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Review: The Righteous Gemstones Is an Uneven but Compelling Study of Faith

The series is a compelling and humanizing study of its characters, the faith they profess, and the world they strive to proselytize.

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The Righteous Gemstones
Photo: Fred Norris/HBO

One could frame the premise of The Righteous Gemstones as a question: What if Danny McBride played another unduly self-assured dolt overflowing with machismo—but this time a pastor? Created by McBride, the series initially seems content to coast on the humor of that premise. But it gradually cracks the cynicism with which it frames its characters and their work, offering poignant glimpses into their inner lives. Despite its proclivity for forced, flat subplots, The Righteous Gemstones is a compelling and humanizing study of its characters, the faith they profess, and the world they strive to proselytize.

The series follows the Gemstones, a Southern family of televangelists as successful as they are crass, avaricious, and blasphemous. Led by widowed patriarch Dr. Eli Gemstone (John Goodman), whose network of mega-churches generates millions of dollars a day, the three Gemstone kids help run the family business: prodigal son Jesse (McBride) and boyish goof Kelvin (Adam DeVine) are pastors, while Judy (Edi Patterson) works behind the scenes, her dreams of preaching stifled by a tradition of misogynistic paternalism.

The myriad tensions that boil between the Gemstones are the source of much hilarity, but the show’s non-familial conflicts vary in the quality of their execution. Kelvin’s mission to save the soul of a big donor’s teenage daughter—she parties, curses, and has sex—benefits from its short-and-sweet screen time and inclusion of Kelvin’s right-hand man, Keefe Chambers, an ex-Satanist played by Tony Cavalero, who infuses Keefe’s awkward, deadpan drawl with bewitching earnestness. There’s also the escalating turf war with John Seasons (Dermot Mulroney), the pastor of a parish in which the Gemstones open a new worship center led by Baby Billy (Walter Goggins), Eli’s conniving and just-shy-of-smooth brother-in-law. But most prominent is the far too time-intensive blackmailing of Jesse, a central storyline that almost never warrants the space devoted to it, thanks to its particularly sluggish pacing and the shallow characterization of the lead blackmailer, Scotty (Scott MacArthur).

As the season progresses, the flimsiness of the blackmail plot is rendered all the more conspicuous by the strength of the show’s intra-family drama. Eli has been in a perpetual state of mourning since the death of his wife, Aimee-Leigh (Jennifer Nettles), and his grief distances him from his children, who are constantly at each other’s throats. After the first episode, which suffers from stilted writing that leaves the Gemstone siblings’ relationships feeling rather inorganic, the series settles into a delightful groove of caustic one-liners and the sort of McBrideisms—from characters’ confoundingly lofty language to their intense, unwarranted self-seriousness—that permeate the writer-actor’s work with longtime collaborator Jody Hill. After calling a meeting and, at its start, playing an excruciatingly prolonged series of notes on a xylophone, Jesse says, “Music has always soothed my vicious temper,” with McBride delivering the line wonderfully aware of his character’s ridiculousness. The whole cast pulls from McBride’s playbook and demonstrates similar comedic deftness as their characters add to the show’s manic verbal storm of insults and misplaced haughtiness.

For all the glee that it derives from the cruelty of its characters, though, The Righteous Gemstones refuses to damn them outright. It quietly gives the audience reasons to sympathize with the family and the people in their orbit—or, at least, to feel something closer to sympathy than antipathy: Jesse’s bedtime kisses on his kids’ foreheads; Kelvin’s wholehearted acceptance of Keefe; Judy’s frustration with the family’s sexism; Baby Billy’s wrathful reminder to Eli that he was Aimee-Leigh’s brother before Eli was her husband. These people, the series suggests, might not be charlatans. They seem to believe in what they’re doing, merely practicing their faith, albeit loudly and passionately and opulently. They’re chasing genuine Christian goodness as they conceive it, however dubious that conception may be.

All of the Gemstones have moments of vulnerability, but the series is at its kindest, and most poignant, when exploring Eli’s grief. If his motivations don’t serve God, it’s because they serve Aimee-Leigh, whose memory he labors to honor. At one point, Eli sits alone at a candle-lit dinner table, facing a portrait of him and his late wife. He speaks to her, his tired baritone reaching for nothing, resounding in the silence. Later, after getting into a dust-up with Judy, Eli watches her sing and dance onstage alongside Baby Billy. She’s talented, like her mother was. Eli looks on, smiling for a moment longer than he usually does. The scene’s use of slow motion allows his joy—as well as Judy’s—to last for ages. It’s a stirring, cathartic image that reveals the Gemstones’ squabbles for what they truly are: trifling, fleeting things.

Cast: Danny McBride, John Goodman, Edi Patterson, Adam DeVine, Walton Goggins, Cassidy Freeman, Tim Baltz, Tony Cavalero, Gregory Alan Williams, Skyler Gisondo, Valyn Hall, Scott MacArthur, Dermot Mulroney, Jennifer Nettles, Kelton DuMont, Troy Anthony Hogan, Gavin Munn, James DuMont Network: HBO Buy: Amazon

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

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

2.5

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Japan Sinks 2020
Photo: Netflix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.5

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Little Voice
Photo: Apple TV+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Perry Mason
Photo: HBO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5

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Search Party
Photo: Jon Pack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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Love, Victor
Photo: Mitchell Haaseth/Hulu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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The Woods
Photo: Krzysztof Wiktor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Crossing Swords
Photo: Sony/Hulu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Space Force
Photo: Aaron Epstein/Netflix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5

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The Great
Photo: Hulu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: HBO’s I Know This Much Is True Is an Unrelenting Catalog of Tragedy

The limited series is a carnival of horrors weighed down by moralizing, hysteria, and cross-associations.

1.5

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I Know This Much Is True
Photo: Atsushi Nishijima/HBO

Based on Wally Lamb’s 1998 novel of the same name, Derek Cianfrance’s I Know This Much Is True offers an unrelenting carnival of horrors. Throughout the limited series’s six episodes, there are instances of rape, child abuse, death, self-mutilation, suicide, several brutal accidents, even allusions to a family curse. At a certain point, those new to Lamb’s story may anticipate intimations of incest, as that’s about the only shock left for Cianfrance to spring on us—and the subject is eventually toyed with, if ultimately abandoned, in a deeply expendable subplot. If Cianfrance had approached this convoluted narrative as the pulp that it truly is, in the key of, say, Ryan Murphy, the series might’ve emitted a disreputable spark. Unfortunately, I Know This Much Is True is supposed to be “about” something, and so the outlandishness is weighed down by moralizing and fancy cross-associations.

Set primarily in a small Connecticut town in the early 1990s, with flashbacks that span from the 1800s to the 1980s, I Know This Much Is True vaguely parallels a family’s legacy of misery with America’s launching of the Gulf War. President George Bush is seen frequently on televisions in various backgrounds, as are vintage MTV music videos, which Cianfrance will occasionally emphasize to enhance the series’s pervading anti-nostalgic mood, especially in the numerous depictions of people arguing and couples breaking up and storming out on one another. Our narrator and tour guide is Dominick Birdsey (Mark Ruffalo), an aspiring writer who never left town because of his unstable and dependent twin brother, Thomas (also Ruffalo), who was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic as a young adult. Dominick describes his brother as an “anchor,” but it’s evident early on that he loves playing the role of savior as a way of evading his responsibility for the general disappointment of his adult life.

In the series’s ‘90s-era thread, Thomas becomes convinced that he must make a blood sacrifice to end the Gulf War, and he does something shocking that lands him in a high-security mental health hospital. This appears to be a rational decision on the part of the facility’s board, as Thomas is clearly mentally ill, though Dominick is determined to get his brother returned to a low-security hospital. Cianfrance squanders the wrenching potential in this conflict with macho sentimentality. If we were allowed to understand that Dominick’s quest for Thomas is vain and dangerous, rooted in his guilt-ridden hero complex, then we might have been pulled in recognizably contradictory emotional directions, empathizing with both brothers while fearing Dominick’s recklessness. However, this emotional response is only inadvertently triggered, as we’re supposed to see Dominick as trashing his own life to defend his brother against the Man. And in a shameless twist, Dominick’s ire with the new hospital is validated.

Cianfrance is less interested in mining the nuances of mental illness than in wallowing in existential male angst, as he did in films like Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines. In much of his work, Cianfrance appears to be trying to conjure the mood that might arise if one listened to Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run while watching a production of Sam Shepard’s Buried Child. Like those artists, Cianfrance is fixated on the idea of the ever-tormented working-class male representing the heart of the American psyche, but Springsteen and Shepard offered poetry and, in Springsteen’s case, humor and authentic rapture. By contrast, Cianfrance lingers on misery as a signpost of his integrity. The many flashbacks in I Know This Much Is True, involving Dominick and Thomas at various ages (as well as other family members), assert the same point over and over: that this family hurts itself, dashing every moment of hopefulness. (In fairness, the flashbacks are filtered through Dominick’s embittered sensibility, though their validity is generally meant to be taken at face value.)

Other long portions of I Know This Much Is True abound in shaky close-ups of Dominick’s face as he rants against largely caring family members and professionals who’re simply trying to help him. Disturbed individuals like him are certainly capable of irrationally lashing out at their loved ones, but that’s the only quality of such interactions that Cianfrance seems to recognize, and over a several-hour period these sequences come to embody a form of sensory deprivation, which is compounded by the filmmaker’s general aversion to humor. Given the extraordinary images that cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes has fashioned in the past, the self-pitying crabbiness of Cianfrance’s vision is practically offensive.

Still, Ruffalo’s casting was astute, because if Cianfrance had hired an actor with a more conventionally closed-off masculine mystique, the series might’ve been totally unwatchable. Ruffalo gives sensitive, impassioned performances, and he differentiates his characters without making a show of it. Thomas’s slouched, defeated physicality is heartbreaking even in the series’s most categorically insane moments, while Dominick’s thinner, straighter frame signifies his tightly coiled willingness to pounce upon the slightest provocation. Yet, it’s unseemly to watch an actor as thoughtful as Ruffalo submit himself to all this thrashing about, and you may find yourself pulling back from him in a manner akin to how Pauline Kael resisted Robert De Niro’s self-torturing exhibitionism in Raging Bull. (There’s even a reference to the Martin Scorsese film here: a close-up of Dominick’s twisted and gnarled face that’s held for a self-consciously ugly and interminable length of time.)

The most maddening thing about the obviously talented Cianfrance is his refusal to get out of his own way (come to think of it, Kael wrote something similar about Scorsese in her review of Raging Bull). For all of the ostentatious negativity of I Know This Much Is True, there are haunting and subtle flourishes. When eight-year-old Thomas (Rocco Masihi) humiliates himself on a school bus, we casually see another child give him a hug as he walks dejected up to the front of the vehicle. And when Dominick and Thomas’s semi-abusive, sort-of-loving stepfather, Ray (John Proccacino), suffers a heart attack, he speaks to Dominick in a halting manner that suggests his and Dominick’s worst fears of deflated masculinity, and it’s of course at this point that the two men start to bond. As predictable as they might be, these moments come as a relief from the hours of redundant emotional violence and disappointment. It was also astute to cast Rosie O’Donnell as an advocate and Michael Greyeyes as a mysterious janitor, as their poignant underacting briefly offsets the show’s chest-thumping masochism.

But I Know This Much Is True is still a shambles, a catalog of tragic events that’s meant to rhyme the Gulf War, the catalyst for the current endless American war machine, with the modern ennui that’s signified by Dominick’s irritability and Thomas’s madness. And even all that undigested subtext isn’t enough for Cianfrance, who keeps throwing things at the screen, from period flashbacks to an Italian grandfather (Simone Cappo) who’s meant to suggest the seed of American racism, to a missing girl who anticipates the reveal of Dominick and Thomas’s unseen father, who references our nation’s legacy of genocide. In this numbing, ludicrous production, Thomas’s paranoid fantasies become virtually indistinguishable from the hokum that Cianfrance offers up with solemn sincerity.

Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Kathryn Hahn, Rob Huebel, John Procaccino, Melissa Leo, Rosie O'Donnell, Philip Ettinger, Archie Panjabi, Michael Greyeyes, Tom Stratford, Donnie Masihi, Rocco Masihi, Simone Coppo, Aisling Franciosi, Matt Helm, Zaria Degenhardt, Marcello Fonte, Irene Muscara, Agatha Nowicki, Roberta Rigano Network: HBO

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