During the first season of Mad Men and throughout the second, much critical discussion centered on the the show’s depiction of advertising, domestic life and gender relations in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, the immense cultural changes America was about to undergo, and what opinion series creator Matthew Weiner might have on it all. After watching the last three episodes, I believe those aspects are mere means to an end. Like the mob storylines on The Sopranos—a series on which Weiner served as a writer and producer—they exist to inform and amplify Mad Men’s real interest: the continual struggle between what Sigmund Freud called the id and the superego, between the deep, authentic self inside us—the sum total of our desires, appetites, urges and fantasies—and what we might call the constructed self, a superstructure of social conditioning that cages the beast within and lashes it with guilt and shame when it gets too rowdy. The third major component of the personality, the ego, referees between the id, the superego and the external world; in a sense, the ego is the locus of drama, because it’s the place where decisions happen. The struggle is apparent in any story worth watching, but it’s foregrounded in Mad Men, a series in which—like The Sopranos—dramatic decisions often come down to a blunt cost-benefit analysis. A character in moral quandary tries to choose between what he or she wants, and what his or her conditioning—and the expectations of family, friends or society at large—will allow.
Don Draper/Dick Whitman is the most obvious example of this phenomenon because he’s the main character, the guy whose problems and actions drive a lot of the drama—and he happens to be an impostor, somebody who took the identity of a dead soldier and, if the flashback material and California scenes are meant to be taken literally, stepped into the shoes of the soldier whose identity he stole and served as a sort of husband stand-in for the “real” Mrs. Draper (by which I mean the first Mrs. Draper, Anna). The Don-Anna relationship is fascinating because it seems, to quote Shakespeare, a marriage of true minds. Neither Don nor Anna seems beholden to traditional concepts of morality and decency. Anna calls Don out as a fake at the car lot, but rather than rat him out and have him punished, she engineers an arrangement whereby he’ll serve as a stand-in for her late (missing) husband. And judging from that revealing flashback in the second-to-late episode, “The Mountain King,” they both seem quite content with the arrangement. When Don is with Anna Draper, he seems more relaxed and open, more vulnerable—even somehow younger, smaller and thinner!—than he’s seemed in the rest of the series. He seems—yes, indeed—like a different person: maybe the person he was meant to be.
Our mutual friend Alan Sepinwall wrote in his recap of “The Mountain King” that this material demonstrates the debt that Weiner’s show owes to The Sopranos. Alan’s recap begins by quoting a key passage of dialogue: “It means the only thing keeping you from being happy is the belief that you are alone,” Anna Draper tells Don. “What if that’s true?” Don asks. “Then you can change,” Anna replies. “People don’t change,” Don counters. Alan goes on to write,
““People don’t change” may as well have been the motto of Matthew Weiner’s previous series. The Sopranos was an 86-hour argument against human beings’ capacity for real personal growth. As Mad Men borrows so many other visual and thematic elements from its mobbed-up predecessor, it would be easy to assume that Weiner, like David Chase, doesn’t believe change is possible. But “The Mountain King” makes it clear that, in the world of Mad Men, people can change—provided they have a partner to aid their transformation. If you think you’re alone, then you’re stuck … The episode is filled with partnerships both old and new that enable major changes, some more welcome than others. Anna Draper, widow of the woman whose identity Dick Whitman stole, helped our Don step more concretely into his new identity. Betty, fearing that Don may never come home (or that she may never want him to), enlists her daughter as an ally for her potential new life as a divorcee. Pete breaks off his business relationship with his father-in-law rather than be forced to lose his role as dictator in his marriage. Roger wants to use the possible merger with Putnam, Powell & Lowe to pay for the transition into his new marriage, while Bert Cooper fears it will render him an irrelevant old man. And, in the episode’s most horrifying moment, Joan discovers what her fiance really thinks of her and her career when he rapes her on the floor of Don’s office.”
In his notes at the end of the column, Alan adds:
“The scene where Don happens by the hot rod mechanics at first seemed out of place in the rest of the episode, but on watching it a second time, it became clear: just as Don succeeds through his partnership with Anna, the mechanics take parts of two different cars and meld them together into something that’s greater as a new whole.”
I think he’s right on all of the particulars, but at the same time, and at the risk of seeming cynical, I think Alan’s reading is too hopeful, and that the message of Mad Men in re: personal growth is, “People change their lives, but they can’t change their essence,” or maybe, “People change their lives, but maybe they shouldn’t, because the change only hides the real problem, disguises it or delays the necessity of confronting it.” Or maybe it’s even simpler than that, and phrased as a question: “Would most personal unhappiness disappear if people were allowed to be true to their natures?”
When I watched the car scene, I had a thought similar to Alan’s but came to a different conclusion: that the mechanic’s strategy works on automobiles but can’t work with couples. People aren’t machines; you can’t change their essence with a new coat of paint or even a meticulously rebuilt engine; the essence of the person—particularly that insatiable id, always seeking visceral satisfaction and comfort—stays the same. The conflicts within the couple are the conflicts of the individual squared: unless the two participants in a relationship want similar things—unless they’re on the same page, so to speak—the relationship is doomed. Whether the conflict within the marriage is between an id and a superego (as seems to be the case with Don and Betty, the husband continually straying in one form or another and then slinking back home to his wife and presenting his bare back for a lashing), whether they stay together “for the sake of the kids” or pull the plug on the partnership, it’s a no-win situation, a car that barely runs and that probably never should have been taken from the showroom.
Thinking about the probable messages of Mad Men and The Sopranos, I suspect that The Sopranos, as hard-edged and pessimistic about human nature as it was, ultimately seemed moralistic in a backhanded way. It presented the hypocrisies of its characters (and the various emotional and physical savageries they justified) as a blight on happiness, actions that departed from the accepted norms of daily life and that brought grief and pain to those who abide by the rules, the norms. (Think of all the subplots and individual scenes depicting the misery inflicted by the mob characters on “civilians.”) The tone of Mad Men is different, I think—more of a lament.
The show presents social compacts (marriage, family, full-time employment in an office—all institutions that Don neglects or abandons when it suits him) as shackles on the freedom of those who are predisposed to do without them. It’s a subtle critique of traditional bourgeois morality of the Father Knows Best, two kids-and-a-mortgage variety. It treats the very concept as an illusion, a useful fiction built atop the reality of human need—a superego-style overlay, a construct, a set of goals that we’re conditioned by family, society and other forces to want, to need, regardless of whether it matches up with our own deep-seated, possibly unrecognized, maybe repressed true desires. (Peggy, for personal and self-interested reasons, is the least judgmental of the show’s major characters, responding to Pete’s irritation over Don’s little L.A. holiday by saying she’s sure he had his reasons for going AWOL. Is it just me or, at that moment, does Peggy seem to speak for the show?)
It’s here, I think, that advertising’s significance to Mad Men becomes clear. What’s the purpose of advertising? As articulated by Don—the show’s emblem and sometime philosophical mouthpiece—it’s to stoke desires that were repressed; or (more daringly—the Holy Grail for any ambitious ad man) to create or instill a desire that wasn’t there before—maybe even a desire that’s of no use, perhaps antithetical, to the consumer who’s suddenly feeling it. Don’s season-one “carousel” speech crystallizes this objective and ironically applies it to Don himself (in ways that remain largely invisible to the other characters). It’s half auto-critique, half confession, and a brilliant illustration of Don’s (and Peggy’s) belief that the most effective advertising is that which connects on a personal, emotional, very deep level, and that necessarily draws on autobiographical sources, on the ad man (or woman’s) own sense of reality, of human nature. Peggy manages the same feat, more humorously, when she draws on her Christian (Catholic) upbringing to devise the “sharing” campaign for Popsicles; Don wishes he could feel the nostalgic feelings he outlines in the carousel speech, but (to his shame) he can’t. So he uses those feelings in his work, to land a client, effectively finding a new way to pass on the desires that have ensnared him, desires that don’t really match up with who Don is.
In the final episode of season two, Mad Men juxtaposes individual fealty to the mid-century social norm against the looming threat of nuclear Armageddon (represented by the Cuban Missile Crisis the characters follow in news reports throughout the finale); the possibility of mass extinction is just an amped-up version of the anxiety each person faces when contemplating the certainty of his or her own death and wondering, “What’s the point of playing by the rules, of doing what society expects, when I’m just going to end up as worm food anyway?” (Don, predictably, is the character least threatened by this eventuality, responding to Joan’s request to brief the staff on emergency preparedness by indicating that if the missiles start flying, such knowledge will be useless and pointless.)
Don Draper/Dick Whitman is clearly a man uncomfortable with the responsibilities he’s saddled with. He’s ill-suited to marriage (and perhaps somewhat suited to fatherhood, though his track record there is spotty, too). He’s the sort of man who gets drunk while building a child’s playhouse—self-medicating his depression and alienation from the person he’s pretending to be. A shot late in the season-two finale dollies slowly away from the Draper family reunited, reassembled, in their living room, a Saturday Evening Post cover image of domestic perfection, Eisenhower-standard. But we’ve seen the turmoil roiling beneath that placid image, so the effect is ironic and unsettling rather than reassuring.
To me, the scenes between Don and Anna—and the scenes in the preceding episode where Don hooks up with the Europeans in what seems like a jet-set predecessor to a hippie commune where traditional social roles are downplayed or obliterated, and a father can have a perfectly ordinary conversation with his daughter while she’s lying in bed post-coitus with her much older lover—were designed to show Don in his true element, living in a world where he doesn’t have to be burdened by the expectations he’s shouldering for propriety’s sake.
Both the Anna scenes and the LA commune scenes give us glimpses of a secret world where selfish people—meaning people who put their own happiness first and don’t lose sleep over what society expects of them—can live without anxiety, without guilt. The last three episodes of season two often showcased Don in situations that amounted to a holiday from the usual pressures afflicting a man of his social stature; I was reminded of the plot of Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged (referenced in season one), an uber-libertarian tract in which the truly exceptional people get tired of having to suck up to the “mealy-mouthed” commies and hypocritical, guilt-dealing parasites and go on strike, watching society collapse from the safety and comfort of a secret hideout that’s essentially Shangri-La for intellectual supermen.
Don’s soujourn with the jet set and the scenes between him and Anna had a Shangri-La feel. They were visions of homegrown paradise, of places where a man uncomfortable with his constructed self could reestablish contact with his deep self, his true self. There’s nothing condemnatory in any of this material save a closeup of a young boy in the swinger’s compound regarding Don and his young lover in the pool; in retrospect that shot might be the image that starts Don back down the road toward his day job and family, toward embracing his constructed self. He has to start being that other guy again for the sake of his kids. In a sense, that’s why we obey all sorts of rules—for the sake of the kids. Not literally our kids (some of us don’t have any and don’t want any) but for the sake of future generations. Middle-class morality exists (so we’re told) to perpetuate society, to keep the machine humming along. Damage it or even question it (as the social revolutions of the ‘60s did in real life, and as they’ll do on Mad Men if it keeps getting renewed by AMC) and you risk tearing down the status quo and replacing a somewhat restrictive but functioning paradigm with pure chaos, pure selfishness. (It occurs to me that one of Ayn Rand’s key philosophical tomes was titled The Virtue of Selfishness.)
There’s a marvelous moment in the jet set compound when a relaxed Don slumps on a couch. The shot is framed from behind: Don’s arm is draped along the top of the couch. It’s a mirror image of the shot that closes the show’s credits—the period at the end of a sequence that shows the ad man entering his workspace, dropping his briefcase, leaping out of a window and plummeting through concrete canyons as, all around him, manufactured images of bliss fall apart.
That image of Don seen from behind communicates a sense of stillness and utter mystery (we can’t see his face), but the intent is different. In the credits, the shot represents the falsely calm and centered Don, a man who, on the inside, is moments away from leaping through a window and exposing the illusory nature of what passes for happiness in his world. But when we see the same shot in the European compound, I think we’re seeing an image of, not true contentment, exactly, but something closer to it than what Don experiences back home.
The jet set compound scenes and the Don Draper-Anna Draper scenes also reminded me oddly of the bits in season six of The Sopranos dealing with Tony’s alienation from the man he had to be—the scenes where he escaped temporarily into Coma World, or to Las Vegas, and got a chance to meditate on the basic material of which he’s built, to sort of peer into his own soul. After that, the question for Tony became, “Now what do I do about it?,” and we know the answer was, “Nothing, really.” I think Weiner believes on some level that, as Alan puts it, “People don’t change”—or that they can only change with unstinting support from like-minded people. But I think Weiner is paying even more nuanced (and empathetic) attention than Chase did to the stuff outside the self that makes it so hard to change—the expectations that we be a certain way, live a certain way. And he’s mourning the loss, or burial, of the authentic self, the id, the little death that comes with accepting a restricted life, a life of fewer freedoms, less autonomy; and he’s perhaps conceding, and being saddened by, the inevitability of such compromise.
It seems not at all coincidental that Don is visually defined by that broad-shouldered suit and the hat that shades his eyes. That’s not who he is; it’s his uniform, the armor he dons, the disguise in which he drapes himself before entering a world hostile to his essence.
For more recaps of Mad Men, click here.
Editor’s Note: This column is dedicated to the memory of House contributor, Time Out New York editor and regular Mad Men recapper Andrew Johnston, who passed away Sunday, Oct. 26 at age 40, following a long battle with cancer. Andrew’s burial will take place Saturday, Nov. 1 at 2 p.m. at the Monticello Memory Gardens in Charlottesville, Virginia. There will also be a memorial Wednesday, October 29 at 5:30 p.m.; if you were a friend of Andrew’s and would like to attend, email Matt at [email protected] for details.
Review: HBO’s Perry Mason Examines Power and Faith Amid a Fog of Decay
The series is gory and dour with a bone-deep cynicism, but it’s also optimistic in its own small way.3
A dead baby appears not five minutes into HBO’s reboot of Perry Mason. Left on a rail car at Angels Flight in Los Angeles, the child’s eyes are stitched open in hopes of fooling the frantic parents just long enough for the kidnappers to abscond with the ransom money. The grotesque image is certainly far from the show’s last, but it functions as a statement of purpose: Creators Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald intend to grit up the world of Erle Stanley Gardner’s criminal defense lawyer, who was most famously depicted on the CBS television series starring Raymond Burr that aired from 1957 to 1966.
The new Perry Mason is set in 1932, and at the outset, the eponymous character is a private investigator, and hardly the respectable kind. Paired up with the sardonic Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham), he’s not above taking illicit photos of a movie star at a studio’s behest, hoping to prove a morals clause violation. Matthew Rhys brings a thick haze of disillusionment to his character, who wears a lot of stubble and an expression of perpetual weariness. Reconceived in the mold of reluctant prestige TV heroes, Mason is a man adrift, with few opportunities during the Great Depression, and so he tries (unsuccessfully) to squeeze his employers for more cash, though he still misses out on paying the child support he owes.
Mason’s lawyer pal, E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow), brings him in to work with E.B.’s associate, Della Street (Juliet Rylance), on the kidnapping case. The law jabs an accusatory finger at the grieving parents, Matthew and Emily Dodson (Nate Corddry and Gayle Rankin), leaving the defense to contend with dirty cops and cover-ups in addition to following a trail of money that loops through the local evangelical church. A lot of the story beats are the usual stuff of noir, with people you can’t trust mixed up in systems you can trust even less, but the series uses its central case and characters to tug at the different threads of a rich societal tapestry, deftly posing questions about religion, race, sexuality, and gender roles as the world unravels.
Amid dramatic courtroom monologues from E.B. and various scenes of Mason probing crime scenes, the case quickly becomes a media circus. Reporters mob the courthouse steps alongside throngs of protestors howling for blood; the Dodson kidnapping captures the imagination of the public because, despite multiple scenes that show people gasping at others dropping profanities, their interests run toward the morbid and the salacious.
The spotlight throws marriage dynamics into sharp relief, with Emily Dodson vilified on the stand for displaying sexual agency or disinterest in a husband who keeps her in the dark about their finances. Any guilt or shame over their child’s death on her part is framed as a confession in the eyes of the vicious, grandstanding district attorney (Stephen Root). Reactions from the main characters and the general public depict a wider culture of apathy, bigotry, and especially misogyny amid an economic downturn that stokes everyone’s most desperate instincts for survival. The show’s world is a richly rendered fog of decay and hopelessness; people who can make a living do so off secrets, as with E.B.’s questionable financial records or the compromising photos that Mason develops at his dead parents’ desolate farm.
The public hungers for escape, and they get it from the movies, sensational newspaper stories, or from the sense of community provided by a religion that demands their money and devotion in return. They fixate on violence, on victims and victimizers as expressions of their own powerlessness, while others take whatever small power they can, under whatever label. Officially, Della Street is E.B.’s secretary, but it’s immediately clear that the scatterbrained old-timer couldn’t run the office without her, as she empathizes with and advocates for women like Emily in a way that the men often don’t. Paul Drake (Chris Chalk), who goes on to be a frequent investigator in Mason’s employ, is here reconceived as a black cop, an outsider in a system that wants little to do with him beyond what it can use. He becomes disillusioned with his place in that system, as the other characters similarly confront their own powerlessness.
Perry Mason’s concern with power is most clearly seen in Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany), who gets to stand on the evangelical church’s stage and theatrically preach, her position as the church’s mouthpiece sometimes clashing with the moneymen who run the place behind the scenes. The show’s focus on religion can be strained at times, as the church subplots feel tangential to the main case, but its prominence clarifies Perry Mason as a series that’s also about faith, religious and otherwise. Here, faith is eminently vulnerable, often taken advantage of by charlatans but also necessary to keep a person going—a faith in humanity to look beyond societal conditioning and the corruption snaking its way through every angle of civilization. Faith isn’t always rewarded. The series is gory and dour with a bone-deep cynicism, but it’s also optimistic in its own small way, an origin story that chronicles how its characters find a means to fight rather than serving as dejected, disgusted observers.
Cast: Matthew Rhys, Juliet Rylance, Chris Chalk, Shea Whigham, Tatiana Maslany, John Lithgow, Gayle Rankin, Stephen Root, Lili Taylor, Nate Corddry Network: HBO
Review: Season Three of Search Party Embraces a More Madcap Sensibility
Season three rivals its predecessors in its intoxicating blend of bleak cynicism and irreverent comedy.3.5
The third season of Search Party, the exceptionally nimble dramedy created by Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers, and Michael Showalter, returns after a hiatus of two and a half years but begins right after the events of the second season’s finale. Dory (Alia Shawkat) has just been arrested for the murder of her quasi-associate and ex-lover, Keith, and as a cop takes her mugshot, she chuckles at something he says—resulting in a beguiling portrait of Dory, wearing dark red lipstick, with one eyebrow raised and a roguish half-smile fixed on her face.
The ever-ravenous press and public latch on to Dory’s mugshot, turning her and the legal case against her and her boyfriend, Drew (John Reynolds), into a national spectacle. The series, in turn, takes a gripping dive into Dory’s psyche, sharply revealing how her place in the spotlight magnifies her anxieties. In contrast to the defining visual of Search Party’s first two seasons—a tracking shot of Dory, which prioritized her reactions and impressions over the stimuli eliciting them—season three often depicts her in faux news reels and talk-show clips. Rather than centering Dory as she moves through the world, these sequences freeze her in a still image, embodying her objectification at the hands of the media frenzy. The alienation she feels as tabloid fodder eclipses what she once felt as an aimless personal assistant.
But Dory is far from powerless, as she’s remarkably adept at steering the narrative of both her life and the trial. One of her most formidable feats is a television interview alongside her estranged parents (Jacqueline Antaramian and Ramsey Faragallah), which successfully presents the illusion of a unified front. And she seems to like the attention, as when she humors the paparazzi posted outside her apartment, or when she melodramatically regales the partygoers encircling her at a friend’s wedding with tales of fame’s woes.
Search Party’s earlier seasons found joltingly dark humor in the absurdity of four clueless, sheltered, relatively young adults playing detective and then committing and covering up a murder. This season rivals its predecessors in its intoxicating blend of bleak cynicism and irreverent comedy, but embraces a more exaggerated, madcap sensibility. Recognizing that court is an inherently theatrical space—and a magnet for outsized personalities—the series drops Dory down the rabbit hole and surrounds her with near-unbelievable weirdos. Bob (Louie Anderson), Drew’s lawyer, spouts a wonderful blend of banal aphorisms and pulpy zingers. “Oh, this city,” he drones upon arriving in New York from Chicago, “so much chaos out there.” And Bob is joined in court by two other similarly odd and hilarious attorneys: Cassidy (Shalita Grant), Dory’s rookie lawyer, and the overzealous prosecutor, Polly (Michaela Watkins). The trial, shepherded as it is by a trio of clowns, drives the season’s tonal shift as it quickly devolves into a circus-like farce of shoddy evidence and shaky testimonies.
Dory and Drew’s friends Elliott (John Early) and Portia (Meredith Hagner) are back, but where past seasons deepened their outwardly shallow personalities, this season frequently relegates them to inconsequential, if funny, subplots. The treatment of Portia is particularly disappointing: Previously, a surprising acuity flickered within her, but the series tosses that potential nuance aside, doubling down on the ditzy obliviousness at her surface.
Ultimately, though, the simplicity of the non-Dory narratives is of a piece with the trajectory that Search Party has outlined over its run thus far. The series is Dory’s story, told in an obsessive manner as befits her swelling narcissism. And the strangeness of the trial hints, perhaps, at the world as seen through Dory’s eyes—and as tinged by her growing delusion. Dory is prone to hallucinations and fantasies, and her mental state only worsens under the psychological toll of the trial. At one point, Drew wonders if Dory’s claims of innocence are just a legal strategy, or if she really believes that she didn’t do anything.
And she’s still keeping her greatest secret—that she killed April, the neighbor who knew about Keith’s murder—but Drew is on to her. That Dory remains at least slightly sympathetic throughout all this is a testament to the subtle expressiveness of Shawkat’s performance. Dory’s torn emotions course through Shawkat’s face; the character’s survival instincts flash in her eyes when she’s cornered, when her control of situations starts to falter.
Rare are the moments, however, in which Dory’s power is truly at risk of slipping. One of the season’s most striking shots embodies her insidious influence on those around her. Dory, Portia, and Elliot sit and lie down in a line, playing with each other’s hair; Dory combs Portia’s while Portia runs her fingers through Elliott’s. Drew is opposite them, on the couch. They’re all quiet, thoughtful, reflective. But Dory, with Portia’s hair in her hand, resembles a puppet master. As the camera slowly zooms out, the moody electronic soundtrack kicks in, an echo of Dory’s unceasing calculations. Aspects of the blocking recall Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam: Drew’s no God, but Elliot stretches out like the first man—and Dory is behind both him and the woman closest to him, plotting, the serpent just off-canvas.
Cast: Alia Shawkat, John Reynolds, Meredith Hagner, John Early, Shalita Grant, Michaela Watkins, Louie Anderson, Raphael Nash Thompson, Clare McNulty, Brandon Micheal Hall, Claire Tyers, Christine Taylor Network: HBO Max
Review: Hulu’s Love, Victor Is a Likable, If Timid, Exploration of Sexual Identity
The show’s episodic sitcom rhythms allow for an easier access point to the narrative about identity and prejudice.2.5
“Screw you,” texts 16-year-old Victor Salazar (Michael Cimino) to the mostly unseen Simon Spier (Nick Robinson) in Love, Victor, a spin-off of the gay teen rom-com Love, Simon. The 2018 film’s white, upper-middle-class protagonist, with his perfectly accepting parents, had a relatively easy coming-out journey compared to Victor, whose Colombian-American working-class mother and father cling closely to traditional religious values and aren’t exactly about to buy him a car for his birthday. “My story is nothing like yours,” Victor tells Simon at the end of the first episode of the Hulu series.
Victor reaches out to Simon via text message after starting at Creekwood High School, where his mentor was once cheered on by the entire student body for finally connecting with his secret paramour, Bram. Victor has moved from Texas to the Atlanta suburbs with his parents, Isabel (Ana Ortiz) and Armando (James Martinez), his sullen teenage sister, Pilar (Isabella Ferreira), and his quirky little brother, Adrian (Mateo Fernandez), for reasons that are slowly revealed over the course of the season. Like Simon, Victor comes from a loving home, but his parents’ discomfort with non-heteronormative modes of expression—like Adrian’s preoccupation with the Disney princess Elsa—are made clear to him.
While the stakes for Victor’s coming out are clear, though, that doesn’t make his journey of acceptance any less tedious to witness, stretched out as it is over the course of 10 episodes. Created by Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger (who also adapted Love, Simon, based on Becky Albertalli’s novel), Love, Victor was originally slated for Disney+ before being shifted to Hulu due to its supposedly mature themes. But aside from some strong language and pretty vague sex talk, the series could easily be a companion to High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. Its upbeat tone keeps Victor’s journey from feeling dour and didactic, even though the series is designed to partially provide easily digestible life lessons to a teen audience.
Love, Victor hints at some slightly more nuanced versions of those life lessons in the season’s first half, when Victor begins researching pansexuality. Still attempting to convince others (and himself) that he could be straight, he decides to pursue the popular, studious Mia (Rachel Naomi Hilson). But the messy possibilities of a pansexual teen drama fall away the more Victor becomes obsessed with his openly gay classmate and co-worker, Benji (George Sear), who’s such an idealized object of affection that he’s shown multiple times flipping his luxurious hair in slow motion. In Love, Simon, the connection between Simon and Bram felt genuine and vital, but here Victor and Benji seem destined to get together solely based on proximity.
With its brisk half-hour episodes, and appearances from veteran comedic performers including Andy Richter, Ali Wong, Beth Littleford, and Natasha Rothwell (whose scene-stealing drama teacher from the film has been promoted to vice principal), Love, Victor is structured like your average TV comedy. The episodic sitcom rhythms allow for an easier access point to the narrative about identity and prejudice—both internal and external. But it seems frustratingly hesitant to assert itself as a mainstream teen dramedy with an openly gay protagonist, returning to the starting line of Love, Simon rather than building forward from it.
Cast: Michael Cimino, Mateo Fernandez, Isabella Ferreira, Mason Gooding, Rachel Hilson, James Martinez, Ana Ortiz, Nick Robinson, George Sear, Anthony Turpel, Bebe Wood, Lukas Gage Network: Hulu
Review: Netflix’s The Woods Spins a Monotonously Grim but Addictive Mystery
The story’s rush of exposition can be dizzying, but the pieces fall into place in ways that aren’t entirely unbelievable.2.5
Harlan Coben’s work has been adapted across various European markets, always retaining the same commitment to formula regardless of location or language. The American writer trades in superficial but addictive tales about long-buried secrets, mysterious disappearances, and murderous betrayals, and Netflix’s The Woods is no exception.
The six-episode Polish miniseries is more streamlined than prior Coben adaptations, spending less time getting sidetracked from its central mystery. The story, based on the author’s 2007 novel of the same name, is split between two time periods, opening with a flash-forward to prosecutor Pawel Kopinski (Grzegorz Damiecki) with a gun pressed to his head before flashing back to 1994, when a teenage Pawel (Hubert Milkowski) was at summer camp. Something very bad happened in the woods there, leaving two teens dead and two others—including Pawel’s sister, Kamila (Martyna Byczkowska)—missing, and the discovery of a dead body potentially connected to the murders brings Pawel back to the case in 2019.
In the present-day timeline, Pawel reconnects with his former girlfriend, Laura Goldsztajn (Agnieszka Grochowska), who’s now a college professor, and the two attempt to figure out what happened all those years ago. Pawel has been prosecuting a rape case in which one of the accused perpetrators is the son of a rich TV personality, Krzysztof (Cezary Pazura), who’s vowed to use his resources to ruin Pawel’s life if he won’t drop the charges. This is all familiar ground for Coben, from the gradual unearthing of secrets that often tie together in unexpected (and unlikely) ways to the rather steady doling out of sudden reversals and revelations.
The change of setting from New Jersey to Poland has little impact on the story. The most distinctive local element here is an exploration of anti-Semitic attitudes as grieving families search for someone to blame following the initial crimes. But even that turns out to be just one of many bits of misdirection, a hallmark of Coben stories that often presents solutions to other horrific crimes in the margins, distracting the audience from the true culprits.
Coben may not have much interest in social commentary, but his characters, even the ostensible heroes, are always morally compromised, and finding out who killed or kidnapped a story’s central victim doesn’t necessarily lead to catharsis. Here, Pawel’s handling of the rape case is especially thorny, and his determination to stand up for the accuser is as much about his own pride as it is about seeking justice for a young woman who’s been attacked.
The Woods, part of a 14-book deal between Coben and Netflix, can be monotonously grim, with no mischievously charismatic villains to compare to the antagonist of Coben stories like The Stranger, but Damiecki and Grochowska sharply convey the anguish that their characters have carried with them for decades via haunted glances and halting speech patterns. Pawel and Laura aren’t clever detectives spouting off one-liners, and their personal connection to every aspect of the case provides a kind of revelation that feels earned. By the end, the story’s rush of exposition can be dizzying, but the pieces fall into place in ways that aren’t entirely unbelievable. And the details, remixed from so many other mystery stories by Coben and others, will make sense in almost any language.
Cast: Grzegorz Damiecki, Agnieszka Grochowska, Hubert Milkowski, Martyna Byczkowska, Cezary Pazura Network: Netflix
Review: Crossing Swords’s Pleasant Exterior Hides a Predictable Core of Vulgarity
Even the jokes that land mostly emphasize how complacent the series is to coast on its crassness.1
Hulu’s Crossing Swords, created by Robot Chicken’s John Harventine IV and Tom Root, depicts a beautiful stop-motion fantasy world where the characters have big round heads plastered with simplistic facial expressions. These toy-like peg people have no arms, their swords and such floating in midair beside them as if held by invisible hands. The show’s handcrafted animation is charmingly scrappy, from the cardboard textures of the environments to fire being rendered as globs of colored fuzz. But Crossing Swords’s pleasant exterior hides a core of vulgarity, alluded to by the sexual euphemism of its title.
This same brand of humor runs through so much adult-oriented animation, where gore, nudity, and profanity is juxtaposed with what might appear to be cuddly and kid-friendly at first glance. Crossing Swords’s protagonist, a peasant named Patrick (Nicholas Hoult), represents the perceived experience of watching the show, as his good-hearted aspirations to be the king’s squire plunge him into a world of hedonistic nobility.
The series is full of liars, narcissists, and people comedically abusing power to arbitrary, often violent ends. A squire contest in the first episode indulges in what quickly becomes tiresome standbys: Everyone cheats at fighting by kicking each other in the genitals, and one later challenge involves contestants having sex with the queen, who gives them gonorrhea.
Though Crossing Swords is briskly paced and filled with rapid-fire jokes, there’s little shock or surprise to be had once a cute little peg man calls someone a motherfucker and then pulls out his penis for the umpteenth time. The show’s comedy becomes rote, with a dreary predictability that extends even to more elaborate setups. For example, when one character requires snakeskin for a spell in the same episode where Patrick agonizes over circumcision, it’s not particularly hard to connect the dots of the plot long before the script does.
The rest of Crossing Swords’s humor hinges on a comingling of the show’s medieval aesthetic with consciously modern touches, as in Patrick needing to ask for snakeskin at a pharmacy, or a hippie professor in a tie-dyed shirt using his class to hijack a ship in the interest of saving humongous krakens the way one might try to save whales. Although some of these concepts head in sporadically amusing directions, as when the professor demands to reinstate virgin sacrifices to the krakens, the show inevitably returns to predictable raunchiness (in this case, the promiscuous queen is no good for a sacrifice, so the job naturally falls to Patrick).
In a typical early gag, one character in a runaway wagon veers out of the way of an orphanage only to careen toward…a kitten orphanage. Upon hopping into the wagon, she shouts, “See ya, fucksticks,” and then, when she spots the kitten orphanage, she sighs, “Well, shit.” On paper, the sheer immediacy of this bait-and-switch is funny, but the dialogue bogs down the pacing for yet another example of how supposedly hilarious it is for these cutesy characters to use profanity. The series isn’t without moments of cleverness, but even the jokes that land mostly just emphasize how complacent the remainder of Crossing Swords is to coast on its crassness.
Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Luke Evans, Tony Hale, Adam Pally, Adam Ray, Tara Strong, Alanna Ubach Network: Hulu
Review: Netflix’s Space Force Is a Toothless Satire of Political Ineptitude
The series informs sitcom hijinks with a bit of political tension, but the punchlines are diluted for the sake of likability.2
It’s distracting when a TV series or film pivots on conflicts between politicians whose party affiliation somehow goes unspecified. The motivation behind this vagueness is obvious, as showrunners and filmmakers don’t wish to mire their stories with specifically right- or left-wing baggage, especially in these hyper-partisan times. Greg Daniels and Steve Carell’s Space Force suffers from a similar malady. The Netflix comedy imagines the realization of President Donald Trump’s oft-mocked plan for a sixth branch of the U.S. military, to which over $700 billion has already been allotted. Yet Trump is never explicitly mentioned, referenced by the characters only as POTUS, and his whims are so consciously bland that one wonders if another president has been elected within this show’s world.
The showrunners’ skittishness over the heated subject of Trump is best embodied by a number of gags in which the commander in chief texts Mark R. Naird (Carell), the four-star general newly appointed to lead Space Force’s development. The texts are curt and macho, but they sound like regular sports coach-speak, which is to say that they’re too coherent to suggest the way Trump actually writes or talks—at least in public. If the show’s writers had the daring to imply that Trump’s garbled mixture of slogans and defamation was a public stunt designed to inflame his base, they might have fashioned a resonant recurring joke.
Space Force’s premise, in which a country that’s been in perpetual war for decades develops a blood lust so great it must try to conquer space, boasts a certain Dr. Strangelove-esque potential. Rather than tap into that potential, Space Force proceeds as one of those Daniels/Carell shows, like The Office, where Carell’s blowhard is revealed to be a nice guy underneath. It took The Office a while to lose its teeth and become a perpetual meme and cuddle-fest, while Space Force goes soft within just a few episodes before limping to an embarrassingly inspirational family reunion finale. Daniels and Carell have little interest in the Space Force as a concept; for them, it’s a backdrop for a special effects-driven workplace sitcom, replete with supporting characters who embody the usual sitcom stereotypes.
In Space Force, even potentially scathing punchlines are diluted for the sake of palatability. For instance, a congresswoman, Bryce Bachelor (Tamiko Brownlee), obviously meant to resemble Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez questions Naird about Space Force’s ballooning budget. Like Trump, Naird (initially) shows contempt for research and has done no preparation for this hearing, spiraling off into amusingly ludicrous grandstanding that the congresswoman, astonishingly, just accepts. In such moments, the series wants it both ways: offering lightweight jokes for liberals while essentially validating the Trump playbook of bluffing minute by minute with Naird’s unexpected victory, though the character’s bluster does lead to one prolonged, uproarious sequence involving a chimpanzee astronaut.
Political confrontation is also superficially offered up via Naird’s duels with the chief scientist of Space Force, Dr. Adrian Mallory (John Malkovich), who derides America’s hard-on for the military and contempt for intellectual reason. Malkovich, who’s accorded the show’s most confrontationally partisan dialogue, gives an elegant, thorny performance that’s gradually compromised by the plotting, as Naird and Mallory will, of course, bond, and Naird will learn the errors of his reactionary ways, embracing reason over violent confrontation. In another example of pandering wishy-washiness, the series eventually goes out of its way to celebrate Space Force, un-ironically, after spending so much time mocking it.
Similarly, Carell is so uncertain in this role that he can’t even settle on a voice. Early on, Naird talks in a gruff military-man fashion that suggests George C. Scott’s general in Dr. Strangelove. Otherwise, Naird is just sweet old Steve Carell, though sometimes his voice changes within a scene, suggesting that this device might be an intentional joke. The character, like Mallory, also suffers from increasingly random storylines that strive to humanize Naird in clichéd terms. For some reason, he has a wife, Maggie (Lisa Kudrow), who goes to prison so that Space Force may offer callbacks to the opening season of Netflix’s own Orange Is the New Black.
Space Force renders the architects of our world’s destabilization, like Trump, his enablers, and military hawks, into lovably misguided dads—a common entertainment trope. In 30 Rock, a conservative billionaire gradually became besties with a liberal TV producer, allowing her to feel better about distracting America with pop-cultural detritus. In The Office, the initially moving misery of a group of corporate drones was steadily dialed down for the sake of feel-good sentimentality, as a once-contemptible manager became a poignant goof. Even in an ostensibly edgier film like War Machine, a general’s atrocities are downplayed for the sake of easy caricature. These entertainments suggest that the unmooring turmoil of modern life isn’t so bad, giving us an excuse to write off our blossoming dystopia with a semi-amused “eh.” An act of satirical heartlessness would be more compassionate than fortune-cookie uplift.
Cast: Steve Carell, John Malkovich, Tawny Newsome, Ben Schwartz, Diana Silvers, Jessica St. Clair, Fred Willard, Don Lake, Noah Emmerich, Lisa Kudrow, Owen Daniels, Alex Sparrow, Jimmy O. Yang Network: Netflix
Review: Hulu’s The Great Revises History with Riotous Irreverence
The series takes on Catherine the Great with off-kilter comedy and startling poignancy.3.5
Tony McNamara’s alternately riotous and poignant Hulu miniseries The Great begins with the future Catherine the Great (Elle Fanning) leaving Austria for Russia to marry the country’s emperor, Peter (Nicholas Hoult). Catherine wants to bring the Enlightenment to her new home—to abolish serfdom, proliferate literacy, and embrace art and science—but Peter is a doltish man-child more interested in philandering than leading. His governing style is self-serving and myopic; for one, he refuses to pull Russia out of its disastrous war with Sweden, as he’s desperate for a victory akin to those of his late father, Peter the Great. What little progress the young Catherine makes in reforming Peter is fleeting, and because she’s confident that she’s destined to save Russia, she plans a coup.
Like Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite, which McNamara co-wrote and features Hoult in a supporting role as a sycophantic politician, the series rejects the commitment to historical fact that burdens many period pieces. Catherine channels the empress’s ambition and relatively liberal bent, but the characters around her are composites and fabrications; Peter, for instance, is only loosely based on Peter III, and provides a vehicle for Hoult’s unnerving blend of youthful earnestness and wanton cruelty. This historical freewheeling feeds into The Great’s broader irreverence, which comes through in every jarringly crass line coated in period-drama affect—like when Peter tells Catherine, over a meal, that he’s set on producing an heir. “I’d do it now, but I just blew my bag on Madame Dimov,” he says, causing Catherine to nearly choke on her food. “My God,” she says, “a phrase I have never heard.”
The delectably off-kilter dialogue highlights Catherine’s alienation. She first arrives to court a naïve idealist, prim and proper, but as she develops into a skilled politician, she demonstrates growing comfort navigating the crudeness surrounding her. She eventually attempts to win over Grigor (Gwilym Lee), Peter’s best friend, who can’t stand the emperor’s dalliance with his wife, Georgina (Charity Wakefield). “He eats fruits various from your wife’s cunt on a daily basis,” Catherine says to Grigor, egging him on. Grigor’s eyes bulge and his jaw clenches. It’s an almost revelatory moment for Catherine in her quest to wield a less bloody sort of power.
Catherine’s co-conspirators initially consist of Marial (Phoebe Fox), her maid, who hatches the scheme; Count Orlo (Sacha Dhawan), an influential but meek bureaucrat in Peter’s inner circle; and Leo (Sebastian de Souza), the compassionate and winsome lover gifted to Catherine by Peter in accordance with the court’s libertine ethos. These characters contextualize Catherine’s idealism and innocence. Where she’s eager to take the throne and launch her virtuous reign, they recognize that deposing an emperor is slow and messy business.
One of the central elements of Catherine’s political education is figuring out how to seize power as a woman in a thoroughly misogynistic environment, one filled with oafs such as the frequently drunk General Velementov (Douglas Hodge), who’d rather try to seduce Catherine than hear about her ambitions. Catherine and Marial commiserate about the sexism they face, but their discussions expose Catherine’s ignorance of how class difference shapes their distinct experiences. These interactions subtly and effectively cast doubt on Catherine’s claims of readiness by showing that her lofty goals of egalitarianism are far clearer to her than the nuts and bolts of classism, let alone the complexities of ruling an empire.
Catherine’s blind spots come to a head when she addresses a room full of powerful men at a time of profound uncertainty. It’s a crucial opportunity to win their respect, but she flounders: Her instincts are off, she knows nothing of Russia, and the men spurn her. Fanning deftly embodies Catherine’s distress as the character’s sense of self shatters, her breaths turning into gasps and her dreams of leading Russia slipping through her anxiously fidgeting hands.
Catherine’s true exemplar at court is Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow), Peter’s bohemian aunt, who largely shares her progressive politics. Elizabeth is totally unconcerned with what others think about her, and while her boldness can feel unremarkable given the cushy position she occupies at court, it’s marvelous to witness. She airs her perspective most compellingly in scenes with “Archie” the Archbishop (Adam Godley), who represents the church and abhors Catherine’s humanism. The pair are two of the The Great’s sharpest minds, and their absorbing conversations spill tantalizingly into blasphemy and treason, as when Archie floats the possibility of Elizabeth replacing her nephew on the throne.
As for Peter, he tries to better himself under Catherine’s influence—unbanning the printing press, holding art and science fairs—and he shows signs of sweetness, but nothing sticks. The series elucidates his behavior with sympathetic reflections on his inner workings. Peter lives in the shadow of his late parents, suffocated by his father’s outsized legacy and scarred by his mother’s disdain. In one of The Great’s most stirring moments, a shot of Catherine and Leo kissing by firelight cuts to a dark room and pans to reveal Peter curled up on a statue of his father. Such sequences stop short of excusing Peter’s vileness, but they do render his arrested development more tragic than laughable. They also make the tension nestled in the series’s title increasingly plain: Great is both what Catherine will become and what Peter will never be.
Cast: Elle Fanning, Nicholas Hoult, Sebastian De Souza, Sacha Dhawan, Phoebe Fox, Adam Godley, Belinda Bromilow, Douglas Hodge, Gwilym Lee, Charity Wakefield, Bayo Gbadamosi, Louis Hynes Network: Hulu
Review: HBO’s I Know This Much Is True Is an Unrelenting Catalog of Tragedy
The limited series is a carnival of horrors weighed down by moralizing, hysteria, and cross-associations.1.5
Based on Wally Lamb’s 1998 novel of the same name, Derek Cianfrance’s I Know This Much Is True offers an unrelenting carnival of horrors. Throughout the limited series’s six episodes, there are instances of rape, child abuse, death, self-mutilation, suicide, several brutal accidents, even allusions to a family curse. At a certain point, those new to Lamb’s story may anticipate intimations of incest, as that’s about the only shock left for Cianfrance to spring on us—and the subject is eventually toyed with, if ultimately abandoned, in a deeply expendable subplot. If Cianfrance had approached this convoluted narrative as the pulp that it truly is, in the key of, say, Ryan Murphy, the series might’ve emitted a disreputable spark. Unfortunately, I Know This Much Is True is supposed to be “about” something, and so the outlandishness is weighed down by moralizing and fancy cross-associations.
Set primarily in a small Connecticut town in the early 1990s, with flashbacks that span from the 1800s to the 1980s, I Know This Much Is True vaguely parallels a family’s legacy of misery with America’s launching of the Gulf War. President George Bush is seen frequently on televisions in various backgrounds, as are vintage MTV music videos, which Cianfrance will occasionally emphasize to enhance the series’s pervading anti-nostalgic mood, especially in the numerous depictions of people arguing and couples breaking up and storming out on one another. Our narrator and tour guide is Dominick Birdsey (Mark Ruffalo), an aspiring writer who never left town because of his unstable and dependent twin brother, Thomas (also Ruffalo), who was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic as a young adult. Dominick describes his brother as an “anchor,” but it’s evident early on that he loves playing the role of savior as a way of evading his responsibility for the general disappointment of his adult life.
In the series’s ‘90s-era thread, Thomas becomes convinced that he must make a blood sacrifice to end the Gulf War, and he does something shocking that lands him in a high-security mental health hospital. This appears to be a rational decision on the part of the facility’s board, as Thomas is clearly mentally ill, though Dominick is determined to get his brother returned to a low-security hospital. Cianfrance squanders the wrenching potential in this conflict with macho sentimentality. If we were allowed to understand that Dominick’s quest for Thomas is vain and dangerous, rooted in his guilt-ridden hero complex, then we might have been pulled in recognizably contradictory emotional directions, empathizing with both brothers while fearing Dominick’s recklessness. However, this emotional response is only inadvertently triggered, as we’re supposed to see Dominick as trashing his own life to defend his brother against the Man. And in a shameless twist, Dominick’s ire with the new hospital is validated.
Cianfrance is less interested in mining the nuances of mental illness than in wallowing in existential male angst, as he did in films like Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines. In much of his work, Cianfrance appears to be trying to conjure the mood that might arise if one listened to Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run while watching a production of Sam Shepard’s Buried Child. Like those artists, Cianfrance is fixated on the idea of the ever-tormented working-class male representing the heart of the American psyche, but Springsteen and Shepard offered poetry and, in Springsteen’s case, humor and authentic rapture. By contrast, Cianfrance lingers on misery as a signpost of his integrity. The many flashbacks in I Know This Much Is True, involving Dominick and Thomas at various ages (as well as other family members), assert the same point over and over: that this family hurts itself, dashing every moment of hopefulness. (In fairness, the flashbacks are filtered through Dominick’s embittered sensibility, though their validity is generally meant to be taken at face value.)
Other long portions of I Know This Much Is True abound in shaky close-ups of Dominick’s face as he rants against largely caring family members and professionals who’re simply trying to help him. Disturbed individuals like him are certainly capable of irrationally lashing out at their loved ones, but that’s the only quality of such interactions that Cianfrance seems to recognize, and over a several-hour period these sequences come to embody a form of sensory deprivation, which is compounded by the filmmaker’s general aversion to humor. Given the extraordinary images that cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes has fashioned in the past, the self-pitying crabbiness of Cianfrance’s vision is practically offensive.
Still, Ruffalo’s casting was astute, because if Cianfrance had hired an actor with a more conventionally closed-off masculine mystique, the series might’ve been totally unwatchable. Ruffalo gives sensitive, impassioned performances, and he differentiates his characters without making a show of it. Thomas’s slouched, defeated physicality is heartbreaking even in the series’s most categorically insane moments, while Dominick’s thinner, straighter frame signifies his tightly coiled willingness to pounce upon the slightest provocation. Yet, it’s unseemly to watch an actor as thoughtful as Ruffalo submit himself to all this thrashing about, and you may find yourself pulling back from him in a manner akin to how Pauline Kael resisted Robert De Niro’s self-torturing exhibitionism in Raging Bull. (There’s even a reference to the Martin Scorsese film here: a close-up of Dominick’s twisted and gnarled face that’s held for a self-consciously ugly and interminable length of time.)
The most maddening thing about the obviously talented Cianfrance is his refusal to get out of his own way (come to think of it, Kael wrote something similar about Scorsese in her review of Raging Bull). For all of the ostentatious negativity of I Know This Much Is True, there are haunting and subtle flourishes. When eight-year-old Thomas (Rocco Masihi) humiliates himself on a school bus, we casually see another child give him a hug as he walks dejected up to the front of the vehicle. And when Dominick and Thomas’s semi-abusive, sort-of-loving stepfather, Ray (John Proccacino), suffers a heart attack, he speaks to Dominick in a halting manner that suggests his and Dominick’s worst fears of deflated masculinity, and it’s of course at this point that the two men start to bond. As predictable as they might be, these moments come as a relief from the hours of redundant emotional violence and disappointment. It was also astute to cast Rosie O’Donnell as an advocate and Michael Greyeyes as a mysterious janitor, as their poignant underacting briefly offsets the show’s chest-thumping masochism.
But I Know This Much Is True is still a shambles, a catalog of tragic events that’s meant to rhyme the Gulf War, the catalyst for the current endless American war machine, with the modern ennui that’s signified by Dominick’s irritability and Thomas’s madness. And even all that undigested subtext isn’t enough for Cianfrance, who keeps throwing things at the screen, from period flashbacks to an Italian grandfather (Simone Cappo) who’s meant to suggest the seed of American racism, to a missing girl who anticipates the reveal of Dominick and Thomas’s unseen father, who references our nation’s legacy of genocide. In this numbing, ludicrous production, Thomas’s paranoid fantasies become virtually indistinguishable from the hokum that Cianfrance offers up with solemn sincerity.
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Kathryn Hahn, Rob Huebel, John Procaccino, Melissa Leo, Rosie O'Donnell, Philip Ettinger, Archie Panjabi, Michael Greyeyes, Tom Stratford, Donnie Masihi, Rocco Masihi, Simone Coppo, Aisling Franciosi, Matt Helm, Zaria Degenhardt, Marcello Fonte, Irene Muscara, Agatha Nowicki, Roberta Rigano Network: HBO
Review: HBO’s Bad Education Paints an Ambiguous Portrait of Greed
Though it needlessly withholds certain details for dramatic effect, the film resists embellishment or caricature.3
Everybody seems to love Dr. Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman), superintendent of the Roslyn, Long Island school district. He’s personable, impeccably groomed, and responsible for getting the district ranked number four in the state. And over the course of HBO’s true-crime film Bad Education, he scrambles to cover up a potential scandal that could torpedo the school board’s budget: Assistant superintendent Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney) has been embezzling from the district for years. To complicate matters further, an intrepid school newspaper reporter, Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan), is sniffing around, which might just unearth the wide scope of the operation.
Accompanied by ironic classical music cues, Bad Education paints an unattractive portrait of its main characters. The film’s color palette is muted, and the wrinkles on the actors’ faces are featured prominently in close-ups. Their actions are even less flattering: As ludicrously underpaid as teaching may be, the crass extravagance of the town’s embezzlers is made abundantly clear via house renovations, pieds-à-terre, first-class flights, facelifts, and more—all on the school’s dime, written off as some ambiguous charge from a suspicious company.
Though the film needlessly withholds certain details to artificially pump up the drama through eventual plot twists, Bad Education resists embellishment or caricature. Instead, by probing the truly thankless task of teaching kids while under the thumb of district rankings, school board demands, and an endless parade of antagonistic parents, the film presents educators like Gluckin and Tassone with a surprising degree of sincerity and dedication to their jobs. They remember the names, the parents, the hobbies, and the siblings of all the kids who come through Roslyn. They really did get the place ranked number four.
There is, of course, more to Tassone than his composed, genial exterior suggests, most of which should be left for the audience to discover. And though the embezzlers are explicitly in the wrong, their justifications are not so easily shaken off; they are right, after all, in observing that the director of the school board (Ray Romano) makes seven figures selling real estate with values directly tied to the success of Roslyn, while the teachers and administrators remain underpaid and overworked. Rather than a simplistic, straightforward parable of greed, Bad Education depicts its true events with a surprising amount of depth and ambiguity.
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Allison Janney, Ray Romano, Geraldine Viswanathan, Alex Wolff, Rafael Casal, Stephen Spinella, Annaleigh Ashford
Review: Beastie Boys Story Is Part Memorial, Part TED Talk
Billed as a “live documentary experience,” the film has the feel of a PowerPoint presentation.2.5
In Beastie Boys Story, the band’s surviving members, Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz, describe their gradual realization that Def Jam executive Russell Simmons embraced them only because he thought any group of white rappers could become superstars in the mid 1980s. The Beastie Boys could have easily become defined forever by their first pop hit, 1986’s “Fight for Your Right,” and the misogynistic spectacle of their early performances. Instead, they showed a remarkable ability to reinvent themselves: Their sound evolved from the minimal beats and metal riffs of their debut, Licensed to Ill, to the dizzying, sampledelic collage of Paul’s Boutique, after which their music became harder to pin down, as they returned to their punk roots on early-‘90s hits like “Sabotage.”
That song’s iconic music video was directed by longtime collaborator Spike Jonze, who’s also at the helm here. Billed as a “live documentary experience,” the film has the feel of a PowerPoint presentation, with Diamond and Horovitz speaking to a live audience on stage alongside props like a reel-to-reel tape machine playing a loop from Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks,” which forms the basis of 1986’s “Rhymin & Stealin.” The duo runs through the bullet points of their professional history, recounting the regret and disgust they felt over their early stage shows, in which they acted out the characters of the beer-guzzling bros they created for Licensed to Ill, and lamenting how the record executives they considered friends refused to pay them royalties despite the massive success of the album.
As different as is from, say, Tayor Swift’s Miss Americana or Beyoncé’s Homecoming, Beastie Boys Story fits into the recent trend of music docs in which the subjects exercise almost complete control over the way their stories are told. The 572-page Beastie Boys Book, published in 2018, covers the same ground as the film with a more innovative approach. Instead of writing a conventional memoir, Diamond and Horovitz published a collection of essays from friends and cultural critics, laying out the band’s history in both photos and prose. Beastie Boys Story feels stiff in comparison. The book’s essays by drummer Kate Schellenbach and others examining the group’s attitude toward women make a far more compelling case than clips of Diamond and Horovitz criticizing the lyrics of “Girls” or pointing to the more feminist sentiments of their latter-day music.
The Beastie Boys called it quits in 2012 after the death of founding member Adam Yauch. Throughout the film, Diamond and Horovitz credit Yauch with some of the group’s biggest changes in direction. “I want to say a little something that’s long overdue/The disrespect to women has got to be through” he raps on 1994’s “Sure Shot,” effectively signaling the trio’s move toward more progressive politics. His conversion to Buddhism, friendship with the Dalai Lama, and turn toward pro-Tibetan activism helped completely overhaul the band’s public image in the early ‘90s. Beastie Boys Story returns to stories of Yauch’s creative influence and unpredictability, and its final act turns into an outright tribute to the late rapper and musician. The film, then, often feels like a cross between a TED talk and a memorial service, but one gets the sense that Diamond and Horovitz are finally getting years’ worth of grief off their chests. The cumulative effect is, at the very least, touching.
Cast: Michael Diamond, Adam Horovitz, Adam Yauch Network: Apple TV+
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