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.
Andrew Johnston is the television critic for Time Out New York. Recaps of The Wire, The Sopranos and many other series are collected in the sidebar of this site’s main page. To read Andrew Dignan’s detailed analysis of the opening credits sequences of Seasons One through Four, click here. To read a transcript of Andrew, Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall debating the relative merits of The Wire, The Sopranos and Deadwood, click here.
Review: Daybreak Depicts a Unique but Indulgent Apocalyptic Wasteland
Insipid comedy aside, the Netflix series offers evocative reflections on the premature death of a generation’s childhood.2.5
The universe of Netflix’s Daybreak, based on the graphic novel by Brian Ralph, is both familiar and indulgent, as far as post-apocalypses go: Its wasteland is roamed not only by zombie-esque figures, but also by themed packs of survivors sporting rides decked out in spikes à la Mad Max. The show’s doomsday premise, however, features a unique twist: The apocalypse was triggered by a bomb that turned only—and, seemingly, all—adults into trudging undead “ghoulies,” leaving children and teenagers mostly unharmed.
In the six months since the bomb dropped, the young survivors from Glendale, California have responded to the nuclear family’s disintegration with the entrenchment of the chosen family, turning their social circles into tribes: the Cheermazons, the STEM Punks, the Disciples of Kardashia, and others. The tribes largely keep to themselves throughout the five episodes provided to press; only Baron Triumph, a mysterious, motorcycle-riding cannibal, and the Jocks, led by the grunting Genghis Khan wannabe Turbo Bro Jock (Cody Kearsley), resort to gratuitous violence. The post-apocalypse is, as a result, a relatively peaceful place.
Our guide through the cataclysm is Josh Wheeler (Colin Ford), a tribeless loner looking for his girlfriend, Sam Dean (Sophie Simnett). Throughout the series, Josh often breaks the fourth wall by introducing flashbacks, cuing montages, and contextualizing the apocalypse for the audience. These meta moments are less charming than lazy, rejecting subtle world-building in favor of information dumps. Much of the Daybreak’s comedy is similarly uninspired: While Glendale High School’s Principal Burr (Matthew Broderick) hilariously evokes a certain kind of white, bubble-blinded progressivism in Josh’s flashbacks (“We’re all woke here. Uh, wide awoke”), the teenagers’ dialogue relies on meme-y jokes—like one about never skipping leg day—that result in a stilted representation of Gen Z.
Insipid comedy aside, Daybreak offers evocative reflections on the premature death of a generation’s childhood. After one of Turbo’s underlings fires a homemade gun, Mona Lisa (Jeanté Godlock), Turbo’s right hand, declares, “You broke the Emma González Accords. We’re not playing with guns.” The throwaway line briefly hints at the trauma that the kids have experienced. They won’t use guns, even at the world’s end, because school shootings have scarred them. They can’t reckon with the apocalypse because they’re still processing the horrors of their old lives, still fettered by a social order that can’t see beyond jocks and nerds and cheerleaders, still reeling from the damage caused by neglectful parents and bullies.
Daybreak most formidably juxtaposes the past and the present in an episode following Josh’s newfound companion, Wesley Fists (Austin Crute), a jock turned ronin seeking redemption for his sins. Director Sherwin Shilati and writer Ira Madison III have created a remarkable samurai-flick-style exploration of Wesley’s various personal apocalypses: his relocation from Compton to the much-more-white Glendale; his falling-out with the cousin (Frederick Williams) he used to do everything with; and, now, his need to choose between a forbidden love and his friends. It all unfolds beneath an astonishingly versatile voiceover by RZA, who’s both very funny and very capable of hitting the episode’s dramatic beats.
When, toward the end of the episode, Wesley speaks directly to the narrator, the exchange avoids the triteness of hollow fourth-wall-breaking. It reads, instead, as an honest confrontation between the character and his psyche, a clinging to selfhood all but reduced to rubble. In such sequences, Daybreak flexes against the mechanical writing that constrains it elsewhere, exploring forces and fears powerful enough to render the apocalypse insignificant.
Cast: Colin Ford, Austin Crute, Alyvia Alyn Lind, Matthew Broderick, Sophie Simnett, Gregory Kasyan, Krysta Rodriguez, Jeanté Godlock, Cody Kearsley, Jade Peyton, Rob H. Roy, Austin Maas, Chelsea Zhang Network: Netflix
Review: El Camino, a Breaking Bad Sequel, Is a Man’s Rueful Lament for Past Wrongs
The film mixes a self-help message with moments of hard, cruel detail.2.5
Writer-director Vince Gilligan’s El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie is driven by a structural perversity. The story—about a man fleeing from the aftermath of the events of the AMC show’s finale—is rife with flashbacks, often resisting to answer the “What happened next?” question that drives most follow-ups. Young meth-cooker Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) was last seen at the end of Breaking Bad driving a stolen El Camino into the desert darkness, hysterical after escaping imprisonment and torture at the hands of white supremacists, whom his partner, Walter White, ultimately killed. We last saw Jesse in a sort of propulsive extremis, which one assumes might bleed into a sequel, but Gilligan conjures in El Camino a rueful tone that bears more of a resemblance to the recent seasons of Better Call Saul than to Breaking Bad. Before Jesse can move on to the next stage in his life, he must reckon with the abuse he’s just fled, with the wreck his life has become.
El Camino mixes a self-help message with moments of hard, cruel detail. Gilligan hasn’t lost his talent for narrative invention, especially for rendering subterranean criminal worlds hidden in plain sight. One of Breaking Bad’s most chillingly casual, self-rationalizing henchman, Todd (Jesse Plemons), returns in flashbacks, and is revealed to have acted as a kind of gaslighting partner to Jesse, offering him breadcrumbs of kindness in order to use him to carry out side errands. In the present, Jesse is on the run, trading the El Camino for a friend’s car, staking out Todd’s now abandoned apartment, which he knows contains a large stash of cash. Jesse has this information because he helped Todd remove the corpse of a housekeeper that the latter killed. Todd views this disposal as just another errand, and Jesse drops the body from several floors up like a bundle of laundry. In an especially macabre flourish, Todd removes his belt from the dead woman’s neck and re-loops it into his pants.
Of all the Breaking Bad characters who briefly return in El Camino, Todd seems to stimulate Gilligan’s imagination most. He suggests a modernization of a Donald Westlake character—a thug who’s selfish and intelligent enough to wall himself off from the implications of his actions. Gilligan goes to town finding various ways to express Todd’s callousness, which Plemons plays with extraordinary understatement. When Jesse finds a gun and briefly toys with escaping from Todd, the latter’s understanding of his own power and entitlement is truly unnerving. Todd says, “I’ll have that gun now, Jesse,” with condescension, and, more audaciously, with something resembling actual pity.
Gilligan’s aesthetic also appears to be influenced by Westlake, as El Camino has a crisp, streamlined, matter-of-fact sense of framing that suggests the pared-down prose of the legendary crime writer, while recalling the confident visual style that Breaking Bad grew into and that Better Call Saul inherited. There’s also a bit of Twin Peaks, and Breaking Bad itself, in Gilligan’s chronological hopscotching, which shifts one’s focus from the plot at large to individual scenes. El Camino is ultimately concerned with a simple narrative thread: Jesse’s attempt to find the money to pay Ed (Robert Forster) to help him disappear into a kind of witness protection program for criminals. Jesse could’ve went with Ed in Breaking Bad and didn’t, and so El Camino often suggests a long act of atoning for one essential failure of self-preservation, as Jesse remembers pivotal details from his past to pry himself free from his current predicament. Forster, in his final role, is a master of the implicitly emotionally charged deadpan that Gilligan’s characters use to protect themselves and to launder atrocity.
Yet Gilligan somewhat outsmarts himself in El Camino. For all the film’s invention, for all its trickiness, it doesn’t really move. Jesse isn’t an interesting enough character to connect the film’s various tangents; he’s certainly not a Walter White or a Saul Goodman, criminals who dare the audience to like them via the visceral nature of their inventiveness and need to succeed and dominate. Audiences who’re “Team Jesse” will probably enjoy El Camino more than those who always found him to be somewhat tedious—a youth-flattering character who’s divorced of complicity from the plot of which he’s a part. Gilligan’s love for Jesse doesn’t do the protagonist any favors either, as El Camino is composed of a series of riffs in which he’s continually upstaged by characters who’re allowed to be true to their maliciousness. Breaking Bad ended with Jesse discovering himself in chaos, El Camino reins him back in.
Cast: Aaron Paul, Jesse Plemons, Charles Baker, Matt Jones, Bryan Cranston, Jonathan Banks, Krysten Ritter, Todd Bower, Robert Forster, Gloria Sandoval, Tess Harper, Michael Bofshever Network: Netflix
Review: Watchmen Offers an Intriguing Rebuttal of Its Source Material
The series argues the ways injustice might persist, and in that sense, its alternate history doesn’t look so alien after all.2.5
HBO’s Watchmen isn’t a straightforward adaptation of the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, but rather a present-day sequel where the events of the original took place decades ago. At one point, a newscast briefly shows a naked blue atomic man, Doctor Manhattan, on Mars, and in another, we learn that the Cold War effectively ended when a massive alien squid beamed into the middle of New York City, killing millions while uniting the world against some vague extradimensional presence. For a while, anyway.
In modern-day Tulsa, Oklahoma, a white supremacist group called the Seventh Cavalry has risen, opposing, among other things, the reparations paid to descendants of the people caught in the city’s 1921 race riot (these are called “Redfordations,” after President Robert Redford, who’s been in office for decades since Richard Nixon abolished the two-term limit). Some tensions, the series posits, won’t be quelled by the appearance of some separate, cephalopodic other; the hatred of the human other is still very much alive.
The Watchmen universe’s primary wrinkle, beyond an alternate reality so alternate that Vietnam is part of the United States, is the way costumed heroes figure into the whole thing. The Cavalry wears Rorschach-blot masks patterned after one of the graphic novel’s heroes, a violent right-wing vigilante-slash-detective. The crux of the original mid-1980s Watchmen comic lies in the complicating of the superhero archetype through a whole mess of psychological hang-ups and generally unsavory preoccupations (Rorschach, for one, is never explicitly racist in the original text, though he’s a considerable misogynist). It fixated on the idea that so-called “costumed adventurers” took to the streets to beat people up often for the hell of it, because they had a messiah complex or because their mothers told them to or just because it felt good to draw blood. Facing down oblivion was the thing it finally took to pull their heads out of asses that wore the underpants on the outside.
Yet even after the six episodes made available to critics, it can be a little tough to swallow some aspects of showrunner Damon Lindelof’s brave new Watchmen, where a big dead squid has apparently shifted the present racial paradigm so completely that the Tulsa police force is not just masked, but predominantly black. Police weapons are lodged in remotely unlocked car dashboard holsters, and racists live within a “Nixonville” trailer park as though they’re the new oppressed. The idea of a country that both won the Vietnam War and elected Nixon for five terms going on to accept a masked, armed police force composed mainly of minorities seems, to say the least, optimistic. The pacing doesn’t make things any easier to interpret, as the show spoons out details about its larger world as needed, often after deploying some particularly charged imagery. You’re mostly asked to take it on faith that the writers have thought this stuff through, that later everything will make sense rather than serve as empty provocation.
The ensemble cast is anchored by Regina King as Angela Abar, an ex-cop turned vigilante called Sister Night. Draped in a hooded long coat with face paint sprayed across her eyes, King brims with steely confidence as well as a controlled, driving anger. But it’s difficult to shake a general suspicion of the way the series positions racial pain as a constant instigator, with responses to prejudice seeming to entirely define its people of color; they’re more walking expressions of hurt than well-rounded characters. And though the first six episodes have not yet revealed enough about Vietnamese trillionaire Lady Trieu (Hong Chau), her initial appearances exhibit some typical, worrying signs of paranoia about Eastern invaders.
The series expands the comic in some fascinating ways, weaving a dense, bizarre mythology and a richly conceived world to get swept up in. The pilot episode in particular introduces various complicated ideas, drawing clear lines to fascism in the actions of the police and vigilantes. But the series misses some of the novel’s complexity in its eagerness for loaded imagery—lynchings, riots, police violence—and slowly-unfolding mysteries. These episodes offer little follow through on the initial themes, seemingly content to raise questions and then set them aside while indulging in the excesses of fascism-is-sexy fantasy, with “enhanced interrogations” dispensed upon the deserving while set to a soundtrack of fat synths by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Regardless of whether the series plans to return to consciously critique these ideas, its habit of leaving them to hang in the air is troubling.
As thorny as Watchmen’s handling of politics can be, though, it still offers an intriguing rebuttal of its source material. Even the boundless cynicism of Moore and Gibbons’s comic had its potential rays of light, the idea that prejudice might look small once everyone recognized the futility of crying out to be better dead than Red. HBO’s Watchmen argues the ways injustice might persist, and in that sense, its alternate history doesn’t look so alien after all.
Cast: Regina King, Don Johnson, Tim Blake Nelson, Louis Gossett Jr., Jeremy Irons, Jean Smart, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Hong Chau, James Wolk, Frances Fisher Network: HBO
Review: Living with Yourself Is a Lesser Version of What It Could Be
The series is decidedly unambitious and ends before it ever really gets off the ground.1.5
You could be a better version of yourself, posits Living with Yourself, if you weren’t so damn tired all the time. In the Netflix series, a strip-mall spa run by—who else?—Mysterious Asians refreshes its clientele by literally and secretly refreshing people’s bodies, copying memories into a freshly cloned body while killing the original with no one being the wiser. It’s not exactly legal or even foolproof, as the original Miles Elliott (Paul Rudd) discovers when he wakes up buried in the woods. Upon returning home to his wife, Kate (Aisling Bea), he finds that his newer self is already there. That’s about as psychologically fraught as Living with Yourself gets, because, despite how much time its eight episodes devote to the bizarre fear of being cuckolded by yourself, the series is decidedly unambitious.
There’s something truly bleak at the heart of Living with Yourself, with its idea that one’s difficulty in functioning in everyday life is simply a sign of wear. Although the cloned Miles (referred to as “New Miles”) remembers everything the Old Miles does, his body is technically experiencing everything for the first time; he hasn’t tired of feeling the wind on his face, and he’s yet to grow accustomed to certain foods. In this way, the series, created and written by Timothy Greenberg, argues that living is so hard precisely because you’ve already lived. Life, here, is a feedback loop you’re caught in all the way to oblivion, unless, that is, illicit Asian cloners and their laxer Eastern standards set your mind free (early episodes never shed this light Orientalism, fumbling a few self-aware jokes in the process). Everyone, including and especially Kate, seems to like New Miles better than the worn-out Old Miles. He even tells stories at parties the way he used to, Kate says, instead of dejectedly drinking booze.
But two variations on Miles hardly disguise how singularly boring the character is, as episodes devote an interminable amount of time to the inner-workings of his advertising job as dull shorthand for contrasting his old and new selves; the clone goes to work while the original goofs off at home. New Miles, naturally, isn’t yet bored out of his skull by pitch meetings and wins acclaim for an ad campaign that Old Miles decries as “sappy.” There’s some jealousy involved, but there’s also the sense that this perspective couldn’t have come from the Old Miles anymore, as his optimism drained out of his ears over the passing decades. He can’t look at life the same way because he’s taken on so much baggage his body will never be rid of.
The show’s structure alternates between the viewpoints of one of the two Mileses on a per-episode basis, doubling back to show what the other one was doing during a prior episode’s events. Though initially intriguing to have these blanks filled in after the fact, this structure is the show’s only real trick; being informed of what each Miles is doing at any given moment feels more repetitive than insightful, particularly with how severely the series neglects the supporting cast. Kate finally gets a POV episode over halfway into the season, while characters like Miles’s sister, Maia (Alia Shawkat), and his work rival, Dan (Desmin Borges), all but vanish once they serve their purpose. Everyone, and Miles in particular, seems too self-absorbed to really ruminate on the existential angst that might otherwise be inherent to the premise. This doesn’t feel like an intentional character trait so much as a lack of imagination.
Netflix’s Russian Doll uses its structural gimmick to explore the philosophical questions of a charismatic protagonist’s existence and situation and how they effect her actions. Living with Yourself feels inert by comparison, raising some fascinating questions about the nature of the self yet failing to give Miles or anyone in his orbit any real dimension or genuinely thoughtful reflection; mostly it fixates on “this situation is weird” and “I don’t want myself to have sex with my wife.” The series doesn’t even go anywhere particularly weird or daring, jamming as it does its most promising ideas—an F.D.A. intervention, the desire of one Miles to kill the other—into the last two episodes. Living with Yourself ends before it ever really gets off the ground. Despite how much potential the series displays for psychological complexity, its approach is otherwise so uninspired that one wonders if it stumbled upon that potential by accident.
Cast: Paul Rudd, Aisling Bea, Desmin Borges, Zoe Chao, Karen Pittman, Alia Shawkat Network: Netflix
Review: Catherine the Great Is an Alluring, If Shallow, Dip Into Russia’s Golden Age
While the miniseries is mesmerizing to take in, beneath its aesthetic splendor lie vast, unplumbed depths.2.5
Color does much of the work in HBO’s Catherine the Great. Set mostly in the luxurious palace of the eponymous Russian empress (Helen Mirren), the miniseries is awash in greens, reds, yellows, and golds. The men on Catherine’s council wear creamy pastel suits, and she gives speeches from a candle-lit balcony overlooking a great hall, surrounded by stained glass and ornate arches. When, in the first of four episodes, she stands on the balcony and declares that “slavery does not have to be a Russian institution,” the sequence’s color palette and blocking define the social order that Catherine leads and aims to upend. Below her, lords dressed in black and white gasp at her intention to abolish serfdom. Behind her stands her court, poised to either die for her or stab her in the back. Nothing exists above her except Christ, painted on a palace wall. Where Christ’s arms are outstretched and welcoming, Catherine places her hands firmly on the podium in front of her, not asking but demanding.
The camera tends to linger on Catherine throughout the series. During a conversation between Catherine and her lady-in-waiting and confidant, Praskovya Bruce (Gina McKee), the frame stays focused on her and leaves Bruce off screen, as though the latter’s sole purpose is to elicit a reaction from the empress. Catherine rules in absence too. Couriers relay letters in wide shots whose stunning landscapes subtly remind us that every piece of this sprawling empire belongs to Catherine. Her most treasured possession is Grigory Potemkin (Jason Clarke), a forthright military leader who becomes her primary lover after her husband, Peter III, is overthrown and made to disappear. Each episode trots out a new young boy toy to please Catherine—relationships here are radically open—but she’s spellbound by Potemkin and he’s enthralled by her. He vows, repeatedly, that all he does is done to honor her.
Political plotlines come and go, with various parties reaching for the throne, including Catherine’s ambitious but incompetent son, Paul (Joseph Quinn); his tutor and Catherine’s advisor, Nikita Ivanovich Panin (Rory Kinnear); and Catherine’s spurned lover, Grigory Orlov (Richard Roxburgh), who led the coup that deposed her husband. But Catherine and Potemkin’s combustive romance, depicted in the long-term as the series jumps forward years at a time, is the heart of the matter. Potemkin goes to war for Catherine, fighting the Ottoman Empire in the Caucasus, and he comes back stormy, with a mustache and an eyepatch. Each military expedition wins more glory for Potemkin and Catherine and puts a greater strain on his psyche and their relationship. Later in life, the couple gets into an especially vicious shouting match, both roaring almost incomprehensibly. The dialogue that penetrates the haze is Potemkin’s. “Might I remind you,” he yells, “I waded through blood for you.”
At one point in the series, a sudden close-up on Catherine’s strained face communicates her intense paranoia, like something from a Smeagol-Gollum back-and-forth in The Lord of the Rings. But after Potemkin secures her affection, the world of Catherine the Great far more frequently reflects his perspective. When he stumbles back into the palace following a night out drinking with the court fool (Clive Russell), the shot is blurry and disorienting. And when fireworks celebrate Potemkin’s military victories, the fanfare eerily resembles combat, a crushing manifestation of the trauma he’s experienced. The fireworks crackling in the sky cause the Winter Palace to appear aflame, their eruption sounding like gunfire.
Potemkin is certainly captivating, but the emphasis on him is awkward. Even Catherine’s intimate discussions with her lady-in-waiting end up highlighting him, with the two women praising his handsomeness or damning his difficulty. Catherine the Great largely leaves the empress in the realm of abstraction; its primary use for her is as a symbol of absolute power. “I am the state,” she tells Potemkin, and though Russia changes—the poor and oppressed begin to mobilize in opposition to their abuse—Catherine does not. She repeatedly speaks of the need for equality but backs down when the backlash from the aristocracy threatens her security. She clings to the throne with relentless fervor. She grows only in age.
Catherine’s lack of change, along with her consistent ability to outmaneuver her political opponents, robs the series of momentum despite the astonishing range of Mirren and Clarke’s performances. No threat to Catherine’s reign is ever serious, no geopolitical conflict ever out of her or Potemkin’s control. Conspiracies and wars serve merely to punctuate the show’s development of the romance at its core. That love story, however, doesn’t evolve much either. The couple clashes and makes up and laughs, and then does so again weeks or months or years later. The relationship provides glimpses into Catherine’s motivations for hoarding power and keeping her family and friends—and Potemkin—at an insurmountable distance, but she’s left unlit beyond it. While Catherine the Great is utterly mesmerizing to take in, beneath its aesthetic splendor lie vast, unplumbed depths.
Cast: Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Rory Kinnear, Gina McKee, Joseph Quinn, Richard Roxburgh, Clive Russell, Andrew Rothney, Thomas Doherty, Camila Borghesani, Georgina Beedle Network: HBO
The Best Netflix Original Series to Watch Right Now, Ranked
These 25 Netflix original shows prove the marathon-watching juggernaut’s equal concern for both quantity and quality.
Like Google, Netflix has evolved over two decades from a Silicon Valley venture to a legitimate verb in the cultural lexicon. Ten years after expanding from DVD-by-mail to streaming service, and four since debuting its first original series with House of Cards, Netflix all but dominates the online TV landscape. While competitors like Amazon Prime and Hulu certainly vie for our time with their own in-house programs, the sheer inundation of Netflix originals requires its very own examination. The animated seriocomic genius of BoJack Horseman, the tech horrors that Black Mirror situates on the near horizon, and the earnestness and dramatic sprawl of Sense8 are merely a few of the storytelling pleasures available to anyone with a WiFi connection and a (potentially borrowed) Netflix login. These 25 Netflix original shows prove the marathon-watching juggernaut’s equal concern for both quantity and quality. Nathan Frontiero
25. Santa Clarita Diet
Zomedies thrive on a delicate alchemy between violence and humor. When the balance is off, the results are smug and self-congratulatory, as in Zomebieland. But in Santa Clarita Diet, creator Victor Fresco and his collaborators exhibit a flair for slapstick violence that’s staged with a surprisingly light and deft touch. The best bits are nearly impossible to rationalize (its punchlines are tossed off with confident casualness), but the series thrives on its refusal to take even its theme of yuppie conformity seriously, recognizing that it’s so obvious as to be inherently self-critical. Chuck Bowen
24. Luke Cage
The way Luke Cage at once embraces blaxploitation tropes and transcends them completely isn’t necessarily its triumph. It is, however, the element that speaks most directly to what the series, based on the Marvel Comics character that first appeared back in 1972 with Luke Cage: Hero for Hire, is attempting to accomplish. Cage, as portrayed by Mike Colter, is a wrongly convicted ex-con and certified ladies’ man who makes rent and some meager pocket change by sweeping up hair at a barber shop and doing dishes at the restaurant owned by Harlem crime lord Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali). He’s also attempting to be a role model and a hard-working member of his local community in the aftermath of his time in jail and the life he left behind when his wife was murdered. Above all else, Luke Cage is about what, if any, qualifications there are for being a hero. Chris Cabin
23. Lady Dynamite
Her endearing eagerness to please, extreme social awkwardness, and hopeless inability to camouflage her feelings makes the semi-fictionalized version of her bipolar self that actor-writer-comedian Maria Bamford plays in Lady Dynamite a kind of human emoji factory, her unguarded face expressing a kaleidoscope of comically intense emotions. Her bafflement and improvised solutions to uncomfortable situations make things we have all struggled with, like dating, feel as freshly and insightfully witnessed as her wide-eyed adventures in Hollywood. Though she’s anything but a stone face, Bamford has more than a little Buster Keaton in her, her cosmic befuddlement and heroic efforts to navigate even the simplest situation highlighting the absurdity in just about everything. Elise Nakhnikian
22. The Crown
Once again, The Queen‘s Peter Morgan combines extensive research with a highly empathetic understanding of human nature to create a fascinating exploration of the capabilities and limitations of Britain’s monarchy in the 20th century, the enormous personal sacrifices that monarchy required of Elizabeth II, and the strains it exerted on her family. The Crown opens with Elizabeth’s (Claire Foy) beloved father, king George (Jared Harris), another reluctant monarch who inherited the role only after his older brother renounced it. It then follows the young queen as, forced to give up her cherished private life after her father’s demise, she grows into the role of queen—and into a form of greatness distinguished by genuine humility and common-sense values. A feminist tale of a patronized, undereducated, and perpetually underestimated young woman who learns to rely on her native intelligence and good sense to help lead a besieged country through perilous times, The Crown makes the case that the best rulers may be those who never wanted the role. Nakhnikian
21. Seven Seconds
The dichotomy between Isaiah (Russell Hornsby) and Latrice Butler (Regina King) and the police is rooted in privilege, and while Seven Seconds resists a systemic view of Jersey City’s racial landscape, it’s thorough in its outlining of the biases that affect the Butlers’ lives. And none is more insulting than the way Brenton, even in death, is denied the same benefit of the doubt that’s readily afforded to his killer. The series presents a sympathetic likeness of real-world victims of police brutality, but by eschewing a broad view of race relations in our nation, it risks affirming the ubiquitous “few bad apples” apologia that’s often put forward when police wrongdoing comes to light. Ultimately, though, the detailed character portrayals at the heart of Seven Seconds invest us into the Butlers’ search for justice, while poignantly illustrating that in the real world, that justice is rare. Haigis
Review: Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal Is a Stunning Swirl of Violence and Grace
The show’s violence is a reflection of its characters’ existence, a cycle from which there’s no escape.3.5
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 caveman isn’t even explicitly named as Spear until the end credits of the first episode, and until then you might otherwise mistake the title, “Spear and Fang,” for a description of the violent tools put to use during its half-hour runtime. After all, what need do these characters have of names?
After the death of his family, Spear finds an uneasy companion in Fang, a mother T. rex whose babies he tries and fails to rescue at one point. The pair’s world is faintly fantastical, a pastel-colored landscape of thinly sketched details that recall the work of French artist Moebius, né Jean Giraud. With rocks and trees in hues of pink and orange that appear beneath a setting sun, the environment is as wondrous as it is hellish, a place of silence perpetually threatened to be broken by some predator’s intrusion. The show’s ecosystem swirls together many disparate time periods both real and imagined, presenting cavepeople coexisting with not just dinosaurs but mammoths, monkey-men, and blood-red bat humanoids.
The show’s chunky character designs convey clear emotions, from sorrow to irritation, through body language and wrinkled faces rendered in thick, black lines. Eyes are a repeated motif, whether in Spear and Fang’s extreme close-ups, the glassy and reflective stare of something newly dead, or the slow filling of an eyeball with blood. The series is a tightly wound watch of violence and grace mingled into one: Scenes tend to linger on clean, purposeful movements, such as Spear lunging through brush after a boar. Watching the sheer craft that Tartakovsky brings to Primal often feels like seeing gymnasts navigate some difficult routine with complete ease. The series makes constantly compelling use of space in its images, as creatures and objects lumber in from out of frame or a massive cliff face crowds Spear’s silhouette into the extreme corner. Enormous objects and animals frequently dwarf the protagonists, whose movements are shown in montage and silhouette and contrasts of bright, distinct color.
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 carnage can feel a smidge overdone when the series indulges in sporadic but distracting slow motion, yet for the most part, the blood and the gore feel matter of fact. Everything needs to kill and eat to survive, and here the killing and the eating is couched in virtuoso action whose impacts you feel in your bones.
For his part, Spear seems regretful of his part in that violent cycle. Forged in the fire of his prehistoric proving ground, he and Fang are providers who lack anyone to provide for beyond themselves, their families long ago felled by the cold, impartial law of the ancient world. What’s left is only the faint, cross-species understanding of a desire to live on, because living is all that Spear and Fang have. And the story of the caveman and T. rex’s survival, in Tartakovsky’s hands, is totally enthralling, as terrible as it is beautiful.
Cast: Aaron LaPlante Network: Adult Swim
Review: Modern Love Aims for Universality but Suffers from Tunnel Vision
The show’s fundamental goal isn’t to present love that’s unique to the current moment, but to expose the universality of its stories.2.5
The title of Amazon’s anthology series Modern Love, based on the New York Times column of the same name, is deceptively loaded. What does it mean for love to be “modern”? Does the love need to be enabled by contemporary technology—say, the algorithms of a dating app? Or does it need to reflect shifting social mores, such as increased acceptance of non-heterosexuality? Or does it, simply, need to exist in the present, as humankind writhes in an overheating, anxiety-inducing world?
The emphasis on modernity, though, proves to be a red herring. Modern Love’s fundamental goal isn’t to present love that’s unique to the current moment, but to expose the universality of its stories. That commonality, however, is rather limited, as the show’s eight episodes are almost exclusively concerned with love that’s both romantic and heterosexual. When love between family members and friends enters the equation, it mostly does so in passing.
Modern Love’s strongest episodes feature well-defined, believable characters whose eccentricities generate, rather than preclude, a sense of familiarity. The first episode revolves around a single and individualistic young woman, Maggie (Cristin Milioti), and her fatherly (and paternalistic) Albanian doorman, Guzmin (Laurentiu Possa). The folksy Guzmin understands Maggie’s isolation and serves as a consistent source of care. He’s always asking how she is, and always there when she leaves for the day and when she comes home at night. The harshness of his deadpanned tough love never overpowers the tenderness underlying it. Early on, when a man drops Maggie off at her building following a date, Guzmin tells her, “He will not be calling you.” It’s astonishing, funny, and, somehow, sweet.
The third episode is the show’s most formally inventive: a delightfully over-the-top, absorbingly staged exploration of mental health’s impact on dating that includes musical numbers. Anne Hathaway nails hard-won but fragile toughness as Lexi, a hotshot corporate lawyer who tries to will herself into happiness—or, more accurately, to fight off the depression ambushing her. “Please,” Lexi says into her bathroom mirror as she shakes her head. “Come on. Come on.” Lexi crumbles onto the floor, crushed by the weight of the effort.
After episode three, however, Modern Love enters a disappointing lull. In the fourth episode, Tina Fey and John Slattery are given far too little to work with as a jaded couple in therapy. The episode fails to probe the characters’ inner lives, resulting in two cardboard cutouts of almost-divorcees, and Fey doesn’t quite demonstrate the range required to execute her character’s emotional climaxes. Another episode, about a date that ends with a trip to the hospital, undercuts its depiction of millennial courtship with contrived dialogue. “I’ve been liveblogging it on social media,” Yasmine (Sofia Boutella) says about the evening, and later, when Rob (John Gallagher Jr.), her date, references going “full incel,” the phrase feels jarringly buzzy, as if the writers are trying to insist on the cultural relevance of the episode.
Modern Love returns to more organic, believable characters with an episode centered on a gay couple’s child adoption, in which Andrew Scott manages to inject his uptight and frustrating character with surprising winsomeness. It’s followed by an exceedingly poignant finale about a relationship between two older runners, Margot (Jane Alexander) and Kenji (James Saito). The first half of the latter episode uses brief flashbacks to deftly and devastatingly chronicle the joys of love found late in life and the pain that’s all but built into it. But, unfortunately, it abandons subtext by heavy-handedly linking the anthology’s various elements; the audience gets additional glimpses of each episode’s protagonists and sees the ultra-tangential connections between them, like this were some fantasy series intent on quelling any doubts we may have about whether or not these people all inhabit the same world. The last act is a needless cherry on top that only narrowly avoids cheapening what precedes it.
Cast: Cristin Milioti, Laurentiu Possa, Catherine Keener, Dev Patel, Caitlin McGee, Andy Garcia, Anne Hathaway, Gary Carr, Tina Fey, John Slattery, Sarita Choudhury, Sofia Boutella, John Gallagher Jr., Julia Garner, Shea Whigham, Myha'la Herrold, Olivia Cooke, Andrew Scott, Brandon Kyle Goodman, Jane Alexander, James Saito Network: Amazon Prime
Review: Season Three of Big Mouth Proves That, No, P.C. Culture Hasn’t Killed Comedy
The series never shies away from the pleasures and perversities of incipient sexuality.3
Netflix’s Big Mouth is continued evidence against the dubious argument that P.C. culture has made it impossible for comedians to be edgy. As a subject for an animated sitcom, the sex lives of 13-year-olds constitutes an ethical, political, and cultural minefield—one that the graphic and logorrheic Big Mouth gives the impression of approaching blindfolded and in a headlong rush. But there’s a method to its mania: Even while firing an entire volley of cum jokes at viewers every few seconds, the new season covers topics like female masturbation, slut shaming, incel masculinity, biphobia, social media addiction, and the gay teen experience with a heartening frankness that belies its apparent irreverence.
The sixth episode of season three, “How to Have an Orgasm,” not only sees the return of Jessi’s (Jessi Klein) personified vagina (Kristin Wiig), who coaches the teenage girl through the proper digital masturbation procedure, but also features a B plot in which the show’s perpetually horny geek, Andrew (John Mulaney), struggles to take the perfect dick pic to send to his cousin Cherry. Big Mouth never shies away from the pleasures and perversities of incipient sexuality, but perhaps most remarkable about the episode is how it handles young women’s bodies and desire: Deploying a surprise image of a dick for laughs is hardly a new trick for popular adult-oriented comedy, but the series breaks new ground in its willingness to base jokes around a girl’s talking, occasionally clapping vagina. Use your imagination.
It should be observed that one of the reasons that Big Mouth is able to pull off such an explicit depiction of young teens and their bodies is because its characters aren’t meant to necessarily be taken as seventh graders. They’re unmistakably voiced by adults, and are never quite as childlike as real middle-schoolers can be. Nick (Nick Kroll) may be at seventh-grade emotional maturity levels, wavering between intense sexual insecurity and grandiose masculinist narcissism, but he also possesses a biting humor and sophisticated understanding of the world around him. These children are adult-child hybrids, caricatures drawn up by adult comedians projecting themselves backward into the awkwardness of teenagedom, which makes the show’s frank depiction of underage sexuality a bit less distressing than it could be.
It’s also to the show’s advantage that, no matter how funny such gags can be, there’s nothing prurient about Big Mouth’s depiction of, say, Jessi’s garrulous vagina, or Missy’s (Jenny Slate) recurring sexual fantasy involving a space ship, Nathan Fillion (voiced by the actor himself), and a sexy horse named Gustavo. And one of season three’s best ideas is the formation of an unlikely bond between über-nerd Missy and unreformed slob Jay (Jason Mantzoukas), after Jay incidentally discovers Missy’s erotic fan fiction and the polymorphously perverse pair begin collaborating on the story of Fillion’s equine love affair.
Jay gets some of the best material in the new season in general, with the series jettisoning the “Jay fucks pillows” joke that had long worn thin by the second season’s conclusion, and leaning into more grounded aspects of the character: his squalid and unnourishing home life, his hyperactivity, and his love of magic. A fictional Netflix series—what else?—about a bisexual Canadian magician named Gordy (Martin Short) helps Jay cope with his bisexuality in episode three, “Cellsea,” though when he comes out later, he finds that his classmates are hesitant to accept bi men, even as they go crazy over Ally (Ally Wong), a new girl in school who professes her pansexuality in episode eight, “Rankings.”
As much as “Cellsea” opens up some of the most fruitful through lines in the season, it also exhibits some of its recurrent weaknesses. Gordy may be amusing, but Big Mouth’s incessant self-reflexive jokes about streaming (the season is dotted with winking praise for Netflix, digs about fellow controversial teens show 13 Reasons Why, and forced HBO Now disses) get a bit tiresome over the course of 11 episodes. Gordy’s late-episode song about the spectrum of human sexuality also points toward the show’s tendency to use musical numbers as a crutch—nowhere more on display than the low-hanging-fruit Florida jokes in the hair-metal song performed by Murray the Hormone Monster (also voiced by Kroll) in episode five, “Florida.”
That said, it’s the musical numbers that make the season’s penultimate episode (“Disclosure the Movie: The Musical!”), in which toxic male teacher Mr. Lizer (Rob Huebel) stages a musical version of the 1994 film Disclosure, such a highlight. The uncomfortable songs about reverse sexual harassment are more thoroughly integrated into the episode’s plot than the season’s previous musical sequences and resonate more with the episode’s themes. Missy finds in the play’s racy (and woefully sexist) material inspiration for a new sexual assertiveness, while Nick’s confidence boost from being cast as “the Michael Douglas character” develops his character’s awkward flirtation with a “big dick energy” performance of masculinity. The teenagers’ negotiation with the distorted representations of wrong-minded pop culture to formulate their own sexual identity rings almost painfully true. “Disclosure the Movie: The Musical!” proves that Big Mouth is at its best when its mile-a-minute humor supports, rather than distracts from, its open exploration of the convulsions of early-teen sexuality.
Cast: Nick Kroll, John Mulaney, Jessi Klein, Jason Mantzoukas, Jenny Slate, Maya Rudolph, Jordan Peele, Fred Armisen, Andrew Rannells, Jessica Chaffin, Ally Wong, Gina Rodriguez, Joe Wengert, Richard Kind, Paula Pell, Chelsea Peretti, Nathan Fillion, Kristen Wiig, Rob Huebel Network: Netflix
Review: The Politician Balances Well-Honed Satire and Melodramatic Frenzy
The series nearly approaches farce as its shocking developments pile up, defying reality and credulity.
Payton Hobart (Ben Platt), the uncannily poised future politico at the center of Netflix’s The Politician, carries himself with the unsettling polish of a young beauty pageant contestant or an overly coached child actor. Platt portrays the high school senior, who’s in the midst of a hotly contested campaign for class president, with a cold remove informed by the character’s unfettered ambition: Payton views the race as his first in a lifelong campaign for the presidency of the United States. And while the series—co-created by Ryan Murphy, Ian Brennan, and Brad Falchuk—thoughtfully examines the relationship between Payton’s ruthless drive and his own mental health, its most timely and resonant insights derive from its satirical appraisal of the kabuki histrionics of real-world political theater.
By Payton’s own admission, he’s been campaigning toward the White House for his entire life. His lofty aspirations and carefully curated persona suggest a scarcity of authenticity in real-world politics, and by framing Payton as an obviously desirable candidate, the series emphasizes that such scarcity is pervasive even among politicians with thoughtful policies and unmistakable sincerity. The Politician derives provocation from its differing portrayal of its main character’s potential to govern and the questionable lengths he goes to for the chance to do so—such as burying a scandal to protect his running mate, or coldly dismissing his campaign advisors, who are his childhood friends, when he no longer needs them.
Little about Payton’s physical world is meant to echo the reality of daily life. Instead, the show’s primary location, Santa Barbara, is a reflection of his privilege, a world that seems to expand to fit his needs. A crucial scene that unfolds in the high school’s cavernous chapel finds Payton’s running mate, Infinity (Zoey Deutch), surprised to discover that the school even has a chapel. Likewise, the Hobarts’ estate grows from scene to scene, as horse stables, lush living areas, and new corners of the manicured grounds are continuously revealed. Part real-estate porn and part lurid portrayal of privilege, the show’s Technicolor universe lends an ostensibly mundane high school election an air of high-stakes gamesmanship. Strategy meetings and clandestine conversations unfold in exquisite mansions with breathtaking vistas, while Payton races around town in a creamy-white Alfa Romeo speedster. The Politician convincingly implies an inherent correlation between a person’s class and their perceived importance.
Memorable performances abound, from Gwyneth Paltrow as Georgina, Payton’s rich but joyless mother, to Jessica Lange as Dusty, Infinity’s manipulative grandmother. The series derives the majority of its success, though, from Platt, who commits convincingly to Payton’s elevated self-image. When scandal threatens Payton’s campaign, the veteran theater actor appears fully unhinged, all bulging neck veins and watery eyes; conversely, he can be placid and smooth when Payton is manipulating his opponents or courting voters.
When the series attempts to underscore the roots of his political appeal, Platt leverages his talent for penetrating emotional communication. Payton, a kind of stage performer himself, always plays to the back row, as in a stirring speech about gun control or when, at a school assembly, he dedicates a Joni Mitchell song to a recently deceased student. In such instances, The Politician prompts us to interrogate our own reaction to Payton’s charisma, and consider the possibility that we’re being duped—a dynamic made possible by Platt’s performance.
The actor’s portrayal of the strangely polished Payton is backgrounded by constant, near-hysterical drama. Throughout the season’s eight episodes, there’s one suicide, another unrelated suicide attempt, three attempted murders, one kidnapping (which the series frames as a wry parody of David Fincher’s Gone Girl), and a host of political scandals that range from falsified illnesses to teenage love triangles. And much of this subject matter, especially when related to teenage depression or mental illness, is gravely paralleled in the real world.
But as The Politician bounds along, it rarely focuses squarely on the fallout of those issues, or on the source of Payton’s own ambition. Such plot developments serve instead to reinforce the stakes of Payton’s campaign for class president as he views them: life or death. The series is similarly matter-of-fact when dealing with the sexuality of its characters, many of whom, including Payton, are sexually fluid—a fact that The Politician acknowledges without comment. The sexual entanglements and desires of its teen characters provide dramatic incitement rather than emotional heft, in the same way that the show’s suicides and kidnappings are deployed primarily as obstacles to Payton’s political ascension. The series nearly approaches farce as the shocking developments pile up, defying reality and credulity. Still, each of The Politician’s strange twists and turns feel like appropriate obstacles for its larger-than-life protagonist. Payton insists that he’s destined to wield power over his surroundings, so it’s fitting that those surroundings are somewhat preposterous.
The Politician balances well-honed satire and melodramatic frenzy, succeeding in its aim to engender both a critical appraisal of real-world politics and grotesque car-crash voyeurism. Both of the show’s competing sensibilities flow from Platt’s captivating performance, and one’s enjoyment of the series will largely depend on one’s take on Payton. While the young man is of plainly dubious moral character, the series resists condemning his actions. Instead, it offers a view of the candidate as a force of nature, struggling within a hypothetical vision of pure politics with the volume dialed up. The show’s high school election functions as a petri dish for the most debased, selfish elements of American politics, and implicates the audience as primitive rubberneckers for investing in its outcome. The Politician’s most trenchant critique, though, is reserved for Payton, who’s obsessed with lording over a broken system, yet doesn’t even possess the self-awareness to understand why.
Cast: Ben Platt, Jessica Lange, Gwyneth Paltrow, Zoey Deutch, Lucy Boynton, Laura Dreyfuss, Rahne Jones, David Corenswet, Theo Germaine, Benjamin Barrett, Dylan McDermott, Julia Schlaepfer, January Jones, Trevor Eason, Trey Eason Network: Netflix
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