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Review: Russian Doll Resists Becoming a Simplistic Morality Tale

The Netflix show’s premise is like a playfully morbid Escher painting.

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Russian Doll
Photo: Netflix

The premise of Russian Doll, in which Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) keeps dying during her 36th birthday party only to awaken each time at the start of the night, suggests a playfully morbid Escher painting. In one episode, Nadia dies multiple times by falling down the same staircase and snapping her neck; in another, she learns her lesson and avoids the stairs by using the fire escape, only to later choke on a chicken wing. The character’s repetitive 24-hour cycle provides a showcase for Lyonne: The actress, uniquely suited to play a sardonic New Yorker such as Nadia, highlights the dark comedy of the character’s situation as well as her lingering emotional damage.

Nadia eventually meets Alan (Charlie Barnett), a man who also keeps dying, and together they hunt for a way out of their peculiar situation. The discoveries they make along the way don’t always make logical sense—in part because, while Alan has some vaguely compulsive tendencies, the series isn’t specific about his personal issues. Although Nadia and Alan begin to grasp that their salvation may depend on confronting their emotional and mental damage, the series never quite provides an answer for exactly how they found themselves in these loops to begin with. Do these cycles befall other people besides Nadia and Alan? Are they an act of god? Does it all have to do with Nadia’s cat, who has recently gone missing?

The fact that Russian Doll doesn’t address the specific root of Nadia’s predicament, though, invites a number of interpretations. And by glossing over the precise details of its central mystery, the series resists reducing Nadia’s quest to a simplistic morality tale. She can be vulgar, unfiltered, and even cruel. She also indulges in a breadth of vices. Without ever suggesting that she must alter herself to meet the expectations of others, though, Russian Doll maintains an astute understanding of which aspects of Nadia are permanent and which are malleable. It suggests that the parts of her that need changing, like her self-loathing and emotional numbness, relate primarily to her own happiness rather than virtue or goodness. In a philosophical conversation with between her and Alan, the series seems to make the case that morality is relative, amorphous, and immaterial.

In resisting convenient lesson-teaching, Russian Doll sustains its central mystery and never collapses into saccharine didacticism. There’s no checklist for Nadia to attend to in order to free herself, no great wrongs that need righting. She must get better, but not necessarily to be better—though, in some instances, she does that as well. And while the resolution of her predicament is somewhat vague, it remains sweetly fulfilling, because, while the series deals in opaque supernaturalism, its protagonist is easy to root for as she fumbles toward happiness.

Cast: Natasha Lyonne, Yul Vazquez, Elizabeth Ashley, Greta Lee, Charlie Barnett Airtime: Netflix

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Review: HBO’s O.G. Mistakes Ambiguity for Profundity

The HBO film’s ostensible authenticity does little to add dramatic heft to its stock character moments.

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O.G.
Photo: HBO

Though Madeleine Sackler’s O.G. stars familiar faces like Jeffrey Wright, William Fichtner, and Mare Winningham, much of its cast is filled out by people currently incarcerated in or working at Indiana’s Pendleton Correctional Facility, the real prison where the HBO film was shot. This approach promises a degree of authenticity, a departure from the average prison melodrama, but it’s one that never quite coalesces.

The film’s screenplay, by playwright Stephen Belber, is at its best when it focuses on the daily life of Louis, a prison inmate played with weathered intensity by Wright. Louis is an old hand at prison politics, with the details of his incarceration and his character slowly spooned out over the course of the film. He used to run the place, but now he’s up for parole, and he glides into various modes depending on whether he needs to glean information from a fellow inmate or assert himself when challenged by another. Throughout O.G., one gets the sense that Louis didn’t get to the top of the prison’s pecking order by being the strongest, but because he knows when to shut up and when to show strength.

Louis crosses paths with Beecher (Theothus Carter), who’s being eyed for prison gang membership, and takes the relucant young inmate under his wing. In another film, Beecher might have been the character through which we experience life at Pendleton, with Louis as the wizened mentor showing him the ropes. A reversal of this perspective is O.G.’s lone trick, though it’s not exactly a novel one: Louis’s guilt about his past and his view of Beecher as an abstract means to make amends are decidedly familiar developments.

O.G.’s ostensible authenticity does little to add dramatic heft to these stock character moments. Wright does most of the heavy lifting here, weaponizing glances and gestures to impart a weary history that the film fails to develop. Louis’s advice to Beecher—to not get involved with gangs—is tinged with hypocrisy given his own checkered past within the prison community, yet O.G. only hints at such complexities, mistaking ambiguity for profundity.

The film is low-key, lacking in big speeches and showy drama. Partially, that’s a bid for realism, a pushback against the standard prison narrative of so many films and TV shows. The inmates featured in O.G. aren’t in a position to do much more than pass anonymously through the system, but Sackler and Belber’s approach isn’t used to make any larger point. In many ways, the circumstance of the film’s creation is its most intriguing element, yet it also results in its greatest hindrance: an inoffensiveness that never spurs the audience to ask hard questions about the U.S. prison system. (One also suspects that this toothlessness emerges in no small part from the filmmakers’ collaboration with agents of that very system.) O.G. is inevitably no more illuminating than any other narrative dramatization of prison life. Its lone innovation: being built on the labor of the people whose story it purports to tell.

Cast: Jeffrey Wright, Theothus Carter, William Fichtner, Boyd Holbrook, Mare Winningham, David Patrick Kelly, Yul Vazquez Airtime: HBO

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The Best Netflix Original Series to Watch Right Now, Ranked

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

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The 25 Best Netflix Original Shows
Photo: Netflix

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


Santa Clarita Diet

25. Santa Clarita Diet

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


Marvel's Luke Cage

24. Luke Cage

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


Lady Dynamite

23. Lady Dynamite

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


The Crown

22. The Crown

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


Seven Seconds

21. Seven Seconds

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


Marvel's Daredevil

20. Daredevil

More important than even its patient sense of characterization, Netflix’s striking adaptation of Daredevil offered the first fully cohesive style in a Marvel Comics adaptation. The show’s shadowy aesthetic potently reflects the perspective of the hero himself, Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), the blind lawyer turned righteous street-level vigilante. Considering that most superheroes begin as local crime fighters, it’s astonishing that Netflix produced the first Marvel adaptation that has the unmistakable, authenticate feeling of small-scale community and neighborhood geography, one that helps cultivate an outraged civilian into an emblematic hero. Cabin


Easy

19. Easy

Joe Swanberg’s Easy is about sex even and especially when it doesn’t appear to be. Each episode offers a self-contained narrative about characters who live in the filmmaker’s home city of Chicago, wrestling with how obligation and class identity bleed into their interactions with their lovers. The series is organized around theme rather than a narrative arc, and that fact alone suggests a looseness, an openness, of which this age of television is in need. Contemporary prestige dramas—i.e., shows produced on newer cable stations or directly for streaming, targeting millennials, Gen-Xers, and media critics—have grown adept at merging the tropes of soap operas with the platitudes of history books with the higher, often impersonal production values of films released during Oscar season. What Swanberg brings to the medium is his sense of cinema as a self-critical gateway toward achieving an empathetic awareness of microscopic need. Bowen


House of Cards

18. 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. 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. Cabin


American Vandal

17. American Vandal

“Who drew the dicks?” That memorable phrase from season one of American Vandal highlighted the juxtaposition between the mockumentary series’s hilarious central mystery—the culprit behind the spray-painting of penises on cars in a high school parking lot—and its grim, straight-faced tone. And in its second season, the series swapped out dick jokes for poop jokes, trafficking in scatological humor that varied between hilariously extreme and extremely grotesque. As the season wore on, its plot veered unexpectedly into a dark but resonant portrayal of the perils of social media. Eventually, the hunt for the Turd Burglar culminates with a truly transgressive event at St. Bernadine that recalls a number of notable real-life internet privacy violations. This final prank, if it can even be called that, ushers in a timely portrayal of internet crime, but the moment is tonally jarring, and perhaps too grimly realistic to qualify as comedy. As the second season approached its conclusion, it became harder to ascertain what exactly, beyond poop, American Vandal finds funny. Haigis


She's Gotta Have It

16. She’s Gotta Have It

There’s a sense in Spike Lee’s filmography of a scolding intellectual seeking to outrun his demons with the cathartic power of style. As with many recent Lee productions, Netflix’s She’s Gotta Have It is so formally exhilarating that the sensorial often overrides the textural. Updating the adventures of Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise) for woke millennials, the series is awash in bursts of expressionist color, on-screen text, the breaking of the fourth wall, and riffs that allow Lee to revel in the actors’ chemistry and in the intuitive power of his own imagination, leading to tones that daringly crash into one another as satire, agitprop, and melodrama merge. Lee’s a preacher who can get down with the get down, and his simultaneous sense of control and of free-wheeling spontaneity suggests a weary common sense born of experience. It’s an experience that the filmmaker hadn’t yet attained when he made the original She’s Gotta Have It in 1986. Now, more than 30 years later, his sensibility offers hope for a country riven by ignorance and hatred. Bowen


Stranger Things

15. Stranger Things

Jonathan Rosenbaum once described Luis Buñuel’s The Milky Way as coming “dangerously close to being all notations and no text.” The same could be said about the first season of Stranger Things, practically a rollcall of references to the Duffer brothers’ favorite pop-cultural artifacts. But in Stranger Things 2, the notations are more intricately intertwined with the text. In the season’s first episode, when Max (Sadie Sink) walks into class on her first day of school and takes her seat, Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and his three best buds all turn in unison to look at her—and Gary Paxton’s “Spooky Movies” drops on the soundtrack, to comically underline the point that the boys have been simultaneously haunted by a new crush. Later, when Max’s abusive older step-brother, Billy (Dacre Montgomery), arrives at school, the camera joins two female high schoolers in leering at his behind—a spectacle of tongue-in-cheek objectification that’s hell-bent on flipping the script on the representational politics of, say, a Whitesnake music video. And throughout the season, such cheekiness was perpetually in service of complementing the show’s still-obsessive and often haunting fixation on kinship and the after effects of trauma. Ed Gonzalez


Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return

14. Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return

The chief draw of Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return is the raw exuberance that new host Jonah Ray and the bots express for every new image and line of dialogue. Hampton Yount, Baron Vaughn, and Ray breathlessly comment on everything in the frame at a breakneck pace that would give whiplash to the Satellite of Love crew of the late ’80s. They turn edits, zooms, and reveals into their own form of sight gag, teeing up the movie to complete jokes for them. They’re literally in conversation with the mechanics of the films, alerting viewers to grammar and technique in a way that not even the sharpest Mike Nelson episodes would. Scout Tafoya


The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

13. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

As she exhibited on 30 Rock, Tina Fey has a formula: Tell a thousand jokes, tell them in all shapes and sizes, and tell them at a rapid-fire pace. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt‘s bingeability owes in large part to this “make ’em laugh by any means possible” philosophy. It also allows for a certain amount of forgiveness: If a joke is stale or dated (and plenty are), one need only wait a few seconds for the next pun or gag to make our memory of a comedic faceplant fade. After three seasons, the series, co-created by Fey and Robert Carlock, remains as much of a beautiful mess as ever. Its bright, kooky universe is stuffed with enough zingers to fill an entire season of CBS programming. Julia Selinger


Marve's Jessica Jones

12. Jessica Jones

Jessica Jones breaks so many molds, and with such brio, that it feels almost super-heroic. If the violence on 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. Gonzalez


Ozark

11. Ozark

Ozark delights in toying with our expectations. Its first big reveal is that the central characters, financial advisor Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman, whose natural trustworthiness nicely complicates the man’s buttoned-down efficiency) and his wife, Wendy (Laura Linney), aren’t the porn-addicted shyster and clueless, cheery wife and mother that they initially appear to be. More stereotypes are subverted when, in a desperate ploy to save himself and his family after skimming cash from a drug-lord client, Marty spirits Wendy and their two kids to the Ozarks, expecting to find a safe hiding place and plenty of easy marks for a scheme that will allow him to pay back the drug lord. Instead, through a rapid series of downward-spiraling twists, Marty gets stuck between the rock of a south-of-the-border drug cartel and the hard place of an equally vicious hillbilly one. His family, his business associates, and the other people he encounters almost never just go along with Marty’s plan, their own agendas getting in the way of his and further complicating the fast-moving plot. But not all of his surprises are bad ones. Adversity knits together his beloved family, and they find at least one friend in the Ozarks, Julia Garner’s Ruth, who’s becoming a powerful, though conflicted, ally. Nakhnikian


Russian Doll

10. Russian Doll

The premise of Russian Doll, in which Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) keeps dying during her 36th birthday party only to awaken each time at the start of the night, suggests a playfully morbid Escher painting. The fact that the show doesn’t address the specific root of Nadia’s predicament invites a number of interpretations. And by glossing over the precise details of its central mystery, the series resists reducing Nadia’s quest to a simplistic morality tale. She can be vulgar, unfiltered, and even cruel. She also indulges in a breadth of vices. Without ever suggesting that she must alter herself to meet the expectations of others, though, Russian Doll maintains an astute understanding of which aspects of Nadia are permanent and which are malleable. It suggests that the parts of her that need changing, like her self-loathing and emotional numbness, relate primarily to her own happiness rather than virtue or goodness. In a philosophical conversation with between her and Alan (Charlie Barnett), a man who also keeps dying, the series seems to make the case that morality is relative, amorphous, and immaterial. Haigis


Orange Is the New Black

9. Orange Is the New Black

To say that the strongest season of Orange Is the New Black, its fourth, ended on an over-determined note would be an understatement. Many gears were set into motion so that the death of one of the show’s most beloved characters could reverberate with the frustrations that drive the Black Lives Matter movement, and the process was one that felt as if it had been workshopped to death. As it has been throughout its six seasons to date, the series is more confident, less manipulative, when exposing its characters’ public hang-ups and private strengths—attributes these individuals deploy toward either virtuous or nefarious ends. And in season four, it also bloomed in its depiction of Lori Petty’s Lolly, empathetically observing the dimensions of her mental illness. Indeed, Orange Is the New Black proved itself to be more sublime than ever when focused on the micro, intuitively recognizing that even the little joys that prison life can bring to an inmate are deceptive, as they too hinge on a relinquishing of power. Gonzalez


Sense8

8. Sense8

Like much of the Wachowskis’ work, Sense8 is a series of extremes. Hold a gun to my head and I still wouldn’t be able to make sense of the ins and outs of the show’s overarching plot, about a mysterious organization hunting down eight strangers who come to realize that they’re telepathically connected to one another. But that plot, even at its most abstruse and ridiculous, is understood as nothing more than an excuse to foist the eight sensates in and out of each other’s exquisitely melodramatic lives so as to make a case in favor of empathy. The show’s power resides in its pop-operatically earnest belief that there’s only ecstasy in embracing the superficial differences of background, race, language, and more that divide us. Gonzalez


Master of None

7. Master of None

The first season of Master of None focused mainly on food-obsessed metrosexual Dev’s (Aziz Ansari) prototypically millennial attempts to attain a solid footing in his love and work lives, with his stabs at making it in showbiz sometimes complicated by his Indian-American ethnicity. This season, Dev’s career and love life more often retreated into the background to make room for other issues—and other points of view. One episode, “New York City, I Love You,” shifted between a series of characters, like doormen and cab drivers, who generally appear only in passing in Dev’s travels through the city, and Dev was just a supporting character in “Thanksgiving,” a delicately told tale of how his friend, Denise (Lena Waithe), came out as gay, first to him and then to her mother and grandmother. Those two standout episodes, plus bits in others like Dev’s decision to out himself as a pork eater to his Muslim parents, transformed Master of None from a very good rom-com about late adolescence in urban America to a rallying cry for the soul of the nation. Nakhnikian


The Haunting of Hill House

6. The Haunting of Hill House

Created, written, and directed by Mike Flanagan, who’s unmatched in his ability to tune audiences into the strain and intensity of characters’ tortured psyches, The Haunting of Hill House is less than an adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 gothic horror novel of the same name than an echo of it. The series, at least until its disarmingly hopeful finale, leaves you with a depressing and melancholy impression that there may actually be no escape from whatever it is that’s haunting the Crain family. And there’s a sense that all five of the Crain siblings seem to understand as much, each and every one of them throwing themselves into their work or shrinking into their addictions, sometimes both, as if hoping to discover something to the contrary. It’s as they’re all perpetually standing on a bridge between the real and the ethereal, uncertain of where to go. Gonzalez


Mindhunter

5. Mindhunter

Netflix’s Mindhunter offers a fictionalized portrait of the birth of criminal psychology and profiling. The year is 1977, the term “serial killer” hasn’t been coined yet, and the word “stressor” must be explained to a district attorney. The cast informs executive producer David Fincher and creator Joe Penhall’s sociological schematic with a human element that’s unusual for a crime procedural. Old-school F.B.I. agent Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) grows to be the show’s conscience, which allows Mindhunter to critique the racism and classism of the F.B.I. without glibly ridiculing the organization, as McCallany elegantly dramatizes the pain of sensing that one’s understanding of a way of life is on its way out. Meanwhile, Tench’s new partner, Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), revolutionizes our understanding of mass murderers at the potential expense of his own capacity for intimacy. The series merges Fincher’s visuals with theatrically literate dialogue, illustrating language’s terrifying control over our fragile grasp of reality. Bowen


GLOW

4. GLOW

In Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch’s exhilaratingly bawdy and empathetic GLOW, frustrated actresses are liberated by reveling in male fantasies of whores and housewives, as the series concerns the unresolvable irony of finding freedom by assuming control of one’s own means of social reduction. Set in the 1980s, GLOW follows the formation of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, which embraces wrestling’s propensity for racial and sexual stereotypes. Ruth “Zoya the Destroya” Wilder (Alison Brie) anchors the series, with her moving desperation to confirm her talent as an actor, but the breakout characters are Debbie “Liberty Belle” Eagan (Betty Gilpin), a former soap opera star who realizes that wrestling is just a soap for men, and Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron), a has-been B-movie director who coaches the ladies through their transformations, merging his fantasies with their own. GLOW‘s poignancy stems from how Sylvia casually comes to see that he, an alcoholic womanizer on the fringes of the entertainment industry, shares something vital with his objectified performers: a yearning for scrappy grace, and a hustler’s understanding of sensationalism as the manna of American life. Bowen


Big Mouth

3. Big Mouth

It feels reductive to call Big Mouth a public service, because no one thinks of public services as being thoughtful, funny, or full of illustrated penises. But the Netflix cartoon’s brazen approach to sexuality is as hilarious as it is heartfelt, a plea to normalize the behavior and bodily functions that society has taught us to hide in shame. To do it for the kids, because the kids of Big Mouth sure could use a more understanding world to grow up in. Puberty for them may have a distinct surplus of hairy monsters and horny ghosts, but their confusion and anxiety rings as unfortunately true as any teen drama ever has. If the first season introduced all the apparitions that symbolized the kids’ new urges and thought processes, the second tasks them with something even more difficult: adjusting to the fact that those things are all here to stay. Even the new addition of the seemingly malevolent dildo connoisseur the Shame Wizard isn’t here to be defeated so much as eventually accommodated. While lives and relationships change, season two of Big Mouth demonstrates how we all learn to survive with those wizards, ghosts, and monsters whispering in our ears. Steven Scaife


Dear White People

2. Dear White People

The knowingly didactic title of Dear White People is a little misleading. While the show does occasionally address its incisive racial critiques directly to the viewer, the intoxicating quality of Justin Simien’s series comes from a sense of overarching relatability. As with the film that inspired it, Dear White People follows a sprawling cast of college students, united by skin color but individually shaped by distinct experiences. While the series is about the myriad ways they respond to their overwhelmingly white surroundings, its characterizations are complicated by matters that sometimes don’t have to do with race. Rapid-fire humor and energetic direction draw us close to the characters, who begin the series raging against oppression in distinctly academic, hypothetical fashion. By the time student agitations and complaints are proven justified, by the overeager armed campus police who storm into a party late in the first season, the show’s easy rhythm has lulled us enough so that we’re sufficiently shattered by the fallout of the moment. Dear White People shows us passionate individuals crafting their own identities, without ever letting us forget that to do so they are wresting that power from the people who’ve historically done it for them. Haigis


BoJack Horseman

1. BoJack Horseman

Removing envy and titillation from the equation of a Hollywood story, BoJack Horseman homes in on the dwindling of long-term concentration and corresponding expansion of faux self-awareness that’s come to define social media-enabled life in the 21st century. The series isn’t exactly a parody of celebrity culture, but rather of the distractions that feed on our narcissism, encouraging everyone to fancy themselves celebrities at the escalating expense of morality and even common courtesy. It exudes a tough-love sense of humanity that recalls the later comedy of George Carlin. Like Carlin, the series doesn’t take accepted wisdom for granted. All platitudes are fair game for lambasting, including the liberal clichés that are used as a mode of practicing an insidiously fashionable elitism that begets yet another form of social distance. BoJack Horseman is simultaneously melancholic, angry, goofy, playful, and often uproariously funny in a distinctively ineffable what-the-fuck fashion. Bowen

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Review: Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy Slumps Into Mopey Mediocrity

The series is unable to render any of the visual imagination its source material practically begs for.

1.5

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The Umbrella Academy
Christos Kalohoridis/Netflix

So many superhero stories—particularly the gritty Marvel shows in Netflix’s stable—focus on minimizing the weirdness of their characters, streamlining their iconic costumes, and simplifying their origin stories, in order to flaunt a kind of fashionable semi-plausibility. At first, The Umbrella Academy seems to buck this trend by remaining refreshingly off the wall. The series is populated by characters like a talking chimpanzee butler named Pogo (Adam Godley) and time-traveling assassins in children’s masks (Mary J. Blige and Cameron Britton). In the first 10 minutes of the pilot, an impossibly beefy man hangs out on the moon. As the series wears on, though, it reveals itself to be largely incapable of juggling such promising absurdity with the demands of the average TV superhero melodrama.

Adapted from the Eisner-winning Dark Horse comic book drawn by Gabriel Bá and written by My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way, the series sifts through the wreckage of a superhero team that’s less a nuclear family than a family gone nuclear. In 1989, more than 40 women around the world were spontaneously impregnated and gave birth to super-powered children. The mysterious billionaire Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore) adopted seven such children and trained six, sans one apparently without powers, into a crime-fighting team that grew up, grew dysfunctional, and grew apart. The patriarch’s sudden death brings the estranged siblings back together, including the time-traveling Number Five (Aidan Gallagher).

Despite such an audacious premise, The Umbrella Academy quickly slumps into mopey mediocrity, unable to render any of the visual imagination the material practically begs for. Throughout, the action is sloppy, the cinematography is pedestrian, and the production design is gray and largely nondescript. Beyond a ‘50s-flavored donut shop and the apparent nonexistence of cell phones, the series barely bothers to portray its retro setting. There are brief flashes of style, but The Umbrella Academy is largely content to abuse slow-mo and ironic needle-drops. Several drug trips, the hijacking of an ice cream truck, a meeting with God, and other such moments feel more like aberrations than examples of a coherent tone, gestures toward an irreverent personality the series never sustains.

The majority of The Umbrella Academy is marred by fumbled attempts at character development and stilted performances. The protagonists rarely transcend the broadest strokes as the Netflix series dwells on the same few character beats and displays of sibling bickering and mind-numbing romance. Only Robert Sheehan’s anarchic Klaus, who takes drugs to dull his ability to commune with ghosts, and Ellen Page’s frustrated Vanya, who has no powers at all, seem to benefit from the show’s attempts to beef up its breezy source material. Their character arcs are the most heartfelt and relatable, rooted in fear and insecurity.

Occasionally, The Umbrella Academy hits on something profound about feeling inferior, abandoned, and alone, mostly in its flirtations with familial trauma. Reginald Hargreeves was a cold man, and he left lasting emotional and physical scars on each of his children; he referred to them by numbers instead of names. But rather than look to the past, the series advises its characters to let go and focus on what’s in front of them, who they’ve grown into, and how they can heal together. The problem, of course, is that the show’s past seems significantly more interesting than its present, which is confined to the same handful of locations and full of red herrings that delay obvious plot twists.

Way and Bá’s comic exhibits none of the bloat that sinks this adaptation. It’s briskly paced, with exaggerated art and striking colors that perfectly service the story’s unhinged invention and wacky detours. For whatever weirdness the TV series promises at its outset, it ends up as another distended superhero show that smooths out its source material’s idiosyncrasies until little remains of whatever made it appealing in the first place.

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