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Television Year Zero: 2008 in Review

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Television Year Zero: 2008 in Review

I started out 2008 as a paid TV critic with a happily stable and sedate personal life that rarely edged into something all that exciting. After a series of corporate maneuvers seemingly designed to leave me weeping in the street early in the year and a last week of the year that spent most of its time beating the hell out of me, I’ve been more than ready to leave 2008 behind and stride off into the untamed wildness of 2009.

Normally, as bad shit was going down, I would find my solace in the world of television, but television pretty much sucked in 2008. The long, hazy hangover of the strike that we began the year still dealing with cast its pall over the rest of the year with a dread efficiency, and after a while, I just didn’t even want to turn on the TV anymore to watch something like Sons of Anarchy fight its way through its growing pains. Also, I spent a couple of months working for Barack Obama’s election (yay!), inadvertently setting in motion events that would reverberate through the rest of my life, and I just didn’t watch a ton of TV in that time period. So I’m maybe not as caught up as everyone else, but that’s why we have special awards.

Anyway, 2008 was a terrible year for TV. Sweet little shows I actually enjoyed were canceled (Pushing Daisies) while Dancing With the Stars’ ratings hegemony grew ever stronger. One network ceded a WHOLE HOUR of primetime to Jay Leno. JAY LENO! The writers strike shortened seasons of just about everything. Some shows returned and had a problem matching their pre-strike heights (30 Rock), while others went away for nine or ten months and returned when no one could even remember they existed (Pushing Daisies again). Some STILL aren’t back (my beloved Big Love returns in January). I mean, not ALL television was bleak—Mad Men ignored the industry-wide memo and gave us one of the best seasons of television ever, while Lost and Battlestar Galactica each hit new creative highs—but the fact that The Wire and The Shield both wrapped up, with BSG and Lost soon to follow, made things SEEM that much bleaker. Mad Men can only take us so far, especially with Matthew Weiner getting stiffed on a new contract deal.

So rather than make a list of shows that had SEASONS I found uniformly excellent in 2008 (because I get to six or so, and then I just start giving out lower slots to shows I’m effectively patting on the head for just trying so darn hard), here’s a list of 20 episodes and TV moments I unquestioningly enjoyed this year, followed by a few special awards for shows that maybe never pull it all together but offer up a fun element or two for the discerning TV fan.

Late Night with Conan O’Brien during the strike (January through February): See? Here I go. Cheating already. But the difference between the increasingly strained comedy of Conan O’Brien WITH writers and the sheer, daffy anything-for-a-joke brio of Conan O’Brien WITHOUT writers was so palpable that I’m loathe to single out an episode. While other late night talk shows struggled without writers (The Daily Show, outside of Jon Stewart’s bitterness that the WGA wouldn’t grant him a waiver like they did with David Letterman’s production company, mostly kinda sucked), O’Brien just went for broke, bringing to mind the heady days of Letterman in the 80s. He zip-lined from the audience onto stage. He got in a fight with Stewart and Stephen Colbert. He wandered his offices and settled in to play Rock Band against a bunch of backstage personnel. It was glorious. And then his writers came back, and he settled in for more of the same-old, same-old. Oh well.

Aqua Teen Hunger Force, “Reedickyoulus” (Feb. 10): Aqua Teen has succeeded over the years by taking the age-old comedy formula of the very smart guy (Frylock) paired with the very dumb guy (Meatwad) and tossing in a personality type that can only be described as “cable news anchor” (Master Shake). While the show’s absurdist streak can occasionally grow a little TOO hard to take, the underpinning comic engines are as old as cinematic entertainment itself, and the Master Shake twist keeps the show from getting TOO old, as he antagonizes Meatwad mercilessly and irritates Frylock with his bullheadishness. I almost didn’t include this because if you don’t get Aqua Teen, you won’t get this, and it’s not exactly the most shining example of the televised form, but this 11 minute tale of Meatwad’s attempts to protect his kittens from Master Shake’s malevolence probably made me laugh more than anything else this year.

Breaking Bad, “… And the Bag’s in the River” (Feb. 10): Breaking Bad does pretty much everything I say I want a great television series to do, and yet I, like other TV critics, kept underrating it while it was on the air, largely because it was on AMC, and AMC has Mad Men, and the TV critics’ charter says, “THOU MUST LIKE ONLY ONE SHOW PER CABLE NETWORK IF THAT CABLE NETWORK IS NOT HBO.” It’s true. Look it up. But, to be honest, I’ve probably spent more time turning this particular episode, brilliantly scripted by Vince Gilligan and directed by Adam Bernstein with a fine sense of suburban claustrophobia, over and over in my head than anything else broadcast this year. Bryan Cranston’s work as a man pushed to his limit by financial difficulties has ratcheted up in poignancy thanks to world events (seriously, I think this and How I Met Your Mother were THE ONLY TWO FICTIONAL SHOWS to deal, however obliquely, with the credit crunch), and the show’s creation of a whole KIND of world (the raw exurbs of the American Southwest) we haven’t seen before is much appreciated. Here, Cranston’s Walter contemplates the murder of a man he’s keeping locked in a basement, seeing how far he’s willing to go to protect his family and, OK, himself. It was riveting. I can’t wait for the DVD release, so I can find out just how much I underrated this.

Lost, “The Constant” (Feb. 28): Lost is, at heart, a puzzle box mystery. For all of the series’s pretensions and beliefs in its own grandeur, it’s really just a lean, mean update of The Twilight Zone, only with recurring characters. What’s missed, I think, in pieces that grapple with Lost’s inconsistency is just how much the growing pains of the second and third seasons are about executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carleton Cuse trying to throw off the goofy restraints placed on them by the original concept and characters dreamed up by J.J. Abrams and Lindelof and make the show they always wanted to make (which is, apparently, a batshit insane series about confronting your worst fears). Season four finally saw Lindelof and Cuse able to DO that for the most part (they still had to toss a bone to that insipid Jack-Kate-Sawyer triangle occasionally, and Jack and Kate, the ostensible leads, remain the least compelling characters—Abrams’ curse remains!), and they never proved it more than in this puzzle-box-y hour that took the character best exemplifying the show’s deeply romantic soul (Desmond) and sent him on a quest through time and space for a lost love. It sounds overwrought until you watch the thing, and it, improbably, works so damn well.

The Wire, “-30-” (March 9): Now we come to the HBO section of the list, as we see what the once ever-dominant pay-cable channel tossed up for us in 2008. (And, before you ask, I didn’t have HBO for most of the year, so I still haven’t caught up with Generation Kill. Mea culpa.) By now, everyone knows that The Wire is the best series in the history of television, etc., etc., etc., and I’m supposed to talk about how the episode BEFORE this (“Late Editions”) was REALLY the show’s finest hour because the penultimate episodes always are and blah, blah, blah, but I think “-30-” is one of the most daring things I’ve ever seen done on television, so I’m honoring it here. It’s less an attempt to bring an end to a long-running series and a group of much-loved characters (on the part of its small audience, at least) and more an attempt to create something that really resembles the rhythms of life as it’s lived. Those two audacious montages of Baltimore, a city bleeding and breathing, that break the episode proper from its coda and wrap up the whole thing, are so full of great filmmaking that I feel like I’m STILL unpacking them.

John Adams, “Join or Die” (March 16): Whether or not you liked John Adams was one of those big TV questions of 2008, and there was little-to-no room for wafflers. Well, watch me waffle. I thought John Adams started and ended really well, but mostly lost its way in the middle, thanks to an occasionally overly literal script and some hapless direction (Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney remained fine throughout, and the portrayals of the other founding fathers—Tom Wilkinson’s Benjamin Franklin excepted—were pretty solid). Still, the whole thing started off excellently, with Giamatti’s Adams getting drawn, almost against his will but in line with his reason, into a revolution. I’ve rarely felt as cognizant of the stakes in Colonial America as I was in this piece of TV, and it’s a shame much of the rest of the series lost that sense of urgency.

In Treatment, “Alex, Week 8” (March 18): In Treatment baffled me for three or four weeks. It wasn’t as smart as it thought it was, and the storylines for the various patients were terribly inconsistent (in general, Sophie and Alex good, other patients … there but for the grace of God). I also didn’t like the way everybody kept stating baldly what they were feeling (and, yes, it goes with the psychotherapy territory, but, GOD, it could be on the nose). But, little by little, the series wormed its way under my skin as a portrayal of one man’s strengths and failings (something that television does as well or better than any other medium). Viewed less as the story of a variety of patients and more as the story of a doctor treating them, the series works (and earned Gabriel Byrne an unexpected and welcome Emmy nomination), even if the filmmaking, confined as it is to one set, usually felt a little stage-y. The finest hour was this episode from late in the series’s run, as Glynn Turman (who actually managed to WIN the Emmy, again unexpectedly) stopped in for one week to talk with Byrne’s Paul about his son, Alex, one of Paul’s patients. Turman’s performance and the quiet theatrics of the script elevated the series beyond its usual trappings, and Byrne’s elegant underplaying managed to show Paul’s search for his soul without yelling about it.

The Office, “Dinner Party” (April 10): Here’s an episode that divided even diehard Office fans. In general, in the latter half of The Office’s third season and the first half of its fourth season, the series got too in love with being as wacky as possible (and sacrificing the character moments that made the show work). After the strike, though, the series righted itself, homing in again on the huge roster of great characters, and giving them all moments to build on the series’s established history (Stanley’s explosion in “Did I Stutter” seemed like a lifetime in coming). “Dinner Party” established the welcome return to this dynamic with a half-hour of dark, dark comedy that played like “Virginia Woolf” condensed into a sitcom episode. Without gimmicks (like field trips to the great outdoors) to fall back on, the series delved into the collapsing coupling of Michael (Steve Carell) and Jan (Melora Hardin) with squeamish efficiency, alienating many fans but winning just as many back. Since this one, the series has been back in a big way, easily retaking the crown of Best Comedy on Television from 30 Rock.

Zero Punctuation, “Super Smash Bros. Brawl” (April 23): The boomlet in Internet-only series felt like it came into its own this year (see later for the best example), as people finally figured out how to use the limitations of the form to create superior short entertainments. Zero Punctuation’s Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw vaulted to the top of the very, very tall heap of online video game criticism this year, mostly by having very definitive opinions of what makes a good game and what makes a bad game, expressing those opinions in a crystal-clear manner and being very, very funny. Croshaw can fall back on pseudo-homophobia too much for my tastes, but there’s no question that he’s randomly become one of the two or three best video game critics out there (admittedly, not as tall a heap), and this episode, viewable here, is a good example of why. It punctures fanboys, lazy game concepts, the Wii and the idea of multiplayer gaming as the be-all and end-all of video games in under five minutes. And it’s funny!

Battlestar Galactica, “Revelations” (June 13): Galactica’s fourth season was its best yet (and the final handful of episodes, coming in a couple of weeks, promise even better, if everyone is to be believed), building on seasons worth of tension between the characters to create something raw, human and aching. It all ended in a magnificent piece of television (maybe the best of the year) that I’ve already written about extensively.

Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog, “Act 3” (July 19): Joss Whedon is one of our great, perpetually out-of-work filmmakers, always trying to make his visions conform to major network or major studio visions and failing miserably to the tune of box office and Nielsen flops. Despite all of this, the guy has a huge fan base, always ready to check out his latest project (even if it sounds like an outright debacle like his upcoming Dollhouse). He harnessed all of that and his considerable Hollywood connections to make the Internet-only Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog during the strike, and in the program’s third act it becomes one of the two or three best things he’s ever done and an exemplar of what you can do with Internet series. I can’t really explain too much without going into spoilers here, but the third act revives Whedon’s traditional fascination with story structure and narrative as it asks why we identify with the characters we identify with, gives us everything we’ve ever hoped for and then mocks us for having those hopes in the first place. Oh, and it’s apparently also about how the writers lost the strike.

Mad Men, “Three Sundays” (Aug. 17): I toyed with putting “Mad Men’s second season” on the list, but that REALLY felt like cheating. It was the only series that barely took a misstep this year, as Matthew Weiner chased an elusive dream of America that was and finally managed to land it in the end. It was, as mentioned, one of the best seasons of American television ever, right up there with Deadwood season two or The Simpsons season four or that fabled first season of The Sopranos (don’t make me pick a Wire season). The series grew into a modest hit (at least by AMC standards), won an Emmy and spawned a healthy backlash, but here’s an episode that shows why the backlashers are just wrong. Unfolding over three Sundays (surprise!), the series shows us a marriage in disintegration, a young woman struggling to cope with her guilt and an ad agency facing an uncertain future, all without having a character monologue about any of it. What makes Mad Men so great is how UNEXPECTED all of it is, even though absolutely every story turn and twist seems perfectly predictable in retrospect. It’s a hard trick to manage, but “Three Sundays” is proof that it’s so satisfying when it comes together.

The Daily Show and The Colbert Report cover the conventions (August/September): There’s rarely a better example of eye-rolling American political theater than the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, and there’s never been a better example of comedy programs not knowing what to do with a political figure than Barack Obama. The Daily Show and Colbert managed this first feat in the week of the DNC by both mocking the man’s movement (that bio video featuring Obama’s face superimposed over Simba from The Lion King kills) and subtly condescending to him (mostly in the case of faux-blowhard Colbert). But it was the week of the RNC when both shows turned loose. As much as everyone talks about Tina Fey cementing the image of Sarah Palin in the eyes of the American public, it was Jon Stewart and the team at The Daily Show who first managed to savage the right-wing media fawning over the deeply contradictory figure with whole features that played up clips of right-wing talking heads and showed their double standards. Colbert then landed the punchline by overpraising her ridiculously. Despite my card-carrying Obamabot credentials, I found Palin a fascinating figure, but deplored the right’s attempts to make her a Messiah and the left’s attempts to make her a two-bit hillbilly. The reality lay far more in the realm of media creation, and Stewart and Colbert found that soft underbelly, as they so often do.

How I Met Your Mother, “Shelter Island” (Oct. 20): Playing with narrative again (though that’s this show’s raison d’etre). This wasn’t Mother’s funniest episode of the year (that honor goes to “The Bracket” or “The Naked Man”), but it was unexpectedly poignant, in the way that only a sitcom episode can be. In its denouement, it also suggested something that other works of art get at but rarely express so well: We’re ALL living out our own stories, and we rarely realize how those stories interact with other people and can devastate them until it’s too late. It’s all well and good when we’re the protagonist, and everyone smiles down upon us, but the second reality intrudes, and we have to consider the collateral damage, we stop and reconsider. Or we don’t. And so it goes. And, of course, Neil Patrick Harris’ Barney Stinson is the great comedic creation of our decade, so let’s give him some awards soon please.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, “The Tower Is Tall, but the Fall Is Short” (Oct. 20): I never quite know which Sarah Connor Chronicles is going to show up from week to week. Will it be the lugubrious, boring show where boring people complain about boring problems? Or will it be the unexpectedly tight SF/action showcase with compelling characters who fret about hard-SF concepts rarely aired on TV, like what effect traveling through time has on the future or whether or not machines can feel and think? This episode, the last addition to this list, makes a good case that, given time, the series could find its way into being the latter on a weekly basis. Focusing on a robot from the future forced to take care of a very human child when she takes that child’s mother’s place, the episode also sends the aforementioned boring leads into therapy (a hackneyed device, but hear me out) and starts to get into ideas of how you act when you know the apocalypse is just around the corner that are rarely aired outside of Big Love. But it was the terrifying mother-child scenes that made this episode work. They make you think there’s something more to this series, something good enough to keep you coming back week after week.

Obama is elected (Nov. 4): The kinda-bullshit-but-trendy pick to put atop your TV of 2008 list is “the election” or “the election coverage,” but outside of a few weeks there when everyone wondered how, exactly, Obama or McCain would confront the growing economic catastrophe, the televised news coverage of the election was woefully inadequate, veering as it did from bullshit personality issues (like, say, lipstick on a pig) to bizarre fawning (over Obama or over Palin or, briefly, over Hillary Clinton or … you name it). All it did was highlight how terrible TV news really is and how much better newspapers and (now) blogs do it anyway. I mean, if I want my election news with a heaping helping of opinion-based personality, I know how to find Daily Kos or Red State online, thank you very much, and they won’t yell at me. But damned if it didn’t all lead to this, a moment that, at least symbolically, said that America is still what it says it is, even to the right wingers who called Obama a communist moments before (“Only in America,” they said, to a man). The talking heads mostly stayed out of the way of those delirious moments from when they called it for Obama to when McCain gave a terrific concession speech to when Obama stepped up for his speech. I watched it in a bar in Indiana, surrounded by newfound friends. We cheered and cried. I ate a fish sandwich. Where were you?

Pushing Daisies, “Oh, Oh, Oh, It’s Magic” (Nov. 19): The writers strike was based on some very solid issues, but the way it was carried out and the results that the writers got were all pretty stupid. The writers won only very minor concessions, and it increased network TV’s reliance on reality (though an unexpected benefit was the ratings resurgence of the sitcom). Oh, and Pushing Daisies got canceled thanks to it. Daisies was a show that most of my friends found teeth-grindingly irritating, but they were, of course, wrong. The series really grew into its own in the second season when most of America had forgotten about it (again, thanks, strike!). The mysteries were stronger, the emotional centers were more resonant and the series’s examination of what it means to confront your own death grew only more fascinating. This hour, which reunited series’s lead Ned (Lee Pace) with his half brothers and sent them all into the world of magic, combined a mostly satisfying mystery (still the show’s weakest link) with an acutely observed story about what it means to find a new family when you are an adult. ABC plans to burn off the final three episodes at some point. Set your TiVos!

The Shield, “Family Meeting” (Nov. 25): I’ve always held The Shield at arm’s length, sort of convinced that it wasn’t as good as it thought it was and got by mostly with breakneck plotting and pushing forward through implausibility. The show’s seventh and final season, though, convinced me, by showing that everything in the show’s run could, more or less, be tied up in a way that was satisfying on both a plot level and revealed the essential nature of the characters (both needed elements for the finale of a serialized drama). Some compared the period placed at the end of this episode favorably to the semicolon at the end of The Sopranos finale, but that’s missing the point. The Shield was as much about finding a fitting climax as The Sopranos was about avoiding one. So if this isn’t as audacious as The Sopranos’ finale, it’s still pretty great in its own way, with one of the most haunting setpieces in recent TV memory (you’ll know it when you see it) and an ending that’s as ambiguous about the future as The Shield ever gets.

30 Rock, “Reunion” (Dec. 4): 30 Rock struggled all year long with how to recapture the sheer vim and vigor it displayed before the strike in its second season (only one pre-strike second season episode aired this year, and while I liked it, I liked this one better). It was kind of the opposite of The Office, which rediscovered everything that made it enjoyable once it resumed after the strike. 30 Rock has always been a show that’s less a coherent whole than a collection of very funny parts, and it relies on all of those parts being very funny, with only the relationship between Liz (Tina Fey) and Jack (Alec Baldwin) being reliably so. It also, depending on the week, is a different KIND of show with every episode, which will likely keep it from ever being a huge hit. But here’s an episode that takes the age-old sitcom plotline of the lead returning for a reunion and turns it on its head (the bullies Liz wanted to show off to secretly feared HER wisecracks and putdowns) AND ties in Jack’s occasional desires for a normal life. It’s as perfect a sitcom episode as you’ll ever see, and it bodes well for the future.

Chuck, “Chuck vs. Santa Claus” (Dec. 15): In one of the rare bits of good TV karma this year, Chuck returned after the strike and somehow became a very good show (it had been promising, but all over the place in an abbreviated first season). Of course no one watched it. But then, week to week, it grew in audience, until it was challenging the ever-more-idiotic Heroes in audience share. Granted, a lot of that was people giving up on Heroes, but it was also viewers somehow finding Chuck against all odds. Every light, fluffy genre show needs an episode where it makes the leap from just trying to be a goofy good time to when the characters take on the emotional resonance for us to want to stick with them for years to come. On Buffy, for example, this came in the season two diptych “Surprise/Innocence.” And on Chuck, hopefully, it came here, in an episode that had one hell of a great twist midway through the episode and concluded with some emotionally solid beats that put everything the series had so carefully built in ruin. The show’s still a little overstuffed, but there are few I look forward to watching more week to week.

Some (hopefully brief) Special Awards:

Best comedy on TV: OK, yeah, I said The Office was up above, but Grey’s Anatomy OBVIOUSLY is? I mean, most critics are disgusted by Izzie sexing Ghost Denny, but I THINK IT’S HILARIOUS.

Socks folding TV, drama division: A good socks-folding show is one that you can sort of pay attention to and enjoy. It’s generally well-crafted, but not especially ambitious. Chuck used to fall into this category. Now it doesn’t. My picks this year are the goofy rapscallions of Bones (outside of that terrible third season finale) and Supernatural, which scratches that old X-Files itch in completely ridiculous fashion (but does so winningly).

Socks folding TV, comedy division: CBS’ The New Adventures of Old Christine and The Big Bang Theory each have terrific performances (from Julia Louis Dreyfus and Jim Parsons, respectively) and generally solid scripts.

Great soundtrack for a middling show: Life on Mars tries too hard to be the second coming of Twin Peaks and fails a lot of the time, but the soundtrack is killer.

I’m never gonna get it so shut up: Especially in the current economic climate, I find myself having trouble giving a shit about Gossip Girl, a show that basically rehashes the superficially enjoyable things people pretended to like about 90210 and other teen soaps without an ounce of emotional realism. At least The O.C. had irony!

Probably should have included this episode, but I stopped caring: House’s two part finale, “House’s Head”/“Wilson’s Heart,” was just about the best example of traditional TV finale-craft out there, but the show completely lost it in the fall, and I stopped caring. Similarly, Ugly Betty’s “When Betty Met YETI” was a pretty good example of how to do a Very Special Episode, but it was on a show that has gotten so obsessed with having “heart” that it has none anymore, so I had stopped caring.

Probably should have included this episode, but I forgot: I really did mean to put Doctor Who’s “Midnight” on there. It was the best Twilight Zone in decades. My mistake!

Best “News” show: TV news has mostly disappeared down a rabbit hole of personality journalism, but if it’s going to do that, it may as well embrace compelling personalities like Rachel Maddow of The Rachel Maddow Show. Maddow is unfailingly (sometimes kneejerk) liberal, but her opinions are well-expressed, and her fights with Pat Buchanan are awesome.

I probably would have put it on here, but I didn’t see it: Friday Night Lights’ third season is, reportedly, pretty darn good, but it’s on DirecTV, and illegally downloading it and then avoiding the NBC rebroadcasts seems like kicking a low-rated show when it’s down. Also, I just haven’t caught up with Sons of Anarchy.

Great performances in weak shows: Ray Wise’s Devil is so good he makes Reaper watchable some weeks, and JoAnna Garcia is making me keep up with Privileged in the hopes that the inconsistent scripts will eventually match her awesomeness.

What?: Dexter’s third season veered from awesome to awful so rapidly and with such little warning that I’m still not sure what to make of it. Ask me in a year.

And yet …: Michael Emerson’s Ben grieving over his daughter, the smoke monster crackling along behind in Lost’s “The Shape of Things to Come,” Ted’s two-minute date with Stella in How I Met Your Mother’s “Ten Sessions” (makes me tear up every time), Snoop’s final moments in The Wire’s “Late Editions,” the look on Vic Mackey’s face as he prepares to talk in The Shield’s “Possible Kill Screen,” Michael chewing out corporate in an airport in The Office’s “Business Trip,” Peggy telling Pete the truth in Mad Men’s “Meditations in an Emergency,” Walter blowing up the bad guys in Breaking Bad’s “Crazy Handful of Nothin’,” the freeze ray song in “Dr. Horrible,” Joe Biden’s mom tottering along, Sarah Palin unleashing howls in the convention hall, David Tyree catching a pass against his friggin’ helmet, those Opening Ceremonies!, Usain Bolt apparently not being human at all, the Doctor flying to save the day in Doctor Who’s “Forest of the Dead” and everybody joining in for “Midnight Train to Georgia” in 30 Rock’s “Episode 210.” I can’t really untangle any of them from my mind, despite 2008 being such an awful year for TV. Here’s to better 2009, and more moments we care as much about.

House contributor Emily VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.

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

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

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The Capture
Photo: BBC/Heyday Films/Nick Wall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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Japan Sinks 2020
Photo: Netflix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.5

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Little Voice
Photo: Apple TV+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3

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Perry Mason
Photo: HBO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5

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Search Party
Photo: Jon Pack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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Love, Victor
Photo: Mitchell Haaseth/Hulu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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The Woods
Photo: Krzysztof Wiktor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1

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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.

2

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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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