of these people are headed directly for a big, brick wall.
Mad Men is, to some degree, a show about the disguises we hide behind when we’re trying to better ourselves or make more of our lives. Everyone has to do this to some degree—I hate cleaning, but I know that if I don’t want to live in a sty, I’m going to have to, and thus, I alter my key being just a bit to tolerate cleaning—but the characters on Mad Men are endlessly inventive. Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) finds a way to blend her traditional femininity with the harder edge she needs to survive in the office. Pete (Vincent Kartheister) keeps his sniveling contempt for everyone around him buried as deeply as he can (which isn’t very deep some weeks). And Don (Jon Hamm), of course, used to be an entirely different person. Creating and maintaining these disguises has made all of these people slightly more resistant to change than they might usually be. Even Don, who seemed on the brink of ditching it all to become a wholly different person again during his interlude in California last season, came back to New York, retook his old job, recommitted himself to his wife. He’s spent so much time as Don Draper that he would have trouble becoming Dick Whitman again. And that may be Mad Men’s true message: To wear a disguise is to eventually be forced to become it.
At the same time, Mad Men draws its dramatic strength from what we know is coming. Set in the early ‘60s as it is, the series is counting on us filling in the blanks to create its central conflicts. The interpersonal conflicts are done very well, and the stories in the office have the usual business intrigue, but because so much of the drama in Mad Men stems from stories of people trying to define who they are and forcing themselves to hide bits and pieces of their souls, the series’s potency comes from wondering just how prepared these people are to face the changes of the ‘60s. Creator Matthew Weiner and his writers haven’t had to do big, twisty-turny masterplots in the series because we know that the big twists and turns are coming and will be forced on the characters we’ve come to know and love. Furthermore, Sterling-Cooper, the advertising agency at the show’s center, is an old-guard advertising agency (though Don’s pitch for a London Fog ad in the premiere seems slightly influenced by the new kinds of ads starting to filter through the popular consciousness in 1963). They’re too entrenched in their old ways and their small-time milieu to really change with the times when they need to. Much of the series’s tension is derived from that simple fact: These are people ill-prepared to deal with what’s coming, but they have no idea. We are the only ones who do.
It’s probably significant, then, that the series’s third season premiere situates the season in the early months of 1963, the final year of the good old ‘60s, the time that looked more like the ‘50s of nostalgic memory than even the ‘50s did. Weiner has made much out of his desire to stay away from the Kennedy assassination, since it’s a story that’s been told time and time again, but in the opening months of 1963, there’s no real way to avoid it, even if the series significantly slows down its standard time jumps between episodes. It’s also the year of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, another galvanizing event of the decade. But despite being set in a year that the audience knows is momentous, the show doesn’t bother to act as though it is, which is one of its strengths. After the first season’s occasionally labored moments when it reminded us over and over that it was set in the ‘60s and things were different then, the series has mostly labored to make its seemingly otherworldly milieu seem completely normal, and it’s been the stronger for it.
“Out of Town,” written by Matthew Weiner and directed by Phil Abraham, features nearly everyone in the cast getting what they think they want and then realizing that it wasn’t quite what they wanted in the first place at all. “His name is Dick … after a wish his mother should have lived to see,” says the midwife to the young woman who would become Dick Whitman’s mother, and it seems like a key to unlocking the episode. There’s been some criticism of these half-imagined vignettes from the episode’s beginning, as Don considers the circumstances of his birth as he approaches the birthday only he knows about, but the ways the early ones are framed play up an important thematic point of the series as a whole.
These early vignettes are framed in such a way that the Depression-era dominate the major portion of the screen, but in the lower right quadrant, the milk that Don is making for his pregnant wife to help her sleep sits in the foreground of the frame, surrounded by the trappings of suburban domestic bliss. The era of the late ‘50s and very early ‘60s was the time when the dream of the American suburb was essentially born, sold as much by the ad men Don counts himself a member of as by the actual reality of the suburbs. But the American impulse toward this domestic bliss has always been built upon our more fiery past, on a land of traveling hobos and vagabonds, a place where small town gossips sent news of illegitimate births dashing through the grapevine, a place of somewhat raw and elemental passions.
Try though Don might, his suburban wonderland can never wholly blot out his past, just as America can never wholly blot out that past, try though it does. At all times, it threatens to rise up and consume, and the trappings we’re holding it off with—bottles of milk and the accoutrements of a quiet, domestic life—don’t seem adequate. The central conflict of Mad Men is predicated on the idea that the raw passions of the past are always waiting there to devour us. (Notice how one of the scenes almost immediately following this suggests an over-romanticizing of a past that didn’t actually exist. Surely this is a bit of meta self-parody to a degree, but it also plays in to the ideas of a young country, formed by criminals and religious outcasts and merchants, playing at dress-up.)
Compared to the prior two season premieres, “Out of Town” fairly rockets along, as though the show took the harsh criticisms of the slow-burning season two opener, “For Those Who Think Young,” to heart. The second season of Mad Men is one of my favorite television seasons ever, and I thought the slow ease into the season’s storylines and the almost pathological refusal to deliver straight answers on the questions left over from season one was one of the season’s strengths, so I actually find the amped-up pacing of the premiere a bit discombobulating, though not to the point where I found the episode actively off-putting. Still, at times, the desire to just toss the audience into the deep end and expect it to swim feels a bit like over-confidence, as though the show brashly thinks it can get away with pretty much anything at this point. Furthermore, it’s slightly disconcerting to realize how funny the premiere is. The series has always had a wicked and sly sense of humor when it wants to, but season two was so brooding in so many places that to see the series embrace that sense of humor like this suggests that season three might be very tonally different, at least until Camelot falls apart.
Or maybe not. As mentioned, the episode is all about getting what you want. Advertising is based on both creating and satiating desires, but the desires that seem to be satiated in “Out of Town” are more primal than simply getting a raincoat that keeps out the damp. They’re about questions of whether you’re going to give in to your sexual desire or hang on more fully to the family life you keep falling off the wagon of. Or maybe they’re about questions of whether you can open yourself up to a part of your own desires you’ve kept walled off for a long, long time. Or maybe they’re about whether you finally get the promotion that makes you feel like you have some amount of self worth. It’s not wrong to want things, not even in the world of false desires, but the wants created by advertising don’t cut as deeply as the wants that push past the disguises you erect and cut to the bone.
The best example of this is probably in the surprisingly visceral sequence where Sal (Bryan Batt), on a business trip in Baltimore with Don, finds himself engaged in a steamy makeout session with a bellboy, who’s soon pulling off his pants, reaching into his boxers. The shot of Sal that closes out the first act—a man, finally alone, finally able to let down his guard and just flop down on his bed uninhibited—is a very good one, but so is the whole sequence with the bellboy, especially that opening shot where Sal is counting out the money to tip the guy and then his feet come very, dangerously close. But the capper is when Don sees the two from the fire escape, a fire alarm having interrupted their session (as well as Don’s night with flight attendant Shelly, and the somewhat haunted expression on Hamm’s face as he realizes the secret Sal hides just goes to show how much this guy could carry the show all by himself if he resolved to). As Sal spends the rest of the trip stewing about what Don might say to him, Don, in Don fashion, leans over on the airplane and pitches to him a campaign for London Fog that’s all about limiting exposure. Who you are when you’re alone is one thing, but keeping the disguise up at all times is paramount. Strangely, this advice seems to liberate Sal, who’s able to stride back into the office and proclaim that he wants a “handsome” man for the ad campaign the company is working on.
In the end, in spite of all of the period trappings and terrific production design and office politics and snappy dialogue, these are the things I most love about Mad Men. I love the way the show never quite goes where you think it’s going to and yet heads in that direction all the same. Once Don sees Sal, he’s naturally going to have to say something about what’s going on. A lesser show would have Don lean over on that plane and have a lengthy conversation with his co-worker about how important it is to keep certain things close to the vest. Instead, the series has Don say much the same thing via an ad pitch that simultaneously advances the plotline in a completely separate storyline. This is delicate, impressive writing, which always keeps its characters humming forward but also makes them play things close to their vests.
Mad Men saves its revelatory moments for the occasional scene or moment—Don with the carousel in season one or Peggy telling Pete how she could have had him in season two. It’s a series about how increments add up to sweeping change, how certain things feel inevitable in retrospect but don’t seem that way when you’re in the midst of them. And then, you wake up one day, and you’re far, far away from where you started, just like a country that started out a loose conglomeration of states and ended up a world superpower. Everyone in Mad Men is lost in the midst of a world they don’t completely understand, but they plunge forward as best they can. Or, as Don says, when he meets with the London Fog people, “There will be fat years and there will be lean years. But it is going to rain.”
Some other thoughts.
1. I haven’t seen the next two episodes, as some critics have, but many are describing the British owners of Sterling Cooper as villains for the season, and I can see where that would be the case. Already, Pryce (Jared Harris) seems to be relishing the ability to rather toy with the people in his office, like how he sets up Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton) and Pete to compete for the Head of Accounts job. I also like the quick contrasts drawn between the Americans and the Britons in the office.
2. We don’t get a lot from the women of the cast in the episode, which may seem sort of odd considering just how much of season two was turned over to their storylines. But Peggy seems to be moving up in the world, while Joan (Christina Hendricks) is looking for her exit and Betty (January Jones) is very, very pregnant.
3. Looks like Robert Morse has been promoted to a series regular as Bert Cooper, which is great. Any time the old guy can hang around to talk with his employees about how he’s buying art where tentacle beasts have sex with Japanese women is a good time in my book.
4. Roger (John Slattery) also doesn’t get a lot to do in the episode, but I did like him walking into the meeting with Burt and realizing what was going on, followed by saying, “Oh. Sad meeting.”
5. Favorite lines: Betty, on Sally’s attempts to break into Don’s luggage: “She’s taken to your tools like a little lesbian.” Don, to Shelly when she bemoans her impending nuptials: “I’ve been married a long time. You get plenty of chances.” Bert Cooper: “I don’t care what they say. London Fog is a great name.”
6. An observation I cannot take credit for but, rather, which I steal from Keith Phipps: Don and Sal spend most of the episode dealing with people in rigid, intractable uniform while their identities shift and change. Thoughts?
7. Much as the big jump between seasons one and two managed to drive a lot of the season’s conflict, I rather like that the series stayed unpredictable by only jumping about six months between seasons two and three.
8. Finally, this will hopefully be up in a timely fashion from week to week, though I may end up having to split duties with another House contributor in the weeks to come. Paying work is keeping me occupied most Sundays, though Lord knows I love you guys. We’ll work something out. And while we’re on the subject, I’d like to dedicate coverage of this season to Andrew Johnston, whose writing on the show is something I have to live in the more than estimable shadow of. Furthermore, his knowledge of the cultural details of the show’s period work is something I can never hope to match. His writing on this show (and so many shows) was consistently terrific, and I hope I can be one quarter as good as he was.
For more recaps of Mad Men, click here.
Review: The New Pope Depicts the Church with a Graceful Cynicism
Despite the sordid, festering material that the series explores, what ultimately emerges is sheer beauty.3
Having collapsed at the end of The Young Pope, Lenny Belardo (Jude Law), also known as Pope Pius XIII, is in a coma at the start of The New Pope. He’s being looked over by a nun and illuminated by a bright, neon cross straight out of David Fincher’s Seven. His involuntary sighs and twitches are fraught with meaning; at one point, a usually pragmatic man (Mark Ivanir) claims that the pope killed someone with the quiver of a finger. Idolatrous followers stand vigil in the square outside his chambers, donning sweatshirts with his face on them. The pope’s wild charisma survives the apparent death of his consciousness.
Seeing no improvement in Belardo’s condition after nine months, the cardinals decide to elect a successor, whose fleeting, radical papacy briefly opens the Vatican to refugees and risks bankrupting it. The cardinals then opt for a more moderate replacement: Sir John Brannox (John Malkovich), an oft-depressed priest who wears eyeliner and lives on his family’s sprawling English estate. With Belardo on a respirator and Brannox headed to Rome, the series imagines a world with two popes—setting up a compelling conflict over legitimacy, poised to erupt if Belardo wakes up, of the kind unseen since the Western Schism ended 600 years ago.
Brannox is less charismatic than seductive. Fond of poetry, he speaks haltingly, as if waiting for words to come to and flow through him. He’s haunted by an evident pain, communicated in flashbacks of the twin brother he lost long ago and across lonely nights spent struggling to fall asleep. Malkovich, his eyes at times hollow, at others alight with a furtive spark, imbues the character with profound vulnerability and depth.
Beyond the issue of what to do with the pope on life support, the Holy See faces numerous challenges: ongoing sexual abuse scandals; the so-called “caliph,” who issues anti-Christian threats in videotaped messages; the cataclysmic prospect that Italy will begin retroactively taxing the Vatican; nuns who go on strike to demand equal rights; and more. If anyone is capable of restoring order, it’s Angelo Voiello (Silvio Orlando), the Vatican’s alternatingly ruthless, patronizing, and surprisingly tender—and regularly hilarious—cardinal secretary of state, who’s a singular presence throughout the series.
Most of the cardinals wrestle with personal demons and try to lead virtuous lives, like Voiello—whose harshness is a function of his office—and the supremely empathetic Gutierrez (Javier Cámara). Others, though, are unapologetically vile: They have sex with minors and snort cocaine and blackmail and blaspheme. The irreverence with which the series portrays the church results in not only bleak cynicism, but also unexpected images of feverish, dreamy splendidness. The first episode’s opening credits depict relatively scantily clad nuns dancing to a song by electronic duo Sofi Tukker in a dark room while a cross-turned-strobe light pulses, a slow zoom-in building momentum that culminates in an explosive bass drop.
The nuns play a not-insignificant role in The New Pope, but its treatment of them and other female characters is shallow at best. The series often dehumanizes women in scenes that lean on needless nudity—of which there’s no shortage here—or with imagery that prioritizes symbolism over personality. At times, The New Pope manages to incorporate both nakedness and perfunctory iconography in the same shot: In one instance, a bare woman is juxtaposed with a statue of the Madonna. Even key figures who carry over from The Young Pope suffer from halfhearted characterization, including savvy marketer Sofia (Cécile de France) and Esther (Ludivine Sagnier), the woman whose pregnancy may have been the result of a miracle performed by Belardo. (The New Pope also leaves the caliph’s antagonism underdeveloped, causing terrorism and nudity to resemble one another: stimuli deployed to elicit cheap reactions.)
Despite these failings, and despite the sordid, festering material that the series explores, what ultimately emerges from The New Pope is sheer beauty. It’s an understated grace, one that director Paolo Sorrentino and cinematographer Luca Bigazzi effect with an eye to intimacy. In a late scene, the camera cuts between tight profiles of Brannox, dressed in white, and Belardo, dressed in black, as they face each other in front of a painting whose background is a black-and-white swirl. The dichromatic canvas envelops Brannox and Belardo, seemingly transporting the pair to an abyss, or the cosmos, or some other otherworldly space. Perhaps it’s easier to find God there, away from the Earth, the Vatican, and the depravity plaguing them. The sequence is an obliterating burst of pathos that pierces and lingers.
Cast: Jude Law, John Malkovich, Silvio Orlando, Javier Cámara, Cécile de France, Ludivine Sagnier, Mark Ivanir, Maurizio Lombardi, Antonio Petrocelli, Jessica Piccolo Valerani, Kiruna Stamell, Ulrich Thomsen, Yulia Snigir Network: HBO
The 50 Best TV Shows of the 2010s
The decade proved that the future of TV lies in its ability to democractize via technological expansion.
We will likely look back at the 2010s as a simpler time, when sea levels remained relatively stable, Disney hadn’t decimated the last remaining movie houses, and there were only three networks: Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. Two thousand and nineteen was a watershed year for the expansion of streaming, so it seems like a fitting moment to reflect on the events that led to the Great War.
If the aughts represented a new golden age of television, then the following decade proved that the future of the medium lies in its ability to democractize via technological growth. Event television has replaced appointment television, as the sheer volume of content continues to balloon and more viewers shift to on-demand viewing. Our expectations, too, have evolved as the format bends and morphs to adapt to its new environment, with years-long gaps between ever-shorter seasons and shows once thought dead resurrected like zombies from our salad days.
And yet, humans crave familiarity: Game of Thrones reinvented the viewing party; networks rebooted or revived well-known properties, albeit to varying degrees of success; and we’ve replaced our old cable bill with an à la carte menu of streaming options that add up to more or less the same price. More importantly, as we venture out into the proverbial Wild West, and as the boundaries between TV and film continue to vanish, one thing remains constant: our desire for stories that reflect who we are, what we fear, what we treasure, and what we find side-splittingly funny. But then, even those lines have begun to blur. Sal Cinquemani
The array of archetypes portrayed by Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen on Portlandia aren’t impressive in their scope so much as their narrow specificity, each one delicately carving Portland’s milieu into a well-observed sub-niche. Armisen plays multiple variations of the emasculated goof while Brownstein portrays a bevy of self-righteous killjoys with great aplomb. Yet Portlandia is so much greater than the sum of its caricatures. That the show’s humor is entirely derived from its two co-creators gives it a winning constancy, while the improvisational aspect adds an almost surreal element to much of the dialogue. In fact, the bizarre obsession with food (a mixologist crafts a cocktail with rotten banana and eggshells, 911 dispatchers are inundated with calls from beet-eaters) suggests the fever dream of a very hungry hipster. Peter Goldberg
49. House of Cards
House of Cards allowed David Fincher’s seductive aesthetic sway to carry on well beyond the inaugural diptych he helmed, despite TV’s well-noted preference for story over artistic signature, but that’s almost besides the point. The scheming exploits of Kevin Spacey’s silver-tongued congressman-devil provide a galvanic shock of political satire and thrillingly modern melodrama, but the real hook is Robin Wright’s stirring performance as the politician’s better half—and worse half in the show’s botched final season. In the thick of it, this addictive series convincingly depicts a shifting political landscape, wherein an ascending class of strong and brilliant women retools man’s ruthless personal and professional strategies to better advance a contentious, testosterone-weary nation. Chris Cabin
48. Marvel’s Jessica Jones
Marvel’s Jessica Jones breaks so many molds, and with such brio, that it feels almost super-heroic. In immediately denying us Jessica’s (Krysten Ritter) origin story, it keeps her at arm’s length—a masterstroke because the series understands that it’s a story Jessica isn’t ready to give yet, freely and under her own terms. If the violence on Marvel’s Daredevil, no matter how kinetic and operatic in its brushstrokes, is primed to excite, the violence on Jessica Jones seeks to disarm our pleasure centers. And if this violence is so discomforting, it’s because of how hauntingly, stubbornly, necessarily it’s rooted in the traumas that connect the victims of the ominous Kilgrave (David Tennant). The aesthete in me wishes the series exhibited a more uncommon visual style. At the same time, maybe the show’s portrait of abuse, of heroes and villains whose shows of strength and mind control are so recognizably human, wouldn’t exert half the chill that it does it didn’t approach us so unassumingly. Ed Gonzalez
47. Killing Eve
With Killing Eve—which Phoebe Waller-Bridge adapted from author Luke Jennings’s Villanelle series—she uses the whip-smart voice she employed in Fleabag to explore women whose bad behavior extends beyond the limits of rapacious sexuality and crass humor: specifically, to murderous psychopaths. The series suggests a delightfully demented, considerably more violent spin on Broad City, Insecure, and Fleabag. Those shows are wryly comical and sexually frank, with complex female relationships at their center, and Killing Eve brings us all those attributes in the guise of a crackerjack mystery. The series combines a dry comedy’s affection for the mundane with the slick look and tone of a psychosexual thriller, and the result is something wholly original, suspenseful, and caustically funny. Julia Selinger
Sherlock has always shown a keen but loving disregard for its source material. Despite serving up a bevy of classical crime-solving tropes, its fluid aesthetic and modern-day realism eschew the stuffy reverence of countless other re-toolings of Arthur Conan Doyle’s celebrated series. Instead, co-creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat have allowed Benedict Cumberbatch to chart his own course as a character who’s become a landmark of fiction. The actor effortlessly owns the role with his ice-cold stares and burly voice, and yet what makes the series such a distinct interpretation is how it envisions the complicated relationship between Sherlock Holmes and his partner, John Watson (Martin Freeman), whose everyman humanity serves as a spiritual contrast to the impenetrable title character’s isolated genius. Ted Pigeon
It’s the tension between Ramy’s (Ramy Youssef) secular and spiritual leanings that serves as the thrust of the Hulu series that bears his name, as he considers what kind of person—what kind of Muslim, son, and man—he wants to be. Intensely critical of himself, Ramy recognizes that he’s done much self-mythologizing, mostly in regard to his religious observance, and acutely feels his lapses in judgment, and Ramy derives its soulfulness from the ruins of the myths that Ramy and his family and friends tell themselves and those around them. There’s profound pain to be found amid the rubble. And, maybe, peace. Niv M. Sultan
David Simon and Eric Overmeyer’s abbreviated fade-out on post-Katrina New Orleans is tattered yet hopeful, perfect in its soulful imperfections. Decisions in the Big Easy are slowed down by good booze and better boogie, and by the time the Big Chief (Clark Peters) bows out, very little about this intoxicating menagerie of musicians and other truth-seekers has been convincingly settled on. Life’s not tidy in the Treme and the show’s creators let all the bad omens hang out, including the impending birth of Delmond’s (Rob Brown) first child and Janette’s (Kim Dickens) third restaurant opening. Of course, all the trouble made the music sound all the sweeter, as careers begin to congeal and legacies found (temporary) footing amid the city’s riotous buzz. The fat lady is singing for Treme, and she’s belting it out loud, if not for long. Cabin
43. The Handmaid’s Tale
Few television shows can match the commitment of The Handmaid’s Tale to withholding catharsis from audiences. The series, which maintains a visual lyricism that both clashes with and magnifies the brutality on screen, is most heartbreaking during moments of doubt, when Elisabeth Moss’s June appears resigned to her fate. Yet it consistently obscures her true motivation, mining mystery from her submissiveness: Is it genuine, or another tactic? When she’s able to seize, however briefly, the upper hand from her tormentors, the series offers tantalizing glimpses of their chagrin. For a moment, we’re prompted to envision that chagrin morphing into sorrow, shame, maybe even fear. That would spell some kind of catharsis, but until it actually arrives, The Handmaid’s Tale remains intellectually nourishing, easy to admire, and difficult to endure. It’s a beautiful test of stamina, offering only small reprieves from June’s suffering. It embeds us alongside her, and remains dedicated to illustrating how exactly the villains can win. Michael Haigis
42. High Maintenance
High Maintenance more than made good on its transition from the Internet to HBO. Its intimacy has been retained, and yet the narrative strands have grown more thoughtfully variable and distinct in their reflection of the adult rituals, wild yearning, and long-overdue release that power the denizens of New York City’s boroughs, revealing their neuroses, deep-seated fears, self-delusions, and artful exercises. More than ever, the show’s tapestry of unexpected connections and backstories reach deeper into the quotidian experiences of city life. Cabin
41. Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal
Genndy Tartakovsky’s work as an animator is most striking for its embrace of silence. Even in the cacophonous realm of children’s cartoons, the Samurai Jack creator favors wordless moments that lean on the flapping of cloth in the wind or the exaggerated sounds of a clenching fist. Adult Swim’s Primal, then, feels like something Tartakovsky has been building to for much of his career, a dialogue-free miniseries following a caveman and his T. rex partner fighting to survive in a violent, unforgiving world. The show’s violence is a reflection of its characters’ existence, a cycle from which there’s no escape. Children are swallowed whole, prey is devoured on the spot, eyeballs are smashed in by rocks, and dino jaws are smeared in vivid red blood. The story of the caveman and T. rex’s survival, in Tartakovsky’s hands, is totally enthralling, as terrible as it is beautiful. Steven Scaife
Review: HBO’s The Outsider Conjures Mysterious Tableaux of Dread
The series preserves Stephen King novel’s ingenious plot while entirely altering its tone.3
HBO’s The Outsider represents a merging of two singular writers: Richard Price, the lively and profoundly detailed and precise crime novelist and screenwriter, and Stephen King, the one-man pop-culture industry who specializes in horror novels. Price adapted the series from King’s 2018 novel and wrote five of the six episodes that were screened for press. Immediately one feels the sense of freedom that separates this from many other King adaptations. A colossus in his own right, Price doesn’t feel the need to court King’s approval in the tradition of the many young filmmakers who’ve grown up on the author’s novels, dreaming of an opportunity to take a crack at his work. As a showrunner, Price makes bold moves, preserving King’s ingenious plot while entirely altering the novel’s tone.
The Outsider is a mystery with a crackerjack hook: Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman) is accused of raping and murdering a young boy, and he appears to have been at two places at once, with each location abounding in concrete proof of his presence. Maitland is a pillar of Flint City, Oklahoma, an English teacher and little league coach who’s arrested in a ballfield in the middle of a game by detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendolsohn). Price and Bateman, who directed the first two episodes, alternate between the arrest and Anderson’s discovery of the little boy and the gathering of evidence. Multiple witnesses saw Terry speaking with the boy and driving a van that would later be found drenched in the child’s blood.
This opening displays the novel’s surgical attention detail, as in Anderson’s pointed order that Terry be arrested in public and handcuffed with his hands in front of his body. Sure that he’s got his man, Ralph launches a brutal character assassination, which Bateman stages in long, foreboding takes that capture the weight of a community curdling on an individual.
As in many crime shows, especially Law & Order, the first arrest is fraudulent. Aided by his attorney, Howie Gold (Bill Camp), Terry springs a startling alibi while in prison: that he was attending a literary conference out of town on the day of the boy’s murder. Besides video proof supporting his alibi, there’s dozens of witnesses and a fingerprint he left on a book in a hotel lobby. Ralph’s certainty, cemented by his grief over his own son’s death a year earlier, begins to crack, and then something terrible happens that convinces him to look further into the Maitland case. Unexpectedly working with Howie and a private investigator, Alec Pelley (Jeremy Bobb), who in turn hires another private investigator, Holly Gibney (Cynthia Erivo), Ralph and his team uncover a chain of child murders across the country that are characterized simultaneously by iron-clad proof of guilt and innocence. Gibney, a socially awkward eccentric genius, eventually comes to believe that they’re dealing with a shapeshifter who feeds on grief.
This narrative business comes from King’s novel and is quite redolent of his 1986 opus It, but Price alters the story’s mood and speed. King’s signature sensibility—his interest in the quotidian of small-town average people facing otherworldly nightmares—has been pruned away, and not always for the better. In the series, many of the characters are smoldering, movie-ready badasses reminiscent of the protagonists of countless prestige crime dramas, and who utter clipped, chicly tortured dialogue in the key of the characters in Price’s own film scripts. This tendency is especially evident in Price’s conception of Holly. In the novel, she’s a thin, young white woman on the spectrum who’s poignantly possessed of no confidence except when piecing together evidence; for Price, however, Holly is a sexy woman of color fending off the advances of men, whose anti-sociality is offered up, a la Hugh Laurie’s character in House, as yet another element of her supreme agency. Collectively, such character changes make the narrative feel less eccentric and personal than that of King’s novel.
On the other hand, Price also throws out King’s bad habits—gimmicky character shtick, embarrassingly contrived dialogue, certain routine plotting—fashioning a mood piece that gradually becomes less about the investigation of the murders than the paralysis of grief. The Outsider’s title has multiple meanings. The notion of grief and trauma divorcing people from society, turning them into outsiders, is in King’s book, but Price and the show’s directors—Bateman, Andrew Bernstein, and Karyn Kusama—bring that theme to fuller bloom. Certain characters feel functional at first but gain a surprising pathos, such as Ralph’s wife, Jeannie, whom Mare Winningham invests with a hauntingly inquisitive ruefulness. Holly also grows in stature, as Erivo transcends an initial stock type, imbuing her character with a tremulous unease, a fragility that becomes more and more moving as the series progresses.
The Outsider also features wonderful tableaux of dread. Bateman sets the stage early on, utilizing the various planes of the widescreen image for unmooring flourishes, such as when a woman jogs toward the camera as a man attempting suicide crashes through the window of a house in the middle ground of the frame. Subsequent episodes physicalize grief by emphasizing the emptiness of farmhouses, the undersides of bridges, and the condemned homes of the damned, suggesting a hellish netherworld that exists just out of plain sight. The cinematography, heavily indebted to the work of David Fincher, is awash in eerie grays and blues, as well as negative space that might potentially obscure the shapeshifter.
Given the wildness of the story, The Outsider sometimes feels ludicrously tony, but it’s undeniably gripping—a beach read rendered by real artists. The series is so clever that it might take you a while to realize that it’s essentially Dracula, what with all the Renfield types and secret nesting sites, only dressed up as a police procedural. Or, perhaps even more fitting, The Outsider suggests a merging of Kolchak with Price’s The Night Of.
Cast: Ben Mendelsohn, Cynthia Erivo, Bill Camp, Jason Bateman, Mare Winningham, Paddy Considine, Julianne Nicholson, Yul Vazquez, Jeremy Bobb, Marc Menchaca, Frank Deal, Hettienne Park, Derek Cecil, Summer Fontana
Review: BBC and Netflix’s Dracula Is a Gory but Banal Adaptation of a Classic
The series feels tiresome in its relentless pleading with us to be impressed.1.5
The first episode of BBC One and Netflix’s Dracula finds sickly Jonathan Harker (John Hefferman) interred at a convent. Gesturing toward the pile of pages in front of her, the chipper, irreverent Sister Agatha (Dolly Wells) says that Jonathan’s account of his imprisonment in Dracula’s (Claes Bang) castle may have left out some relevant information. Then she asks him if he had sex with the vampire. With this, Sherlock creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat announce their intent to push the expected boundaries of Bram Stoker’s oft-adapted novel by bringing a lot of the subtext to the forefront. But the bizarrely passionless scenes that ultimately follow in no way match those performative declarations.
It’s not that Bang’s hammy Dracula fails to do suggestive things throughout the entirety of the 90-minute episode made available to press. It’s that when he hovers over Jonathan and tries to get him to write a letter with a pen that they’re both holding, there’s no palpable sexual tension. The actors’ rigid body language seems fundamentally at odds with the proceedings, though that impression may stem from the cinematography. Indeed, the characters are constantly framed from unflattering angles or cut off from one another altogether, and despite being far more vocal about the subtext of Stoker’s novel than almost any adaptation before it, the series isn’t half as provocative as something like Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal.
Whether he’s sharing space with Jonathan or even Sister Agatha, Bang’s handsome, domineering Dracula radiates no lust or desire. When the vampire calls his guest things like “Johnny” or his “bride,” the pronounced eroticism feels forced and artificial. In one scene, Dracula stands naked before Agatha and licks a bloody knife, but the camera conceals everything below his neck and cuts to a more obscure angle from the moment he touches his tongue to the blade, effectively dialing back the moment’s camp factor.
Some of Dracula’s images might sound gross on the page—a fly crawling across an eyeball, a mangled body shoved into a box, a peeled fingernail—but these moments pass by so quickly and with such visible fuss, courtesy of the jittering camera and clanging soundtrack, that they’re robbed of any horror. Dracula’s groan-inducing wordplay (“You look drained”) only further saps the gothic atmosphere of any dread. The series is as ostentatious with its apparent sexual overtones as its horror, displaying a showiness that comes off more like a substitute for real depravity, a cry for help in the notable absence of any writer or director capable of teasing out the material’s sensuality.
All that’s left of Dracula is its declaration of cleverness, as it bobs and weaves through expectations as Sister Agatha does the whole fast-talking genius shtick. Did you think crucifixes repel vampires? Well, the series makes sure to tell us they don’t. And then, suddenly, they do, with Dracula all but goading viewers into guessing why. In multiple scenes, characters drag out their introduction of a problem and then badger others for input and theories like an irritatingly persistent street performer. Whether it’s introducing farcical, overwritten solutions to things like navigating Dracula’s mazelike castle or miniature plot twists that are easy to guess, the series simply feels tiresome in its relentless pleading with us to be impressed.
Cast: Claes Bang, Dolly Wells, John Heffernan, Corrina Wilson, Matthew Beard, Morfydd Clark, Lyndsey Marshal Network: Netflix
Review: The Witcher Favors Fierce Fight Scenes Over World-Building
The series taps into violence like a lifespring, finding its footing with energetic fight sequences.2.5
Henry Cavill’s character in The Witcher, Netflix’s adaptation of the series of fantasy novels and short stories by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, could scan as a spin on the actor’s most notable prior role. Monster hunter Geralt of Rivia resembles a reclusive medieval Superman—all principle, brawn, and jawline—clad in a white wig and cat-like contact lenses. But rather than reheating the Man of Steel, Cavill quickly melts into Geralt, capturing his aloof yet winsome confidence with sardonic one-liners and baritone grunts.
Geralt roams a land known as the Continent, sniffing out fantastical happenings and dealing with the responsible entities like a sword-swinging private eye. It’s how he makes a living as a witcher: a rare, highly trained beast slayer both blessed with and cursed by enigmatic mutations. These mutations afford witchers preternatural strength and litheness, night vision, and a host of other powers—as well as the scorn of countless villagers who’ve heard vile tales of witchers’ supposed inhumanity. The series uses the hate directed toward Geralt to offer intriguing, if inconsistently fleshed-out, reflections on discrimination.
The Witcher’s two female principal characters also face oppressive difficulties. Sorceress Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra), who undergoes a vicious education in the art of magic, navigates the challenges of dysmorphism and her part-Elven heritage in a sexist and racist society, and young princess Ciri (Freya Allan) turns runaway after her home gets razed by the mysterious Nilfgaardian Empire. While the empire—the Continent’s strongest political and military force—is eager to track down Ciri, its aims beyond territorial growth are shadowy.
Geralt, Yen, and Ciri spend most of the season isolated from each other. When Geralt and Yen finally meet, they share a warm, sexually charged bath, in a nod to a similar moment in the 2015 video game adaptation The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. But bath time offers more than cheap fan service here, as the scene also delivers the lighthearted charm that The Witcher’s various manifestations insist upon amid their overall bleakness. Geralt and Yen’s banter moves briskly, propelled by Yen’s playful aggression and Geralt’s wry half-smiles.
The three protagonists’ narratives momentously and giddily merge near the end of the season, but what comes before sometimes feels like a stretched-out primer. Many conversations proceed lifelessly, purely to provide exposition, doing a disservice to the show’s thoughtful exploration of gender, free will, and classism. The laziness accompanies another storytelling flaw: The series is often too slow to elucidate the logic at play in its world. This first season pays welcome attention to Yen’s history and psyche but chooses not to concretely explain what it means to be a witcher, granting the audience little insight into Geralt’s origins, the reasons for his itinerance, or the nature of his otherness.
In contrast to its halfhearted approach to exposition, The Witcher finds its footing in the graphic depiction of violence. The show’s energetic battle scenes, set to a stirring score by composers Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli, create the impression that the burly, snow-caked background actors of Game of Thrones were moving at three-quarters speed. An early duel between Geralt and a rogue princess (Emma Appleton)—there are many princesses—escalates with breakneck cuts and tight shots of the warriors. Later, as the ghastly spawn of a cursed woman stalks a victim, the creature’s still-attached umbilical cord flashes at the edge of the frame, smartly giving shape to the specter of loss and grief.
However enthralling it is to watch him in action, Geralt is central to relatively few fight sequences throughout the season. He generally refrains from involving himself in the conflicts of others, less out of a commitment to neutrality than out of what appears to be an overwhelming indifference. And by avoiding excessive bloodshed early on, The Witcher demarcates the stakes necessary for Geralt to unsheathe his blade—gradually revealing his motivations and making the scattered moments of butchery all the more alluring.
Cast: Henry Cavill, Anya Chalotra, Freya Allan, Jodhi May, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson, Adam Levy, MyAnna Buring, Emma Appleton, Joey Batey, Anna Shaffer, Mimi Ndiweni, Royce Pierreson, Wilson Radjou-Pujalte, Eamon Farren Network: Netflix
Review: Work in Progress Confronts Mental Illness with Heart and Barbs
The series never loses sight of its premise, though it remains bleak without beating you over the head.3
Abby (Abby McEnany) is planning to kill herself. She’s 45, a devoted journaler, and quite miserable. Her first line of dialogue in Showtime’s Work in Progress is a comically extended shout of “Wazzup!,” and she buys her nephew a megaphone for his birthday, but being loud and fun masks her inner turmoil. She feels totally unaccomplished as a self-described “fat, queer dyke” with OCD. And though she has yet to decide on a suicide method, 180 almonds are key. They’re a “gift” from an insipid co-worker as a commentary on her weight, and Abby decides to use them to mark time: Throw out one almond per day until there are none left, and if things haven’t gotten better, then it’s time to pack it all in.
McEnany is an improv comic and the series, created with director Tim Mason and produced by co-showrunner Lilly Wachowski, is semi-autobiographical. Scenes are often broken up by title cards that list everything from the day of the week to the almond count to a public bathroom’s capacity, with frequent detours into flashbacks of past relationships and confrontations. These situations are heightened, laced with humor that’s both frank and self-deprecating. In one sequence, Abby insists on having sex in total darkness despite multiple resulting injuries, and we see her cycle through various slings and bandages over various body parts.
Work in Progress never loses sight of its premise, though it remains bleak without beating you over the head. After all, Abby copes through humor and, often, by yelling at people. She has boxes upon boxes of journals packed in a barricaded closet, expressing her feelings almost in spite of herself, and to the point where she speaks to a cellphone wallpaper pic of her dead therapist. McEnany is such an immediately gripping comedic presence because she’s unwilling to back down even when confrontations spiral out of control or she initially faints from the stress. Her suicide scheme, for example, is meant to continue for months while building slowly to a direct, hilariously petty response to her almond-purveying co-worker: “In my note, I’m gonna tell that woman that the almonds were what pushed me over the edge.”
Things do seem to get better for Abby. She finds unexpected romance with Chris (Theo Germaine), a trans man half her age. He pushes her into situations where she isn’t totally comfortable, like going to a nightclub or confronting SNL alum Julia Sweeney (playing herself), whose most famous character on that show, the androgynous Pat, became a reference point for bullying gender non-conforming people like Abby. The first few episodes of the season don’t yet characterize Chris beyond some catalyst for Abby’s change, but the two have such a charming chemistry that their connection feels believable.
More than the considerable pain at the center of Work in Progress, you can feel the joy of new love, of potentially moving past the baggage of the past. But all the while, the almonds loom in the background, at first spread out on a table and later consigned to a jar but never truly gone. It’s a sobering, subtle way to tackle mental illness because Abby doesn’t throw out her whole plan upon meeting Chris; the possibility of death is still there like a backup, due to her uncertainty. Things may be better, but how long will they last? Like the flashbacks and all those journals stored away in Abby’s closet, the baggage is never totally gone.
Cast: Abby McEnany, Karin Anglin, Celeste Pechous, Julia Sweeney, Theo Germaine, Armand Fields Network: Showtime
The 25 Best TV Shows of 2019
Our favorite shows of 2019 resist easy categorization, and they attest to a medium in transformation.
Our favorite television shows of 2019 resist easy categorization, and they attest to a medium in transformation. On our list, the old and new sit side by side, as do the challenging and the inspirational, the urgent and the offbeat. These 25 shows speak to the medium’s consistently stimulating sense of variety, and to the fact that as one golden age of television yields to the demands of an era of endless content, resonant voices and bold ideas can still find their audience. While these shows are diverse in subject matter and style, the best offerings of the year were characterized by clear, well-honed perspectives, often engaging the big questions of our present-day human existence.
The year’s best TV programming gave voice to a breadth of ideas and experiences, even those which might not reasonably be considered “issue-driven.” Consider the Netflix sketch show I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson, which couched a canny indictment of male egoism and fragile masculinity in fart jokes and absurdist cringe humor. Or Pamela Adlon’s Better Things, which launched an incisive and frank portrayal of menopause in its third season. HBO’s Succession, perhaps the only series on the list that might be classified as a reaction to Trumpism, supplanted Game of Thrones as the network’s crown dramatic jewel by offering viewers the repugnant, terrifyingly cut-throat palace intrigue that the latter series long-ago turned its back to.
The immersive Russian Doll operated as an Escher painting turned dramedy, slowly and thoughtfully eroding the affected abrasiveness of its main character. And while that series was just one of the year’s many surprising breakthroughs, 2019 also found well-established shows in peak form, from BoJack Horseman, newly alive with a deep sense of hope for its eponymous character, to Bob’s Burgers, richer and funnier in what it has to tell us about family life. Whether tackling existential issues or providing a reprieve from them, the year’s best shows comprise a multitude of voices, which flowed forth from the most prestigious platforms to the smallest, strangest niches of the medium—all of them demanding, in one way or another, to be heard. Michael Haigis
25. City on a Hill
When City on a Hill isn’t immersed in pulpy shenanigans, which find Kevin Bacon’s casually racist F.B.I. agent Jackie Rohr doing things like brandishing a fish at an angry old woman who calls him a “white devil,” it aspires to be a Bostonian spin on The Wire. The series, set in the early ‘90s and based on an original idea by creator Chuck MacLean and executive producer Ben Affleck, constantly keeps one eye on the systems that contribute to the city’s rot as it moves through a fictionalized account of the “Boston Miracle” police operation that statistically reduced violence in the city. The series excels in the level of detail it brings to its characters, and proves itself as effective at small, interlocking details as it is at purely hammy thrills. Steven Scaife
24. Years and Years
Perhaps the most significant aspect of Years and Years is the compassion with which it considers its characters. It would be easy for a series filled with so many cataclysms, both global and personal—nuclear weapon launches, deaths, infidelities—to err on the side of sadism in its depiction of that turmoil. But it takes no pleasure in the pain of its central family. Instead, Years and Years recognizes that pain is edifying as well as transient, and it accordingly gives the pain that it inflicts space to evolve: to form, to torment, and to pass, like each year that comes and goes, taking more and more away with it. Niv M. Sultan
23. On Becoming a God in Central Florida
Florida water park employee Krystal Stubbs (Kirsten Dunst) earns the nickname “the alligator widow” after her husband, Travis (Alexander Skarsgård), works himself into bleary-eyed exhaustion and, then, gator-inhabited waters. Travis fell victim to a pyramid scheme whose promises of wealth and prosperity prompted him to dump the family’s life savings into the organization’s coffers, leaving Krystal holding both the bag and their baby. As conceived by On Becoming a God in Central Florida, this vision of 1992 America is a morass of hucksters and hollow promises, and the series explores that world with both a sharp eye and a peculiar sense of humor. It keenly captures our dubious relationship with the prospect of wealth; its myriad absurdities are resonant reminders of how tough it is to “get ahead,” and how easy it is to get lost in the labyrinth of capitalism. Scaife
22. Big Mouth
Netflix’s Big Mouth is continued evidence against the dubious argument that P.C. culture has made it impossible for comedians to be edgy. As a subject for an animated sitcom, the sex lives of 13-year-olds constitutes an ethical, political, and cultural minefield—one that the graphic and logorrheic Big Mouth gives the impression of approaching blindfolded and in a headlong rush. But there’s a method to its mania: Even while firing an entire volley of cum jokes at viewers every few seconds, the new season covers topics like female masturbation, slut shaming, incel masculinity, biphobia, social media addiction, and the gay teen experience with a heartening frankness that belies its apparent irreverence. Pat Brown
Sam Levinson’s Euphoria depicts teenage hedonism in frank, explicit terms: a high school world awash in pills, sex, and nude photos thrown to the winds of social media. The series finds its character-driven groove by turning an empathetic eye toward the inner lives of its principal teens, observing their listlessness and small moments of solace as much as their outward pain. It tempers some of its heavier material with an often laidback atmosphere, a world of deep shadows drenched in multi-colored hues and dreamy hip-hop beats that belie the darkness in its corners. If the universe is falling apart around the characters’ ears, the result is that Euphoria’s characters see little reason to consider what encroaching adulthood will mean, to ruminate on what will come next when there might as well be no “next.” There’s only the all-encompassing “now.” Scaife
Review: Truth Be Told Is Uninterested in the Malleable Nature of Truth
The series attempts to derive excitement solely from its overly calibrated performances.1.5
As Octavia Spencer’s journalist turned podcaster Poppy Parnell leads her listeners through the shadowy histories of gruesome criminal cases in Truth Be Told, the actress perfectly mimics the warmly grave vocal delivery that’s a hallmark of the true-crime podcast genre. Yet, while the Apple TV+ series understands this genre’s allure, it fails to replicate the enduring insights of podcasts like Serial—insights which pertain to the opacity of fact and the idea that the truth can be shaped by the whims of institutions, such as jury selection and the preservation of crime-scene evidence. Truth Be Told eschews the fixations of the nonfiction works that it apes, focusing on lurid gossip and incredulous plot twists and, as a result, proving uninterested in the malleable nature of truth itself.
Truth Be Told follows Poppy as she reassesses a grisly suburban murder from 20 years ago—one she mined for professional success at the time, penning a series of columns which helped turn the public tide against Warren Cave (Aaron Paul), the teenager who was convicted of the crime. A nagging flaw in Truth Be Told emerges early on, as the series fails to elucidate exactly why Poppy is convinced of Cave’s innocence. Reference is made to a key witness who may have been coached, but that inconclusive new development seemingly confirms Poppy’s long-harbored suspicions, which exist for reasons that are never made clear.
The show’s contrived central mystery, then, pertains to who really killed Chuck Buhrman (Nic Bishop). It’s a question that’s far less complex than that of many high-profile true-crime mysteries, and Truth Be Told attempts to derive excitement solely from its overly calibrated performances. Indeed, the direction given to a majority of the actors seems to have been to glower more, act shiftier, or seem more agitated. The series suggests Buhrman’s killer could have been any of the figures Poppy encounters, but because they’re all so obviously creepy, a pervasive sense emerges, unintentionally, that they’re all engaged in some kind of conspiracy.
Paul bizarrely plays Cave as a feral presence, growling and tilting his head during his character’s interviews with Poppy. Incarceration, the series unsubtly suggests, has made him an animal. Likewise, Buhrman’s daughters, Josie and Lanie (both played by Lizzie Caplan), are a pair of incessant liars who’re still grappling with the trauma of their father’s death. Other characters seem to simply be evil, none more so than Cave’s father, who’s the show’s plainly obvious red herring. All of these figures are suspects, yet the persistent suggestion that that we might also empathize with many of them results in Truth Be Told vacillating between conflicting viewpoints: one that sees these characters’ flaws are the resultant damage of Buhrman’s murder, and one that sees their flaws as inherent and may have led them to kill. But the series lacks the tact or nuance to investigate the idea of inherent evil, and what’s left is a rather muddled whodunit in which the answer ceases to be very interesting.
While the show’s reliance on easy misdirection and incredulous plot dynamics are an understandable hallmark of its genre, Truth Be Told similarly fails to distinguish itself in cinematic or thematic terms. Shot in an exceedingly workmanlike fashion, the series is designed to offer boatloads of information and little else. Every conversation unfolds in rote over-the-shoulders shots, and exteriors are plagued by the copious drone shots that have become a kind of shorthand for high production value in prestige television. Even the rare bursts of action unfold mechanically, with twists telegraphed by the show’s performances and scenes either being marred by slow motion or shaky-cam obfuscation.
Coherent cinematic flourishes would have been a welcome addition, because much of what’s being captured here seldom exceeds matters of exposition. For instance, every discussion between Poppy and her private investigator, Markus (Mekhi Phifer), includes clumsy references to their past romantic history, as if we might forget. Seemingly every conversation that Poppy has with anyone includes a statement of their current emotional dynamic. While Spencer’s warmth and wit hint at Poppy’s skill as an investigator, the actress is too often left delivering dialogue that merely states what’s happening around her or in her head.
Throughout Truth Be Told, Poppy constantly explicates her guilt, yet the series doesn’t seem sure what exactly is prompting those feelings. The show flattens its performers’ unique personalities, utilizing them simply in service of engendering suspicion. Ostensibly about the nature of fact and the spiraling effects of dishonesty, Truth Be Told is actually much less thought-provoking than all that, and simply erects a byzantine rumor mill around one man’s death and then mining those rumors for cheap thrills.
Cast: Octavia Spencer, Aaron Paul, Lizzie Caplan, Elizabeth Perkins, Michael Beach, Mekhi Phifer, Tracie Thoms, Ron Cephas Jones, Nic Bishop Network: Apple TV+
Review: Joe Pera Talks with You Digs Into the Truth About Our Preoccupations
Season two of the series explores how our preoccupations bring us comfort when we might need it most.3.5
As a comedian, Joe Pera is a bit of an enigma. With a hunched-over, ambling gait and a slow, soothing voice, he may be the youngest old man on TV. How much of this is an Andy Kaufman-esque stunt is an open question; Pera is certainly committed to not totally breaking character even outside his TV series Joe Pera Talks with You, as he sustains his grandfatherly persona through stand-up routines, promotional interviews, and appearances on the local news. His website provides a form for fans to guess his age. He’s almost painfully polite and modest, brimming with a shy, nervous energy, using pauses and stumbling over words to disarm viewers right before he jams in some unexpected joke.
In other words, how much of Joe Pera the man is in Joe Pera the performance art character, and which parts are specifically turned up for comedic value? Watching Joe Pera Talks with You is to simultaneously ponder this question and be so taken with his sweet, earnest persona that the answer seems not to matter. The show’s 11-minute episodes are ostensibly structured around the middle-school choir teacher’s interest in mundane objects and activities: speaking directly into the camera, he discusses beans, hiking, shopping at the grocery store, and other things around his home in Marquette, Michigan.
Other topics and concerns inevitably creep into each episode, whether because Pera is easily distracted by things like the effect of jack-o’-lanterns on one’s soul or because other forces—a boisterous co-worker, an awareness of consumerism, or a disagreement with band teacher Sarah (Jo Firestone)—briefly throw him off course. Following from the previous season, he and Sarah are newly dating, though their viewpoints sometimes differ as Pera’s apparent frivolity clashes with Sarah’s status as a committed end-of-the-world prepper with a fortified basement and a handgun; in one episode, she asks him if he’s willing to kill to defend his garden.
In another type of series, Pera might be some wacky side character or otherwise relegated to the butt of a joke to contrast a more cynical protagonist, but the brilliance of Joe Pera Talks with You is how he instead provides the dominant perspective. No matter how seemingly insignificant, Pera and his interests are presented with complete sincerity through gentle music and loving close-ups of objects and processes, creating an atmosphere of reserved but infectious passion through his dedication and attention to detail. With a mix of serene images, oddly well-researched facts, and understated visual comedy, episodes play like a mix of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, ASMR videos, and Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg.
An extreme self-awareness fuels the show’s comedy, from the subtle tics and timing of Pera’s speaking style to the use of subtitles and careful compositions that do such things as gradually reveal that he’s wearing shorts. He walks silently in one episode, and as soon as that silence begins to feel awkwardly too long, he begins his monologue about hiking to reveal, simply through impeccable timing, that the silence stems from a weird, adorable belief that before he can discuss hiking, he must first demonstrate what it is. He’s thorough, this guy. And he makes sure to inform you that he’s just kidding when he says cold beer is nutritious.
Joe Pera Talks with You never feels like it’s making fun of Pera’s demeanor. Though the character is almost childlike in his perpetual wonderment, the parts of him that initially come off as absurd also feel truthful and even aspirational, in how this man has thought long and hard about things like the societal value of beans. He’s a master of conveying miniature stories in just a few words, like how he has “been devastated in the past” by experimenting in his garden or how classifying Easter as “the third most romantic day of the year” suggests a considered ranking of dates by such values.
Many of Pera’s observations ring true for their cutting, hilarious simplicity, though much of the comedy comes from how he’s not some inaccessible guru or unsung sage of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Some of the show’s funniest lines are when Pera brings up something his outward naiveté suggests he might be ignorant of, like American interventionism. He has his own worries; they’re just often about whether his beans will grow properly around the wire arch in his garden. He focuses on the beauty in the mundane, the things that bring him quiet joy. Employing warm cinematography, gentle narration, and its lightly absurd portrayal of everyday life, Joe Pera Talks with You digs at a larger existential truth about our own preoccupations and how they bring us comfort when we might need it most.
Cast: Joe Pera, Jo Firestone, Conner O’Malley, Pat Harris, Jo Scott Network: Adult Swim
Review: Servant Is an Unrelentingly Strange Examination of Grief and Denial
The show’s control of tone and atmosphere soon becomes even more engrossing than the story’s mystery itself.3
On paper, the premise of Apple TV+’s Servant sounds simple enough: New parents Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) and Sean (Toby Kebbell) hire a nanny, Leanne (Nell Tiger Free), to take care of their infant son in their Philadelphia home. It’s a ritzy place, with a fully stocked wine cellar and a spacious kitchen for chef Sean to test out his elaborate recipes. When coupled with the show’s musical score of discordant, jittery strings and atmosphere of uneasy stillness created by long takes and peculiar camera angles, however, everything simply feels off, even before it’s revealed that the child, Jericho, is dead.
What lays motionless in the crib is actually just a silent, unblinking doll meant to placate Dorothy, who suffered a psychotic break following Jericho’s sudden death. Beyond a handful of instances throughout the season where she stares listlessly into the distance as if on the cusp of some revelation, she treats the Jericho doll as though it’s alive and well. The bitter, curmudgeonly Sean plays along, but when he’s alone, he’s content to drop the thing on the floor or knock its head against the crib. Hiring Leanne is just one more part of the charade, until one night Sean finds a living, breathing, crying infant in the doll’s place.
Much of the series follows Sean as he tries to figure out what’s going on, and with the help of Dorothy’s high-strung, perpetually wine-drunk brother, Julian (Rupert Grint). They investigate where the baby could have possibly come from and dig into the background of the prim, devoutly religious Leanne, whose presence coincides not only with the return of the new Jericho, but with Sean getting splinters from nearly every surface he touches. Dorothy resumes her work as a newscaster none the wiser, but her bright, outgoing demeanor—an extreme contrast with the sullen, dickish Sean—keeps putting their newly living baby at risk of discovery when she invites people over or insists on bringing him to work.
It’s a supremely weird setup for a series made only weirder by the way it builds atmosphere through the use of jarring sounds and an austere visual language. Though most of the season’s episodes noticeably lack the ambitious directorial hand of M. Night Shyamalan—who’s an executive producer on the show and helmed two episodes—cinematographer Michael Gioulakis maintains an unnerving mood through close observation of seemingly mundane actions. By holding so long on faces and often employing overhead angles, the camera lends a sort of voyeuristic, almost alien-like tinge to the proceedings.
And the close-ups are uncomfortably close, particularly with the constant focus on Sean’s cooking that finds him meticulously pulling apart the flesh of eels, lobsters, and squids. At other times, he’s seen tugging splinters out from his neck or inside his mouth. Whether something actually does happen when the camera lingers on Sean shoving something into the garbage disposal, the potential for disaster always seems to loom large. In such moments, it’s as though grief, denial, and pain coalesce into one suffocating presence.
Servant’s mystery unfurls at a satisfying clip, since it’s broken up into brisk half-hour chunks that always present some new complication. Episodes rarely leave Dorothy and Sean’s home, locking us inside to watch everyone seethe and fall apart. In the absence of traditionally horrific imagery, the show emphasizes an unrelenting strangeness not only through Sean’s increasingly odd recipes, but through things like a man vigorously dabbing sauce from his slice of chicken before, for no apparent reason, wrapping it in napkins and then squeezing the food between his fingers. The season ends, perhaps expectedly, with more questions than any particularly satisfying answers, but in similar fashion to shows like Twin Peaks, its control of tone and atmosphere soon becomes even more engrossing than the mystery itself.
Cast: Lauren Ambrose, Toby Kebbell, Nell Tiger Free, Rupert Grint, Phillip James Brannon Network: AppleTV+
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