Spy stories are great vehicles for exploring ideas of identity, and I’ve always loved the moment that often comes when the spy goes so deep undercover that there’s only one person who knows that the spy is actually working for the good guys. Invariably, this lone handler is killed, leaving no one to vouch for the spy’s true identity. The drama then becomes less about the spy convincing people of his lies and more about him trying to convince people of the truth.
This is largely the situation Don Draper (Jon Hamm) finds himself in in this week’s Mad Men, “The Suitcase” (written by Matthew Weiner and directed by Jennifer Getzinger). When Anna Draper (Melinda Page Hamilton) succumbs to cancer, Don loses the one person he feels ever truly knew him; she knew his past and his secrets, and she loved him anyway. Now Don has been robbed of his one connection to the truth he spent the first three seasons of Mad Men trying to conceal. Like a spy without a handler, he’s left stranded in a web of fabrication without any means to return to home base, and the foundation upon which he built his life has seemingly crumbled.
But “The Suitcase” isn’t about Don and Anna; it’s about Don and Peggy (Elisabeth Moss). Their relationship has always quietly served as the show’s backbone, but this episode focuses on it to an extent we haven’t seen before, limiting its scope to the two characters and one night they spend together (sort of reminiscent of Breaking Bad’s “The Fly.”)
Most of the episode takes place on May 25th; it’s Peggy’s birthday and the night of the infamous Liston/Clay rematch. From the first shot of Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) passing out tickets for a closed-circuit broadcast of the fight in a movie theater, the episode stresses the social importance of the boxing match. Don puts $100 on a Liston victory, as the veteran boxer’s no-nonsense way of going about his business appeals to him, as opposed to Clay’s brash and arrogant antics. Hypocritically, Don even sneers at Clay’s decision to change his name to Muhammad Ali. Peggy, meanwhile, couldn’t care less about the fight, because her boyfriend Mark (Blake Bashoff) is taking her out for a romantic birthday dinner (which he’s secretly turned into a dinner with her entire family).
For the umpteenth time this season, Don has thrown himself into a drinking binge, precipitated by an urgent call from Anna’s family in California that he can’t bring himself to return. Having left Anna knowing that she didn’t have long to live, Don already knows what the urgent news is, but he isn’t ready to face it. So instead he drinks, and gins up reasons for Peggy to stay in the office working with him, rejecting all of her ideas for a new Samsonite suitcase ad so that he doesn’t have to be alone. The loneliness that Don is facing here extends beyond even that with which he was left after losing his family. Anna, the widow of the man whose identity Don stole, became Don’s one true confidant; she had every reason to judge him, but instead she accepted him and gave him a home for the first time in his life. She blessed Don’s decision to use her late husband’s name, and by doing so gave him the validation he needed to begin pursuing everything else he wanted in life.
Don ruins Peggy’s birthday night by insisting that she work late, causing her to repeatedly delay and finally cancel her plans with Mark. Peggy’s mother chastises her over the phone; she’s horribly disappointed that Peggy would throw away a chance with a nice boy like Mark in the name of some job. Mark agrees, and publicly breaks up with Peggy. Of course, this seems like the better option for Peggy, rather than walking out on Don, because no matter how drawn part of her may be to ideas of domesticity, her true driving force is career success (a concept Peggy so often ties together with Don’s approval).
Don yells at her for not telling him that it’s her birthday, and says that he would have let her go, but Peggy claims that there would have been repercussions anyway. She’s probably right, but still, her decision not to tell Don that it’s her birthday until after she breaks up with Mark seems intentional, as if she’s consciously sabotaging her own personal life so as to prove to herself her own devotion to her career. Several times throughout the episode she has the option to leave the office, but every time she chooses to stay, and she becomes only more steadfast in doing so after learning that her family is waiting at the restaurant with Mark. By shunning her family she proves to herself that she made the right decision to give up her child and pursue a professional life. She is leading the life she believes is important to her, and somewhere deep down she knows that if it’s worth giving up her child, it should sure as hell be worth giving up Mark.
Mad Men has been really fond of expressing dualities through shots this season. Though there’s no glass wall separating them, the side-by-side shot, earlier in the episode, of Peggy and Trudy (Alison Brie) approaching an uncomfortable Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) perfectly expresses the contrasting routes all of their lives could have taken. It comes off as a sight gag, but you know Peggy’s internalizing how painful it is to see the life she gave up and will likely never have. It’s a very effective precursor to Peggy’s later confession to Don that she still thinks about her child when she sees playgrounds.
Every sacrifice Peggy makes in the name of Don Draper’s vision raises the question of whether she’s achieving the sort of success that would justify giving up the life she could have had. Mark is simply the latest representation of that life, and it’s not losing him that upsets her, it’s losing the life she sees reflected back at her by Trudy. Trudy comments that Peggy has done well for herself, considering she’s just turned 26, yet soon after she feels the need to console Peggy, assuring her that 26 is still “very young,” ostensibly because Peggy has yet to marry or have a child.
Of course it’s not Peggy’s age that is pushing her, but rather the knowledge of what she’s already given up. She has no choice but to not only accept her lack of a family but to embrace it, pushing it to an even further extreme by blowing off Mark and her mother. She invests all of herself into her work, and into Don. When Don refuses to acknowledge her pivotal role in creating the award-winning GloCoat ad, claiming that she only provided the “kernel,” she breaks down, retreating to the bathroom to sob uncontrollably. Her need to have her work affirmed far exceeds her 26 years, something Don fails to understand.
At the same time that Peggy needs validation from Don, Don requires something even more fundamental from Peggy. At the beginning of the episode Don makes plans to spend the night drinking with Roger, and it’s not insignificant that after hearing about the call from California, he repeatedly refuses to go out with Roger and instead finds excuses to continue working with Peggy. After Anna, Peggy is Don’s closest thing to a friend.
After hallucinating Anna’s ghost departing, suitcase in hand, Don is finally able to wake up from his stupor and call California to receive the bad news. Afterward he hangs up, looks up to see Peggy staring at him, and then he bursts into tears. It’s questionable whether Don would have allowed himself to react like that in front of anyone else, or if he would have just buried the pain under his mid-western stoicism. But either way Peggy offers him something no one else could: when he tells her that the only person who ever really knew him died, she responds, “that’s not true.” Normally that would just sound like something people say, but in this case, I actually believe her. And, I think, so does Don.
That sounds like it should be a contradiction: Peggy knows a different man than Anna did, and yet they remain the two people who have ever truly known Don Draper. It’s not that Peggy’s going to learn all of Don’s secrets and replace Anna; even if she did learn the entire story of Dick Whitman, it wouldn’t make a difference. Peggy and Don share an understanding between two people driven toward creation and self-realization. Whatever Peggy understands about Don has nothing to do with where he came from or what his past sins are. But their relationship is profound regardless.
During the episode Don expresses his dislike for two soon-to-be iconic athletes: Cassius Clay and Joe Namath. The easy reading is to say that Don simply falls on the wrong side of history, as opposed to Peggy who understands the appeal of both Namath and Clay. But the Samsonite ad Don finally creates suggests something different. Don was deeply troubled by Clay’s success, not only did he lose $100, but the inexperienced loud mouth who was supposed to get his comeuppance won instead. It is something Don didn’t see happening, and even something he wished against, but nonetheless he recognizes its cultural importance. In fact, it’s perhaps because of his personal reaction that he’s able to recognize Clay’s win as something transformative. He recognizes the iconography of that image of Clay, standing over a fallen Liston, refusing to return to a neutral corner.
Don is a man who builds upon kernels, whether it’s the idea for an ad or the fundamental foundation of his identity. His genius isn’t so much in creating something absolutely new, but in what he can do after finding some small foundation from which to start. It’s something Cassius Clay provided him with for Samsonite, and something Peggy provided him with for the GloCoat ad. But it’s also what Anna Draper gave him, and something he now needs from Peggy.
I’ve written at length this season about the importance of fabrication and building identities, but it appears that, just like how every spy requires a handler, Don Draper needs some fundamental kernel of truth to cling to. To whatever extent he has that with Peggy is significantly different than what he had with Anna, but whatever that difference is, it may be the most significant element of the Don Draper character moving forward. Like Dick Whitman, Cassius Clay had already changed his name prior to May 25, 1965. But after that night, the transformation was complete. The fundamental kernel Don has been relying on for years is gone, replaced now with something new. It wouldn’t surprise me if this episode represents the most significant change in the trajectory of Don’s arc since at least “The Color Blue.”
Perhaps the answer to the contradiction I mentioned is that we often look at relationships from the wrong angle: truly knowing someone isn’t a matter of learning some static truth about them, rather it’s a matter of eliciting some spark of self-creation. Don came to Anna utterly lost. The relationship he formed with her became his kernel of truth and allowed him to create something for himself. The Don of season four is lost again, and it seems that the only thing that can bring him back is his relationship with Peggy. The Don that Peggy knows can’t possibly be the same person that Anna knew because in a very real way the person is shaped by the process of that ‘knowing.’ When we reveal ourselves to someone, we do so absolutely, and we can never do so in the same way again.
We don’t see how Don pulls himself together after his breakdown. He “spruces up,” as if by magic. But as he shows Peggy the new campaign he’s based around Muhammad Ali, it’s clear that something about him has changed. The most exciting thing about a suitcase, according to Peggy, is going somewhere new. Last week I wrote about characters becoming “iterations” of themselves, and I’m excited to see where this new iteration of Don Draper, having lost Anna and having revealed himself to Peggy, is going.
But regardless the outcome, “The Suitcase” made for some absolutely tremendous television. Don and Peggy’s respective breakdowns all but guarantee that this will be the Emmy tape for both Hamm and Moss, but the true genius of the episode (and their performances) comes in the finale moments. In a strange way it reminded me of the films of Yasujirô Ozu, one of my favorite directors: the scope is limited to just a few characters, we watch quietly as they make their way through a difficult time, food and alcohol are shared, and somewhere along the way the profundity sneaks up on you, and by the final shot it’s somehow overwhelming.
When Don briefly grips Peggy’s hand and gives her one of those expresses-what-words-can’t-say looks, it’s the most beautiful moment of their relationship to date. As Simon and Garfunkel begin to play, and Don tells Peggy to keep the door open, it may be the first time this season that Mad Men, through all the heartbreaking moments, leaves me feeling genuinely good about its characters.
• I probably shouldn’t be as amused by this as I am. Don’s pain is funny.
• Joan (Christina Hendricks) has minimal presence this episode, but I love her scene chastising the creative team for making a mess of the office. She’s the quintessential mid-20th century professional woman who carves out a high-profile position for herself before there’s a matching high-profile title. (She’s an office manager, but her husband still thinks her job is to “file papers.”)
• Again Peggy’s drinking (or lack thereof) is used as a device in this episode. For the first half we see her continuing to turn down drinks (the beer at the beginning, for examples), only to finally give in and take a drink after she breaks up with Mark.
• A lot has been made of Miss Blankenship’s racist zinger about throwing a dollar bill out the window to “watch two Negroes fight,” but no line made me laugh more than Roger’s, “they’re self-so righteous.” Though really the funniest moment of the episode came in the “Previously on Man Men” segment, as dramatic music plays over an inexplicably isolated clip of Roger dictating his tragic story of being force-fed vanilla ice cream.
• Don stays up until all hours of the night drinking himself stupid, pukes all over himself, gets his ass kicked, has an emotional breakdown over a dear friend’s death in the early hours of the morning, and then cleans up and produces fantastic copy before 10:30? Say what you will about the guy, that’s impressive.
• I seem to be getting later with these every week, and I apologize. Next week’s episode airs just after the men’s final at the US Open, so I should be distraction free. Go Nadal!
For more recaps of Mad Men, click here.
Review: In Russell T Davies’s Summative It’s a Sin, Bonds Are Tested but Not Broken
The series is about reorienting shame and blame from those who died to those who couldn’t be bothered.4
Russell T Davies’s It’s a Sin follows a quintet of London friends through an eventful decade (1981 – 1991) marked by (a)rousing queer passions, political/familial turmoil, and the emergence of a disease that leaves a genocidal mark on a profoundly epicurean community. Davies knows this terrain well, having mined his own experiences as a gay man in prior works like the revolutionary U.K. version of Queer as Folk and its tragicomic companion piece, 2015’s Cucumber. But he’s never directly touched on the AIDS epidemic until now.
A number of films and TV shows have exploited this era for sentimentalized, woe-is-us pathos, but Davies has never been partial to pity. What distinguishes his work is how vivaciously alive and uproariously funny it tends to be, even as your heart breaks. The first episode of It’s a Sin details the coming together of college-age Ritchie (Olly Alexander), Ash (Nathaniel Curtis), Roscoe (Omari Douglas), Jill (Lydia West), and Colin (Callum Scott Howells) with a similarly intoxicating energy as Queer as Folk, and a no-less iconic rimming scene between Ritchie and Ash that gives new meaning to the phrase “the great unwashed.”
It goes without saying that, in creator and writer Davies’s world, two strangers can effortlessly segue from eating ass to being best buds. And there’s something truly sublime about the way that Davies, director Peter Hoar, and cinematographer David Katznelson visualize the development of the group’s friendship in time-collapsing, tracking-shot-heavy shorthand. By the time they’ve taken over a loft that they nickname “The Pink Palace,” Ritchie, Ash, Roscoe, Jill, and Colin have the casual rapport of many a makeshift family. One especially lovely detail: the way the group always greets each other with a simple, spirited “La!”
Bonds are quickly tested by the new illness, first called GRID, that’s being whispered about in gay clubs. Aspiring actor Ritchie, in particular, cavalierly dismisses the danger because the rumors seem like something concocted by the repressive powers that be as a way of upending the big-city bacchanal that’s liberated him from his small-town upbringing. At first, the disease affects people on the group’s periphery, as with a character—played by a famous American gay actor sporting a posh British accent—who’s dead before the end of the first episode. He’s the Janet-Leigh-in-Psycho figure and, by this metaphorical rationale, HIV is the omnipresent, murderous “mother” wreaking indiscriminate havoc.
It’s a Sin is, at heart, about parents and children, not just of the biological but the governmental sort. Margaret Thatcher and her administration’s prejudicial policies loom large here. She even appears, from behind, in a comedic vignette stemming from Roscoe’s affair with a closeted Tory politician, Arthur Garrison (Stephen Fry). The macro cruelty is paralleled with the micro callousness of blood relatives from whom several of the Pink Palace denizens and their acquaintances have escaped. HIV infection, unfortunately, acts as a kind of two-fold death sentence. Several times throughout the series, characters are said to have “gone home” and the words hit with a debilitating forcefulness, illustrative of the regression of body and spirit that results from both viral and familial maladies.
Davies is doing some diagnosing of his own here. A few lyrics from the Pet Shop Boys song that gives the series its title are key: “When I look back upon my life/It’s always with a sense of shame/I’ve always been the one to blame.” It’s a Sin is about working through that entwined sense of shame and blame, and reorienting a large portion of it from those who died to those who couldn’t be bothered. To this end, Ritchie’s mother, Valerie (Keeley Hawes), emerges as a dramatic fulcrum in the series. She’s a seemingly soft-spoken and gentle figure in the early going who proves, by It’s a Sin’s end, to have a heart of stone and a willfully large set of blinders. Valerie gets several showcase sequences in the final episode and Hawes manages to brilliantly walk the line between shrewish and sympathetic as her character deals with revelations about Richie that, as several others chide, she should have known from the first.
Davies has always gone big in his dramas about queer life, particularly in the monologues. Alexander and West, especially, are gifted climactic arias brimming with heart-rending poignance and righteous clarity. Still, there’s something about It’s a Sin that feels summative, as if this is the work that Davies has been building to since he broke out of his own creative closet over two decades ago. And we’re all the richer for his effort.
Cast: Olly Alexander, Nathaniel Curtis, Omari Douglas, Lydia West, Callum Scott Howells, Stephen Fry, Keeley Hawes, Neil Patrick Harris, Tracy Ann Oberman, Shaun Dooley, David Carlyle Network: HBO Max
Review: The Great North Transcends Familiarity by Embracing Strangeness
While the series draws extensive inspiration from Bob’s Burgers, it boasts its own distinct charm.3
Created by Wendy Molyneux, Lizzie Molyneux-Logelin, and Minty Lewis, The Great North follows a bustling fishing family, led by single dad Beef Tobin (Nick Offerman), living in Lone Moose, Alaska. At the end of the show’s second episode, teenage siblings Judy (Jenny Slate) and Ham (Paul Rust) do a secret handshake. It’s an exacting, confounding, and hilarious ritual, equal parts dance and song, reminiscent in its bumpy rhythm of Fred Armisen and Kristen Wiig’s improvised jingles as Garth and Kat on Saturday Night Live. Just before the credits roll, the siblings reach the part of the handshake that quotes Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
The Tolstoy line could be an acknowledgment of how much the Tobins recall the Belchers of Bob’s Burgers, for which the Molyneux sisters serve as writers and executive producers. (Bob’s Burgers creator Loren Bouchard is also a producer here.) The influence of the acclaimed Fox series is abundantly evident in The Great North, from the animation style to the spontaneous musical numbers to the presence of a young child devoted to a piece of animal-themed clothing. Louise has her bunny hat, and Moon (Aparna Nancherla) wears a bear onesie.
As it explores the idiosyncrasies of the Tobins and their environment, however, the series starts to display its own distinct charm. The family members narrate occasional oral-history flashbacks that contextualize the culture of Lone Moose, and in the process fuel some of the show’s funniest bits, including Leslie Jordan’s brief, madcap turn as Thomas Wintersbone, a misunderstood teacher from the town’s early days. The flashbacks also highlight The Great North’s commitment to empowering its characters. We learn why the residents of Lone Moose do things a certain way—like the local Sadie Hawkins dance—only for the Tobins to carve out their own paths, respecting history but not bowing down to it.
Throughout the series, events in the present often flesh out the Tobins’ blue-collar, salt-of-the-earth ethos. As Beef says during a breakfast toast, leaving his four children awestruck, “We are fighters, born to wrestle nature itself into submission, year after glorious year.” The Tobins see virtue in their frontier lifestyle and pity those who forsake it. When Beef’s brother, Brian (Rob Delaney), visits from Anchorage, Beef spots his chinos and asks why he’s wearing “wedding pants.” How could a native son of Lone Moose wear anything but blue jeans—or a bear onesie that pushes him closer to the animalistic?
Life beyond the town limits seems foreign to the Tobins, and tangential to their existence. They’re powered by some shared internal generator that rarely lets their folksy enthusiasm dip below 100%. At one point, eldest son Wolf (Will Forte) takes two bored German tourists (Mark McKinney and Rose Abdoo) on a sunset cruise on the family boat, and the pair’s dry detachment stands in delectable contrast to the zestiness of the Tobins. The sequence offers a droll corrective to the family’s relentless enthusiasm, momentarily painting it as near-cultish in a subtle nod to the oddness of their insularity. But one can’t help but envy the sheer, simple joy that suffuses the Tobins’ outlook—because who cares what unhappy tourists think, when the sunset’s beauty so reliably moves Wolf to blissful tears?
Judy, guided by her artistic dreams, displays the most interest in the broader world. Her balancing act between her creative aspirations and her loyalty to the family fishing business emerges as a central theme across the six episodes made available to press. Slate’s unpredictable line readings commandeer an episode in which Judy, a curling prodigy, coaches Beef’s rec team: The character fails to contain her borderline-demonic competitive streak and lashes out at Beef’s older friends with riotous undue vitriol.
Supporting characters and guest stars—such as Alanis Morissette, who materializes in the Northern Lights like a Canadian Mufasa to guide Judy through adolescence—infuse the series with similarly zany energy. And scene-stealing Alyson (Megan Mullally), manager of the photography studio where Judy gets a part-time job, is unmistakably Mullally—in the timber of her voice, her roguish charisma, and the thick sexual tension she shares with Beef.
Living with the Tobins is a newcomer to Lone Moose: Honeybee (Dulcé Sloan), Wolf’s fiancé. An extended and winsome flashback sequence chronicles her journey here, beginning with Honeybee and Wolf meeting on a message board for cineastes and culminating in her move from Fresno, California to Alaska. In an especially amusing arc, Ham and Beef plan an anniversary party for Honeybee and Wolf based on one of the couple’s favorite movies: Shrek. The prospect of a faithful interpretation of the film is doomed by the fact that Ham only saw a few minutes of it nearly a decade ago—“Shrek is dark gray and he loves the beach,” he tells Beef. The resulting celebration, like The Great North, trades familiarity for singularity by embracing the strangeness of life in its corner of the world.
Cast: Jenny Slate, Nick Offerman, Will Forte, Dulcé Sloan, Paul Rust, Aparna Nancherla, Alanis Morissette, Megan Mullally Network: Fox
Watch an Exclusive Clip from the Premiere of FOX’s The Great North
After previewing two episodes in January, the series makes its official premiere this Sunday.
Created, written, and executive-produced by Bob’s Burgers’s Wendy Molyneux and Lizzie Molyneux-Logelin, as well as Minty Lewis, Fox’s new animated series, The Great North, follows the bustling Tobin clan, a fishing family in middle-of-nowhere Lone Moose, Alaska. From the animation style to the spontaneous musical numbers to the presence of a young child devoted to a piece of animal-themed clothing, the influence of Bob’s Burgers is obvious, but The Great North’s considerable charm and humanism quickly help the series carve out a space of its own.
After previewing two episodes of The Great North in January, the series makes its official premiere this Sunday, February 14th, with the brand new episode, “Avocado Barter Adventure,” in which Wolf (Will Forte) attempts to find the perfect six-month anniversary gift for his fiancé, Honeybee (Dulcé Sloan). The series also stars Nick Offerman, Jenny Slate, Paul Rust, Aparna Nancherla, and Megan Mullally.
Watch an exclusive scene from “Avocado Barter Adventure” below:
Review: Clarice Is the Hoary Flipside of The Silence of the Lambs
The show’s hacky obviousness couldn’t be any further removed from the ethos of Jonathan Demme’s seminal 1991 thriller.1.5
At certain angles, Rebecca Breeds looks a little like Jodie Foster, and she’s capable of affecting a passable West Virginia accent. But CBS’s Clarice, which picks up one year after the events depicted in The Silence of the Lambs, seems concerned that audiences aren’t going to be able to connect the series to Jonathan Demme’s seminal thriller without Hannibal Lecter, who’s persona non grata here due less to any storytelling decision than some knotty rights issues. To compensate, Clarice abounds in a grab bag of minor characters from the 1991 film, as well as visual echoes to it that are so obvious—right down to the bold title font—that they alternate between insulting and comedic.
Attorney General Ruth Martin (Jayne Atkinson), the mother of Buffalo Bill’s last intended victim, reassigns F.B.I. agent Clarice Starling (Breeds) to the bureau’s Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (ViCAP) in Washington, D.C. under Paul Krendler (Michael Cudlitz), a more significant character in Thomas Harris’s source novel than he was in the film. Clarice’s confidante from the F.B.I. academy, Ardelia Mapp (Devyn A. Tyler), happens to work in D.C. and has offered her a place to stay. Even Bill’s poodle, Precious, manages to return in the custody of Ruth’s traumatized daughter, Catherine (Marnee Carpenter).
Despite her first-hand field experience, Clarice is very much still a rookie, which makes her an uneasy fit for the TV-ready police procedural team at ViCAP. Talented though she may be, she faces pushback from Krendler and the elder Martin when hesitant to do things like simply label the first episode’s pair of murders as the work of another serial killer.
The first of three episodes of Clarice provided to press for review opens with a stilted catch-up of what happened in The Silence of the Lambs while throwing in a “lotion in the basket” crack at the halfway point for good measure. The series does dial back on the references to Demme’s film in the next two episodes, but they’re no less saddled with faux-profound, punchy lines that the actors fail to sell. Clarice says that she is, rather than a captive Rapunzel, “out of the tower now,” and later, Catherine howls, “You think you can rewrite the story, but you can’t!” The series is constantly stating the obvious, giving shallow psychological play-by-plays that culminate in such hoary chestnuts as “He’s playing us!” The sinister dynamic between Clarice and Hannibal that hinged on her reluctantly sharing details about her past in exchange for information here translates to her offering up bog-standard anecdotes about her life that eventually loop back around to being relevant to the task at hand near the end of an episode.
This hacky obviousness couldn’t be any further from the ethos of the film, which conveys so much through shrewd compositions and the actors’ subtle facial expressions. The film makes us feel how men’s eyes are always on Clarice, as well as her stature in comparison to them, and we intuitively grasp how her pursuit of Buffalo Bill is in part an attempt to prove her worth. By contrast, we know the men of the series resent her because characters are constantly telling us as much. We also know that she has PTSD because she’s plagued with jittery flashbacks—to Death’s-head moths and the late Buffalo Bill sewing his skin suit in the nude—daccompanied by screechy horror music. It’s easy to imagine a version of The Silence of the Lambs conceived by the team behind this series, stopping at regular intervals to lay out its themes and constantly cutting to sinister images of bleating lambs to underscore Clarice’s trauma.
And yet, for all its problems, Clarice manages to not completely sink the idea of a series centered around Clarice Starling. The writers make the aftermath of the Buffalo Bill incident, namely its effects on a variety of characters, seem like potentially fertile ground for a sustained exploration of transcending trauma. Clarice is uncomfortable about getting back to business as usual, while Catherine has retreated into an obsessive workout regime, eating very little and refusing to leave her home. Meanwhile, Ruth has leveraged her daughter’s kidnapping for political gain; though her heart is ostensibly in the right place, she’s very much willing to make compromises for the sake of headlines and favors. These are some potentially interesting threads to mine, but it’ll take much steadier, subtler hands than the ones that crafted these episodes to convincingly sew them together.
Cast: Rebecca Breeds, Michael Cudlitz, Lucca De Oliveira, Kal Penn, Nick Sandow, Devyn A. Tyler, Marnee Carpenter, Jayne Atkinson Network: CBS
Review: Kid Cosmic Struggles to Separate Itself from Modern Superhero Fare
The series draws a line between itself and the glossy superhero blockbuster, but its structure is about as modern as it gets.2.5
Netflix’s animated series Kid Cosmic, about a bunch of misfits turned superheroes trying to stop an onslaught of alien attacks, essentially mashes together parts of creator Craig McCracken’s The Powerpuff Girls and Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends. When powerful cosmic stones make their way to a dusty desert hamlet where Kid (Jack Fisher) lives with his hippie junk-artist grandfather, Papa G (Keith Ferguson), lives are upended—or, in the case of the show’s antagonist, the aptly named Stuck Chuck (Tom Kenny), fused to the floor of Kid’s backyard trailer after only half his body passes through a portal.
Kid often camps out in his trailer to read old comic books, and upon finding the cosmic stones and turning them into rings, the rambunctious boy finds himself able to fly. But others, too, gain superpowers when they get their hands on one of the rings: Papa G is able to multiply himself; teen waitress Jo (Amanda C. Miller) can summon portals; four-year-old Rosa (Lily Rose Silver) can become a giant; and Tuna Sandwich (Fred Tatasciore), a large cat with an oddly prominent butthole, sprouts a third eye that allows him to see the future.
However familiar its setup may seem, Kid Cosmic never feels like a transparent attempt to capitalize on the current superhero-saturated media landscape, and largely because of its vintage aesthetic. The characters are rendered in weathered colors, their pleasantly rounded designs redolent of old comic strips, and the title cards lean into that influence, with freeze frames adopting the Ben Day dots of yesteryear. The music is all fuzzy, shouty garage rock that sounds piped through speakers on their last legs, and though Jo has a cellphone, the characters spend one episode recording their antics on tape, complete with archaic VCR font.
As a result, Kid Cosmic draws a conscious line between itself and the glossy modern superhero blockbuster, coming across more like a sly bit of counter-programming. Rather than celebrating extrajudicial violence and swearing fealty to existing power structures, the series is careful to center its stories around regular folks, with superpowers and without, learning to navigate the world. For a field whose most popular works tend to be irreparably tangled up in the military-entertainment complex and the U.S. government’s propagandistic relationship with Hollywood, Kid Cosmic maintains a healthy skepticism of a self-interested government and other cultish causes all too eager to rally against an “other.”
Unfortunately, the show’s structure is about as modern as it gets, with Netflix written all over it. Each of the 10 episodes furthers a longer plot, with initial installments assembling Kid’s crew together and even the most apparently one-off episode seeding an eventual conflict that dominates the season’s latter half. Kid Cosmic cultivates a nice hangout atmosphere only to do too little with it, never making space for the sort of adventure-of-the-week shenanigans that, in the best episodic shows, further endear us to a concept and cast of characters.
The series does come up with some fun uses for the characters’ superpowers. At one point, Jo tries to stay at her day job while keeping tabs on the gang through portals, while Papa G starts to brute-force his way through problems by using his endless clones for amusingly fatal trial-and-error experiments. Elsewhere, Rosa must be coaxed into usefulness so that her innocuous, childish thrashings gain considerable power when she becomes a giant. Which makes it all the more unfortunate that Kid Cosmic ultimately leaves so little room for us to get to know the characters as it barrels ahead and leans into the through line of its overarching plot.
Cast: Jack Fisher, Amanda C. Miller, Lily Rose Silver, Tom Kenny, Keith Ferguson, Fred Tatasciore Network: Netflix
Review: Resident Alien Is an Endearing, If Cluttered, Sci-Fi Comedy
Though weighed down by too many moving pieces, the series finds hilarity and pathos in the tale of an alien’s assimilation.3
In 1977, NASA launched two interstellar probes into space, each containing a golden record that catalogued life on Earth—including images of sheet music and a mother breastfeeding, songs by Mozart and Chuck Berry, and greetings in 55 languages. In Syfy’s Resident Alien, based on the comic book series by Peter Hogan and Steve Parkhouse, a cosmic traveler crash-lands on Earth and, trying to blend in, learns what he can about the planet—not through a carefully curated introduction to humanity, but with a homespun self-education. He picks up human speech, for example, by watching and parroting the characters from TV shows like Law & Order, developing a healthy appreciation for Jerry Orbach and hammy one-liners.
Via flashbacks, we learn that Dr. Harry Vanderspeigle (Alan Tudyk), as the alien comes to be known, was flying over Earth on a mission to eradicate humankind when lightning struck his ship, marooning him on our planet. He killed and assumed the identity of the real Dr. Vanderspeigle, and now hunkers down in a lakeside cabin, venturing out only to scour Colorado’s snow-coated mountains for his missing weapon of mass destruction.
Harry is shocked out of isolation in the first episode, when the town doctor, Sam, suddenly dies, and he’s called upon to perform the autopsy. With signs pointing to foul play, Harry gets roped into a murder investigation, giving him plenty of opportunities to mimic Orbach and other crime show stars by announcing revelations with a jutted jaw and dramatic head turns. Tudyk brings a delectable eccentricity to his role, speaking in stilted rhythms and peppering his dialogue with awkward, stiff-armed gestures fit for a being inhabiting a new body.
Harry’s mechanical theatricality, aloof bluntness, and speech—rife with confused homonyms, mangled idioms, and wonky phrasings—throw people off. “He murdered himself,” Harry says after his initial assessment of Sam’s cadaver, causing Sam’s colleague and close friend, Asta Twelvetrees (Sara Tomko), to raise a confused eyebrow, taken aback by both the choice of language and his theory that Sam, who seemed perfectly happy, would commit suicide. Harry’s idiosyncrasies are highlighted at the local clinic, where he takes over as the town doctor despite his lack of expertise. These scenes mine impish humor from Harry’s mispronounced words, unfamiliarity with the human body, and horrid bedside manner. He’s a quick study, but he’s prone to misfires, like when he bungles a gynecological exam early on. “Okay, I see your problem—you sat on an earring,” he says, pulling at a genital piercing.
It isn’t long before the series weighs itself down with half-baked plotlines. Max (Judah Prehn), the young son of the town mayor (Levi Fiehler), has the one-in-a-million genetic ability to see through Harry’s molecular disguise and sets out to expose him, but his scheming goes nowhere slowly. Sheriff Mike Thompson (Corey Reynolds), who’s looking into Sam’s death, is a boilerplate macho man, and his deputy (Elizabeth Bowen), though endearing, is granted too little leeway to do anything but vent about the frustrations of working for him. Eventually, the late Dr. Vanderspeigle’s disgruntled ex (Elvy Yost) shows up at the cabin, bringing with her a penchant for lines that wink too hard at the show’s premise. “I thought we could at least talk about this like humans,” she says at one point, and “I feel alienated,” at another.
In contrast to these inchoate supporting characters, Asta serves as an effective foil, headstrong enough to challenge Harry and so caring and warm as to chip away at his contempt for humankind. Resident Alien’s dips into Asta’s tangled past and family life—which extend to the nearby Southern Ute Indian Reservation—reflect on loneliness and regret with unhurried thoughtfulness. And over the course of the series, Asta’s exchanges with D’arcy (Alice Wetterlund), her charmingly waggish childhood friend, provide welcome context for the secluded town that they both tried and failed to escape.
Resident Alien proves capacious in its depiction of Harry’s assimilation, too, as his callousness gradually gives way to empathy, resulting in poignant moments that ground his odyssey in deeply human experience. Halfway through the series, after a tiring day, Harry lies on the ground alongside Asta, looking up at the night sky. He apologizes, having spilled a secret she confided in him, and she forgives him. Harry’s nostrils flare, subtly, his almost-wet eyes focused on the stars. “I miss home,” he says. “I want to go home. I belong there.” It’s a surprisingly touching image, one of many that punctuate the series with exceeding vulnerability and crushing familiarity: a castaway lost, near-defeated but clinging to life.
Cast: Alan Tudyk, Sara Tomko, Alice Wetterlund, Judah Prehn, Elizabeth Bowen, Corey Reynolds, Kaylayla Raine, Levi Fiehler, Meredith Garretson, Gary Farmer, Gracelyn Awad Rinke, Elvy Yost, Mandell Maughan Network: Syfy
Review: WandaVision Occupies Its Own Quiet, Odd Space in the Marvel Universe
The series trades Marvel’s typically dire stakes and intergalactic scale for lighthearted intimacy.3
Marvel’s WandaVision begins after the events of Avengers: Endgame, with newlywed superheroes Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), a.k.a. Scarlet Witch, and Vision (Paul Bettany) arriving in the small town of Westview sometime in the mid-20th century. Eager to blend in, they hide their powers and settle down into suburban domesticity. Wanda, capable of manipulating space and time, plays the housewife, while Vision, a shapeshifting supersonic android, dons the façade of a white, blond breadwinner.
The show trades the dire stakes and intergalactic scale of a typical Marvel film for lighthearted intimacy. Rather than battling genocidal supervillains, Wanda and Vision contend with dinner parties and talent shows gone awry. They spend almost all of their shared time at home, figuring out how to live and thrive together, and they rub shoulders not with a seemingly infinite roster of superheroes, but with everyday suburbanites, including Agnes (Kathryn Hahn), a yenta with a penchant for slinging wonderfully cheesy jokes about her husband.
The series apes mid-century sitcoms: their black-and-white images, cheery theme songs, and use of laugh tracks. It’s a pleasantly snappy shtick bolstered by the ample theatricality of Olsen, Bettany, and the supporting cast. Like the sitcom material it spoofs, the show’s central conceit is referential, recalling The Truman Show: It becomes clear early on that we’re watching Wanda and Vision, in the present, unknowingly star in a TV series, also called WandaVision. Who’s creating the show, who’s watching it, and the degree to which the citizens of Westview are in on it remain a mystery throughout the three episodes provided to press.
The veneer of Wanda and Vision’s reality begins to crack when they realize that they can’t remember why, or from where, they came to Westview. The glitches escalate, growing more menacing and resulting in WandaVision’s most creative and stylistically alluring sequences. When local mean girl Dottie (Emma Caulfield Ford) enters a trance and shatters a glass in her hand, her blood spills startling red on the monochrome world. Later, after a Westview resident reveals knowledge of Wanda’s past, she tries to ease the resulting tension with a joke—but the laugh track has cut out, and the joke’s silent landing puts a pit in your stomach.
Both Wanda and Vision sense that something’s amiss in Westview, but Wanda, unlike Vision, appears to actually exercise a level of control over the show within the show. On one occasion, she sees an ominous figure on the street outside their home and gravely says, “No,” causing time to rewind, putting her and Vision back in the house and allowing them to wrap up the episode with a hug and a smile at the camera. Elsewhere, it looks like the in-universe show itself turns the clock back, with the same result of replacing dread and anxiety with neat resolution. The do-overs suggest the manufacturing of a utopia of white picket fences, an effect echoed in Vision’s boy-next-door exterior. They’re illusions meant to lull the residents of Westview—or, perhaps, just Wanda and Vision—into unthinking, pacifying tranquility.
It’s admirable how sharply WandaVision deviates from what most viewers might expect from the first Marvel series to hit a streaming service. The fine line that it toes, between the sitcom sendup’s near-cloying cuteness and the unnerving jolts of its interruptions, is eccentric enough to almost make viewers forget that they’re watching a flagship series inheriting the billion-dollar legacy of the Marvel IP. But as the enigma of Westview starts to retread familiar Marvel Cinematic Universe terrain, hinting at clandestine organizations and dot-connecting conspiracies, context catches up to the audience: WandaVision officially begins Phase Four of the MCU, ushering in the latest age of crossovers and tie-ins. But for now, at least, the series is endearingly insular, occupying its own quiet, odd, fenced-in space.
Cast: Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Kathryn Hahn, Teyonah Parris, Kat Dennings, Randall Park Network: Disney+
Review: Night Stalker Is a Cathartic but Structurally Rote True Crime Story
The series misses out on the chance to make a more memorable study of an unforgettable crime spree.2
Netflix’s Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer, a four-part series about Richard Ramirez, the sadistic serial rapist and murderer who terrorized the citizens of Los Angeles and San Francisco in the mid-1980s, is dramatically satisfying but structurally rote. Director Tiller Russell glosses the story over with more cinematic panache than you might see on 48 Hours, all straight from the Southland-noir template, including eerie tracking shots of a full moon behind dark palm trees and Michael Mann-ish overhead views of nighttime highways. But despite a story filled with big-hearted good guys, a depraved villain, and an edge-of-your-seat finale, the series feels overly pat and formulaic.
Night Stalker is first and foremost the story of a manhunt. As such, it’s centered on the case’s lead detectives, with supporting detail provided by relatives of the victims, survivors, and reporters who covered the story. Given the particularly short, bloody, and investigation-complicating multivalent nature of Ramirez’s killing spree, just running down the case’s details provides more than enough compelling material for a high-drama chase narrative.
The Los Angeles County Sherriff’s Department detectives who put the Ramirez case together were a screenwriter’s dream for buddy-movie dynamics. Frank Salerno was the taciturn and grizzled veteran who, after working as primary investigator on the Hillside Strangler case in the late 1970s, had become something of a legend in the department and among the reporters who followed him and who speak of him in reverent terms here. “Oh shit, here we go again” is his terse take on what he was thinking after it becomes clear that the Ramirez murders are linked. Salerno’s partner, Gil Carrillo, a Mexican-American from East Los Angeles with a strong street rep as a patrol cop, was a freshly minted detective with a more joking and affable manner who in any narrative version of this story would simply be called a “rookie.” While both men provide smart, taut rundowns of the Ramirez killings, their recollections are also unusually emotive, detailing the unique toll that this sort of case took on them.
The first of the Ramirez murders that came to Salerno and Carrillo’s attention took place on the night of March 17, 1985, when he attacked two young women inside their apartment. After firing from close range at Maria Hernandez’s face, the bullet struck her raised hand and the keys she was holding, allowing her to escape, after which he fatally shot her roommate, Dayle Okazaki, in the forehead. Ramirez killed several other people over the following days while engaging in a parallel spree in which he drove around the city abducting, sexually assaulting, and releasing children as young as six years old. Although there were few commonalities in his murders beyond home invasions and his .22 caliber pistol, Carrillo ultimately found the linkages between Ramirez’s killings and leveraged Salerno’s status to put a task force together.
The middle stretch of Night Stalker runs down the manhunt with a methodical precision, touching on the panic that grips L.A., the media frenzy surrounding Ramirez’s killing spree, and more mundane yet critical details like how a turf battle between the Sherriff’s Department and the L.A.P.D. hampered the investigation into the case. While the material is riveting, by hewing so specifically to Salerno and Carrillo’s perspective, the series misses the opportunity to firmly place Ramirez in the context of his surroundings or pay more than perfunctory attention to the ways he differed from other serial killers known at that time.
Russell bookends Night Stalker with glimpses of what could have made for a more memorable work. In the first episode, a montage contrasts two images of L.A. circa 1985: its Reagan-era optimism, all sunshine and surfing, and its more sinister side, a place that provides anonymity in numbers and acts as a kind of catch basin for drifting psychopaths. The concluding episode then nods toward the unusual aspects that made Ramirez stand out, even in a city that has had more than its share of deranged loners. But both of these potentially rich lines of inquiry are pushed to the side in favor of the procedural narrative.
By taking a close-in viewpoint via the cops, reporters, and relatives or survivors, the series’s makers never achieve the kind of broader take the visual style hints at. As for its treatment of Ramirez, the series is also disappointingly standard-issue. There’s a good argument for not turning Ramirez into the kind of glamorous villain that had groupies sending him naked pictures and ogling him during the trial. But except for a curiously brief mention of an abusive childhood and an almost rhetorical question about the nature of evil, Night Stalker dispenses with any deeper study of Ramirez. By doing so, it also misses out on the chance to make a more memorable study of an unforgettable series of crimes.
Review: Search Party’s Disjointed Fourth Season Eventually Finds Its Footing
In its fourth season, the series struggles to regain its footing, but the latter half provides satisfying narrative closure.2.5
In its fourth season, Search Party finally turns back into an actual, well, search party, as Dory Sief’s (Alia Shawkat) friends belatedly set out to rescue her after she’s kidnapped by a stalker. Ever since its pitch-perfect first season, when Dory and fellow entitled millennials Drew Gardner (John Reynolds), Portia Davenport (Meredith Hagner), and Elliott Goss (John Early) embarked on a doomed effort to find their allegedly missing friend, Chantal Witherbottom (Clare McNulty), the series has struggled to find its focus. But while season four puts the characters back in investigation mode, it takes too long to regain its footing.
Chip Wreck’s (Cole Escola) fixation on Dory was teased throughout season three, as Dory and Drew went through a highly publicized trial for the murder of Keith Powell, a private eye played by Ron Livingston. Keith’s shocking death was a perfect way to conclude the the show’s first season, with a focus on the horrifying consequences of the characters’ self-serving search for a woman who wasn’t actually missing and didn’t want to be found.
Each subsequent season has focused on different aspects of the aftermath of Keith’s death, from the characters’ guilt and fear in season two, to Dory and Drew’s arrest and trial in the third, to now a sort of existential purgatory, as the friends have been officially exonerated and are forced to find new purpose in their lives. Dory, who previously projected a supreme confidence bordering on sociopathy, is reduced to a helpless captive in season four, and while Charles Rogers and Sarah-Violet Bliss (who wrote or directed the bulk of the season’s episodes) provide Shawkat with plenty of dramatic material, the kidnapping storyline is often too straight-faced and glum for a series whose greatest asset is its dark, deadpan humor.
The storyline also keeps Dory away from Search Pary’s other three main characters for the first half of the 10-episode season, and though their subplots provide more energy and wit than Dory’s, they feel inconsequential in light of the fact that their friend is trapped in an elaborate dungeon, which Chip has redecorated to look like Dory and Drew’s New York City apartment. Chip is an annoying, whiny brat whose particular strain of oblivious narcissism is much broader and less pointed than that of the show’s main characters.
Eventually, Dory’s friends see through Chip’s flimsy ruse of manufactured social media posts and realize that Dory isn’t actually traveling through Europe, and their bumbling efforts to locate her reprise some of the goofy energy of Search Party’s first season. Susan Sarandon brings a delightfully devious presence to her role as Chip’s wealthy, equally deranged aunt, and an episode devoted entirely to Chantal’s fate provides the absurdist dark comedy that too much of the season is missing. Last season, Chantal’s insubstantial storyline was doled out in short subplots, but here it’s more successfully presented as a surreal, self-contained short film with minimal appearances from the other characters.
Drew, Portia, and Elliott’s early-season character arcs end up getting the short shrift once they band together to rescue Dory, but even if Search Party feels more disjointed than ever, it still boasts plenty of its trademark deadpan humor. The eventual wrap-up is more satisfying than any conclusion since season one, providing a sense of narrative and emotional closure.
Cast: Alia Shawkat, John Reynolds, Meredith Hagner, John Early, Cole Escola, Clare McNulty, Susan Sarandon Network: HBO Max
Interview: Colman Domingo on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Euphoria, & More
Domingo discusses Chadwick Boseman’s final performance, delivering a “sermon” to an ailing nation alongside Zendaya, and more.
Like any great character actor, Colman Domingo’s name might not be as well known as those given above-title billing in the projects he chooses, but his performances pack a disproportionate punch in comparison to his screen time. Following a medium-hopping early career spanning stage and screen with everything from repertory theaters across the U.S. to Logo’s The Big Gay Sketch Show, the multi-hyphenate has hit his stride over the past decade as a utility player for directors like Spike Lee, Steven Spielberg, and Ava DuVernay. He’s struck gold in recent years playing sage, steadying presence both in film (Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk) and TV (HBO’s Euphoria).
Domingo’s particular gift as an actor lies in conveying the heart of a story by staying rooted in a fully realized human interpretation of his character, not simply by reciting words standing on a metaphorical soapbox. In lesser hands, these roles would do little more than serve to further the narrative journey of the protagonist. But with Domingo’s guidance, the characters leave a lingering impression without drawing away the spotlight. The streak continues in George C. Wolfe’s film adaptation of August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, in which Domingo plays Cutler, the leader among the instrumentalists for Viola Davis’s titular blues singer. He never allows the character to simply serve as mere foil to Chadwick Boseman’s impetuous trumpeter, instead allowing a full portrait of a pragmatic peacekeeper to emerge.
I caught up with Domingo over the phone prior to the release of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom on Netflix. We discussed his relationship to August Wilson as well as how Domingo played a part in shaping the most memorable and weighty scene in the film that features Boseman’s final performance. As our conversation also occurred in the week following the release of Euphoria’s special episode, a delicate two-hander between he and Zendaya, Domingo elaborated on the intention and reaction behind his “sermon” to an ailing nation.
I saw last night that you were doing a virtual reading for the play Barbecue. What’s the experience been like of doing virtual theater and Zoom readings?
I’ll be very honest, I hadn’t been a fan of them. But I am a fan of my friend Robert O’Hara [playwright and recently Tony-nominated director of Broadway’s Slave Play], and I’ve directed a production of Barbecue at the Geffen Playhouse. I knew that Robert O’Hara would be very innovative with form. I think early in the summer when people were doing virtual readings, I thought that they were just abysmal. [laughs] I could not get through it! And anytime anyone invited me to one, I had every excuse. I was like, “I’m not trying to sit and watch your reading.” But now I think that we’ve adapted to this technology, and we can make it a bit more exciting and innovative. I watched it last night, and I thought it was phenomenal. I thought it was tremendous. But also, because it’s directed by Robert O’Hara, right? He’s not going to settle for somebody’s iPhone with a terrible background. He’s like, we’re going to really edit this so it’s intimate. It’s very polished, and it has a sound design. Everything about it is just dialed up and elevated. I’m a bit more of a fan after last night!
Given that it might be a while before we can see a show live on stage again, I’m glad to hear there are innovations happening.
Exactly, I just think we needed to adapt to the form. I think we’re in the pocket now.
As an artist who has such extensive experience in both media, do you have a philosophy on how things translate from stage to screen? What can and should make the transition? When do you need the immediacy of a live audience?
Yeah, I think that there’s aspects of stage that [are] really with the intent of having a stage. When it comes to having size, intimacy, or being a beginning, middle and end event. When you go into the film and television space, I think it’s important to open it up because you also have a little bit more time. You have to give even more with visual language and contextualize the event. It requires using those muscles to actually trust the visual component of film and television. I’ve been adapting some of my work to television and one of my works to film. That’s always the struggle of any playwright: We are so heavily reliant on the word, and sometimes you have to allow the visual language to take care of it. One of my friends who I talk to, he loves dense language, and I’m always telling him people don’t have time for that. The thing that I’ve learned from television and film is you just have to get to the point with it. You have to get there a little quicker, with some breadth and contextualization with visual language. I think that’s the way you move it towards cinema.
I realized as I was going through your work that I actually saw you in the London production of the Kander and Ebb musical The Scottsboro Boys. Do you think that’s something that would ever make the jump to the big screen?
The funny thing is, yes, because I have been leading the charge as a producer to get the film version of it made! I’ve been knocking on many doors. There’s a beautiful adaptation by David Thompson, who wrote the book of the musical. I’m setting it up with Susan Stroman to direct it, and I’m the executive producer. It’s opened up, and I think we have a great screenplay. And, to be honest, I think the thing that I’ve been bumping up against as a producer is financiers or production companies investing in a show about nine African-American teenage boys to be very honest. These boys who will be cast, more than likely, will not be stars. I know it’s a longer road to create work like this and to make it happen. I’m in it for the long haul, and we’re knocking down many doors to make it happen because I think that it’s work that matters. But sometimes work that matters just takes a little longer to make.
That’s great news. I think the way the show engages with minstrelsy is such an important cultural conversation to have.
It is! But again, you have to convince the production companies and financiers. Because the moment you hear the word “minstrelsy,” you just close your ears, and you’re like, “Oh, I don’t think we can do that. It’s too tricky. People aren’t going to be as risky as we are in the theater.” I think my job as a theater-maker has always been to be the disruptor in the film and TV space. I’m trying to bring some of these stories, the way we tell stories, and the way we curate these events to the space. You take people like me and my comrades Robert O’Hara, Dominique Morisseau, and Lynn Nottage to do that. We’re trying to knock down some walls in the space.
What are your thoughts as an actor, playwright, or person on the August Wilson “moment” we seem to be living through?
It means everything to me. There would be no me if it wasn’t for August Wilson, if I didn’t see interpretation of a black life. I felt inspired that I can write the same, I can write about black life in a very complex way as well. He smashes tropes and stereotypes and gives us such a fullness of our experience. We don’t have to be a monolith; we’re not all praying to the same God; we’re not all listening to the same music. But we have something that’s shared, which is the complex experience of being African-Americans in America. He’s inspired me to be the writer I am, to be bold in the way that I represent myself and my fight for social justice through art and academics. I put him on the shelf with James Baldwin, Nikki Giovanni, and Maya Angelou, people who told me I can be the most complex version of myself possible, and the world will meet it. He helps root me in great story. I feel very proud I’m considered to be a “Wilsonite,” that’s what we’re called, people who relish in August Wilson’s work and are great proponents of its meaning. I’m very proud to be a part of that legacy.
I know a lot would depend on the blessing of Denzel Washington since he has the rights for Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, but are there any other August Wilson plays you’d be eager to help bring to the screen?
Yeah. I haven’t told him directly, but I’d like to let Denzel Washington know if he’s looking for a director for Seven Guitars, that’s me. Put that as the headline! [laughs] I’ve directed a production of Seven Guitars, and it’s a beast of a play. I opened it up with sort of images and really great music. I don’t know, I just understand that play and what it’s trying to do. I had a tremendous experience directing it at the Actors Theater of Louisville, and I remember Costanza Romero, August Wilson’s wife, came and saw it. She thought it was probably the most phenomenal translation of his work, so I feel like it’s in my bones. I would love to open it up. That’s the one I would like to do and helm it as a director.
Not to make you give away trade secrets, but what’s the trick to being a scene-stealer, be it in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom or Euphoria?
[laughs] Is that what I am? I didn’t know that’s what I was! I’m just trying to do the job. I think if you ask any “scene-stealer” if they think they’re stealing a scene, they’ll say that they’re just completely committed to the act, to the action. I think what people may see is me bringing my entire soul, experience, intelligence, wit, and humanity to a role. Hopefully, that’s why people can see something of my skill in a scene. I think anyone that I’ve recognized like Gary Oldman, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Harry Belafonte Jr. is fully committed to the act. I don’t go in with the intention to steal a scene. But I know for sure that I want my characters to be in the center of their own existence. They’re in their own story no matter what. You have something called Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, I’m sure Cutler believed it was Cutler’s Black Bottom…totally kidding! I think Cutler knows his role, which is actually to be Ma’s proxy.
There’s a lot of conversation around the scene where Chadwick Boseman’s Levee screams at God in reaction to Cutler. When you, as an actor, can pick up on someone really in the zone or channeling something otherworldly, how do you respond and react in the moment?
My job is to be the conduit, to push it out of him like I know he would push hit out of me. When he was on the brink of something brilliant, he looked away because I think there was that convergence of actor and character. He looked away, and I thought George was going to call “cut.” I refused. I got in there with him. And I think that’s my job as an actor. Maybe I learned that on stage. It’s like, “No, I’m not gonna let you go, we’re gonna get through this together.” So I pushed him, deliberatively, because he stopped midway and looked away. And I just started yelling at the top of my voice, “Tell me! Tell me!” Pure refusal to let the scene go, because I knew whatever was there and on the edge, that’s actually what we’re trying to get to. That’s actually the good stuff. You can’t be so conscious of like, “Oh, this is the performance I wanted to deliver.” It’s just going to be what it is. It’s going to be raw. And it’s going to be pure, it’s going to be honest. I think that’s what you see on the screen. And I want to push him to that honesty, I knew that was my role. That’s the role of Cutler as well. That’s the role of Colman. My job is to make sure that honesty is in the room, and I can push you towards it. I think that’s why we played off each other, he pushed me toward my truth as well. That’s all we’re supposed to do. I think that that was my job, and I was up to the task because I felt empowered to have that position in the room.
Obviously, it helps to have great words to say, but there’s something in your recent roles that goes beyond just speaking wisdom, as it’s something you seem to radiate. Is that just a skill you’ve accumulated over time, or is it something you’re making conscious choices to achieve?
I’m always making choices as an actor, and I’m very detailed in my work. I research way more than shooting hours allow. I start my work the moment I’m cast, and I start assembling research materials, images, and music, you name it, because I respect the work that much. I’m a character actor, so I need to do all this detailing so then it can look like the work isn’t there. That’s my job, I believe. I don’t want people to see the work, I just want to detail it so much and do all that work so it feels like someone’s just being. I also put a bit of my soul into it. And to be open to the event, to just do all the work so then it’s like breath. That’s what I hope to do. I realized that’s probably why people can see it as something that is quite holistic, trying to communicate my soul through these words in this moment. And I think that’s when I feel like I’ve achieved something that is useful. I think that’s the intention, at least.
And then you get a response like I got over the past week for Euphoria. It’s really lovely because I think the intent is clear: to remedy our souls, to become better people, to reach out to each other. That’s the intention I have in a lot of my characters, even in characters that I feel like I’m playing off the wall in Zola and Candyman. But I think that they’re essentially trying to do the same thing, trying to bring something that’s fragile, human, and complex. I always try to find almost the weirdest version of a character. They have to have some intricacies, something special about them. I never want to just play the first pass of the version, I wanted to go for the thirtieth pass of it. to make them more complex and human.
You’ve repeatedly described the Euphoria episode as a “sermon,” which is interesting. At least, to my ear, that implies something designed to make you act because it moves you in a spiritual way. What would you hope people do after watching?
Well, I had a producer call me yesterday after she saw it. She said, “I’m sitting in my bed sobbing because it helped me understand my brother who died from this disease.” She said she felt she had no words, and at times, possibly no compassion. She said, “I’m crying for all of us, for him, and the loss of him. Crying for myself and our family. Thank you.” I got on the phone immediately with her, and we cried together. I cried because I think my intention was clear, and she let me know that it was true and clear. That was the intention, which was to shine a light on this terrible disease of addiction and how we need to reexamine it.
The episode’s raising questions about redemption, for yourself and for others, and become a bit more human again. I thought it was perfect words for everything in my heart as I’ve experienced this year. I know, whether or not people can really give word to it, that it’s actually on their minds too. This is a conversation that everyone wants to have, in some way. You want to sit across from a table and have a very difficult conversation about something that’s going to bring you closer together and make everyone a bit more human, a little less angry, and a bit more hopeful. So that’s why I considered it a sermon. That’s what it felt like to me, except I wanted to have that breadth and ease, and so did Zendaya. It feels like a ballet, and then sometimes it feels like a sparring match. But underneath it is some trepidatious material where you can go into deep into a vortex, or you can look to the light as well.
I think that’s ultimately what [Euphoria creator Sam Levinson] has written. I think he’s given us words for us to have an examination of the soul of America, to be very honest. That’s exactly the way I took it. I thought, “Oh, this guy is speaking to all the pitfalls in American culture, politics, race right now.” And the character of Ali says, “you”—like he says, “You’re sick. You keep feeding yourself with the same poison, and then wondering why you’re sick.” I know consciously, in my mind, I’m saying “you” as in Zendaya’s Rue character. But I’m actually speaking to the viewer; I’m speaking to whoever’s watching it. I feel like it’s a quiet sermon. At that moment, I believe, Ali’s not only doing the work as a recovering addict and sponsor, he’s doing the work as a therapist and a priest who’s just trying to give you some real hard words for you to just think about your choices and your life to get better and heal. He’s giving you the real truth, and it’s always peppered with, “I believe you can do it, because if I did it, you can.”
I think that’s what we all need right now. I think that’s why it’s so emotional. Because you need somebody to reach out to you right now. We’ve all been going through the worst times of our lives. You see somebody to reach out and say, “It’s gonna be okay, and I’m here with you. But let’s be honest, let’s do the work together. Let’s stick it out, and we can get better.” I think that’s why people have responded like they have. They need it.
Review: In Russell T Davies’s Summative It’s a Sin, Bonds Are Tested but Not Broken
Review: Cherry’s Self-Aware Style Keeps Us at a Remove from Its Main Character
Review: Sponge on the Run Sends SpongeBob on a Cash Grab for Kamp Koral
Review: Lost Course Is a Steadfast Look at a Chinese Resistance Movement
Review: Raya and the Last Dragon Is a Gorgeously Rendered Celebration of Hope
Berlinale 2021: Memory Box, Any Day Now, and Brother’s Keeper
Review: Keep an Eye Out Frustratingly Gives Up on Narrative Convention
Review: Mr. Bachmann and His Class Basks in the Wonder of Education As Collaboration
Review: Introduction Takes Hong Sang-Soo’s Narrative Minimalism to the Brink
Review: Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn Takes Satiric Aim at Romanian Society
- TV5 days ago
Review: In Russell T Davies’s Summative It’s a Sin, Bonds Are Tested but Not Broken
- Film6 days ago
Review: Cherry’s Self-Aware Style Keeps Us at a Remove from Its Main Character
- Film4 days ago
Review: Sponge on the Run Sends SpongeBob on a Cash Grab for Kamp Koral
- Film3 days ago
Review: Lost Course Is a Steadfast Look at a Chinese Resistance Movement
- Film2 days ago
Review: Raya and the Last Dragon Is a Gorgeously Rendered Celebration of Hope
- Film2 days ago
Review: Next Door Is a Ruthless Satire of Complicity, Artistic and Otherwise
- Film2 days ago
Review: A Shape of Things to Come Is a Haunting Immersion into a Life Off the Grid
- Film3 days ago
Review: My Salinger Year Is an Insipid Devil Wears Prada Knock-Off