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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: Peacock’s The Capture Wears Its Topicality Impersonally on Its Sleeve

The series sucks the juice out of its pop-cultural reference points, failing to mine our current nightmares on its own terms.

2

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The Capture
Photo: BBC/Heyday Films/Nick Wall

Ben Chanan’s The Capture wears its topicality on its sleeve, principally concerning the CCTV security cameras that monitor London’s streets and which number in the hundreds of thousands, averaging out to one camera per dozen or so people. The casualness of the cameras’ presence throughout the Peacock series is unnerving, suggesting how easily privacy can be annihilated with little in the way of pushback from the populace.

Chanan’s concerns, though, aren’t existential ones, as he’s fashioned a murder mystery that laboriously connects modern surveillance to social media, war crimes committed in the Middle East, rising notions of fake news, and whistleblowers like Edward Snowden—all of which are referenced explicitly in the show’s dialogue. Weirdly, the sociopolitical Easter eggs often feel beside the point, serving as window dressing for an impersonal game of cat and mouse.

Shaun Emery (Callum Turner) is a British soldier accused of killing a member of the Taliban during a tour of duty in Afghanistan after the man had already surrendered. Surveillance footage from a body camera seems to validate this assertion, until Shaun’s bannister, Hannah Roberts (Laura Haddock), establishes a lag between the audio and the video feeds of the footage, casting doubt on the evidence. Shaun, Hannah, and others celebrate his acquittal at a local pub, after which the two kiss on the street, pointedly in view of a CCTV camera. She leaves, never to be seen again. When footage surfaces of Shaun hitting Hannah and dragging her out of the camera’s sight, he denies any involvement, but he’s immediately accused of a second crime that’s supported by theoretically objective evidence.

This is all essentially setup, and Chanan threatens to stuff his concept up to the breaking point of contrivance. Investigating the case is Rachel Carey (Holliday Grainger), a brilliant and ambitious detective inspector with a stereotypical taste for stylish jackets and a penchant for playing by her own rules. Her superiors and peers castigate Rachel for her drive, which scans less as an acknowledgement of sexist double standards than as Chanan’s need to define his characters by signpost dialogue. Shaun eludes Rachel, who’s convinced of his guilt, until she begins to uncover a wealth of evidence that connects Shaun’s two murder investigations, as well as a celebrated case in which Rachel foiled a potential terrorist attack.

The twist-a-minute The Capture is compulsively watchable, but we’ve seen much of this before. In addition to 24, which similarly pulled the rug out from under its audience with endless, sometimes ingenious reversals, The Capture also recalls Andrew Davis’s The Fugitive, as well as seemingly every jargon-laden investigative crime show on TV.

Shaun and Rachel are ciphers with stock backstories, and the show’s dozens of other characters often fit into easily recognizable archetypes, from the jealous sidekick to the estranged, earnest wife, to the icy authority figure with shady motives. As the latter, Detective Superintendent Gemma Garland, Lia Williams acquits herself better than much of the rest of the cast, commanding the screen with seeming ease. And in a small, mysterious role, Ron Perlman revels in a sense of understatement, suggesting a bored, bureaucratic comfort with authoritarianism that’s both eerie and funny.

What The Capture doesn’t have is the sense of violation that made 24 such an unmooring experience in its best seasons. That show’s protagonist, Jack Bauer, was a charismatic hawk who did things that most people to the left of Dick Cheney would find monstrous. Kiefer Sutherland allowed you to see the humanity and the savagery of Bauer, which rendered the character all the more disturbing. Whatever its faults, 24 is a distinctive, authentic reaction to the political atrocities that marked the post-9/11 world.

By contrast, the violence of The Capture is just noise to further the plot. Even the notion of doctored surveillance footage has been examined before and more artfully, especially in Philip Kaufman’s atmospheric Rising Sun. A newer element of our surveillance state, social media, is mentioned obligatorily but is barely explored. The Capture sucks the juice out of its pop-cultural reference points, failing to mine our current nightmares on its own terms.

Cast: Holliday Grainger, Callum Turner, Laura Haddock, Cavan Clerkin, Ginny Holder, Barry Ward, Ben Miles, Peter Singh, Lia Williams, Sophia Brown, Ron Perlman, Famke Jansen Network: Peacock

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Review: The Optimism of Japan Sinks: 2020 Leads to a Curious Emotional Remove

The show’s reticence to dig into hopelessness and pain leaves its admirable optimism to feel strangely artificial.

2.5

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Japan Sinks 2020
Photo: Netflix

The latest adaptation of Japanese science-fiction writer Sakyo Komatsu’s 1973 disaster novel Japan Sinks comes to us in animated form, overseen by prolific director Masaaki Yuasa at Science Saru, the studio he co-founded. The Netflix series wastes little time dishing out the apocalyptic imagery promised by its title: Soon after a low-level earthquake hits Japan, a stronger one follows, causing buildings to crumble and pound bystanders into a gory paste beneath the rubble. The Earth vomits gas and magma, and the ground violently splits open, only to be jammed back together into new, alien configurations.

Rather than the scientific and political perspectives of Komatsu’s novel and its previous adaptations, however, Japan Sinks: 2020 takes a markedly more personal viewpoint of the mixed-race Muto family and the companions they pick up along the way. Coupled with some surprisingly spare and soothing music on the soundtrack, the depictions of the family’s early reunion suggest a defiantly optimistic take on the large-scale disaster story, a focus on togetherness and a celebration of the human capacity to adapt even amid utter turmoil. In one scene, the Muto patriarch, Koichiro (Masaki Terasoma), uses colored lights to illuminate some trees the way he once did at their ruined home, guiding the family back together.

As bodies rain from the sky, though, Japan Sinks: 2020 shows its teeth. Characters die in sudden, jarring ways, disorienting the viewer in a similar fashion to these travelers whose only option is to press forward on an island that can offer them no refuge. Throughout the series, these characters are mostly defined by archetypal qualities, with new ones introduced almost as soon as others are lost. This gives the Muto clan’s odyssey something of a mythic quality as they make their way through symbolic destinations, from an open, seemingly empty grocery store to a community that practices kintsugi, a Japanese art of pottery repair.

The show’s limitations become apparent when it slows down midway through the season, no longer relying on the pure momentum of its plot twists and striking images of environmental devastation. When Japan Sinks 2020 actually allows space for us to absorb the characters’ deaths, you may feel as if there’s little to mourn. With a few exceptions, they’re primarily vehicles for shock and dire twists of fate rather than people to empathize with.

Yuasa’s prior Netflix series, the gonzo Devilman Crybaby, injected some disarming positivity into its own increasingly bleak premise, and in a way that made its tragedies feel even more devastating. But the optimism of Japan Sinks: 2020 doesn’t function quite the same way since, here, it’s the overriding ethos, with characters who are more than willing to come together despite catastrophe and pain and displays of self-interest like nationalism.

While this idea is noble, the series moves on from the tragedy of these characters’ lives so quickly that we never get a sense of the totality of their grief. The result, despite no shortage of daring escapes, is a disaster story whose harried pace and reticence to grapple with hopelessness and pain renders it artificial, keeping us at an emotional remove.

Cast: Reina Ueda, Tomomi Muranaka, Yuko Sasaki, Masaki Terasoma, Kensho Ono, Umeji Sasaki, Nanako Mori Network: Netflix

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Review: Little Voice Is a Twee, Navel-Gazing Depiction of Creative Struggle

Created by Sara Bareilles and Jessie Nelson, the series positions its protagonist as a bastion of artistic purity.

1.5

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Little Voice
Photo: Apple TV+

As the first episode of Little Voice begins, aspiring singer-songwriter Bess King (Brittany O’Grady) is still traumatized from being laughed off stage after attempting to perform one of her original songs. Bess’s fragile ego is a major impediment to the launching her music career, and it takes the rest of the season for her to just feel truly comfortable on stage again, a pretty meager payoff considering it takes nine episodes to reach that point.

Bess’s friend and manager, Benny (Phillip Johnson Richardson), assures her in a later episode of the series that artists are meant to be moody, but Bess goes beyond that, as she’s an entitled, ungrateful narcissist, petulantly pushing away friends and family if they don’t conform to her arbitrary moral standards. Even worse, there’s very little about her supposed talent that could justify the behavior that Benny excuses on the basis of artistic brilliance.

Created by singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles and filmmaker Jessie Nelson (who previously collaborated on the Broadway musical Waitress), Little Voice positions Bess as a bastion of artistic purity, first asserting that she writes songs only for herself, and later fending off industry figures’ attempts to have her record songs written by other people or compose music for others. When she gets a chance to record in the legendary Electric Lady Studios, she rebuffs suggestions from a jaded engineer (Luke Kirby) and her guitarist, Samuel (Colton Ryan), to make changes to one of her songs, and both men later acknowledge that she was right.

But there’s little sense that Bess has anything of importance to say with her music, which at one point she describes as “Alessia Cara meets Carole King” but just sounds like Sara Bareilles B-sides. Her precious piano-driven dirges all sound the same, which makes it tough to feel the intended emotional impact of songs often written in response to the events of a particular episode. O’Grady, who was a regular on Fox’s musical drama Star, has a clear, resonant voice, and it’s easy to envision her as a mainstream pop singer, but Bess’s songs always sound smooth and polished, which contradicts their supposed purpose as messy personal statements.

The audiences arrives at an understanding of just how messy Bess’s personal life is through a tedious dramatization of love triangle that puts her in the middle of two bland, sensitive hunks. She first connects with video editor Ethan (Sean Teale), who works in a storage unit next to the one that Bess rents as a practice space (the series emphasizes her financial hustle with jobs as a bartender, dog walker, music tutor, and busker, but she somehow affords rent for both a storage space and half of a gorgeous New York City apartment). Of course, Ethan has a girlfriend, and Bess is later romantically drawn to Samuel, but both men mostly pine from the sidelines while Bess strings them along for the entire season.

Being inconsiderate and presumptuous seems to run in Bess’s family, and the show’s most frustrating character is her mentally disabled brother, Louie (Kevin Valdez), who lives in a group home but constantly relies on Bess for every pretty much everything. Louie is obsessed with Broadway and even has his own catch phrase (“Wonder of wonders!”), and his relationship with Bess is meant to display her compassion and dedication, but it mostly just proves that she’s incapable of holding him accountable for his behavior. Just as Bess seems to expect her friends to cater to her every shift in mood, Louie expects the same from his sister.

Their relationship comes off as a codependent nightmare, and Louie’s blind faith in Bess’s talent is as misguided as her indulgence of his every whim. At one point in the series, a music executive condescendingly describes Bess’s music as “darling.” While that’s intended as a dubious insult, it captures the twee, navel-gazing tone of Little Voice.

Cast: Brittany O’Grady, Phillip Johnson Richardson, Colton Ryna, Sean Teale, Kevin Valdez, Luke Kirby Network: Apple TV+

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Review: HBO’s Perry Mason Examines Power and Faith Amid a Fog of Decay

The series is gory and dour with a bone-deep cynicism, but it’s also optimistic in its own small way.

3

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Perry Mason
Photo: HBO

A dead baby appears not five minutes into HBO’s reboot of Perry Mason. Left on a rail car at Angels Flight in Los Angeles, the child’s eyes are stitched open in hopes of fooling the frantic parents just long enough for the kidnappers to abscond with the ransom money. The grotesque image is certainly far from the show’s last, but it functions as a statement of purpose: Creators Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald intend to grit up the world of Erle Stanley Gardner’s criminal defense lawyer, who was most famously depicted on the CBS television series starring Raymond Burr that aired from 1957 to 1966.

The new Perry Mason is set in 1932, and at the outset, the eponymous character is a private investigator, and hardly the respectable kind. Paired up with the sardonic Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham), he’s not above taking illicit photos of a movie star at a studio’s behest, hoping to prove a morals clause violation. Matthew Rhys brings a thick haze of disillusionment to his character, who wears a lot of stubble and an expression of perpetual weariness. Reconceived in the mold of reluctant prestige TV heroes, Mason is a man adrift, with few opportunities during the Great Depression, and so he tries (unsuccessfully) to squeeze his employers for more cash, though he still misses out on paying the child support he owes.

Mason’s lawyer pal, E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow), brings him in to work with E.B.’s associate, Della Street (Juliet Rylance), on the kidnapping case. The law jabs an accusatory finger at the grieving parents, Matthew and Emily Dodson (Nate Corddry and Gayle Rankin), leaving the defense to contend with dirty cops and cover-ups in addition to following a trail of money that loops through the local evangelical church. A lot of the story beats are the usual stuff of noir, with people you can’t trust mixed up in systems you can trust even less, but the series uses its central case and characters to tug at the different threads of a rich societal tapestry, deftly posing questions about religion, race, sexuality, and gender roles as the world unravels.

Amid dramatic courtroom monologues from E.B. and various scenes of Mason probing crime scenes, the case quickly becomes a media circus. Reporters mob the courthouse steps alongside throngs of protestors howling for blood; the Dodson kidnapping captures the imagination of the public because, despite multiple scenes that show people gasping at others dropping profanities, their interests run toward the morbid and the salacious.

The spotlight throws marriage dynamics into sharp relief, with Emily Dodson vilified on the stand for displaying sexual agency or disinterest in a husband who keeps her in the dark about their finances. Any guilt or shame over their child’s death on her part is framed as a confession in the eyes of the vicious, grandstanding district attorney (Stephen Root). Reactions from the main characters and the general public depict a wider culture of apathy, bigotry, and especially misogyny amid an economic downturn that stokes everyone’s most desperate instincts for survival. The show’s world is a richly rendered fog of decay and hopelessness; people who can make a living do so off secrets, as with E.B.’s questionable financial records or the compromising photos that Mason develops at his dead parents’ desolate farm.

The public hungers for escape, and they get it from the movies, sensational newspaper stories, or from the sense of community provided by a religion that demands their money and devotion in return. They fixate on violence, on victims and victimizers as expressions of their own powerlessness, while others take whatever small power they can, under whatever label. Officially, Della Street is E.B.’s secretary, but it’s immediately clear that the scatterbrained old-timer couldn’t run the office without her, as she empathizes with and advocates for women like Emily in a way that the men often don’t. Paul Drake (Chris Chalk), who goes on to be a frequent investigator in Mason’s employ, is here reconceived as a black cop, an outsider in a system that wants little to do with him beyond what it can use. He becomes disillusioned with his place in that system, as the other characters similarly confront their own powerlessness.

Perry Mason’s concern with power is most clearly seen in Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany), who gets to stand on the evangelical church’s stage and theatrically preach, her position as the church’s mouthpiece sometimes clashing with the moneymen who run the place behind the scenes. The show’s focus on religion can be strained at times, as the church subplots feel tangential to the main case, but its prominence clarifies Perry Mason as a series that’s also about faith, religious and otherwise. Here, faith is eminently vulnerable, often taken advantage of by charlatans but also necessary to keep a person going—a faith in humanity to look beyond societal conditioning and the corruption snaking its way through every angle of civilization. Faith isn’t always rewarded. The series is gory and dour with a bone-deep cynicism, but it’s also optimistic in its own small way, an origin story that chronicles how its characters find a means to fight rather than serving as dejected, disgusted observers.

Cast: Matthew Rhys, Juliet Rylance, Chris Chalk, Shea Whigham, Tatiana Maslany, John Lithgow, Gayle Rankin, Stephen Root, Lili Taylor, Nate Corddry Network: HBO

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Review: Season Three of Search Party Embraces a More Madcap Sensibility

Season three rivals its predecessors in its intoxicating blend of bleak cynicism and irreverent comedy.

3.5

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Search Party
Photo: Jon Pack

The third season of Search Party, the exceptionally nimble dramedy created by Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers, and Michael Showalter, returns after a hiatus of two and a half years but begins right after the events of the second season’s finale. Dory (Alia Shawkat) has just been arrested for the murder of her quasi-associate and ex-lover, Keith, and as a cop takes her mugshot, she chuckles at something he says—resulting in a beguiling portrait of Dory, wearing dark red lipstick, with one eyebrow raised and a roguish half-smile fixed on her face.

The ever-ravenous press and public latch on to Dory’s mugshot, turning her and the legal case against her and her boyfriend, Drew (John Reynolds), into a national spectacle. The series, in turn, takes a gripping dive into Dory’s psyche, sharply revealing how her place in the spotlight magnifies her anxieties. In contrast to the defining visual of Search Party’s first two seasons—a tracking shot of Dory, which prioritized her reactions and impressions over the stimuli eliciting them—season three often depicts her in faux news reels and talk-show clips. Rather than centering Dory as she moves through the world, these sequences freeze her in a still image, embodying her objectification at the hands of the media frenzy. The alienation she feels as tabloid fodder eclipses what she once felt as an aimless personal assistant.

But Dory is far from powerless, as she’s remarkably adept at steering the narrative of both her life and the trial. One of her most formidable feats is a television interview alongside her estranged parents (Jacqueline Antaramian and Ramsey Faragallah), which successfully presents the illusion of a unified front. And she seems to like the attention, as when she humors the paparazzi posted outside her apartment, or when she melodramatically regales the partygoers encircling her at a friend’s wedding with tales of fame’s woes.

Search Party’s earlier seasons found joltingly dark humor in the absurdity of four clueless, sheltered, relatively young adults playing detective and then committing and covering up a murder. This season rivals its predecessors in its intoxicating blend of bleak cynicism and irreverent comedy, but embraces a more exaggerated, madcap sensibility. Recognizing that court is an inherently theatrical space—and a magnet for outsized personalities—the series drops Dory down the rabbit hole and surrounds her with near-unbelievable weirdos. Bob (Louie Anderson), Drew’s lawyer, spouts a wonderful blend of banal aphorisms and pulpy zingers. “Oh, this city,” he drones upon arriving in New York from Chicago, “so much chaos out there.” And Bob is joined in court by two other similarly odd and hilarious attorneys: Cassidy (Shalita Grant), Dory’s rookie lawyer, and the overzealous prosecutor, Polly (Michaela Watkins). The trial, shepherded as it is by a trio of clowns, drives the season’s tonal shift as it quickly devolves into a circus-like farce of shoddy evidence and shaky testimonies.

Dory and Drew’s friends Elliott (John Early) and Portia (Meredith Hagner) are back, but where past seasons deepened their outwardly shallow personalities, this season frequently relegates them to inconsequential, if funny, subplots. The treatment of Portia is particularly disappointing: Previously, a surprising acuity flickered within her, but the series tosses that potential nuance aside, doubling down on the ditzy obliviousness at her surface.

Ultimately, though, the simplicity of the non-Dory narratives is of a piece with the trajectory that Search Party has outlined over its run thus far. The series is Dory’s story, told in an obsessive manner as befits her swelling narcissism. And the strangeness of the trial hints, perhaps, at the world as seen through Dory’s eyes—and as tinged by her growing delusion. Dory is prone to hallucinations and fantasies, and her mental state only worsens under the psychological toll of the trial. At one point, Drew wonders if Dory’s claims of innocence are just a legal strategy, or if she really believes that she didn’t do anything.

And she’s still keeping her greatest secret—that she killed April, the neighbor who knew about Keith’s murder—but Drew is on to her. That Dory remains at least slightly sympathetic throughout all this is a testament to the subtle expressiveness of Shawkat’s performance. Dory’s torn emotions course through Shawkat’s face; the character’s survival instincts flash in her eyes when she’s cornered, when her control of situations starts to falter.

Rare are the moments, however, in which Dory’s power is truly at risk of slipping. One of the season’s most striking shots embodies her insidious influence on those around her. Dory, Portia, and Elliot sit and lie down in a line, playing with each other’s hair; Dory combs Portia’s while Portia runs her fingers through Elliott’s. Drew is opposite them, on the couch. They’re all quiet, thoughtful, reflective. But Dory, with Portia’s hair in her hand, resembles a puppet master. As the camera slowly zooms out, the moody electronic soundtrack kicks in, an echo of Dory’s unceasing calculations. Aspects of the blocking recall Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam: Drew’s no God, but Elliot stretches out like the first man—and Dory is behind both him and the woman closest to him, plotting, the serpent just off-canvas.

Cast: Alia Shawkat, John Reynolds, Meredith Hagner, John Early, Shalita Grant, Michaela Watkins, Louie Anderson, Raphael Nash Thompson, Clare McNulty, Brandon Micheal Hall, Claire Tyers, Christine Taylor Network: HBO Max

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Review: Hulu’s Love, Victor Is a Likable, If Timid, Exploration of Sexual Identity

The show’s episodic sitcom rhythms allow for an easier access point to the narrative about identity and prejudice.

2.5

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Love, Victor
Photo: Mitchell Haaseth/Hulu

“Screw you,” texts 16-year-old Victor Salazar (Michael Cimino) to the mostly unseen Simon Spier (Nick Robinson) in Love, Victor, a spin-off of the gay teen rom-com Love, Simon. The 2018 film’s white, upper-middle-class protagonist, with his perfectly accepting parents, had a relatively easy coming-out journey compared to Victor, whose Colombian-American working-class mother and father cling closely to traditional religious values and aren’t exactly about to buy him a car for his birthday. “My story is nothing like yours,” Victor tells Simon at the end of the first episode of the Hulu series.

Victor reaches out to Simon via text message after starting at Creekwood High School, where his mentor was once cheered on by the entire student body for finally connecting with his secret paramour, Bram. Victor has moved from Texas to the Atlanta suburbs with his parents, Isabel (Ana Ortiz) and Armando (James Martinez), his sullen teenage sister, Pilar (Isabella Ferreira), and his quirky little brother, Adrian (Mateo Fernandez), for reasons that are slowly revealed over the course of the season. Like Simon, Victor comes from a loving home, but his parents’ discomfort with non-heteronormative modes of expression—like Adrian’s preoccupation with the Disney princess Elsa—are made clear to him.

While the stakes for Victor’s coming out are clear, though, that doesn’t make his journey of acceptance any less tedious to witness, stretched out as it is over the course of 10 episodes. Created by Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger (who also adapted Love, Simon, based on Becky Albertalli’s novel), Love, Victor was originally slated for Disney+ before being shifted to Hulu due to its supposedly mature themes. But aside from some strong language and pretty vague sex talk, the series could easily be a companion to High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. Its upbeat tone keeps Victor’s journey from feeling dour and didactic, even though the series is designed to partially provide easily digestible life lessons to a teen audience.

Love, Victor hints at some slightly more nuanced versions of those life lessons in the season’s first half, when Victor begins researching pansexuality. Still attempting to convince others (and himself) that he could be straight, he decides to pursue the popular, studious Mia (Rachel Naomi Hilson). But the messy possibilities of a pansexual teen drama fall away the more Victor becomes obsessed with his openly gay classmate and co-worker, Benji (George Sear), who’s such an idealized object of affection that he’s shown multiple times flipping his luxurious hair in slow motion. In Love, Simon, the connection between Simon and Bram felt genuine and vital, but here Victor and Benji seem destined to get together solely based on proximity.

With its brisk half-hour episodes, and appearances from veteran comedic performers including Andy Richter, Ali Wong, Beth Littleford, and Natasha Rothwell (whose scene-stealing drama teacher from the film has been promoted to vice principal), Love, Victor is structured like your average TV comedy. The episodic sitcom rhythms allow for an easier access point to the narrative about identity and prejudice—both internal and external. But it seems frustratingly hesitant to assert itself as a mainstream teen dramedy with an openly gay protagonist, returning to the starting line of Love, Simon rather than building forward from it.

Cast: Michael Cimino, Mateo Fernandez, Isabella Ferreira, Mason Gooding, Rachel Hilson, James Martinez, Ana Ortiz, Nick Robinson, George Sear, Anthony Turpel, Bebe Wood, Lukas Gage Network: Hulu

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Review: Netflix’s The Woods Spins a Monotonously Grim but Addictive Mystery

The story’s rush of exposition can be dizzying, but the pieces fall into place in ways that aren’t entirely unbelievable.

2.5

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The Woods
Photo: Krzysztof Wiktor

Harlan Coben’s work has been adapted across various European markets, always retaining the same commitment to formula regardless of location or language. The American writer trades in superficial but addictive tales about long-buried secrets, mysterious disappearances, and murderous betrayals, and Netflix’s The Woods is no exception.

The six-episode Polish miniseries is more streamlined than prior Coben adaptations, spending less time getting sidetracked from its central mystery. The story, based on the author’s 2007 novel of the same name, is split between two time periods, opening with a flash-forward to prosecutor Pawel Kopinski (Grzegorz Damiecki) with a gun pressed to his head before flashing back to 1994, when a teenage Pawel (Hubert Milkowski) was at summer camp. Something very bad happened in the woods there, leaving two teens dead and two others—including Pawel’s sister, Kamila (Martyna Byczkowska)—missing, and the discovery of a dead body potentially connected to the murders brings Pawel back to the case in 2019.

In the present-day timeline, Pawel reconnects with his former girlfriend, Laura Goldsztajn (Agnieszka Grochowska), who’s now a college professor, and the two attempt to figure out what happened all those years ago. Pawel has been prosecuting a rape case in which one of the accused perpetrators is the son of a rich TV personality, Krzysztof (Cezary Pazura), who’s vowed to use his resources to ruin Pawel’s life if he won’t drop the charges. This is all familiar ground for Coben, from the gradual unearthing of secrets that often tie together in unexpected (and unlikely) ways to the rather steady doling out of sudden reversals and revelations.

The change of setting from New Jersey to Poland has little impact on the story. The most distinctive local element here is an exploration of anti-Semitic attitudes as grieving families search for someone to blame following the initial crimes. But even that turns out to be just one of many bits of misdirection, a hallmark of Coben stories that often presents solutions to other horrific crimes in the margins, distracting the audience from the true culprits.

Coben may not have much interest in social commentary, but his characters, even the ostensible heroes, are always morally compromised, and finding out who killed or kidnapped a story’s central victim doesn’t necessarily lead to catharsis. Here, Pawel’s handling of the rape case is especially thorny, and his determination to stand up for the accuser is as much about his own pride as it is about seeking justice for a young woman who’s been attacked.

The Woods, part of a 14-book deal between Coben and Netflix, can be monotonously grim, with no mischievously charismatic villains to compare to the antagonist of Coben stories like The Stranger, but Damiecki and Grochowska sharply convey the anguish that their characters have carried with them for decades via haunted glances and halting speech patterns. Pawel and Laura aren’t clever detectives spouting off one-liners, and their personal connection to every aspect of the case provides a kind of revelation that feels earned. By the end, the story’s rush of exposition can be dizzying, but the pieces fall into place in ways that aren’t entirely unbelievable. And the details, remixed from so many other mystery stories by Coben and others, will make sense in almost any language.

Cast: Grzegorz Damiecki, Agnieszka Grochowska, Hubert Milkowski, Martyna Byczkowska, Cezary Pazura Network: Netflix

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Review: Crossing Swords’s Pleasant Exterior Hides a Predictable Core of Vulgarity

Even the jokes that land mostly emphasize how complacent the series is to coast on its crassness.

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Crossing Swords
Photo: Sony/Hulu

Hulu’s Crossing Swords, created by Robot Chicken’s John Harventine IV and Tom Root, depicts a beautiful stop-motion fantasy world where the characters have big round heads plastered with simplistic facial expressions. These toy-like peg people have no arms, their swords and such floating in midair beside them as if held by invisible hands. The show’s handcrafted animation is charmingly scrappy, from the cardboard textures of the environments to fire being rendered as globs of colored fuzz. But Crossing Swords’s pleasant exterior hides a core of vulgarity, alluded to by the sexual euphemism of its title.

This same brand of humor runs through so much adult-oriented animation, where gore, nudity, and profanity is juxtaposed with what might appear to be cuddly and kid-friendly at first glance. Crossing Swords’s protagonist, a peasant named Patrick (Nicholas Hoult), represents the perceived experience of watching the show, as his good-hearted aspirations to be the king’s squire plunge him into a world of hedonistic nobility.

The series is full of liars, narcissists, and people comedically abusing power to arbitrary, often violent ends. A squire contest in the first episode indulges in what quickly becomes tiresome standbys: Everyone cheats at fighting by kicking each other in the genitals, and one later challenge involves contestants having sex with the queen, who gives them gonorrhea.

Though Crossing Swords is briskly paced and filled with rapid-fire jokes, there’s little shock or surprise to be had once a cute little peg man calls someone a motherfucker and then pulls out his penis for the umpteenth time. The show’s comedy becomes rote, with a dreary predictability that extends even to more elaborate setups. For example, when one character requires snakeskin for a spell in the same episode where Patrick agonizes over circumcision, it’s not particularly hard to connect the dots of the plot long before the script does.

The rest of Crossing Swords’s humor hinges on a comingling of the show’s medieval aesthetic with consciously modern touches, as in Patrick needing to ask for snakeskin at a pharmacy, or a hippie professor in a tie-dyed shirt using his class to hijack a ship in the interest of saving humongous krakens the way one might try to save whales. Although some of these concepts head in sporadically amusing directions, as when the professor demands to reinstate virgin sacrifices to the krakens, the show inevitably returns to predictable raunchiness (in this case, the promiscuous queen is no good for a sacrifice, so the job naturally falls to Patrick).

In a typical early gag, one character in a runaway wagon veers out of the way of an orphanage only to careen toward…a kitten orphanage. Upon hopping into the wagon, she shouts, “See ya, fucksticks,” and then, when she spots the kitten orphanage, she sighs, “Well, shit.” On paper, the sheer immediacy of this bait-and-switch is funny, but the dialogue bogs down the pacing for yet another example of how supposedly hilarious it is for these cutesy characters to use profanity. The series isn’t without moments of cleverness, but even the jokes that land mostly just emphasize how complacent the remainder of Crossing Swords is to coast on its crassness.

Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Luke Evans, Tony Hale, Adam Pally, Adam Ray, Tara Strong, Alanna Ubach Network: Hulu

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Review: Netflix’s Space Force Is a Toothless Satire of Political Ineptitude

The series informs sitcom hijinks with a bit of political tension, but the punchlines are diluted for the sake of likability.

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Space Force
Photo: Aaron Epstein/Netflix

It’s distracting when a TV series or film pivots on conflicts between politicians whose party affiliation somehow goes unspecified. The motivation behind this vagueness is obvious, as showrunners and filmmakers don’t wish to mire their stories with specifically right- or left-wing baggage, especially in these hyper-partisan times. Greg Daniels and Steve Carell’s Space Force suffers from a similar malady. The Netflix comedy imagines the realization of President Donald Trump’s oft-mocked plan for a sixth branch of the U.S. military, to which over $700 billion has already been allotted. Yet Trump is never explicitly mentioned, referenced by the characters only as POTUS, and his whims are so consciously bland that one wonders if another president has been elected within this show’s world.

The showrunners’ skittishness over the heated subject of Trump is best embodied by a number of gags in which the commander in chief texts Mark R. Naird (Carell), the four-star general newly appointed to lead Space Force’s development. The texts are curt and macho, but they sound like regular sports coach-speak, which is to say that they’re too coherent to suggest the way Trump actually writes or talks—at least in public. If the show’s writers had the daring to imply that Trump’s garbled mixture of slogans and defamation was a public stunt designed to inflame his base, they might have fashioned a resonant recurring joke.

Space Force’s premise, in which a country that’s been in perpetual war for decades develops a blood lust so great it must try to conquer space, boasts a certain Dr. Strangelove-esque potential. Rather than tap into that potential, Space Force proceeds as one of those Daniels/Carell shows, like The Office, where Carell’s blowhard is revealed to be a nice guy underneath. It took The Office a while to lose its teeth and become a perpetual meme and cuddle-fest, while Space Force goes soft within just a few episodes before limping to an embarrassingly inspirational family reunion finale. Daniels and Carell have little interest in the Space Force as a concept; for them, it’s a backdrop for a special effects-driven workplace sitcom, replete with supporting characters who embody the usual sitcom stereotypes.

In Space Force, even potentially scathing punchlines are diluted for the sake of palatability. For instance, a congresswoman, Bryce Bachelor (Tamiko Brownlee), obviously meant to resemble Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez questions Naird about Space Force’s ballooning budget. Like Trump, Naird (initially) shows contempt for research and has done no preparation for this hearing, spiraling off into amusingly ludicrous grandstanding that the congresswoman, astonishingly, just accepts. In such moments, the series wants it both ways: offering lightweight jokes for liberals while essentially validating the Trump playbook of bluffing minute by minute with Naird’s unexpected victory, though the character’s bluster does lead to one prolonged, uproarious sequence involving a chimpanzee astronaut.

Political confrontation is also superficially offered up via Naird’s duels with the chief scientist of Space Force, Dr. Adrian Mallory (John Malkovich), who derides America’s hard-on for the military and contempt for intellectual reason. Malkovich, who’s accorded the show’s most confrontationally partisan dialogue, gives an elegant, thorny performance that’s gradually compromised by the plotting, as Naird and Mallory will, of course, bond, and Naird will learn the errors of his reactionary ways, embracing reason over violent confrontation. In another example of pandering wishy-washiness, the series eventually goes out of its way to celebrate Space Force, un-ironically, after spending so much time mocking it.

Similarly, Carell is so uncertain in this role that he can’t even settle on a voice. Early on, Naird talks in a gruff military-man fashion that suggests George C. Scott’s general in Dr. Strangelove. Otherwise, Naird is just sweet old Steve Carell, though sometimes his voice changes within a scene, suggesting that this device might be an intentional joke. The character, like Mallory, also suffers from increasingly random storylines that strive to humanize Naird in clichéd terms. For some reason, he has a wife, Maggie (Lisa Kudrow), who goes to prison so that Space Force may offer callbacks to the opening season of Netflix’s own Orange Is the New Black.

Space Force renders the architects of our world’s destabilization, like Trump, his enablers, and military hawks, into lovably misguided dads—a common entertainment trope. In 30 Rock, a conservative billionaire gradually became besties with a liberal TV producer, allowing her to feel better about distracting America with pop-cultural detritus. In The Office, the initially moving misery of a group of corporate drones was steadily dialed down for the sake of feel-good sentimentality, as a once-contemptible manager became a poignant goof. Even in an ostensibly edgier film like War Machine, a general’s atrocities are downplayed for the sake of easy caricature. These entertainments suggest that the unmooring turmoil of modern life isn’t so bad, giving us an excuse to write off our blossoming dystopia with a semi-amused “eh.” An act of satirical heartlessness would be more compassionate than fortune-cookie uplift.

Cast: Steve Carell, John Malkovich, Tawny Newsome, Ben Schwartz, Diana Silvers, Jessica St. Clair, Fred Willard, Don Lake, Noah Emmerich, Lisa Kudrow, Owen Daniels, Alex Sparrow, Jimmy O. Yang Network: Netflix

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Review: Hulu’s The Great Revises History with Riotous Irreverence

The series takes on Catherine the Great with off-kilter comedy and startling poignancy.

3.5

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The Great
Photo: Hulu

Tony McNamara’s alternately riotous and poignant Hulu miniseries The Great begins with the future Catherine the Great (Elle Fanning) leaving Austria for Russia to marry the country’s emperor, Peter (Nicholas Hoult). Catherine wants to bring the Enlightenment to her new home—to abolish serfdom, proliferate literacy, and embrace art and science—but Peter is a doltish man-child more interested in philandering than leading. His governing style is self-serving and myopic; for one, he refuses to pull Russia out of its disastrous war with Sweden, as he’s desperate for a victory akin to those of his late father, Peter the Great. What little progress the young Catherine makes in reforming Peter is fleeting, and because she’s confident that she’s destined to save Russia, she plans a coup.

Like Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite, which McNamara co-wrote and features Hoult in a supporting role as a sycophantic politician, the series rejects the commitment to historical fact that burdens many period pieces. Catherine channels the empress’s ambition and relatively liberal bent, but the characters around her are composites and fabrications; Peter, for instance, is only loosely based on Peter III, and provides a vehicle for Hoult’s unnerving blend of youthful earnestness and wanton cruelty. This historical freewheeling feeds into The Great’s broader irreverence, which comes through in every jarringly crass line coated in period-drama affect—like when Peter tells Catherine, over a meal, that he’s set on producing an heir. “I’d do it now, but I just blew my bag on Madame Dimov,” he says, causing Catherine to nearly choke on her food. “My God,” she says, “a phrase I have never heard.”

The delectably off-kilter dialogue highlights Catherine’s alienation. She first arrives to court a naïve idealist, prim and proper, but as she develops into a skilled politician, she demonstrates growing comfort navigating the crudeness surrounding her. She eventually attempts to win over Grigor (Gwilym Lee), Peter’s best friend, who can’t stand the emperor’s dalliance with his wife, Georgina (Charity Wakefield). “He eats fruits various from your wife’s cunt on a daily basis,” Catherine says to Grigor, egging him on. Grigor’s eyes bulge and his jaw clenches. It’s an almost revelatory moment for Catherine in her quest to wield a less bloody sort of power.

Catherine’s co-conspirators initially consist of Marial (Phoebe Fox), her maid, who hatches the scheme; Count Orlo (Sacha Dhawan), an influential but meek bureaucrat in Peter’s inner circle; and Leo (Sebastian de Souza), the compassionate and winsome lover gifted to Catherine by Peter in accordance with the court’s libertine ethos. These characters contextualize Catherine’s idealism and innocence. Where she’s eager to take the throne and launch her virtuous reign, they recognize that deposing an emperor is slow and messy business.

One of the central elements of Catherine’s political education is figuring out how to seize power as a woman in a thoroughly misogynistic environment, one filled with oafs such as the frequently drunk General Velementov (Douglas Hodge), who’d rather try to seduce Catherine than hear about her ambitions. Catherine and Marial commiserate about the sexism they face, but their discussions expose Catherine’s ignorance of how class difference shapes their distinct experiences. These interactions subtly and effectively cast doubt on Catherine’s claims of readiness by showing that her lofty goals of egalitarianism are far clearer to her than the nuts and bolts of classism, let alone the complexities of ruling an empire.

Catherine’s blind spots come to a head when she addresses a room full of powerful men at a time of profound uncertainty. It’s a crucial opportunity to win their respect, but she flounders: Her instincts are off, she knows nothing of Russia, and the men spurn her. Fanning deftly embodies Catherine’s distress as the character’s sense of self shatters, her breaths turning into gasps and her dreams of leading Russia slipping through her anxiously fidgeting hands.

Catherine’s true exemplar at court is Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow), Peter’s bohemian aunt, who largely shares her progressive politics. Elizabeth is totally unconcerned with what others think about her, and while her boldness can feel unremarkable given the cushy position she occupies at court, it’s marvelous to witness. She airs her perspective most compellingly in scenes with “Archie” the Archbishop (Adam Godley), who represents the church and abhors Catherine’s humanism. The pair are two of the The Great’s sharpest minds, and their absorbing conversations spill tantalizingly into blasphemy and treason, as when Archie floats the possibility of Elizabeth replacing her nephew on the throne.

As for Peter, he tries to better himself under Catherine’s influence—unbanning the printing press, holding art and science fairs—and he shows signs of sweetness, but nothing sticks. The series elucidates his behavior with sympathetic reflections on his inner workings. Peter lives in the shadow of his late parents, suffocated by his father’s outsized legacy and scarred by his mother’s disdain. In one of The Great’s most stirring moments, a shot of Catherine and Leo kissing by firelight cuts to a dark room and pans to reveal Peter curled up on a statue of his father. Such sequences stop short of excusing Peter’s vileness, but they do render his arrested development more tragic than laughable. They also make the tension nestled in the series’s title increasingly plain: Great is both what Catherine will become and what Peter will never be.

Cast: Elle Fanning, Nicholas Hoult, Sebastian De Souza, Sacha Dhawan, Phoebe Fox, Adam Godley, Belinda Bromilow, Douglas Hodge, Gwilym Lee, Charity Wakefield, Bayo Gbadamosi, Louis Hynes Network: Hulu

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