Hollywood elder statesmen Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin have a punchy chemistry in The Kominsky Method as, respectively, venerated acting coach Sandy Kominsky and his best friend, Norman. The series begins with Norman’s wife, Eileen (Susan Sullivan), on her deathbed, and Sandy committed to buoying his old pal’s spirits while struggling to maintain his own vitality as both an actor and a man. Together, the actors forge an endearing portrait of aged titans, with Douglas’s Sandy providing a humorously frenetic foil to Arkin’s deadpan performance as the gruff but lovable Norman.
The Kominsky Method clearly represents a departure from The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men, and the rest of creator Chuck Lorre’s highly successful, if only moderately interesting, output. The show is serialized, with the plot of many episodes kicking off right after the previous episode’s culmination, and gone are the four-camera setups and canned laughter of Lorre’s earlier sitcoms. The Kominsky Method is more “adult,” if only because Sandy and Norman are permitted to use expletives like “fuck.” Mostly, the two joke about their dicks, as Lorre seems to consider the urinary and erectile dysfunctions of aging men to be a limitless font of humor.
The series is free from the 22-minute time constraint and traditional multiple-act structure that a network sitcom adopts, but Lorre fails to use this liberty to craft a story with tangible stakes. Sandy and Norman mostly hang around cracking wise about their old age or the state of young people, and any real problems that arise—such as Sandy owing back taxes, which threatens his acting studio—are swiftly and conveniently resolved. On the surface, The Kominsky Method is concerned with late-life reckoning, but Lorre doesn’t allow his characters to process the reality of their plight, and inserts a rote joke whenever the series approaches solemnity or insight.
The series remains rooted to the same mass-appeal, generic perspective of Lorre’s previous shows, in which character types deliver barely passable humor. Ironically, the lack of canned laughter in The Kominsky Method has the unintended effect of revealing the toothless, low-hanging quality of Lorre’s comedic sensibility. Throughout, the jokes delivered by Sandy and Norman suggest little about their characters beyond their age, and resemble bits written by a millennial who’s never met an old person.
One plot thread concerns Sandy’s frequent urination, a sign that he might have prostate cancer. As the series brushes over the emotional fallout of the revelation, Lorre reaches for laughs. The morning after a date that ends with Sandy having an emergency in his girlfriend’s hedge, Douglas gamely delivers this predictable chestnut: “Last night, I kissed a woman. Then I peed in her bush.” When Sandy goes for a prostate exam, the urologist (Danny DeVito) tells him: “Funny thing is, gay guys don’t even like this.” The joke is proudly off-color, but Sandy’s vague reaction obscures its intended target. Is it gay guys? Sandy? The doctor? Perhaps, inadvertently, it’s us for watching. Even Sandy’s acting class, that kind of setting that’s typically a deep well of meta-humor, is blunted by Lorre’s view of young people being self-absorbed airheads capable only of parsing what exactly constitutes cultural appropriation.
While the humor in The Kominsky Method is antiquated, its greatest transgression is simply being unimaginative and boring, which is indicative of the show’s lack of a clear perspective. Sandy’s romance with a student named Lisa (Nancy Travis), who as a single mom and struggling actress provides the potential for a nuanced observation of relationships, is reduced to jokes about Sandy’s libido and tired clichés such as “The key to a happy relationship is that the woman should always feel like she comes first.” The comedy would be more effective if Lorre was laughing at Sandy and Norman for their insecurities and retrograde opinions. The Kominsky Method is doggedly sympathetic toward its protagonists, even when it fails to bestow them with feelings that don’t scan as mere grumpiness or emasculation.
The only truly affecting moment in the series comes when Norman breaks down after being surprised to find his wife’s dress at a dry cleaner. It’s a heart-wrenching scene, which Lorre smartly uses to conclude an episode, finally resisting the urge to ease the tension of a scene with a joke about, say, piss or Viagra. Norman’s weeping throws the rest of the season into stark relief, and underscores the glaring conflict at the center of The Kominsky Method. The series is concerned with mortality and inevitability, but Lorre can’t derive humor from the gallows or bear to stare too long at the implications of Sandy and Norman’s age. It acknowledges but never honestly assesses the obstacles that come late in life. Sandy might have prostate cancer, but Lorre can only wonder about the strength of his stream.
Cast: Michael Douglas, Alan Arkin, Sarah Baker, Nancy Travis, Susan Sullivan, Emily Osment, Lisa Edelstein, Nancy Travis Airtime: Netflix
Review: Russian Doll Resists Becoming a Simplistic Morality Tale
The Netflix show’s premise is like a playfully morbid Escher painting.3
The premise of Russian Doll, in which Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) keeps dying during her 36th birthday party only to awaken each time at the start of the night, suggests a playfully morbid Escher painting. In one episode, Nadia dies multiple times by falling down the same staircase and snapping her neck; in another, she learns her lesson and avoids the stairs by using the fire escape, only to later choke on a chicken wing. The character’s repetitive 24-hour cycle provides a showcase for Lyonne: The actress, uniquely suited to play a sardonic New Yorker such as Nadia, highlights the dark comedy of the character’s situation as well as her lingering emotional damage.
Nadia eventually meets Alan (Charlie Barnett), a man who also keeps dying, and together they hunt for a way out of their peculiar situation. The discoveries they make along the way don’t always make logical sense—in part because, while Alan has some vaguely compulsive tendencies, the series isn’t specific about his personal issues. Although Nadia and Alan begin to grasp that their salvation may depend on confronting their emotional and mental damage, the series never quite provides an answer for exactly how they found themselves in these loops to begin with. Do these cycles befall other people besides Nadia and Alan? Are they an act of god? Does it all have to do with Nadia’s cat, who has recently gone missing?
The fact that Russian Doll doesn’t address the specific root of Nadia’s predicament, though, invites a number of interpretations. And by glossing over the precise details of its central mystery, the series resists reducing Nadia’s quest to a simplistic morality tale. She can be vulgar, unfiltered, and even cruel. She also indulges in a breadth of vices. Without ever suggesting that she must alter herself to meet the expectations of others, though, Russian Doll maintains an astute understanding of which aspects of Nadia are permanent and which are malleable. It suggests that the parts of her that need changing, like her self-loathing and emotional numbness, relate primarily to her own happiness rather than virtue or goodness. In a philosophical conversation with between her and Alan, the series seems to make the case that morality is relative, amorphous, and immaterial.
In resisting convenient lesson-teaching, Russian Doll sustains its central mystery and never collapses into saccharine didacticism. There’s no checklist for Nadia to attend to in order to free herself, no great wrongs that need righting. She must get better, but not necessarily to be better—though, in some instances, she does that as well. And while the resolution of her predicament is somewhat vague, it remains sweetly fulfilling, because, while the series deals in opaque supernaturalism, its protagonist is easy to root for as she fumbles toward happiness.
Cast: Natasha Lyonne, Yul Vazquez, Elizabeth Ashley, Greta Lee, Charlie Barnett Airtime: Netflix
Review: Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy Slumps Into Mopey Mediocrity
The series is unable to render any of the visual imagination its source material practically begs for.1.5
So many superhero stories—particularly the gritty Marvel shows in Netflix’s stable—focus on minimizing the weirdness of their characters, streamlining their iconic costumes, and simplifying their origin stories, in order to flaunt a kind of fashionable semi-plausibility. At first, The Umbrella Academy seems to buck this trend by remaining refreshingly off the wall. The series is populated by characters like a talking chimpanzee butler named Pogo (Adam Godley) and time-traveling assassins in children’s masks (Mary J. Blige and Cameron Britton). In the first 10 minutes of the pilot, an impossibly beefy man hangs out on the moon. As the series wears on, though, it reveals itself to be largely incapable of juggling such promising absurdity with the demands of the average TV superhero melodrama.
Adapted from the Eisner-winning Dark Horse comic book drawn by Gabriel Bá and written by My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way, the series sifts through the wreckage of a superhero team that’s less a nuclear family than a family gone nuclear. In 1989, more than 40 women around the world were spontaneously impregnated and gave birth to super-powered children. The mysterious billionaire Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore) adopted seven such children and trained six, sans one apparently without powers, into a crime-fighting team that grew up, grew dysfunctional, and grew apart. The patriarch’s sudden death brings the estranged siblings back together, including the time-traveling Number Five (Aidan Gallagher).
Despite such an audacious premise, The Umbrella Academy quickly slumps into mopey mediocrity, unable to render any of the visual imagination the material practically begs for. Throughout, the action is sloppy, the cinematography is pedestrian, and the production design is gray and largely nondescript. Beyond a ‘50s-flavored donut shop and the apparent nonexistence of cell phones, the series barely bothers to portray its retro setting. There are brief flashes of style, but The Umbrella Academy is largely content to abuse slow-mo and ironic needle-drops. Several drug trips, the hijacking of an ice cream truck, a meeting with God, and other such moments feel more like aberrations than examples of a coherent tone, gestures toward an irreverent personality the series never sustains.
The majority of The Umbrella Academy is marred by fumbled attempts at character development and stilted performances. The protagonists rarely transcend the broadest strokes as the Netflix series dwells on the same few character beats and displays of sibling bickering and mind-numbing romance. Only Robert Sheehan’s anarchic Klaus, who takes drugs to dull his ability to commune with ghosts, and Ellen Page’s frustrated Vanya, who has no powers at all, seem to benefit from the show’s attempts to beef up its breezy source material. Their character arcs are the most heartfelt and relatable, rooted in fear and insecurity.
Occasionally, The Umbrella Academy hits on something profound about feeling inferior, abandoned, and alone, mostly in its flirtations with familial trauma. Reginald Hargreeves was a cold man, and he left lasting emotional and physical scars on each of his children; he referred to them by numbers instead of names. But rather than look to the past, the series advises its characters to let go and focus on what’s in front of them, who they’ve grown into, and how they can heal together. The problem, of course, is that the show’s past seems significantly more interesting than its present, which is confined to the same handful of locations and full of red herrings that delay obvious plot twists.
Way and Bá’s comic exhibits none of the bloat that sinks this adaptation. It’s briskly paced, with exaggerated art and striking colors that perfectly service the story’s unhinged invention and wacky detours. For whatever weirdness the TV series promises at its outset, it ends up as another distended superhero show that smooths out its source material’s idiosyncrasies until little remains of whatever made it appealing in the first place.
Review: Amazon’s The ABC Murders Is a Formulaic Adaptation
The miniseries transforms Agatha Christie’s novel into a formulaic, adamantly bleak exercise.1.5
Re-fashioned by screenwriter Sarah Phelps as a beaten-down man sporting a goatee instead of his trademark moustache, the Hercule Poirot of Amazon’s three-part adaption of Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders is a total bore. John Malkovich, in bringing this iteration of the famed detective to life, performs accordingly, as the actor’s oddball charisma is nowhere to be seen. Here, Poirot’s dogged stoicism scans as disinterest.
While much of Poirot’s investigative work is dispassionate and mechanical, however, the story’s central mystery is deftly plotted, with Christie’s trail of breadcrumbs twisting and turning toward a clever and surprising conclusion. Poirot receives regular letters from The A.B.C. Killer, a serial murderer who leaves a trail of victims across the British countryside and seems to know Poirot personally. The killer at least has an encyclopedic knowledge of Poirot’s life before the detective fled for England from his native Belgium during the first World War.
Poirot’s time in Belgium is a secondary mystery here, one that’s hinted at in repetitive, vague flashbacks. The series leans heavily on the mystery of the detective’s traumatic past, allowing his suffering to subsume any of the character’s other discernible traits. He’s merely a tortured man, and when the story hidden in those flashbacks is finally revealed, the truth (which is an invention of this adaptation) does little to explain anything about Poirot except his misery. It doesn’t even enhance our understanding of his prodigious investigative skill.
The characters who surround Poirot are sketched with as little nuance as the detective himself. Inspector Crome (Rupert Grint), for one, exists solely to eye Poirot with suspicion; the boyish Grint instills his character with a hint of adolescent insecurity that suggests a professional jealousy, but that isn’t something that’s otherwise explored in the writing. Elsewhere, the killer’s victims are caricatures, and the likely killer, a creepy-looking man named Alexander Bonaparte Cust (Eamon Farron), is defined by two traits: masochism and epilepsy.
Director Alex Gabassi renders The ABC Murders’s 1930s setting with an attention to detail both large and small, from eerie Victorian-era mansions to period-specific cigarettes. Indeed, the most memorable moments from the series are touches of visual flair. A climactic chase through a rail yard cleverly uses track switches to build suspense and surprise as CGI trains thunder by, and in one of the show’s most striking (and revolting) moments, a close-up of a man’s bulbous cyst precedes a similar close-up of a runny fried egg.
The ABC Murders also makes painstaking note of a rising nativist movement. Xenophobic posters can be seen at train stations, and characters often cringe at Poirot’s French linguistic flourishes. These elements plainly gesture toward Brexit and the broader, worldwide surge of nationalism in 2019. But Phelps struggles to thematically relate the fascism that envelopes the setting to the story’s events as they unfold, or even to Poirot’s modus operandi as a detective. Poirot remains a cipher, humorlessly bearing the weight of a tragic origin story and a nation’s decay on his shoulders. In the end, The ABC Murders suffocates the enthralling, exciting qualities of a detective mystery beneath a layer of self-regarding grimness.
Cast: John Malkovich, Rupert Grint, Michael Shaeffer, Andrew Buchan, Eamon Farren, Jack Farthing, Tara Fitgerald Airtime: Amazon Prime