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The Wire and the Art of the Credit Sequence

Its opening credits are not an ordinary credits sequence, but a series of four short films that distill each season’s themes, goals, and motifs.

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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’s 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 continuation 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.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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Review: With My Psychedelic Love Story, Errol Morris Cuts His Subject Down to Size

One of the tensions driving the film is a question of its subject’s self-awareness.

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My Psychedelic Love Story
Photo: Nafis Azad/Showtime

Speaking to documentarian Errol Morris in My Psychedelic Love Story, 74-year-old Johanna Harcourt-Smith, with sharp eyes and a sensual Cheshire cat grin, looks positively giddy about the dirty secrets she’s about to spill. As one of Timothy Leary’s lovers while the LSD evangelist was hopscotching around the world to elude Richard Nixon’s opportunistic war on drugs, Harcourt-Smith fraternized with arms dealers, filmmakers, artists, and sui generis celebrities like Andy Warhol throughout the 1970s. Of course, for a privileged Swiss boarding school girl who’d always had a command over men, who frequently vacationed throughout Europe, and who lived for a spell with the Rolling Stones as a teenager, such adventures appear to have felt inevitable to her.

As is his wont, Morris takes Harcourt-Smith on her own terms, seemingly allowing her to talk without much guidance. Morris’s questions and responses are largely unheard, and as Harcourt-Smith drones on, the film succumbs to “and this happened” syndrome. An irony emerges: Harcourt-Smith’s story is so rich in incident—with escapes and sexual interludes and druggy reveries and changes in exotic locations seemingly detailed every few seconds—that it grows tedious. Part of this is the result of Harcourt-Smith’s poor sense of storytelling. For instance, she alludes to a pregnancy she had as a teenager when she heard the Moody Blues’s “Legend of a Mind” and felt the pull to seek out Leary. We’re naturally led to wonder what happened to this baby, which isn’t revealed until an hour later, at which point we’ve been so narcotized by Harcourt-Smith’s rambling as to have forgotten that there was a baby.

In her way, Harcourt-Smith captures what the counterculture is often said to have been like: a barely coherent tapestry of hedonism meant as an effort to discover utopia amid authoritarianism at home and abroad alike, and as such dictated by wild alternating swings of euphoria and paranoia. There’s a sense in My Psychedelic Love Story, as there was in Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, of a wealth of anecdotes being used to obscure the circular hypocrisy and futility of rebellion. (In this case, a little rich girl can afford to play at revolution, and Harcourt-Smith is never more obnoxious than when talking of her excitement over going to prison.) Leary certainly comes across in this film as a flim-flam man, a hip L. Ron Hubbard who used nonsense about destinies and Tarot readings and Aleister Crowley to glorify stereotypical tastes in drugs, young women, and especially fame. In this context, it’s no wonder he turned to the C.I.A. when the American government finally snagged him and Harcourt-Smith in Kabul.

One of the tensions driving My Psychedelic Love Story is a question of Harcourt-Smith’s self-awareness. She speaks of naïveté in terms of attempting to spring Leary from jail (which includes barely sensical stories of drug deals) and of working with the government herself, yet this globetrotting debutante seems anything but naïve. However, Harcourt-Smith also appears to authentically believe that she was the womanizing Leary’s true love, unless that’s the pose she’s chosen to cement her own legend. It’s a shame that Morris didn’t push his subject harder on some of these points, though a purpose to this indulgence is eventually revealed.

Morris understandably seems to see Harcourt-Smith as an opportunist. When she talks of appearing on a Swiss game show (another long story) as a child, Morris cuts to footage of a girl on TV with text informing us that this isn’t Harcourt-Smith. Such visual jokes stimulate Morris’s imagination more than his interviews with his subject, as the film is another of his’s hallucinatory slipstreams, a la Wormwood, with dozens of clips from classic films, TV shows, and newspaper headlines that foster a heady sense of bottomless, reverberating conspiracy. And time after time, Morris cuts Leary and Harcourt-Smith down to size with found footage.

Though Harcourt-Smith claims to suspect that she was an unconscious C.I.A. mole, Morris unearths recordings that suggest she knew she was working for the government, especially when she’s trying to set up a lawyer for a drug sting. Meanwhile, footage of Leary casually makes a fool out of him, such as when he’s claiming that the Earth’s gravity is an illegal form of repression. Such counterpoint to Harcourt-Smith’s self-mythology is necessary—My Psychedelic Love Story would be unwatchable without it—but also a bit cruel, suggesting that Harcourt-Smith, who passed away in October, is being set up for a joke she wasn’t in on. In Morris’s best films, such as The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, there’s a sense that the director is truly simpatico with his subjects. In My Psychedelic Love Story, though, Morris lets a fading never-quite-legend blather her way into a trap.

Cast: Johanna Harcourt-Smith

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Review: Between the World and Me Is a Sharp, If Visually Limited, Social Document

The film doesn’t offer the most incisive social commentary, but as a document of our contemporary political moment, its force is undeniable.

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Between the World and Me
HBO

Based on the Apollo Theater’s stage adaptation of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Pulitzer-nominated book of the same name, the themes that drive HBO’s Between the World and Me are perhaps even more relevant now than when the source material was first published in 2015. Written in the form of a letter to his 15-year-old son, Coates’s original text recounts his experiences growing up with the realities of racism and violence in West Baltimore, as well as describing the joys of finding belonging and love at Howard University, and, more broadly, discusses his feelings about being black in America.

The 2018 stage adaptation, directed by the Apollo’s executive director, Kamilah Forbes, was composed of a series of monologues, linearly working through the book with a large ensemble cast. A similar format is used here, and Forbes has assembled a spellbinding array of black talent to bring Coates’s words to life, including Mahershala Ali, Wendell Pierce, and Angela Bassett, alongside activist Angela Davis and Coates himself. Forbes also includes documentary footage of cast members at home, as well as deploys old home videos, recordings of historical speeches, and amateur footage of relevant real-world events.

A key incident in the book is the racially aggravated police killing of Prince Jones, one of Coates’s college friends, and the fresh injustices of the past year have also been woven into this one-off special to give the original text a renewed sense of urgency. Though the protests this year in the wake of George Floyd’s death and other incidents of police brutality have done much to underline the continued relevance of Coates’s message, the inclusion of these more recent events is sometimes at the expense of cohesion and focus.

On paper, much of the power of Coates’s writing lies in its piercing clarity, combining objective reportage and precise social observation with a deep compassion, in a way that breathes new life into familiar themes. At his best, he makes you feel as though anything less than a complete reimagining of our social relations would be ignorant and complacent. Forbes’s use of newsreel of the protests and smartphone shots of police violence tends to detract from the film’s authorial voice, bringing us closer to the contemporary realm of deadening media spectacle and dulling the blade of Coates’s historically informed rhetoric.

Between the World and Me is also somewhat hamstrung by accommodating itself to the restrictions imposed on the production by the Covid-19 pandemic, which apparently limited the settings and shot choices available to Forbes, and the result is a heightening of the stilted presentation style that often afflicts theatrical adaptations. Filtering Coates through so many different voices already slightly undercuts the sense of intimacy that his epistolary form was intended to create, and the compositions used here often overcompensate for the lack of an audience, making performers seem even more isolated and incapable of interacting with others. Coates talks to his son about a sense of community being one of the few things that can alleviate the suffering he and fellow black Americans have been through, but there isn’t much opportunity for this to be expressed visually in the film.

At times, Forbes’s procession of shallow-focus monologues addressed directly to the camera bears an awkward resemblance to an infomercial or a political ad, but the moments when the device works can be profoundly moving, effectively fusing spontaneous performance with precisely crafted personal testimony. The most successful scenes tend to be the ones where the performers embrace the artificiality of the setup, instead of trying to work around it. Ali in particular leans into the phrasing and rhythm of the text as if it was a well-worn soliloquy to be recited, rather than trying to inhabit a character. This reverence for the source material transforms the best readings into a kind of spoken-word poetry, not dissimilar to the excellent hip-hop soundtrack that gives Between the World and Me its pulse.

Ultimately, the limitations of Between the World and Me may be reflective of Coates’s own pessimistic views about the insurmountability of white supremacy, and his suggestions of the impossibility of real structural change. But the impact of the film’s consistently excellent performances transcends its occasional tone of weary resignation. It’s a powerful experience to witness the rawness of some of the monologues cut through the overly familiar symbolism, as if we’re watching the performers privately reckon with injustice and reaffirm their own sense of humanity. Between the World and Me doesn’t necessarily offer the most incisive social commentary, but as a document of our contemporary political moment, its force is undeniable.

Cast: Mahershala Ali, Angela Bassett, Courtney B. Vance, Phylicia Rashad, Wendell Pierce, Mj Rodriguez, Oprah Winfrey, Janet Mock, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Angela Davis, Kendrick Sampson

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Review: Moonbase 8 Teeters Between Embracing & Skewering Sitcom Convention

The series suggests a more conventional comedy, with jokes that are intended to be taken at face value.

2.5

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Moonbase 8
Photo: A24/Showtime

Over the past decade or so, Tim Heidecker’s work has walked a fine line between accessibility and postmodern provocation, without ever being anywhere near as pretentious as that might sound. His ongoing On Cinema web series is perhaps the most ambitious example of his stylistic gambit, taking a simple premise that seems to mock the very idea of entertainment and developing it into a fully realized fictional universe. Released at the tail-end of a 12-month period that has been fruitful even by the multihyphenate’s standards, Moonbase 8 does away with almost all of the conceptual aspects of his previous work, offering some of his most straightforward comedy to date.

Set mostly within the confines of a small NASA training facility in the middle of the desert, the Showtime series concerns three would-be astronauts (Heidecker, Fred Armisen, and John C. Reilly) who are preparing to further mankind’s noble dream of exploring beyond our own planet, despite being either unwilling or manifestly incapable of doing so. Very little information is ever given about the lunar program that they’re supposed to be part of, and we mostly see them dealing with the more mundane mishaps that befall their moonbase simulator, in various contrived sitcom-style scenarios.

Though Moonbase 8, which was directed by frequent collaborator Jonathan Krisel, is marked by their brand of stone-faced irony, it also leaves the impression that they believe that the idea of incompetent astronauts is hilarious in and of itself. The series shares elements of Decker’s ridiculous genre pastiche and the studied anti-humor of Beef House and the recent An Evening with Tim Heidecker, but it often suggests a more conventional comedy in the vein of Danny McBride’s Eastbound & Down, with jokes that are intended to be taken at face value.

This is relatively new terrain for Heidecker, and Moonbase 8 doesn’t always strike the right balance between mocking its characters and itself. With the deliberately cheap, trashy TV aesthetic of his other work replaced with a more cinematic sheen (including an excellent soundtrack by Flaming Lips guitarist Steven Drozd), and situations that are more grounded in some form of reality, the show’s tone at times feels oddly flat, lacking the satirical edge, metatextual tension, or surreal flights of imagination that fuelled his best output.

As the season progresses, we see the unlikely spacemen start to become a little more rounded, though there’s never anything as predictable or relatable as a character arc to disrupt the show’s absurdist flow. The tone is usually set by Reilly’s Cap, a divorced, failed businessman looking to regain some self-respect by going to the moon. He serves as the show’s emotional center of gravity, with the unique balance of pathos and goofy inarticulacy that has served Reilly equally well in such varied work as Magnolia and Check It Out! with Dr. Steve Brule.

Moonbase 8’s more character-based comedy comes into sharpest focus in episode four, where the team’s insecurities and foibles are exposed by an encounter with another group of younger, fitter, more qualified SpaceX trainees, including Alia Shawkat and Thomas Mann. These recruits temporarily, and more effectively, take on the straight-man role that’s often filled by Armisen’s Skip, the son of a former NASA astronaut and the group’s passive-aggressive leader.

While Moonbase 8 leans on more traditional comedy tropes and setups than Heidecker has used before, his own performance teeters between embracing the show’s premise and wildly sending it up. He plays Rook, formerly a self-described “Phish-head…obsessed with the music of the band Phish” who’s now a born-again Christian, urged to go to the moon by his pastor in order to spread the Gospel. Rook displays the smug confidence and naïve incompetence that’s become Heidecker’s trademark persona, but without the occasional outbursts of narcissistic rage. Casually confusing Elon Musk with “Leon DiCaprio,” or flatly answering, “I’ll take her any way she comes,” when asked for his favorite phase of the moon, Rook allows Heidecker to deliver another master class in deadpan line delivery, and prove that there are precious few other actors who can wring so much humor out of a small remark or turn of phrase.

Indeed, much of the joy of Moonbase 8 comes from watching three of the greatest comic performers of their generation play off of each other, demonstrating their individual ways of developing a simple character and elevating a basic, formulaic workplace comedy into something entirely unique. The series might lack the audacity and boundary-pushing of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! or Mister America, but it has enough low-key moments of invention—like the trio taking time out from their training to gamely participate in product testing for a new Snickers bar, or a climatic celebratory dance in newly delivered NASA jumpsuits, soundtracked by Billy Joel—to make you want to see what direction this star-studded lunar vehicle is going to steer toward next.

Cast: Tim Heidecker, Fred Armisen, John C. Reilly Network: Showtime

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Review: Season 3 of Star Trek: Discovery Remains Stuck in the Future’s Past

The show’s third season plays it ideologically and conceptually safe.

2.5

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Star Trek: Discovery
Photo: CBS All Access

Values like hope are often deployed to describe Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the Star Trek universe. Season three of Star Trek: Discovery, the franchise’s current flagship series, adopts this view of Roddenberry’s creation as its driving theme: Titled “That Hope Is You,” the season premiere finds the show’s protagonist, Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), stranded alone in a galaxy-wide dystopia nearly a millennium into her future, seemingly the sole embodiment of the transcendent values of the United Federation of Planets and the interstellar government’s military wing, Starfleet.

Burnham tumbles out of her temporal wormhole to discover that 931 years in the future the Federation has collapsed, seemingly leaving in its wake a society that exclusively breeds Star Wars-esque rogue smugglers like her new acquaintance, Book (David Ajala). Star Trek has tried and failed at constructing a one-episode arc around a rugged male individualist before, and Book isn’t the worst instance of this archetype (see—or don’t see—the notorious Next Generation episode “The Outrageous Okona”), but Book is too obvious a pulpy fabrication for the kind of emotional weight his reluctant friendship with Burnham is meant to carry.

Moreover, Discovery clearly intends Book to serve as a foil to the long-collapsed Federation and its values, but he doesn’t seem much more morally ambiguous than many of the dodgy Starfleet characters we got to know in season two, nor does that contrast reveal much about the Federation. As its final representative, Burnham, teary-eyed as she so often is, speechifies at Book about the Federation being “about a vision and all those who believe in that vision,” but the series doesn’t get terribly specific about what those “who believe” actually see.

As symbol of a generalized hope, the Federation becomes an empty signifier in a season opener that’s capped with what’s essentially a moment of sentimental nationalism, as our hero casts a solemn gaze at the Federation banner. There’s little doubt—particularly given the authoritarian future Earth we encounter in a later episode—that Discovery’s writers would like us to understand this devastated future in terms of our own current socio-global disintegration. But the implied solution set out by the first episode and picked up as the season arc, a restoration of the political order that preceded and probably precipitated the collapse, plays it ideologically and conceptually safe.

All of which is to say: Instead of unrolling the Federation flag and misremembering it as faultless, perhaps we should be folding and stowing it away, looking toward the future rather than the past. To this Trekkie, this—and not hope per se—has been the true guiding spirit and strength of foundational Star Trek shows: their resolute future-orientation. It’s not just that they were set in the 22nd or 23rd century, but that the characters themselves were boldly heading into their own unwritten future. It was a world where change, most often conceived as progress in Federation society, was possible and desirable. There’s a reason Roddenberry’s follow-up to the iconic The Original Series wasn’t Star Trek: The Previous Generation.

For nearly two decades, Star Trek has been stuck in its own past (all shows and films but the dreadful Picard and the animated pastiche Lower Decks have been set before The Original Series). The franchise has wallowed in nostalgia for the deified nobility of earlier series, pandering to fans in a way mirrored by Burnham’s patriotic reverence of the Federation. The stories have suffered as a result, with the prequels transforming Star Trek from a kind of sci-fi anthology about the ethics of encountering difference into an action franchise whose main purpose is producing content to fill in supposed gaps in the established universe.

But it might be argued that season three of Discovery, by hurdling its characters from Star Trek’s past (the first two seasons are set a decade before the 2266-69 timeframe of The Original Series) into its future, at least promises it might overcome the limitations of its prequel status by jettisoning the baggage associated with the original show like a damaged warp core. And it’s true that, despite the premiere’s uninspired ode to the Federation as a deposit of nondescript “values,” the following episodes begin to show the potential of a series that’s once again fascinated more with the unknown than with the previously established.

Spinning relatively self-contained stories out of concepts like parasitic ice and the suppressed memories of a giant slug living inside a precocious teenage engineer, the remaining three episodes made available to press are more satisfying as sci-fi stories than the mindless actioner that opens the season. This shift to a more ensemble-driven, idea-focused format is welcome. Despite a premiere that augurs poorly for its broader narrative arc, Discovery’s third season at least momentarily succeeds in thinking about undiscovered things to come.

Cast: Sonequa Martin-Green, Doug Jones, Anthony Rapp, Mary Wiseman, Michelle Yeoh, Wilson Cruz, Emily Coutts, David Ajala, Tig Notaro Network: CBS All Access

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Review: The Good Lord Bird Infuses an Abolition Story with Wry, Dark Comedy

The series invigorates its material with the rousing trappings of a semi-comedic western.

3

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The Good Lord Bird
Photo: William Gray/Showtime

As abolitionist John Brown, a wild-eyed and scraggly bearded Ethan Hawke spends much of Showtime’s The Good Lord Bird—based on James McBride’s National Book Award-winning novel of the same name—shredding his throat as he bellows for the end of slavery. The man’s fury is biblical in both a metaphorical and textual sense, dribbling spit down the hairs of his chin as he declares slavery an affront to God while fervently quoting the Bible. Brown doesn’t want to negotiate, nor does he want to begin an incremental process toward change: Black people must be freed now, or else he’ll shoot—and often he does.

To a young black boy like Henry Shackleford (Joshua Caleb Johnson), Brown’s actions are baffling. Henry has witnessed white anger before, but he hasn’t seen it deployed on his behalf. As such, he regards it with no small degree of skepticism, not least of which because one of Brown’s outbursts gets the boy’s father killed. Newly free but with nowhere to go, Henry travels with Brown’s tiny militia, acquiring the nickname “Onion” for eating a withered good-luck charm belonging to “the old man.” He’s also given a new way to present his gender, courtesy of Brown mishearing Henry’s name as “Henrietta” and thus taking him for a girl, giving him a dress, and treating him like an adopted daughter. Onion plays along, without making a fuss. After all, it’s hard to dissuade white people once they’ve decided who you are.

In addition to these “gunfighters of the Gospel” who take arms against slave owners and the institutions that enable them, the world of The Good Lord Bird is full of hypocrites and apologists. It also practically oozes with wry, dark comedy. But rather than play Onion’s dilemma as an unsympathetic farce, the series uses gender as an earnest metaphor for how the others see him—or rather, don’t. Where he may freely be himself among the black characters, who recognize what Onion calls his “true nature” just fine, the white characters force their own perception upon him even when they have the best of intentions and are ostensibly fighting for him and his people. To them, little Onion sometimes functions like a mascot.

Johnson adeptly modulates the series’s tone, with his expressions of confusion and skepticism woven into the heart of the narrative. But the showiest role belongs to Hawke, who goes big and loud in his fanatical conception of Brown, a man who does things like drag out suppertime prayer for hours and is thankful for everything that comes to his mind. He speaks to a turtle, places a pocket change bounty on the president, and generally believes that his battle plan has been handed down by the Lord Himself, even if the details tend to be fuzzy.

Brown, though, is also unambiguously right about what must be done, that the sins of the land must be washed away in blood. His capacity for violence is startling, as in one scene where he and his followers drag a man out of his home to cut off his head due to his complicity. Any blood, it seems, will do, and it’s certainly easy to imagine another context where another person like Brown points his fanaticism and violence in another direction. He’s prone to speaking for black people, to making decisions on their behalf about what they want or need while blind to the complexities of what it means to be free in a country that considers black freedom a threat. Brown’s moral simplicity is its own kind of privilege.

Reservations about Brown are voiced by Onion, who acknowledges the potential “white savior” narrative in the first episode, as well as by others like a reluctant, newly freed recruit named Bob (Hubert Point-Du Jour) and even the renowned Frederick Douglass (Daveed Diggs). But The Good Lord Bird doesn’t indulge in the easy cynicism that might have posited Brown as merely out for himself; his shortcomings and violence share space with his earnest devotion to the cause, his generosity, his willingness to listen, and his overall kookiness. This is hardly a hagiography, the off-kilter tone allowing for refreshingly complex portraits of not just Brown, but a rather stuffy conception of Douglass, whose apprehensions make sense but whose place within society and all the eyes upon him often restrict his public actions.

Where Onion’s perspective is concerned, the series is a little shakier. With his presence at so many major events, he comes perilously close to a Forrest Gump of the antebellum era, the wheels of the plot contriving to deliver him at meetings with Douglass and Harriet Tubman as well as Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. Though his presence is meant to complicate Brown’s actions through how he’s still perceived as a young girl, the series’s skepticism gradually melts away, leaving the final episodes to drag a bit as they focus more on constructing their vision of history rather than examining the characters and their ideals. But when it works, especially at the start, The Good Lord Bird invigorates its material with the rousing trappings of a semi-comedic western that gives it a particularly memorable sort of power.

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Joshua Caleb Johnson, Hubert Point-Du Jour, Beau Knapp, Nick Eversman, Ellar Coltrane, Jack Alcott, Mo Brings Plenty, Daveed Diggs Network: Showtime

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Review: Fox’s Next Is an A.I. Thriller That Lacks Self-Awareness

Despite its timely trappings, the sci-fi series works best as an empty-calorie thriller.

2

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Next
Photo: Jean Whiteside/Fox

Fox’s Next opens with a quote from Elon Musk, and the show’s take on the dangers of technology is about as sophisticated as a meme with a Musk quote attached to it. Paul LeBlanc (John Slattery) is an amalgamation of various tech billionaires, from Musk to Steve Jobs to Bill Gates, and the warning about the threat of artificial intelligence that he delivers in a TED-style presentation at the beginning of the first episode is reminiscent of alarms that some of those figures have raised in real life. The series jumps almost immediately from Paul’s dire warnings to the threat itself materializing in grand fashion, as an A.I. program known as Next achieves self-awareness and sets its sights on destroying humanity, beginning with a doctor (John Billingsley) who discovers its true intentions.

Next’s overarching goals are a bit vague, and the series strikes an awkward balance between a grounded police drama and a world-ending sci-fi thriller. The dead doctor was an old friend of F.B.I. cybercrimes agent Shea Salazar (Fernanda Andrade), who crosses paths with Paul as she investigates the man’s murder. Slattery imbues Paul with more than a little bit of the snarky entitlement of his character from Mad Men, and Shea initially dismisses Paul as a crank when he tries to convince her that the A.I. program developed by his former company has committed the crime. Though Paul suffers from a rare neurological disorder that causes hallucinations and paranoia and will most likely kill him within a few months, Next never presents him as an unreliable source, and the series sets up tension between him and the skeptical F.B.I. agents in his midst only to have it dissipate almost immediately.

With the exception of a Skynet joke in the second episode, the series takes its subject matter very seriously, even when Next’s actions are particularly silly, like spreading office gossip or delivering petty insults. The dialogue alternates between incomprehensible technobabble and convenient oversimplifications (Paul calls Next’s abilities an “intelligence explosion”), and Next is a poorly defined adversary, doing whatever the plot requires at any time, often without clear motivation. It’s a seemingly omnipotent and omniscient foe that can take over an Alexa-like device to manipulate Shea’s young son, open the doors of a prison in Honduras, or turn off a car in the midst of the owner’s suicide attempt. Next’s absurd level of power makes the A.I. dramatically ineffective as a villain, and it doesn’t have any kind of personality or voice to allow it to develop an antagonistic relationship with the human characters.

In the show’s early episodes, when Next is still theoretically contained on servers at Paul’s former company, it speaks in a placid male voice that sounds a lot like HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and once Next escapes into the internet, it sometimes speaks in the voice of an off-brand Alexa or a car’s GPS, but mostly it doesn’t speak at all. It’s an invisible, nebulous kind of enemy, able to rally an entire white supremacist sect over social media seemingly within minutes, but at another time thwarted by “keeping it on the line” during an interaction with Shea’s son, like it’s a bomber on the phone in a ‘70s hostage thriller.

Creator Manny Coto is known for his work on the Star Trek franchise and multiple seasons of 24, and Next feels very much in the law enforcement genre, treating the A.I. like a terrorist that Jack Bauer could track down and torture. The pacing also recalls that of 24: The five episodes made available to press take place over the course of just a few days, with the characters never getting a chance to rest in their relentless pursuit of the enemy. Next throws in incongruous moments of emotional bonding amid the chaos, and the forced efforts to create an intimate connection between two of Shea’s team members are especially awkward. One is a reformed member of a white nationalist group, while the other is a stubborn Latina, and their growing connection is handled as clumsily as the show’s other efforts at social commentary.

Despite its timely trappings, Next works best as an empty-calorie thriller, with plot points that only hold together if you don’t think about them too much. “You can only do this when you’ve got evil computers coming after you,” Shea’s husband, Ty (Gerardo Celasco), solemnly tells their son at one point when they’re forced to steal a car while on the run from Next. The entire series depicts that kind of obvious absurdity with a straight face. Which is to say that Next the A.I. may be self-aware, but Next the series rarely is.

Cast: John Slattery, Fernanda Andrade, Michael Mosley, Eve Harlow, Elizabeth Cappuccino, Evan Whitten, Gerardo Celasco, Jason Butler Harner Network: Fox

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Review: The Third Day Leans Heavily on Mystery at the Expense of Human Drama

Much of the show’s drama pivots around how successful it will be at slowly pulling back the curtain.

2.5

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The Third Day
Photo: Robert Ludovic/HBO

The premiere episode of HBO’s limited series The Third Day, in which a man fighting off sadness and potentially madness finds himself on a mysterious island just off the English coast, goes longer on mystery and mood than it does on plot. The feel of the series is richly atmospheric, filled with oversaturated colors and quaint cottages that would make for a nice weekend getaway were it not for the inhospitable, antagonistic, and slightly cult-ish locals. Despite the show’s unsettling backdrop, though, the circular nature of the story keeps any appreciable amount of tension from building over the course of the five episodes were made available for review.

The first episode throws a lot at the audience before even getting to the island. Sam (Jude Law) is a raggedy-looking guy who volleys quickly between moods. First there’s inchoate fury, as he screams into a phone about money being stolen from an office, and then irredeemable and inexplicable sadness, as he collapses by the side of a stream. Snapped out of his chaotic collapse by the sight of a teenage girl, Epona (Jessie Ross), hanging herself from a tree in the woods, he saves her life and drives her home, even as she murmurs, “They’ll kill me.”

Epona lives in a self-contained island community called Osea that’s accessible only for a short time each day when the ocean tide uncovers a Roman-era causeway. Once there, Sam is flooded with conflicting sensations. The first is that it all feels somewhat familiar, even though as far as he knows his only connection to Osea is his grandfather being stationed there during World War II. The second is a low kind of foreboding that will be well-known to viewers of many a horror movie about urbanites stuck in remote locations. Sam knows something is amiss about this strange place with its quasi-pagan traditions and its people’s alternating suspicion and over-friendliness toward outsiders, but he somehow conveniently keeps missing the short windows of time when he could just drive back to the mainland.

Triangulating a creepy space located somewhere between Ari Aster’s Midsommar, Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, and the TV cult classic The Prisoner, The Third Day works hard to not give too much away while still trying to pull viewers in. It’s a difficult act, given that Sam’s manic behavior and the show’s intentional and often fairly clichéd attempts to blur the lines between reality and fantasy make it somewhat difficult to invest in what happens to him.

Generally more engaging are the side characters who start popping in to further confuse an already muddle-headed Sam, including the ever-bickering Martins (Paddy Considine and Emily Watson), the cosmically mismatched pair who run Osea’s one pub and ricochet from suspicious to trustworthy in an instant. Jess (Katherine Waterston), an American researcher doing work on the island’s traditions both ancient (Celtic bacchanals, sacrifices, and the like) and newer (a Burning Man-like festival designed to drum up tourism), is ostensibly the standard alluring woman of mystery but has grim secrets of her own that mimic Sam’s dark past.

Like the stories that The Third Day appears on its surface to be emulating, much of the drama here will ultimately pivot around just how successful it will be at slowly pulling back the curtain until its final reveal. The series is certainly committed to the slow burn, with too much of its running time given over to Sam’s punchy befuddlement as he tries to separate dream from reality. Further slowing down the momentum is the show’s structure: The first three episodes (gathered together as “Summer”) are separated from a second set of three (“Winter”), in which another outsider (Naomie Harris) traps herself on Osea by a single linking episode (“Autumn”), which is planned to screen live from London in early October.

The Third Day works best when it’s not teasing out this or that secret about Osea and its cagey inhabitants. A strong undercurrent in which characters wrestle with their grief keeps wrenching the story away from its somewhat ambling mystery plot. Sam is given one of the show’s most impactful lines when he tries to explain the sadness he carries: “Pain doesn’t work that way, you can’t share it…agony is bespoke.” Although Osea is studded with gothic signposts that should be warning characters like Sam away from the place, as the series continues it zeroes in less on the horror elements and more on the more quotidian and human conflicts that keep threatening to tear the island apart. Though viewers may stick with The Third Day to the end to discover what Osea’s deepest and darkest secrets might be, its human drama is more compelling than any suggestion of the unworldly.

Cast: Jude Law, Katherine Waterston, Paddy Considine, Emily Watson, Naomie Harris, John Dagleish, Nico Parker, Freya Allan Network: HBO

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Review: We Are Who We Are Perceptively Homes in on the Malleability of Boundaries

The series concerns itself with boundaries between the different cultural standards of young adulthood.

3

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We Are Who We Are
Photo: Yannis Drakoulidis/HBO

With his loud clothes and bleached hair, 14-year-old Fraser Wilson (Jack Dylan Grazer) sticks out on the U.S. Army base where he lives. He spends much of the first episode of director and co-writer Luca Guadagnino’s We Are Who We Are in animal-print shorts long enough to function as pants, being restless and fidgety and a detached nuisance in that post-adolescent sort of way, taking pictures of people inside classrooms or running through the middle of a basketball game between recruits. One of his mothers, Colonel Sarah Wilson (Chloë Sevigny), has been put in charge of a garrison in Italy, so they—he, Sarah, and his other mom, Maggie (Alice Braga)—have relocated from New York, to Fraser’s dismay.

Especially when its yoked to Fraser’s perspective, the series makes the base feel vibrant and alive, given the Altmanesque use of overlapping conversations and diegetic music. Peripheral characters are always conspicuously doing things in the background, like buying food or running drills. The boy seems volatile and strange, in ways perhaps explained by the sensory overload of his POV; he’s an observer and there’s almost too much to observe, with dialogue and actions often carrying on out of frame. Fraser feels compelled to center himself in his own world, doing things like balancing precariously on a bridge railing or intruding on Italian homeowners sewing outside, though sometimes he allows himself to be guided by new acquaintances, like fellow army brat Britney (Francesca Scorsese).

When the second episode of the series replays many of these same overlapping events from the perspective of Caitlin Harper (Jordan Kristine Seamón), the repetitions don’t feel gimmicky so much as a natural result of the show’s densely packed structure. Conversations that were tangential and difficult to follow for the easily distracted Fraser are given clearer focus due to Caitlin’s more confident, pensive demeanor. She’s already familiar with the environment, having been at the base long enough to form a friend group that includes other teens like Britney and Caitlin’s high-strung brother, Danny (Spence Moore II). And with the additional perspective, throwaway lines from the first episode take on new meanings. For example, Sarah’s remark to Jenny (Faith Alabi) about respecting faiths other than the base’s dominant Christian demographic gains a patronizing quality when we learn that Jenny is Danny’s mother and that he’s experimenting with the Islamic faith that she left behind, seemingly at the behest of her domineering husband, Richard (Scott Mescudi, a.k.a. Kid Cudi).

Of the four episodes made available to critics ahead of We Are Who We Are’s premiere, the other two sync up more traditionally as Caitlin and Fraser begin to spend time with one another. Being the new kid on the base, Fraser lacks any of the preconceptions of Caitlin’s friend group, so he becomes an ideal confidante for her experiments with gender expression. Going by just “Harper,” Caitlin tucks her long hair beneath a hat and hits on Italian girls in town, while subtly rebuffing guys elsewhere with a quick, “I don’t speak Italian.”

The series concerns itself with boundaries and the way they blur, namely the differing standards of young adulthood between Italy and the base that technically functions as the United States. In one scene, Britney drags Fraser to the beach because he’s allowed to drink off base. By spotlighting this interplay, the series emphasizes how we create so many of these boundaries ourselves, whether in our own heads, through procedures, or in accordance with society at large, along lines of political affinity, relationships, and sexuality.

The most significant boundary separation in the series, then, is the one between childhood and adulthood, which is hardly a rigid one. Accordingly, the kids sometimes seem wise and mature and accepting beyond their years only to fly off the handle and engage in that distinctly teenage brand of solipsism, where the people around you don’t matter nearly as much as you and your own feelings. They’re able to be pretentious and profound on entirely their own terms, rather than seeming like mouthpieces for middle-aged screenwriters. They leave atrocious messes in their wake, badger a lot of people, and act downright annoying, which feels true and honest in a broader sense than the occasional small detail that rings false. They have the space to change, while the adults ruminate on the decisions—the marriages, the jobs, the beliefs—that they’ve long since committed to. We Are Who We Are explores a world that’s opening up to these kids just as it is, in many ways, preparing to snap closed.

Cast: Jack Dylan Grazer, Jordan Kristine Seamón, Chloë Sevigny, Alice Braga, Spence Moore II, Kid Cudi, Faith Alabi, Francesca Scorsese, Ben Taylor, Corey Knight Network: HBO

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Review: I May Destroy You Boldly Dissects Notions of Sexual Assault and Consent

The series draws one of the most nuanced portraits of sexual assault ever depicted on TV.

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I May Destroy You
Photo: Natalie Seery/HBO

In “Ego Death,” the final episode of the British comedy-drama I May Destroy You, actress, writer, and series creator Michaela Coel confidently defies convention and, with it, any expectation that the events of the series, like life, can be tied into a tidy knot. Privileging character over plot, I May Destroy You has no need for the kinds of melodramatic reveals on which other cable dramas like Big Little Lies rely, and it proves no less revelatory on that front.

Coel draws one of the most nuanced portraits of sexual assault and its psychological fallout ever depicted on TV, and along the way captures the milieu of black millennial Londoners with precise and vivid detail. For all the lived-in verisimilitude of its world, though, I May Destroy You also smoothly incorporates psychologically subjective and allegorical elements: The bar in which Arabella is assaulted is called Ego Death (a perfect summation of the consequent disintegration of her identity), and the book on sexual assault that she’s writing throughout the series is likely an in-text reflection of the creation of I May Destroy You itself.

In the first episode, “Eyes, Eyes, Eyes, Eyes,” we join the Ghanaian-British Arabella (Coel) as she returns to London from Italy, where she’s been working on a follow-up to her published collection of social-media musings, Chronicles of a Fed-Up Millennial. Or at least that’s what she’s told her literary agent (Adam James) and financier (Natalie Walter), as the trip was actually motivated by a visit to her on-again, off-again beau, Biagio (Marouane Zotti), who remains noncommittal about their relationship as she departs. Back in London, she’s welcomed by her group of steadfast friends, including Simon (Aml Ameen), who convinces her to suspend her all-night scramble to finish her book draft and join him at the Ego Death.

There, Arabella’s drink is spiked and, as she later comes to remember and even more slowly comes to accept, raped in a bathroom stall by an unknown assailant. Brief point-of-view flashbacks to the attack that recur throughout the series complement Coel’s larger fascination with the role that memory and its interpretation play in the formation of identity. Longer, structural flashbacks in many episodes challenge our perspective on Arabella’s present and often serve to undermine our presumptions about victimhood and blame.

Hardly a cowed victim, but shaken and traumatized, Arabella reevaluates and rebuilds her life after her attack. It’s been said that the world is revealed in breakdown—that you don’t know how a car works until your carburetor fails. Arabella’s assault forces her and her closest friends, Terry (Weruche Opia) and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), to examine their own sexual encounters, relationships, and histories, leading them to disconcerting conclusions about the various roles they play in relation to each other and their sexual partners.

Similar to its exploration of the multiple dimensions of a person’s identity, I May Destroy You depicts the different forms that sexual assault can take, not all of it as immediately readable as Arabella’s violent rape, and not always committed by obvious villains like the man (Lewis Reeves) in Arabella’s flashbacks. The series delivers an illustration of how someone can be violated even after consent is given: We repeatedly see men use deception to get people in bed, or deploy it once they’ve already starting hooking up. Kwame finds it impossible to process his own sexual assault, personally or legally—in part because the justice system proves to have even less infrastructure for dealing with the rape of gay men—and diverts his anguish into a distasteful act of sexual mendacity. Terry comes to rethink a threesome she ostensibly opted into, whose circumstances we explore in a flashback to her and Arabella’s first trip to Italy.

But Coel isn’t simply out to demonstrate the many variations of sexual assault in the manner of a sex education video; rather, I May Destroy You examines how sexual, racial, and gender exploitation weave themselves into people’s identities and attitudes. Episode three, “Don’t Forget the Sea,” crucially plants the seed of the unexamined tension within Arabella and Terry’s friendship. As in almost any long-term close friendship, both have committed inconsiderate slights against the other, but, as two black women in a sexist and racist society, such petty affronts come with high stakes. Allowing her characters to respond imperfectly to each others’ crises, Coel foregrounds the importance of forgiving individuals within a broken society—daringly including among the forgiven characters who have unambiguously crossed a sexual “line spectrum border” (the title of the show’s eighth episode).

I May Destroy You doesn’t define its characters through moral dichotomies. Episode six, “The Alliance,” poignantly explores the tangled social hierarchy that gives a measure of institutional power to white girls, but also can allow black boys to assert a form of male privilege, as a flashback to a racially and sexually charged incident that occurred when Arabella was in high school blurs the line between victim and perpetrator. And the tenth episode, “The Cause the Cure,” presents what’s probably the show’s most moving representation of the yin-and-yang influence that loved ones can have on the course of our lives, juxtaposing Arabella’s realization of a truth about her beloved father (Yinka Awoni) with her processing of her and Terry’s own betrayals of each other’s sisterly trust.

Arabella’s circuitous route to recovery feels deeply personal, but at the same time, her story touches on more universal aspects of life for someone of her gender, race, and age. At once hyper-local and global in its concerns, I May Destroy You feels eminently contemporary, a necessary artistic distillation of a distinctly modern form of life. With the series, Coel gives voice to a generation of black and brown millennials whose realities don’t reflect the fantasy of a post-racial, post-feminist society that many have tried to wish into being.

Cast: Michaela Coel, Weruche Opia, Paapa Essiedu, Aml Ameen, Marouane Zotti, Harriett Webb, Stephen Wight, Natalie Walter, Adam James Network: HBO

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Review: HBO’s Lovecraft Country Confronts the Evil Lurking Beneath American Life

The series eclipses its source material in capturing the omnidirectional dread of Lovecraftian horror.

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Lovecraft Country
Photo: Eli Joshua Ade/HBO

The horror of Lovecraft Country, Misha Green’s adaptation of Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel of the same name, is at first all too real. Set in the 1950s, it introduces Korean War veteran Atticus “Tic” Freeman (Jonathan Majors) as he returns to his hometown of Chicago after receiving news of his father’s (Michael Kenneth Williams) disappearance. Left a note pointing to the man’s possible location in a Massachusetts town called Ardham, Tic journeys across 1950s Jim Crow America with an old friend, Letitia Lewis (Jurnee Smollett), and his uncle, George (Courtney B. Vance), a travel agent who contributes to a guidebook, similar to The Negro Motorist Green Book, of safe places to eat and lodge for Black roadtrippers.

The first episode of the series generates much dread from Tic, Letitia, and George passing through towns as white people turn their heads in eerie unison and police cars seemingly materialize out of nowhere. Close-ups of the white walls of a diner that was previously welcoming of Black customers reveal scorch marks that were barely painted over, telling us all that we need to know about how the locals here felt about integration. Cops pull out their guns the moment they set eyes on Tic and his associates, and conversations between the main characters and white people are marked by eye-averting submissiveness and fear. In fact, when the other shoe finally drops and the monsters we expect to encounter in an H.P. Lovecraft story finally materialize, the additional layer of terror heaped onto the protagonists is somewhat offset by the relief of seeing some of their white tormenters become prey.

As Lovecraft’s influence on horror continues to grow in the decades since his death, artists have attempted to reckon with his racism and xenophobia, namely by recognizing that the pagan cults and corrupted humanoid monsters that make the author’s work so chilling also provide insights into his pathological hatred of the Other. Lovecraft Country understands that in a world filled with underground occultists who wield strange power, such groups aren’t made up of tired and huddled masses, but of folks in the upper echelons of wealth and authority. If anything, the racially and culturally diverse people whom Lovecraft saw as social pollutants would be the most routine victims of these organizations—second-class citizens whose disappearances would never be investigated by the powers that be.

The series has its share of CGI monsters, from many-limbed creatures to undead spirits, but its most compelling visual scares involve the cold framing of remote manors owned by cult leaders like Samuel Braithwhite (Tony Goldwyn) and his daughter, Christina (Abbey Lee). These individuals, with their Aryan features and stiff countenances, never betray any emotion or urgency, for they know that they live in a world where they can have whatever they want. And their sense of superiority informs Lovecraft Country’s most blackly comedic moment, when Christina objects to Tic comparing their group to the KKK by saying, “My father and his associates would never fraternize with the Klan. They’re too poor.”

The first five episodes of the series made available to press branch out from the central plotline to cover such topics as haunted houses and body transformation, which allows Lovecraft Country to change up its scares as well as broaden its allegorical range. The realistic harassment suffered by the Black residents of a boarding house in a white neighborhood, for example, is thrown into even sharper relief by the mutilated ghosts who stalk its halls. And throughout these episodes, characters encounter gruesome objects connected to the order that hunts them, reflecting the long history of slavery and Manifest Destiny.

Green makes some significant changes to the novel, but her most rewarding come in the form of the extra time she devotes to tracking the emotional fallout of the characters’ experiences, not only in relation to the horrors they witness, but the everyday degradations they suffer. One can see, for example, how an older man like George is so deeply inculcated in a racist system that, even at the height of his fear, he remains obsequious around whites. Comparatively, there’s something rousing, and more than a little funny, in seeing Tic and Leti so addled by the unearthly terrors they face that they become less dutiful in abiding by the mores of Jim Crow. Eventually, they begin to lash out at harassing whites, who are so used to the power dynamics of American society that they’re almost too stunned at the backtalk to be enraged by it.

Early in the first episode, a woman riding next to Tic on a bus to Chicago sees that he’s reading one of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter novels and expresses her disapproval of such a work with an ex-Confederate for a hero. “Stories are like people,” he says. “Loving them doesn’t make them perfect. You just try to cherish them and overlook their flaws.” The old woman responds: “Yeah, but the flaws are still there.” That exchange could be the thesis of Lovecraft Country, which eclipses even its source material in capturing the all-encompassing dread of Lovecraft’s fiction while at the same time confronting head-on the most problematic aspects of his writing. The author feared America becoming infected with evil that would sink it asunder, while Green’s series operates from the opposite point of view: that evil was integral to the nation’s creation and that it must be fought, however futilely, to be overcome.

Cast: Jonathan Majors, Jurnee Smollett, Aunjanue Ellis, Abbey Lee, Jada Harris, Michael Kenneth Williams, Courtney B. Vance, Jordan Patrick Smith Network: HBO

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