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Mad Men Recap: Season 4, Episodes 11 and 12, “Chinese Wall” and “Blowing Smoke”

Addiction has played an important role through most of this season, most explicitly through Don’s struggles with alcoholism.



Mad Men Recap: Season 4, Episodes 11 and 12, “Chinese Wall” and “Blowing Smoke”
Photo: AMC

In the very first scene of Mad Men’s pilot, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” Don Draper (Jon Hamm) introduced us to Lucky Strike Cigarettes. Since before we knew about Dick Whitman, or even about Betty (January Jones) and the kids, we’ve known about Lucky Strike, and how important the account is to Sterling Cooper. Now, over the course of just two episodes, “Chinese Wall” (written by Erin Levy and directed by Phil Abraham) and “Blowing Smoke” (written by Andre Jacquemetton and Maria Jacquemetton, and directed by John Slattery), Don, along with the rest of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, has had to deal with the reality of losing the account.

Addiction has played an important role through most of this season, most explicitly through Don’s struggles with alcoholism. But SCDP’s dependence on Lee Garner Jr. and his Lucky Strike Cigarettes has run as an important parallel in the background, and now, in the last third of the season, proven itself to be the year’s primary story arc. Earlier in the season we watched Roger (John Slattery) debase and humiliate himself in an ultimately futile attempt to kowtow to Lee. Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) has always been around to remind the other partners, with impressively quick-witted math, just how much of SCDP’s business depends on Lucky Strike. SCDP has existed only by virtue of an addiction, and now it’s finally time to deal with the withdrawals of being cut off.

In “Chinese Wall” the partners desperately try to salvage the situation, shoring up existing clients and trying to find some access to new ones. Don even goes so far as to exploit his relationship with Faye (Cara Buono) to acquire inside information about her other clients. It’s all in vain, of course, as no new clients want anything to do with a firm in such a precarious situation, and the existing clients are growing uneasy, fearful that they’re investing their money into an agency that is on its way under.

Adding insult to injury, Don loses the Glo-Coat account, despite winning a Clio for his work for the company earlier in the season. It’s a blow against everything Don cares about in advertising; the quality of his work is irrelevant, no matter the kind of product he delivers, a monotone, robotic voice can call him up and end it all for reasons entirely beyond his control. At one point Don tells Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) that the creative team is the “least important most important” thing there is, and this a point that Don has had to deal with over and over again over the past few episodes. “Blowing Smoke” opens with the interview Faye arranged for Don, and a Heinz executive who is clearly excited about the work he could do with SCDP, but nonetheless speaks down to Don on a business level, explaining that any relationship between the two companies would form only over the long term.

Don is terrible at the business aspect of advertising because he refuses to apply the same logic to himself that he does to his clients. He believes that his work should speak for itself, and that there is no reason for him to sell himself. In the pilot, Don helps Lucky Strike sell a terrible product by coining an entirely meaningless catch phrase: “It’s toasted!” But when it comes to his own product, the one thing he cares about above all else, Don wishes to be judged only by the substance.

Peggy suggests a re-branding, or a name change, much like Don once suggested to a failing dog food company. This is a strategy that Don has obviously adopted before: he did, after all, once change his name and begin anew. But this is his work, and Don’s resistance, that he displayed earlier in the season, to selling that work with PR stunts remains. Don rejects Peggy’s suggestion, but clearly a seed has been planted that only comes to fruition after Don’s encounter with season one’s love interest, Midge (Rosemarie DeWitt). Midge, once a vibrant artist, has become addicted to heroin, and by all indications is probably something of a lost cause. Don purchases one of her paintings, and later stares at it as if staring into an abyss, letting the full ramifications of addiction wash over him and hatching his new strategy: taking out a full page in the New York Times declaring that he will never again work with a tobacco company.

A lot of people, me included, referred to last season’s finale as a game changer. Don and Betty broke up, and Don led a grand defection from Sterling Cooper. This season we were introduced to a drastically different firm: the name and the partners had changed, most of the staff were new, and the office was a modernly designed set piece that significantly altered the aesthetic of the series.

And yet we’re constantly reminded of what hasn’t changed: SCDP is largely the same business that Sterling Cooper was. It’s a business model inherited from Roger Sterling Sr., and it has become so essential to the fabric of SCDP that it has become a way of life. And it’s all based on Lucky Strike. No one questions this, they just assume it. The only person at the firm who was actually around when this account first came to Sterling Cooper is Bert Cooper (Robert Morse), and he doesn’t even have an office anymore. For everyone else, Lucky Strike is a religion, and it represents SCDP’s ontological makeup. The loss of Lucky Strike may well be a far more substantive game changer than even the season three finale.

Don’s genius is in understanding that something fundamental has changed. His actions, as explicitly pointed out by Don himself, do not represent some new moral philosophy he’s genuinely adopted. He defends his letter to the Times while smoking a cigarette. It’s a joke when Danny (Danny Strong) asks if Don is going to quit smoking, and Stan (Jay R. Ferguson) calls him an idiot. It’s clear that, had he landed another tobacco company as he wished to, Don would have happily moved forward working for them.

In the same way heroin has permanently altered Midge’s essential makeup, Don knows that Lucky Strike has changed his business. There is no logic to Midge’s actions; her addiction and the effects it has on her exist outside the realm of reason or narrative. The addiction has become her reality, and no matter how much she may deserve a way out, or how much Don may want to give it to her, she’s trapped. Much of this season has been about Don coming to terms with his own helplessness.

He was faced with how much he depended on Anna, and in the wake of her death he became dependent on Peggy. His career became dependent on Pete (Vincent Kartheiser), to whom he now owes a debt of which $50,000 acts merely as an acknowledgment (which works out well, considering Pete thrives on acknowledgment). We learned that his career at Sterling Cooper was not the result of his glorious conquests as a self-made man, but rather it was the result of dumb luck and a drunken Roger Sterling. And then his Glo-Coat campaign, the one thing from this season that he’s proud of based on his own accomplishments, is yanked out from underneath him, completely undeserved.

Season four of Mad Men has highlighted the vast chasm that separates reason from event. Western ideas of the self-made man are based on notions of self-definition and hard work, on creating ourselves based on the fortitude of our own will: we set a plan into motion, and we achieve it and we earn it. We view the 1960s as an era of social progress that our country earned, and that came about due to a preordained plan or narrative. But we can see through Don Draper that this idea is a myth: the self-made man came to be due to circumstance and the people he depended upon. Don’s letter to the Times represents a fundamental change not because Don actually cares about the things he says about cigarettes. It represents a fundamental change because Don has embraced the disconnect between reason and event.

The quality of Don’s work couldn’t stop Lucky Strike or Glo-Coat from leaving SCDP, and that robotic voice on the other end of the telephone was unmoved by the Clio statuette sitting on Don’s desk. But if that’s true, then it is also true that Don’s addiction to cigarettes, and SCDP’s withdrawals from being cut off from the cigarette business, can’t stop him from redefining his split from Lucky Strike on his own terms. It was a circumstance that came about in no way due to his own choosing. Don escaped the consequences he may have deserved (the government uncovering his lies), only to be struck with consequences he doesn’t deserve. Had Don been caught by the government, he would have no recourse. But with the way things worked out, it is clear that Don and his lies are not battling against the truth.

We were introduced to Don’s genius years ago because he recognized that Lucky Strike was in the exact same situation as all of its competitors. Everyone was faced with a circumstance they could do nothing about. But Don observed that, with everyone facing the exact same circumstances, Lucky Strike could “say anything it wants.” From that moment to this one, Don has finally come full circle in that observation. Lucky Strike, Glo-Coat and the situation in which SCDP finds itself cannot be held to answer for the reasonableness of these events. Don cannot present his Clio and turn things back to how they were due to the strength of his argument.

But in one way or another this is the situation we all find ourselves in. We try to force ourselves into reasonable narratives while dealing with unreasonable calamities. In reality, we’re all just the victims (or benefactors) of random circumstance. But that doesn’t mean we’re left simply waiting for cold determinism to have its way with us. What Don recognizes is that this is a fact of life that puts us all in the same situation. His illusions of allowing his work to speak for itself have been shattered, but with that comes the realization that he can define his work in any way he wants—if others are free to ignore its substance, then so is he.

Don’s pitch to Lucky Strike in “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” is based on the idea that, in a relative world, being constrained in the same way simply means you’re free in the same way. In “Blowing Smoke,” Don’s constraint is also his freedom; like Lucky Strike, he is in the exact same situation as everyone else, and so he is free to say anything he wants. There is no outside force or law or reason that dictates Glo-Coat must change their minds because Don won them a Clio, and there is likewise no such force to stop Don from writing his letter, despite the fact that he has no intention of quitting smoking. The letter is his own personal “It’s toasted!”

Don Draper is not a self-made man. He is the man circumstance has made him. But the genius of Don Draper is that he knows he can decide what that circumstance means. With a little luck, he can sell that meaning to everyone else, because no truth, reason, or Lane-Pryce cost/benefit analysis exists to stop him. It’s a fabricated reality, and, as Peggy points out, it’s a PR stunt, the content of which ultimately means nothing to Don. But it’s nonetheless a fundamental shift, because it’s a sign that Don has laid down the myths he has held about himself and finally taken seriously the lesson he taught Lucky Strike four seasons ago.

Other stuff:

• Ken Cosgrove gets to marry into a rich family featuring both Larisa Oleynik and Ray Wise? That seems hardly fair. Confession: Oleynik is one of the two age-appropriate crushes I’ve had for pretty much as long as I can remember. (The other being Claire Danes.)
• Everyone else in the office—including Peggy—is worried about his or her job. But not Harry Crane: “They’re going to fire everybody. Or worse, make me fire everybody.”
• Pete is informed that Trudy has given birth to a healthy baby, a birth he was unable to be present for. He’s happy, and gives the news a moment to sink in, and then he regains his composure and sets off for the funeral of an ad mogul to poach his former clients. We see the funeral and hear the eulogy, yet Trudy is absent throughout the entire episode, and the birth is unseen, as if happening in a different world. If one thing is clear in “Chinese Wall,” it’s that the partners are far too focused on keeping a dead business model alive, and perhaps overlooking the new possibilities coming into the world.
• As 1966 approaches, we’re closing in on two years since the end of last season, in the show’s time, but just under a year since the episode actually aired. One of the most difficult aspects Mad Men faces in portraying this passage of time is the maturation process of Sally Draper. A lot depends on Kiernan Shipka’s ability to play a character who’s maturing faster than she is, and she’s proven herself to be more than up to the task this season, as highlighted this week in her scenes with Glen (Marten Holden Weiner). Some of her diction may have been a little too elevated, even for the most precocious of children, but, she is a Draper, after all.
• Speaking of those scenes, I feel it necessary to repeat a question I asked earlier this season: How much does Matthew Weiner hate his kid?
• “Well, I’ve gotta go learn a bunch of people’s names before I fire them.”
• Stan and Peggy versus the world!
• Is this the end of Bertram Cooper? I sure hope not, but if this is the last we see of SCDP’s patriarch, I’m glad his final act was to ask for his shoes and say goodbye.
• As I’m sure some of you noticed, there was no recap last week, and I tried to talk about “Chinese Wall” a little bit this week. I apologize about that, and it was entirely unintentional: I moved into a new apartment, only to be without Internet for much longer than intended due to faulty wiring, and then without a computer due to a malfunctioning hard drive (I write this from a cyber café—remember those!?) When it rains it pours! But at least I’m back on track for next week’s finale.

For more recaps of Mad Men, click here.

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Review: Season 2 of Castle Rock Favors Family Drama Over the Supernatural

There’s little apparent benefit to how the show’s second season foregrounds its interpersonal relationships.




Castle Rock
Photo: Dana Starbard/Hulu

The first season of Castle Rock was essentially a basket of Easter eggs. With an assortment of peripheral Stephen King characters and locations, Hulu’s horror anthology series revolved around an entirely original but ultimately uninspired plot. The second season dives more visibly into the King universe, sending one of the author’s most famous characters, Misery’s murderously obsessive nurse Annie Wilkes (Lizzy Caplan), on a collision course with another King staple: the undead-inhabited town of Jerusalem’s Lot. Employing these more famous King touchstones, however, hasn’t narrowed the show’s focus so much as it’s left it feeling scattered and unmoored.

At the start of the season, Annie drifts from town to town with her teenage daughter, Joy (Elsie Fisher). She works as a nurse long enough in each town to gain access to its hospital’s array of anti-psychotics in order to continue self-medicating, at which point she and Joy hit the road, swapping out license plates as they drive across the country. A late-night car crash strands them in Castle Rock, Maine, where their skeezy landlord, Ace Merrill (Paul Sparks), clashes with his adopted brother, Abdi Omar (Barkhad Abdi), over business with the local community of Somali immigrants. There’s clearly meant to be some social commentary here about racism and even, to some extent, the opioid epidemic, but even after the five episodes made available to critics, the season has yet to really dig into these thorny topics.

Castle Rock uses neighboring town Jerusalem’s Lot and its witchy history for a new set of mysterious resurrections. But compared to the first season’s supernatural hook, there’s a much stronger focus on family drama here that spreads the story thin across so many characters; the series struggles to cover not only Annie and Joy settling into town, but the bad blood between Ace and Abdi. Ace and his biological brother, Chris (Matthew Alan), are the nephews of the unscrupulous, hard-nosed, but fair “Pop” Merrill (Tim Robbins, who unearths an intense weariness in the role). Out of a desire to make amends for his military service and no small amount of white guilt, Pop fostered both Abdi and his sister, Nadia (Yusra Warsama), who’s the head doctor at the hospital where Annie now works. It’s a tangled web, but the drama never boils to a degree that explains the eventual violent escalation. A shot of a younger, jealous Ace and some snippets of a right-wing radio program are an unsatisfying shorthand for his decision to start lobbing Molotov cocktails at his adopted brother’s house.

The most engaging drama here is actually the one with the lowest, most ordinary stakes, in Joy reaching the age where she’s grown restless under her mother’s wing. She starts to seek out friends her own age, but Annie is, as one might imagine, not an easy person to leave behind. The first season tackled dementia with surprising sensitivity, and there’s a similar undercurrent of palpable pain to watching Joy struggle with the mental illness of a loved one, sorting out what’s best for herself even when she loves and cares for her mother.

Unfortunately, Annie isn’t nearly so easy to empathize with as Joy. She’s such an outsized presence, with her torrent of childish pet names and G-rated curses delivered in an odd folksy accent, that it’s difficult to view her as anything but a caricature. Originally conceived as a strange Other in Misery, Annie has been thrust into the role of protagonist with few apparent changes beyond her dedication as a mother, which nevertheless has its roots in her obsessive tendencies. It seems telling that, in a mid-season flashback episode meant to make young Annie more of a sympathetic character, her conspicuous tics are significantly dialed down.

There’s little apparent benefit to how Castle Rock’s second season foregrounds its interpersonal relationships. Deemphasizing a strong supernatural mystery leaves only a cast of characters that alternates between the dull and the exaggerated. Opting for more recognizable, overt King references hasn’t enriched the show’s storytelling so much as clarified the gap between the author’s best work and this TV imitation.

Cast: Lizzy Caplan, Tim Robbins, Paul Sparks, Barkhad Abdi, Elsie Fisher, Yusra Warsama, Matthew Alan, Abby Corrigan, Chad Knorr, Owen Burke, Paul Noonan Network: Hulu

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Review: Daybreak Depicts a Unique but Indulgent Apocalyptic Wasteland

Insipid comedy aside, the Netflix series offers evocative reflections on the premature death of a generation’s childhood.




Photo: Ursula Coyote/Netflix

The universe of Netflix’s Daybreak, based on the graphic novel by Brian Ralph, is both familiar and indulgent, as far as post-apocalypses go: Its wasteland is roamed not only by zombie-esque figures, but also by themed packs of survivors sporting rides decked out in spikes à la Mad Max. The show’s doomsday premise, however, features a unique twist: The apocalypse was triggered by a bomb that turned only—and, seemingly, all—adults into trudging undead “ghoulies,” leaving children and teenagers mostly unharmed.

In the six months since the bomb dropped, the young survivors from Glendale, California have responded to the nuclear family’s disintegration with the entrenchment of the chosen family, turning their social circles into tribes: the Cheermazons, the STEM Punks, the Disciples of Kardashia, and others. The tribes largely keep to themselves throughout the five episodes provided to press; only Baron Triumph, a mysterious, motorcycle-riding cannibal, and the Jocks, led by the grunting Genghis Khan wannabe Turbo Bro Jock (Cody Kearsley), resort to gratuitous violence. The post-apocalypse is, as a result, a relatively peaceful place.

Our guide through the cataclysm is Josh Wheeler (Colin Ford), a tribeless loner looking for his girlfriend, Sam Dean (Sophie Simnett). Throughout the series, Josh often breaks the fourth wall by introducing flashbacks, cuing montages, and contextualizing the apocalypse for the audience. These meta moments are less charming than lazy, rejecting subtle world-building in favor of information dumps. Much of the Daybreak’s comedy is similarly uninspired: While Glendale High School’s Principal Burr (Matthew Broderick) hilariously evokes a certain kind of white, bubble-blinded progressivism in Josh’s flashbacks (“We’re all woke here. Uh, wide awoke”), the teenagers’ dialogue relies on meme-y jokes—like one about never skipping leg day—that result in a stilted representation of Gen Z.

Insipid comedy aside, Daybreak offers evocative reflections on the premature death of a generation’s childhood. After one of Turbo’s underlings fires a homemade gun, Mona Lisa (Jeanté Godlock), Turbo’s right hand, declares, “You broke the Emma González Accords. We’re not playing with guns.” The throwaway line briefly hints at the trauma that the kids have experienced. They won’t use guns, even at the world’s end, because school shootings have scarred them. They can’t reckon with the apocalypse because they’re still processing the horrors of their old lives, still fettered by a social order that can’t see beyond jocks and nerds and cheerleaders, still reeling from the damage caused by neglectful parents and bullies.

Daybreak most formidably juxtaposes the past and the present in an episode following Josh’s newfound companion, Wesley Fists (Austin Crute), a jock turned ronin seeking redemption for his sins. Director Sherwin Shilati and writer Ira Madison III have created a remarkable samurai-flick-style exploration of Wesley’s various personal apocalypses: his relocation from Compton to the much-more-white Glendale; his falling-out with the cousin (Frederick Williams) he used to do everything with; and, now, his need to choose between a forbidden love and his friends. It all unfolds beneath an astonishingly versatile voiceover by RZA, who’s both very funny and very capable of hitting the episode’s dramatic beats.

When, toward the end of the episode, Wesley speaks directly to the narrator, the exchange avoids the triteness of hollow fourth-wall-breaking. It reads, instead, as an honest confrontation between the character and his psyche, a clinging to selfhood all but reduced to rubble. In such sequences, Daybreak flexes against the mechanical writing that constrains it elsewhere, exploring forces and fears powerful enough to render the apocalypse insignificant.

Cast: Colin Ford, Austin Crute, Alyvia Alyn Lind, Matthew Broderick, Sophie Simnett, Gregory Kasyan, Krysta Rodriguez, Jeanté Godlock, Cody Kearsley, Jade Peyton, Rob H. Roy, Austin Maas, Chelsea Zhang Network: Netflix

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Review: El Camino, a Breaking Bad Sequel, Is a Man’s Rueful Lament for Past Wrongs

The film mixes a self-help message with moments of hard, cruel detail.




El Camino
Photo: Ben Rothstein/Netflix

Writer-director Vince Gilligan’s El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie is driven by a structural perversity. The story—about a man fleeing from the aftermath of the events of the AMC show’s finale—is rife with flashbacks, often resisting to answer the “What happened next?” question that drives most follow-ups. Young meth-cooker Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) was last seen at the end of Breaking Bad driving a stolen El Camino into the desert darkness, hysterical after escaping imprisonment and torture at the hands of white supremacists, whom his partner, Walter White, ultimately killed. We last saw Jesse in a sort of propulsive extremis, which one assumes might bleed into a sequel, but Gilligan conjures in El Camino a rueful tone that bears more of a resemblance to the recent seasons of Better Call Saul than to Breaking Bad. Before Jesse can move on to the next stage in his life, he must reckon with the abuse he’s just fled, with the wreck his life has become.

El Camino mixes a self-help message with moments of hard, cruel detail. Gilligan hasn’t lost his talent for narrative invention, especially for rendering subterranean criminal worlds hidden in plain sight. One of Breaking Bad’s most chillingly casual, self-rationalizing henchman, Todd (Jesse Plemons), returns in flashbacks, and is revealed to have acted as a kind of gaslighting partner to Jesse, offering him breadcrumbs of kindness in order to use him to carry out side errands. In the present, Jesse is on the run, trading the El Camino for a friend’s car, staking out Todd’s now abandoned apartment, which he knows contains a large stash of cash. Jesse has this information because he helped Todd remove the corpse of a housekeeper that the latter killed. Todd views this disposal as just another errand, and Jesse drops the body from several floors up like a bundle of laundry. In an especially macabre flourish, Todd removes his belt from the dead woman’s neck and re-loops it into his pants.

Of all the Breaking Bad characters who briefly return in El Camino, Todd seems to stimulate Gilligan’s imagination most. He suggests a modernization of a Donald Westlake character—a thug who’s selfish and intelligent enough to wall himself off from the implications of his actions. Gilligan goes to town finding various ways to express Todd’s callousness, which Plemons plays with extraordinary understatement. When Jesse finds a gun and briefly toys with escaping from Todd, the latter’s understanding of his own power and entitlement is truly unnerving. Todd says, “I’ll have that gun now, Jesse,” with condescension, and, more audaciously, with something resembling actual pity.

Gilligan’s aesthetic also appears to be influenced by Westlake, as El Camino has a crisp, streamlined, matter-of-fact sense of framing that suggests the pared-down prose of the legendary crime writer, while recalling the confident visual style that Breaking Bad grew into and that Better Call Saul inherited. There’s also a bit of Twin Peaks, and Breaking Bad itself, in Gilligan’s chronological hopscotching, which shifts one’s focus from the plot at large to individual scenes. El Camino is ultimately concerned with a simple narrative thread: Jesse’s attempt to find the money to pay Ed (Robert Forster) to help him disappear into a kind of witness protection program for criminals. Jesse could’ve went with Ed in Breaking Bad and didn’t, and so El Camino often suggests a long act of atoning for one essential failure of self-preservation, as Jesse remembers pivotal details from his past to pry himself free from his current predicament. Forster, in his final role, is a master of the implicitly emotionally charged deadpan that Gilligan’s characters use to protect themselves and to launder atrocity.

Yet Gilligan somewhat outsmarts himself in El Camino. For all the film’s invention, for all its trickiness, it doesn’t really move. Jesse isn’t an interesting enough character to connect the film’s various tangents; he’s certainly not a Walter White or a Saul Goodman, criminals who dare the audience to like them via the visceral nature of their inventiveness and need to succeed and dominate. Audiences who’re “Team Jesse” will probably enjoy El Camino more than those who always found him to be somewhat tedious—a youth-flattering character who’s divorced of complicity from the plot of which he’s a part. Gilligan’s love for Jesse doesn’t do the protagonist any favors either, as El Camino is composed of a series of riffs in which he’s continually upstaged by characters who’re allowed to be true to their maliciousness. Breaking Bad ended with Jesse discovering himself in chaos, El Camino reins him back in.

Cast: Aaron Paul, Jesse Plemons, Charles Baker, Matt Jones, Bryan Cranston, Jonathan Banks, Krysten Ritter, Todd Bower, Robert Forster, Gloria Sandoval, Tess Harper, Michael Bofshever Network: Netflix

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Review: Watchmen Offers an Intriguing Rebuttal of Its Source Material

The series argues the ways injustice might persist, and in that sense, its alternate history doesn’t look so alien after all.




Photo: Mark Hill/HBO

HBO’s Watchmen isn’t a straightforward adaptation of the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, but rather a present-day sequel where the events of the original took place decades ago. At one point, a newscast briefly shows a naked blue atomic man, Doctor Manhattan, on Mars, and in another, we learn that the Cold War effectively ended when a massive alien squid beamed into the middle of New York City, killing millions while uniting the world against some vague extradimensional presence. For a while, anyway.

In modern-day Tulsa, Oklahoma, a white supremacist group called the Seventh Cavalry has risen, opposing, among other things, the reparations paid to descendants of the people caught in the city’s 1921 race riot (these are called “Redfordations,” after President Robert Redford, who’s been in office for decades since Richard Nixon abolished the two-term limit). Some tensions, the series posits, won’t be quelled by the appearance of some separate, cephalopodic other; the hatred of the human other is still very much alive.

The Watchmen universe’s primary wrinkle, beyond an alternate reality so alternate that Vietnam is part of the United States, is the way costumed heroes figure into the whole thing. The Cavalry wears Rorschach-blot masks patterned after one of the graphic novel’s heroes, a violent right-wing vigilante-slash-detective. The crux of the original mid-1980s Watchmen comic lies in the complicating of the superhero archetype through a whole mess of psychological hang-ups and generally unsavory preoccupations (Rorschach, for one, is never explicitly racist in the original text, though he’s a considerable misogynist). It fixated on the idea that so-called “costumed adventurers” took to the streets to beat people up often for the hell of it, because they had a messiah complex or because their mothers told them to or just because it felt good to draw blood. Facing down oblivion was the thing it finally took to pull their heads out of asses that wore the underpants on the outside.

Yet even after the six episodes made available to critics, it can be a little tough to swallow some aspects of showrunner Damon Lindelof’s brave new Watchmen, where a big dead squid has apparently shifted the present racial paradigm so completely that the Tulsa police force is not just masked, but predominantly black. Police weapons are lodged in remotely unlocked car dashboard holsters, and racists live within a “Nixonville” trailer park as though they’re the new oppressed. The idea of a country that both won the Vietnam War and elected Nixon for five terms going on to accept a masked, armed police force composed mainly of minorities seems, to say the least, optimistic. The pacing doesn’t make things any easier to interpret, as the show spoons out details about its larger world as needed, often after deploying some particularly charged imagery. You’re mostly asked to take it on faith that the writers have thought this stuff through, that later everything will make sense rather than serve as empty provocation.

The ensemble cast is anchored by Regina King as Angela Abar, an ex-cop turned vigilante called Sister Night. Draped in a hooded long coat with face paint sprayed across her eyes, King brims with steely confidence as well as a controlled, driving anger. But it’s difficult to shake a general suspicion of the way the series positions racial pain as a constant instigator, with responses to prejudice seeming to entirely define its people of color; they’re more walking expressions of hurt than well-rounded characters. And though the first six episodes have not yet revealed enough about Vietnamese trillionaire Lady Trieu (Hong Chau), her initial appearances exhibit some typical, worrying signs of paranoia about Eastern invaders.

The series expands the comic in some fascinating ways, weaving a dense, bizarre mythology and a richly conceived world to get swept up in. The pilot episode in particular introduces various complicated ideas, drawing clear lines to fascism in the actions of the police and vigilantes. But the series misses some of the novel’s complexity in its eagerness for loaded imagery—lynchings, riots, police violence—and slowly-unfolding mysteries. These episodes offer little follow through on the initial themes, seemingly content to raise questions and then set them aside while indulging in the excesses of fascism-is-sexy fantasy, with “enhanced interrogations” dispensed upon the deserving while set to a soundtrack of fat synths by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Regardless of whether the series plans to return to consciously critique these ideas, its habit of leaving them to hang in the air is troubling.

As thorny as Watchmen’s handling of politics can be, though, it still offers an intriguing rebuttal of its source material. Even the boundless cynicism of Moore and Gibbons’s comic had its potential rays of light, the idea that prejudice might look small once everyone recognized the futility of crying out to be better dead than Red. HBO’s Watchmen argues the ways injustice might persist, and in that sense, its alternate history doesn’t look so alien after all.

Cast: Regina King, Don Johnson, Tim Blake Nelson, Louis Gossett Jr., Jeremy Irons, Jean Smart, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Hong Chau, James Wolk, Frances Fisher Network: HBO

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Review: Living with Yourself Is a Lesser Version of What It Could Be

The series is decidedly unambitious and ends before it ever really gets off the ground.




Living with Yourself
Photo: Eric Liebowitz/Netflix

You could be a better version of yourself, posits Living with Yourself, if you weren’t so damn tired all the time. In the Netflix series, a strip-mall spa run by—who else?—Mysterious Asians refreshes its clientele by literally and secretly refreshing people’s bodies, copying memories into a freshly cloned body while killing the original with no one being the wiser. It’s not exactly legal or even foolproof, as the original Miles Elliott (Paul Rudd) discovers when he wakes up buried in the woods. Upon returning home to his wife, Kate (Aisling Bea), he finds that his newer self is already there. That’s about as psychologically fraught as Living with Yourself gets, because, despite how much time its eight episodes devote to the bizarre fear of being cuckolded by yourself, the series is decidedly unambitious.

There’s something truly bleak at the heart of Living with Yourself, with its idea that one’s difficulty in functioning in everyday life is simply a sign of wear. Although the cloned Miles (referred to as “New Miles”) remembers everything the Old Miles does, his body is technically experiencing everything for the first time; he hasn’t tired of feeling the wind on his face, and he’s yet to grow accustomed to certain foods. In this way, the series, created and written by Timothy Greenberg, argues that living is so hard precisely because you’ve already lived. Life, here, is a feedback loop you’re caught in all the way to oblivion, unless, that is, illicit Asian cloners and their laxer Eastern standards set your mind free (early episodes never shed this light Orientalism, fumbling a few self-aware jokes in the process). Everyone, including and especially Kate, seems to like New Miles better than the worn-out Old Miles. He even tells stories at parties the way he used to, Kate says, instead of dejectedly drinking booze.

But two variations on Miles hardly disguise how singularly boring the character is, as episodes devote an interminable amount of time to the inner-workings of his advertising job as dull shorthand for contrasting his old and new selves; the clone goes to work while the original goofs off at home. New Miles, naturally, isn’t yet bored out of his skull by pitch meetings and wins acclaim for an ad campaign that Old Miles decries as “sappy.” There’s some jealousy involved, but there’s also the sense that this perspective couldn’t have come from the Old Miles anymore, as his optimism drained out of his ears over the passing decades. He can’t look at life the same way because he’s taken on so much baggage his body will never be rid of.

The show’s structure alternates between the viewpoints of one of the two Mileses on a per-episode basis, doubling back to show what the other one was doing during a prior episode’s events. Though initially intriguing to have these blanks filled in after the fact, this structure is the show’s only real trick; being informed of what each Miles is doing at any given moment feels more repetitive than insightful, particularly with how severely the series neglects the supporting cast. Kate finally gets a POV episode over halfway into the season, while characters like Miles’s sister, Maia (Alia Shawkat), and his work rival, Dan (Desmin Borges), all but vanish once they serve their purpose. Everyone, and Miles in particular, seems too self-absorbed to really ruminate on the existential angst that might otherwise be inherent to the premise. This doesn’t feel like an intentional character trait so much as a lack of imagination.

Netflix’s Russian Doll uses its structural gimmick to explore the philosophical questions of a charismatic protagonist’s existence and situation and how they effect her actions. Living with Yourself feels inert by comparison, raising some fascinating questions about the nature of the self yet failing to give Miles or anyone in his orbit any real dimension or genuinely thoughtful reflection; mostly it fixates on “this situation is weird” and “I don’t want myself to have sex with my wife.” The series doesn’t even go anywhere particularly weird or daring, jamming as it does its most promising ideas—an F.D.A. intervention, the desire of one Miles to kill the other—into the last two episodes. Living with Yourself ends before it ever really gets off the ground. Despite how much potential the series displays for psychological complexity, its approach is otherwise so uninspired that one wonders if it stumbled upon that potential by accident.

Cast: Paul Rudd, Aisling Bea, Desmin Borges, Zoe Chao, Karen Pittman, Alia Shawkat Network: Netflix

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Review: Catherine the Great Is an Alluring, If Shallow, Dip Into Russia’s Golden Age

While the miniseries is mesmerizing to take in, beneath its aesthetic splendor lie vast, unplumbed depths.




Catherine the Great
Photo: Robert Vigalsky/HBO

Color does much of the work in HBO’s Catherine the Great. Set mostly in the luxurious palace of the eponymous Russian empress (Helen Mirren), the miniseries is awash in greens, reds, yellows, and golds. The men on Catherine’s council wear creamy pastel suits, and she gives speeches from a candle-lit balcony overlooking a great hall, surrounded by stained glass and ornate arches. When, in the first of four episodes, she stands on the balcony and declares that “slavery does not have to be a Russian institution,” the sequence’s color palette and blocking define the social order that Catherine leads and aims to upend. Below her, lords dressed in black and white gasp at her intention to abolish serfdom. Behind her stands her court, poised to either die for her or stab her in the back. Nothing exists above her except Christ, painted on a palace wall. Where Christ’s arms are outstretched and welcoming, Catherine places her hands firmly on the podium in front of her, not asking but demanding.

The camera tends to linger on Catherine throughout the series. During a conversation between Catherine and her lady-in-waiting and confidant, Praskovya Bruce (Gina McKee), the frame stays focused on her and leaves Bruce off screen, as though the latter’s sole purpose is to elicit a reaction from the empress. Catherine rules in absence too. Couriers relay letters in wide shots whose stunning landscapes subtly remind us that every piece of this sprawling empire belongs to Catherine. Her most treasured possession is Grigory Potemkin (Jason Clarke), a forthright military leader who becomes her primary lover after her husband, Peter III, is overthrown and made to disappear. Each episode trots out a new young boy toy to please Catherine—relationships here are radically open—but she’s spellbound by Potemkin and he’s enthralled by her. He vows, repeatedly, that all he does is done to honor her.

Political plotlines come and go, with various parties reaching for the throne, including Catherine’s ambitious but incompetent son, Paul (Joseph Quinn); his tutor and Catherine’s advisor, Nikita Ivanovich Panin (Rory Kinnear); and Catherine’s spurned lover, Grigory Orlov (Richard Roxburgh), who led the coup that deposed her husband. But Catherine and Potemkin’s combustive romance, depicted in the long-term as the series jumps forward years at a time, is the heart of the matter. Potemkin goes to war for Catherine, fighting the Ottoman Empire in the Caucasus, and he comes back stormy, with a mustache and an eyepatch. Each military expedition wins more glory for Potemkin and Catherine and puts a greater strain on his psyche and their relationship. Later in life, the couple gets into an especially vicious shouting match, both roaring almost incomprehensibly. The dialogue that penetrates the haze is Potemkin’s. “Might I remind you,” he yells, “I waded through blood for you.”

At one point in the series, a sudden close-up on Catherine’s strained face communicates her intense paranoia, like something from a Smeagol-Gollum back-and-forth in The Lord of the Rings. But after Potemkin secures her affection, the world of Catherine the Great far more frequently reflects his perspective. When he stumbles back into the palace following a night out drinking with the court fool (Clive Russell), the shot is blurry and disorienting. And when fireworks celebrate Potemkin’s military victories, the fanfare eerily resembles combat, a crushing manifestation of the trauma he’s experienced. The fireworks crackling in the sky cause the Winter Palace to appear aflame, their eruption sounding like gunfire.

Potemkin is certainly captivating, but the emphasis on him is awkward. Even Catherine’s intimate discussions with her lady-in-waiting end up highlighting him, with the two women praising his handsomeness or damning his difficulty. Catherine the Great largely leaves the empress in the realm of abstraction; its primary use for her is as a symbol of absolute power. “I am the state,” she tells Potemkin, and though Russia changes—the poor and oppressed begin to mobilize in opposition to their abuse—Catherine does not. She repeatedly speaks of the need for equality but backs down when the backlash from the aristocracy threatens her security. She clings to the throne with relentless fervor. She grows only in age.

Catherine’s lack of change, along with her consistent ability to outmaneuver her political opponents, robs the series of momentum despite the astonishing range of Mirren and Clarke’s performances. No threat to Catherine’s reign is ever serious, no geopolitical conflict ever out of her or Potemkin’s control. Conspiracies and wars serve merely to punctuate the show’s development of the romance at its core. That love story, however, doesn’t evolve much either. The couple clashes and makes up and laughs, and then does so again weeks or months or years later. The relationship provides glimpses into Catherine’s motivations for hoarding power and keeping her family and friends—and Potemkin—at an insurmountable distance, but she’s left unlit beyond it. While Catherine the Great is utterly mesmerizing to take in, beneath its aesthetic splendor lie vast, unplumbed depths.

Cast: Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Rory Kinnear, Gina McKee, Joseph Quinn, Richard Roxburgh, Clive Russell, Andrew Rothney, Thomas Doherty, Camila Borghesani, Georgina Beedle Network: HBO

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The Best Netflix Original Series to Watch Right Now, Ranked

These 25 Netflix original shows prove the marathon-watching juggernaut’s equal concern for both quantity and quality.



The 25 Best Netflix Original Shows
Photo: Netflix
Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on February 20, 2019.

Like Google, Netflix has evolved over two decades from a Silicon Valley venture to a legitimate verb in the cultural lexicon. Ten years after expanding from DVD-by-mail to streaming service, and four since debuting its first original series with House of Cards, Netflix all but dominates the online TV landscape. While competitors like Amazon Prime and Hulu certainly vie for our time with their own in-house programs, the sheer inundation of Netflix originals requires its very own examination. The animated seriocomic genius of BoJack Horseman, the tech horrors that Black Mirror situates on the near horizon, and the earnestness and dramatic sprawl of Sense8 are merely a few of the storytelling pleasures available to anyone with a WiFi connection and a (potentially borrowed) Netflix login. These 25 Netflix original shows prove the marathon-watching juggernaut’s equal concern for both quantity and quality. Nathan Frontiero

Santa Clarita Diet

25. Santa Clarita Diet

Zomedies thrive on a delicate alchemy between violence and humor. When the balance is off, the results are smug and self-congratulatory, as in Zomebieland. But in Santa Clarita Diet, creator Victor Fresco and his collaborators exhibit a flair for slapstick violence that’s staged with a surprisingly light and deft touch. The best bits are nearly impossible to rationalize (its punchlines are tossed off with confident casualness), but the series thrives on its refusal to take even its theme of yuppie conformity seriously, recognizing that it’s so obvious as to be inherently self-critical. Chuck Bowen

Marvel's Luke Cage

24. Luke Cage

The way Luke Cage at once embraces blaxploitation tropes and transcends them completely isn’t necessarily its triumph. It is, however, the element that speaks most directly to what the series, based on the Marvel Comics character that first appeared back in 1972 with Luke Cage: Hero for Hire, is attempting to accomplish. Cage, as portrayed by Mike Colter, is a wrongly convicted ex-con and certified ladies’ man who makes rent and some meager pocket change by sweeping up hair at a barber shop and doing dishes at the restaurant owned by Harlem crime lord Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali). He’s also attempting to be a role model and a hard-working member of his local community in the aftermath of his time in jail and the life he left behind when his wife was murdered. Above all else, Luke Cage is about what, if any, qualifications there are for being a hero. Chris Cabin

Lady Dynamite

23. Lady Dynamite

Her endearing eagerness to please, extreme social awkwardness, and hopeless inability to camouflage her feelings makes the semi-fictionalized version of her bipolar self that actor-writer-comedian Maria Bamford plays in Lady Dynamite a kind of human emoji factory, her unguarded face expressing a kaleidoscope of comically intense emotions. Her bafflement and improvised solutions to uncomfortable situations make things we have all struggled with, like dating, feel as freshly and insightfully witnessed as her wide-eyed adventures in Hollywood. Though she’s anything but a stone face, Bamford has more than a little Buster Keaton in her, her cosmic befuddlement and heroic efforts to navigate even the simplest situation highlighting the absurdity in just about everything. Elise Nakhnikian

The Crown

22. The Crown

Once again, The Queen‘s Peter Morgan combines extensive research with a highly empathetic understanding of human nature to create a fascinating exploration of the capabilities and limitations of Britain’s monarchy in the 20th century, the enormous personal sacrifices that monarchy required of Elizabeth II, and the strains it exerted on her family. The Crown opens with Elizabeth’s (Claire Foy) beloved father, king George (Jared Harris), another reluctant monarch who inherited the role only after his older brother renounced it. It then follows the young queen as, forced to give up her cherished private life after her father’s demise, she grows into the role of queen—and into a form of greatness distinguished by genuine humility and common-sense values. A feminist tale of a patronized, undereducated, and perpetually underestimated young woman who learns to rely on her native intelligence and good sense to help lead a besieged country through perilous times, The Crown makes the case that the best rulers may be those who never wanted the role. Nakhnikian

Seven Seconds

21. Seven Seconds

The dichotomy between Isaiah (Russell Hornsby) and Latrice Butler (Regina King) and the police is rooted in privilege, and while Seven Seconds resists a systemic view of Jersey City’s racial landscape, it’s thorough in its outlining of the biases that affect the Butlers’ lives. And none is more insulting than the way Brenton, even in death, is denied the same benefit of the doubt that’s readily afforded to his killer. The series presents a sympathetic likeness of real-world victims of police brutality, but by eschewing a broad view of race relations in our nation, it risks affirming the ubiquitous “few bad apples” apologia that’s often put forward when police wrongdoing comes to light. Ultimately, though, the detailed character portrayals at the heart of Seven Seconds invest us into the Butlers’ search for justice, while poignantly illustrating that in the real world, that justice is rare. Haigis

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Review: Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal Is a Stunning Swirl of Violence and Grace

The show’s violence is a reflection of its characters’ existence, a cycle from which there’s no escape.




Photo: Adult Swim

Genndy Tartakovsky’s work as an animator is most striking for its embrace of silence. Even in the cacophonous realm of children’s cartoons, the Samurai Jack creator favors wordless moments that lean on the flapping of cloth in the wind or the exaggerated sounds of a clenching fist. Adult Swim’s Primal, then, feels like something Tartakovsky has been building to for much of his career, a dialogue-free miniseries following a caveman and his T. rex partner fighting to survive in a violent, unforgiving world. The caveman isn’t even explicitly named as Spear until the end credits of the first episode, and until then you might otherwise mistake the title, “Spear and Fang,” for a description of the violent tools put to use during its half-hour runtime. After all, what need do these characters have of names?

After the death of his family, Spear finds an uneasy companion in Fang, a mother T. rex whose babies he tries and fails to rescue at one point. The pair’s world is faintly fantastical, a pastel-colored landscape of thinly sketched details that recall the work of French artist Moebius, né Jean Giraud. With rocks and trees in hues of pink and orange that appear beneath a setting sun, the environment is as wondrous as it is hellish, a place of silence perpetually threatened to be broken by some predator’s intrusion. The show’s ecosystem swirls together many disparate time periods both real and imagined, presenting cavepeople coexisting with not just dinosaurs but mammoths, monkey-men, and blood-red bat humanoids.

The show’s chunky character designs convey clear emotions, from sorrow to irritation, through body language and wrinkled faces rendered in thick, black lines. Eyes are a repeated motif, whether in Spear and Fang’s extreme close-ups, the glassy and reflective stare of something newly dead, or the slow filling of an eyeball with blood. The series is a tightly wound watch of violence and grace mingled into one: Scenes tend to linger on clean, purposeful movements, such as Spear lunging through brush after a boar. Watching the sheer craft that Tartakovsky brings to Primal often feels like seeing gymnasts navigate some difficult routine with complete ease. The series makes constantly compelling use of space in its images, as creatures and objects lumber in from out of frame or a massive cliff face crowds Spear’s silhouette into the extreme corner. Enormous objects and animals frequently dwarf the protagonists, whose movements are shown in montage and silhouette and contrasts of bright, distinct color.

The show’s violence is a reflection of its characters’ existence, a cycle from which there’s no escape. Children are swallowed whole, prey is devoured on the spot, eyeballs are smashed in by rocks, and dino jaws are smeared in vivid red blood. The carnage can feel a smidge overdone when the series indulges in sporadic but distracting slow motion, yet for the most part, the blood and the gore feel matter of fact. Everything needs to kill and eat to survive, and here the killing and the eating is couched in virtuoso action whose impacts you feel in your bones.

For his part, Spear seems regretful of his part in that violent cycle. Forged in the fire of his prehistoric proving ground, he and Fang are providers who lack anyone to provide for beyond themselves, their families long ago felled by the cold, impartial law of the ancient world. What’s left is only the faint, cross-species understanding of a desire to live on, because living is all that Spear and Fang have. And the story of the caveman and T. rex’s survival, in Tartakovsky’s hands, is totally enthralling, as terrible as it is beautiful.

Cast: Aaron LaPlante Network: Adult Swim

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Review: Modern Love Aims for Universality but Suffers from Tunnel Vision

The show’s fundamental goal isn’t to present love that’s unique to the current moment, but to expose the universality of its stories.




Modern Love
Photo: Christopher Saunders/Amazon Studios

The title of Amazon’s anthology series Modern Love, based on the New York Times column of the same name, is deceptively loaded. What does it mean for love to be “modern”? Does the love need to be enabled by contemporary technology—say, the algorithms of a dating app? Or does it need to reflect shifting social mores, such as increased acceptance of non-heterosexuality? Or does it, simply, need to exist in the present, as humankind writhes in an overheating, anxiety-inducing world?

The emphasis on modernity, though, proves to be a red herring. Modern Love’s fundamental goal isn’t to present love that’s unique to the current moment, but to expose the universality of its stories. That commonality, however, is rather limited, as the show’s eight episodes are almost exclusively concerned with love that’s both romantic and heterosexual. When love between family members and friends enters the equation, it mostly does so in passing.

Modern Love’s strongest episodes feature well-defined, believable characters whose eccentricities generate, rather than preclude, a sense of familiarity. The first episode revolves around a single and individualistic young woman, Maggie (Cristin Milioti), and her fatherly (and paternalistic) Albanian doorman, Guzmin (Laurentiu Possa). The folksy Guzmin understands Maggie’s isolation and serves as a consistent source of care. He’s always asking how she is, and always there when she leaves for the day and when she comes home at night. The harshness of his deadpanned tough love never overpowers the tenderness underlying it. Early on, when a man drops Maggie off at her building following a date, Guzmin tells her, “He will not be calling you.” It’s astonishing, funny, and, somehow, sweet.

The third episode is the show’s most formally inventive: a delightfully over-the-top, absorbingly staged exploration of mental health’s impact on dating that includes musical numbers. Anne Hathaway nails hard-won but fragile toughness as Lexi, a hotshot corporate lawyer who tries to will herself into happiness—or, more accurately, to fight off the depression ambushing her. “Please,” Lexi says into her bathroom mirror as she shakes her head. “Come on. Come on.” Lexi crumbles onto the floor, crushed by the weight of the effort.

After episode three, however, Modern Love enters a disappointing lull. In the fourth episode, Tina Fey and John Slattery are given far too little to work with as a jaded couple in therapy. The episode fails to probe the characters’ inner lives, resulting in two cardboard cutouts of almost-divorcees, and Fey doesn’t quite demonstrate the range required to execute her character’s emotional climaxes. Another episode, about a date that ends with a trip to the hospital, undercuts its depiction of millennial courtship with contrived dialogue. “I’ve been liveblogging it on social media,” Yasmine (Sofia Boutella) says about the evening, and later, when Rob (John Gallagher Jr.), her date, references going “full incel,” the phrase feels jarringly buzzy, as if the writers are trying to insist on the cultural relevance of the episode.

Modern Love returns to more organic, believable characters with an episode centered on a gay couple’s child adoption, in which Andrew Scott manages to inject his uptight and frustrating character with surprising winsomeness. It’s followed by an exceedingly poignant finale about a relationship between two older runners, Margot (Jane Alexander) and Kenji (James Saito). The first half of the latter episode uses brief flashbacks to deftly and devastatingly chronicle the joys of love found late in life and the pain that’s all but built into it. But, unfortunately, it abandons subtext by heavy-handedly linking the anthology’s various elements; the audience gets additional glimpses of each episode’s protagonists and sees the ultra-tangential connections between them, like this were some fantasy series intent on quelling any doubts we may have about whether or not these people all inhabit the same world. The last act is a needless cherry on top that only narrowly avoids cheapening what precedes it.

Cast: Cristin Milioti, Laurentiu Possa, Catherine Keener, Dev Patel, Caitlin McGee, Andy Garcia, Anne Hathaway, Gary Carr, Tina Fey, John Slattery, Sarita Choudhury, Sofia Boutella, John Gallagher Jr., Julia Garner, Shea Whigham, Myha'la Herrold, Olivia Cooke, Andrew Scott, Brandon Kyle Goodman, Jane Alexander, James Saito Network: Amazon Prime

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Review: Season Three of Big Mouth Proves That, No, P.C. Culture Hasn’t Killed Comedy

The series never shies away from the pleasures and perversities of incipient sexuality.




Big Mouth
Photo: Netflix

Netflix’s Big Mouth is continued evidence against the dubious argument that P.C. culture has made it impossible for comedians to be edgy. As a subject for an animated sitcom, the sex lives of 13-year-olds constitutes an ethical, political, and cultural minefield—one that the graphic and logorrheic Big Mouth gives the impression of approaching blindfolded and in a headlong rush. But there’s a method to its mania: Even while firing an entire volley of cum jokes at viewers every few seconds, the new season covers topics like female masturbation, slut shaming, incel masculinity, biphobia, social media addiction, and the gay teen experience with a heartening frankness that belies its apparent irreverence.

The sixth episode of season three, “How to Have an Orgasm,” not only sees the return of Jessi’s (Jessi Klein) personified vagina (Kristin Wiig), who coaches the teenage girl through the proper digital masturbation procedure, but also features a B plot in which the show’s perpetually horny geek, Andrew (John Mulaney), struggles to take the perfect dick pic to send to his cousin Cherry. Big Mouth never shies away from the pleasures and perversities of incipient sexuality, but perhaps most remarkable about the episode is how it handles young women’s bodies and desire: Deploying a surprise image of a dick for laughs is hardly a new trick for popular adult-oriented comedy, but the series breaks new ground in its willingness to base jokes around a girl’s talking, occasionally clapping vagina. Use your imagination.

It should be observed that one of the reasons that Big Mouth is able to pull off such an explicit depiction of young teens and their bodies is because its characters aren’t meant to necessarily be taken as seventh graders. They’re unmistakably voiced by adults, and are never quite as childlike as real middle-schoolers can be. Nick (Nick Kroll) may be at seventh-grade emotional maturity levels, wavering between intense sexual insecurity and grandiose masculinist narcissism, but he also possesses a biting humor and sophisticated understanding of the world around him. These children are adult-child hybrids, caricatures drawn up by adult comedians projecting themselves backward into the awkwardness of teenagedom, which makes the show’s frank depiction of underage sexuality a bit less distressing than it could be.

It’s also to the show’s advantage that, no matter how funny such gags can be, there’s nothing prurient about Big Mouth’s depiction of, say, Jessi’s garrulous vagina, or Missy’s (Jenny Slate) recurring sexual fantasy involving a space ship, Nathan Fillion (voiced by the actor himself), and a sexy horse named Gustavo. And one of season three’s best ideas is the formation of an unlikely bond between über-nerd Missy and unreformed slob Jay (Jason Mantzoukas), after Jay incidentally discovers Missy’s erotic fan fiction and the polymorphously perverse pair begin collaborating on the story of Fillion’s equine love affair.

Jay gets some of the best material in the new season in general, with the series jettisoning the “Jay fucks pillows” joke that had long worn thin by the second season’s conclusion, and leaning into more grounded aspects of the character: his squalid and unnourishing home life, his hyperactivity, and his love of magic. A fictional Netflix series—what else?—about a bisexual Canadian magician named Gordy (Martin Short) helps Jay cope with his bisexuality in episode three, “Cellsea,” though when he comes out later, he finds that his classmates are hesitant to accept bi men, even as they go crazy over Ally (Ally Wong), a new girl in school who professes her pansexuality in episode eight, “Rankings.”

As much as “Cellsea” opens up some of the most fruitful through lines in the season, it also exhibits some of its recurrent weaknesses. Gordy may be amusing, but Big Mouth’s incessant self-reflexive jokes about streaming (the season is dotted with winking praise for Netflix, digs about fellow controversial teens show 13 Reasons Why, and forced HBO Now disses) get a bit tiresome over the course of 11 episodes. Gordy’s late-episode song about the spectrum of human sexuality also points toward the show’s tendency to use musical numbers as a crutch—nowhere more on display than the low-hanging-fruit Florida jokes in the hair-metal song performed by Murray the Hormone Monster (also voiced by Kroll) in episode five, “Florida.”

That said, it’s the musical numbers that make the season’s penultimate episode (“Disclosure the Movie: The Musical!”), in which toxic male teacher Mr. Lizer (Rob Huebel) stages a musical version of the 1994 film Disclosure, such a highlight. The uncomfortable songs about reverse sexual harassment are more thoroughly integrated into the episode’s plot than the season’s previous musical sequences and resonate more with the episode’s themes. Missy finds in the play’s racy (and woefully sexist) material inspiration for a new sexual assertiveness, while Nick’s confidence boost from being cast as “the Michael Douglas character” develops his character’s awkward flirtation with a “big dick energy” performance of masculinity. The teenagers’ negotiation with the distorted representations of wrong-minded pop culture to formulate their own sexual identity rings almost painfully true. “Disclosure the Movie: The Musical!” proves that Big Mouth is at its best when its mile-a-minute humor supports, rather than distracts from, its open exploration of the convulsions of early-teen sexuality.

Cast: Nick Kroll, John Mulaney, Jessi Klein, Jason Mantzoukas, Jenny Slate, Maya Rudolph, Jordan Peele, Fred Armisen, Andrew Rannells, Jessica Chaffin, Ally Wong, Gina Rodriguez, Joe Wengert, Richard Kind, Paula Pell, Chelsea Peretti, Nathan Fillion, Kristen Wiig, Rob Huebel Network: Netflix

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