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Review: Masters of Horror: Season Two

Masters of Horror wraps up its second season the way it originally planned to close its first: with an English-language entry from Japan.

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Masters of Horror: Season Two

Dream Cruise (Norio Tsuruta). Masters of Horror wraps up its second season the way it originally planned to close its first: with an English-language entry from Japan. Unfortunately, whereas last year’s Takeshi Miike episode Imprint was deemed to extreme for Showtime because of its strikingly graphic torture set pieces, Norio Tsuruta’s Dream Cruise is simply torturous, proving to be a last, pitiful gasp for J-horror and its trademark broken-limbed ghouls. As established by the scenes immediately following a brief prologue, Tsuruta knows how to use silence to disquieting effect, keeping things so eerily still that there’s genuine creepiness to the ghostly sounds of a deceased boy (seen as a static, obscure figure) calling out to his brother from just beneath the ocean’s surface. The apparition is the sibling of American lawyer Jack (Daniel Gillies), who as a kid failed to save his brother from drowning and, years later and now relocated to Tokyo, remains terrified of the water—a phobia that proves troublesome when he finds himself out on a yacht with a vicious client (Audition’s Ryo Ishibashi) whose wife he’s screwing. The husband’s plans for revenge, however, are rudely interrupted after the boat conks out and, upon investigating the propeller, he finds himself tangled up in long, black hair resembling that of The Ring’s Samara. From there, Dream Cruise’s sinister calm gives way to tiresome noise, with Ishibashi (displaying a barely adequate mastery of his English dialogue) doing his best to channel Jack Nicholson circa The Shining, a severed hand meekly trying to kill its intended victim, and a batch of supernatural sights that barely engender more than a momentary chill. Per horror dictates, the dead may endlessly return to haunt the living, but it’s hard to see how Masters of Horror serves the genre it champions—much less breaks new ground—by resorting to this type of lackluster repetition of imagery and formulas far past their expiration date. Nick Schager

The Washingtonians (Peter Medak). The title of Peter Medak’s first Masters of Horror suggests a colonial-set romance by Henry James, and though the story looks back to the time of our founding fathers, it is not for amorous purposes, but rather to posit an alternate American history in which George Washington was a cannibal. In the present, a man stumbles onto this truth when he and his family move into the New England home of their recently deceased grandmother, soon finding themselves under attack by Washingtonians, followers of our first president who not only share his fondness for virgin flesh but also insist on preserving the false impression the world has of the man as a cherry tree-chopping do-gooder. First exuding vibes of Medak’s own The Changeling, the film settles into its own unique groove as an interesting political allegory emerges from all the imagery of creepy old people scaring the daylights out of the Franks family. Given the way she gets ice cream all over her face and takes a lollipop from the very stranger she refuses to shake hands with, it’s impossible to feel compassion for young Amy (Julia Tortolano) when she gets into danger, and yet the girl’s obscene cowardice seems to illustrate an interesting point about political naïvete and acquiescence. The film’s humor is pitched way over the top, and though its fantasy of a government conspiracy doesn’t exactly fly (why are federal agents interested in silencing the Washingtonians if neither group wants the truth of Washington’s past known to the public?), there’s bite to the story’s political ambitions. “Eat me! Eat me you sons of bitches!” screams Johnathon Schaech, and before fans of Hush have time to comply with pleasure, the government charges in to restore its idea of peace and order. How this relates to our current state of affairs only becomes apparent with a hilarious punchline that implies that George W. Bush’s unofficial status as our nation’s worst president may be irrevocable unless we learn that a former commander-in-chief ate children for dinner. That or if the White House is willing to lie for the sake of his public relations makeover. Now that’s scary. Ed Gonzalez

The Black Cat (Stuart Gordon). Edgar Allen Poe often dealt with his feelings of inadequacy and guilt through his great short stories, most notably in The Telltale Heart and The Black Cat. Filmmakers as far back as Richard Oswald have been enticed by the latter, whose sensual textures have made it ripe for cinematic adaptation. Now Poe himself is the subject Stuart Gordon’s latest Masters of Horror, an adaptation of The Black Cat that doubles as a biographic reflection on Poe’s creative process. This is not an entirely novel interpretation—another Master of Horror, Dario Argento, incorporated bits of Poe’s life into his own adaptation of the story for the 1990 omnibus Two Evil Eyes—but it is the first to explicitly refer to the story’s famously unnamed narrator by Poe’s name. Though the telefilm is handsomely produced (no doubt expensively), seemingly achieving the impossible by staying truthful to both the original story and the particulars of Poe’s life, from his trouble with alcohol and struggle to write and make money to his wife Virginia’s tuberculosis, the end result feels tidy and predictable. More so than any other Black Cat, the titular feline acknowledges its status as a narrative device with every appearance, and yet Gordon isn’t exactly particular to situate the animal as a manifestation of Poe’s guilt. There are some great moments of inspired horror (Virginia hacking sprays of blood onto her piano) and expressionism (the shadow Pluto casts on a wall recalls the great 1934 abstraction of this story by Edgar G. Ulmer), but Gordon flirts with glibness. The film transpires as a series of psychotic episodes as Poe slips between madness and reality, with Gordon suggesting the author was almost sane once he was able to finally put one of his stories to paper. This may be truthful to the process that torments some writers, but it contradicts what we know of Poe’s history. EG

We All Scream for Ice Cream (Tom Holland). As he’d already (poorly) adapted Stephen King’s Thinner and The Langoliers for film and TV, respectively, Tom Holland was a logical directorial choice for We All Scream for Ice Cream, a tale of a vengeful clown that simplistically apes King’s magnum opus It. Whereas King’s Pennywise is the incarnation of elemental childhood fears, Holland’s vicious jester is a less intimidating ghoul, having risen from the dead to deliver payback to the group of guys who, as boys, semi-accidentally murdered him. It’s a rather traditional return-of-the-repressed scenario in which guilt-ridden Layne (Lee Tergesen), recently relocated to his hometown, finds his old friends mysteriously dying, with flashbacks elucidating the accidental crime against ice cream truck driver Buster (William Forsythe), a mentally-handicapped stutterer who performed comedy/magic routines for his pint-sized customers, that’s the root cause of the current fatalities. Between its past/present structure and the accompanying characterizations of Layne and his pals (which include the decent hero, the sadistic bully, the mean-spirited followers, and the honorable, overweight best buddy), Holland’s tale tediously rehashes rather than reinvents, right down to Layne uttering a variation of Dreamcatcher’s central mantra “Same Shit, Different Day.” More problematic, however, is that its familiar components are a clear cut above its original ones—in particular, Buster’s ploy to sell deadly, voodoo doll-style ice cream bars to Layne and company’s kids, which is too cursorily sketched to adequately exploit its relevant parent-child tensions. In spite of such shortcomings, Holland manages to effectively take advantage of the show’s widescreen aspect ratio, and his use of old-school gore effects is agreeably nostalgic. Nonetheless, the episode’s saving grace is B-movie icon William Forsythe, who makes one seriously sinister—and, more impressively, sympathetic—sicko clown. NS

Right to Die (Rob Schmidt). Right to Die, after Wrong Turn, confirms Rob Schmidt’s talent for pacing and welcome aversion to irony. This neatly structured tele-film begins with a car crash that leaves a dentist’s beautiful wife terribly burned and clinging to life in a hospital bed. As if taking a cue from Dario Argento’s pitiful Pelts, Schmidt mixes sex and violence in ways that are tawdry (fanboys, though, won’t mind Julia Anderson’s boobs, which rival Laura Harring’s in terms of size), but he concocts some unnerving scares for his audience as Anderson’s comatose burn victim waits for the full-body transplant that will allow her to return to the world. In one great scene, a steaming squirt of blood drips on the controls of an MRI machine that will terrorize a sleaze-bag played by Corbin Bernsen. This is Schmidt’s clever visual acknowledgement that he is dealing with a hot-button issue, but the director does not grapple with right-to-life crisis on a political level as much as he does on a twistedly soulful one. Whenever Abbie (Anderson) flatlines, her spirit emerges from her body to taunt her husband Cliff (Martin Donovan), his attorney (Bernsen), and Cliff’s mistress (Robin Sydney). The sight of Abbey’s burned-to-a-crisp corpse skulking toward her victims, a terror revealed to Cliff in one scene by way of his cellphone, is one of the scarier spectacles from this season’s Masters of Horror, and though Schmidt skimps on character nuance in the interest of preserving a last-act revelation, he goes to great and interesting pains to justify Abbie’s woman-scorned vengeance when the guilt-ridden Cliff decides to supply the hospital with his mistress’s skin for his wife’s transplant. The plug is always pulled by the living, but here it is Abbie who exercises her right to die, dying not only on purpose but in the interest of punishing a husband’s chicken-shit audacity to transform her into the last possible woman she would want to become. On numerous levels, Schmidt has created a Masters of Horror that counts as an out-of-body experience. EG

Valerie on the Stairs (Mick Garris). Series architect Mick Garris should have his Masters of Horror membership card revoked after Valerie on the Stairs, a ponderous ghost story that unimaginatively amalgamates various episodes from last season. Based on a treatment by Clive Barker, this tale of an aspiring novelist named Rob (Tyron Leitso) who finds spirits inhabiting a tenement building melds the twisted sexual obsession of Dario Argento’s Jenifer with the haunted-house supernaturalism of Stuart Gordon’s Dreams in the Witch House and the art-becoming-life ideas of John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns. It’s repetition of the dullest sort, since Garris not only doesn’t elaborate on those prior, superior efforts’ thematic concerns, but he doesn’t stick a natural-sounding line in his actors’ mouths or dramatize any creepy moments without forewarning music and bumps in the shuddering walls. In discussing his new work-in-progress, Rob sounds like he’s robotically reading an Amazon.com book description, which is still better than the gibberish emanating from the mouths of his neighbors, which include a “cool” stoner, a foul-mouthed Blanche DuBois facsimile, and Christopher Lloyd as a bug-eyed old coot whose primary purpose is to articulate the narrative’s stance that writers are crazy. What’s really crazy is that Candyman’s Tony Todd agreed to don his ludicrously unscary latex costume as the demon Othakai, a beast surreptitiously living in the house whose sexually twisted relationship with phantom beauty Valerie (Clare Grant) is challenged by the arrival of do-gooder Rob. Once Valerie’s identity is revealed, mystery predictably gives way to mutilations, but Garris isn’t capable of delivering a good scare any more than he is of eliciting a decent performance out of Leitso—a failing he shares with Uwe Boll, who featured the actor in 2004’s monumentally awful House of the Dead. NS

The Screwfly Solution (Joe Dante). Because of its trendy politics, Joe Dante’s overpraised Homecoming was the only Masters of Horror from last season to get the attention of the alternative press. Realizing this, producers have asked their slate of horror auteurs to emphasize politics above all else for the second season of the series, except Dante has gone way beyond the call of duty, stuffing his new experiment in terror, The Screwfly Solution, with enough hot-button provocation to not only expand your mind but to also blow it to pieces. Shunning metaphor, Dante imagines a frightening apocalypse when the human reproductive cycle is invaded by an insect virus. The effects are chilling (men, aroused by sex, take out their violent aggressions against women), and as this bioterrorist threat spreads, the world explodes in a testosterone madness that informs housing policies and flights plans. The film’s murders are vicious spectacles of sexual aggression and the flight of one woman to Canada away from her scientist husband (played by Jason Priestley) becomes a nightmare journey for survival that ponders a strange alien interference. In one scene, a star falls from the sky only to change its direction, teasing a would-be wisher; this is Dante’s haunting way of suggesting our political noise has caused a rip in the cosmos. Dante understands the earth as an organism at a precarious point in its evolution, envisioning a planet fighting to resist the pressures the human populace has placed on it, and though the director’s notion of religious zealotry as an automatic symptom of the story’s bioterror is specious to the point of insult, all bases are hit with a startling sense of attention and logic (there’s even a moment during which the effects of the virus on gay men is addressed). Dante is deeply attuned to the way the story’s crisis messes with humanity, forcing us to make startling concessions. In short: Dante has given us a great cautionary tale. EG

Pelts (Dario Argento). First the good: Dario Argento’s second Masters of Horror, impeccably scored by Claudio Simonetti, is just about the goriest thing you can legally see on television. It’s also unpredictable: When Jake (Meat Loaf), a fur trader, starts pestering a stripper, Shanna (Ellen Ewusie, clearly a student of Elizabeth Berkley), you figure it’s only a matter of time before he decides to strip her of her skin. Not so. After father-and-son fur trappers snag a bunch of raccoons (sentinels, according to some old bitty, that hail from a lost city) from some cursed patch of land in the woods, their apparently breathtaking fur pushes people to do (and accept) the damnedest things—things involving bear traps, bats, scissors, sewing needles and Meat Loaf’s cock. Argento’s exploitation nerve twitches unlike ever before, which is to say gore hounds will be pleased. Then there’s the bad. Raccoons? Sentinels of the Lost City? That’s not even the worst of it. When Mia lifts her head up between her stripper gal pal’s legs in order to answer the door, her buddy complains as if Mia was never going to lick her pussy ever again. Even if that was her cause for alarm, this chick is no prophet, unless a deleted scene explains that she too hails from the Lost City. There’s also the wall of the old fur trapper’s house, where Jake conveniently finds one of those funny maps you always see in pirate movies with an x-marks-the-spot that leads him straight to the cursed raccoons. Pelts isn’t just lazy, it’s borderline inane. EG

Pro-Life (John Carpenter). An oversized horned demon appears late in Pro-Life to cradle his recently murdered spider-human offspring, and the scene—exasperatingly silly instead of chilling—helps catapult John Carpenter’s newest Masters of Horror contribution into full-blown cheesiness. A lethargic pastiche of It’s Alive, Citizen Ruth, and the director’s classics Assault on Precinct 13 and The Thing, Carpenter’s episode involves the tepid showdown between the staff of a middle-of-nowhere abortion clinic and a psychotic anti-abortionist named Dwayne (Ron Perlman) who stages a siege in order to remove his daughter from the medical center. Dwayne’s 15-year-old girl Angelique (Caitlin Wachs), however, has other ideas in mind—namely, killing the monster living inside her rapidly expanding stomach, which is the byproduct of being raped by Satan. Despite its title, Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan’s story staunchly supports a woman’s right to choose, its minor jabs at clinicians’ arrogance and fathers’ insensitivity to female concerns drowned out by its portrayal of pro-lifers as sadists blindly convinced of their righteousness and more interested in viciously punishing sinners than saving the lives of those they supposedly care about. Unfortunately, after an off-kilter, forest-set intro that suggests nature’s capacity for sexual violence, there isn’t a single intriguing or understated moment in Pro-Life, which deficiently addresses both sides of the abortion issue amid geysers of blood and amniotic goo. Since the climactic ironies (and messages that accompany them) are telegraphed from a county away, what keeps the show’s pulse moderately spry is Perlman, whose even-tempered fervor is unnerving even when McWeeny and Swan’s script forces the villain to illogically take time out of his desperate mission to give the health facility’s bigwig a taste of his own medicine. Certainly, the star’s cool, baritone menace is more energized than Carpenter, whose direction—full of center-image compositions that fail to visualize the tale’s conflicts—is not only languid but, worse for a series defined by its horror auteurs’ idiosyncratic styles, lacking in distinctive personality. NS

Sounds Like (Brad Anderson). Brad Anderson’s Sounds Like is another psychological profile in the tradition of the director’s The Machinist. Larry (Chris Bauer), a tech support advisor at a software company, has a heightened sense of hearing: Not only can he hear the tapping of a fly’s appendages against a pane of glass in THX sound but he can also tell that a psychiatrist’s foot-tapping, nervous breathing and scratching together indicate that the man is lying about quitting smoking. After calling out one of his employees, Larry arrives home to a flurry of maddening sounds. Because his wife’s needlepointing sounds like someone sharpening a pair of knives, is one of the man’s disgruntled employees out to get him? Subtext soon emerges: Larry and his wife, Brenda (Laura Margolis), recently lost a son—not long after Larry’s ears suggested that something was wrong with the boy’s heart. The film’s interesting articulation of Larry’s grief is such that his turmoil tweaks the decibel levels of his immediate atmosphere, from the falling of rain against his windshield to the smoke detector that needs a battery change. The rationale for Larry’s condition seems to be the nature of his work, but it’s not a cause-and-effect Anderson sufficiently dramatizes (which is better than Brenda’s own extra-sensory gift of telling when someone’s pregnant, which get no explanation at all), and through the film relies heavily on its sonic commotion to drag itself toward the one-hour mark, the short is distinguished by its main character’s anguish and Anderson’s understanding of how people cope with pain, finding substitutes for their loss in the world around them. EG

The V Word (Ernest Dickerson). The title of Ernest Dickerson’s The V Word refers to vampires, but its actual allusion is to the epithet-that-must-not-be-spoken (except by rappers), as both terms are labels of reviled outsider status. Certainly, this Mick Garris-penned script feels spiked with racial connotations, its story—about two friends, white Justin (Branden Nadon) and black Kerry (Arjay Smith), who go in search of a dead body and instead find a bloodsucker—appearing to be an attempted commentary on familial and social exclusion. Justin, angry at his father for shacking up with his secretary, convinces Kerry to go to the local funeral home in order to see the corpse of a recently deceased classmate, the nominal goal being to do something exciting and the real one being to assuage their unhappiness by baring witness to the ultimate unfortunate fate. There, they encounter pedophile-turned-vampire Mr. Chaney (Michael Ironside)—named, strangely, after the classic Hollywood horror icon not known for playing Dracula—who enjoys a meal out of Kerry, an act the teenager then reenacts on his best bud. From video game-loving geeks with strained home lives to unholy monsters alienated from their relatives and stuck with a new, undead paternal figure, the two boys find themselves at a crossroads when one of them refuses to satiate his blood hunger. What the protagonists’ differing reactions to their literal/figurative dads is supposed to reflect is never properly articulated by Garris’s script, which grazes past its weightier concerns about race, father-child relations and violent media saturation, the latter tantalizingly touched upon during an intro in which Kerry blasts his way through a gory game of Doom 3. Still, if a squandered opportunity thematically, The V Word nonetheless succeeds stylistically, with Dickerson’s silken, sinister camerawork lending the material—especially during Justin and Kerry’s initial venture inside the shadowy, cadaver-populated parlor—a dose of genuine tension all too often missing from the series. NS

Family (John Landis). The circuitous tracking shot that opens Family quickly conveys the narrative’s central tongue-in-cheek dichotomy, as director John Landis’s camera wends its way from a radiant cherry blossom tree to the interior of a conventional, well-kept home to the basement where the residence’s sole breathing occupant, Harold Thompson (George Wendt), is busy using toxic chemicals to melt the skin off the corpse of his supposed father. It’s yet another vision of sunny suburbia’s dark, sadistic underbelly, a conceit that’s long worn out its welcome and yet one which Landis (working from Brent Hanley’s economical script) manages to plumb for moderately lively gallows humor as well as some discreet political commentary. Harold is a psycho anonymously living at the end of a nondescript Wisconsin cul-de-sac, killing victims, dressing up their skeletons, and then pretending that they’re his relatives. Landis shoots Harold’s stereotypical family conversations/arguments with his bony clan from both the killer’s as well as a third-person perspective, a flip-flopping that lends the Norman Bates-ish sequences a mild dementia in keeping with the story’s ghoulish depiction of middle-class efforts to construct and keep up appearances. When a married couple (Meredith Monroe and Matt Keeslar) moves in next door, Harold begins lusting after Celia (Monroe) and preparing plans for her inclusion into his makeshift household, a scenario that doesn’t result in much tension but does provide the director with opportunities for ribald fantasy sequences involving Harold’s un-conservative sexual desires. That the fiend’s Republican persuasion is adroitly underplayed is indicative of Family’s refusal to overemphasize any of its various elements. Still, if not as blatant as that found in last year’s Homecoming, Family nonetheless boasts a sly political critique—one in which Wendt’s cheery-on-the-outside, ruthless-on-the-inside serial killer decorates his living room with framed Bush and Cheney photos and, in the story’s climactic ironic twist, receives comeuppance via the kind of torturous methods promoted by his administration idols. NS

The Damned Thing (Tobe Hooper). Tobe Hooper inaugurates the second season of Showtime’s Masters of Horror by rotating, whirling, and shaking his camera with what feels like desperation—an impression in keeping with the fact that The Damned Thing’s tale of an ungodly force unearthed by industrial drilling and unleashed on a rural Texas town more than slightly resembles Stephen King’s 1997 novel Desperation (itself briefly referenced in last year’s Mick Garris entry Chocolate). Yet it’s not King but 19th-century writer Ambrose Bierce’s short story (adapted by Richard Christian Matheson, offspring of the I Am Legend author) that’s the source material for Hooper’s episode, in which Cloverdale sheriff Kevin Reddle (Sean Patrick Flanery) is haunted by an invisible supernatural energy that was set free by his ancestors, drove his childhood community mad, and possessed and then killed his father. Oil drilling was the culprit behind the evil’s initial liberation, but Hooper and Matheson so cursorily gloss over this point in favor of clunky narration and gory splatter that any potential political undertones remain dormant. The Damned Thing’s lack of substantial subtext isn’t nearly as disappointing as Hooper’s wobbly direction, which lurches between flickering spasticity and tepid sedation, the latter characterizing much of the narrative’s middle section involving the emotionally remote Reddle joking around with his idiot deputy (Brendan Fletcher) and attempting to reconcile with the mother (Marisa Coughlan) of his young kid (Alex Ferris). The sins of the father eventually come back to haunt the son, but despite Hooper’s cozy portrait of sleepy Southern small town life—a considerable feat given that the series is produced in Vancouver—there isn’t enough skin-crawling creepiness, much less outright terror, to help offset the plot’s underdevelopment and general B-grade creakiness of the performances. The finale’s degeneration into a cacophonous, convulsive, incoherent visual mess does, however, prove emblematic of Hooper’s increasingly muddled output. NS

Cast: Sean Patrick Flanery, Brendan Fletcher, Marisa Coughlan, Alex Ferris, George Wendt, Meredith Monroe, Matt Keeslar, Arjay Smith, Branden Nadon, Michael Ironside, Chris Bauer, Laura Margolis, Richard Kahan, Ron Perlman, Caitlin Wachs, Meat Loaf, Ellen Ewusie, Jason Priestley, Kerry Norton, Linda Darlow, Brenna O'Brien, Elliott Gould, Tyron Leitso, Clare Grant, Martin Donovan, Julia Anderson, Corbin Bernsen, Robin Sydney, Lee Tergesen, William Forsythe, Jeffrey Combs, Elyse Levesque, Johnathon Schaech, Venus Terzo, Julia Tortolano, Daniel Gillies, Ryo Ishibashi Network: Showtime, Fridays, 10 p.m. Buy: Amazon, Soundtrack

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Review: The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez Stokes Outrage but Fits a Predictable Mold

The Netflix miniseries suggests a sort of virtual, one-stop-shop Wikipedia page.

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The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez
Photo: Netflix

Netflix’s The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez will stoke your outrage, and it should. The six-part limited series provides what feels like an expansive primer on one of the most horrific child abuse cases in the history of the United States, and there’s a sense that it wants to fill in gaps for those who might have been swept up by some other outrage shortly after eight-year-old Gabriel Fernandez’s death made national news in 2013, or just weren’t privy to the ins and outs of the case as reported by Los Angeles news outlets.

The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez suggests, like the recent Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez, a sort of virtual, one-stop-shop Wikipedia page about an infamous case, though it arguably goes further by indicting the faceless systemic forces that aligned in cruel harmony to crush a human life. At one point, the series even delves into the 2018 abuse case of Anthony Avalos, the 10-year-old Lancaster boy who was also tortured to death by his mother and boyfriend, to get at how the cracks in the child protective services system that cost Gabriel his life in nearby Palmdale were barely patched up in the five years following his death.

Gabriel died on May 24, 2013 after years of torture and abuse at the hands of his mother, Pearl Sinthia Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre. As detailed by various individuals, including Deputy District Attorney Jon Hatami, Pearl and Aguirre starved Gabriel, fed him cat litter, shot him with a B.B. gun, and burned him with cigarettes all over his body. They even bound and gagged him in a cubby. The series isn’t shy about providing us with photo evidence of that horrifying abuse, and it spends much time simply sitting with people and those photos, trying to fathom how a parent could do such things to a child. In one episode, Hatami opens up at length about his own abuse at the hands of his father, and in the moment, the prosecutor’s outrage in the courtroom is tinged with a wrenching melancholy, as if he’s fighting on behalf of a pain that he only recently came to understand.

The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez is at its strongest in such periods of reflection, when it’s trying to understand that which would appear to defy understanding. It lingers on the visible pain of those who came into Gabriel’s orbit, in life and in death, from those who tried to give him a chance at a happy life before he was placed in his mother’s care, to those who tried to report to police and the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFC) that he was being abused, to those who wanted justice for his torture and murder. Impressively, too, it makes space for interviews with a character witness who testified on Aguirre’s behalf and several jurors in his case, including the man who couldn’t initially bring himself to sentence Aguirre to death. The series has us grapple with questions of justice and morality, and there comes a point in the final episode where calling Aguirre “evil” feels as if it has no meaning given that the word can just as easily be applied to so many who turned their backs to Gabriel’s abuse.

Throughout The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez, you will know how responsible some of those individuals probably feel for the little boy’s death simply by their not having given interviews to the filmmakers. But those aren’t the only elisions here, and some aren’t so easy to rationalize. For one, the series never really gives a particularly concrete sense of who Aguirre was before he met Pearl, and after a while it feels as if the only systemic issues it cares to confront are those that prevented police and DCFC from properly responding to reports of Gabriel’s abuse. Though it mounts a strong case for why the boy and not his two older siblings were targets of their parents’ abuse, The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez doesn’t contend with the systemic social contexts that made Aguirre and Pearl’s violence an inevitability. And had it done so, the series might have reached the magisterial heights of Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America, which found new ground on the oft-reported case of O.J. Simpson by framing the fallen star’s life against the violence of L.A. and the ideals of a nation, its moral rot.

During Aguirre’s trial, Hatami argued that the man not only liked what he did to Gabriel, but that he did so because he perceived the boy to be gay, though the series tells the story of that perception in half-shades. From birth, Gabriel was raised for several years by his gay great-uncle, Michael Lemos Carranza, and his boyfriend, David Martinez, so we can intuit that the boy’s torture was at least in part an attempt at a correction. While Gabriel was in Pearl’s custody, someone reported that Michael molested the child, and it’s an allegation that journalist Melissa Chadburn states hasn’t been confirmed nor disproven. There’s a sense that no one in Gabriel’s family who had his best interests at heart seem to believe the allegation to be true, and while the series attests to the kindness Michael and David showed Gabriel, it does conspicuously glance past discussion of this matter, as well as the methods, legal and otherwise, by which the boy was able to land and remain in their care for so long.

Nor is mention made of Michael and David’s advocacy work as part of Gabriel’s Justice, or that Michael died of cancer in 2014. In San Salvador, the filmmakers interview an agonized David about what happened to Gabriel, and you may be frustrated by the missed opportunity to explore why and how David came to be deported by ICE and connect that to the other systemic forces of race and class that contributed to Gabriel’s death. There are times throughout the series where it’s difficult to tell if a story—like the one about Gabriel’s first-grade teacher posing with a noose alongside three other teachers—was swept under the rug because the filmmakers simply didn’t know how to incorporate it into the series or because it might have undermined the dominant narrative they’re seeking to put forth.

The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez, though, does find time for the sort of aesthetic bells and whistles that have become de rigueur for projects such as this since The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, whose lurid reenactments could at least be justified because Andrew Jarecki’s entire project was to ascertain the exact nature of Durst’s crimes. But the uncomfortably ominous reenactments of this series—by and large suturing devices between interviews and courtroom footage—do nothing to enhance our understanding of the Gabriel Fernandez case. At times, they even work against what we already do know, such as the sight of the actor who plays Aguirre mostly from the neck down quaking in his cell with the sort of fear that’s never evident in Aguirre’s body as he sits still and silent in court.

But that’s nothing compared to the tactlessness of the show’s title sequence, which heavy-handedly literalizes the idea that Gabriel “fell through the cracks” before ending dramatically, distastefully with the sight of the cubby where he was imprisoned by his torturers. In such moments, when it’s trying to summon an aura of mystery—that there’s something here that’s waiting to be cracked open, something to be solved—it’s as if the desire of The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez to entertain, to ensure that we are as spellbound as possible by yet another example of the atrocities that humans are capable of, is greater than any need to inform and educate.

Network: Netflix

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Review: Netflix’s I Am Not Okay with This Mostly Transcends Its Familiar Concept

The series at its best when characters are hanging out, doing nothing, or struggling with feeling trapped.

2.5

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I Am Not Okay with This
Photo: Netflix

Seventeen-year-old Sydney Novak (Sophia Lillis) has powers that she can’t quite control. In Netflix’s adaptation of Charles Forsman’s graphic novel I Am Not Okay with This, those powers become a metaphor for such stock things as mental illness, social discomfort, emotional repression, body changes, sexual discovery, and adolescence in general. Even putting aside the obvious superhero comparisons, there are other parallels, to Carrie and, in turn, Netflix’s own Stranger Things, which shares some producers with this series. But by focusing on the emotional turmoil deftly conveyed by its cast and leaning on a wicked sense of humor, I Am Not Okay with This mostly transcends its pat concept.

Some of the credit goes to Lillis, who spends much of the series glowering in the camera’s general direction. She’s expressive without ever losing that root of discontent and exasperation, as you can always see things like anxiety, bemusement, and concern poking through her disaffected exterior. Even before Sydney develops wayward telekinesis, she has a lot to contend with, such as her mother, Maggie (Kathleen Rose Perkins), having to work long hours at a diner in order to keep the lights on. Sydney is also infatuated with her best friend and only real confidante, Dina (Sofia Bryant), and the two have drifted apart as the latter has begun spending more time with her douchey boyfriend, Brad (Richard Ellis).

And so, Sydney starts hanging out with her eccentric neighbor and local weed dealer, Stan (Wyatt Olef), whose weird outfits and ever-pining ways recall Ducky from Pretty in Pink. But the show’s wry tone ends up closer to that of Heathers than that of the John Hughes classic: Though the ‘80s-teen-movie-plus-superpowers mash-up is almost certainly the intended hook for I Am Not Okay with This, what resonates most is its general sense of ennui. Sydney and Stan in particular are low-income kids in a town that’s far from well-to-do; when Maggie works late, she leaves enough money behind for Sydney and her little brother, Liam (Aidan Wojtak-Hissong), to subsist on convenience store hot dogs. Beyond have sex, do drugs, and listen to music, there’s little to do in this town but head to the school and listlessly watch the football games. For Sydney and Stan, their hometown is a trap that’s slowly snapping shut.

Forsman’s source material is quite bleak, with a spare style of simple character designs and roomy panels sprinkled with snappy, abrasive snippets of dialogue and narration. Though series creators Jonathan Entwistle (who also worked on another adaptation of a Forsman graphic novel, The End of the F***ing World) and Christy Hall depart significantly from the comic at times, they nevertheless maintain its feel, especially in those moments when characters are hanging out and leave so many things unspoken. Sydney’s surly narration moves things along at a wonderfully brisk pace that’s faithful to the original material. Of the seven episodes, most of them clock in at around 20 minutes; they leave plenty of space to suggest angst and disillusionment around the edges without simply wallowing in misery.

Unfortunately, I Am Not Okay with This is so good at establishing character and place that the rumblings of a larger plot feel extraneous. Sydney thinks somebody might be following her, and there are some lingering questions and mysteries meant to carry over into a future season. But the series never feels like it needs these threads; most of the moments where it sets up higher-stakes conflicts, particularly where Brad is concerned, sputter into silly romantic melodrama. It’s at its best when the characters are hanging out, doing nothing, or struggling with feeling trapped or bottling up what they want to say to each other. It’s disappointing to see the first season wrap up with an apparent attempt to chase the shadow of Stranger Things, as its atmosphere and rich characters are what set this otherwise familiar story apart.

Cast: Sophia Lillis, Wyatt Oleff, Sofia Bryant, Kathleen Rose Perkins, Richard Ellis, Aidan Wojtak-Hissong Network: Netflix

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Review: Amazon’s Hunters Blends Comedy and Violence to Diminishing Returns

The series is so ploddingly manufactured from familiar parts that it feels like it was spat out by an algorithm.

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Hunters
Photo: Christopher Saunders

Following a group of vigilantes in hot pursuit of Nazis living in 1977 New York, Amazon’s Hunters is so ploddingly manufactured from familiar parts that it feels like it was spat out by an algorithm. The show’s setting provides no shortage of bright, hokey Americana and ironic needle drops set to bloody violence. The late ‘70s is long enough ago to evoke nostalgia while simultaneously nodding toward our enduring obsessions, as the characters make reference to Star Wars and rarely shut up about various superheroes.

Comic store clerk Jonah Heidelbaum (Logan Lerman) has that most time-tested of motivations for seeking vengeance: avenging a dead woman. Unbeknownst to Jonah, his grandmother, Ruth (Jeannie Berlin), worked in a Nazi-hunting crew with her fellow Holocaust refugee, Meyer Offerman (Al Pacino). After Granny is mysteriously murdered, Jonah learns of her double life and joins up with Meyer’s ragtag band of vigilantes in pursuit of justice.

Meyer’s crew is a diverse bunch, made up of young and old alike. As the youngest, 19-year-old Jonah is considered something of a liability due to his inexperience, as well as his tendency to let his emotions run high. So begins the usual adjustment period for the proverbial hothead, in which he learns to fight while doing the expected bits of soul-searching once he discovers that killing people is, in fact, a messy business. More excruciatingly predictable flourishes follow: Somebody tells him relationships are baggage, someone else refers to Meyer’s group as “judge, jury, and executioner,” and an F.B.I. agent (Jerrika Hinton) naturally sniffs around, potentially mucking up the works of their well-oiled Nazi-hunting machine.

None of this is a jumping-off point for some complex meditation on vengeance, as the series largely consists of scenes of ironical Nazi comeuppance sandwiched between the sort of uninspired character drama where people wash blood off their hands while discussing the powers of good and evil. The show’s investigative segments are so obvious that they border on laughable, since the Nazis leave things like their medals and trophies of Jewish children’s teeth lying around (there’s even a jovial photo of one character hanging out with Adolf Hitler).

At certain points, Hunters seems like it’s trying to evoke the comparatively simple storytelling of early comic books or exploitation films of the ‘70s era like, say, Death Wish. Cutaways place the characters in fake movie trailers with superhero-esque names, using bursts of comedy and karmic violence to create a somewhat heightened tone. But the series never reconciles these rather sporadic moments of levity with its default mode of turgid drama, where Jonah broods about what he’s done or how he’s affecting the people closest to him.

Though the series doesn’t shy away from depicting how Nazis dehumanized Jews, it also feels the bizarre need to cartoonishly heighten those atrocities. In flashbacks, we see concentration camp prisoners forced to serve as literal pawns in a human chess game, stabbing one another to capture a “piece.” Another camp broadcasts a live singing contest over the speakers, with losers eliminated one by one. Where Inglourious Basterds and even the recent Wolfenstein games manage to ground their flights of fancy in unexpected sincerity and tragedy, Hunters traffics in insipid dramatic cliché. The result is by-the-numbers drama that veers every so often into baffling pulp, as though the series is cobbled together from mismatched parts.

Hunters clearly aims to be subversive and of the moment, but its every element feels so calculated as to be nauseatingly safe. Its villains are broadly acceptable targets, its moral conflict feels obligatory, and its forward-facing monologues about diversity seem designed only to mark off a checklist. The series makes the occasional gesture to present-day politics, as when one character incongruously name-checks “false news,” but it’s otherwise content merely to skim the surface of these parallels in service of an easily marketable premise. Though clearly gifted with more time and money than any of the exploitation films it references, Hunters has only a fraction of the things to say.

Cast: Logan Lerman, Al Pacino, Jerrika Hinton, Lena Olin, Saul Rubinek, Carol Kane, Josh Radnor, Greg Austin, Tiffany Boone, Louis Ozawa, Kate Mulvany, Dylan Baker, Jeannie Berlin Network: Amazon

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Every BoJack Horseman Episode, Ranked

As the series comes to a conclusion, we take a look back and rank all 77 episodes.

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Every BoJack Horseman Episode Ranked
Photo: Netflix

Netflix’s BoJack Horseman is about many things. How we make sense of a senseless world. How we find happiness amid constant crisis. How we assert and give others power. That’s a lot for any show, let alone the animated misadventures of a famous horseman, one whose life stands on the razor’s edge of celebrity privilege and deeply internalized emotional self-abuse. Contending with BoJack Horseman, now as it comes to its conclusion, has meant contending with my own life these past six years, which have been made markedly better by this series. This exercise would have been much more difficult had the final episodes failed to deliver. (Spoiler alert: They don’t.)



Bojack Horseman

77. “BoJack Hates the Troops,” Season 1, Episode 2

First, let me be clear: I love this episode, which feels like an early performance by a beloved artist who went on to greater and more daring things. Maybe there’s a note or two out of place. Maybe they aren’t stretching their talent as much as you think they can. BoJack’s (Will Arnett) profound pettiness makes him an asshole to many—here, it’s the contested dibs over a box of muffins at the grocery store that lands our remorseful horse in the national spotlight—and it’s admirable how this episode leads the charge in painting that fact unambiguously. In a way, it feels like a foundation stone of sorts (one of several), featuring as it does BoJack’s decision to open up to Diane (Alison Brie) for his memoir. Full truth: From here, mountains are made.



Bojack Horseman

76. “Sabrina’s Christmas Wish”

The mere existence of this holiday episode made it unambiguous that BoJack Horseman was created out of love. Further enriching the world so thoughtfully laid out in the first season, this metatextual holiday episode, in which BoJack and Todd (Aaron Paul) watch one of the Christmas episodes from Horsin’ Around, came as an unannounced Christmas gift in 2014. It also, hopefully, satisfies those who will inevitably be curious about what a proper episode of the show-within-the-show looks like, and Todd’s four-word refutation (“I can’t, can’t I?”) of BoJack’s faulty logic stands with the funniest moments of the series.



Bojack Horseman

75. “The BoJack Horseman Show,” Season 3, Episode 2

A novel exposition dump, this episode goes back to 2007, when BoJack and Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), a cat, first slept together. Its title refers to the name of BoJack’s sophomore TV series, a vulgar satire that tanked and was promptly canceled. This episode also lays general groundwork for episodes and seasons to come. Lots of obvious references abound—e.g., Princess Carolyn pitches scripts for No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, though films actually being shopped around at that time instead of those just arriving in theaters might’ve been a better touch—not unlike a Trojan horse for the ongoing world building. The highlight herein is an updated version of the show’s end credits song, adapted to underscore BoJack’s much less successful follow-up to Horsin’ Around.



Bojack Horseman

74. “The BoJack Horseman Story, Chapter One,” Season 1, Episode 1

This first episode doesn’t get its due. Brilliantly juxtaposing scenes from BoJack’s interview on The Charlie Rose Show with a gotcha shot from this world’s version of Maury, this first look at BoJack’s anxiety-ridden existence had the difficult task of establishing the show’s very particular tone (think Chuck Jones meets Don Hertzfeldt meets Albert Brooks) while also making blatant the sadness beneath it. The serious and silly rub shoulders here, like travelers on a crowded bus trip. It’s subversive, too, in warning against the dangers of over-binging; BoJack re-watches his old show obsessively, including the finale in which his character dies, at the expense of almost everything else in his life. This episode features Patton Oswalt in three parts, a Sellers-esque stunt that will prove to be one of the show’s regular hat tricks, while the closing gag exhibits the raw confidence required to deploy both guffaws and sobs with such simultaneous precision. In hindsight, it’s no surprise.



Bojack Horseman

73. “Zoës and Zeldas,” Season 1, Episode 4

It was a small stroke of genius to introduce early in the series a pop-cultural dichotomy specific to this world. Leonard Cohen sang of a bird on a wire, and here the either/or stems from characters on Mister Peanutbutter’s House, a knockoff of BoJack’s sitcom in which the eponymous canine raised two little girls: Zelda, a fun extrovert, and Zoë, a cynical introvert. This episode features some of BoJack’s funniest quips and nastiest deeds. As for Todd’s rock opera, I’d be lying if I suggested that I didn’t want to see it brought to greater fruition. This episode does a lot of prep work for the season and the series, and does it well, while Wyatt Cenac’s performance as one of Diane’s exes provides a weary vantage point, effectively underscoring what makes this world feel so emotionally real in the first place.



Bojack Horseman

72. “BoJack Kills,” Season 3, Episode 3

Plot-wise, this is a lowkey key episode in the series, establishing the source of the heroin that ultimately causes Sarah Lynn’s death. That would be Richie Osborne (Fred Savage), former Horsin’ Around cast member and current proprietor of Whale World, a family-friendly strip club that doubles as a drug front. BoJack and Diane get to catch up and establish a greater understanding of themselves (“I can’t keep asking myself if I’m happy, it just makes me more miserable,” says Diane, summarizing my 30s so far in 14 words), but my favorite moment is probably the chef’s-kiss perfection of Mister Peanutbutter’s LL Cool J reference (a close second is Angela Bassett’s line delivery on “you betcha”).



Bojack Horseman

71. “Our A-Story Is a ‘D’ Story,” Season 1, Episode 6

If BoJack Horseman’s flair for wordplay wasn’t already clear, this episode is tantamount to a flag planted on the moon for all to see. Hollywood becomes Hollywoo when BoJack steals the “D” from the Hollywood sign in a drunken stupor, all in the hopes of impressing Diane after squaring off with Mister Peanutbutter—and buying the restaurant Elefante in the process. Todd, having found himself in prison at the end of the previous episode, navigates the various gangs courting him in sublimely naïve fashion, while BoJack’s backup plan to fix the “D” situation results in a tragedy befalling Beyoncé and, relatedly, one of the very best verbal gags in the entire series.

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Review: Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet Takes Aim at the Gaming Industry

The series dives into megalomania and workplace chaos with eccentric, frenzied energy.

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Mythic Quest
Photo: Apple TV+

The titular video game in Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet is a phenomenal success. Mythic Quest boasts tens of millions of players and, perhaps more impressive, the invaluable endorsement of Pootie Shoe (Elisha Henig), a young streamer with tremendous clout. Pootie praises the game in delectably over-the-top live streams; he’s both crudely inclusive (he shouts out LGBTQ fans, or “Pootie Fruities”) and just crude (he rates games on a “b-hole” scale, four being outstanding). Even Rachel (Ashly Burch) and Dana (Imani Hakim), the studio’s quality assurance testers, steadfastly love the game, despite the fact that they spend all day, every day cooped up in a small room playing it to discover bugs.

One could be forgiven for assuming that Mythic Quest’s universal acclaim has been earned by a diligent, well-oiled, in-sync team of creatives and business people. But the studio behind the game, it turns out, is a site of enormous turbulence. The mayhem trickles down from the top: Mythic Quest’s creator, the vainglorious auteur Ian Grimm (Rob McElhenney), whose every whim is sacrosanct. When lead engineer Poppy Li (Charlotte Nicdao) designs a shovel with which players can exert unprecedented influence over their environments in the game (by digging), Ian isn’t satisfied. The shovel, he says, should also be able to kill things—and his desire to get the feature just right threatens to push back the release date for the game’s imminent expansion, to the ire of Poppy and others in Ian’s orbit.

The Apple TV+ show, co-created by Rob McElhenney and his It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia co-star Charlie and executive producer Megan Ganz, often resembles the FXX series in its energy. Minor issues escalate feverishly, as characters cross wires and talk at rather than with each other. Some of the studio’s higher-ups are unbothered by the dysfunction, like soulless monetizer Brad Bakshi (Danny Pudi) and writer C.W. Longbottom (F. Murray Abraham), a slimy, old-timey fantasy author. But Poppy is consistently exasperated, as is David Brittlesbee (David Hornsby), the game’s meek executive producer. Others thrive on the chaos, like Ian (it seems to foster his creativity) and Jo (Jessie Ennis), David’s mercurial assistant. Conflict brings the worst out of her, to uproarious effect. When the studio’s coders threaten to unionize, she shouts, “The workers are grist for the mill!”

The first half of the season leverages these characters less as nuanced people than as bundles of eccentricities. The most notable exceptions are Poppy, Rachel, and Dana, who prove more humane and grounded than the megalomaniacal or otherwise maladjusted men around them. The video game industry is as tenaciously male-dominated here as it is in reality, and by dialing up the worst tendencies of the men in the studio—C.W.’s casual sexism, David’s faux man-of-the-people shtick, Ian’s remarkable ability to hear whatever he wants when Poppy speaks to him—the series smartly satirizes a world in desperate need of overhaul.

The second half of the season more deeply examines the ambitions and fears of its characters, as well as the video game industry’s power dynamics. Poppy’s frustration builds as she’s constantly spoken over and ignored not only by Ian, but also by the other men she works with, and C.W. wonders if the development of A.I. writing has rendered him obsolete. Eventually, Ian meets with a long-estranged family member in a scene that’s equally poignant and hilarious. But not all of these arcs are sufficiently thought out. When the coders prepare to strike for overtime pay, which infuriates Jo, Grimm secures their demands in an off-screen call to corporate. The conclusion serves to convey Grimm’s cachet but feels reductive, particularly given how widespread and entrenched abusive labor practices continue to be in the industry.

Separating the two halves of the season is its best episode, “A Dark Quiet Death.” Directed by McElhenney, it’s a significant tonal shift that centers on understated rather than exaggerated characters. The episode follows two video game developers (Cristin Milioti and Jake Johnson) with no apparent connection to Ian or anyone else in the series, beginning with their meeting in 1993 and extending through their work on an indie passion project. This isn’t an uninspired entry in the expanding genre of “watching Jake Johnson fall in love with people”; Johnson and Milioti’s chemistry is wildly charming, and their relationship grows increasingly gripping as the duo navigates questions of artistic integrity and corporate oversight.

The episode’s virtuosity is a bit awkward, in that the season’s apex is the piece that least fits in with the whole. But the intermission, of sorts, comes to feel like the crux of the matter: It’s the necessary historical context for Ian and Poppy’s working relationship, for Ian’s unwavering devotion to the product of his vision, for the stakes of his call to corporate on behalf of his employees. Though the episode is self-contained, it infuses the rest of the season with subtle weight and sympathy. It suggests that, by virtue of their striving for lasting art and legacy, Mythic Quest’s borderline sociopaths are, if barely, on the right side of irredeemable.

Cast: Rob McElhenney, Charlotte Nicdao, David Hornsby, F. Murray Abraham, Jessie Ennis, Danny Pudi, Elisha Henig, Imani Hakim, Ashly Burch, Caitlin McGee Network: Apple TV+

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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.

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The New Pope
Photo: Gianni Fiorito/HBO

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

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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.

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Hannibal
Photo: NBC

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



Portlandia

50. Portlandia

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



House of Cards

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



Jessica Jones

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



Killing Eve

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

46. Sherlock

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



Ramy

45. Ramy

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



Treme

44. Treme

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



The Handmaid’s Tale

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



High Maintenance

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



Primal

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

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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

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The Outsider
Photo: Bob Mahoney/HBO

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

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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

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Dracula
Photo: Netflix

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

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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

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The Witcher
Photo: Katalin Vermes/Netflix

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

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