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Review: The New Normal: Season One

A nominally progressive comedy, The New Normal has more gay jokes and regular old racism than Gallagher’s stand-up act.

1.5

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The New Normal: Season One

Ryan Murphy’s The New Normal is technically a comedy about the unlikely relationship that develops between a gay couple, the surrogate they hire to bear their child, and the surrogate’s gleefully racist grandmother. It features comedic actors, whimsical music, and many lines of dialogue that are, structurally, jokes. Some of the lines are even funny. If, however, the pilot ended with a title card that read, “Paid for by Americans for Mitt Romney,” it wouldn’t necessarily be surprising. All the teary-eyed monologues about love would be revealed as the seductively faulty logic of the depraved, and we would realize that we’re supposed to be identifying with the bigoted grandmother played by Ellen Barkin the whole time. Instead, The New Normal is a nominally progressive comedy with more gay jokes and regular old racism than Gallagher’s stand-up act.

Murphy, the creator of Glee, as well as last year’s hottest mess, American Horror Story, has his heart in the right place. While network TV is filled with comic shows about bromances, “nerdy” women attempting to “have it all,” and dysfunctional couples/families/talk-radio hosts, no series has yet succeeded in one-upping Modern Family as a half-hour comedy wholly about a family with same-sex parents, or even a same-sex couple of any sort. The New Normal, then, might have been one small step for network TV, one giant leap for mankind.

Murphy has engineered an almost perfect storm of sitcom elements. The New Normal is populated with attractive and witty young leads (Justin Bartha, Georgia King, and zeitgeist-hopper Andrew Rannells), a cute wiser-than-her-years kid (the fantastic Bebe Wood), and a curmudgeonly older woman (Barkin). What’s more, the show’s got a positive social message (love is love, no matter who you are, etc.) and that home-video naturalist aesthetic that’s so hot nowadays. Put Raising Hope, Modern Family, Arrested Development, Glee, and Parenthood in a blender, throw in a splash of Ellen, and you can’t go wrong, right? Somebody get Barkin an Emmy outfit.

There are two main obstacles, however, to the success of this show: pushiness and contempt. While not quite the conservative propaganda ad I suggested, The New Normal is very comfortable operating as a kind of public-service announcement. I counted at least six bleary-eyed epiphanies followed by conspicuously brave speeches in the first episode alone. In this series, one must resolutely decide to be true to oneself as regularly as one decides to go to the bathroom. This has the effect of hammering the viewer over the head with a message as well as wasting a lot of dramatic energy that could otherwise be spent on character development. Murphy’s had a lot of practice being inspirational on Glee, but there are only so many times a television program that isn’t the Olympics can make you believe in the triumph of the human spirit within the space of a half hour. The New Normal, in this way, often feels more interested in speechifying about equality and love than actually performing and enacting those things. The series asks you to care deeply about the journey of its characters based solely on their social context—I identify with single mothers, I identify with gay couples, and so on—before you even know who those characters are. Politics lets Murphy sidestep the work of earning empathy.

On the other hand, maybe you don’t want to know too much about these characters. I could go on at greater length about how dismally the charming, if maybe too theatrical in this context, Rannells is wasted on the gay stereotype he’s asked to play. (Bill Hader’s Stefon on Saturday Night Live is arguably a more nuanced queer character.) For example, Rannells’s Bryan decides he wants to have a child when he sees a cute one at Barney’s. He wants to have a baby the same way he wants to buy a pair of designer pedal-pushers. Gays are so funny. I hope they achieve marriage equality!

So the leading man is vain, shallow, effeminate, and addled. While Murphy tries to poke holes in that balloon by having Bryan’s partner, David (Jason Bartha), be a football fan, it’s hard to counteract stereotypes with other stereotypes. Viewers will likely be able to overlook this problematic arrangement, however, because it pales in comparison to Barkin’s explosion of Archie Bunkerisms. Barkin—who, in real life, is an outspoken gay-rights advocate—plays the young, socially conservative grandmother of King’s surrogate, and, aside from a bizarre monologue at the end of the first episode, nearly every word she utters sounds like it was cut from a somehow less humane and gracious Don Rickles act. Can a gay person exist on network television without a cranky old person there to make fun of him or her? Likely due to the success of Cloris Leachman and Ed O’Neill in similar roles on Raising Hope and Modern Family, respectively, Barkin gets a lot of screen time on The New Normal, and, strangely, her incessant berating of gays, Asians, and African-Americans is rarely registered with more than an “aw, shucks” eye roll from the rest of the cast. Functionally, this means that a majority of the jokes on the show are gay ones, presented without critique. At least Meathead yelled back at Archie.

When Barkin’s character calls Bryan a “salami smoker,” should we laugh? It’s the only joke in that space, and, tonally, it doesn’t seem like Murphy wants us to cringe. When she says a lesbian couple looks like “two ugly men,” is it meant as gritty realism? Short of providing a laugh track, every one of these bon mots is set up as a laugh line, and I think it’s fair to ask why. Is The New Normal really so cynical that it either feels viewers (a) can only handle a gay couple glazed in orthodox bigotry or (b) will take laughs any way it can get them? What’s worse is not necessarily the jokes themselves, which are fairly banal homophobic slurs, but that the series presents them to us with such eagerness and pride.

If the payoff, as it most certainly will be, is that Barkin’s character eventually grows to understand and love her new family, I’m not certain the setup will have been worth it. If The New Normal succeeds, will it have succeeded as a series about a family or as a series about the hilarious friction between cranky coots and pie-in-the-sky youngsters? Queerness, in other words, might become trivialized as a generational disagreement. A few months ago, The New Yorker ran a cover to celebrate the one-year anniversary of New York’s legalization of same-sex marriage. The illustration, titled “June Brides,” showed two women with identical hair and lipstick wearing wedding dresses and veils and holding a bouquet of flowers. In one sense, the illustration was meant to proudly commemorate a step toward marriage equality. But it’s also very easy to imagine the exact same illustration with the exact same title, published 50 years earlier as a wry, conservative comment on changing mores. “These,” somebody might have said after a haughty chuckle, “are the June brides of today!”

The New Normal is far more ambivalent than this illustration. As insistent as it is about its moral agenda, and as sanctimonious about its politics, the series is not much of a political or moral statement. Indeed, it’s pretty suspect on both counts. It doesn’t take a lot of courage to produce a show about gay life that’s constantly undercut by bigotry and stereotype. The New Normal is less a series about non-traditional families than it is about the concept of non-traditional families. If you agree with the show’s politics, then The New Normal will blithely reaffirm your assumptions without challenging or engaging them. If you disagree, don’t worry. That’s normal.

Cast: Justin Bartha, Andrew Rannells, Georgia King, Bebe Wood, NeNe Leakes, Ellen Barkin, Jayson Blair Airtime: NBC, Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m. Buy: Amazon

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Review: Black Monday: Season One

Black Monday dabbles in farce, social commentary, and character study, without managing to establish a coherent point of view.

2.0

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Black Monday: Season One
Photo: Erin Simkin/Showtime

The first episode of Showtime’s Black Monday begins with sobering title cards which promise that the series will eventually reveal the reason for the disastrous 1987 stock market crash. But while it might eventually offer real insight into Wall Street malfeasance (only the first three episodes were made available for review), Black Monday quickly establishes a set of alternate priorities: comic caricatures of excess, an unceasing cavalcade of references to 1980s popular culture, and occasional poignant character portraits that, in such a farcical context, appear jarringly out of place.

Black Monday revolves around a small, roguish, and fictional investment firm headed by an insatiable hustler, Maurice (Don Cheadle), who outsmarts rival traders and whose confidence can seem intoxicating. He’s a ruthlessly efficient carnival barker, lording over a kingdom populated by strippers, misogynists, and homophobes, where cocaine and finance crimes are abundant. Indeed, his behavior and milieu are so exaggerated that attempts by creators David Caspe and Jordan Cahan to engender sympathy for Maurice—by revealing his deep emotional vulnerability, or giving him a humble backstory—lack emotional resonance. Black Monday mines humor from its Wall Street cesspool and Maurice’s extravagance, but those two components eventually undermine whatever goodwill the character might inspire.

Black Monday dabbles in farce, simplistic social commentary, and character study, without managing to establish a coherent point of view toward its subjects or their universe. With its eye toward greed and materialism, the series recalls The Wolf of Wall Street, while its breezy pace and comedic flourishes bring to mind The Big Short. Ultimately, it lacks the well-honed moral perspective of either of those films, but it doesn’t commit to the nihilistic reverence of a series such as HBO’s Veep either. Stranded between earnestness and cynicism, Black Monday seems to exist merely to remind us of events that once occurred, and people who once existed.

A screenwriter who appears in the second episode to see if Maurice’s story might be worthy of Hollywood provides a clue for how the series might eventually focus itself: The writer decides that Dawn (Regina Hall), the top broker at Maurice’s firm, is a more fitting figure for adaptation. Indeed, Dawn, as a black woman attempting to crack into an industry which is largely white, male, and insular, is the most plainly sympathetic character in Black Monday. Hall excels as the feisty and competent broker, whose barbed repartee with Maurice provides some of the show’s most heady dialogue. And in the brief moments when the series illustrates the daily indecencies and biases Dawn suffers, even in a humorous light, it manages to derive some actual pathos, and a sense of stakes.

The humor in Black Monday is super-concentrated, laden with witty wordplay and quick retorts. One typical punchline comes when a broker (Horatio Sanz) realizes that the Nintendo game Duck Hunt is not, as he had assumed, titled Da Cunt. Dick jokes abound, and large swaths of an entire episode are devoted to a cartoonish cocaine bender; very little of the show’s humor is original, but even the most simplistic jokes are elevated by familiar, funny performers like Sanz and Paul Scheer, who deliver reliably well-timed line readings.

Such comedy, even when immaterial to Black Monday‘s specific Wall Street milieu, is consistently effective, and the series succeeds as an absurdist reminder of the excesses of the ‘80s. Yet results vary when the writers endeavor to expand on their cartoonish portrayal of Wall Street. By attempting to ground the characters of Dawn and Maurice, and ostensibly working toward some insight into a historical event, the series does occasionally adopt a patina of gravity, or hint at some crystallizing perspective. Mostly, though, such gestures toward a coherent point of view or clear direction are underdeveloped, as the series rushes for another joke or reference, and in the process comes to resemble Maurice himself: exciting and articulate, with little but fool’s gold and hollow promises to sell.

Cast: Don Cheadle, Regina Hall, Andrew Rannells, Paul Scheer, Casey Wilson, Kadeem Hardison, Eugene Cordero, Horatio Sanz Airtime: Showtime, Sundays, 10 p.m.

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Review: True Detective: Season Three

Season three of True Detective plays to the first season’s strengths, but it also feels like an admission of defeat.

2.0

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True Detective: Season Three
Photo: Warrick Page/HBO

In the third installment of HBO’s anthology series True Detective, creator Nic Pizzolatto opts to play to the first season’s strengths: multiple timelines, occult undertones, partnered detectives shooting the philosophical shit while they drive down the road. Even the backwoods setting—this time, the Ozarks—evokes the desolation of the Louisiana bayou that was so evocative in the show’s debut. Viewers might have figured these trappings for series hallmarks had the second season not so consciously distanced itself from them, so it’s hard not to view this return as an admission of defeat, a resignation to the limits of Pizzolatto’s personal storytelling toolbox.

But the familiar elements don’t totally dull the crime show’s construction as a character piece. This season’s protagonist, Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali), is haunted at every stage of his life. In 1980, it’s by the Vietnam War reconnaissance detail that got him the nickname “Purple Hays” and the tracker skillset he now channels into his job as a police detective. In 1990, it’s the reopening of the case at the center of the season: the disappearance of two young children. And in 2015, while grappling with dementia, he’s haunted by the life he’s lived, as it all seems to slip through his fingers. What’s left of the unhappy memories has become his strongest connection to the life he once had. He’s looked inside himself and come out disturbed by how much his insides are tangled around this one case—this fixed point in history.

Hays is a little bit gone a lot of the time, his emotions as bottled up as most of his thoughts. His eyes come alive when his mind is working through something, and they go dead when he’s angry. He’s too buttoned up for the showy soliloquys of a character like Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle from True Detective‘s first season, yet he’s no less conflicted; the three-timeline setup shows the evolution of Hays’s thought process, as he goes from shunning the past to desperately clinging to what he has left.

Despite the occasional line like “I’ve got the soul of a whore,” Pizzolatto has reined in most of his worst instincts as a writer. He gives (some) space to the development of a female character in schoolteacher Amelia Reardon (Carmen Ejogo), but he never strays too far from Hays and the mystery that comes to define the man’s life. The initially welcome focus on Hays, however, continues much longer than the character—or even Ali’s nuanced performance—can ultimately sustain. Large swaths of the season drag as a result, seemingly begging for a more engaging mystery or some other character to latch onto in an equal capacity, or even the pulpy excess of True Detective‘s second season. Dementia quickly begins to feel like a cheap ploy to ensure that certain plot revelations deliver maximum dramatic impact, as well as an excuse to dabble in hacky hallucinations like a room filled with Vietnamese soldiers or an obnoxiously cryptic vision of Hays’s dead wife.

Beyond the preoccupation with time and memory, Pizzolatto does seem to be grasping at something larger than Hays’s personal journey. He just never, at least in the five episodes of the new season made available to critics, seems to find it. The true-crime book that Reardon wrote about the case, for example, promises a look at the crime’s social impact, but True Detective‘s grasp of those broader implications is tenuous at best. In the first two episodes, director Jeremy Saulnier seems to abide with a pleasingly detailed look at the town. People take down Halloween decorations, kids ride bikes and shoot firecrackers near the ranger’s tower, a man hoards trash in a cart. Saulnier has an eye for the Arkansas scenery, as his sedate camera movements frame characters within doorframes and trap them between people’s shoulders. Hay bales sit like behemoths in the mist.

Once Saulnier departs, however, he takes that initially captivating sense of place with him. The things that seemed, at first, like flavor for small-town life end up as mere pieces slotted neatly into the mystery. Pizzolatto relegates the crime’s repercussions to broad portrayals of angry mobs. He makes sporadic, go-nowhere stabs at addressing poverty and race while the series begins to coast through familiar territory. Perhaps Hays will come to terms with the ghosts of his past by the show’s end, but the third season doesn’t suggest True Detective will ever quite reckon with its own.

Cast: Mahershala Ali, Carmen Ejogo, Stephen Dorff, Scoot McNairy, Ray Fisher, Mamie Gummer, Josh Hopkins, Scoot McNairy Airtime: HBO, Sundays, 9 p.m.

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Review: Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

Whatever assemblage of parts make up an individual viewer’s experience of Bandersnatch, it represents the best and worst of Black Mirror.

2.5

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Black Mirror: Bandersnatch
Photo: Netflix

The opening shot of the Black Mirror interactive film Bandersnatch informs us that the story takes place in 1984, the dystopian resonance of which is a bit on the nose. But this is Black Mirror, after all. The show’s formula has relied on various immediately recognizable cultural reference points placed in the context of a speculative high concept. What if Gamergate types could use MMORPGs to replicate consciousness? What if those military robots from Boston Dynamics go rogue and kill everyone? What if streaming and gaming technologies constitute a surveillance network that offers the illusion of choice in a society of creeping totalitarianism?

That last question drives at least parts of Bandersnatch. The film flashes back to the personal-computing and home-gaming revolution to offer a critique of Netflix, its own streaming platform, as a kind of dissimulating game. The ostensibly innocent everyman at the center of the story is Stefan (Fionn Whitehead), an aspiring programmer working on a computer game adaptation of the choose-your-own-adventure novel Bandersnatch by the fictional author Jerome F. Davies. Like Philip K. Dick, Davies saw his interest in free will, technology, and psychedelia notoriously slide into paranoia, dissociation, and delusion—and in ways that, of course, will have import for the film’s plot.

The viewer makes choices for Stefan as he prepares to pitch a local game developer, Tuckersoft. The first choice presented to the viewer, for example, is whether Stefan eats Sugar Puffs or Frosties for breakfast. The inconsequentiality of such initial choices recalls the tired “butterfly effect” trope, as clearly these banal decisions determine our initial path toward the story to an unknown degree. It’s not the only place in which Bandersnatch edges toward the simplistic, but these early choices function like a video game tutorial, which corresponds more interestingly with the film’s themes.

Gradually, Stefan transitions from unaware main character to unwilling avatar of the viewer’s decisions. Tuckersoft offers to publish his game, and as he copes with the months-long process of writing it, we’re asked to decide how he handles the stress: whether he wrecks his computer, pounds his desk, opens up to his therapist (Alice Lowe), or takes his frustration out on his meek father (Craig Parkinson). Stefan begins to suspect that he isn’t in total control of such actions, and this suspicion is encouraged by his new acquaintance, Colin Rockman (Will Poulter), Tuckersoft’s legendary bad-boy game designer.

The wiry, bleached-blond Colin represents the unlikely prophet archetype created by cyberpunk and hacker culture, his transcendent coolness coded in the terms of ‘80s cultural capital: Whereas Stefan listens to mainstream pop like the Thompson Twins, Colin listens to Depeche Mode and Tangerine Dream. Colin also appears to be tapped into a higher reality, as in the film’s most memorable scene, in which he explains to Stefan during an acid trip his Daviesian/Dickian theory that reality is actually made up of the sum of several different branches of reality. His and Stefan’s world, his theory suggests, is little more than a game, a repeatable simulation dependent on a system of rules outside of their control. Depending on the story path the viewer chooses from this point, this system is run by a demon called pAX, a government program called P.A.C.S., or a computer program called Netflix.

Netflix, Bandersnatch reflexively proposes, is one big choose-your-own-adventure story, in which we are presented with a bounty of options construed as our own idea (“Because you liked…”). A streaming service like Netflix, a medium of proscribed choices, offers an experience that’s more like a game than a narrative, and games offer only the illusion of free agency. It’s a fitting point to make with Netflix’s first truly interactive film, but as with many episodes of Black Mirror, there’s also something fairly obvious and one-dimensional about it—or perhaps the problem is in the presentation.

Writer Charlie Booker and director David Slade attempt to manage the potential tediousness of Bandersnatch‘s metatextuality by making the film about metatextuality itself, but in many branches of the story they lapse into using self-reflexivity as a facile punchline. For one, trying to confront Stefan with the reality of his situation leads to a dead-end joke of a conclusion concerning Netflix viewers’ demands for action. Whenever viewers access such a concluding scene, they’re presented with the option of returning to a pivotal decision and pursuing a different path, but each of the five main endpoints feel more like a metatextual short circuit than a completed pathway.

It’s not so much its pat technophobia, then, that makes Bandersnatch unsatisfying. In the tradition of great sci-fi anthology shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, Black Mirror‘s stories are often effective without being subtle. At their worst, they merely recapitulate omnipresent popular anxieties, but at their best they compel critical reflection on the technologies that structure our lives. Whatever assemblage of parts make up an individual viewer’s experience of Bandersnatch, it will likely be a mixture of both.

Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Will Poulter, Alice Lowe, Craig Parkinson, Asim Choudhry, Tallulah Haddon, Jonathan Aris, Suzanne Burden, Jeff Minter Airtime: Netflix

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