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