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The Wire and the Art of the Credit Sequence

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The Wire and the Art of the Credit Sequence

walk the straight and narrow track.”

—Tom Waits, “Way Down in the Hole”

The Wire returned Sunday, September 10th after two years in limbo, a stretch equal to the last Sopranos hiatus. Yet while The Sopranos’ production gap was seen as an affront to the show’s fan base, The Wire languished in relative silence. Its largely non-white cast, tangled narrative, and bleak assessment of public institutions pretty much guaranteed a minuscule audience so it was unsurprising that HBO chairman Chris Albrecht shelved the drama after three seasons and then told TV columnists, “I have received a telegram from every viewer of The Wire—all 250 of them.”

After lobbying by fans and pitches by Simon, Albrecht reconsidered and gave the show another year (and the love continues: the show was recently picked up for a fifth and final season). Having viewed Season Four in its entirety, it seems to me that two years away from Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) and the gang may have actually been beneficial, giving the writers the necessary time to think about The Wire’s vision of America and how each season progressively enlarges the scope of that vision.

Over time, the show has evolved from cops versus gang-bangers into a look at the similarities between organizations on both sides of the law, and how their struggle affects individual citizens and failing public institutions. Each main plot and subplot affirms that every part of society is somehow connected to every other part—that we’re all part of the same (to use a phrase that often crops up in discussions of Deadwood) “human organism.”

Unfortunately, that organism is made up of people who are mainly interested in protecting their turf. They often don’t know how their actions affect others and, if they do know, they cover their mistakes or pretend they didn’t make any, then hope that things don’t get too bad in the long run. Their behavior is akin to cutting the top off a weed and praying the root doesn’t regrow the moment you turn your back. Think of the hasty wrap-up of the Barksdale case in season one, which left Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) on the streets, or the fall of “Hamsterdam” in season three, where mayoral candidates used Major Howard “Bunny” Colvin’s (Robert Wisdom) doomed social experiment to screw one another over for the benefit of the cameras. When Season Four begins, the major characters have all spent time living with the consequences of their choices, and because of this experience they’ve become different people. They’ve taken promotions or moved into completely different professions; they’ve sparked up new relationships and abandoned old ones that have run their course. Like its characters, The Wire evolves, moving beyond themes it has already explored and letting itself veer into new territory. Each season represents not just another case to be solved, but an enlargement of the show’s pessimistic portrayal of America, a place where economic inequalities and institutional corruption reproduce themselves over time.

It is no surprise, then, that The Wire’s opening credits are not an ordinary credits sequence, but a series of four short films that distill each season’s themes, goals, and motifs. On most TV dramas the credits sequence is little more than a contractual pecking order with flashy graphics and catchy music—examples of what job-hunting production houses would call a “sizzle reel.” Even the credit sequences on HBO’s other programming, which are always evocative and given a full minute to breathe, usually seem detached from the shows themselves, to the point where they work as stand-alone mood pieces. But The Wire’s four credits sequences don’t fit any of these descriptors; the images are taken out of context from the season’s individual episodes and arranged in a pattern that only makes sense if you watch the show closely. The content changes significantly from season to season, yet each credits sequence adheres to the same basic editing rhythms and visual schemes. The theme music is always Tom Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole,” but each season it’s performed by a different artist from a different genre. Working in concert, the audio and the visuals create a 90-second mini-narrative that alludes to each season’s victims and assailants, its legal and political strategies, its criminal schemes, its surveillance devices, and its instruments of death. The entire assemblage is scored to a mournful biblical cautionary tale about the necessity and difficulty of resisting temptation and sin.

Taking a cue from Homicide: Life on the Street (another show sprung from the pen of former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon), the season-one credits use police iconography and staged crime scene footage to convey the down-and-dirty feel of Baltimore’s killing streets. But the images aren’t suspenseful, glamorous, or even especially menacing. The compositions are often off-center or partly out-of-focus, conveying a world-weariness and a tedium on both sides of the divide. Accompanied by the octogenarian gospel act the Blind Boys of Alabama, the season-one credits sequence announces that The Wire is not a kicking-down-doors-and-busting-heads kind of cop show. There’s a patient and persistent atmosphere to the sequence, exemplified by its protracted running time. Instead of armories or Kevlar vests the credits display affidavits, court orders, mug shots, antiquated surveillance equipment (as the show progresses the tools of the trade move ever so slowly into the 21st century), and people dragging on cigarettes to pass the time.

As in the show proper, the credits display as much insight and respect for the process of maintain- ing a criminal empire and eluding prosecution as they do for honest police work. With the fanfare of an industrial training video, we watch gel-caps being assembled, dealers positioning themselves in a driver’s-side window, and the body language of a back alley hand-off. Just as the officers of the Baltimore police department are, in a manner of speaking, trained professionals, so too are the various dealers and enforcers under the employment of street kingpin Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) and his formidable lieutenant, Stringer Bell. The sequence shows the series’s fondness for counter-intelligence and misdirection while setting the stage for a battle of wills in which neither side is inclined to lay down and die. In the most memorable shot—and one of the few images to be integrated into every season’s credits—we watch two dealers literally bring down a surveillance camera with a projectile. It’s a bold display of defiance and a reminder that both sides are aware of the other’s tactics.

A dialogue is brokered through the alternating images of law enforcement and those seeking to undermine it; the cutting creates symmetry through juxtaposition. To wit: a pay phone call in which a dealer orders a re-up of drugs is followed by a shot of an officer listening in through an ear-piece. Though their heads are out of frame, the man using the pay phone is clearly facing screen left, while the man with the ear piece is facing screen right. Yet bisecting the frame in both shots is the titular wire, occupying roughly the same position within the frame. The cop needs the criminal and the criminal is only forced to employ cloak and dagger tactics because of the cop.

Or consider this sequence: a hand in close-up hits the pavement, dropping a handful of vials. An indifferent foot steps on the glass and, in a match on action, we cut to the feet of a uniformed officer on mop-up duty. Simon has often used the show as a forum to address his frustration with the war on drugs, and in this brief sequence we see just how cyclical it has become. Drugs are made illegal, leading to decreased supply and increased demand, leading to substandard product and violence, leading to increased policing and the further manipulation of supply.

II


“If you walk with Jesus
he’s gonna save your soul.
You gotta keep the devil
way down in the hole.”

Though I’ve been unable to determine who is primarily responsible for the look of The Wire’s credits sequence, it’s tempting to single out the great Geraldine Peroni. (In addition to an illustrious career as Robert Altman’s regular editor—from 1990 until her death in 2004—Peroni also cut the first two episodes of The Wire.) Whomever the template can be attributed to, the decision to alter it can likely be credited to Simon. In an interview from 2003, the writer-producer is quoted as saying, “This is the same show [song], but this year the tale itself [singer, tonality] will be different.” He goes on to say, “No one writing this show has any intention of telling the same story twice. That’s not the point of this show.”

With Avon and much of his crew behind bars at the end of season one, and McNulty—the show’s ostensible lead—shunted off to port detail, the scope of The Wire’s second season was required to evolve. The writers recognized that bringing down another drug cartel so quickly after putting away the Barksdale crew would be tantamount to repeating themselves, so they wisely changed emphasis, shifting the Special Crimes Unit’s watchful eye to the corrupt labor unions at the Baltimore docks.

Operating less as procedural and more as tragedy (what Simon called “a meditation on the death of work and the betrayal of the American working class”), the second season of The Wire creates a dilemma in the minds of the viewer. What happens when your antagonist is a hard – working family man who breaks the law to preserve a way of life for other hard-working family men? Are those who enable the infrastructure of the drug trade any less culpable than those who package and distribute it? And just as the corner boys are a creation of circumstance and their environment, we can’t help but sympathize with Frank Sobotka’s (Chris Bauer) fall from grace, as it is a by-product of a society that prizes economy and speed over honest labor and professional know-how.

For this second season, the targets are now predominantly middle-aged Polish-Americans and shadowy Turks (amusingly enough, the head Turk, played by Bill Raymond, is referred to as “the Greek”) with a decidedly different set of rituals and cultural norms. For a show where both the cops and dealers often take pride in being from Baltimore’s west side, season two finds us across town on the east, never far removed from the Atlantic and the ports at Patapsco.

Embold- ened by the success of the first season, the credits begin with a graphic match right out of the gate, cutting between the digital frequency wave of a sound modulator and a large piece of rope securing a boat to a dock. In contrast to the darkened corners and night-time crime scenes—many of which are imported from the season-one credits—most of the shots in this sequence are in plain daylight. This is partly a concession to reality as stevedores don’t off-load ships at night. But the sunlit frankness of these images has a metaphoric aspect: it speaks to the impunity with which these men bend the law. Like the old joke about a television falling off a truck (an image that serves as a bedrock for criminal activity on The Sopranos), losing a few shipments among the stacks is an almost condoned form of larceny. It is only when a personal grudge forces the hand of the Special Crimes Unit to investigate that this ethical onion unpeels itself. To score the season-two credits, the producers chose Waits’ original recorded version of “Way Down In The Hole.” This announces that season two will have different themes, a different feel, and a down-and-dirty sleaziness that can only be summoned via electric guitar and a voice which, to quote Gary Graff’s Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, sounds “like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months and then taken outside and run over with a car.”

The “sexiness” that was distinctly absent from season one is introduced in literal form: a come- hither look from an attractive blonde; cherry-red polish being applied to a woman’s delicate nails; a man’s hand unzipping a woman’s jacket in a seductive downward motion; the faces of European prostitutes staring up from confiscated passports. The Wire has never played coy about sex, particularly McNulty and Bunk’s (Wendell Pierce) frequent games of one-upsmanship through sexual conquest. But season two, which revolves around a cargo container full of dead prostitutes, delves into more carnal matters. (In one memorable scene, McNulty goes undercover at a brothel, is forced to stall for time until reinforcements arrive, and ends up having to fill perhaps the most creative “wounded in the line of duty” form in history.)

Look beyond the sequence’s sexual imagery and you discover the overriding theme of season two: personal encumbrances that bring about downfall. The events of this season are put into motion because of Major Stanislaus Valchek’s (Al Brown) unwaver- ing animosity towards Sobotka. Sobotka’s death is a direct result of his trying to save the life of his wayward son Ziggy (James Ransone). The come-hither blonde is the girlfriend of Sobotka’s nephew Nicky (Pablo Schreiber) who is desperate to start a new life and so becomes embroiled in lucrative criminal activities. The hand unzipping the jacket belongs to Stringer Bell. The jacket belongs to the girlfriend of Avon’s nephew, D’Angelo (Larry Gilliard Jr.). Sweet-natured and loyal, D’Angelo rots in jail to protect his uncle. When his resolution waivers, Stringer orders the young man killed, unbeknownst to Avon. Stringer rationalizes his deceit as a move to protect Avon’s interests, but the fact that he’s secretly involved with D’Angelo’s woman certainly motivates him as well. (Incidentally, the image of Stringer unzipping the jacket will be repeated in the credits of Season Three, when the chickens come home to roost and Stringer pays the price for his actions.)

The opening sequence also draws a clear parallel between drug abuse and alco- holism, cutting from a recycled image of a drug hand-off to a shot being poured in a dank bar. Just as the crimes of the union are considered more socially acceptable than pushing drugs, the credits introduce the idea that getting hammered at the local pub is merely the condoned flip-side of pushing off in an abandoned building. Alchoholism is its own special form of societal ill, arguably destroying more lives than drug abuse ever will, yet while we look down our nose at Bubbles (Andre Royo) and his ilk, scrambling to score and drooling on themselves in a haze, The Wire repeatedly gives us supposed authority figures puking all over themselves in public, getting behind the wheel while under the influence, and abandoning their better judgement while soused. McNulty, in particular, finds himself a slave to his addiction, and is unable to come to terms with his life until he learns to put the bottle down.

III


“He’s got the fire and the fury
at his command.
Well you don’t have to worry
if you hold on to Jesus hand.”

Season Three of The Wire reminds us that there are people out there more formidable than Mediterranean smugglers and more duplicitious than West Baltimore drug dealers: bureaucrats.

An easy joke, granted; but this is, after all, the season where the mighty Stringer Bell gets scammed out of $250,000 by a plump huckster in an expensive suit, and all he can do is glower and pout. In this season, both cops and criminals angling for legitimacy butt heads with an institution (local government) and learn, in so many words, that you can’t fight City Hall. The Neville Brothers perform the theme song’s third incarnation. It’s a far more up-tempo rendition than the previous two, but it’s also more boisterous and spiritual, employing a call and response technique that makes it seem as if the words are being sung between a church choir and its congregation.

Season Three focuses on the idea of improving the community, with several creative variations on what exactly entails said community. Certainly mayoral candidate Tommy Carcetti (Aidan Gillen) thinks he can make Baltimore a better place, using a platform of improved crime statistics to siphon off voters from Mayor Clarence V. Royce’s (Glynn Turman) strong black voting base. Season Three gives us the aforementioned “Hamsterdam,” a safe haven for competing corner boys to sell their wares, with the police merely serving as impartial referees. We also meet Deacon, a religious figure who genuinely wants to make a difference in the community, and starts by helping former convict Dennis “Cutty” Wise (Chad L. Coleman) open a boxing gym/community center (this plotline is made especially poignant by the casting of Melvin Williams, ex-drug dealer and the inspiration for Avon Barksdale, in the Deacon role). Even Stringer Bell becomes an advocate of civic behavior by creating “the co-op,” a regular gathering of Baltimore’s drug barons in a hotel conference room. With its polite discussions and written minutes, it resembles nothing so much as a sales convention—which, in a sense, it is.

Beginning with the destruc- tion of the housing towers early in season three, we can see change happening all around the characters, and it is represented in the credits as well via images of blueprints, construction sites, and ground-breaking ceremonies. Yet just as prevalent is the sight of money changing hands. Real estate and development, like drug dealing, is a lucrative business that often unfolds on the wrong side of the law. In Season Three, the cops go after targets that rank higher on the social pyramid than Avon and Stringer, and find it just as hard to make their case.

Continuing a theme from season two’s opening is the inclusion of sex. While one could cynically see this as trying to once again make for provocative images (replacing explosions with strippers) I see it more as acknowledging the seduction that often precedes the fall. The strippers are hired out for parties; their sexual favors are a form of currency meant to seduce susceptible would-be soldiers like “Cutty.” But Cutty’s not the only one letting himself be seduced; Stringer is entranced by the lucrative world of legitimate business, desperate to free himself from the same world that Avon violently clings to. Marlo Stanfield (Jaime Hector), the young and ambitious drug dealer who takes over the West Side in Avon’s absence, makes a rare tactical mistake when he allows himself to be seduced by a young woman working as an assassin. Even Tommy Carcetti, a white man in a town that isn’t, is tantalized by an opportunity to unseat an acting mayor, a seemingly impossible political maneuver we later learn is only meant as a stepping stone to the governor’s mansion. But as it turns out, Tommy can’t keep it in his pants, either: as Henry Kissinger once observed, power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.

Carcetti attempts to usurp Mayor Royce by lowering crime numbers, but the Baltimore police department responds to his mandate not by making quality arrests, but by gaming the numbers, under-reporting more grievous crimes and prosecuting minor offenders more aggressively. While the brass bang the podium, demanding results, the rank and file are thrown into harm’s way for the sake of imaginary numbers.

A couple of moments in the Season Three credits confirm The Wire’s disdainful attitude towards “the numbers.” We see Valcheck walking in silhouette against a Power Point presentation of crime trends, unable to raise an eye to the impossible marching orders laid down by COMSTAT. This is followed by the shot of a lonely binder of statistics and paperwork, its spine uncreased. The Wire clearly distinguishes between the meticulous, far-ranging work done by the Special Crimes Unit, who build quality cases against high-value targets, and the superficial, grab-and-cuff police work preferred by officials whose Q-ratings depend on flashy stats.

The credits also remind us of the narrow line The Wire often rides between real life and fiction. Simon worked as a reporter before moving to television. Producer/writer Ed Burns spent years working as both a police officer and a public school teacher. As such, the show often makes use of their ground-level knowledge of the city and its residents. Certainly shooting on location in Maryland adds to that verisimilitude, but even more helpful is the way the show fills out its roles by combing the ranks of former cops and criminals, lending realism and color wherever possible.

Among the real-world ringers was Robert F. Colesberry who wore an inconceivable number of hats on the show, serving as one of The Wire’s original executive producers, an occasional director, and playing a supporting part as homicide detective Ray Cole. When Colesberry passed away a few months after the Second Season finale, “Port in a Storm” (an episode he incidentally directed), the show said goodbye with a most loving tribute in a Season Three episode where his fellow boys in blue gathered at a local pub and serenaded his corpse with a rousing rendition of The Pogues “Body of an American.” While viewers may have grown restless at this rather bizarre and seemingly digressive send-off for a character they most likely didn’t even remember, it’s the greatest respect that the creators of a tightly-plotted show could pay, slowing things down to say goodbye to one of their own. To this day, a framed photograph of Cole remains in the show’s credits sequence.

IV


“We’ll all be safe from Satan
when the thunder rolls.
Just gotta help me keep the devil
way down in the hole.”

It’s still early in the fourth season’s run of new episodes, but already it is apparent that we’ve entered unfamiliar territory, for both viewer and show. What was once a police procedural has expanded in scope yet again, now exploring the gestation of criminal behavior and the corruption of the most sacred of institutions: government, school, even the family unit and childhood itself are tainted by the trickle down effects of compromise, power struggle, and the seemingly unavoidable magnetism of the corners. Once again, the creators of The Wire have risen to the heady challenge of conveying all of this in the opening credits, taking the art form to an even higher level. It’s filmmaking at its most concise and compelling.

Season Four of The Wire finds us deeply entrenched within the public school system. With standardized testing forced into the curriculum at the expense of applied learning, the Leave No Child Behind Act has been pretty much guaranteed to do just that. With no positive reinforcement in the home and no real (legitimate) employment opportunities within the community, the neighborhood kids see school as no more than a lay-over on the road to working a corner and being a gang-banger.

While ostensibly still a “cop show,” the emphasis law enforcement will play this season is lessened somewhat as the goal here is exploring how criminals are created as opposed to how we incarcerate them. Accordingly, there’s a youthful exuberance to the credits, extending from the cutting style (which is really quite playful) to the shot selection to the unsurprising choice of musical performer.

The other theme that will come into play is a contin- uation of one started last season about how ineffectual politicians are at solving the problems that fall under their responsibility. Opening with the now-familiar images of flickering sound waves, bundles of audio wire, and other emblems of surveillance, we cut to a white man in a suit (possibly mayoral candidate Tommy Carcetti) holding a briefcase and crossing the frame in front of a government building. We then graphic match to a large red case, which we learn early on contains an industrial-grade nail gun purchased by Marlo’s enforcer, Snoop (Felicia Pearson), as part of a unique strategy to make Marlo’s dead bodies “disappear.” These seemingly unrelated images are linked by the shape of the characters’ carrying cases. The implication, borne out in season four, is that the politicians hide their failures (in this instance the troubled school system), using creative accounting and “juked” statistics to conjure the illusion of progress.

A biblical allusion permeates the whole credits sequence, the phrase “childish things” from the Book of Corinthians. From the youthful voices (Ivan Ashford, Markel Steele, Cameron Brown, Tariq Al-Sabir, and Avery Bargasse) who sing this season’s version of “Way Down in the Hole” (arranged by Doreen Vail, Maurette Brown-Clark, and J.B. Wilkins), to images of children leaning against an ice cream truck or hands playing dice, this season promises to focus on street kids who risk death or jail on West Baltimore’s corners. We even see Marlo—himself only a few years removed from the kids who will make up his ever-growing army of dealers—tuck a couple of his trademark lollipops into his pocket.

The sequence pushes forward the idea that today’s problem children are destined to become tomorrow’s assignment. We see young kids, no more than seven or eight years old, emulating gang signals with one another, a shot of children watching indifferently as a school bus zips past, a wall-mounted convex mirror (used to monitor students rounding a corner) placed alongside grainy surveillance footage, and a closeup of a standardized test matched with images of a defaced school desk and graffiti on an outdoor wall that boasts “Bodymore, Murdaland” (a play on the show’s geographical setting and a glimpse of how children use gallows humor to cope with an unfathomable reality). Even an image as innocuous as a small boy carrying a book bag has been corrupted by the jittery effect of a camera’s iris snapping open and shut; the shot ends with the child handing off the bag to an older boy.

Finally, I want to discuss a procession of shots near the end of the credits that encap- sulates everything The Wire has worked to establish over four seasons. A local shop-keeper spins open a counter-top security window, sending through a pack of smokes. A hand (Marlo’s) spins a pair of expensive-looking designer rims. A piece of playground equipment spins anonymously at night. A child rolls a large tire around in an empty alley. Bundles of narcotics are packed alongside a spare tire in the back of a car, a piece of carpeting pulled up to conceal them. And then a similar cut of fabric, this time a body bag being carried from an abandoned row house.

The same motions are repeated throughout and the eye is unavoidably drawn to how these shots flow seamlessly into one another—not so much a graphic match before as a graphic match on action, as though one image invariably leads to the next. The local shop-keeper with the cigarettes is unable to remain clear of criminal activities. The bodega is merely a front for something far more nefarious. The rims represent wealth and status among street youth and are an incentive to enter this lifestyle. The play- ground equip- ment, an image of youthful innocence, is corrupted and contorted by the sight of an adult perched upon it, holding an alcoholic beverage as he spins aimlessly against a dark sky. The child with the tire, left unsupervised, is forced to amuse himself with whatever’s available. The drugs are another form of self-amusement, the sort of “plaything” easily acquired in the poor communities depicted on The Wire. And of course there is the corpse, where all of this is destined to lead.

This cycle is difficult to escape. It is a procession millions make every year; for many, it starts the day they are born. Time and again, those who view crime as the most direct route to power, wealth, or respect find themselves with their backs against the wall, unable to control their destinies. The success stories of The Wire (and there are a few) concern individuals who decided to forsake that which is easy for that which is true to themselves.

V


“All the angels sing
about Jesus’ mighty sword.
And they’ll shield you with their wings
and keep you close to the lord.

Don’t pay heed to temptation
for his hands are so cold.
You gotta help me keep the devil
way down in the hole.”

Simon has often referred to The Wire as “television for the hopeless.” While undeniably pessimistic and cynical about the role those in power play in alleviating society’s problems, the show—in posing the questions it does—nonetheless provides several glimmers of hope. Certainly The Wire recognizes the flaws of the system, but it also understands that there is no easy way to repair them. The best you can do, as the song goes, is try to keep the devil way down in the hole.

Andrew Dignan is a contributor to The House Next Door. His previous articles have included weekly recaps of Lost and an article comparing Deadwood and the Godfather movies. For more writing on the series, see “On the Wire” in the sidebar at right.

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Review: Legion’s Unhinged Final Season Plunges Us into an Unknowable Mind

The show’s third and final season is a visual achievement, typified by imaginative flights of absurdism.

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Legion
Photo: Suzanne Tenner/FX

After Legion’s shocking second season finale, in which it was revealed that David (Dan Stevens) had sexually assaulted his girlfriend, Syd (Rachel Keller), the series enters its third and final season with a lingering ambiguity: Is David, the show’s titular telepath and diagnosed schizophrenic, redeemable? Furthermore, to what extent is he responsible for his actions? Throughout season three, in which David is hunted by the Shadow King (Navid Negahban) and Division Three while he attempts to travel back in time to rectify his misdeeds, Legion struggles to answer these questions, which serve as the crux of the series.

Certainly, by framing David’s efforts to alter the past as self-serving and expedient, Legion maintains one view of its protagonist as an egomaniac and probable sociopath. In conversations with a rightly unmoved Syd, David’s protestations and glib promises to simply undo the past reflect his inability to grasp the gravity of his crime. And the character’s first effort at time travel, in which he attempts to protect his infant self from the Shadow King, is tinged with both self-interest and an attempt to shift the blame for his actions.

From this perspective, Legion’s depiction of David is a trenchant critique of toxic masculinity. But the series also suggests that David, while impurely motivated, might not be wrong to seek an excuse for his behavior. Nothing in the season dispels the notion that he could, by preserving his own innocence from the Shadow King’s influence, prevent himself from becoming a manipulative and self-obsessed person—or one who would commit sexual assault.

This conflicted portrayal at least makes Legion extremely effective as a plunge into sheer narcissism. To engage with David, and the show’s ever-shifting reality, is to experience the sensation of being gaslit firsthand. His passionate pleas when enlisting the help of a young time-traveling mutant, Switch (Lauren Tsai), are backed by rousing strings on the soundtrack, which imply virtue in his determination. Similarly, when David professes his love for Syd, Stevens strips David of his usual guile, offering an earnest portrayal of heartbroken regret. Such moments, which tempt us to empathize with David, and maintain the idea of him as the show’s hero, are contrasted by deflating glimpses of his selfishness. When he thoughtlessly implores an exhausted, injured Switch to bring him back to the past after a failed attempt, the series punishes us for having trusted David to consider anything beyond his own self-interest.

Legion remains a visual achievement, typified by the imaginative settings and flights of absurdism which, at their most effective, serve to illuminate David’s mental state. Season three finds David with a new cult of followers, who surround him in a ramshackle house that acts as both plot device and canvas for his volatile emotions. The house’s exposed pipes, which resemble veins or synapses, glow neon blue with a substance revealed to be a sedative drug created by David. While the drugged cult evinces David’s craving for any kind of admiration, the claustrophobic space is a realization of his addled mind. When the character is at one point consumed by rage, the pipes turn a foreboding shade of red, and his followers begin to froth at the mouth—an effectively unsettling metaphor for David’s chaotic instability.

Some of the season’s other oddball incursions are less thematically coherent or informative, especially as the series builds toward its ostensible conclusion. Series creator Noah Hawley has publicly cited David Lynch as an inspiration for the series, and while Legion does possess a Lynchian sense of unmooring suspense, the weirdness can also merely forestall whatever intelligible vision of David’s arc the series is approaching. In one such instance, a confrontation between Switch and David pushes him toward self-assessment, but the conversation quickly evolves into the entire cast singing a melancholic version of “(What’s So Funny ‘bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?” In a series with so little peace, love, or understanding, the wry song choice is clearly meant to be ironic, but the whimsical indulgence serves no purpose except to reinforce David’s already well-established inability to learn.

Season three includes more than one such musical number, which consistently resemble escapes from the character resolutions the series simultaneously inches toward and avoids. Surreal tangents once provided crucial insights into David’s mind, yet now they just as often distract from the show’s emerging assessment of the character. Legion alternately views the very act of telepathy as a violation, and David as a victim of his own abilities. Crucially, the series, by building toward a conventional showdown between David and the Shadow King, seems unsure as to which character is ultimately responsible for David’s past actions.

As the season approaches its conclusion, Legion occasionally hints at offering elusive truths about David’s nature, but just as often seems to be building toward an opaque conclusion for the character: one in which David, and his fragmented mind, simply might not be understandable in any conventional sense. Still, in its attempt to provide both character study and pure, unhinged abstraction, Legion has fashioned yet another visually distinct and uniquely bizarre season around a man’s unknowable mind.

Cast: Dan Stevens, Aubrey Plaza, Rachel Keller, Jean Smart, Amber Midthunder, Bill Irwin, Jemaine Clement, Hamish Linklater, Navid Negahban Network: FX

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Review: City on a Hill Is a Bonanza of Character Detail and Hammy Thrills

When the series isn’t immersed in pulpy shenanigans, it aspires to be a sort of Bostonian The Wire.

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City on a Hill
Photo: Claire Folger/Showtime

Not since Gerard Butler’s riotous, bloody doughnut-eating turn in Christian Gudegast’s Den of Thieves last year has an actor plumbed the scumbag depths quite like Kevin Bacon does as wayward F.B.I. agent Jackie Rohr in Showtime’s City on a Hill. Everyone within the show’s various layers of Boston law enforcement seems to know Rohr, and not a single person likes the guy—not the co-workers who bristle at his presence, not the people who return his greeting with an immediate “fuck off,” and certainly not his mother-in-law, Rose (Catherine Wolf), who threatens to expose his serial infidelity by telling his wife, Jenny (Jill Hennessy), about his recent STD test. In retaliation, he grabs a model Red Baron plane—a memento from Rose’s late husband—from the mantelpiece and makes like he’s going to smash it. “You put me in the fucking doghouse,” he growls in his hoarse Boston accent, “and I’m gonna be like Snoopy and blow your shit right the fuck out of the sky.”

When City on a Hill isn’t immersed in such pulpy shenanigans, which find the casually racist Rohr doing things like brandishing a fish at an angry old woman who calls him a “white devil,” it aspires to be a sort of Bostonian The Wire. The series, set in the early ‘90s and based on an original idea by creator Chuck MacLean and executive producer Ben Affleck, constantly keeps one eye on the systems that contribute to the city’s rot as it moves through a fictionalized account of the “Boston Miracle” police initiative that statistically reduced violence in the city. One-eyed District Attorney Decourcy Ward (Aldis Hodge) is an idealist beaten down by what he sees, given to statements such as “I like what my job should be” to justify why he thanklessly works to improve the system. He’s black, so he gets the kind of scrutiny that doesn’t afford him any goofy bad-cop antics, but Hodge dials up the searing intensity with a wide-eyed stare, the only window to the drive and the outrage bubbling beneath his no-nonsense exterior. Every so often, it leaks through with a shouted line like, “I’m not their boy.”

Rohr and Ward fall into a mismatched partnership that’s surprisingly absent any of the explosive confrontations that typically characterize odd-couple pairings in film and TV. Their hesitant camaraderie just sort of happens as they recognize their mutual interests; even if they don’t like each other, they understand one another. And from there, the series unfolds the complications (of which there are many) and the key players (of which there are even more) that will figure into a wider arc that begins with a simple armored car robbery. Laying out all the different systems that figure into the story, though, makes the first few episodes somewhat slow-going; some scenes tend to devolve into a lot of bureaucratic jargon and off-the-cuff mentions of Boston locations that might lose anyone unfamiliar with the city.

Where the series excels, however, is in the level of detail it brings to its individual characters. Armored car robber Frankie Ryan (Jonathan Tucker), for example, works stocking a grocery store, and he’s often seen doing lottery scratch cards as if constantly on the lookout for alternative cash flow. When he cuts himself putting up a bathroom cabinet, it figures into foreplay with his wife, Cathy (Amanda Clayton); he holds up his bandaged hand to say he’s not afraid of a little blood while she goes to pull out a tampon “the size of a friggin’ bus.” And when Cathy suspects her screw-up brother-in-law, Jimmy (Mark O’Brien), of absconding with their money, she yanks the cabinet out of the wall to reveal the nook where they keep unlaundered cash. Here, Frankie’s cut hand, bathroom cabinet, and working-class lifestyle converge to describe his relationship with Cathy and the exact degree of her complicity in his operation. Elsewhere, Rohr’s menacing of the model plane neatly (and hilariously) outlines his living situation and the strained relationships that encompass it.

While it’s true that none of these characters are particularly unique even within the setting (Affleck’s own The Town features a similarly honorable robber stuck with a volatile sidekick), they feel dynamic enough that their familiarity ceases to matter. They all know their way around a punchy, profane turn of phrase, and they’re usually good for some kind of amusing sight, whether it’s Rohr’s coked-up air-drumming to a Rush song or Jimmy driving to see his kids in a car filled with balloons, singing along to Marky Mark’s “Good Vibrations” with a mouthful of Bubble Tape. Such a confident grasp of character goes a long way toward smoothing over the show’s somewhat clumsier big-picture narrative, as City on a Hill proves itself as effective at small, interlocking details as it is at purely hammy thrills.

Cast: Kevin Bacon, Aldis Hodge, Jonathan Tucker, Mark O’Brien, Lauren E. Banks, Amanda Clayton, Jere Shea, Kevin Chapman, Jill Hennessy, Blake Baumgartner, Catherine Wolf Network: Showtime

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Review: Years and Years Is a Captivating Dystopian Family Drama

The series manages to pile on the cataclysms without taking pleasure in the pain of its characters.

3

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Years and Years
Photo: Matt Squire/HBO

In his memoir Self-Consciousness, John Updike describes his early adulthood by saying, “I turned thirty, then forty,” and in doing so skips over a decade’s worth of information unnecessary to the reader. Russell T Davies’s miniseries Years and Years, which will launch on HBO following its run on BBC One, similarly makes economic use of time, but where Updike jumps into the future, the series sprints. Every so often throughout the four episodes made available to press, a searing montage pushes the world a few years forward, relaying key geopolitical developments—a landmark legal decision, a diplomatic falling out, an environmental crisis—before settling back down in a global order even shakier than before.

We experience these changes through the perspective of Britain’s Lyons family, which includes tough but caring matriarch Muriel Deacon (Anne Reid) and her grandchildren: Stephen (Rory Kinnear), a banker; Daniel (Russell Tovey), a housing officer; Rosie (Ruth Madeley), a school cafeteria manager; and Edith (Jessica Hynes), an activist. The siblings, their partners, and their children are Years and Years’s primary concern, and with each lurch into the future, their lives tend to get worse rather than better. All the while, Vivienne Rook (Emma Thompson), a fear-mongering pseudo-populist, launches and advances her political career, deploring the world’s degradation and promising to represent the true wishes of the British people.

At one point, the Lyons siblings hop on a conference call to react to one of Rook’s appearances on the news. Rosie appreciates Rook’s straightforwardness—the series opens with a shockingly candid and unempathetic on-air comment that Rook makes about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—Daniel is horrified by it, and others lie somewhere in between. Rook is more than a little Trumpian, a resonant representation of the crassness that he’s made politically viable. And as Years and Years proceeds, this much becomes clear: Although it largely centers around the Lyonses, the series isn’t really about them, but about Rook. It’s about the potential for the world to operate in a way that enables Rook’s ascent and leaves people like the Lyons family staring slack-jawed at her demagoguery and electoral swashbuckling.

As Rook, Thompson seems to multiply the minutes she gets on screen with the ferocity and sheer gravitational pull that the actress brings to the politician. When she’s on television, Rook looks directly into the camera, at the Lyonses and at the viewer. And when she’s participating in a local debate, she defiantly stands at the center of the stage, in the middle of the screen, her opponents surrounding her like planets stalled in orbit.

The rest of the cast’s performances similarly ground the series’s socio-political thought experiment in human experiences. Kinnear, as Stephen, realizes a soft stoicism, a resilience undergirded by subdued positivity. When that façade finally cracks, following a death in the family, we know that Stephen doesn’t cry solely because of the loss; he’s also grieving a financial crash along with his increasingly fraught marriage, which together contribute to the gulf separating what he thought his life would be and what it has become.

Though thoughtful and moving in its exploration of such suffering, both individual and collective, Years and Years occasionally stumbles by insufficiently using its characters to contextualize its political world-building. At Rook’s debate, which Rosie and Edith attend, Rook wins over her detractors in the crowd with a swiftness that’s jarring given the weakness of her argument, which essentially justifies authoritarianism as a bulwark against the proliferation of porn. Rook’s victory feels artificial, like she manages to sway her doubters purely because the series needs her to in order to demonstrate the shortsightedness of voters. Rosie and Edith’s presence should, in theory, render Rook’s beguiling charm more believable, but the series fails to interrogate the reasons for the pair’s attraction to her.

Two monologues that Daniel delivers encapsulate the series’s sporadic inconsistency. In one, he holds Rosie’s newborn baby while questioning, aloud and at length, if it’s right to bring a child into a deteriorating world. As Daniel bemoans the banks and the corporations and fake news and more, he ceases to blink, his voice rising and quickening. He becomes a machine unleashing a diatribe that’s too neat to be convincing, the character of Daniel giving way to a Daniel-shaped megaphone. Later, though, Daniel tells off a xenophobic visitor to the refugee camp he works at in his capacity as a housing officer. This scene, in contrast to the earlier one, doesn’t burden Daniel with the weight of the world. Rather, it gives him the freedom to discuss what he’s personally and passionately invested in: the idea that refugees deserve all—and more than—the help they receive. Here, Daniel’s dialogue and Tovey’s performance are vastly more organic, emerging from within the character as opposed to simply flowing through him.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of Years and Years is the compassion with which it considers its characters. It would be easy for a series filled with so many cataclysms, both global and personal—nuclear weapon launches, deaths, infidelities—to err on the side of sadism in its depiction of that turmoil. But it takes no pleasure in the pain of the Lyonses. Instead, Years and Years recognizes that pain is edifying as well as transient, and it accordingly gives the pain that it inflicts space to evolve: to form, to torment, and to pass, like each year that comes and goes, taking more and more away with it.

Cast: Emma Thompson, Rory Kinnear, T’Nia Miller, Russell Tovey, Jessica Hynes, Ruth Madeley, Anne Reid, Dino Fetscher, Lydia West, Jade Alleyne, Maxim Baldry, Sharon Duncan-Brewster Network: HBO

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Review: Euphoria’s Depiction of Teen Hedonism Is Both Frank and Lurid

Euphoria’s central relationship is luminous, but the series struggles to develop its other characters.

2.5

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Euphoria
Photo: HBO

Sam Levinson’s Euphoria announces its self-consciously provocative nature within its first minute, when Rue Bennett (Zendaya) says that she was happy once, over an image of the girl, in fetus form, about to be born. Airplane engines begin to howl alongside baby Rue’s POV as she exits the birth canal, at which point the episode transitions to a shot of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center. She was born three days after 9/11. The juxtaposition here is loud and in-your-face, and though it’s tonally similar to the deluge of ironic trigger warnings that open Levinson’s film Assassination Nation, it has the benefit of some actual thematic coherence, for the way the open-with-a-literal-bang image acknowledges 9/11 as the unmistakable divide between Euphoria’s teens and everyone else.

Rue characterizes the world she grew up in as a chaotic, aimless place devoid of much understanding for her people her age, which leaves her generation concerned mainly with wringing out as much enjoyment from it as they can. And the series, which is adapted from an Israeli drama of the same name, depicts such teenage hedonism in frank, explicit terms: a high school world awash in pills, sex, and nude photos thrown to the winds of social media. The nature of these occasionally graphic depictions is complicated by Levinson’s consciously “attitude”-laden stylings: Are they graphic purely to shock, or to authentically portray what today’s young people go through, or both? Regardless, the series finds its character-driven groove by turning an empathetic eye toward the inner lives of its principal teens, observing their listlessness and small moments of solace as much as their outward pain.

Rue, we learn, is a drug addict fresh out of rehab who’s largely uninterested in getting clean. And while the show’s other teens feel their way through seedy meet-ups with older men, pursue self-actualization through porn, and cope with invasions of privacy, Rue provides the perspective through which we view nearly everything and everyone else. She narrates even the events that don’t involve her, lending them a general vibe of playful, sarcastic worldliness. She determines the flow of the action, freezing a sex scene outright for a digression on modern porn habits or summoning a cutaway gag, like a lecture on dick pics complete with projector slides. Zendaya plays Rue with a perpetual murmur and effortless remove, like an observer sitting on the sidelines watching the world go by, until she succumbs to a desperate, drug-seeking freak-out or one of the panic attacks those drugs are meant to distance her from.

The series tempers some of its heavier material with an often laidback atmosphere, a world of deep shadows drenched in multi-colored hues and dreamy hip-hop beats that belie the darkness in its corners. If the universe is falling apart around the characters’ ears, the result is that Euphoria’s characters see little reason to consider what encroaching adulthood will mean, to ruminate on what will come next when there might as well be no “next.” There’s only the all-encompassing “now.” “The world is coming to an end,” Rue says to justify her drug use, “and I haven’t even graduated high school yet.”

Euphoria’s best scenes are its oases of joy and humor, particularly the luminous relationship between Rue and Jules (Hunter Schafer), the new-in-town trans girl whose sunny disposition contrasts Rue’s overall remove yet masks a deeper restlessness. The chemistry between Zendaya and Schafer paints a believable portrait of a companionship only possible before adulthood, when you have as much free time as you have affection to distribute.

The two might have sustained the series by themselves, though Euphoria struggles to develop its other characters. Cassie (Sydney Sweeney), for example, is largely undefined beyond the sexual history she’s trying to move beyond, while her boyfriend, Chris (Algee Smith), seems to exist only to express discomfort about that history. Beneath his football-playing façade, Nate (Jacob Elordi) has a streak of violent calculation that dances on the edge of caricature. Only Kat (Barbie Ferreira) seems to develop beyond her basic template of virginal angst, mainly because the series resolves the issue almost immediately before sending her down a Pornhub rabbit hole on an amusing journey of self-discovery; her burgeoning sexuality comes to encompass an attractive classmate as much as a man on Skype who wants to be her “cash pig.”

The fourth episode only emphasizes the disparity between the show’s development of the teens. As the camera glides between multiple perspectives at the same carnival event, Jules has a scary revelation about an older, married man, Cal (Eric Dane), she recently hooked up with, while a panicked Rue searches for her sister, Gia (Storm Reid), who’s still reeling from Rue’s overdose prior to the events of the series. However, the more half-sketched characters, such as Cassie and Nate’s long-suffering girlfriend, Maddy (Alexa Demie), take drugs seemingly so they’ll have something to do for the duration of the episode. While it’s realistic that not all the characters would have intricate stories to engage in (Kat’s storyline is also comparably low-stakes), sidelining Cassie and Maddy feels like a concession that the series isn’t totally sure what to do with them beyond displaying their suffering.

The success of Euphoria’s teen drama ultimately depends on which teen it focuses on at any given moment. With Rue and Jules at the center, you feel the exhilaration of their friendship as much as a real concern for their growing troubles. But with its less fully developed characters, the series can feel like little more than a lurid performance of teenage pain.

Cast: Zendaya, Maude Apatow, Angus Cloud, Eric Dane, Alexa Demie, Jacob Elordi, Barbie Ferreira, Nika King, Storm Reid, Hunter Schafer, Algee Smith, Sydney Sweeney, Austin Abrams, Alanna Ubach Network: HBO

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Review: Hulu’s Das Boot Forfeits the Telescoped Focus of Its Source Material

The series transforms a story that captured something of the experience of war into a familiar melodrama.

1.5

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Das Boot
Photo: Hulu

One of the strengths of Wolfgang Petersen’s classic submarine drama Das Boot, based on Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s novel of the same name, is that it’s no glorification of the German war machine. Indeed, its shocking ending underlines the absolute senselessness of war and the meaninglessness of heroism. Das Boot is a war film that could only be made in a country where virtually everyone had experienced the horror of war firsthand, whether it was on the frontlines or cowering in a bomb shelter. But it’s also a story told strictly from the perspective of the gentile German sailor; women appear quite literally on the margins—at beginning and end, when the boat disembarks and returns—and non-gentiles are neither seen nor mentioned. War crimes are far from the film’s purview, and its sailors are, for the most part, not terribly interested in Nazism.

Johannes W. Betz’s new series solves this problem by flashing back and forth between the crew of a U-Boot captained by the young Captain Klaus Hoffmann (Rick Okon) and a plot of betrayal and subterfuge in the ship’s port in La Rochelle, France, centered around German Navy translator Simone Strasser (Vicky Krieps). In doing so, however, Betz’s Das Boot eschews much of what made the original film effective: the feeling that the viewer is stranded in the narrow gangways of the submarine on a mostly blind journey through treacherous waters.

Forfeiting the telescoped focus that keeps the film engrossing, the series substitutes hidden backstories and interpersonal melodrama that feels like it was pulled from the prestige-drama handbook. As the crew is assembled in the first episode, “New Paths,” we learn that the long-serving First Officer Karl Tennstedt (August Wittgenstein), a familiar Nazi type who’s been passed over for command of the ship in favor Hoffmann, is the son of a WWI hero. Tennstedt’s simmering resentment plays out, over the course of the four episodes available for review, as an escalating crisis of authority, as he grows increasingly bold in his defiance of the noble-minded Hoffmann, and sways the minds of several (rather easily convinced) enlisted men.

Meanwhile, Simone arrives in La Rochelle, where she expects to live and work alongside her younger brother, Frank (Leonard Scheicher), a radio engineer. When an accident on board Hoffmann and Tennstedt’s U-Boot damages the radio and seriously injures the ship’s engineer, Tennstedt summarily decides to assign Frank to the vessel. With no choice in the matter and suddenly facing an uncertain fate, Frank hands over to Simone a cache of materials he was supposed to deliver in a post-curfew rendezvous later that night.

In the second episode, “Secret Missions,” it’s revealed that Frank’s mission had something to do with a French girl he’s been seeing, Natalie (Clara Ponsot), and with a mysterious American resistance fighter named Carla Monroe (Lizzy Caplan)—well, only “mysterious” inasmuch as the series clumsily cultivates an air of mystique around her, all oblique camera angles and vague dialogue. On the brink of explaining her intentions to Simone, Monroe stops herself, mostly, it seems, to extend the mystery for another episode or two. “Probably better if you don’t know,” she says, though she might as well be addressing the camera.

It’s in this episode that the seams of Das Boot really begin to show—or, rather, its bulkheads start to crack. Almost every aspect of the shorebound storyline, which becomes the show’s main focus, is an exaggerated contrivance. In a scenario painfully familiar from a dozen cable dramas that have pulled it off more convincingly (see The Americans, Breaking Bad, Barry), Simone conducts her illegal dealings with Monroe’s resistance cell under the nose of Gestapo inspector Hagen Forster (Tom Wlaschiha). Forster has a professional relationship with Simone, and, he hopes, a burgeoning personal one. As he’s drawn ever closer to her, Forster becomes increasingly blind to her traitorous activities—though, naturally, episode four, “Doubts,” ends with him coming one step closer to discovering them.

This adaptation of Das Boot, which also incorporates elements from Buchheim’s 1995 novel Die Festung, transforms a story that endeavored to capture something of the experience of war into an overly familiar melodrama of obscure motivations, hidden backstories, and broadly sketched interpersonal conflict. The series may try to address Nazi terror in a way Petersen’s film leaves beyond its margins, but even its depiction of atrocity serves merely as a convenient motivator for familiar twists and turns. The sense of cheapness and naked commercialism that pervades the series makes its explicit depiction of disturbing violence—a death by firing squad, the gang rape of a Jewish woman by German sailors—feel unearned and, particularly in the latter case, completely irresponsible. The series can’t be counted on to deliver any insights on history or war, but compelling drama may be even further beyond its capabilities.

Cast: Vicky Krieps, Tom Wlaschiha, Lizzy Caplan, Vincent Kartheiser, James D’Arcy, Thierry Frémont, August Wittgenstein, Rainer Bock, Rick Okon, Leonard Scheicher, Robert Stadlober, Franz Dinda, Stefan Konarske Network: Hulu

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Review: Jessica Jones’s Third and Final Season Feels Like an Afterthought

As it nears the end of its run, the series doesn’t seem to have much more to say about trauma.

2

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Jessica Jones
Photo: David Giesbrecht/Netflix

The third and final season of Jessica Jones feels more like an afterthought than a farewell, an unevenly written retread that’s uninterested in breaking out of a well-worn groove. Trauma is at the center of the Netflix show’s world, with the eponymous superpowered private eye (Krysten Ritter) having conquered the lingering pain of sexual abuse and childhood domestic strife across the first two seasons. And it being a Marvel Comics property, Jessica Jones predictably scrutinizes such personal trauma through the lens of highly literal metaphor: In the first season, an evil ex-lover’s telepathic powers represent the way that abusers get into our heads, and in the second, an abusive mother’s super strength stands for the seemingly indominable power parents have over their children.

The new season saddles its hero with more trauma, both psychological and physical, but loses the real-life resonance of the show’s previous themes, becoming an exercise in self-reflexivity. Jessica Jones now squares off against a serial killer, Gregory Salinger (Jeremy Bobb), who’s the embodiment of misogynist male geekdom—which is to say, that corner of the internet that’s predisposed to objecting to woman-driven action properties like Jessica Jones.

In the season’s first episode, “A.K.A. The Perfect Burger,” Jessica is taken by surprise when Salinger shows up at her apartment in the middle of the night, hunting her one-night stand, Erik (Benjamin Walker). The encounter leaves Jessica injured and newly traumatized, and Salinger psychotically obsessed with his incidental victim. Salinger resents Jones for being what real-world toxic nerds would call a “Mary Sue”—or, as Salinger puts it, for “cheating,” for not appropriately earning her powers, and for being a “feminist vindicator.”

This new season’s use of allegory is a bit on the nose, which isn’t the worst sin for a superhero property, but Jessica Jones clearly has aspirations to be a character-driven drama. It’s an intent undermined by its characters’ tendency to feel like little more than signposts directing us to the show’s message. In contrast to David Tenant’s chilling performance as misogynist villain Killgrave in season one, Bobb doesn’t convey the menace or malicious seductiveness that might enliven Salinger’s often blandly scripted rants against women’s empowerment.

Salinger also targets Erik’s wayward sister, Brianna (Jamie Neumann), a sex worker whom Jessica tries to protect by foisting her upon Malcolm (Eka Darville), Jessisca’s neighbor and former assistant. This all intersects conveniently (and problematically) with Malcolm’s subplot, which concerns his flirtation with moral corruption as he works as a fixer for Jeri Hogarth’s (Carrie-Anne Moss) law firm. Brianna is stereotyped as an erratic, trashy prostitute who’s sexually available to Malcolm simply because she’s hiding out in his apartment. She’s characterized as a nuisance who becomes a kind of punching bag for the other characters, who talk about her poor life decisions in front of her as if she isn’t there.

Malcolm’s is one of three major subplots that take up much of the run time of the eight episodes of the new season made available to press. In the others, both Jeri and Jessica’s ex-bestie, Trish (Rachael Taylor), deal with their own moral transgressions. Of these, Trish’s story is the strongest. Newly equipped with (vaguely defined) superpowers, she aims to join Jessica as a superhero on the streets of Hell’s Kitchen, and she’s given a satisfying and resonant origin story in episode two, the Ritter-directed “A.K.A You’re Welcome.”

Jeri’s subplot, on the other hand, adds very little to a character already understood from previous seasons as self-serving and morally compromised. This arc, hardly more than filler, also features one of the season’s most regrettable scenes: a painfully kitschy seduction that involves Jeri’s former lover, Kith Lyonne (Sarita Choudhury), badly faking a cello performance as Jeri caresses her and the low-angle camera slowly tracks around them.

As for Jones herself, the series can’t shake the feeling that its main character has simply become her outfit. The season’s opening shot, which has her leather boot stomp into the frame in close-up against the unaccustomed environs of a sunny beach, even evokes the way her personality is summed up by tattered jeans and grimy leather. In the form of Salinger’s initial attack, she’s given a new trauma to work through, but after three seasons, this form of motivation seems more like an obligatory gesture than an exploration of character. By the time she’s brutally besting Salinger in an amateur wrestling match in front of the pre-teen wrestling team he coaches in episode seven, “The Double Half-Woppinger,” it’s clear that, as it nears the end of its run, Jessica Jones doesn’t have much more to say.

Cast: Krysten Ritter, Rachael Taylor, Eka Darville, Carrie-Anne Moss, Rebecca De Mornay, Jeremy Bobb, Benjamin Walker, Sarita Choudhury, Jamie Neumann Network: Netflix

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Review: Pose Season Two Looks to the Future with Its Head Held High

The series empathetically attests to the agonies that queer people to this day often have no choice but to suffer in silence.

2.5

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Pose
Photo: Macall Polay/FX
Editor’s Note: This review may contains spoilers.

One notable arc of the second season of Pose traces the success of Madonna’s “Vogue,” from the song premiering on radio in March 1990 to the moment it hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart less than two months later. The show understands the song’s lucid appreciation of the ballroom as an aspirational space. Madonna’s dance-pop anthem was like a lifeline to those in the house-ball community, and almost all of Pose’s characters celebrate it without reservation. “Everything is about to change. I can see it clear as day!” says Blanca (Mj Rodriguez), emboldened by the song to chase after her dreams.

Which is to say that Pose doesn’t bow before the altar of wokeism, at least not in the four episodes made available to press ahead of the new season’s premiere, knowing that the conversation about the song erasing voguing’s roots in a community’s daily struggles wasn’t one that many people were having in 1990. But the show does seem interested in the idea that the global success of “Vogue” was blinding to some in the drag-ball community. Can a queer person of color living on the fringes of society actually harness Madonna’s blond ambition? And from the spectacle of drag emcee Pray Tell (Billy Porter) reading the riot act to Candy (Angelica Ross) for coming to one show as a simulacrum of Madonna, voguing while dressed as one of the singer’s “Express Yourself” personas, the answer would seem to be a resounding no.

There’s a sense that Pray is being rough on Candy because he recognizes what we’ve long known about her, and what the season’s third episode makes sure that we don’t forget: that she has no problem distinguishing fantasy from reality. Witten by Our Lady J and directed by Janet Mock, the episode splits its time between the budding romance between Angel (Indya Moore) and Lil Papi (Angel Bismark Curiel) and the aftermath of a client (Frank De Julio) dying during one of Elektra Abundance’s (Dominique Jackson) shifts at the Hellfire Club. Tonally, the episode walks a high-wire act that’s empowering—for the way it regards Angel and Lil Papi in their bliss as stars of a Hollywood melodrama that never was—and ballsy—for the way it unearths humor and pathos in equal measure from everything that leads up to Candy convincing Elektra to not report her client’s death to the authorities.

The episode is perhaps too easily understood as an imagining of what must have led to one Paris Is Burning participant, drag performer and dressmaker Dorian Corey, possibly murdering and storing an ex-lover’s dead body in a closest inside her apartment for approximately 15 years. (The man’s mummified corpse was only discovered after Corey’s AIDS-related death.) But the point of the episode, like some long-delayed eulogy, is to empathetically attest to the agonies that queer people to this day often have no choice but to suffer in silence. Too often, though, the series goes one step further by blaring that message out loud, with dialogue that suggests a kind of PSA speak. That isn’t so much an issue in scenes that see the characters fighting the menace of AIDS, as Pose knows that the gay community raised awareness of the disease in the bluntest of ways, but in various scenarios, like Angel’s pursuit of her modeling career, that are beholden to all manner of coming-of-age and aspirational clichés.

The cast list for the new season reveals that Charlayne Woodard, as Helena St. Rogers, will be returning at some point, which goes a long way toward explaining why it appears as if Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain) and Ricky (Dyllon Burnside) are just hanging around in the background of the first four episodes as if they’re waiting for something, anything, to bring them to the foreground. The stage may be lovingly ceded to Angel and Lil Papi, but after a while, it just feels as if the lovebirds are going through all the same soap-operatic motions that Damon and Ricky did in the first season: Angel is so desperate to be a star that she opens herself up to being exploited by a smarmy photographer (Alexander DiPersia), and after she and her friends hand him his ass in a proud show of unity, Angel gets her first break, which just so happens to occur at the exact moment of a date she has with Lil Papi.

Something, though, that we do know for sure by the end of the fourth episode is that Pose isn’t concerned with putting any allies on blast. If you’re in the know about the history of New York and the AIDS crisis, then you’ll instantly recognize nurse and activist Judy Kubrak (Sandra Bernhard) and dog-toting real estate agent Frederica Norman (Patti LuPone) as stand-ins for Linda Laubenstein and Leona Helmsley, respectively. And if Judy, who joins Blanca in a crusade to get Pray Tell to start taking AZT, is celebrated for being a small-scale hero, Linda very easily invites the audience’s scorn for threatening Blanca after discovering she’s trans. But it’s an invitation that feels too easy, too cartoonish, especially in the context of the show’s almost Disney-fied—or Glee-ful—depiction of New York during this time period.

There’s a disconnect between the show’s aesthetics and its subject matter that feels especially apparent when one major character shows up dead in episode four. The moment certainly lacks the immediacy of the horrific moment from The Deuce’s first season when a john throws Pernell Walker’s Ruby out of a window like a piece of trash. Director Ryan Murphy knows that you can assert such a woman’s humanity in more than one way, but the sentimentalized theater of this episode is the stuff of cognitive dissonance. Because the prior three episodes give the short shrift to the character’s investment in changing ball culture, to tailoring it to her strengths, the moment that she’s celebrated for influencing that culture feels unearned. If hers wasn’t a dream that ever felt like it was her own, that’s because it’s the stuff of narrative convenience, a setup for a fall that, in the depiction of its aftermath, ironically links Pose to Madonna’s “Vogue” by making reality seem a little less dark than it really is.

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Review: Season Five of Black Mirror Regards Our Grim Future with a Smirk

The new season recalls the most human elements of past episodes while levying urgent indictments of the present.

3.5

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Black Mirror
Photo: Netflix

Season five of Black Mirror offers three new episodes that envision a predictably worrisome slate of side effects to humanity’s technological reach outpacing its intellectual grasp. But in offering dystopian visions that hew closer to reality than they have in past seasons, these episodes exceed the show’s promise of nightmarish hypotheticals. While the series has on occasion veered toward alienating, high-concept bleakness—as in season three’s “Playtest” and season two’s “White Bear”—season five maintains an empathetic focus on the characters struggling to navigate grim new worlds.

Series creator and writer Charlie Brooker employs a variety of familiar storytelling models to construct the season’s overarching theme, which generally concerns the unforeseen fallout of our shifting media diets. In the melancholic “Striking Vipers,” a marriage is endangered by the husband’s new obsession with a virtual reality game. Brooker moves his focus to social media in “Smithereens,” a claustrophobic hostage thriller, and to the music industry in the darkly comic caper “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too.” Each episode envisions upheavals in a different social construct, from traditional masculinity to celebrity culture, but Brooker’s consistent focus on media as the trigger for transformation lends the stories a foreboding thread.

The show’s directors match Brooker’s ingenuity, tailoring an immersive style for each episode. In “Striking Vipers,” Owen Harris fixates on the alienation felt by Danny (Anthony Mackie), a man experiencing a crisis of conscience, by framing the character in wide shots set against drab backdrops and cityscapes; it’s a pointed contrast to the colorful environments and dynamic camera movements Harris employs when Danny is gaming. In “Smithereens,” which follows a distraught rideshare driver (Andrew Scott) who takes a customer hostage (Damson Idris), director James Hawes presents the driver either in tight close-up or from the far-away perspective of police and gawking onlookers, highlighting the gulf between how the world perceives the man—as a terrible curiosity—and his own intense sense of victimization.

The relationship between perspective and perception is similarly central in “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too,” the episode with the most complicated premise of the season. Miley Cyrus stars as Ashley, a singer who wants to transition from glittery pop to more challenging material, much to the horror of her exploitative handlers. As the episode evolves into a scathing indictment of the celebrity industry (and offers a startling vision of artificial intelligence), “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” fosters our genuine concern for Ashley’s mental state—in part as a result of the savvy casting of Cyrus, a transformative pop star herself, but also, and more crucially, because the episode reveals much of what happens to Ashley from the relatable perspective of Rachel (Angourie Rice), a lonely and adoring teenage fan.

While none of these episodes are as nihilistic as the show’s grimmest installments to date, they remain imbued with snarky, topical satire and dogged cynicism. “Smithereens” portrays a social media network that, with its scrolling newsfeed and reliance on hashtags, is unsubtly modeled after Twitter. Even less subtle is the character of the platform’s man-bunned creator, Billy Bauer (Topher Grace), who’s clearly a sketch of Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey. Brooker doesn’t veil his view of the real-life tech mogul: When Bauer’s service ignites (and acts as a livestream of) an international hostage situation, he’s pictured peacefully meditating in Utah, both figuratively and literally above the fray he helped create. When eventually called for help, the communications magnate is powerless, no longer able to grasp the magnitude of his creation, and reduced to speaking in platitudes.

By targeting forces (and people) who already exist in reality, Brooker couples the show’s broad anxieties with a tinge of righteous anger. Coupled with the season’s character-driven focus, the specificity of the show’s grievances represents a welcome evolution. With stories that recall the most human elements of Black Mirror’s past episodes, while levying urgent indictments of the present, the series that’s always worked to imagine a dark future seems to be wondering if we haven’t already crossed into the dystopian abyss.

Cast: Andrew Scott, Anthony Mackie, Miley Cyrus, Topher Grace, Damson Idris, Angourie Rice, Madison Davenport, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II Network: Netflix

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Review: Season Five of Luther Is Undermined by a Sense of Inevitability

As the series has continued, it’s grown more outlandish, oppressive, and removed from the things that made it so captivating.

1

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Luther
Photo: Des Willie/BBC America

Time has not been kind to John Luther (Idris Elba), the wool-coated supercop haunted by the horrors of all the things he’s seen on the job. To be fair, what detective wouldn’t be traumatized living and working in the version of London offered up by BBC’s Luther? It’s a concrete sprawl where every crack in every grimy back alley seems to conceal some ultraviolent psychosexual serial killer. This is a gloomy, frequently ridiculous series that survives on the back of Elba’s staggering intensity as a volatile, obsessive detective more than willing to skirt the law as long as it catches him a killer. But as the series has continued, it’s only grown more outlandish, more oppressive, and more removed from the things that made its inaugural season so captivating. And the show’s belated fifth season, coming over three years after the two-part fourth season, hardly closes the distance.

It’s not for lack of trying, of course. For the first time since the beginning of the series, Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson) returns to the center of the story to throw a wrench into Luther’s professional and private life. Wilson is, expectedly, adept at selling her character’s amusing sociopathy with every thin, dark smirk. Unfortunately, though, Alice’s storyline entirely concerns her attempted revenge against East End gangster George Cornelius (Patrick Malahide), whose repetitive, nonsensical attempts to murder Luther were the most tiresome element of the prior season. With Luther now caught in the crossfire, the resulting feud is so central to the season that it all but pushes the season’s murder investigation to the side in favor of various square-offs with Cornelius’s gun-toting goons.

Luther has always worked best as a trashy mystery series because its main character’s explosive, extralegal tendencies contrast most sharply with the show’s depiction of a structured, by-the-book police world. The supporting characters, when they aren’t being killed off with alarming frequency, marvel at Luther’s alternately clever and outrageous attempts to flout the rules. However, writer and creator Neil Cross’s growing reliance on action elements has come to mean abandoning the contrast between Luther’s methods and expected police procedure in favor of throwing him into a murky criminal underworld. There’s simply less dramatic intrigue and less of an audacious thrill when he’s breaking out of his restraints to fight a room full of gangsters than when he’s punching a murder suspect in the street to get a sample from the man’s bloody nose in an absurd evidence-planting gambit.

Alice previously served a similar juxtaposing function. Despite her chemistry with Luther and their mutual attraction, her teasing, nihilistic amorality and even-more-extreme methods conflicted with his determination to protect life; their developing relationship threatened his job, his loved ones, and his own beliefs. But at this point, the two simply know each other too well for her wild-card antics to surprise Luther, and by extension the audience. Her ability to throw him off balance is muted since he mostly just seems tired of putting up with her rather than shocked at her insistent, ultimately predictable attempts to lash out at Cornelius.

That same sense of exhaustion and inevitability hangs over the entire season, undermining its usual attempts to shock us with plot twists that bring death and violence. The serial killer this time around, a surgeon (Enzo Cilenti) with a fetish for turning people into pincushions, may have strong visual iconography through the eerie combination of a clown mask and a glowing hood meant to fool CCTV, but his grisly compulsion is more of the same for a series that loves to plumb the depths of how gory a series can get. Once Cornelius becomes the umpteenth person to seriously threaten the lives of the supporting characters, you aren’t surprised so much as left to ruminate on the diminishing returns, remembering just how many names have already been scratched out of the show’s opening credits. The show’s concept has long revolved around how everything Luther has been through has left him haunted, but now, in the fifth season, it does little more for viewers than leave them numb.

Cast: Idris Elba, Ruth Wilson, Dermot Crowley, Michael Smiley, Wunmi Mosaku, Enzo Cilenti, Hermione Norris, Patrick Malahide Network: BBC America

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Review: Season Two of Big Little Lies Fails to Justify Its Existence

The series works best when it focuses on intimate, human moments rather than on broad social critiques.

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Big Little Lies
Photo: Jennifer Clasen/HBO

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and adapted by David E. Kelley from Liane Moriarty’s novel, the first season of Big Little Lies told a complete story, resolving the murder mystery that drove its primary storyline and successfully exploring the bleak underbelly of the affluent coastal city of Monterey, California. As such, the foremost question facing the show’s second season—directed by Andrea Arnold and based on a story by Moriarty and Kelley—is an existential one: Is this follow-up really necessary? Though the three episodes made available to press are enjoyable enough, thanks largely to the cast’s continued strong performances, they’re weighed down by heavy-handed writing and an inchoate grasp of what powered the first season—namely, its subtlety, surprise, and emotional murkiness.

Season two begins about a year after the so-called Monterey Five conspired to cover up the circumstances of Perry Wright’s (Alexander Skarsgård) death. Some of the group’s members have fared better than others in the time since: Madeline Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon) is thriving as a real estate agent, Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) has settled into a job at the aquarium, and corporate hotshot Renata Klein (Laura Dern) is being featured on magazine covers. But Bonnie Carlson (Zoë Kravitz), who pushed the abusive Perry down a flight of stairs to protect his wife, Celeste (Nicole Kidman), struggles with the guilt of her actions, while Celeste doesn’t quite know how to grieve for the man she still loves.

Perry’s mother, Mary Louise (Meryl Streep), has come to stay with Celeste and help her care for her twin sons (Cameron and Nicholas Crovetti). She also suspects that Perry’s death wasn’t a total accident and works to find out the truth. Mary Louise is a master of aggression, both passive and active, and Streep delivers the character’s critiques of Madeline with a quiet monotone that’s at once grandmotherly and acidic. Even among a cast as strong as the one assembled here, the veteran actress commands every scene she’s in. But as Mary Louise resists Celeste’s narrative of abuse—she wonders, for instance, why her Celeste didn’t tell the police that Perry beat her—her dialogue grows so tired, so backward, as to feel purely mechanical. Mary Louise as an acerbic grandma is compelling, but Mary Louise as a Me Too bogeywoman is a bore, little more than a repository of eye-roll-inducing, reactionary pushback against abuse victims. Her symbolic significance comes at the cost of her personhood.

Which is to say that Big Little Lies works best when it focuses on intimate, human moments rather than on the social critiques that it clumsily handles. For one, watching Madeline and her husband, Ed (Adam Scott), face a personal reckoning is engaging because we care about these characters and understand the stakes of their conflict—and the series doesn’t compromise their interiority by forcing them to represent a broader social issue. The poignancy of their disillusionment suggests that the season might, in fact, justify its own existence. But the series consistently undercuts that potential. Bonnie’s mother, Elizabeth (Crystal Fox), accurately remarks that there aren’t many black people in Monterey, but then it errs uneasily close to stereotype by giving her—one of only a small handful of black characters—possibly prophetic visions and an affinity for healing crystals and other talismans.

The show’s themes of abuse and sexual violence are urgent and timely, which makes its shoddy treatment of them all the more disappointing. Big Little Lies also takes on matters of desire, wealth, and sexism, but does so with brute force and repetition. When Madeline rails against the unfairly different expectations people have for fathers and mothers, she offers no original perspective on that common double standard; in the end, it’s as if the scene is relying solely on Madeline’s zeal to hide its trite writing. Later, a young field-tripper at the aquarium asks Jane why pretty things tend to be dangerous. It’s a lazy exchange that’s similarly emblematic of the show’s insistence on shouting its themes.

Save the occasional cinematographic flourish, the non-spoken tools of film and television have come to kneel before the power of the word in the second season of Big Little Lies. Even the show’s soundtrack serves as a way to squeeze more words in: While the songs featured throughout these episodes are definitely capable of generating mood—as was the case last season—their lyrics regularly and agonizingly describe the drama that we’re witnessing. The spectral cover of REO Speedwagon’s “Keep on Loving You” that plays during a conversation about a crumbling marriage is haunting, but its beauty is shorn by how on the nose it is. The song, in this context, is exceptionally pretty but ultimately meaningless, a bunch of notes vanishing into the nearly hollow shell where Big Little Lies used to be.

Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Zoë Kravitz, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, Alexander Skarsgård, Adam Scott, James Tupper, Jeffrey Nordling, Kathryn Newton, Sarah Sokolovic, Crystal Fox, Iain Armitage, Darby Camp, Cameron Crovetti, Nicholas Crovetti, Ivy George, Chloe Coleman, Robin Weigert, Douglas Smith Network: HBO

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