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Review: Masters of Horror: Season One

Talented filmmakers working on material from genre aficionados, yielding uneven results.

2.5

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Masters of Horror: Season One

Haeckel’s Tale (John McNaughton). As the final episode of the first season of Masters of Horror, Haeckel’s Tale is representative of much of the series: talented filmmakers working on material from genre aficionados, yielding uneven results. Considering the creative team involved (adapted by series creator Mick Garris from a short story by Clive Barker, directed by John McNaughton) and that it climaxes with a corpse-fucking bride surrounded by a legion of horny zombies, not to mention a demented bloodsucking baby and some intestine ripping carnage, the most shocking thing about this Frankenstein riff is how utterly hackneyed the proceedings are. Set in a vague New England that seems lifted wholesale from Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations, Haeckel’s Tale follows medical student Ernest Haeckel (Derek Cecil) through his failed attempts at raising the dead Mary Shelley-style. Traveling home on foot to visit his ailing father, he encounters grave robbers, a mysterious street mountebank resurrection artist (Jon Polito), and an eccentric family in a cabin overlooking a cemetery, all of whom share purple prose-infused chitchat with our young hero about Life and Death. Corman’s films and the Hammer horror series depended on well-constructed atmosphere that went beyond the use of a smoke machine and fake gravestones. This episode looks so cheap it makes one think that by the time McNaughton (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) got to shoot, his fellow masters of horror had spent all the production money already. To make up for the highly mannered performances and stately bordering on somnambulant pacing, McNaughton makes frequent and jittery use of zooms to punch into people, places and things, whether it’s dramatically warranted or not. Despite the fact that Haeckel’s Tale is at best a mild curiosity for patient genre fans, it’s commendable that Masters of Horror has given work to some of the horror genre’s finest craftsmen, and if the final product wasn’t always the galvanizing return to form we’d hoped for, at least it keeps these directors in the game. We’d thought John Carpenter had caved in to cynicism and boredom, Dario Argento was coasting on his earlier masterpieces, and Joe Dante’s wonderfully eccentric point of view was being stifled by timid studio heads. These artists and others showed they still had guts and glory—and here’s hoping the second season will bring us more where that came from. That’s worth a few indifferent trifles like Haeckel’s Tale. Jeremiah Kipp

Pick Me Up (Larry Cohen). Pick Me Up, adapted by David J. Schow from his own short story of the same name, observes what happens when a very small group of people stranded on the side of the road after a bus accident are chased and hunted by not one but two serial killers. This isn’t new terrain for a horror film, except Larry Cohen’s new experiment in horror is outfitted with a unique and fascinatingly lacerating hook: its two killers work independently of each other. This may sound uncomplicated, except each man, one a snake-loving hitchhiker played by Warren Cole, the other a truck driver played by Michael Moriarty (doing some kind of twisted impersonation of Christopher Walken), seem metaphysically privy to the other’s work. With the help of editor Marshall Harvey, who was responsible for cutting two of the more acclaimed entries in the Masters of Horror series, Dario Argento’s Jenifer and Joe Dante’s Homecoming, Cohen works on an elemental level to evoke a doctrine of just equilibrium spread out across the film’s scenes. If the killers scarcely bother each other, it’s because their butchery is neatly locked in a balance of power—that is, until Fairuza Balk’s woman warrior comes between them. Because he who claims the woman for himself threatens to tip the scales, the boogeymen naturally butt heads. And just as they spar with each other, so does the film’s unique blend of improvisational fear and humor. It’s always been in the nexus of horror and comedy that Coehn’s films find a portal into strange, undiscovered zones of the American consciousness. Once again, Cohen straddles the line between the sparring sensations of terror and laughter like an expert logroller, summoning a subtly damning but fun commentary on New World Order capitalism. Ed Gonzalez

Sick Girl (Lucky McKee). Although I’m not sure two movie credits qualify Lucky McKee as a “master” of horror, the young director has managed to contribute by far the most compelling episode yet to Showtime’s hit-or-miss series. Like Masters of Horror’s other best segments, Don Coscarelli’s Incident On and Off a Mountain Road and Dario Argento’s Jenifer, Sick Girl pays campy tribute to our sexual baggage. “Connect? You’re into chicks, darling. That’s a scientific impossibility,” a co-worker kids the lesbian entomologist Ida (Angela Bettis) about her female troubles, but given the episode’s delirious final shot McKee probably sees the remark as a challenge. After Ida begins dating Misty (Erin Brown), a mysterious bug sent to her apartment escapes and eats a neighbor’s dog. Soon the bug impregnates Misty (by sticking its appendage into her orifices, no less) and causes her to periodically throw fits at Ida and the homophobic granny down the hall. An oblivious Ida suspects a rift in the relationship but as she’ll soon discover these are just the ups and downs of childbirth! This “gift” is a disapproving scientist’s idea of retribution for an unnatural lifestyle, yet Ida and Misty manage to subvert the right’s oppression and turn it into progress; Ida’s gay-bashing landlord is disposed of, and not only is her relationship with Misty literally consummated, but to the chagrin of anti-gay marriage activists, they also become fully domesticated. Bettis gives another startlingly moving performance after May, acting equally weird but completely different, and McKee works the story with his usual fetish for voyeuristic gazing; characters eye each other but stumble trying to articulate their desires and emotions. This complicated mix of camp and tender romantic feeling owes as much to any horror movie as it does to Douglas Sirk or Mommie Dearest. Paul Schrodt

Fair Haired Child (William Malone). Virginal Tara (Lindsay Pulsipher) leaves school after being taunted for being unable to complete an equation on her math teacher’s chalkboard. Guided by the breadcrumb chords of a remarkable Nicholas Pilke score, the downtrodden lass makes her way home through the woods (natch), followed unassumingly by a van that will suddenly and shockingly throw her to the side of the road like a Raggedy Anne doll. Waking up in the Vermont estate owned by her tormentors, an eccentric musician couple played by William Samples and Lori Petty, Tara appears to have stepped through a wormhole. House on Haunted Hill director William Malone’s talent is one for concocting an ominous mood of dislocation: the New England abode of the film suggests something out of V.C. Andrews or John Irving, with Petty’s fourth-wall-engaging boogeywoman sitting in front of a television displaying an Indian head test card. With time and place dutifully thrown out of whack, Tara is further tormented when she’s thrown inside the couple’s basement, where she encounters a living-dead boy named Johnny and a strange series of warnings on the wall. Malone mitigates the inherent silliness of the story’s plot (Tara is the 12th victim in the musician couple’s rite to bring their son back from the dead) with a series of nervy inventions. Or are they reinventions? A magpie on the surface, the director swipes ideas and rhythms from Jan Svankmajer, the Brothers Quay, Floria Sigismondi’s videos for Marilyn Manson, possibly even HBO’s Carnivale, to reveal backstory and scare the bejesus out of Tara—and his audience. One moment the film suggests a Carrie throwback, the next a Ringu riff, and while no scene feels particularly original, the overall pastiche never feels discordant. Pushed forward by ever-shifting tonal and emotional gears, the surface of the film itself evokes the story’s obsession with the metamorphosis of body, spirit and sexuality. EG

Cigarette Burns (John Carpenter). A cinephilic variation on 1994’s In the Mouth of Madness, John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns concerns itself with a legendary cult film called Le Fin Absolute du Monde (The Absolute End of the World) that was never shown again after its festival premiere 30 years ago because it drove the crowd to slaughter one another and burn the theater to the ground. A movie conceived of as “a weapon” by its Faustian director, the notorious work reputedly exerts a malevolent power over all those foolish or reckless enough to seek it out (much less watch it), and thus when struggling theater owner and procurer of rare films Kirby Sweetman (Norman Reedus) is hired by wealthy miscreant Bellinger (a sadistically suave Udo Kier) to locate Le Fin for a private viewing, he quickly finds himself haunted by disorienting psychic flashes of the titular reel change marks, which are accompanied by visions of the girlfriend he selfishly drove to smack and suicide. Carpenter’s first output in four years, Cigarette Burns may disappointingly lack the director’s trademark cinemascope cinematography and ultimately succumb to an ill-advised show-rather-than-imply mentality, but—scored by the director’s son Cody with familiar, Carpenter-style synthesized keyboards—it’s nonetheless something of an atmospheric semi-return to form, a chillingly sadomasochistic riff on film’s ability to violently tap into our most primal impulses. It’s a theme of particular relevance to the genre-obsessed auteur, whose career has been spent reveling in, expanding upon and deconstructing the exhilarating, escapist thrills of horror and sci-fi B-movies, and here Carpenter slyly implicates both himself and his audience as complicit partners in this gnawing desire to indulge in on-screen murder and mayhem. More than any preceding Masters of Horror episode, Carpenter’s creepy contribution—indebted to The Ring’s technophobia, the explicitly referenced Deep Red’s infatuation with sight, and The Ninth Gate’s plot—regularly colors its foreboding investigatory narrative with swathes of crimson-stained gore. And in a deliriously nasty climax of spiritual and corporeal union between man and celluloid, the film gruesomely captures the way truly potent cinema feels: as though it were ripped straight out of one’s own guts. Nick Schager

Deer Woman (John Landis). Frivolous and mostly unfunny, Deer Woman finds John Landis goofing off with a horror-comedy tale about a jaded detective’s (Brian Benben) investigation into a series of mutilation murders that may involve a mythical Indian spirit (Cinthia Moura) with the upper torso of a Playboy Playmate and the legs of a deer. Reminiscent of Larry Fessenden’s Wendigo (or punk-emo outfit Fallout Boy’s video for “Sugar, We’re Going Down,” but with more gore), Landis’s Masters of Horror contribution treats self-reflexivity as an end unto itself, delivering tongue-in-cheek references to its underlying ludicrousness as well as a wink-wink allusion to Landis’s An American Werewolf in London (the film that largely justifies the director’s inclusion in this anthology). As written by Landis’s son Max, the titular creature kills men not because of any specified historical or societal grievance but merely because their horniness makes them easy targets, and though the episode cannily fesses up to the misogyny of such a setup, what’s missing from its portrait of deadly animalistic sex is some direction or depth. For no apparent reason other than to adhere to (as well as playfully tweak) detective story conventions, Benben’s sleuth is saddled with a past professional trauma that’s relegated him to a desk job working animal attack cases (har har) and an African-American partner (Anthony Griffith) so dopey his demise is preordained the second he opens his mouth, all while Moura’s hoofed supernatural beast flashes, with silent seductiveness, both a few come-hither looks and her tits. The omnipresent jokiness, however, isn’t enough to overcome the nagging pointlessness of this lighthearted monster movie lark, nor the disappointment of Landis treating the Showtime series as simply a venue for throwaway bits about severed body limbs and snapped erections. NS

Homecoming (Joe Dante). Homecoming, Joe Dante’s entry in Showtime’s Masters of Horror series, comes across as something of a left-leaning wank job. Although the director has confessed his liberal bias in interviews, I sense his intention was for a more equivocal humanism to prevail, which it does in a handful of the episode’s best scenes. Tellingly these are the sequences that diverge most explicitly from the story’s ostensible inspiration (the 2000 and 2004 American presidential elections) and focus more on the homefront. At its heart, Homecoming is a subversive zombie story in which the living dead (all deceased veterans of an unnamed, though obvious war) arise from their graves and cast votes rather than eat flesh. Dante and teleplay writer Sam Hamm (adapting Dale Bailey’s short story Death & Suffrage) tell the tale through the eyes of two right-wing pundits—campaign manager David Murch (Jon Tenney), his Kennedy-like physicality a satirical blessing in disguise, and Jane Cleaver (Thea Gill), a sexed-up, Ann Coulter-esque rabble rouser possessed of a lecherous desire for political advancement. The duo’s performances are broad, but it is to Dante’s credit that the characters never seem less than recognizably human. Much like his cinema precursor Frank Tashlin, Dante knows how to create a vivid and heightened cartoon world that, at its best, profoundly comments on humankind’s various achievements and foibles. When the first wave of zombies awake, Dante sets the scene inside a massive airplane hanger, the dead soldiers rising from beneath a series of symmetrically arranged American flags. It’s a charged political image that adheres to no one party or point of view and there are several more like it, most notably during a heartbreaking, eventually bloody interrogation scene where Dante regular Robert Picardo, as a scheming and manipulative presidential adviser, asks one of the zombie servicemen why he won’t speak. “Hurts,” the soldier replies. These great moments unfortunately never coalesce, hindered as they are by the episode’s rather cheap looking HD-sourced visual aesthetic and weighed down by the Murch character’s discordant and contrived backstory, which hinges on a rather unbelievable repressed memory of bloodshed and so fails miserably as metaphor. Certainly the past, present and future of this country is written in blood (violently drawn in a variety of ways by all personal and political factions), but Dante tends to shy away from the gore in Homecoming when he should indulge it. As such, the episode’s climactic mass uprising of veterans (from beneath Arlington cemetery gravestones marked Jacques Tourneur and George A. Romero) is an unfortunate wash, falling far short of the transcendent call-to-arms it so clearly aims to be. Keith Uhlich

Chocolate (Mick Garris). Credit Mick Garris for creating Showtime’s Masters of Horror anthology, but not for successfully contributing to it. Stephen King’s preferred directorial collaborator when reworking his tales for TV (as well as for theatrical junk like Sleepwalkers and Ride the Bullet), Garris is an unabashed champion of the horror genre who nonetheless wouldn’t know how to stage something scary even if it crept up behind him and stabbed him in the back, and Chocolate (based on his own short story) finds him in typical fright-free form. Jamie (E.T.’s Henry Thomas) earns a living concocting artificial flavors for the fast food industry, yet despite his own incredibly heightened senses, the recent divorcee and frustrated dieter finds himself stuck in a bland bachelor’s life until he begins undergoing out-of-body experiences in which he can see (as well as smell, touch, and taste) through the eyes of a mysterious blond beauty (Lucie Laurier) with a fondness for gourmet chocolate. “It felt like growing up,” is how the lonely Jamie excitedly describes these unpredictable paranormal events. However, after enjoying, from the female perspective, the pleasures of shower head-aided masturbation and missionary sex with a hulking Asian stud (the latter of which hilariously occurs while Jamie’s frightened kid watches his dad uncontrollably writhe and groan on a bed), the incidents quickly begin to resemble transsexual virtual reality episodes. His growing “love” for the woman whose body he periodically inhabits a reflection of his latent desire to embrace his more feminine carnal impulses, Jamie seems to be a prime candidate for serious gender identity issues. Garris’s flat, made-for-TV aesthetic, unfortunately, drags his protagonist’s mental and emotional upheaval into a realm of uncomplicated insipidness, just as his narrative misguidedly ignores the ripe possibilities for probing the underlying anarchic confusion such a situation might produce. Whereas the psychosexual story craves some De Palma luridness or Miike grotesqueries, Chocolate instead plows toward its deflating murder-tinged finale without any hint of suspenseful sensual perversity. Though to be sure, the brief sight of King’s novel Desperation, soon to be a (likely crummy) Garris-helmed ABC miniseries in 2006, does generate a modest amount of anticipatory dread. NS

Jenifer (Dario Argento). Dario Argento’s films all address the varying levels of unease intrinsic in the way we look at the world. His hilariously grotesque Masters of Horror entry Jenifer essays the idea that what we see is not always what is there—that veil of uncertainty, discomfort, and denial that shrouds the director’s best films, most memorably in Deep Red and Tenebre. On the surface, Jenifer plays out as a rather rudimentary men-are-dogs provocation, but Argento interestingly sees the very graphic sex between a police officer (Steven Weber) and the hideously deformed woman he saves one day as an offshoot of the empathy that often develops between victims and their saviors. Argento’s work in the States brings out his more gothic sensibilities (for him, Poe was our founding father) and Jenifer’s auteurist stamp is most visibly felt in its frills and flourishes: the Claudio Simonetti score (part Goblin lullaby, part Bernard Hermann melodramatic ambience), the scary cat, and the lonely overhead from a second-floor window. It’s obvious Argento is not from our neck of the woods (Jenifer’s setting is not an actual place so much as it is a dislocation), but whatever alienation he may feel shooting films and directing actors in the United States gives films like Trauma, The Black Cat, and now Jenifer an interestingly perverse flavor. Argento may be lazily and hurriedly devoted to conveying how Jenifer—of a gene-splice between Laura Dern and Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive baby—will be passed like a baton to the next schmuck who comes to her rescue, but his latest experiment in terror is as grotesque as it is jaw-on-the-floor funny. Characters have absolutely no qualms talking about the hideous Jenifer as if she weren’t in the room, most amusingly when a fat psych ward orderly says, “How’d they get that head on that body?” EG

Dance of the Dead (Tobe Hooper). One would hope this post-apocalyptic bit of splatter-punk from Tobe Hooper, created for a cable series that allows for no-holds barred depictions of sex and violence, would be the long-awaited comeback for the maker of that infernal 1974 masterpiece The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Alas, you’ll have to keep waiting. After society has collapsed, Middle American communities try to preserve their apple-pie values. Virginal Peggy (Jessica Lowndes) works at a small town diner owned by her domineering mother. When a group of young punks resembling the leather-jacket wearing, pulp-talking thugs from a 1950s anti-drug film and their floozy girlfriends swing by the establishment, Peggy meets cute with brooding, mascara-wearing Jak (Jonathan Tucker, one of the victims from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake). Jak tempts Peggy to take a walk on the wild side, and they go out for a night of carousing that leads them to a club hybrid of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome and Cabaret’s music joints. Robert Englund plays the lecherous MC, who hosts an evening of punk rock lite featuring goth posturing, lesbians, and as a highlight, dancing zombies pushed onto the stage with cattle prods. What should be a ridiculously over-the-top scenario played for campy thrills never actually reaches the grotesque heights it aims for, mainly because the cast ranges from somnambulant (Tucker) to overcooked (Englund). The production design is strictly a B-grade rehash of the familiar, cobbled together on a TV budget. The gross-out effects are never truly repulsive. Much of Hooper’s career has been marked by compromise. One wonders if his taste for the macabre was knocked out of him; now he’s a hackneyed journeyman trying to make a living after being destroyed by the Hollywood factory. There’s the occasional moment in Dance of the Dead where Hooper still allows himself to indulge: two gasmask-wearing garbage men tossing zombie carcasses into a trash can and torching them with flamethrowers is topped by Englund getting an undead blowjob from a zombie mistress. But Hooper lacks the nerve to stand by his transgressions, and resorts to cheap effects like an over-used fluttering camera speed to imply a bad drug trip and sentimental theatrics like a third-act monologue where the villains spin monologues about their past sins that feel ripped from a dud soap opera. Better luck next time Tobe. JK

Dreams in the Witch House (Stuart Gordon). Dreams in the Witch House is a return to form for Stuart Gordon, whose adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft stories (most notably Re-Animator and From Beyond) took wild turns toward the otherworldly, arcane and comically perverse. Never a particularly cinematic storyteller in the league of his film brat contemporaries John Carpenter, Sam Raimi or Tobe Hooper, Gordon’s strength was using his banal, almost pedestrian approach to moviemaking as glue to hold together unforgettably carnal set pieces. Though the material here feels stretched thin even in the hour-long Masters of Horror format (30 minutes would have sufficed), Gordon is allowed the freedom to delve into his wet indulgences without having to concern himself with the MPAA breathing down his neck for an R rating. If Witch House falls short of Gordon’s Grand Guignol classics, we can’t chalk it up to the limitations of television. Showtime allows him to go whole-hog. This second episode of Masters of Horror offers a suitably likeable Miskatonic University grad student (Ezra Godden) staying at a decaying boarding house. As he works out his thesis on parallel universes, he befriends his neighbor, a single mom (Chelah Horsdal) who talks him into babysitting her infant child while she tries to find a blue-collar job. Gordon teases out the haunted house creakiness and rats that live in the walls, and while its wholly atmospheric we miss the presence of a wild-card character like Re-Animator’s manic Herbert West or From Beyond’s sick scientist Dr. Pretorious. But when Witch House finally kicks into gear, it’s worth the wait: rats scuttling around with human faces, nubile witches that shape-shift from voluptuous sex goddesses to rotting pediatrics during sex (in a clear nod to The Shining), and an uncompromised and crimson-soaked finale involving potential infanticide and the Book of the Dead. Needless to say, it all winds up resolved within the confines of a padded cell. Gordon may have mined this territory before to greater effect, sure, but in these days of PG-13 horror films too timid to alienate their audience, it’s nice to see he hasn’t lost his knack for macabre impropriety. JK

Incident On and Off a Mountain Road (Don Coscarelli). “Expect the unexpected,” someone intones early on in Incident On and Off a Mountain Road, though given that Don Coscarelli helmed this debut episode of Showtime’s Masters of Horror anthology, it’s hardly a shock to see the Phantasm filmmaker’s favorite boogeyman Angus Scrimm eventually show his gaunt, pasty countenance. More assuredly directed than any of Coscarelli’s prior features (thanks in large part to Jon Jaffin’s ominously moonlit storybook cinematography, filled with phallic blades and vaginal river canyons), the rapturously fiendish Incident, based on a short story by Joe R. Lansdale, plays out like a one-woman Texas Chainsaw Massacre set in Wrong Turn’s Southern backwoods. Ellen (Bree Turner) finds herself pursued through the tangled forest by a giant knife-wielding albino freak dubbed Moonface (John de Santis) who makes it a habit of removing his “naughty” female victims’ eyes with a power drill. Interspersed throughout this nocturnal chase are flashbacks to Ellen’s increasingly unstable marriage to lunatic militant Bruce (a balding Ethan Embry), whose survivalist teachings (essential for when urban civilization is overrun by “mud men”) come in handy once Ellen chooses to fight back against her monstrous pursuer via MacGyver-style booby traps. That the film distastefully mitigates Bruce’s vileness by having his abusive lessons ultimately prove useful for the feistier-than-she-appears Ellen is matched by its clever inversion of right-wing survivalist philosophy for proto-feminist ass-kicking. Yet such weightier concerns rarely hinder the ghoulish genre pleasures derived from Incident’s swift pacing, unnerving Edward Shearmur/Chris Stone score, and the sight of the always-sinister Scrimm performing a disturbing rendition of “Dixie.” NS

Cast: Derek Cecil, Jon Polito, Michael Moriarty, Warren Cole, Angela Bettis, Erin Brown, Lindsay Pulsipher, Norman Reedus, Udo Kier, Brian Benben, Cinthia Moura, Anthony Griffith, Jon Tenney, Thea Gill, Henry Thomas, Lucie Laurier, Steven Weber, Jessica Lowndes, Jonathan Tucker, Robert Englund, Ezra Godden, Chelah Horsdal, Bree Turner, John de Santis Network: Showtime, Fridays, 10 p.m. Buy: Amazon, Soundtrack

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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.

1.5

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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.

2.5

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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.

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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.

3.5

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Primal
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.

2.5

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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.

3

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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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Review: The Politician Balances Well-Honed Satire and Melodramatic Frenzy

The series nearly approaches farce as its shocking developments pile up, defying reality and credulity.

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The Politician
Photo: Netflix

Payton Hobart (Ben Platt), the uncannily poised future politico at the center of Netflix’s The Politician, carries himself with the unsettling polish of a young beauty pageant contestant or an overly coached child actor. Platt portrays the high school senior, who’s in the midst of a hotly contested campaign for class president, with a cold remove informed by the character’s unfettered ambition: Payton views the race as his first in a lifelong campaign for the presidency of the United States. And while the series—co-created by Ryan Murphy, Ian Brennan, and Brad Falchuk—thoughtfully examines the relationship between Payton’s ruthless drive and his own mental health, its most timely and resonant insights derive from its satirical appraisal of the kabuki histrionics of real-world political theater.

By Payton’s own admission, he’s been campaigning toward the White House for his entire life. His lofty aspirations and carefully curated persona suggest a scarcity of authenticity in real-world politics, and by framing Payton as an obviously desirable candidate, the series emphasizes that such scarcity is pervasive even among politicians with thoughtful policies and unmistakable sincerity. The Politician derives provocation from its differing portrayal of its main character’s potential to govern and the questionable lengths he goes to for the chance to do so—such as burying a scandal to protect his running mate, or coldly dismissing his campaign advisors, who are his childhood friends, when he no longer needs them.

Little about Payton’s physical world is meant to echo the reality of daily life. Instead, the show’s primary location, Santa Barbara, is a reflection of his privilege, a world that seems to expand to fit his needs. A crucial scene that unfolds in the high school’s cavernous chapel finds Payton’s running mate, Infinity (Zoey Deutch), surprised to discover that the school even has a chapel. Likewise, the Hobarts’ estate grows from scene to scene, as horse stables, lush living areas, and new corners of the manicured grounds are continuously revealed. Part real-estate porn and part lurid portrayal of privilege, the show’s Technicolor universe lends an ostensibly mundane high school election an air of high-stakes gamesmanship. Strategy meetings and clandestine conversations unfold in exquisite mansions with breathtaking vistas, while Payton races around town in a creamy-white Alfa Romeo speedster. The Politician convincingly implies an inherent correlation between a person’s class and their perceived importance.

Memorable performances abound, from Gwyneth Paltrow as Georgina, Payton’s rich but joyless mother, to Jessica Lange as Dusty, Infinity’s manipulative grandmother. The series derives the majority of its success, though, from Platt, who commits convincingly to Payton’s elevated self-image. When scandal threatens Payton’s campaign, the veteran theater actor appears fully unhinged, all bulging neck veins and watery eyes; conversely, he can be placid and smooth when Payton is manipulating his opponents or courting voters.

When the series attempts to underscore the roots of his political appeal, Platt leverages his talent for penetrating emotional communication. Payton, a kind of stage performer himself, always plays to the back row, as in a stirring speech about gun control or when, at a school assembly, he dedicates a Joni Mitchell song to a recently deceased student. In such instances, The Politician prompts us to interrogate our own reaction to Payton’s charisma, and consider the possibility that we’re being duped—a dynamic made possible by Platt’s performance.

The actor’s portrayal of the strangely polished Payton is backgrounded by constant, near-hysterical drama. Throughout the season’s eight episodes, there’s one suicide, another unrelated suicide attempt, three attempted murders, one kidnapping (which the series frames as a wry parody of David Fincher’s Gone Girl), and a host of political scandals that range from falsified illnesses to teenage love triangles. And much of this subject matter, especially when related to teenage depression or mental illness, is gravely paralleled in the real world.

But as The Politician bounds along, it rarely focuses squarely on the fallout of those issues, or on the source of Payton’s own ambition. Such plot developments serve instead to reinforce the stakes of Payton’s campaign for class president as he views them: life or death. The series is similarly matter-of-fact when dealing with the sexuality of its characters, many of whom, including Payton, are sexually fluid—a fact that The Politician acknowledges without comment. The sexual entanglements and desires of its teen characters provide dramatic incitement rather than emotional heft, in the same way that the show’s suicides and kidnappings are deployed primarily as obstacles to Payton’s political ascension. The series nearly approaches farce as the shocking developments pile up, defying reality and credulity. Still, each of The Politician’s strange twists and turns feel like appropriate obstacles for its larger-than-life protagonist. Payton insists that he’s destined to wield power over his surroundings, so it’s fitting that those surroundings are somewhat preposterous.

The Politician balances well-honed satire and melodramatic frenzy, succeeding in its aim to engender both a critical appraisal of real-world politics and grotesque car-crash voyeurism. Both of the show’s competing sensibilities flow from Platt’s captivating performance, and one’s enjoyment of the series will largely depend on one’s take on Payton. While the young man is of plainly dubious moral character, the series resists condemning his actions. Instead, it offers a view of the candidate as a force of nature, struggling within a hypothetical vision of pure politics with the volume dialed up. The show’s high school election functions as a petri dish for the most debased, selfish elements of American politics, and implicates the audience as primitive rubberneckers for investing in its outcome. The Politician’s most trenchant critique, though, is reserved for Payton, who’s obsessed with lording over a broken system, yet doesn’t even possess the self-awareness to understand why.

Cast: Ben Platt, Jessica Lange, Gwyneth Paltrow, Zoey Deutch, Lucy Boynton, Laura Dreyfuss, Rahne Jones, David Corenswet, Theo Germaine, Benjamin Barrett, Dylan McDermott, Julia Schlaepfer, January Jones, Trevor Eason, Trey Eason Network: Netflix

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Review: Bless the Harts’s First Episode Is a Madcap, If Uneven, Introduction

You can feel Fox’s new animated series figuring itself out in its first episode.

3

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Bless the Harts
Photo: Fox

Fox’s new animated series, Bless the Harts, begins with a mailwoman delivering a bill and some bad news to Jenny Hart (Kristen Wiig), a waitress living in North Carolina: that her water will be shut off in three days. “Damn, Norma,” Jenny says, “You’re not supposed to be reading people’s mail.” But, as Norma explains, she didn’t open the envelope. “It’s just that when you’re this late, they put the threats on the outside.”

The scene mainly serves to introduce Jenny’s precarious financial situation, which extends to everyone who lives with her: Betty (Maya Rudolph), her zany mother, who prints out hard copies of memes; Violet (Jillian Bell), her purple-haired and reclusive artist daughter; and Wayne Edwards (Ike Barinholtz), her bumbling but gold-hearted boyfriend. Our introduction to the Harts also places the episode—the only one made available to press ahead of the show’s premiere—in a reality slightly removed from ours. Norma ends the conversation by saying that she has to keep moving, “or the government will zap my collar.” She laughs, then Jenny laughs, and then we hear an off-screen electric shock as Norma walks away. It’s an early indication that there’s something surreal about the Harts’ world. By the time that Jesus (Kumail Nanjiani) himself appears to Jenny, it’s difficult to tell if he’s a figment of her imagination or if he’s really there, speaking with a waitress at a seafood buffet called Last Supper.

The episode mostly stays grounded in realism, though, exploring the relationships between the various Harts. It’s almost a shame that Wiig, Rudolph, and Barinholtz, three actors with superb physical presence, are reduced to their voices. But while Wiig, Barinholtz, and Bell put in straightforward performances, and while their faux-Southern accents render them nearly unrecognizable, Rudolph is as distinctive and riotous as she is in Big Mouth. She stretches Betty to absurd extremes, dotting her lines with perfectly bewildering pronunciations—“scarcity” is “scar-ci-tee”—that come out of nowhere, like quick jabs to the ribs.

You can feel Bless the Harts figuring itself out in its first episode. There are bits that go on for too long; Wayne’s internal monologues, for one, move at too relaxed a pace and result in little comedic payoff. But the episode also features promising signs of the madcap humor that the series will hopefully settle into. The episode’s central plot consists of Betty’s plan, approved by Jenny, to sell a collection of vaguely Teletubby-esque (and highly flammable) “Hug N’ Bugs” dolls that she’s amassed. The dolls are pop culture mash-ups, such as “Tamagotchi O.J. Trial,” which holds a digital pet toy in one hand and wears a bloody glove on the other.

When Jesus tells Jenny that the plan is doomed to fail, he utters the episode’s best piece of dialogue: “People go crazy for fads, and then they move on. I’ve seen them all come and go: leg warmers, pet rocks, flappers. There was this thing called the Bronze Age…” Nanjiani’s characteristic soft-spokenness is a remarkable fit for a lesson that Jesus would casually impart at a seafood buffet. Jesus doesn’t overshadow the show’s namesakes, thanks to Rudolph’s standout performance and flashes of sharp dialogue from the other Harts—but with a Jesus this endearing, Bless the Harts could do worse than giving him the wheel.

Cast: Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Ike Barinholtz, Jillian Bell, Kumail Nanjiani Network: Fox

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Review: Shudder’s Creepshow Anthology Series Does Its Pulpy Namesake Proud

The series bottles the original’s pulpy spirit and atmosphere for an irresistibly macabre package.

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Creepshow
Photo: Shudder

George A. Romero and Stephen King’s 1982 horror anthology film Creepshow, which consists of five stories that each hinge on some striking image or plot twist, is a triumph of atmosphere. Its vibrant comic-book aesthetic verges on goofy archness, and it prioritizes the wraparound E.C. Comics homage in such a way that even the lesser tales of terror are elevated simply by association with that good-natured tone of “fun” horror.

Shudder’s episodic revival does its namesake proud. With page-turn transitions, fake comic-book ads, and interludes featuring The Creep, the series faithfully replicates the film’s atmosphere, albeit with one meaningful tweak to the format. Rather than only adapt King’s stories under a single director, the series gives multiple directors a shot at helming segments written by various authors, including Joe R. Lansdale, Christopher Buehlman, and Joe Hill.

The first segment of the one episode provided to critics is a King joint, an adaptation of his 1973 story “Gray Matter,” directed by Walking Dead vet Greg Nicotero (who also did makeup effects for Creepshow 2). In it, a horrified boy (Christopher Nathan) relates the mysterious fate of his hard-drinking father (Jesse C. Boyd) to a kindly shop owner (Adrienne Barbeau, who appeared in the original film). There’s a gee-whiz quality to the dialogue that might have been grating in another context, but it feels appropriate amid the show’s heightened mood created by deep shadows and rich, bright colors. Even when the segment isn’t outright depicting narration boxes and comic panels, the actors capture just the right tone of hammy seriousness.

In “Gray Matter,” the subtext about alcoholism and grief doesn’t go anywhere particularly noteworthy, as the series is clearly more interested in simply shouting “boo!” while showing off some marvelously squishy special effects. But the episode becomes an efficient delivery mechanism for pleasantly cheesy horror that’s comforting in its own way, like a tale told around the campfire or a story read under the blanket via flashlight.

The second segment, “House of the Head,” directed by John Harrison and written by Josh Malerman, differs wildly in concept from “Gray Matter.” It follows a young girl (Cailey Fleming) who watches a frightful drama unfold inside her dollhouse after a tiny severed head starts to terrorize her doll family. Harrison films the girl’s face through the dollhouse so that we discover the grisly scenes as she does, turning us into a kind of second participant as we follow her gaze from room to room. The tale’s ending is an unfortunate whimper, but its inventive concept underscores the anthology’s sense of variety, both in terms of setups and horrors.

The original film excels at doling out odd, horrific images that stick in the brain, such as a birthday cake topped with a human head or a farmer subsumed by plant growth. The breezy, pulpy nature of this series accomplishes this just as well with its severed doll head and one particularly gooey monstrosity. Shudder’s Creepshow bottles the original’s pulpy spirit, using the atmosphere and variety provided by shorter segments for an irresistibly macabre package.

Cast: Bruce Davison, Hannah Barefoot, David Arquette, Adrienne Barbeau, Big Boi, Kid Cudi, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Nathan, Jesse C. Boyd, Cailey Fleming, Tobin Bell Network: Shudder

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Review: Undone Is a Rich, Complicated Character Piece About Mental Illness

The series is both beautiful and inventive, even if it uses the mental health of its protagonist as a story hook.

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Undone
Photo: Amazon

Rotoscope animation gives Amazon’s Undone an appropriately in-between feel, its not-quite-animated yet not-quite-live-action style a metaphor for protagonist Alma’s (Rosa Salazar) state of mind. Following a car crash, she becomes unmoored in time, seeming to travel to the past and go through life events out of order. Whether due to schizophrenia or because she’s some sort of time wizard, the point is that Alma isn’t in total control. The series, the brainchild of Bojack Horseman writers Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg, is certainly complicated, but it makes for an unexpectedly rich character piece about processing mental illness and the way it affects those around us.

Alma is, at turns, playfully sarcastic and pessimistic or withdrawn, if not a little self-destructive. Her family’s history of mental illness naturally scares the young woman; she wears a cochlear implant and views her deafness and other facets of what she calls her “broken brain” as potential warning signs that she, too, may develop schizophrenia one day. All these factors complicate Alma’s relationships with her devoutly religious mother, Camila (Constance Marie), and her buttoned-up sister, Becca (Angelique Cabral).

The newest entry in Alma’s network of relationships is her long-dead father, Jacob (Bob Odenkirk), who manifests alongside his daughter’s apparent time-jumping powers. Much of the series is dedicated to Alma developing her abilities under his tutelage and investigating his untimely demise, sliding in and out of oil-painted dreamscapes and memories. At one point, father and daughter levitate within an enlarged version of the hand-drawn meadow of a Get Well Soon card from her boyfriend, Sam (Siddharth Dhananjay). Then, at another, a person ages into a skeleton only for a baby to sprout from the pile like the skull is an egg.

But there’s always a lingering question mark over the whole experience, of whether her powers and newfound special-ness are real or whether they’re the imagined result of Alma’s desire for control and self-actualization, her rebellion against her mundane life and general lack of agency. Undone slyly keeps itself from answering this question, or even if Jacob’s teachings are healthy; when he’s not nudging her in the direction of becoming some kind of emotionless time monk, he’s warning her about how harmful it is to have relationships at all.

The series breaks up what can feel like long stretches of semi-scientific explanations with frequent comedic asides or images of Alma simply living her life, which is inevitably affected by her abilities. Sometimes Undone’s tonal balance can feel off, jokey to a point that undercuts the seriousness of Alma’s investigation into her father’s death. But such interludes are mostly a welcome relief, as when Jacob stops one particular explanation dead in order to incredulously focus on how his daughter was never taught to drive stick-shift.

Rather than simply giving Alma a “superpower,” Purdy and Bob-Waksberg structure the series in such a way that makes the grounded relationships uniformly more engrossing than the mystery of Jacob’s death. A common refrain is that “ordinary life” is just as appealing as the powers that reframe Alma’s perception of reality, and the series takes great pains to depict the way others react to her behavior. On some level, it doesn’t matter whether she’s schizophrenic or a time-traveler so much as the fact that she and her loved ones are affected all the same.

Even so, the show’s sporadic claims to the appeal of “ordinary life” ring a bit hollow, particularly in the midst of lavish animation meant to aid the depiction of its time-travel conceit. The is-she-or-isn’t-she-crazy premise creates an inherent division where time travel is the ideal option and schizophrenia is the tragic alternative. While it’s certainly possible that this dichotomy merely reflects Alma’s current perception of mental illness, Undone asks the viewer to take it on faith that it’s approaching the topic with sensitivity.

There are no mentally ill characters to offer an alternate perspective, nor are there any significant indigenous characters to flesh out the way the series uses such cultures’ beliefs, particularly shamanism, as essentially wallpaper for time travel lore. Undone can be beautiful and inventive, but rather than directly confront such concerns, it mostly just kicks each can of worms a little further down the road, to perhaps be addressed in a future season while it continues to use the question of Alma’s sanity as a story hook.

Cast: Rosa Salazar, Bob Odenkirk, Angelique Cabral, Constance Marie, Siddharth Dhananjay, Daveed Diggs, Luna-Marie Katich, Kevin Bigley Network: Amazon

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