The moment it was announced that the Baltimore Sun would factor into the final season of The Wire, it should have been obvious that the series would end with an episode called “-30-”. In addition to being the slug used inside the business to mark the end of a news article (Wikipedia tells us it’s an Arabic-numeral conversion of “XXX”, which was used to signify the end of telegrams during the Civil War), it’s also the name of a 1959 film directed by and starring Jack Webb that I’ve never seen but which, according to one of my journalism-school instructors (a very Gus Haynes-like guy, come to think of it) is a bottomless trove of sentimental clichés about the newspaper trade—and a film that reporters love to watch in large groups mock the bejeezus out of when they’re all liquored up.
Some people, I dare say, will claim that The Wire’s final episode offers as unrealistic a picture of the news biz as Webb’s movie, and I’ll admit that basically none of the Sun action worked for me at all. That being the case, I was relieved and pleasantly surprised that the Sun played a relatively small role in the episode when both the title and the opening quote (from the paper’s most celebrated alumnus, speaking about his profession) invoke the world of journalism. For the most part, “-30-” is devoted to resolving the story of McNulty’s fake serial killer and to the business of steering the characters toward the rest of their lives, and it succeeds admirably at both.
It didn’t occur to me until my second time through the episode, but one of the main reasons why “-30-” works so well is its narrow focus: With most of the Omar/Marlo/Snoop/Chris plot business out of the way, the satirical tone that David Simon has been aiming for all season in McNulty’s plot came across more clearly than ever before. I’m really glad: Several weeks ago, I predicted that McNulty would more or less skate as a matter of bureaucratic necessity, but the seemingly-universal consensus that the story could only end with McNulty going to jail had left me worried that the ending I predicted would be one it’d be hard for Simon to sell to the audience. Clearing the decks accomplishes this, in addition to giving the whole episode a welcome sense of cohesion by ensuring that what’s left of the Marlo plot is more tightly connected to the other stories than everything involving his gang has been thus far this season. Indeed, the only stuff that really feels extraneous are the scenes featuring Bubbles, Michael and Dukie, which, while very fine, largely revisit the territory covered in last week’s episode and make many of the same points, often less elegantly. While I liked the relaxed pace of “-30-”, there’s little doubt that it could easily have been converted into a regular-length episode without losing much of its substance.
The episode gets rolling with one of Aiden Gillien’s funniest-ever scenes—which, given the number of spectacular tantrums we’ve seen Carcetti pitch since he’s been on the show, is saying a lot. Between episodes, Rawls, Norman Wilson and Mike Steintorf were apparently clued in to the truth by Daniels and Pearlman, sparing us a bunch of potentially repetitive scenes and increasing the impact of Carcetti’s reaction by cutting right to it. The scene is only slightly marred by a detour into the dreaded land of the Overclose (something that happens three or four times in the episode) when Wilson observes that McNulty was doing the same thing that Carcetti’s team was by using the homeless issue to (hopefully) vault him to Annapolis. Like Rawls, intriguingly, Wilson seems convinced that the scam was all about the OT and not about putting away Marlo.
Be that as it may, Carcetti having posed for the cameras with the drugs and money seized last week is, more than anything, what motivates the cover-up: Having nothing come of the bust would not only keep Carcetti from becoming governor but it would make him a national laughing stock to boot (at least that’s how it seems as the episode begins—ultimately, the bust basically does go up in smoke and Carcetti emerges just fine).
Daniels knows that McNulty and Freamon are good police, but despite his years of experience with them, he’s not at all inclined to cut them slack over the scam. It seems pretty clear this is because the scam genuinely offends his sense of decency. Pearlman, however, is only really incensed when it becomes clear how much she stands to lose if the truth comes out. When she crosses paths with Lester, however, she doesn’t have the chance to blow her stack at him before he lets her know that Gary DiPasquale has copped to being the courthouse rat. I thought DiPasquale surrendered to Lester a little too easily, which—like the lack of other plausible suspects who could have been behind the leak—made this aspect of the plot feel a little undercooked.
The cover-up finally clicks into place when Steintorf and Rawls have a conversation setting up what Wilson calls a “road to Damascus” moment for Rawls. I’m sure I can’t be the only Wire fan who thought Steintorf would prevail by letting Rawls he’s seen him in gay bars; indeed, we see Rawls checking out a woman at the beginning of their conversation, presumably as a knee-jerk ass-covering maneuver. Instead, Steintorf offers to broker Rawls’ appointment as the head of Maryland’s state police if he’ll play along. Since Rawls is no dummy, he swiftly agrees—doing so not only ensures his future but also guarantees that Daniels, and not he, will take the fall if everything goes south.
I couldn’t help being amused by Dukie’s encounter with Marcia Donnelly, the assistant principal of his old school, since I had something similar happen to me in high school—as a kid, you don’t realize just how many students people like her deal with, so it’s easy to assume you’ll be recognized when you go back to your old school, and it can be confusing and disappointing when you’re not. While she doesn’t recognize Dukie, that’s not a problem when Prez makes his farewell appearance. To my surprise, I had a muted, mixed response to seeing him—it’s hard to tell if he’s become a good teacher since season four, or if he’s just turned into someone who knows how the system works and has resigned himself to it. If the latter is the case, he’s not so jaded that he’s unwilling to give Dukie the money he asks for.
I was dearly hoping that Dukie would sign up for the GED course for real, and hugely disappointed when he didn’t. I might not have responded that way on my first viewing had I been watching the episode on a bigger TV—the set I watched it on made it hard to see the wear and tear on his face. After Prez drops him off and his boss, amazed at Dukie’s success, observes that “teacher must love your black ass”, I of course knew Dukie was doomed (he withholds $150, but it’s pretty frakking obvious that money ain’t going toward the course). By the way, I hope Simon’s excessive symbolism w/r/t Dukie’s new employer and companion is a coincidence or accident: Not only is he a junkman, but he owns a goddamn horse!
When Templeton makes his attempt at extending the serial killer’s run, setting up the confrontation in which McNulty cops to being the one who called him, Matt and I (we watched the episode together) both found ourselves wondering if the episode was going to into a realm of satire even darker than we thought possible by having McNulty frame the reporter for the non-murders. Certainly, that would completely cement the Alan Sepinwall school of thought about McNulty having crossed into bad guy territory when he shanghaied the homeless man to Richmond. Personally, I would have been delighted if Simon had gone there—it would have given Templeton his just desserts (in a manner, granted, that would be grossly disproportionate to his sins), and it would have been a huge display of creative balls. When it first occurred to me that McNulty might escape unpunished because everyone above him has so much to lose, I envisioned the level of satire being ratched up to the Network level, and having McNulty railroad Templeton would have fit with that perfectly. Instead, it’s the copycat killer who gets framed—though not really, since he did kill two people. Although McNulty has their blood on his hands (assuming they wouldn’t have died if the hoax wasn’t in effect), the resolution is a bit on the tidy side—and, unfortunately, it allows for the heavy-handed final resolution of the Sun plot.
Almost everything about the end of the Sun story left me dubious and frustrated. As we discussed the episode afterwards, Matt said that Gus getting punished for his accusations against Templeton is the kind of thing that happens in the real world all the time. Presumably he wasn’t fired because his union would have raised a stink; still, demoting him to the copy desk seems like a punishment better suited to the military or to high school than to the professional world. Obviously, Gus’s claims would instantly be proven true if a powerful figure outside the paper who’d been burned was willing to step forward. Conveniently, Daniels and McNulty have both been forced to resign at this point (and the city official who came off as being smarter than he is thanks to Templeton certainly wouldn’t dis him), so apart from the homeless veteran, the only people with reason to suspect Templeton all work at the paper.
What this means, then, is that every single person we’ve met who’s on Gus’ side and who has doubts about Templeton—including the Metro, Regional Affairs and State editors, who are all at least Gus’ equal on the masthead and some of whom may be above him on the food chain—every single one of them is a wuss who’s so scared of losing his or her job that they’re willing to let Gus take the fall. This isn’t an implausible scenario, but it does conflict with the established characterizations of a number of Sun characters, most notably Regional Affairs editor Rebecca Corbett. In my decade-plus as a professional journalist, I’ve seen a lot of people compromise their principles in order to stay employed, but never have I seen so many people compromise so much. At the risk of seeming terminally naïve, I have to ask if things are really that much worse in the newspaper world than they are in the magazine biz (and now that I’ve raised the question, I’m sure more than one person will provide evidence in the comments below that yes, things are that bad). The story obviously ended the way it did because of the point that Simon (pictured above in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Hitchcock-style cameo this episode) wanted to make. Surely, after the episode is over, Alma’s going to write her way out of Carroll County, Gus will triumphantly reclaim his old job, and Whiting, Klebanow and Templeton will all have to make like Janet Cooke and return their prizes…right? My desperate longing for that to be so just proves how good Simon is at creating believable characters of a sort you don’t often see on TV; much of that believability is based on observations Simon could only make if he was the kind of reporter whose excellence this season sentimentalizes.
A one-hour cut of “-30-” probably wouldn’t have room for as many Maury Levy scenes, and I really wish we’d gotten more of him throughout the series after seeing him prove his smarts by deducing what’s wrong with the case against Marlo. While he’s fundamentally a scumbag and we’ve seen him salivating over the billable hours he can rack up when his clients do dumb things, he’s a straight shooter insofar as we’ve never seen him proactively rip off his clients. When he takes Marlo to meet the room full of power brokers, I initially assumed he was going to do Marlo what Clay Davis did to Stringer Bell, but his conduct in the scene left me convinced that he was legitimately trying to help Marlo invest his money. Levy doesn’t need to rip off Marlo: As he points out to Herc, having gotten Marlo off the hook is going to guarantee him more new business than he can handle, and there’s never going to be a shortage of dealers in Baltimore—as Cheese points out to Slim Charles et al., it’s the kind of town where anyone who sells drugs and doesn’t have $900,000 lying around basically has to be a complete idiot (and was it just me or was Cheese’s final exit, in the middle of a pretentious speech, reminiscent of Samuel L. Jackson’s death scene in Deep Blue Sea?).
Of the scenes wrapping up plots that were already basically wrapped up last week, Marlo’s coda was the only one that felt both interesting and necessary. After learning in “Late Editions” that Omar was calling him out, he felt a burning need to assert his alpha-dog bona fides, and while he’s surely relieved to have skated, being forced out of the game is a very bitter pill for him to swallow. At that cocktail party with Levy, he’s uncomfortable as hell and can instantly see it’s a world he’ll never belong to. When he goes onto the street looking for a fight and confronts the corner boys trading stories about Omar (his death has now been mythologized to the level of the gunfight at the OK Corral), he’s further emasculated when they dismiss him as a pussy because he’s wearing a suit. When Marlo asks “Do you know who I am?”, it’s clear that nothing is more important to him than responding to Omar’s use of his name, even though Omar’s out of the picture. When Chris shot Prop Joe a few weeks ago, Matt observed that the look on Marlo’s face was akin to a kid torturing an animal who thinking “that’s interesting—I didn’t think it’d react that way”, and when Marlo sustains a bloody arm wound and shows no sign of pain, he reacts similarly—as if he’s thinking “that’s interesting—I didn’t think it’d feel like this.” (On the subject of Omar’s death, even as the myth of his theatrical demise grows, we see detective Michael Crutchfield taking Kenard into custody for the shooting. Obviously Kenard is too young to serve serious time, but the case is nonetheless officially closed and the ID of Omar’s killer is a matter of public record, at least unless Kenard’s age causes the file to be sealed. I don’t think it’s a stretch to speculate that people on the street would dismiss the truth as a conspiracy theory if they heard it).
Much of the last 20 minutes was unapologetic fan service, which in this case was by no means a bad thing. McNulty isn’t as original or complex a character as Omar, D’Angelo Barksdale and other creations of Simon’s, but thanks to Dominic West’s charisma, he’s become one of the most memorable and engaging characters in the history of the medium, and Jay Landsman’s speech at the “wake” is a wonderful tribute to him, one which truly captures everything that makes McNulty the rogue we love. The wake revealed that with 30 years on the force, Lester ’s going to get his pension, while McNulty, with just 13 years under his belt, has no such luck. I’ve assumed Lester to presently be in his mid-50s (Clarke Peters will shortly turn 56), and his tenure together with his age bolster my belief that he’s a college graduate, which I suspect would have been rare for any rookie cop in the mid-‘70s regardless of race. Dominic West is 39 this year, and if that’s McNulty’s age too, I think it’s safe to assume that after high school, he might have spent time in the military and then fucked around for a few years before joining the force. If he continued his education past high school, I’m inclined to believe he either got a two-year community college degree or went to a less-than-great four-year school and dropped out.
The long concluding sequence veered into oversell territory again with Michael’s stick up scene, though that may be excusable since his transformation into the “new Omar” was less telegraphed than Dukie’s metamorphosis into the Bubbles of his generation. Still, something about it seemed almost comic-booky, as if Omar’s mantle was something that gets passed around like the superhero IDs that get passed from one generation to the next in the DC Universe (I’ve long since lost track of how many DC heroes have used the name Starman, for instance), which seems ever so slightly to make Omar seem less unique. Similarly, Dukie’s shooting-up scene in the montage retroactively stole some power from his heartbreaking final exchange with Michael last week.
Bubbles’ final scenes also felt a little redundant after his stunning turn at the NA podium last week, but upon further reflection they do offer some substance—it was moving to see him sit down at the dinner table with his sister and niece after all the shit his sis has made him eat, and we also got a better sense of his physical transformation. Andre Royo looks fantastic with the short ’fro he sports here, and his body language also vividly expresses how far Bubs has come. I also really liked his last scene with Walon, in which they contemplate the quote from Kafka, a writer neither of them has actually read. And while I’m sure there must be an example from an earlier season that’s slipping my mind, I almost wonder if the scene was the first time that we’ve actually seen someone chowing down on a crab on this set-in-Maryland series.
Throughout the montage it was hard not to be reminded of the end of Season Three, when Simon took a shot at wrapping things up so as to provide closure in the event of a premature cancellation. Apart from the examples cited above, Simon is about as generous with the happy endings as he was then: Carcetti becomes governor, Rawls gets to lead the state police, Lester gets to enjoy a peaceful retirement with Shardene (who I was thrilled to see again), McNulty appears to settle down with Beadie, Ricardo Hendrix and Slim Charles take over the connect (and presumably revert to a business model akin to the New Day Co-Op), Pearlman rises to the bench, Nerese Campbell becomes mayor…and, best of all, Stan Valcek becomes the commissioner of police. The sequence also features the return of Wee-Bay, who appears to hit it off famously in prison with Chris, the member of Marlo’s organization who takes the hardest blow (by the way, earlier in the episode there’s a bit of a continuity error with Chris’s previous bust—Levy says it happened in 2004, which would put it during season three, not Season Four).
The sequence reprises Blind Boys of Alabama’s cover of Tom Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole” that played under the opening credits of season one. It’s interesting to think about the song in the context of this final montage as opposed to the series’s traditionally downbeat credits sequences. I’ve been a big Waits fan since high school and purchased Franks Wild Years (the album that introduced “Way Down in the Hole”) the week it was released in 1987, less than a month before I first left home for college. Even so, I never got around to properly figuring out the story behind the song cycle (billed on the album as “un operachi romantico in two acts”), which originated as a Steppenwolf Theater production directed by Gary Sinise that ran in Chicago and Off Broadway in New York in the summer of 1986.
It turns out that “Way Down in the Hole” was an outtake from the play, a song that never found its way into the musical-theater piece and got shoehorned onto the album. In the program book for the concert tour which followed the release of the album (the tour more or less documented in Big Time), Waits offered the flimsiest context for the song: “Checkerboard Lounge gospel. Here, Frank has thrown in with a berserk evangelist.” At the amazingly thorough website The Tom Waits Library, the annotated lyrics to each song are accompanied by a list of known covers. Most of the songs on Franks Wild Years can claim five or six recorded covers; “Way Down in the Hole” has 22 and counting.
It’s not hard to see why it’s been so enduring: The fearsome energy of Waits’ original studio version lets it work for secular listeners as a slam-bang snapshot of a world on the brink, the particulars of the words reach out to an entirely different audience. The lyrics—unvarnished Pentecostal propaganda, an appeal to embrace Jesus or suffer the consequences, to live clean or else—have an appeal that crosses racial and class boundaries. Many of the covers listed are by Christian artists, a large portion of them African-American.
The Wire’s cultural mash-ups have been both surprising and convincing (what other show would devise circumstances in which a bunch of black men would sing the Pogues?), and the series’s bona fides with African-American viewers have probably done a lot to turn the Waits song into a gospel standard. The imagery that accompanies it here, however, is much different from what we usually get in the show’s opening credits. Superficially, the montage can be read as saying “…and so life goes on for the characters you’ve been following over five seasons.” But when images of happiness—Lester and Shardene’s domestic bliss, for example—are cheek by jowl with Herc’s further descent into corruption and Carcetti’s ascent on the basis of untold lies, the lyrics’ of Waits song lend the montage a different cast. It becomes more like the one that ended The Sopranos’ second season, which intercut scenes of seedy porn stores and street corner addicts with Tony’s lavish graduation bash for Meadow. We may like knowing that Lester went unpunished and Daniels and Pearlman’s relationship survived the scandal and that their careers continued to flourish; as characters, they are more sympathetic than not, and therefore, to an extent, our surrogates, the people we root for. But you know what? Like Carcetti, Rawls and everyone else, they paid heed to temptation and failed to walk the straight and narrow track (to paraphrase the lyrics), so they’re all going to hell (Bubbles, of course, earns a bye as the only one who actually follows the advice of the lyrics).
The sequence flirts with self-indulgence until the very end, when it shifts gears from scenes of Wire characters to shots of average Baltimore people living their daily lives. It’s one of the few times in the series when Baltimore comes across as a thriving organism rather than a dying one, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say I found it rather exhilarating. As the episode ended, I told Matt that I was sure the haters would compare the last half hour to The Return of the King and say that Simon, like Peter Jackson, served up a few endings too many (for the record, I’ve always defended Jackson on this count). Only when I took a break for a grocery run in the middle of writing this column did it occur to me that McNulty’s final line (“Let’s go home”) is not far off from the very last line of The Lord of the Rings both on page and onscreen, delivered by Sam Gamgee (“Well, I’m back”). The 150 miles from Baltimore to Richmond are a hell of a lot less than the trek from the Shire to Mordor, and McNulty, unlike Sam, has one last leg of the journey in front of him as The Wire ends. Still, those shots of ordinary people at the end of the long montage represent one of the few times on the series when Baltimore is presented as a place that someone could legitimately miss and could honestly look forward to seeing again. That, more than the muckraking and social commentary, could be the one thing about The Wire that tells us the most about who David Simon really is.
As of the end of the preceding paragraph, this column was scraping up against the 3500-word mark, and there are still plenty of observations about the episode that I haven’t gotten around to making yet. So as not to exhaust the patience of my readers—and so that I don’t stay up all night writing another 3500 words—I’m going to bring this to a close. I’d like to thank everyone who’s been reading my recaps all season, especially those who’ve taken part in the discussions in the blog comments here. In addition to calling me out on errors I have no excuse for, you have provided endless food for thought. Your lively comments also forced me to make sure I brought my “A” game every time I sat down at the keyboard and made me feel like a schmuck when I didn’t. I’d also like to thank Keith Uhlich for the peerless technical assistance he’s provided on all my recapping endeavors at The House Next Door, as well as the people at HBO who have done so much to make my job and my recapping duties a hell of a lot easier than they might be otherwise. It should also go without saying that I’d like to thank David Simon, Richard Price, George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane and everyone else who’s written an episode of The Wire for creating such a brilliant piece of collaborative art. Last, but most certainly not least, I’d like to thank Matt for inviting me to write weekly columns about a landmark show’s final season.
For more recaps of The Wire, click here.
This article was originally published on The House Next Door.
Review: The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez Stokes Outrage but Fits a Predictable Mold
The Netflix miniseries suggests a sort of virtual, one-stop-shop Wikipedia page.2
Netflix’s The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez will stoke your outrage, and it should. The six-part limited series provides what feels like an expansive primer on one of the most horrific child abuse cases in the history of the United States, and there’s a sense that it wants to fill in gaps for those who might have been swept up by some other outrage shortly after eight-year-old Gabriel Fernandez’s death made national news in 2013, or just weren’t privy to the ins and outs of the case as reported by Los Angeles news outlets.
The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez suggests, like the recent Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez, a sort of virtual, one-stop-shop Wikipedia page about an infamous case, though it arguably goes further by indicting the faceless systemic forces that aligned in cruel harmony to crush a human life. At one point, the series even delves into the 2018 abuse case of Anthony Avalos, the 10-year-old Lancaster boy who was also tortured to death by his mother and boyfriend, to get at how the cracks in the child protective services system that cost Gabriel his life in nearby Palmdale were barely patched up in the five years following his death.
Gabriel died on May 24, 2013 after years of torture and abuse at the hands of his mother, Pearl Sinthia Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre. As detailed by various individuals, including Deputy District Attorney Jon Hatami, Pearl and Aguirre starved Gabriel, fed him cat litter, shot him with a B.B. gun, and burned him with cigarettes all over his body. They even bound and gagged him in a cubby. The series isn’t shy about providing us with photo evidence of that horrifying abuse, and it spends much time simply sitting with people and those photos, trying to fathom how a parent could do such things to a child. In one episode, Hatami opens up at length about his own abuse at the hands of his father, and in the moment, the prosecutor’s outrage in the courtroom is tinged with a wrenching melancholy, as if he’s fighting on behalf of a pain that he only recently came to understand.
The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez is at its strongest in such periods of reflection, when it’s trying to understand that which would appear to defy understanding. It lingers on the visible pain of those who came into Gabriel’s orbit, in life and in death, from those who tried to give him a chance at a happy life before he was placed in his mother’s care, to those who tried to report to police and the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFC) that he was being abused, to those who wanted justice for his torture and murder. Impressively, too, it makes space for interviews with a character witness who testified on Aguirre’s behalf and several jurors in his case, including the man who couldn’t initially bring himself to sentence Aguirre to death. The series has us grapple with questions of justice and morality, and there comes a point in the final episode where calling Aguirre “evil” feels as if it has no meaning given that the word can just as easily be applied to so many who turned their backs to Gabriel’s abuse.
Throughout The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez, you will know how responsible some of those individuals probably feel for the little boy’s death simply by their not having given interviews to the filmmakers. But those aren’t the only elisions here, and some aren’t so easy to rationalize. For one, the series never really gives a particularly concrete sense of who Aguirre was before he met Pearl, and after a while it feels as if the only systemic issues it cares to confront are those that prevented police and DCFC from properly responding to reports of Gabriel’s abuse. Though it mounts a strong case for why the boy and not his two older siblings were targets of their parents’ abuse, The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez doesn’t contend with the systemic social contexts that made Aguirre and Pearl’s violence an inevitability. And had it done so, the series might have reached the magisterial heights of Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America, which found new ground on the oft-reported case of O.J. Simpson by framing the fallen star’s life against the violence of L.A. and the ideals of a nation, its moral rot.
During Aguirre’s trial, Hatami argued that the man not only liked what he did to Gabriel, but that he did so because he perceived the boy to be gay, though the series tells the story of that perception in half-shades. From birth, Gabriel was raised for several years by his gay great-uncle, Michael Lemos Carranza, and his boyfriend, David Martinez, so we can intuit that the boy’s torture was at least in part an attempt at a correction. While Gabriel was in Pearl’s custody, someone reported that Michael molested the child, and it’s an allegation that journalist Melissa Chadburn states hasn’t been confirmed nor disproven. There’s a sense that no one in Gabriel’s family who had his best interests at heart seem to believe the allegation to be true, and while the series attests to the kindness Michael and David showed Gabriel, it does conspicuously glance past discussion of this matter, as well as the methods, legal and otherwise, by which the boy was able to land and remain in their care for so long.
Nor is mention made of Michael and David’s advocacy work as part of Gabriel’s Justice, or that Michael died of cancer in 2014. In San Salvador, the filmmakers interview an agonized David about what happened to Gabriel, and you may be frustrated by the missed opportunity to explore why and how David came to be deported by ICE and connect that to the other systemic forces of race and class that contributed to Gabriel’s death. There are times throughout the series where it’s difficult to tell if a story—like the one about Gabriel’s first-grade teacher posing with a noose alongside three other teachers—was swept under the rug because the filmmakers simply didn’t know how to incorporate it into the series or because it might have undermined the dominant narrative they’re seeking to put forth.
The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez, though, does find time for the sort of aesthetic bells and whistles that have become de rigueur for projects such as this since The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, whose lurid reenactments could at least be justified because Andrew Jarecki’s entire project was to ascertain the exact nature of Durst’s crimes. But the uncomfortably ominous reenactments of this series—by and large suturing devices between interviews and courtroom footage—do nothing to enhance our understanding of the Gabriel Fernandez case. At times, they even work against what we already do know, such as the sight of the actor who plays Aguirre mostly from the neck down quaking in his cell with the sort of fear that’s never evident in Aguirre’s body as he sits still and silent in court.
But that’s nothing compared to the tactlessness of the show’s title sequence, which heavy-handedly literalizes the idea that Gabriel “fell through the cracks” before ending dramatically, distastefully with the sight of the cubby where he was imprisoned by his torturers. In such moments, when it’s trying to summon an aura of mystery—that there’s something here that’s waiting to be cracked open, something to be solved—it’s as if the desire of The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez to entertain, to ensure that we are as spellbound as possible by yet another example of the atrocities that humans are capable of, is greater than any need to inform and educate.
Review: Netflix’s I Am Not Okay with This Mostly Transcends Its Familiar Concept
The series at its best when characters are hanging out, doing nothing, or struggling with feeling trapped.2.5
Seventeen-year-old Sydney Novak (Sophia Lillis) has powers that she can’t quite control. In Netflix’s adaptation of Charles Forsman’s graphic novel I Am Not Okay with This, those powers become a metaphor for such stock things as mental illness, social discomfort, emotional repression, body changes, sexual discovery, and adolescence in general. Even putting aside the obvious superhero comparisons, there are other parallels, to Carrie and, in turn, Netflix’s own Stranger Things, which shares some producers with this series. But by focusing on the emotional turmoil deftly conveyed by its cast and leaning on a wicked sense of humor, I Am Not Okay with This mostly transcends its pat concept.
Some of the credit goes to Lillis, who spends much of the series glowering in the camera’s general direction. She’s expressive without ever losing that root of discontent and exasperation, as you can always see things like anxiety, bemusement, and concern poking through her disaffected exterior. Even before Sydney develops wayward telekinesis, she has a lot to contend with, such as her mother, Maggie (Kathleen Rose Perkins), having to work long hours at a diner in order to keep the lights on. Sydney is also infatuated with her best friend and only real confidante, Dina (Sofia Bryant), and the two have drifted apart as the latter has begun spending more time with her douchey boyfriend, Brad (Richard Ellis).
And so, Sydney starts hanging out with her eccentric neighbor and local weed dealer, Stan (Wyatt Olef), whose weird outfits and ever-pining ways recall Ducky from Pretty in Pink. But the show’s wry tone ends up closer to that of Heathers than that of the John Hughes classic: Though the ‘80s-teen-movie-plus-superpowers mash-up is almost certainly the intended hook for I Am Not Okay with This, what resonates most is its general sense of ennui. Sydney and Stan in particular are low-income kids in a town that’s far from well-to-do; when Maggie works late, she leaves enough money behind for Sydney and her little brother, Liam (Aidan Wojtak-Hissong), to subsist on convenience store hot dogs. Beyond have sex, do drugs, and listen to music, there’s little to do in this town but head to the school and listlessly watch the football games. For Sydney and Stan, their hometown is a trap that’s slowly snapping shut.
Forsman’s source material is quite bleak, with a spare style of simple character designs and roomy panels sprinkled with snappy, abrasive snippets of dialogue and narration. Though series creators Jonathan Entwistle (who also worked on another adaptation of a Forsman graphic novel, The End of the F***ing World) and Christy Hall depart significantly from the comic at times, they nevertheless maintain its feel, especially in those moments when characters are hanging out and leave so many things unspoken. Sydney’s surly narration moves things along at a wonderfully brisk pace that’s faithful to the original material. Of the seven episodes, most of them clock in at around 20 minutes; they leave plenty of space to suggest angst and disillusionment around the edges without simply wallowing in misery.
Unfortunately, I Am Not Okay with This is so good at establishing character and place that the rumblings of a larger plot feel extraneous. Sydney thinks somebody might be following her, and there are some lingering questions and mysteries meant to carry over into a future season. But the series never feels like it needs these threads; most of the moments where it sets up higher-stakes conflicts, particularly where Brad is concerned, sputter into silly romantic melodrama. It’s at its best when the characters are hanging out, doing nothing, or struggling with feeling trapped or bottling up what they want to say to each other. It’s disappointing to see the first season wrap up with an apparent attempt to chase the shadow of Stranger Things, as its atmosphere and rich characters are what set this otherwise familiar story apart.
Cast: Sophia Lillis, Wyatt Oleff, Sofia Bryant, Kathleen Rose Perkins, Richard Ellis, Aidan Wojtak-Hissong Network: Netflix
Review: Amazon’s Hunters Blends Comedy and Violence to Diminishing Returns
The series is so ploddingly manufactured from familiar parts that it feels like it was spat out by an algorithm.1
Following a group of vigilantes in hot pursuit of Nazis living in 1977 New York, Amazon’s Hunters is so ploddingly manufactured from familiar parts that it feels like it was spat out by an algorithm. The show’s setting provides no shortage of bright, hokey Americana and ironic needle drops set to bloody violence. The late ‘70s is long enough ago to evoke nostalgia while simultaneously nodding toward our enduring obsessions, as the characters make reference to Star Wars and rarely shut up about various superheroes.
Comic store clerk Jonah Heidelbaum (Logan Lerman) has that most time-tested of motivations for seeking vengeance: avenging a dead woman. Unbeknownst to Jonah, his grandmother, Ruth (Jeannie Berlin), worked in a Nazi-hunting crew with her fellow Holocaust refugee, Meyer Offerman (Al Pacino). After Granny is mysteriously murdered, Jonah learns of her double life and joins up with Meyer’s ragtag band of vigilantes in pursuit of justice.
Meyer’s crew is a diverse bunch, made up of young and old alike. As the youngest, 19-year-old Jonah is considered something of a liability due to his inexperience, as well as his tendency to let his emotions run high. So begins the usual adjustment period for the proverbial hothead, in which he learns to fight while doing the expected bits of soul-searching once he discovers that killing people is, in fact, a messy business. More excruciatingly predictable flourishes follow: Somebody tells him relationships are baggage, someone else refers to Meyer’s group as “judge, jury, and executioner,” and an F.B.I. agent (Jerrika Hinton) naturally sniffs around, potentially mucking up the works of their well-oiled Nazi-hunting machine.
None of this is a jumping-off point for some complex meditation on vengeance, as the series largely consists of scenes of ironical Nazi comeuppance sandwiched between the sort of uninspired character drama where people wash blood off their hands while discussing the powers of good and evil. The show’s investigative segments are so obvious that they border on laughable, since the Nazis leave things like their medals and trophies of Jewish children’s teeth lying around (there’s even a jovial photo of one character hanging out with Adolf Hitler).
At certain points, Hunters seems like it’s trying to evoke the comparatively simple storytelling of early comic books or exploitation films of the ‘70s era like, say, Death Wish. Cutaways place the characters in fake movie trailers with superhero-esque names, using bursts of comedy and karmic violence to create a somewhat heightened tone. But the series never reconciles these rather sporadic moments of levity with its default mode of turgid drama, where Jonah broods about what he’s done or how he’s affecting the people closest to him.
Though the series doesn’t shy away from depicting how Nazis dehumanized Jews, it also feels the bizarre need to cartoonishly heighten those atrocities. In flashbacks, we see concentration camp prisoners forced to serve as literal pawns in a human chess game, stabbing one another to capture a “piece.” Another camp broadcasts a live singing contest over the speakers, with losers eliminated one by one. Where Inglourious Basterds and even the recent Wolfenstein games manage to ground their flights of fancy in unexpected sincerity and tragedy, Hunters traffics in insipid dramatic cliché. The result is by-the-numbers drama that veers every so often into baffling pulp, as though the series is cobbled together from mismatched parts.
Hunters clearly aims to be subversive and of the moment, but its every element feels so calculated as to be nauseatingly safe. Its villains are broadly acceptable targets, its moral conflict feels obligatory, and its forward-facing monologues about diversity seem designed only to mark off a checklist. The series makes the occasional gesture to present-day politics, as when one character incongruously name-checks “false news,” but it’s otherwise content merely to skim the surface of these parallels in service of an easily marketable premise. Though clearly gifted with more time and money than any of the exploitation films it references, Hunters has only a fraction of the things to say.
Cast: Logan Lerman, Al Pacino, Jerrika Hinton, Lena Olin, Saul Rubinek, Carol Kane, Josh Radnor, Greg Austin, Tiffany Boone, Louis Ozawa, Kate Mulvany, Dylan Baker, Jeannie Berlin Network: Amazon
Every BoJack Horseman Episode, Ranked
As the series comes to a conclusion, we take a look back and rank all 77 episodes.
Netflix’s BoJack Horseman is about many things. How we make sense of a senseless world. How we find happiness amid constant crisis. How we assert and give others power. That’s a lot for any show, let alone the animated misadventures of a famous horseman, one whose life stands on the razor’s edge of celebrity privilege and deeply internalized emotional self-abuse. Contending with BoJack Horseman, now as it comes to its conclusion, has meant contending with my own life these past six years, which have been made markedly better by this series. This exercise would have been much more difficult had the final episodes failed to deliver. (Spoiler alert: They don’t.)
77. “BoJack Hates the Troops,” Season 1, Episode 2
First, let me be clear: I love this episode, which feels like an early performance by a beloved artist who went on to greater and more daring things. Maybe there’s a note or two out of place. Maybe they aren’t stretching their talent as much as you think they can. BoJack’s (Will Arnett) profound pettiness makes him an asshole to many—here, it’s the contested dibs over a box of muffins at the grocery store that lands our remorseful horse in the national spotlight—and it’s admirable how this episode leads the charge in painting that fact unambiguously. In a way, it feels like a foundation stone of sorts (one of several), featuring as it does BoJack’s decision to open up to Diane (Alison Brie) for his memoir. Full truth: From here, mountains are made.
76. “Sabrina’s Christmas Wish”
The mere existence of this holiday episode made it unambiguous that BoJack Horseman was created out of love. Further enriching the world so thoughtfully laid out in the first season, this metatextual holiday episode, in which BoJack and Todd (Aaron Paul) watch one of the Christmas episodes from Horsin’ Around, came as an unannounced Christmas gift in 2014. It also, hopefully, satisfies those who will inevitably be curious about what a proper episode of the show-within-the-show looks like, and Todd’s four-word refutation (“I can’t, can’t I?”) of BoJack’s faulty logic stands with the funniest moments of the series.
75. “The BoJack Horseman Show,” Season 3, Episode 2
A novel exposition dump, this episode goes back to 2007, when BoJack and Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), a cat, first slept together. Its title refers to the name of BoJack’s sophomore TV series, a vulgar satire that tanked and was promptly canceled. This episode also lays general groundwork for episodes and seasons to come. Lots of obvious references abound—e.g., Princess Carolyn pitches scripts for No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, though films actually being shopped around at that time instead of those just arriving in theaters might’ve been a better touch—not unlike a Trojan horse for the ongoing world building. The highlight herein is an updated version of the show’s end credits song, adapted to underscore BoJack’s much less successful follow-up to Horsin’ Around.
74. “The BoJack Horseman Story, Chapter One,” Season 1, Episode 1
This first episode doesn’t get its due. Brilliantly juxtaposing scenes from BoJack’s interview on The Charlie Rose Show with a gotcha shot from this world’s version of Maury, this first look at BoJack’s anxiety-ridden existence had the difficult task of establishing the show’s very particular tone (think Chuck Jones meets Don Hertzfeldt meets Albert Brooks) while also making blatant the sadness beneath it. The serious and silly rub shoulders here, like travelers on a crowded bus trip. It’s subversive, too, in warning against the dangers of over-binging; BoJack re-watches his old show obsessively, including the finale in which his character dies, at the expense of almost everything else in his life. This episode features Patton Oswalt in three parts, a Sellers-esque stunt that will prove to be one of the show’s regular hat tricks, while the closing gag exhibits the raw confidence required to deploy both guffaws and sobs with such simultaneous precision. In hindsight, it’s no surprise.
73. “Zoës and Zeldas,” Season 1, Episode 4
It was a small stroke of genius to introduce early in the series a pop-cultural dichotomy specific to this world. Leonard Cohen sang of a bird on a wire, and here the either/or stems from characters on Mister Peanutbutter’s House, a knockoff of BoJack’s sitcom in which the eponymous canine raised two little girls: Zelda, a fun extrovert, and Zoë, a cynical introvert. This episode features some of BoJack’s funniest quips and nastiest deeds. As for Todd’s rock opera, I’d be lying if I suggested that I didn’t want to see it brought to greater fruition. This episode does a lot of prep work for the season and the series, and does it well, while Wyatt Cenac’s performance as one of Diane’s exes provides a weary vantage point, effectively underscoring what makes this world feel so emotionally real in the first place.
72. “BoJack Kills,” Season 3, Episode 3
Plot-wise, this is a lowkey key episode in the series, establishing the source of the heroin that ultimately causes Sarah Lynn’s death. That would be Richie Osborne (Fred Savage), former Horsin’ Around cast member and current proprietor of Whale World, a family-friendly strip club that doubles as a drug front. BoJack and Diane get to catch up and establish a greater understanding of themselves (“I can’t keep asking myself if I’m happy, it just makes me more miserable,” says Diane, summarizing my 30s so far in 14 words), but my favorite moment is probably the chef’s-kiss perfection of Mister Peanutbutter’s LL Cool J reference (a close second is Angela Bassett’s line delivery on “you betcha”).
71. “Our A-Story Is a ‘D’ Story,” Season 1, Episode 6
If BoJack Horseman’s flair for wordplay wasn’t already clear, this episode is tantamount to a flag planted on the moon for all to see. Hollywood becomes Hollywoo when BoJack steals the “D” from the Hollywood sign in a drunken stupor, all in the hopes of impressing Diane after squaring off with Mister Peanutbutter—and buying the restaurant Elefante in the process. Todd, having found himself in prison at the end of the previous episode, navigates the various gangs courting him in sublimely naïve fashion, while BoJack’s backup plan to fix the “D” situation results in a tragedy befalling Beyoncé and, relatedly, one of the very best verbal gags in the entire series.
Review: Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet Takes Aim at the Gaming Industry
The series dives into megalomania and workplace chaos with eccentric, frenzied energy.3
The titular video game in Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet is a phenomenal success. Mythic Quest boasts tens of millions of players and, perhaps more impressive, the invaluable endorsement of Pootie Shoe (Elisha Henig), a young streamer with tremendous clout. Pootie praises the game in delectably over-the-top live streams; he’s both crudely inclusive (he shouts out LGBTQ fans, or “Pootie Fruities”) and just crude (he rates games on a “b-hole” scale, four being outstanding). Even Rachel (Ashly Burch) and Dana (Imani Hakim), the studio’s quality assurance testers, steadfastly love the game, despite the fact that they spend all day, every day cooped up in a small room playing it to discover bugs.
One could be forgiven for assuming that Mythic Quest’s universal acclaim has been earned by a diligent, well-oiled, in-sync team of creatives and business people. But the studio behind the game, it turns out, is a site of enormous turbulence. The mayhem trickles down from the top: Mythic Quest’s creator, the vainglorious auteur Ian Grimm (Rob McElhenney), whose every whim is sacrosanct. When lead engineer Poppy Li (Charlotte Nicdao) designs a shovel with which players can exert unprecedented influence over their environments in the game (by digging), Ian isn’t satisfied. The shovel, he says, should also be able to kill things—and his desire to get the feature just right threatens to push back the release date for the game’s imminent expansion, to the ire of Poppy and others in Ian’s orbit.
The Apple TV+ show, co-created by Rob McElhenney and his It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia co-star Charlie and executive producer Megan Ganz, often resembles the FXX series in its energy. Minor issues escalate feverishly, as characters cross wires and talk at rather than with each other. Some of the studio’s higher-ups are unbothered by the dysfunction, like soulless monetizer Brad Bakshi (Danny Pudi) and writer C.W. Longbottom (F. Murray Abraham), a slimy, old-timey fantasy author. But Poppy is consistently exasperated, as is David Brittlesbee (David Hornsby), the game’s meek executive producer. Others thrive on the chaos, like Ian (it seems to foster his creativity) and Jo (Jessie Ennis), David’s mercurial assistant. Conflict brings the worst out of her, to uproarious effect. When the studio’s coders threaten to unionize, she shouts, “The workers are grist for the mill!”
The first half of the season leverages these characters less as nuanced people than as bundles of eccentricities. The most notable exceptions are Poppy, Rachel, and Dana, who prove more humane and grounded than the megalomaniacal or otherwise maladjusted men around them. The video game industry is as tenaciously male-dominated here as it is in reality, and by dialing up the worst tendencies of the men in the studio—C.W.’s casual sexism, David’s faux man-of-the-people shtick, Ian’s remarkable ability to hear whatever he wants when Poppy speaks to him—the series smartly satirizes a world in desperate need of overhaul.
The second half of the season more deeply examines the ambitions and fears of its characters, as well as the video game industry’s power dynamics. Poppy’s frustration builds as she’s constantly spoken over and ignored not only by Ian, but also by the other men she works with, and C.W. wonders if the development of A.I. writing has rendered him obsolete. Eventually, Ian meets with a long-estranged family member in a scene that’s equally poignant and hilarious. But not all of these arcs are sufficiently thought out. When the coders prepare to strike for overtime pay, which infuriates Jo, Grimm secures their demands in an off-screen call to corporate. The conclusion serves to convey Grimm’s cachet but feels reductive, particularly given how widespread and entrenched abusive labor practices continue to be in the industry.
Separating the two halves of the season is its best episode, “A Dark Quiet Death.” Directed by McElhenney, it’s a significant tonal shift that centers on understated rather than exaggerated characters. The episode follows two video game developers (Cristin Milioti and Jake Johnson) with no apparent connection to Ian or anyone else in the series, beginning with their meeting in 1993 and extending through their work on an indie passion project. This isn’t an uninspired entry in the expanding genre of “watching Jake Johnson fall in love with people”; Johnson and Milioti’s chemistry is wildly charming, and their relationship grows increasingly gripping as the duo navigates questions of artistic integrity and corporate oversight.
The episode’s virtuosity is a bit awkward, in that the season’s apex is the piece that least fits in with the whole. But the intermission, of sorts, comes to feel like the crux of the matter: It’s the necessary historical context for Ian and Poppy’s working relationship, for Ian’s unwavering devotion to the product of his vision, for the stakes of his call to corporate on behalf of his employees. Though the episode is self-contained, it infuses the rest of the season with subtle weight and sympathy. It suggests that, by virtue of their striving for lasting art and legacy, Mythic Quest’s borderline sociopaths are, if barely, on the right side of irredeemable.
Cast: Rob McElhenney, Charlotte Nicdao, David Hornsby, F. Murray Abraham, Jessie Ennis, Danny Pudi, Elisha Henig, Imani Hakim, Ashly Burch, Caitlin McGee Network: Apple TV+
Review: The New Pope Depicts the Church with a Graceful Cynicism
Despite the sordid, festering material that the series explores, what ultimately emerges is sheer beauty.3
Having collapsed at the end of The Young Pope, Lenny Belardo (Jude Law), also known as Pope Pius XIII, is in a coma at the start of The New Pope. He’s being looked over by a nun and illuminated by a bright, neon cross straight out of David Fincher’s Seven. His involuntary sighs and twitches are fraught with meaning; at one point, a usually pragmatic man (Mark Ivanir) claims that the pope killed someone with the quiver of a finger. Idolatrous followers stand vigil in the square outside his chambers, donning sweatshirts with his face on them. The pope’s wild charisma survives the apparent death of his consciousness.
Seeing no improvement in Belardo’s condition after nine months, the cardinals decide to elect a successor, whose fleeting, radical papacy briefly opens the Vatican to refugees and risks bankrupting it. The cardinals then opt for a more moderate replacement: Sir John Brannox (John Malkovich), an oft-depressed priest who wears eyeliner and lives on his family’s sprawling English estate. With Belardo on a respirator and Brannox headed to Rome, the series imagines a world with two popes—setting up a compelling conflict over legitimacy, poised to erupt if Belardo wakes up, of the kind unseen since the Western Schism ended 600 years ago.
Brannox is less charismatic than seductive. Fond of poetry, he speaks haltingly, as if waiting for words to come to and flow through him. He’s haunted by an evident pain, communicated in flashbacks of the twin brother he lost long ago and across lonely nights spent struggling to fall asleep. Malkovich, his eyes at times hollow, at others alight with a furtive spark, imbues the character with profound vulnerability and depth.
Beyond the issue of what to do with the pope on life support, the Holy See faces numerous challenges: ongoing sexual abuse scandals; the so-called “caliph,” who issues anti-Christian threats in videotaped messages; the cataclysmic prospect that Italy will begin retroactively taxing the Vatican; nuns who go on strike to demand equal rights; and more. If anyone is capable of restoring order, it’s Angelo Voiello (Silvio Orlando), the Vatican’s alternatingly ruthless, patronizing, and surprisingly tender—and regularly hilarious—cardinal secretary of state, who’s a singular presence throughout the series.
Most of the cardinals wrestle with personal demons and try to lead virtuous lives, like Voiello—whose harshness is a function of his office—and the supremely empathetic Gutierrez (Javier Cámara). Others, though, are unapologetically vile: They have sex with minors and snort cocaine and blackmail and blaspheme. The irreverence with which the series portrays the church results in not only bleak cynicism, but also unexpected images of feverish, dreamy splendidness. The first episode’s opening credits depict relatively scantily clad nuns dancing to a song by electronic duo Sofi Tukker in a dark room while a cross-turned-strobe light pulses, a slow zoom-in building momentum that culminates in an explosive bass drop.
The nuns play a not-insignificant role in The New Pope, but its treatment of them and other female characters is shallow at best. The series often dehumanizes women in scenes that lean on needless nudity—of which there’s no shortage here—or with imagery that prioritizes symbolism over personality. At times, The New Pope manages to incorporate both nakedness and perfunctory iconography in the same shot: In one instance, a bare woman is juxtaposed with a statue of the Madonna. Even key figures who carry over from The Young Pope suffer from halfhearted characterization, including savvy marketer Sofia (Cécile de France) and Esther (Ludivine Sagnier), the woman whose pregnancy may have been the result of a miracle performed by Belardo. (The New Pope also leaves the caliph’s antagonism underdeveloped, causing terrorism and nudity to resemble one another: stimuli deployed to elicit cheap reactions.)
Despite these failings, and despite the sordid, festering material that the series explores, what ultimately emerges from The New Pope is sheer beauty. It’s an understated grace, one that director Paolo Sorrentino and cinematographer Luca Bigazzi effect with an eye to intimacy. In a late scene, the camera cuts between tight profiles of Brannox, dressed in white, and Belardo, dressed in black, as they face each other in front of a painting whose background is a black-and-white swirl. The dichromatic canvas envelops Brannox and Belardo, seemingly transporting the pair to an abyss, or the cosmos, or some other otherworldly space. Perhaps it’s easier to find God there, away from the Earth, the Vatican, and the depravity plaguing them. The sequence is an obliterating burst of pathos that pierces and lingers.
Cast: Jude Law, John Malkovich, Silvio Orlando, Javier Cámara, Cécile de France, Ludivine Sagnier, Mark Ivanir, Maurizio Lombardi, Antonio Petrocelli, Jessica Piccolo Valerani, Kiruna Stamell, Ulrich Thomsen, Yulia Snigir Network: HBO
The 50 Best TV Shows of the 2010s
The decade proved that the future of TV lies in its ability to democractize via technological expansion.
We will likely look back at the 2010s as a simpler time, when sea levels remained relatively stable, Disney hadn’t decimated the last remaining movie houses, and there were only three networks: Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. Two thousand and nineteen was a watershed year for the expansion of streaming, so it seems like a fitting moment to reflect on the events that led to the Great War.
If the aughts represented a new golden age of television, then the following decade proved that the future of the medium lies in its ability to democractize via technological growth. Event television has replaced appointment television, as the sheer volume of content continues to balloon and more viewers shift to on-demand viewing. Our expectations, too, have evolved as the format bends and morphs to adapt to its new environment, with years-long gaps between ever-shorter seasons and shows once thought dead resurrected like zombies from our salad days.
And yet, humans crave familiarity: Game of Thrones reinvented the viewing party; networks rebooted or revived well-known properties, albeit to varying degrees of success; and we’ve replaced our old cable bill with an à la carte menu of streaming options that add up to more or less the same price. More importantly, as we venture out into the proverbial Wild West, and as the boundaries between TV and film continue to vanish, one thing remains constant: our desire for stories that reflect who we are, what we fear, what we treasure, and what we find side-splittingly funny. But then, even those lines have begun to blur. Sal Cinquemani
The array of archetypes portrayed by Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen on Portlandia aren’t impressive in their scope so much as their narrow specificity, each one delicately carving Portland’s milieu into a well-observed sub-niche. Armisen plays multiple variations of the emasculated goof while Brownstein portrays a bevy of self-righteous killjoys with great aplomb. Yet Portlandia is so much greater than the sum of its caricatures. That the show’s humor is entirely derived from its two co-creators gives it a winning constancy, while the improvisational aspect adds an almost surreal element to much of the dialogue. In fact, the bizarre obsession with food (a mixologist crafts a cocktail with rotten banana and eggshells, 911 dispatchers are inundated with calls from beet-eaters) suggests the fever dream of a very hungry hipster. Peter Goldberg
49. House of Cards
House of Cards allowed David Fincher’s seductive aesthetic sway to carry on well beyond the inaugural diptych he helmed, despite TV’s well-noted preference for story over artistic signature, but that’s almost besides the point. The scheming exploits of Kevin Spacey’s silver-tongued congressman-devil provide a galvanic shock of political satire and thrillingly modern melodrama, but the real hook is Robin Wright’s stirring performance as the politician’s better half—and worse half in the show’s botched final season. In the thick of it, this addictive series convincingly depicts a shifting political landscape, wherein an ascending class of strong and brilliant women retools man’s ruthless personal and professional strategies to better advance a contentious, testosterone-weary nation. Chris Cabin
48. Marvel’s Jessica Jones
Marvel’s Jessica Jones breaks so many molds, and with such brio, that it feels almost super-heroic. In immediately denying us Jessica’s (Krysten Ritter) origin story, it keeps her at arm’s length—a masterstroke because the series understands that it’s a story Jessica isn’t ready to give yet, freely and under her own terms. If the violence on Marvel’s Daredevil, no matter how kinetic and operatic in its brushstrokes, is primed to excite, the violence on Jessica Jones seeks to disarm our pleasure centers. And if this violence is so discomforting, it’s because of how hauntingly, stubbornly, necessarily it’s rooted in the traumas that connect the victims of the ominous Kilgrave (David Tennant). The aesthete in me wishes the series exhibited a more uncommon visual style. At the same time, maybe the show’s portrait of abuse, of heroes and villains whose shows of strength and mind control are so recognizably human, wouldn’t exert half the chill that it does it didn’t approach us so unassumingly. Ed Gonzalez
47. Killing Eve
With Killing Eve—which Phoebe Waller-Bridge adapted from author Luke Jennings’s Villanelle series—she uses the whip-smart voice she employed in Fleabag to explore women whose bad behavior extends beyond the limits of rapacious sexuality and crass humor: specifically, to murderous psychopaths. The series suggests a delightfully demented, considerably more violent spin on Broad City, Insecure, and Fleabag. Those shows are wryly comical and sexually frank, with complex female relationships at their center, and Killing Eve brings us all those attributes in the guise of a crackerjack mystery. The series combines a dry comedy’s affection for the mundane with the slick look and tone of a psychosexual thriller, and the result is something wholly original, suspenseful, and caustically funny. Julia Selinger
Sherlock has always shown a keen but loving disregard for its source material. Despite serving up a bevy of classical crime-solving tropes, its fluid aesthetic and modern-day realism eschew the stuffy reverence of countless other re-toolings of Arthur Conan Doyle’s celebrated series. Instead, co-creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat have allowed Benedict Cumberbatch to chart his own course as a character who’s become a landmark of fiction. The actor effortlessly owns the role with his ice-cold stares and burly voice, and yet what makes the series such a distinct interpretation is how it envisions the complicated relationship between Sherlock Holmes and his partner, John Watson (Martin Freeman), whose everyman humanity serves as a spiritual contrast to the impenetrable title character’s isolated genius. Ted Pigeon
It’s the tension between Ramy’s (Ramy Youssef) secular and spiritual leanings that serves as the thrust of the Hulu series that bears his name, as he considers what kind of person—what kind of Muslim, son, and man—he wants to be. Intensely critical of himself, Ramy recognizes that he’s done much self-mythologizing, mostly in regard to his religious observance, and acutely feels his lapses in judgment, and Ramy derives its soulfulness from the ruins of the myths that Ramy and his family and friends tell themselves and those around them. There’s profound pain to be found amid the rubble. And, maybe, peace. Niv M. Sultan
David Simon and Eric Overmeyer’s abbreviated fade-out on post-Katrina New Orleans is tattered yet hopeful, perfect in its soulful imperfections. Decisions in the Big Easy are slowed down by good booze and better boogie, and by the time the Big Chief (Clark Peters) bows out, very little about this intoxicating menagerie of musicians and other truth-seekers has been convincingly settled on. Life’s not tidy in the Treme and the show’s creators let all the bad omens hang out, including the impending birth of Delmond’s (Rob Brown) first child and Janette’s (Kim Dickens) third restaurant opening. Of course, all the trouble made the music sound all the sweeter, as careers begin to congeal and legacies found (temporary) footing amid the city’s riotous buzz. The fat lady is singing for Treme, and she’s belting it out loud, if not for long. Cabin
43. The Handmaid’s Tale
Few television shows can match the commitment of The Handmaid’s Tale to withholding catharsis from audiences. The series, which maintains a visual lyricism that both clashes with and magnifies the brutality on screen, is most heartbreaking during moments of doubt, when Elisabeth Moss’s June appears resigned to her fate. Yet it consistently obscures her true motivation, mining mystery from her submissiveness: Is it genuine, or another tactic? When she’s able to seize, however briefly, the upper hand from her tormentors, the series offers tantalizing glimpses of their chagrin. For a moment, we’re prompted to envision that chagrin morphing into sorrow, shame, maybe even fear. That would spell some kind of catharsis, but until it actually arrives, The Handmaid’s Tale remains intellectually nourishing, easy to admire, and difficult to endure. It’s a beautiful test of stamina, offering only small reprieves from June’s suffering. It embeds us alongside her, and remains dedicated to illustrating how exactly the villains can win. Michael Haigis
42. High Maintenance
High Maintenance more than made good on its transition from the Internet to HBO. Its intimacy has been retained, and yet the narrative strands have grown more thoughtfully variable and distinct in their reflection of the adult rituals, wild yearning, and long-overdue release that power the denizens of New York City’s boroughs, revealing their neuroses, deep-seated fears, self-delusions, and artful exercises. More than ever, the show’s tapestry of unexpected connections and backstories reach deeper into the quotidian experiences of city life. Cabin
41. Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal
Genndy Tartakovsky’s work as an animator is most striking for its embrace of silence. Even in the cacophonous realm of children’s cartoons, the Samurai Jack creator favors wordless moments that lean on the flapping of cloth in the wind or the exaggerated sounds of a clenching fist. Adult Swim’s Primal, then, feels like something Tartakovsky has been building to for much of his career, a dialogue-free miniseries following a caveman and his T. rex partner fighting to survive in a violent, unforgiving world. The show’s violence is a reflection of its characters’ existence, a cycle from which there’s no escape. Children are swallowed whole, prey is devoured on the spot, eyeballs are smashed in by rocks, and dino jaws are smeared in vivid red blood. The story of the caveman and T. rex’s survival, in Tartakovsky’s hands, is totally enthralling, as terrible as it is beautiful. Steven Scaife
Review: HBO’s The Outsider Conjures Mysterious Tableaux of Dread
The series preserves Stephen King novel’s ingenious plot while entirely altering its tone.3
HBO’s The Outsider represents a merging of two singular writers: Richard Price, the lively and profoundly detailed and precise crime novelist and screenwriter, and Stephen King, the one-man pop-culture industry who specializes in horror novels. Price adapted the series from King’s 2018 novel and wrote five of the six episodes that were screened for press. Immediately one feels the sense of freedom that separates this from many other King adaptations. A colossus in his own right, Price doesn’t feel the need to court King’s approval in the tradition of the many young filmmakers who’ve grown up on the author’s novels, dreaming of an opportunity to take a crack at his work. As a showrunner, Price makes bold moves, preserving King’s ingenious plot while entirely altering the novel’s tone.
The Outsider is a mystery with a crackerjack hook: Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman) is accused of raping and murdering a young boy, and he appears to have been at two places at once, with each location abounding in concrete proof of his presence. Maitland is a pillar of Flint City, Oklahoma, an English teacher and little league coach who’s arrested in a ballfield in the middle of a game by detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendolsohn). Price and Bateman, who directed the first two episodes, alternate between the arrest and Anderson’s discovery of the little boy and the gathering of evidence. Multiple witnesses saw Terry speaking with the boy and driving a van that would later be found drenched in the child’s blood.
This opening displays the novel’s surgical attention detail, as in Anderson’s pointed order that Terry be arrested in public and handcuffed with his hands in front of his body. Sure that he’s got his man, Ralph launches a brutal character assassination, which Bateman stages in long, foreboding takes that capture the weight of a community curdling on an individual.
As in many crime shows, especially Law & Order, the first arrest is fraudulent. Aided by his attorney, Howie Gold (Bill Camp), Terry springs a startling alibi while in prison: that he was attending a literary conference out of town on the day of the boy’s murder. Besides video proof supporting his alibi, there’s dozens of witnesses and a fingerprint he left on a book in a hotel lobby. Ralph’s certainty, cemented by his grief over his own son’s death a year earlier, begins to crack, and then something terrible happens that convinces him to look further into the Maitland case. Unexpectedly working with Howie and a private investigator, Alec Pelley (Jeremy Bobb), who in turn hires another private investigator, Holly Gibney (Cynthia Erivo), Ralph and his team uncover a chain of child murders across the country that are characterized simultaneously by iron-clad proof of guilt and innocence. Gibney, a socially awkward eccentric genius, eventually comes to believe that they’re dealing with a shapeshifter who feeds on grief.
This narrative business comes from King’s novel and is quite redolent of his 1986 opus It, but Price alters the story’s mood and speed. King’s signature sensibility—his interest in the quotidian of small-town average people facing otherworldly nightmares—has been pruned away, and not always for the better. In the series, many of the characters are smoldering, movie-ready badasses reminiscent of the protagonists of countless prestige crime dramas, and who utter clipped, chicly tortured dialogue in the key of the characters in Price’s own film scripts. This tendency is especially evident in Price’s conception of Holly. In the novel, she’s a thin, young white woman on the spectrum who’s poignantly possessed of no confidence except when piecing together evidence; for Price, however, Holly is a sexy woman of color fending off the advances of men, whose anti-sociality is offered up, a la Hugh Laurie’s character in House, as yet another element of her supreme agency. Collectively, such character changes make the narrative feel less eccentric and personal than that of King’s novel.
On the other hand, Price also throws out King’s bad habits—gimmicky character shtick, embarrassingly contrived dialogue, certain routine plotting—fashioning a mood piece that gradually becomes less about the investigation of the murders than the paralysis of grief. The Outsider’s title has multiple meanings. The notion of grief and trauma divorcing people from society, turning them into outsiders, is in King’s book, but Price and the show’s directors—Bateman, Andrew Bernstein, and Karyn Kusama—bring that theme to fuller bloom. Certain characters feel functional at first but gain a surprising pathos, such as Ralph’s wife, Jeannie, whom Mare Winningham invests with a hauntingly inquisitive ruefulness. Holly also grows in stature, as Erivo transcends an initial stock type, imbuing her character with a tremulous unease, a fragility that becomes more and more moving as the series progresses.
The Outsider also features wonderful tableaux of dread. Bateman sets the stage early on, utilizing the various planes of the widescreen image for unmooring flourishes, such as when a woman jogs toward the camera as a man attempting suicide crashes through the window of a house in the middle ground of the frame. Subsequent episodes physicalize grief by emphasizing the emptiness of farmhouses, the undersides of bridges, and the condemned homes of the damned, suggesting a hellish netherworld that exists just out of plain sight. The cinematography, heavily indebted to the work of David Fincher, is awash in eerie grays and blues, as well as negative space that might potentially obscure the shapeshifter.
Given the wildness of the story, The Outsider sometimes feels ludicrously tony, but it’s undeniably gripping—a beach read rendered by real artists. The series is so clever that it might take you a while to realize that it’s essentially Dracula, what with all the Renfield types and secret nesting sites, only dressed up as a police procedural. Or, perhaps even more fitting, The Outsider suggests a merging of Kolchak with Price’s The Night Of.
Cast: Ben Mendelsohn, Cynthia Erivo, Bill Camp, Jason Bateman, Mare Winningham, Paddy Considine, Julianne Nicholson, Yul Vazquez, Jeremy Bobb, Marc Menchaca, Frank Deal, Hettienne Park, Derek Cecil, Summer Fontana
Review: BBC and Netflix’s Dracula Is a Gory but Banal Adaptation of a Classic
The series feels tiresome in its relentless pleading with us to be impressed.1.5
The first episode of BBC One and Netflix’s Dracula finds sickly Jonathan Harker (John Hefferman) interred at a convent. Gesturing toward the pile of pages in front of her, the chipper, irreverent Sister Agatha (Dolly Wells) says that Jonathan’s account of his imprisonment in Dracula’s (Claes Bang) castle may have left out some relevant information. Then she asks him if he had sex with the vampire. With this, Sherlock creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat announce their intent to push the expected boundaries of Bram Stoker’s oft-adapted novel by bringing a lot of the subtext to the forefront. But the bizarrely passionless scenes that ultimately follow in no way match those performative declarations.
It’s not that Bang’s hammy Dracula fails to do suggestive things throughout the entirety of the 90-minute episode made available to press. It’s that when he hovers over Jonathan and tries to get him to write a letter with a pen that they’re both holding, there’s no palpable sexual tension. The actors’ rigid body language seems fundamentally at odds with the proceedings, though that impression may stem from the cinematography. Indeed, the characters are constantly framed from unflattering angles or cut off from one another altogether, and despite being far more vocal about the subtext of Stoker’s novel than almost any adaptation before it, the series isn’t half as provocative as something like Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal.
Whether he’s sharing space with Jonathan or even Sister Agatha, Bang’s handsome, domineering Dracula radiates no lust or desire. When the vampire calls his guest things like “Johnny” or his “bride,” the pronounced eroticism feels forced and artificial. In one scene, Dracula stands naked before Agatha and licks a bloody knife, but the camera conceals everything below his neck and cuts to a more obscure angle from the moment he touches his tongue to the blade, effectively dialing back the moment’s camp factor.
Some of Dracula’s images might sound gross on the page—a fly crawling across an eyeball, a mangled body shoved into a box, a peeled fingernail—but these moments pass by so quickly and with such visible fuss, courtesy of the jittering camera and clanging soundtrack, that they’re robbed of any horror. Dracula’s groan-inducing wordplay (“You look drained”) only further saps the gothic atmosphere of any dread. The series is as ostentatious with its apparent sexual overtones as its horror, displaying a showiness that comes off more like a substitute for real depravity, a cry for help in the notable absence of any writer or director capable of teasing out the material’s sensuality.
All that’s left of Dracula is its declaration of cleverness, as it bobs and weaves through expectations as Sister Agatha does the whole fast-talking genius shtick. Did you think crucifixes repel vampires? Well, the series makes sure to tell us they don’t. And then, suddenly, they do, with Dracula all but goading viewers into guessing why. In multiple scenes, characters drag out their introduction of a problem and then badger others for input and theories like an irritatingly persistent street performer. Whether it’s introducing farcical, overwritten solutions to things like navigating Dracula’s mazelike castle or miniature plot twists that are easy to guess, the series simply feels tiresome in its relentless pleading with us to be impressed.
Cast: Claes Bang, Dolly Wells, John Heffernan, Corrina Wilson, Matthew Beard, Morfydd Clark, Lyndsey Marshal Network: Netflix
Review: The Witcher Favors Fierce Fight Scenes Over World-Building
The series taps into violence like a lifespring, finding its footing with energetic fight sequences.2.5
Henry Cavill’s character in The Witcher, Netflix’s adaptation of the series of fantasy novels and short stories by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, could scan as a spin on the actor’s most notable prior role. Monster hunter Geralt of Rivia resembles a reclusive medieval Superman—all principle, brawn, and jawline—clad in a white wig and cat-like contact lenses. But rather than reheating the Man of Steel, Cavill quickly melts into Geralt, capturing his aloof yet winsome confidence with sardonic one-liners and baritone grunts.
Geralt roams a land known as the Continent, sniffing out fantastical happenings and dealing with the responsible entities like a sword-swinging private eye. It’s how he makes a living as a witcher: a rare, highly trained beast slayer both blessed with and cursed by enigmatic mutations. These mutations afford witchers preternatural strength and litheness, night vision, and a host of other powers—as well as the scorn of countless villagers who’ve heard vile tales of witchers’ supposed inhumanity. The series uses the hate directed toward Geralt to offer intriguing, if inconsistently fleshed-out, reflections on discrimination.
The Witcher’s two female principal characters also face oppressive difficulties. Sorceress Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra), who undergoes a vicious education in the art of magic, navigates the challenges of dysmorphism and her part-Elven heritage in a sexist and racist society, and young princess Ciri (Freya Allan) turns runaway after her home gets razed by the mysterious Nilfgaardian Empire. While the empire—the Continent’s strongest political and military force—is eager to track down Ciri, its aims beyond territorial growth are shadowy.
Geralt, Yen, and Ciri spend most of the season isolated from each other. When Geralt and Yen finally meet, they share a warm, sexually charged bath, in a nod to a similar moment in the 2015 video game adaptation The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. But bath time offers more than cheap fan service here, as the scene also delivers the lighthearted charm that The Witcher’s various manifestations insist upon amid their overall bleakness. Geralt and Yen’s banter moves briskly, propelled by Yen’s playful aggression and Geralt’s wry half-smiles.
The three protagonists’ narratives momentously and giddily merge near the end of the season, but what comes before sometimes feels like a stretched-out primer. Many conversations proceed lifelessly, purely to provide exposition, doing a disservice to the show’s thoughtful exploration of gender, free will, and classism. The laziness accompanies another storytelling flaw: The series is often too slow to elucidate the logic at play in its world. This first season pays welcome attention to Yen’s history and psyche but chooses not to concretely explain what it means to be a witcher, granting the audience little insight into Geralt’s origins, the reasons for his itinerance, or the nature of his otherness.
In contrast to its halfhearted approach to exposition, The Witcher finds its footing in the graphic depiction of violence. The show’s energetic battle scenes, set to a stirring score by composers Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli, create the impression that the burly, snow-caked background actors of Game of Thrones were moving at three-quarters speed. An early duel between Geralt and a rogue princess (Emma Appleton)—there are many princesses—escalates with breakneck cuts and tight shots of the warriors. Later, as the ghastly spawn of a cursed woman stalks a victim, the creature’s still-attached umbilical cord flashes at the edge of the frame, smartly giving shape to the specter of loss and grief.
However enthralling it is to watch him in action, Geralt is central to relatively few fight sequences throughout the season. He generally refrains from involving himself in the conflicts of others, less out of a commitment to neutrality than out of what appears to be an overwhelming indifference. And by avoiding excessive bloodshed early on, The Witcher demarcates the stakes necessary for Geralt to unsheathe his blade—gradually revealing his motivations and making the scattered moments of butchery all the more alluring.
Cast: Henry Cavill, Anya Chalotra, Freya Allan, Jodhi May, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson, Adam Levy, MyAnna Buring, Emma Appleton, Joey Batey, Anna Shaffer, Mimi Ndiweni, Royce Pierreson, Wilson Radjou-Pujalte, Eamon Farren Network: Netflix
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