Written and directed by Terence Winter, “Walk Like a Man” came close to being all things to all Sopranos viewers. For the “less yakkin’, more whackin’” segment of the audience, it offered breasts and blood aplenty, and it zipped through its densely packed narrative with a breathless sureness reminiscent of the show’s more conspicuously plot-driven first season (which makes sense, considering that there are only four episodes left; the show might as well circle around to where it started). But beneath its surface pleasures (and surface nastiness) was one of the most complicated structures of any single Sopranos episode—so dense, in fact, that I felt obligated to watch it twice before writing this, and had intended to watch it a third time until the 24-hours-in-a-day rule kicked in until it became clear that if I didn’t write something soon, I’d have to title the column “Sopranos Tuesday.” So I won’t attempt to be as comprehensive here as in previous posts; if I gloss over anything, hopefully we’ll get to it in the comments section.
I figure the best way to move through this thing is layer by layer, starting at the level of What Happened. Tony earned goodwill from the feds who dine at Satriale’s by giving them information on the two Muslim guys, Ahmed and Muhammad, who used to hang at the Bada-Bing but now seem to have gone fundamentalist—or so Tony claimed; he’s not the most culturally sensitive mobster in the neighborhood. “Tell me they’re not gonna blow up the chemical plant or some shit,” says Christopher, who then responds to Tony’s request for a contact number. Whether this will culminate in a terrorism-related final stretch or just a commendation (or “5-K”) letter in Tony’s file as a possible sentencing buffer is anyone’s guess.
Tony also belatedly responds to Dr. Melfi’s request to be a more diligent patient by declaring that he plans to quit therapy because it’s bullshit that isn’t doing him any measurable good—but he ends up sticking around to seek counsel on his son AJ’s depression. AJ has spiraled into the lower depths of despair, blankly watching TV all day, making suicidal remarks to sister Meadow and not-quite-stalking his ex-fiancee, Blanca; he goes to therapy—with a shrink so impassive that he seemed to have been animated by Chuck Jones; when he stared blankly at AJ, I half-expected to hear a lone piano key go, “plink!”—but seems to have pretty much the same reaction to the experience as Tony in super-grump mode, namely, thinking it’s useless at best, a scam job at worst. Tony’s own version of therapy consists of urging AJ to attend a party with the two Jasons, the Rutgers-enrolled, gambling-rich, petty mobster sons of a couple of made guys, one of whom is Patsy Parisi.
Patsy’s bragging on his boy’s ambition spurs Tony to confess to Melfi that he fears that AJ’s life is doomed to be shit because depression, and perhaps criminality itself, flow through Tony’s veins. AJ does start hanging out with the Jasons, and the experience doesn’t so much pull him out of his depression as distract him with intoxicants and power-tripping. Inadvertently fullfilling Tony’s own prophecy to Melfi, the Jasons use AJ as muscle-by-implication, keeping him around to sweat clients that haven’t paid up, then inviting AJ along as they punish one debtor by kidnapping him from a party, dragging him into the woods and pouring acid on his toe. (AJ’s closeup in this scene ranks among Iler’s strongest acting moments. It’s terrifying yet oddly blank, as if a switch has been flipped inside AJ even though AJ doesn’t know it yet.)
Meanwhile, Christopher’s father-in-law, who’s doing a brisk business in stolen construction tools courtesy of Paulie, gets ripped off by a couple of Paulie’s boys. Christopher’s complaints over Paulie’s rudeness sparks a feud between the men, who were already accustomed to pissing in each other’s Wheaties. A switch seems to get flipped inside Christopher as well. He’s increasingly sensitive about the fact that his dedicated sobriety has put him at odds with his line of work. His insistence on walking the line, coupled with Bobby Bacala’s increasing closeness to Tony (indicated in a backyard barbecue at the Moltisantis’ house where Tony blows off Christopher so he can keep conferring with Bobby), makes him feel shut out. Early in the episode, Chistopher gets his balls busted by Paulie for refusing to drink with him at the Bada-Bing, and for declining an invitation to take a ride and get some prime rib. All this leads Christopher to lash out against the most obvious source of his discomfort, Paulie—an embittered colleague who never got over the fact that Chris rose faster in the family than he did.
The episode culminates in a series of brutish and tragically absurd acts: Christopher busting up a card game and laying into one of the tool thieves; Paulie taking revenge by doing donuts all over the Moltisantis’ landscaped suburban lawn; and ultimately, Christopher visiting Paulie at the Bing to make peace, impulsively deciding to make the bond official by drinking with him, getting drunk and talking in slurry Hallmark terms about being a dad and embarassing himself in front of all the macho men of the Bing, then stalking off and seeking counsel from his AA buddy JT (Tim Daly), the writer of Cleaver. Christopher tries to unburden himself of his agony over the dark secrets of Da Family—in particular, his participation in the death of his fiancee, a mob stoolie.
JT doesn’t just deny Christopher the empathy he seeks; he rebuffs him, supposedly because he’s got a deadline to deliver a Law and Order script, but really because he doesn’t want to get too close to a guy who’s in the mob and seems hell-bent on filling his head with incriminating information. “You’re in the Mafia,” JT tells him bluntly—maybe the most banal yet vicious cutdown since the moment in the film version of Glengarry Glen Ross when Kevin Spacey’s smug office manager twists the knife in down-and-out salesman Shelly Levene (Jack Lemmon) by telling him that the leads Shelly tried so hard to close were never going to buy anything: “They just…like talking…to salesmen.” On his way out, Christopher pulls his gun and ventilates JT’s forehead.
And now’s as good a time as any to switch over to some drive-by analysis. On a level of pure craft, this episode was a marvel, not just because of the amount of information it contained, but also because of how it toyed with audience expectations. So many potential “endings” for the show were teased out and then either defused or complicated that at times it seemed as if series creator David Chase had ordered some intern to dig up every article every written that speculated on how the show would wrap up, then compile a master list and distribute it to the writers so they’d know what not to do. Could a Christopher-Paulie feud still bring down the family? Maybe, but the peacemaking scene at the Bing seemed to put a period to that. Might Tony or Christopher get in a jam and squeal to the feds? It could still happen, but while Tony’s gambling continues, and Christopher’s stupidity in this episode left him with a conspicuous killing to deny, I don’t think Chase will go in this direction—and that if he does, he’ll avoid the obvious route. Both the Chris-Paulie feud and Christopher’s repeated attempts to confess his role in Adriana’s death and relieve himself of his overwhelming guilt—notice how each time he alluded to the event, he used more specific, incriminating language—seemed less about “How do we end the show?” than “How do we force these characters to acknowledge the reality of their lives”? (My former Star-Ledger colleague Alan Sepinwall has suggested that Chase’s idea of ultimate punishment is forcing someone to look in mirror and see the truth.)
I’ve theorized at various points that Christopher would be the one who ultimately sold out the family, because his compulsion to sell screenplays and produce movies indicated an overwhelming desire to tell stories—a sick twist on “Write what you know.” I thought maybe it would turn out that the entire series has been filtered through Christopher’s perspective. But that’s probably too neat for Chase, and really, at this late stage, there’s no point trying to anticipate where things are going, because Chase just isn’t going to go there. The episode’s closing image represents Chase’s M.O. in one shot: Christopher heads for his front door after re-planting a tree uprooted during Paulie’s rampage, and as he walks up the steps in a static wide shot, we keep staring at that tree, thinking it’s going to fall over. And it doesn’t. What’s brilliant about the shot is the fact that Chase has been outsmarting us for so many years—with climaxes and anticlimaxes—that when Winter cuts to the wide shot, we feel certain the tree won’t fall. Then we expect it to fall anyway, because Chase wouldn’t normally do something like that, and doing it would violate our expectations. Then he doesn’t do it, which means that he’s violated our expectations by satisfying them. David Chase’s CAT scans aren’t photographs. They’re drawings by M.C. Escher.
The “What’s next?” game is fun, but what’s more interesting—to Sopranos-ologists, and perhaps to Chase as well—are the reflections, doublings and tangential echoes created by juxtaposing plotlines: not what happens, necessarily, but what it tells us about the characters, and what the events tell the characters about themselves. For instance, I don’t believe that Christopher killed JT to prevent him from revealing the secrets Christopher drunkenly confessed about the family. (The death of a screenwriter he employed would draw so much attention that it would cancel the zip-your-lip aspect of the murder.) I don’t think JT’s killing was about anything but Christopher’s realization that—like the late Eugene and Vito, and like Tony—he’s trapped in this life and can’t get out without destroying the organization, himself, his blood family or some combination. He’s rooted to Da Family even though, emotionally, he’s uprooted himself many times.
More than some episodes, “Walk Like a Man” often indicated that The Sopranos’ true interest isn’t gangsterism, but psychotherapy, and psychology’s determination to unpack, define and fix the roots of human unhappiness despite evidence that it’s not possible to do such a thing because people are just too complicated, and therapy’s methods too reductive (despite their insistence on respecting the mysteries of the personality). There are at least five sequences in “Walk Like a Man” that depict therapy or something like it. None are comforting. There’s Christopher’s group therapy confession; there Chris’ subsequent, coded one-on-one in the stairwell, where he recasts his fiancee’s murder as a dispute over a bad employee he happened to be sleeping with (a characterization that’s true, as Obi-Wan Kenobi once bullshat Luke Skywalker, from a certain point of view); and of course, there’s Chris’ final visit to JT, where he seeks an authentic connection, and a reassurance that he can finally tell the truth about who he is and what he’d done without being manipulated or punished or sold out, only to be rebuffed (thus the killing round: JT told him a truth he didn’t want to hear, and Chrissy literally shot the messenger). Then there’s Tony’s scene with Melfi and AJ’s interlude with his own shrink: both prove equally useless in the short run, though the respective relationships might eventually amount to something if both therapist and patient pledged to dig deeper.
Speaking of digging: the scene in the TV room between Tony and AJ contained one of the best uses of a film clip in the show’s history, from the 1968 movie The Hellfighters. That’s a drama in which Wayne plays Chance Buckman, a fictionalized version of real life firefighter Red Adair, who was also the basis for Bruce Willis’ character in Armageddon. Adair’s specialty was putting out fires on oil rigs—fires that might conceivably burn forever, depending on the size of the deposit below—by drilling deep into the earth and extinguishing the blaze with a well-placed explosive charge. That’s a macho metaphor for the more sensitive, feminized work done by Dr. Melfi and her colleagues, who dig into the heart of patients’ histories and personalities trying to root out the sources of lifelong trauma—or at least, that’s what Melfi’s sessions with Tony ought to be. Unfortunately, Tony’s right to say that Melfi has spent much of the past six seasons treating symptoms rather than probing root causes—though, to be fair, she might have dug deeper by now had Tony seemed more open to the idea. (If you’re inclined toward a Roman Catholic reading, the Wayne film’s title seems rather on-the-nose.)
Equally intriguing is Winter’s examination of the destructive effect of macho culture, which is passed along through the generations (witness the two Jasons) through a combination of nature and nurture. Building on last episode’s amazing use of the theme to The Deer Hunter in the scene where AJ proposes to Blanca, Winter teases out the Cult of Macho—not just through numbing images of violence and whoring, but through seemingly incidental touches that linger in the mind because of their metaphoric aptness. The old codes, defined in last episode’s scenes where would-be surrogate fathers Tony and Phil berated Vito’s disturbed goth son, are repeatedly likened to hazing. The scene where the Two Jasons torture their client in the woods has overtones of an initiation rite (for AJ). Tony himself invokes fraternities to Carmela as a justification for sending AJ to a party where he can drink and cavort with hookers even though he’s not of legal age. The low end of hazing is represented in the party scenes with the Two Jasons: all male entitlement and apelike swagger. The devilish depths are represented by Tony’s recalling how his dad pulled him into the life by making him do a hit back in 1982 (a murder only recently uncovered by the authorities), yet punishing Bobby for humiliating him in a drunken brawl by forcing Bobby to do a hit (his first). The hit draws Bobby even deeper into Da Family and tightens Tony’s control over his destiny.
Then there the related matter of fathers and sons. Tony vocally obsesses over the idea that both criminality and depression are genetic, even as he rejects (to Christopher) the notion that alcoholism is a condition, an inherited disease like, well, Alzheimers’. (If Chris’ dad and Tony’s hero, Dickie Moltisanti, was nothing but a junkie—as Chris says at the barbecue—then what does that make Tony? Nothing but an overeating, boozing, coke-snorting, stripper-banging fraud?) Tony tries to save his own son, who he fears will follow him into mob life, by commanding him to attend a party at Sin Central, the Bing, a mob-run fleshpit where, as Christopher notes, booze and sex are everywhere and half the strippers are cokeheads. Tony evinces a similar push-pull attitude toward Christopher. As Chris points out, Tony’s the kind of guy who will pour a recovering alcoholic a drink with one hand, and with the other, judge him for taking it.
These codes are intertwined with straight male identity. Even men who have never gotten within a thousand miles of a fistfight or a whorehouse have entertained urges like the ones that are the Sopranos mobsters’ stock-in-trade. Yet these impulses—and the industries devoted to satiating them—coexist with banal rituals of family life, wage slavery and consumerist reflex. The episode’s penultimate scene finds Tony and AJ—both hung-over and trying not to act too guilty—joining the women of the house, Carmela and Meadow, for a family dinner around the kitchen table.
Sopranos recaps run every Monday at The House Next Door. For more articles about the series, see The Sopranos in the sidebar at right.
Review: Mindhunter Season 2 Grapples with Identity and the Power of Words
The show’s second season reveals the intricate intersections between personal and political neuroses.3.5
The first season of Mindhunter distinguished itself from other crime shows by offering an origin story, dramatizing how the F.B.I. forged its Behavioral Science Unit. At its most resonant, the season reminded audiences that institutions and corresponding notions of reality have to be invented and manipulated, and creator Joe Penhall and co-executive producer David Fincher rhymed this social invention with one of a more personal sort. The F.B.I. agents pioneering criminal profiling, Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), had to fine-tune their personalities in order to realize their vision, particularly when interviewing the captured killers who gave the men insight. The B.S.U.’s resident psychiatrist, Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), also engaged in role-play, hiding her homosexuality from a traditionally reactionary arm of the American government.
Season one was driven, then, by unreleased tension, especially as the killers offered extreme and distorted windows into repressed desires that are more common than Tench would prefer to admit. It was, in the tradition of Fincher’s Zodiac, an epic and neurotic procedural that, in the vein of the director’s The Social Network, understood the power of words, especially as Ford and Tench gradually fashioned an iconic term: “serial killer.”
Mindhunter’s second season doesn’t have the same benefit of novelty as the first, as the B.S.U. is now established, if still fledgling. Correspondingly, we have a better idea of how the unit works, and Ford, Tench, and Carr’s dynamic has solidified to suggest relationships that are reminiscent of other crime series. Ford is the wild card, a man who uses his lack of social grace to forge a kinship with others even more profoundly alienated from society. Tench is the old-school G man, who often uses his credibility—professional as well as masculine—to keep Ford’s superiors from reining him in. Also seeking to rein Ford and Tench in is Carr, who naïvely believes that the men can glean more insight from the killers by sticking to a script.
Penhall, Fincher, and the show’s high-profile guest directors, Andrew Dominik and Carl Franklin, challenge these relationships by splintering them. Ford and Tench’s volatile buddy routine, one of the primary pleasures of Mindhunter’s first season, is largely absent here, as the men are chasing their own respective obsessions. The first three episodes of the season, directed by Fincher, are piercing essays on isolation and sadness. Fincher, who has a reputation as an exacting formalist in the key of Kubrick, favors sculptural compositions that invest even routine actions with elements of menace and poignancy. When Ford flies to Atlanta, Fincher dollies in on his seat from the front of the plane, fashioning a diagonal image that emphasizes the tightness and the anonymous discomfort of the vehicle. This scene lasts only a few seconds, and for many directors it would be a routine transition shot, but Fincher uses it to affirm Ford’s torment as well as the general grind of endless travel.
In the second episode, Fincher fashions the finest moment of the entire season, which rivals the best sequences of his films, when Ford and Tench interview Kevin Bright (Andrew Yackel), a survivor of the BTK Killer. Kevin is framed in a ghostly silhouette in the back of a car, while the F.B.I. men sit in front, and as he describes the atrocities he witnessed, Fincher emphasizes the sound of a train passing by on the bridge overhead, suggesting Kevin’s painful transition into the past. Characteristically of Mindhunter, a moment that crime shows tend to take for granted—the interviewing of a witness—is itself turned into a set piece, which dramatizes a victim’s distress and the immensity of Ford and Tench’s quest to quantify madness. Notably it’s Tench, rather than Ford, who proves to be the empathetic talker this time.
Narratively, Ford’s alienation is expressed via a startling gambit, as he’s essentially reduced to a supporting character in the second season. In its first, Mindhunter was driven by his sense of discovery, by his yearning to see his own disaffection in mad men. By contrast, Ford still seems somewhat reduced here by his climactic meeting with Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton) in last season’s finale, and he’s fragile, even more egotistical than usual, and distracted, searching for something. And so season two is hung, emotionally, on Tench’s shoulders.
McCallany gives a beautiful and moving performance, informing Tench with a vulnerability and decency that many characters—so taken with his profession, big frame, square jaw, and crew cut—happen to overlook. (Carr’s new girlfriend, Kat, played by Lauren Glazier, smugly refers to Tench as “General Patton.”) More than ever, Mindhunter is obsessed with the systemic discrimination of law enforcement, yet it doesn’t turn its law enforcers into racist, sexist caricatures—slobbering monsters ready for our distanced disdain. Tench is a likeable character who also casually sees homosexuality as deviancy, which periodically limits his scope, as a law man and a man in general, and which also challenges our own empathetic tendencies and idea of who we should find likeable. Tench inadvertently hurts Carr with certain comments, especially when she gets in the field herself and uses her experience with an older woman (played in the first season by Lena Olin) to bond with an incarcerated young man who helped an elder lure, torture, and rape other children. The show dares to rhyme Tench, straight man incarnate, with Carr, as they’re both consigned to play stereotypes.
Tench faces a wrenching familial crisis this season, and few notice his pain, which he wears in his tight shoulders. Nancy (Stacey Roca), so devoted to their unraveling adopted son, Brian (Zachary Scott Ross), neglects her husband’s escalating misery as well as Brian’s potential devolution into a predator. (Nancy isn’t as well-drawn as Tench, and she borders on becoming the cliché of the cop’s nagging housewife.) Meanwhile, Carr must play the intellectual, the gatherer and sorter, though she yearns to return to the field again and shows a flair for improvisation that rivals Ford himself. The irony of Carr outing herself in an interview with a killer is considerable, as she uses a realm of role-play as a confessional, throwing the killer a crumb of authentic human feeling only to walk it back later with her professional peers.
The lengthy interviews that Ford, Tench, and Carr conduct are more exactingly rendered and theatrical this season, which features a who’s-who of killers, including David Berkowitz (Oliver Cooper), William “Junior” Pierce (Michael Filipowich), Tex Watson (Christopher Backus), and Charles Manson (Damon Herriman), each of whom have special vanities that must be satisfied. Berkowitz admits that calling himself the “Son of Sam”—that a dog ordered him to murder his victims—was a con when Holden flatters his shrewdness. Pierce opens up to another F.B.I. agent, Jim Barney (Albert Jones), when the investigator gives him candy, which he pops into his mouth with memorably childish, nearly dainty relish. Manson, played with ferocious gravity by Herriman, disarms Tench when his anti-capitalist, everyone-is-violent-but-me shtick happens to stir Tench’s guilt over Brian. These sequences are dramatic in the moment but collectively suggest the emotional wear and tear of Ford and Tench’s profession, as they experience behavioral extremis over and over with results of questionable value.
Mindhunter is still exhilaratingly occupied with detail, which becomes particularly evident in the season’s main arc, where Tench, Ford, and Barney help local law enforcement investigate the Atlanta child murders, in which dozens of children of color were killed from 1979 to 1981. This investigation involves the navigation of multiple planes of government and law enforcement with many agendas, and these negotiations come to drive the show nearly as much as the hunt for the killer. Some of the victims’ families believe the K.K.K. to be involved, but local politicians, many of whom are people of color, don’t want to blow a potential social powder keg, though they also don’t wish to commit political suicide by abiding Ford’s conviction that the killer is a black man. This is the sort of Catch-22 with which Mindhunter is obsessed, and such difficulties are intensified by bureaucratic minutiae. In a prolonged and amusing moment, Ford is notified of all the departments he must contact simply to distribute flyers. Most of these episodes are directed by Franklin, who has a subtler visual palette than Fincher and who evinces a powerful delicacy with racial tensions that’s reminiscent of his most acclaimed works of Southern noir, One False Move and Devil in a Blue Dress.
Mindhunter’s second season is both epic and intimate in its sprawl, collapsing dozens of famous crime stories together, revealing the intricate intersections between personal and political neuroses. Tench and Carr’s senses of repression are rhymed with that of Barney, a black man who’s implicitly charged with keeping the peace between the Atlanta politicians, the mothers of the murdered and missing children, and the F.B.I. at Quantico. According to the series, as the B.S.U. expands, it moves away from its primary, idealistic promise to become vulnerable to both the necessary as well as the petty limitations of any public service body. The BTK Killer (Sonny Valicenti), who still haunts the series in the episode prologues, wouldn’t be caught for decades, and 22 of the unsolved cases in the Atlanta child murders were hastily closed in order to keep Atlanta’s political tensions at a simmer, the latter of which Mindhunter acknowledges in a finale that’s every bit as deliberately and poignantly unsatisfying as Zodiac’s. This series is so stirring for showing how murder mysteries reflect every element of society, and are therefore on certain levels almost inherently unsolvable. To understand an element of human nature is to know how truly little one knows.
Cast: Jonathan Groff, Holt McCallany, Anna Torv, Stacey Roca, Michael Cerveris, Joe Tuttle, Cameron Britton, Sonny Valicenti, Zachary Scott Ross, Christopher Grove, Regi Davis, Christopher Livingston, Crystal Lee Brown, Siovhan Christensen, Sierra Aylina McClain, Brent Sexton Network: Netflix
Review: On Becoming a God in Central Florida Sees the Cult in Capitalism
The show’s myriad absurdities are resonant reminders of how tough it is to get lost in the labyrinth of capitalism.3
Florida water park employee Krystal Stubbs (Kirsten Dunst) earns the nickname “the alligator widow” after her husband, Travis (Alexander Skarsgård), works himself into bleary-eyed exhaustion and, then, gator-inhabited waters. Travis fell victim to a friendly neighborhood pyramid scheme, Founders American Merchandise, whose promises of wealth and prosperity prompted him to dump the family’s life savings—including their mortgage and life insurance—into FAM’s coffers, leaving Krystal holding both the bag and their baby. As conceived by Showtime’s On Becoming a God in Central Florida, this vision of 1992 America is a morass of hucksters and hollow promises, and the series explores that world with both a sharp eye and a peculiar sense of humor.
FAM is fronted by Obie Garbeau II (Ted Levine), a mustachioed messiah figure whose plans and philosophies are distributed via cassette tape to the pyramid scheme’s participants. Fueled by a volatile combo of spite and desperation, Krystal has had all she can stand of Garbeau and true believers like her husband’s “upline” supplier, Cody Bonar (Théodore Pellerin). As Krystal, Dunst is a whirlwind of charisma, and she makes you believe that the character, as her mask of Southern-accented politeness dangles by a thread, can take on the whole system by herself. Yet her schemes to do so often send her tumbling back to the bottom time and again, dragging people like her manager and neighbor, Ernie (Mel Rodriguez), down with her.
Krystal doesn’t even want to get rich, much less do it quick; she just wants some stability, to the point where she takes on odd jobs like teaching a water aerobics class. But through some cruel confluence of fate and capitalism, she has to get in deep with FAM to get permission to fill her class with the people below her on the FAM pyramid. She’s paid two dollars per aerobics attendee, after all, and that’s nothing to sneeze at when she needs to get her home’s utilities turned back on and doesn’t want to sleep in the water park’s supply room.
What keeps On Becoming a God from succumbing to suffocating bleakness is its silly tone, that toothy, dead-eyed smile with which it regards a faintly psychopathic Americana. It’s filled with weird cult terminology and self-consciously goofy names, from a FAM blasphemer being called a “stinker-thinker” to characters frequently mistaking Bonar for various pronunciations of “boner.” Even Garbeau’s name sounds like “garbage.” The show’s imagery grows more dreamlike and hallucinatory as the season progresses, from Garbeau viciously smashing all the fruit in his refrigerator to Krystal being immersed in a womb-like tub that’s supposed to let her re-experience her own birth. When you follow the myth of exceptional American individualism this far into the weeds, the series posits, nothing makes sense anymore.
The show’s brand of dark, quirky comedy, however, feels stretched a bit thin over 10 episodes of at least 40 minutes each. Suggesting an excellent half-hour comedy saddled with an excess of incident, On Becoming a God doesn’t always know when to pull back on its weird developments and ironical names, resulting in a tone that can feel as derisive as it does empathetic toward people struggling to survive under capitalism. The longer people drone on about “the Garbeau system,” innocently suggest Olive Garden is their idea of fancy, and use “stinker-thinker” with real conviction, the fuzzier the line gets between laughing at the system’s absurdity and just laughing at people we’re supposed to see as suckers.
When the comedy does work, the series keenly captures our dubious relationship with the prospect of wealth, as when Cody praises Krystal by calling her a “millionaire in waiting.” She and the others under FAM’s thumb aren’t kept down by any dearth of ingenuity so much as their lack of power. At worst, they’re naïve due to immersion in a culture that encourages them to regard the wealthy with adulation rather than skepticism, and in such moments, the series engenders sympathy: If the show’s eccentric world hardly makes sense to us, how can it make sense to the characters caught up in its various scams? On Becoming a God may take place in 1992, but its myriad absurdities are resonant reminders of how tough it is to “get ahead,” and how easy it is to get lost in the labyrinth of capitalism.
Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Théodore Pellerin, Mel Rodriguez, Beth Ditto, Ted Levine, Usman Ally, Eric Allan Kramer, Cooper Jack Rubin, Alexander Skarsgård Network: Showtime
Review: Carnival Row Is a Haphazardly Stitched-Together Genre Pastiche
The series is a genre patchwork whose individual elements fail to coalesce into a coherent whole.2
Among Carnival Row’s fantastic creatures is an especially monstrous one made of sewn-together bits of dead things: centaurs, humans, a sea animal, and so on. The beast, the exact nature of which is the subject of sustained buildup and disappointing payoff, proves a fitting avatar of Amazon’s fantasy series, a genre patchwork whose individual elements, though compelling in bursts, fail to coalesce into a coherent and satisfying whole.
Prior to the events of the series, the Pact and the Burgue, two human empires, waged a colonialist war to control Tirnanoc, the home of a winged, fairy-like race called the Fae. The Burgue falsely claimed to be fighting to protect the Fae, and following the Pact’s victory, refugees have fled to the Burgue’s capital city, where they’re oppressed and indentured. Now, a series of violent murders are being committed against the city’s non-humans, and while the tribalist all-human constabulary can’t be bothered to investigate them, detective Rycroft Philostrate (Orlando Bloom), or Philo, relentlessly pursues the cases.
Throughout its loosely connected storylines, Carnival Row fully and melodramatically commits to diverse genre traditions. Imogen Spurnrose (Tamzin Merchant), a vilely racist socialite, engages in a taboo romance with a non-human, and the series soaks her arc in a vat of wondrously cheesy monologues that embody the most exaggerated tendencies of period dramas. Philo’s sleuthing, while grim, is peppered with the delicious clichés of hard-boiled noir. At one point, the police chief tells Philo that he can’t save all of the non-humans in danger, and Philo slams his fists on the chief’s desk and roars, “Damn it, I can save one!”
The series, however, suffers from the fundamental tension between its over-the-top genre tropes and the gravity with which it handles its socio-political allegory. A group of kobolds—teeny, trollish bipeds—is “deported,” and the event is initially quite poignant. But the histrionics of Imogen, Philo, and others, as well as the show’s frequently shallow development of its characters, undermine that pathos. The series bewilderingly deems the hateful Imogen worthy of redemption solely on the grounds that she has sex with a non-human. Such context renders the deportation, and events like it, more glib than reflective.
Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevingne), a newly arrived Fae refugee and Philo’s former lover, grants the audience its most immediate view into the oppression of non-humans, primarily through her indentured servitude to Imogen and her domineering brother, Ezra (Andrew Gower). When working, Vignette is made to wear tight clothing that binds her wings. This restrains not only Vignette’s ability to fly, but also her sense of self. Unfortunately, the show’s writing similarly limits Delevingne, tying her performance down with overwrought dialogue that undercuts the emotional climaxes she’s routinely tasked with delivering.
Carnival Row prioritizes a certain kind of messiness: not the mess of feeling and thought, but that of the body. Over the course of Philo’s investigation, we get up-close looks at each murder victim’s mangled corpse, and these moments put the weaknesses of the show’s direction on full display. In addition to having the cadavers shoved in our faces, we’re repeatedly smacked in the head with testaments to the violence’s gruesomeness: At one point, a police officer vomits at a crime scene, and later, a child witnessing a killing urinates in his pants, the resulting puddle filling the frame. The emphasis on excretions, perhaps meant to contextualize the violence to viewers all but desensitized to butchery, feels lazy and unsubtle.
The show’s world-building feels haphazard rather than meticulous. We see, in a single episode, a few shots of a religious icon: a Christ-like figure, who’s hanged instead of crucified. Thereafter, dumbfounded characters exclaim “By the martyr!” at every opportunity—but who’s the martyr? When a radical religious group poised to play a key role in the second season reveals itself, it does so toward the very end of the season in cursory, tacked-on fashion. Maybe most egregious is the early promise of Lovecraftian horror that dissipates almost instantly. The antagonist’s brand of evil, it turns out, is too familiar to inspire cosmic horror.
Not an episode goes by that doesn’t make one wonder what Carnival Row could have been had it not bitten off far more than it can chew. There’s much to like here—mostly the kaleidoscopic genre-mixing—but not enough to overcome the show’s confused handling of the socio-political allegory at its core. Would that this beast were more thoughtfully stitched together.
Cast: Orlando Bloom, Cara Delevingne, Tamzin Merchant, Andrew Gower, Indira Varma, Jared Harris, Karla Crome, David Gyasi, Arty Froushan, Caroline Ford, Simon McBurney, Ariyon Bakare Network: Amazon
Review: Season Two of Succession Paints a Humanizing Portrait of the Billionaire Class
The series demystifies the billionaire class while simultaneously painting a terrifying picture of their unstoppable momentum.3
HBO’s Succession, which concluded its first season after media scion Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) bungled a coup of his father Logan’s (Brian Cox) conglomerate, Waystar Royco, derives its acerbic satire from envisioning real-world corporate mergers as hostile takeovers performed by bullies and proxy wars waged between families with the wealth of developing nations. The morally bankrupt, mostly bumbling, but never harmless Roy family constitutes a garish caricature of billionaire excess. In season two, as they attempt to stave off their company’s acquisition by absorbing a news competitor called Pierce Media, Succession underlines the moral bankruptcy which flows from the Roys’ unfettered avarice, while simultaneously lamenting the poisonous toll such greed takes on the family.
To the limited extent that Succession is interested in the humanity of its characters, Kendall is the only member of the Roy clan who could ostensibly be considered a protagonist. He’s self-destructive, addicted to booze and cocaine, and the Jesse Armstrong-created series draws a direct line between Logan’s abusive nature and Kendall’s substance abuse. Strong’s performance emphasizes Kendall’s fear and self-loathing; the character carries himself like a beaten dog throughout most of the season, cowing to his father’s verbal abuse and stoically absorbing various retributions from his family after his failed corporate coup. Kendall’s suffering stems directly from his past ambitions, yet he remains pitiable.
Which is why, in the rare moments when Kendall seems to feel anything other than crippling fear and humiliation, such as when he connects emotionally with another wealthy addict at a corporate retreat, the series is imbued with a surprising pathos. The character, who has cruelly shuttered start-ups, attempted to overthrow his own father, and left a man for dead in last season’s climax, is a reflection of one-percent privilege. And yet, even as Succession deploys the Roy family’s inconceivable wealth as a get-out-of-jail free card for Kendall, it also portrays the Waystar heir as acknowledging and hating his privilege. He’s the sole character here who seems to know shame, which makes him the show’s most complex figure.
Of course, though it locates the humanity in Kendall’s character, the series has no interest in humanizing anyone else in the Roy clan. It frames their family meetings—which often entail board meetings, corporate retreats, or strategy briefings—as lawless war games. Rarely do any of them speak honestly, unless it’s to insult one another. The Roy siblings never take statements at face value; each one has a unique agenda, and the series derives thrills from watching this toxic family attempt to further deepen their pockets. While the family’s attempt to acquire Pierce Media constitutes a trenchant critique of capitalistic impulse (the foundering Waystar can survive only by acquiring Pierce, a company that Succession portrays as honest and civically valuable), the series derives suspense by suggesting that any of the terrible Roys could potentially sink the deal—or emerge as a family hero.
While dark humor and palace intrigue are the cornerstones of Succession, season two develops a sense of lingering melancholy that, while not aimed at making its main characters more sympathetic, imparts a poignancy to the never-ending conflicts within the Roy family. In such moments as when Shiv (Sarah Snook), Kendall’s sister and the savviest Roy, is shocked and skeptical when hugged by her brother, the series underlines the way the Roys have forfeited even their familial bonds in the service of greed. They never let their guard down, and in such instances, Succession whittles the brokenness of the Roy family to its most essential level, and imparts an elegiac sensibility: that these emotionally stunted people operate solely with regard to their appetites, and define themselves entirely by their status as winners or losers.
The Roy family members are sincere only in their insults, and their attempts to undercut each other works to take each seemingly innocuous conversation between them into the realm of real stakes. They speak almost exclusively in slights, from the unimaginative (“asshole”) to the poetic (“pusillanimous piece of fucking fool’s gold”) to the tasteless (“cumdump”), and the series revels in the way they tear at each other. The scenes which feature the entire family in a room together, supposedly acting as one entity on behalf of Waystar but undermining each other at each turn, exude an enthralling quality; such meetings devolve into hideous curiosities, layered with malevolence and bitter humor.
In the season’s most memorable sequence, the Roys have a dinner with the Pierces, the family who own the news company they wish to acquire. It’s a moral vetting, in which the Pierces are discerning just how corrupt their suitors are. For long stretches, the show’s camera bounces around a dinner table, as the Roy family, with all its conflicting agendas and glaring character flaws, implodes. It’s a breathtaking, grotesque sight, which tidily sums up Succession’s ethos: The Roys might be unworthy of their fortune, but that fortune ensures that they’ll never have to answer for their shortcomings. As they fail upward, the series demystifies the billionaire class while simultaneously painting a terrifying picture of their unstoppable momentum.
Cast: Brian Cox, Kieran Culkin, Jeremy Strong, Sarah Snook, Matthew Macfadyen, Alan Ruck, Nicholas Braun, Hiam Abbass, Peter Friedman, Natalie Gold, Rob Yang Network: HBO
Review: The Righteous Gemstones Is an Uneven but Compelling Study of Faith
The series is a compelling and humanizing study of its characters, the faith they profess, and the world they strive to proselytize.3
One could frame the premise of The Righteous Gemstones as a question: What if Danny McBride played another unduly self-assured dolt overflowing with machismo—but this time a pastor? Created by McBride, the series initially seems content to coast on the humor of that premise. But it gradually cracks the cynicism with which it frames its characters and their work, offering poignant glimpses into their inner lives. Despite its proclivity for forced, flat subplots, The Righteous Gemstones is a compelling and humanizing study of its characters, the faith they profess, and the world they strive to proselytize.
The series follows the Gemstones, a Southern family of televangelists as successful as they are crass, avaricious, and blasphemous. Led by widowed patriarch Dr. Eli Gemstone (John Goodman), whose network of mega-churches generates millions of dollars a day, the three Gemstone kids help run the family business: prodigal son Jesse (McBride) and boyish goof Kelvin (Adam DeVine) are pastors, while Judy (Edi Patterson) works behind the scenes, her dreams of preaching stifled by a tradition of misogynistic paternalism.
The myriad tensions that boil between the Gemstones are the source of much hilarity, but the show’s non-familial conflicts vary in the quality of their execution. Kelvin’s mission to save the soul of a big donor’s teenage daughter—she parties, curses, and has sex—benefits from its short-and-sweet screen time and inclusion of Kelvin’s right-hand man, Keefe Chambers, an ex-Satanist played by Tony Cavalero, who infuses Keefe’s awkward, deadpan drawl with bewitching earnestness. There’s also the escalating turf war with John Seasons (Dermot Mulroney), the pastor of a parish in which the Gemstones open a new worship center led by Baby Billy (Walter Goggins), Eli’s conniving and just-shy-of-smooth brother-in-law. But most prominent is the far too time-intensive blackmailing of Jesse, a central storyline that almost never warrants the space devoted to it, thanks to its particularly sluggish pacing and the shallow characterization of the lead blackmailer, Scotty (Scott MacArthur).
As the season progresses, the flimsiness of the blackmail plot is rendered all the more conspicuous by the strength of the show’s intra-family drama. Eli has been in a perpetual state of mourning since the death of his wife, Aimee-Leigh (Jennifer Nettles), and his grief distances him from his children, who are constantly at each other’s throats. After the first episode, which suffers from stilted writing that leaves the Gemstone siblings’ relationships feeling rather inorganic, the series settles into a delightful groove of caustic one-liners and the sort of McBrideisms—from characters’ confoundingly lofty language to their intense, unwarranted self-seriousness—that permeate the writer-actor’s work with longtime collaborator Jody Hill. After calling a meeting and, at its start, playing an excruciatingly prolonged series of notes on a xylophone, Jesse says, “Music has always soothed my vicious temper,” with McBride delivering the line wonderfully aware of his character’s ridiculousness. The whole cast pulls from McBride’s playbook and demonstrates similar comedic deftness as their characters add to the show’s manic verbal storm of insults and misplaced haughtiness.
For all the glee that it derives from the cruelty of its characters, though, The Righteous Gemstones refuses to damn them outright. It quietly gives the audience reasons to sympathize with the family and the people in their orbit—or, at least, to feel something closer to sympathy than antipathy: Jesse’s bedtime kisses on his kids’ foreheads; Kelvin’s wholehearted acceptance of Keefe; Judy’s frustration with the family’s sexism; Baby Billy’s wrathful reminder to Eli that he was Aimee-Leigh’s brother before Eli was her husband. These people, the series suggests, might not be charlatans. They seem to believe in what they’re doing, merely practicing their faith, albeit loudly and passionately and opulently. They’re chasing genuine Christian goodness as they conceive it, however dubious that conception may be.
All of the Gemstones have moments of vulnerability, but the series is at its kindest, and most poignant, when exploring Eli’s grief. If his motivations don’t serve God, it’s because they serve Aimee-Leigh, whose memory he labors to honor. At one point, Eli sits alone at a candle-lit dinner table, facing a portrait of him and his late wife. He speaks to her, his tired baritone reaching for nothing, resounding in the silence. Later, after getting into a dust-up with Judy, Eli watches her sing and dance onstage alongside Baby Billy. She’s talented, like her mother was. Eli looks on, smiling for a moment longer than he usually does. The scene’s use of slow motion allows his joy—as well as Judy’s—to last for ages. It’s a stirring, cathartic image that reveals the Gemstones’ squabbles for what they truly are: trifling, fleeting things.
Cast: Danny McBride, John Goodman, Edi Patterson, Adam DeVine, Walton Goggins, Cassidy Freeman, Tim Baltz, Tony Cavalero, Gregory Alan Williams, Skyler Gisondo, Valyn Hall, Scott MacArthur, Dermot Mulroney, Jennifer Nettles, Kelton DuMont, Troy Anthony Hogan, Gavin Munn, James DuMont Network: HBO
Review: The Terror: Infamy Excels as an Indictment of American Oppression
The series is striking not only for its scope, but for how uncompromising it is.3
In American history books, it’s no more than a footnote that, in a fit of racist paranoia after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government corralled Japanese-Americans like animals into concentration camps. And in the white-dominant engine of American pop culture, it’s been barely represented. In this context, The Terror: Infamy is striking not only for its scope, but for how uncompromising it is. Its radicalism for taking place primarily in those camps feels matter-of-fact, with a cast dominated by non-white actors, many of whom go long stretches speaking in subtitled Japanese. There is, in the six episodes provided to critics, no POV for some complicit yet intended-to-be-sympathetic outsider, and the series portrays Japanese traditions without breaking them down for an unfamiliar audience. There is, after all, scarcely anyone living in the camps who might need those traditions explained to them.
The Terror’s prior season, which fictionalized the disappearance of Sir John Franklin’s expedition to the Arctic in the mid-1800s, was also concerned with race; the ordeals of its characters invoked themes of colonialist hubris, the very specific terror of white men arriving by boat to new lands, eyes alight with thoughts of conquest. Though Infamy moves to another time, story, and place, its mind for terror is similar: What is the dominant race capable of when the minority is under its boot? It’s another “people are the real monsters” story, albeit one of impressive thematic weight, plus unfortunate modern relevance, given the resurgence of internment camps under the current presidential administration.
Displacement runs deep through Infamy, not just in the literal sense of how its characters are forcibly relocated, but in how—no matter where they go—they’re never really at home. Chester Nakayama (Derek Mio) is a nisei, or second-generation, Japanese-American man who, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, is constantly regarded with suspicion, followed by accusatory eyes set above mouths that spit “Japanese” like a dirty word. He and others like him are caught in between, rejected by the only place he’s called home under unfounded suspicions of espionage and disconnected from the culture that birthed his ancestors.
For Chester, there’s nowhere left to go save for the fenced-in purgatory of those internment camps. Infamy understands the anxieties of race-related displacement, of not being accepted in places you naïvely believed would appreciate you, and with that understanding it builds a narrative of painful resonance. It gives form to the fears and hardships of Chester and his acquaintances both through family drama and violent, existential horror where people lose control of themselves, as their identities and actions are subsumed by something else.
Infamy is a story about exclusion and the cultural clashes it fuels, portraying not just conflict between the Japanese-Americans and their captors, but between old ways and new opportunities. Chester is stalked, seemingly no matter where he goes, by a mysterious woman (Kiki Sukezane)—a metaphorical specter of his heritage and a remnant of “the old country”—whose presence seems to bring only death. The Japanese-American characters embrace traditions and beliefs they expected to leave behind, like sprinkling rice to purify a household after seeing evidence of a malevolent force. They also reckon with new values, as Chester openly argues with his father, Henry (Shingo Usami, fantastic as a man boiling with feelings of confusion, grief, and anger), about going to college and leaving their small community on Terminal Island. The two have been shaped quite differently by upbringings that manifest contrasting expectations for their lots in life, and you feel the histories that inform their relationships, how the men are constantly pushed into reluctant positions by necessity.
Horror is more of a presence on Infamy than it was on The Terror’s first season, though to somewhat mixed success. Grisly deaths and general scares tend to arrive suddenly, with only the most basic moody buildup of anticipation. The series is prone to cutting to a character wandering around an empty space for a few moments, all the while leaning on eerie music and jarring sound effects in an attempt to pull atmosphere out of thin air. And such scenes are too clearly delineated from the central drama and character interactions to fuel any dreadful tension of what’s next; they mostly take place on the periphery, giving the impression that the series is stopping every so often, remembering it has to provide the terror promised by its title. Particularly in later episodes, some scenes are legitimately disturbing, offsetting the impatient pacing with imagery like a gnarled finger slowly unzipping a duffel bag from within. But on the whole, where Infamy excels is in its depiction of more earthly horrors.
Cast: Derek Mio, Kiki Sukezane, Cristina Rodlo, Shingo Usami, Naoko Mori, Miki Ishikawa, George Takei Network: AMC
Review: Dear White People Continues to Fight the Power in Season Three
In its third season, the series weaves social critique into its narrative with a newfound subtlety.3
Twice during the first episode of Dear White People’s third season, characters unfavorably compare life’s banalities to “the third season of a Netflix show.” These self-referential moments suggest a certain cynicism on the part of the series, as if it were preemptively excusing its continued existence, maybe compensating for a dearth of new ideas. But while the show’s new season doesn’t assume the pointed, instructional posture of its previous ones, no such throat-clearing is necessary. Dear White People maintains its sardonic wit and insightfulness, and though the series weaves social critique into its narrative with a newfound subtlety, it formulates a damning portrait of Winchester University as an institution concerned primarily with preserving its entrenched power structure.
Dear White People has always focused on the tinder-box tension derived from racial identity—consider season one’s calamitous blackface party, or season two’s alt-right campus insurgence—but this time around the cultural and interpersonal obstacles of Winchester’s students seem comparatively low-stakes: Gabe (John Patrick Amedori), the show’s chief representative of white privilege, faces a financial burden for the first time in his life after his family goes broke; Troy (Brandon P. Bell) confronts his role as a token black voice at Pastiche, a campus humor magazine; and Sam (Logan Browning), throughout the majority of the season, tries to pinpoint a theme for her student film. Having depicted Winchester’s overt hostility toward its black community in past seasons, the series now draws considerable emotional gravitas and compelling commentary from the quotidian struggles of its characters and the insidious influence of the school administration—while maintaining that, though they may carry less potential for tragedy, such everyday obstacles are nonetheless informed by issues of identity.
Perhaps the biggest divergence from the show’s past incendiary posturing is reflected in the way Sam has been repositioned: While hosting the titular campus talk show on issues of race, the character was often deployed as a literal delivery system for much of the show’s polemical heat. But for much of Dear White People’s third season, Sam is seen quietly grieving her father’s passing—and this shift in temperament doubles as the show’s self-reflexive acknowledgement of its own evolution. She resists supporting various causes throughout the season, opting against signing a fellow student’s petition, and remains averse to even guest-hosting her old radio show. Similarly, Lionel (DeRon Horton), who as a campus reporter was in the past deployed as a handy plot device, spends the season simply searching for love. His attempts to locate his niche within Winchester’s gay community are portrayed with an earnest warmth, as the series derives sweet humor and intimate character moments from his story.
Although Dear White People reformulates its narrative emphases in season three, the show’s buoyant humor and dynamic visual flair remain consistent. A restless camera follows the students of the Armstrong-Parker House as they move swiftly through campus spaces and lob witticisms at one another, almost as if they were on an Aaron Sorkin show. All of them continue to speak with a voluminous knowledge of pop culture and capacity for barbed quips. Their cleverness and cultural knowledge would be easier to dismiss as aspirational flourishes designed to reflect creator Justin Simeon’s ideals if the heady repartee between students didn’t ensconce even the show’s most trenchant critiques in ebullience and communicate them with clarity. Everyday life for Winchester’s black students, though often marked by adversity, is also characterized by a resilient, intoxicating humor and confidence.
The series most overtly bristles against racism and corruption in peripheral subplots and extended comedic bits this season. In one such bit, Sam watches a fictional prestige drama that’s a pointed caricature of Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. She’s unable to look away from it, even after agreeing with her roommate, Joelle (Ashley Blaine Featherson), that it’s “tragedy porn…porn,” for the way it both appeals to its audience’s righteousness and appetite for sensationalism. As a sexual assault rumor emerges on campus, the Handmaid’s Tale spoof throws Dear White People’s frank portrayal of college rape into stark relief. And while Troy’s experience at Pastiche and Gabe’s struggles with newfound poverty would appear to have little bearing on the central plot, the series cannily uses both characters’ arcs to explore the myriad ways that institutions preserve a status quo—from Gabe using the results of a DNA test to dubiously help secure grant funding for his thesis, to Troy’s ouster from Pastiche after he attempts to bring to it a uniquely black perspective.
Through ancillary plot threads such as these, Dear White People attempts to parse the most effective means, and the most urgent reasons, to challenge institutional power. For example, after the sexual assault claim is dismissed by the administration for fear of what a serious inquiry might do to the university’s power structure, Sam is effectively put into the position of giving a voice to every assault survivor who’s been denied a voice on campus. In this and other subplots, the series is as adept as ever at distilling broad, topical conflicts to their essence, and it maintains its heartening faith in the liberal arts bubble to double as a petri dish for a substantive exchange of ideas and personal growth.
Still, Dear White People feels newly meandering in its third season. Much like the rough cut of Sam’s film, which begins as a powerful collection of humanistic vignettes rather than a well-honed documentary, these episodes offer a boggle of slightly underdeveloped narrative arcs. Although they comprise a varying and empathetic portrait of millennial anxiety, season three falls short of the show’s benchmark for narrative tension. The sexual assault arc is left mostly unresolved, while the story of a mysterious order of black elites, which began in season two, is left undeveloped in the background. Despite never attaining its usual insistent thrust, however, Dear White People locates poignancy in characters who, after fighting unwieldy, important battles for two years, confront their own waning momentum—and begin to wonder if personal fulfillment and cultural progress are not, necessarily, correlated.
Cast: Logan Browning, Brandon P Bell, Antoinette Robertson, Marque Richardson, Ashley Blaine Featherson, DeRon Horton, John Patrick Amedori, Giancarlo Esposito, Nia Jervier Network: Netflix
Review: Four Weddings and a Funeral Is a Bloated, Unimaginative Slog
The miniseries is a cautionary tale of how ballooning a story’s size doesn’t inherently improve its telling.1.5
Beyond the requisite weddings and funeral, Hulu’s remake of director Mike Newell’s romantic comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral freely departs from its source. Rather than tracking a man’s various relationships almost exclusively through those social gatherings, the miniseries, co-created and co-written by Mindy Kaling, casts a much wider net by following the romances of four American friends in London, as well as a neighbor, an ex-fiancée, and others, none of whom have exact analogues in the original film. At 10 episodes, the series certainly has more than enough space to explore the depths of these characters, but it fails to put that extra time to effective use, ending up as yet another cautionary tale of how ballooning a story’s size for television doesn’t inherently improve its telling.
The 1994 film’s at once limited and expansive scope—multiple weddings across multiple months but with few scenes in between—is its hook as well as its biggest flaw, as the story rarely stops long enough to develop the relationships between its characters. So the series’s decision to spend so much time on the spaces between those weddings is an ostensibly savvy one. Not long after Maya (Nathalie Emmanuel) meets cute with restless aspiring actor Kash (Nikesh Patel), the series details her job in politics, her current relationship with her married boss (Tommy Dewey), and the dynamic with her estranged college pals, who all moved to London while she stayed in New York City for her job (and boyfriend). But the series never accumulates enough such details to make its characters feel particularly defined. Flimsy depictions of characters at work and becoming romantically entangled are clearly meant to stand in for any deeper characterization.
To be fair, the most average examples of the romantic comedy tend to function this way; like middle-of-the-road action heroes or interchangeable slasher victims, the star-crossed lovers of a rom-com are often cardboard vehicles on a collision course with their genre-mandated fates over the course of two hours or less. Such characters may be functional enough to hold together a comparatively short film, but they’re hardly up to the task of anchoring a miniseries of such stupefying length as this one. Rather than dig deeper into their personalities and backstories to accommodate the extra screen time, the series opts to simply add more characters: more pretty people, more couplings, more romantic snags.
Everything quickly devolves into a parodically huge pile-up of distended will-they-or-won’t-they dramas that mingle with the dregs of the series’s mugging sitcom cartoonishness and reference-heavy banter. Where the film addresses a peripheral unrequited romance between two friends through a single conversation, the miniseries version of this subplot encompasses multiple episodes. And despite the show’s overtures about personal growth, everyone’s insipid work-related problems are all so ludicrously self-inflicted that they seem designed to pad the running time: Maya spends an episode learning that having sex with her boss doesn’t endear her to future employers, and Kash realizes that putting in his two weeks’ notice to pursue acting when he has no experience is, in fact, a bad idea.
Jettisoning the film’s narrow focus on social gatherings doesn’t free up the series so much as leave it unmoored, a muddled spiderweb of relationships that only occasionally manifests some moving development, as in the sweet, unexpected trajectory of Kash’s arranged marriage through his mosque. There are times when the series manages to balance relatable emotions of longing, devastation, and indecision with inventive comedy, like the bizarre entanglement of Craig’s (Brandon Mychal Smith) love life with a reality TV show. But the most galling thing about this new Four Weddings and a Funeral is how downright unimaginative the rest of it is, as if simply drawing out various predictable conclusions will enrich the eventual catharsis. But when distributed across so many episodes, the lovelorn spark that fuels romantic comedy doesn’t get brighter so much as dim until you hardly notice it at all.
Cast: Nathalie Emmanuel, Nikesh Patel, Rebecca Rittenhouse, John Reynolds, Brandon Mychal Smith, Zoe Boyle, Sophia La Porta, Harish Patel, Guz Khan Network: Hulu
Review: The Boys Is a Bleakly Cynical Take on the Superhero Genre
The Amazon series is a little too fond of its antiheroes to really throw them in the muck.2.5
Adapted from writer Garth Ennis and artist Darick Robertson’s cult comic book series, The Boys is a cynical, bleakly comedic take on the superhero genre. In both the comic and TV show, superheroism has been privatized, with various costumed fighters managed and marketed by companies like Vought International. When, for example, A-Train (Jessie T. Usher)—who’s part of an elite team called the Seven and bills himself as the fastest man alive—accidentally crashes into a woman on the street, her body explodes into a gory soup of blood and bone, the fingers on her severed hands still intertwined with those of her boyfriend, Hughie (Jack Quaid). A Vought representative assures Hughie the company wants to do “the right thing” and offers him $45,000, as long as he signs a nondisclosure agreement.
Vought’s celebrity superheroes are so rich and powerful, so above it all, that the deaths of normal people don’t faze them. Crowds may be good for the adoration that fuels their fame and feeds their images, but on an individual level, a regular person is as significant to them as a scuff on their focus-tested boots. This, a trench-coated, bearded man named Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) tells Hughie, is where he and his team—informally called The Boys—come in, to retaliate against superbeings when they get out of line, by whatever means necessary.
Much was made of the difficulty in adapting something so gleefully profane as Ennis’s Preacher for TV, and his Boys comics arguably go to even greater (and occasionally pointless) extremes. In translating them to a one-hour-per-episode streaming format, the show’s writers add about as much as they subtract. Amazon’s adaptation certainly maintains the graphic violence, though in the writers’ attempts to excavate Ennis’s salient commentary and anarchic ideas, they judiciously cut much of the sexual violence and juvenile shock tactics while turning a more sympathetic eye to the characters. No longer do any of them feel like simple vehicles for cruelty, or targets meant to receive it. A large portion of each episode is even devoted not to The Boys, but to the inner workings of Vought, from the perspective of the largely sociopathic Seven and the company’s vice president Madelyn Stillwell (Elisabeth Shue), who’s as practiced at navigating super-egos as she is at coldly crunching the numbers behind smoothed-over corporate acts of representation and empowerment.
Some of the show’s very best moments come from its wicked corporate satire, often seen through fresh-faced hero Starlight (Erin Moriarty), the newest member of the Seven. Her glimpse behind the scenes is hardly what she expects, as her outfit is made more revealing by the marketing team, various characters encourage her “authenticity” as if it’s a cultivated false persona, and festivals featuring organizations named things like “Capes for Christ” book her for speaking engagements. Though The Boys includes hilarious moments like hero The Deep’s (Chace Crawford) attempt to rescue a dolphin from his SeaWorld-like sponsor or a proposed reality show about the Seven, the series satirizes our fascination with celebrities, fictional heroes, and capitalism at large without losing its class-conscious edge: There are no real supervillains in this world, only the natural abuse of power by the super-powerful.
Elsewhere, though, the show maintains a few of the comic’s problems with race and women. It’s in the silent, infantilized Asian woman (Karen Fukuhara) who joins The Boys, the Middle-Eastern terrorist clichés, and all the dead women piled around the story’s margins to motivate its chiefly male protagonists. But it also never quite reconciles the pitch-black roots of its principal characters with their more sympathetic TV counterparts. The Boys are no longer a C.I.A.-sanctioned hit squad as they were in the comics so much as everyman vigilantes raging against the machine, and rather than regard their actions and bravado with skepticism as Ennis’s source material did, the show arrives at an awkward middle ground.
For as much as The Boys’ exploits start off with a gruesomely literal bang, the Amazon series pulls back to posit them as more of an investigative crew engaged in some occasional blackmail as they dig through Vought’s secrets, leaving only Urban’s Billy Butcher to occasionally play the wild card. The Boys’s skewering of superheroism is often clever, but as the series progresses, the more hands-off approach of Butcher’s crew can leave them with little to do, to the point where the messy, circular plotting of the finale all but leaves them sitting on their hands. Although this adaptation excises the most misanthropic parts of its source material, Ennis did, at least, have a clear thematic vision for that mean, nihilistic story. This show, by contrast, is a little too fond of its antiheroes to really throw them in the muck, to the point where they can feel like guests in their own series.
Cast: Karl Urban, Jack Quaid, Elisabeth Shue, Antony Starr, Erin Moriarty, Dominique McElligott, Jessie T. Usher, Laz Alonso, Chace Crawford, Tomer Capon, Karen Fukuhara, Nathan Mitchell, Jennifer Esposito Network: Amazon
Review: Season Three of GLOW Offers a Multifaceted Vision of the ‘80s
Season three eschews the notion that there’s a single experience of the ‘80s that should dominate above the others.3
Netflix is awash in nostalgia for the 1980s, and from a certain distance its original programming’s reliance on the visual kitsch of the early MTV era can come off as a bit cheap. The opening credits of GLOW, which is loosely based on the eponymous real-world troupe of women wrestlers, goes all in on ‘80s-era signifiers: Neon-pink block letters alternate with rotoscoped outlines of women adorning themselves with headbands and tights against a black background, all set to Patty Smyth’s “The Warrior.” Taken by itself, this opening sequence suggests a gene splice of Jem and the Holograms and A-ha’s “Take on Me” music video, promising little more than bouncy ‘80s camp.
To series creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, however, the ‘80s are more than fodder for fun visual references. Yes, Debbie’s (Betty Gilpin) hair can get pretty big, and it’s hard not to notice that Ruth (Alison Brie) often wears her jeans tucked into her oversized sweat socks. But such recognizable hallmarks of ‘80s fashion are small details of a concretely realized world, grounded foremost in the show’s characters rather than in glitzy pastiche. GLOW mines an era of visual overstimulation, corporatized sexuality, and gender politics for stories that remain deeply relevant in a time when most people are keeping their socks under their pant legs.
Whereas the first season of GLOW focused on the schism between struggling actresses and former best friends Ruth and Debbie, season two refocused the narrative attention by spreading it out, supplying full arcs for the better part of its expansive and diverse cast, and season three follows suit. As the season opens, Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling has transitioned from a fledgling local television program to a limited engagement at a Las Vegas casino run by Sandy Devereaux St. Clair (Geena Davis). The city of spectacular excess is neither fetishized nor condemned, but it does have an effect on the L.A. transplants, compelling each of them toward reconsiderations of their sexual desires or identities—or, in Sheila’s (Gayle Rankin) unique case, her she-wolf persona—and their goals—like Debbie’s struggle to balance her life as a new mother with her ambitions to become a successful business woman.
While Debbie and Ruth each find themselves at a crossroads as their show extends its Vegas run—now a producer as well as a performer, Debbie looks to seize more power behind the camera, while Ruth grows anxious about her stalled acting career—the other women contend with their own issues in the highly gendered space of Vegas variety shows. Cherry (Sydelle Noel) begins to have second thoughts about having a child with her husband, Keith (Bashir Salahuddin), because of the impact it will have on her career as a wrestler and stuntwoman. Tammé (Kia Stevens) hides the toll that performing is taking on her spine for fear of losing her only gig. And the meek Arthie (Sunita Mani) must take stock of her own sexuality after a fight with her girlfriend, the much more unapologetically out Yolanda (Shakira Barrera).
And then, of course, there are the men: Bash (Chris Lowell), the founder and bankroller of the wrestling show, remains GLOW’s go-to comic relief, an infantile millionaire susceptible to the flashiest trends in clothing and live showcases. Bash is more than a punchline this season, though, as his recent green-card marriage to British-born wrestler Rhonda (Kate Nash) and his meeting with drag queen Bobby Barnes (Kevin Cahoon) allow a more meaningful exploration of the repressed homosexuality that the earlier seasons merely alluded to, just as Bobby’s unofficial integration into the wrestling show’s collective life spurs Arthie and Sheila’s own reconsideration of their identities. Nash stands out this season as Rhonda, the deceptively simple-minded Londoner who consistently outwits the sweet-natured but oblivious Bash, whom she grows to genuinely adore, and his abrasive, elitist mother Birdie (Elizabeth Perkins).
As Sam, the director who orchestrates the wrestling show’s action, comedian Marc Maron continues to surprise. Sam has softened up a bit in season three, but his growing compassion for the women under his watch is still tinged with the barely reformed misogyny of a hip ‘70s auteur (he suggests a poor man’s Brian De Palma, as his films are beloved equally by aesthetes and sleazeballs), a juxtaposition of qualities lent credence by Maron’s ability to simultaneously project cynical world-weariness and puppy-dog woundedness. Like the much younger Ruth, Sam is increasingly finding the repetitive nature of his show’s live performances unfulfilling. Trapped together in the secluded playground of Vegas, the two begin reconsidering the nature of their relationship, which leads to comically cringe-worthy tension with Ruth’s long-distance beau, Russell (Victor Quinaz).
If the first two seasons of GLOW were about this group of women coming together, season three is implicitly about them growing apart as they seek validation outside of their shared pro-wrestling gig. These episodes aren’t anchored by a strong, centralizing narrative—saving the wrestling show, vanquishing a greedy casino owner, finding true love, or triumphing over sexist management—but, rather, it explores varying aspects of these women’s lives with each relatively self-contained episode. Even if a couple of these stories end up a tad undercooked, this approach to serial television gives GLOW an admirably democratic vibe, as it eschews the notion that there’s a single experience of the ‘80s that should dominate above the others.
Cast: Alison Brie, Betty Gilpin, Marc Maron, Sydelle Noel, Britney Young, Kate Nash, Gayle Rankin, Kia Stevens, Jackie Tohn, Chris Lowell, Bashir Salahuddin, Kevin Cahoon, Sunita Mani, Shakira Barrera, Geena Davis, Ellen Wong, Britt Baron Network: Netflix
Review: Remnant: From the Ashes Mistakes the New for the Noteworthy
Review: Brittany Runs a Marathon Is a Moralizing Buzzkill of a Comedy
Review: Ready or Not Ribs the One Percent with More Laughs than Horror
Interview: J. Hoberman Talks Make My Day, Ronald Reagan, and ‘80s Movie Culture
Blu-ray Review: William Friedkin’s Cruising on Arrow Video
Review: Mindhunter Season 2 Grapples with Identity and the Power of Words
Review: Taylor Swift’s Lover Course Corrects in Multiple Directions
Review: Angel Has Fallen Paints an Incoherent Picture of an Action Hero
Blu-ray Review: William Friedkin’s Cruising on Arrow Video
Locarno Film Festival 2019: Technoboss, Echo, & A Voluntary Year
- Games5 days ago
Review: Remnant: From the Ashes Mistakes the New for the Noteworthy
- Film6 days ago
Review: Brittany Runs a Marathon Is a Moralizing Buzzkill of a Comedy
- Film5 days ago
Review: Ready or Not Ribs the One Percent with More Laughs than Horror
- Books5 days ago
Interview: J. Hoberman Talks Make My Day, Ronald Reagan, and ‘80s Movie Culture