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: Mrs. America Reckons with the Squandered Potential for Women’s Rights
The series suggests that winning hearts and minds is a naïve pipe dream, a strategy more fit for TV than for electoral politics.3.5
In the 1950s, two decades before FX’s Mrs. America takes place, future congresswoman Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale) braved death threats while appealing the case of Willie McGee, a black man convicted of raping a white woman and sentenced to death in Mississippi after a mere hours-long trial and a jury deliberation that lasted less than three minutes. Late in the series, Abzug recalls her past idealism as she mulls cutting the contentious gay rights resolution from the 1977 National Women’s Conference. Visiting Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), Abzug asks, “Does it bother you that no one calls you a radical anymore?” To which Friedan answers, “The movement is getting down to middle America. We’re mainstream, that’s a good thing.” The congresswoman nods with heartbreaking subtlety, recognizing that what’s become mainstream remains insufficient.
Mrs. America, the creation of writer-producer Dahvi Waller, deftly reckons with decades of squandered political potential, both in its depiction of the ‘70s and in the parallels it draws with the present. At the core of the series is the Equal Rights Amendment and the vigorous opposition it met from conservative author and activist Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett), first in Illinois and then around the nation. The series charts Schlafly’s mobilization of housewives against the amendment out of a purported belief that the women’s liberation movement rivaled the Soviets in the danger it posed to American life. Over the course of Mrs. America’s nine episodes, she builds the “pro-family,” doggedly anti-abortion, predominantly Christian coalition that helps thwart the ERA and land Ronald Reagan in the White House.
Of course, that same coalition has played an instrumental role in Donald Trump’s ascendance to the presidency. Here, Schlafly resembles Trump in her truth-flexing fearmongering, but unlike him, she’s not a man and must deal with the consequences. Though Schlafly mentions at one point that she’s never been discriminated against, her interactions with chauvinist politicians like Republican congressman Phil Crane (James Marsden), and even with her well-meaning but insensitive husband, Fred (John Slattery), serve as nauseating evidence to the contrary. Schlafly’s face regularly strains under the forced smile she wears around these men, and the consistency with which she masks her responses makes the moments in which her façade briefly cracks all the more evocative. At times, her smile gives way to a blankness that suggests frustration, quiet anger, or despair—or, perhaps, resignation.
Mrs. America reflects on the injustices that Schlafly experiences but refuses to romanticize her or her work. Plot beats expose Schlafly’s intellectual dishonesty and tacit acceptance of the Ku Klux Klan’s endorsement. Schlafly’s conversations with Lottie Beth Hobbs (Cindy Drummond), a collaborator based in Texas, particularly shatter the duo’s claims of moral high ground. Hobbs gives strikingly lucid insight into reactionary strains of Christianity, a faith she argues relies not only on love, but also on hate.
The sober approach of Mrs. America’s historical accounting extends across the political expanse. The series highlights the failings of the women’s liberation movement in the ‘70s, namely its solipsistic centering of whiteness. Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba) serves as a primary vector for the series’s exploration of race as she mounts a presidential campaign, competing against frontrunner George McGovern in the Democratic primary—and becoming the first-ever black candidate for the Democratic or Republican nomination. In the third episode, with her run collapsing around her, Chisholm vents in her hotel room and rails against the allies abandoning her. Aduba wondrously channels Chisholm’s frustration, inhaling sharply between lines and raising her voice as she builds momentum, each incremental increase in volume giving fuller form to her ire.
Mrs. America chronicles endless missed opportunities in U.S. politics but also includes a more hopeful and inspiring personal journey: that of Alice Macray (Sarah Paulson), Schlafly’s best friend and supporter. Initially a Schlafly stalwart up in arms against the ERA, Macray gradually exhibits an openness to new perspectives and compromise. Her growth is admirable but proves to be a false comfort; it turns out that she’s a fictional character created for the series. In one of its most intriguing political statements, Mrs. America suggests that winning hearts and minds is a naïve pipe dream, a strategy more fit for TV than for electoral politics.
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Rose Byrne, Sarah Paulson, Margo Martindale, Uzo Aduba, Elizabeth Banks, Tracey Ullman, John Slattery, Ari Graynor, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Melanie Lynskey, Kayli Carter, Niecy Nash, Cindy Drummond, James Marsden, Adam Brody, Jay Ellis, Bria Samoné Henderson Network: FX
Review: Will & Grace Effortlessly Channels the Spirit of I Love Lucy
The episode is a reminder of just how influential I Love Lucy still is, and a testament to Will & Grace’s own legacy.3.5
By the end of its original eight-season run, Will & Grace had long since jumped the shark, plagued by stunt casting, back-from-the-dead husbands, and, of course, that finale, which the 2017 revival of the show wisely sought fit to pretend never happened. Prompted in part by the 2016 election, Will & Grace found new purpose in the Trump era, thoughtfully navigating topics like conversion therapy, the Me Too movement, and religious freedom—the latter of which was depicted in a shrewd inversion of recent wedding cake discrimination cases, with a lesbian baker refusing to fill an order honoring the president.
With only three episodes left, however, Will & Grace has decided to pull one last stunt, and it’s one that, surprisingly, the series has never tried before: a tribute to I Love Lucy. Since the show’s inception, critics have been wont to liken Debra Messing to Lucille Ball, not just because of her fiery red hair, but her deft mix of self-deprecation and broad slapstick. The latter quality, best exemplified in a season-two episode in which Grace’s water bra springs a leak to uproarious effect, would eventually become the province of dysfunctional sidekicks Jack and Karen, played by Sean Hayes and Megan Mullally, respectively.
It would have been easy enough to simply recast Will & Grace’s central foursome as Lucy, Ricky, Fred, and Ethel. But the reverently titled “We Love Lucy” gives Messing, Mullally, and Hayes each their own crack at Lucy, as their characters spar over which one of them is most similar to the famous ‘50s TV wife. (Ever the straight man, no pun intended, Eric McCormack plays Ricky—with a dubious Cuban accent—for the entirety of the episode.)
“We Love Lucy” faithfully reconstructs iconic scenes from I Love Lucy, with Mullally stomping grapes with perennial archrival Beverley Leslie (Leslie Jordan) and Hayes, in Lucy drag, stuffing chocolate bon bons in his mouth like a squirrel hoarding nuts. But it’s Messing, who’s always been Will & Grace’s unsung secret weapon, who pitch-perfectly fills Lucy’s shoes in a recreation of the famous Vitameatavegamin bit from I Love Lucy, in which Lucy drunkenly stumbles her way through a TV commercial for the elixir.
For this episode, Will & Grace’s production team painstakingly created replicas of I Love Lucy’s sets, costumes, and props (including 1,200 pounds of black grapes), and the scenes themselves are nearly shot-for-shot recreations of the originals. Messing’s mimicry is similarly uncanny: Her performance pays tribute to both Ball and her own gift for physical comedy, right down to her quivering grimace and inebriated slur.
Recent episodes of Will & Grace have fallen back on old tricks: Guest stars abound, from Gus Kentworthy to Demi Lovato, who plays a surrogate-slash-cam-girl throughout the season, but aside from a clever cameo by Lucie Arnaz, “We Love Lucy” lets its four leads shine as they alternate roles. In contrast to Messing’s spot-on embodiment of Lucy, Mullally hilariously imbues every character she plays with a little bit of Karen Walker, deadpanning a signature quip about Lucy’s quilted frock and playing Fred in full makeup and martini in hand.
Will & Grace hit its stride during the early years of the George W. Bush presidency, serving as a weekly declaration that—despite the administration’s campaign to erase LGBTQ people—we’re here, some of us are queerer than others, and we might just help your daughter get her shit together. While Karen’s casual pill-popping feels out of touch in the age of rampant opioid addiction, the show’s revival has confronted hot topics more unapologetically than ever, most memorably in last season’s “Grace’s Secret,” in which Grace tearfully confides in her father about a sexual assault. So it’s both ironic and fitting that “We Love Lucy” is one of the show’s final episodes—a reminder of just how influential I Love Lucy still is, and a testament to Will & Grace’s own, albeit very different, legacy.
Cast: Eric McCormack, Debra Messing, Sean Hayes, Megan Mullally Network: NBC
Review: Tales from the Loop Explores the Complexities of Human Connection
The series is a character study in which wounded introverts wrestle with their inability to connect with others.3
Amazon’s Tales from the Loop is set in a pastoral farm community that seems to simultaneously embody the past and future. There are no cellphones here, and bars and diners have a rustic ‘50s-era feel. However, large robots also populate the area, often seen in the backgrounds of compositions, suggesting solitary guards. The robots also feel rustic, nearly forgotten, like broken-down tractors. Rather than serve as conventionally awe-inspiring special effects, the robots appear to be taken for granted by the human characters, and the casualness of their presence is one of the show’s enchantments. The robots have a metaphorical weight, echoing the uncertainty and melancholia of the humans.
High-concept sci-fi is often heavy with exposition. By contrast, Tales from the Loop’s creator, Nathaniel Halpern, and his various collaborators allow the mysteries of the central premise to hang, barely explained, throughout the three episodes made available to press. The town exists above a secret lab, created by Russ (Jonathan Pryce), which is said to explore the properties of the universe. And at the center of the lab is the sort of mystical huge orb that’s been featured in countless genre stories, and which can apparently alter the space-time continuum.
The town’s citizens have come to accept the extraordinariness of certain things as ordinary, which also spares the series from having to spell things out. And the sci-fi window dressing is gradually revealed to be misdirection anyway, as Tales from the Loop, which is based on Simon Stålenhag’s 2014 narrative art book, is mostly a character study, in which wounded introverts and workaholic intellectuals wrestle with their inability to connect with others.
A major theme of the series is the relationship between children and their parents, the latter of which spend long hours obsessing over projects at the lab. In the premiere episode, a young girl, Loretta (Abby Ryder Fortson), loses her mother, Alma (Elektra Kilbey), who’s disappeared after stealing a crystal from the orb. In a haunting image, potentially a vision, or maybe a projection or a memory, Loretta sees her house floating upward toward the sky in pieces. Distraught and homeless, Loretta is helped by a boy, Cole (Duncan Joiner), and his mother (Rebecca Hall). Eschewing the cuteness of other kids’ quest series like Stranger Things, director Mark Romanek fashions an earnest, somber portrait of neglect and regret, in which a woman is afforded the ability to see herself through the lens of the past. Forston and Hall hit striking notes of despair, each dramatizing a war between intellectuality and emotion.
Each episode of Tales from the Loop is standalone yet interconnected. A minor character in one episode, seemingly a background actor, becomes the star of another—a device that casually illustrates how we are all alternatingly the protagonists of our own lives and bit players in the lives of others, and how many of us are dogged by similar existential issues. The series suggests that we’re together in our aloneness, an idea that’s reminiscent of the stories of Raymond Carver. At one point, Cole’s mother is revealed to be Loretta as a grownup—a twist, in the key of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, that’s telegraphed by Fortson and Hall’s remarkable resemblance to one another, and various other characters are brought, via the lab’s technology, into confrontations with alternate versions of themselves.
In another episode, Cole shouts into a hollowed out thing that resembles a wrecked miniature Death Star. The echoes he hears are his voice across the various stages of his life, which director Andrew Stanton fashions into a moving symbol of a boy’s grappling for the first time with aging, loss, and impermanency. Given center stage, Joiner, like Fortson before him, offers an unsentimentally stoic portrait of yearning.
As themes go, “life goes on” would surely rank as one of the least profound, but Tales from the Loop continues to offer details that resonate. We’re allowed to understand that Cole’s father and Russ’s son, George (Paul Schneider), resents the connection between Cole and Russ, as well as between Russ and Loretta, a prized employee at the lab. This resentment is barely articulated, but Schneider informs George with a heartbreaking dwarfed quality, which is affirmed by the show’s most poignant special effect: the mechanical arm that George, an amputee, wears. The arm physicalizes his sense of being eclipsed by everyone around him.
Such body language is also evident in Gaddis (Ato Essandoh), a guard at the lab. Gay and terminally single, Gaddis tells Loretta that it must be nice to come home to an already lit house, signifying familial presence. She says what many married people have said to lonely-hearts over the years, in TV and real life: It’s not as easy as it looks.
Tales from the Loop recalls the spirit of the films of executive producer Matt Reeves, especially Let Me In, which could serve as the title of this series as well. Both productions imbue familiar genre tropes with restlessness, with a wandering sense of irresolution. The landscapes of Tales from the Loop are beautiful but somehow unwelcoming in their sense of lonely sparseness—echoing the imagery of the source material, Simon Stålenhag’s illustrated book of the same name—while Philip Glass and Paul Leonard-Morgan’s score practically subsumes the series in longing. For Tales from the Loop, the mysteries of the universe play second fiddle to the perils of giving up, of resigning oneself to solitary nights in a town that suggests a perpetual past.
Cast: Rebecca Hall, Paul Schneider, Jonathan Pryce, Abby Ryder Fortson, Duncan Joiner, Ato Essandoh, Jane Alexander, Elektra Kilbey, Shane Carruth, Jodi Lynn Thomas, Victor J. Ho, Brian Mallard, Leann Lei Network: Amazon
Review: HBO’s Run Doesn’t Sustain Itself Beyond Its Initially Thrilling Premise
The long-form storytelling obligations of a TV series soon overwhelm this simple but compelling premise.2
Ruby (Merritt Wever) once made a pact with her ex-boyfriend, Billy (Domhnall Gleeson): If both text the word “RUN” to each other within a certain period of time, they will drop everything and travel together across America for one week, after which they must decide if they want to part ways for good. Commencing right after they exchange that fateful texts 17 years after college, HBO’s Run plays like a consciously frazzled version of Before Sunset. Like that film, Run depicts romance as messy and complicated, especially on such short notice: Not only is Ruby in a parking lot when she receives Billy’s text, prompting her to open the door of her minivan and hit an adjacent vehicle, but she’s also married.
Once reunited, Ruby and Billy fall easily into flirty old habits, but the series keeps an intriguing focus on the tension and awkwardness of their situation. “Who does this?” Ruby says aloud at one point, in disbelief of their impulsive behavior. They’re desperate to get away from their humdrum lives, and they’re doing their best to make a good impression on each other while gingerly broaching the potential for sex, which leads to one of Run’s most amusing scenes: the pair flailing around in a private train compartment, accidentally turning on sinks and bumping against the top bunk in the heat of the moment. Full of fraught, longing looks and palpable chemistry, the start of the series sweeps us up right alongside the characters, who rediscover one another while dancing around the developments of the intervening years.
But the long-form storytelling obligations of a TV series soon overwhelm this simple but compelling premise: Billy has larger problems than he initially lets on, and those reveals trickle out in piecemeal fashion alongside his former assistant Fiona’s (Archie Panjabi) determined attempts to halt his escapade. There’s a sense that the series doesn’t quite trust itself to subsist merely on the lower-stakes drama of Ruby and Billy running away together. Run’s tone abruptly shifts after the first two episodes, with the introduction of more urgent, suspenseful elements like Billy inexplicably fighting to keep the sizable contents of his bank account away from Fiona. Much of the interpersonal humor gives way to wackier situations meant to heighten both the stakes and the characters’ reactions, but the results are too broadly comedic while nudging the characters to new heights of self-absorption.
Many of the sillier comic situations simply involve being shitty to wage workers, but Run also tosses off issues about the morality of Billy’s self-help business with little mind for their seriousness. Though the series certainly isn’t blind to Ruby and Billy’s rather pronounced sense of entitlement, the chaos piling up in their wake becomes far less endearing than it’s seemingly meant to be. Ruby and Billy’s actions make them harder and harder to root for, and Run becomes unable to sustain itself beyond the initial thrill of their reunion.
Cast: Merritt Wever, Domhnall Gleeson, Archie Panjabi, Rich Sommer, Phoebe Waller-Bridge Network: HBO
Review: In The Virtues, Transience Is a Path to Personal Redemption
The series is a reminder that facing up to one’s problems doesn’t guarantee release, but does allow for the possibility of moving forward.3.5
Transience is a recurring motif in Shane Meadows’s The Virtues. The four-episode series is filled with scenes in which recovering alcoholic Joseph (Stephen Graham) trudges through city streets and countryside roads toward an uncertain future. Unmoored after his ex-wife, Debbie (Juliet Ellis), announces that she’s moving with their son, Shea (Shea Michael Shaw), to Australia, Joe relapses in a big way. Seeking to regain some hold of his life, he decides to return to his native Ireland to track down his sister, Anna (Helen Behan), whom he hasn’t seen since he was sent to an orphanage after their parents’ deaths. Joe’s return home triggers confrontations with traumatic memories warped and repressed by time, suggesting that the only way to overcome one’s past is to confront it head on.
Meadows’s work as a filmmaker has charted how misery and hopelessness manifests in post-imperial Britain. He’s always had an intuitiveness that transcends the ostensible realism of his desaturated palettes and handheld camerawork, and here he shows a new level of aesthetic subjectivity. When Joe is sober, his tremors rhyme with the shaking of the camera; when Joe drinks, however, the camera turns sedate, swaying more slowly as the relief of intoxication washes over him, followed by sudden, erratic cuts when he inevitably blacks out.
Meadows visualizes Joe’s repressed memories with snatches of home-video-grade images of the man’s childhood. The blotchy, low-resolution of the video, redolent of Harmony Korine’s early work, manifests Joe’s hazy grasp on his past, and the escalating intercutting of such clips with the present-day material as the series progresses mimics the overwhelming rush of his recalling the full extent of his trauma. Meadows parcels out this footage with precision, teasing us with the indecipherable images until what’s being depicted becomes all too clear.
As nervous as Joe is in conversations with others, he’s also quick to befriend strangers. And he has a special affinity for children, at once playfully immature and genuinely tender and caring toward them. In his farewell with Shea, Joe humbly reassures him that it’s okay if he calls his stepfather, David (Vauxhall Jermaine), “dad.” Like many an addict, Joe can be overwhelming and caustic, but Graham foregrounds the man’s unending attempts to tamp down his worst impulses, focusing less on Joe’s capacity for overbearing behavior and more on his shame and ability to charm people in spite of his withdrawn, nervous energy.
As the series progresses, Joe’s struggles are contrasted with other characters dealing with their own suppressed issues. His sister-in-law, Dinah (Niamh Algar), is introduced as a brash, sarcastic self-starter who can punch out any man who hassles her, but she nurses a brooding shame over having to give up a baby she had as an unwed teen. Meanwhile, Joe gets a job at his brother-in-law’s (Frank Laverty) construction business, where he meets Craigy (Mark O’Halloran), a tetchy worker with a checkered past who remembers living with Joe in the orphanage as kids. Craigy is even more of a nervous wreck than Joe, often barely able to get to the end of a sentence without circumnavigating the globe to get to the point. Joe and Craigy are kindred spirits, as they understand each other’s pain, but they’re also triggers for one another, leading to as many moments of strife as camaraderie.
With This Is England and its various TV spinoffs, Meadows tracked the political and social upheavals of modern England through an intimate network narrative of closely entwined stories. The Virtues isn’t particularly concerned with the political history of Ireland, but rather the lingering pressures of the religious shame and abuse that shape addled individuals. The finale brings the tacit influence of such personal and institutional manipulations into clarity along with the full extent of the characters’ trauma in a tautly edited climax that bridges Joe, Dinah, and Craigy’s struggles into a series of tense confrontations in which grace is either bestowed or brutally withheld. Like much of Meadows’s work, the series has a clear ending, but the characters remain irresolute. It’s a reminder that even facing up to one’s problems doesn’t guarantee release, but it does at least allow for the possibility of moving forward.
Cast: Stephen Graham, Niamh Algar, Helen Behan, Mark O’Halloran, Frank Laverty, Juliet Ellis, Shea Michael Shaw Network: Topic
Review: One Day at a Time Remains a Comforting Mix of Head and Heart
The show’s fourth season serves as a reliable and comforting balm suited for the current moment.3
In the aftermath of 9/11, audiences sought solace in familiar shows like Friends, which took place in a world untouched by the tragic event and populated with beloved characters who were confronting more mundane, everyday problems. Today’s television landscape is too diffuse to point to a single, obvious source of comfort, but as Americans face the expanding COVID-19 crisis, self-isolating and assessing the risks of death and economic disaster, shows like One Day at a Time, now in its fourth season, serve as a welcome balm.
The series follows the Alvarez family as they confront social issues that, while timely and relevant, feel entirely manageable when compared to a global pandemic. The tight-knit family reflects on topics like sex, relationships, and money through an intergenerational lens, as Penelope (Justina Machado) absorbs blows from two age-divided fronts: her teenage children, Elena (Isabella Gomez) and Alex (Marcel Ruiz), and her mother, Lydia (Rita Moreno).
In one episode, Alex walks in on a family member masturbating, triggering a discussion about female sexuality and self-pleasure. “Sex is between people who are married,” Lydia says. “It is Adam and Eve, not ‘bzzzt’ and Eve.” As in previous seasons of One Day at a Time, Moreno’s riotous line readings and her character’s hijinks—shopping for crabs at the fish market, catfishing Penelope’s potential suitors—imbue the show with endearing archness. But every member of the family gets their fair share of deviously funny verbal jabs, punching up or down a generation to reject what they deem naïve or reactionary.
When the blowups cool down, as they always do, Penelope summarizes the takeaways with a blend of sweetness and didacticism that falls just on the right side of a public service announcement. Real-world context renders these resolutions reassuring rather than trite: No difficulty in the series is impossible to overcome, so long as the Alvarezes stick together.
The promise of unconditional unity that permeates One Day at a Time comes through not only in grand apologies and lessons, but also in subtler interactions. In season one, Lydia worked through her religious objections to Elena’s coming out in less than a minute; here, when she speaks to Elena and her significant other, Syd (Sheridan Pierce), she refers to Syd by their preferred pronoun. Lydia’s casual use of the word “them” reflects her ability to internalize practices and behavior that make her loved ones feel safe. The moment understatedly captures Lydia’s radical personal growth, the kind people achieve when they demand the best of each other. That, One Day at a Time insists, is what love looks like.
Cast: Justina Machado, Rita Moreno, Isabella Gomez, Marcel Ruiz, Todd Grinnell, Stephen Tobolowsky, Sheridan Pierce Network: Pop
Review: Devs Is an Exposition-Heavy Rumination on the Nature of Humanity
The series’s synthesis of aesthetic, plot, and subtext slowly starts to pull apart in its exposition-heavy second half.2
Alex Garland’s Devs is the writer-director’s latest rumination on the nature of humanity in the face of both technology and the unknown. As in much of Garland’s prior work, the Hulu limited series uses speculative fiction to address both contemporary social malaise and deeper metaphysical questions on the nature of human life.
The show’s title alludes to the deliberately generic, misleading name of a supercomputer capable of peering into the past and predicting the future, a MacGuffin that allows for a treatise on determinism. Using quantum algorithms, Forest (Nick Offerman), the mysterious owner of a computing company named Amaya, can trace the chains of cause and effect that guide our lives beneath the illusion of free will. Or, as Forest himself says to a new programmer, Sergei (Karl Glusman), our lives aren’t chaotic, but rather ordered “on tramlines.”
Sergei is swiftly revealed to be a corporate spy who infiltrated Amaya to steal code for Russia. Outed almost immediately, he finds himself confronted by Forest and Amaya’s head of security, Kenton (Zach Grenier), who kills the would-be thief and stages his death as a spectacular suicide, much to the confusion and grief of Sergei’s girlfriend, Lily (Sonoya Mizuno), a software engineer at Amaya who sets about digging into the truth.
At first, Devs’s straightforward murder mystery and broader philosophical questions dovetail seamlessly. Lily’s amateur sleuthing around Amaya’s compound and a thoroughly gentrified San Francisco positions the series as pure noir, a genre quite conducive to exploring existential and metaphysical quandaries. It’s especially fitting for a consideration of determinism, with Lily’s attempt to work out what happened to Sergei aligning with the supercomputer’s ability to reconstruct the past based on behavioral clues. This represents the ultimate endpoint of technology’s capability to reshape humanity’s self-conception, demonstrating that you can program software so intricately that it can disprove free will. As Lily struggles to make sense of her life being turned upside down, Devs regularly returns to Forest and his sedate, wizened calm, that of a man who sits upon the mountaintop and sees all.
Garland, as ever, devotes a great deal of care to the show’s sense of atmosphere. Set in and around Silicon Valley, Devs reflects the modern look of the tech industry in much the same way that Spike Jonze’s Her used hazy, soft lighting and warm colors to evoke the sleekness and comfort of Apple’s aesthetic. People arrive at Amaya’s main building, all glass windows and open desks, as if to a college campus. The Devs building itself, with its Brutalist exterior and series of cube-shaped rooms and gold-lined walls, is a radical break from reality that nonetheless manifests the internal logic of tech culture. At heart, it’s a giant computer that programmers work within, a windowless space where humans are at once spying and being spied upon in an extreme visualization of our surveillance society.
This initial synthesis of aesthetic, plot, and subtext slowly starts to pull apart, however, as Devs drags into its second half. Garland frontloads the series with narrative exposition, revealing to the audience (and Lily) most of the mystery behind Sergei’s death, the depth of his clandestine connections, and the totality of influence that a mega-rich CEO like Forest can exert in the late-capitalist Shangri-la of Silicon Valley. That leaves the series to start spiraling into stranger and ever more forced twists, from an awkward romantic subplot between Lily and her cybersecurity ex, Jamie (Jin Ha), to Kenton’s increasingly ludicrous omnipresence and seeming invulnerability to physical harm (one starts to expect a Westworld-like twist to reveal him as a robot). Similarly, Forest’s motivating obsession over his lost child is telegraphed by the colossal statue in the girl’s image that looms over the Amaya compound.
Early on, the balance between open discussion of Devs’s themes and the use of setting and tone to convey said themes is a careful one, but soon the series gives itself over to long-winded monologues that make the subtext text. The later episodes grind to a halt as the contours of a philosophy that were already neatly summarized in the pilot are more arduously explained to viewers. The series momentarily rebounds when it starts to consider the role that chaos plays in shaping the supposedly absolute tramlines of existence, using clever editing and doubling effects to show all the various permutations that any given moment of a person’s life could have gone depending on small variations of behavior. Soon, though, this provocative visualization of unpredictability and random chance gives way to characters standing around debating such ideas, reducing the surreal to the academic.
Devs frustratingly comes too sharply into focus at the expense of leaving some of its more evocative ideas unsaid. The story’s metaphors become increasingly obvious, such as Forest’s long hair and beard turning him into a cult-like leader, an image regularly juxtaposed with his team’s repeated projections of Christ’s crucifixion. As the show’s visual storytelling is increasingly subsumed by explanatory dialogue, the more tragic insinuations of Forest’s obsessions become lugubriously spelled out as others tie the Devs project ever more explicitly to his personal trauma. There’s plenty to chew on in Devs, but the protracted serial format robs Garland of his best trait, of knowing when to let the audience fill in the gaps on their own.
Cast: Nick Offerman, Sonoya Mizuno, Jin Ha, Zach Grenier, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Cailee Spaeny, Alison Pill, Karl Glusman Network: FX
The 25 Best Netflix Original Series to Watch Right Now
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. I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson
Social discomfort leaks out of each and every sketch of I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson, as characters constantly double down, then triple down, then quadruple down on their inane schemes and insecurities. Throughout, already bizarre situations escalate to truly profound degrees of obstinance and delusion: denying responsibility for a crashed hot dog car while dressed in a hot dog costume, incessantly responding to a “honk if you’re horny” bumper sticker, vowing revenge on a magician who publicly humiliated you, attempting to assassinate baby bad boy Bart Harley Jarvis, and defiantly, inexplicably singing about the reanimation of some skeletons. The series reaches such dizzying, quotable absurdity that it seems to inhabit an abrasive and uncomfortable universe all its own. Steven Scaife
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: HBO’s The Plot Against America Offers a Flattened Take of a Prescient Novel
The series feels ordinary, so of a piece with other politically engaged prestige television.2.5
Philip Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America imagines a world in which aviation hero and Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh beats Franklin D. Roosevelt to become president of the United States in 1940. In the author’s terrifying alternate history, Lindbergh forges an “understanding” with Adolf Hitler in Iceland, and the Axis powers gradually take over the world while America celebrates its isolationism and economic robustness. And Roth adds to this high concept a meta-textual wrinkle: The narrator of the book is himself as a young boy, and the protagonists are the Roth family, whose names correspond with the author’s real relatives. The book, then, is an imagining not only of a global atrocity, but of the atrocity’s effect on the psychology of a Jewish family in Newark, New Jersey that increasingly feels the threats of a country turning to fascism. The use of real names suggests that Roth is wrestling personally with the lingering emotional effects of his country’s not-so-hidden possibility for evil, memorably calling these emotions a “perpetual fear.”
The Plot Against America scans differently in 2020 than in 2004, now that Americans are familiar with the consequences of electing a famous person with fascist, purposefully divisive tendencies to the presidency. Roth’s prose, especially pertaining to how quickly an electorate rationalizes once-forbidden behavior, now feels eerily prescient—until one considers that rulers with fascistic tendencies often follow the same playbook. In HBO’s six-episode adaptation of Roth’s novel, showrunners David Simon and Ed Burns have occasional, wicked fun rhyming Lindbergh’s America with Trump’s. The characters here talk of what is “presidential,” and someone remarks of how the press repeatedly promotes Lindbergh’s signature publicity stunt, and no matter how many times he does it—a pointed reference to the gargantuan amount of free press that Trump continues to enjoy. The series’s ending also delivers a sick punch, referencing contemporary voter fraud and gerrymandering while denying the viewer the reassuring closure that Roth offered his readers.
In many fashions, however, Simon and Burns vastly simplify Roth’s vision. There’s a sense of casualness in the novel, a casualness that Simon and Burns conjured in The Wire, that’s missing from this production. Much of the book, written in a kind of oratorical style that’s characteristic of Roth’s work, is devoted to the quotidian of American life, especially from the perspective of American Jews. There are ritualistic celebrations of every element of day-to-day routine, from the buying of food, to the performance of chores, to the nightly listening to the radio, to strange sexual urges, to the tensions that arise when some family members are more successful than others. Above all, Roth celebrates America even as it succumbs to insanity, dramatizing the allure of actualization and improvement, bolstered by the sensuality of pop culture, which continues to be the nucleus of the American ideal. Such rituals often occur in the background of the limited series, but Simon and Burns are more concerned with narrative, and as a result they iron out many of Roth’s fascinating ambiguities and details. Roth created characters of many contradictions and particulars as well as a society of many procedural contours, while Simon and Burns move markers through a great tangle of plot developments.
This is no longer a story of the Roth family, as Simon and Burns have given them the surname Levins, and Lindbergh’s ascension is no longer framed as a haunted reminiscence. Philip (Azhy Robertson), the novel’s central consciousness, is now a cutely wide-eyed boy who observes much but says little. His father, Herman (Morgan Spector), is furious with Lindbergh’s rise, though the man’s fury is also linked to his struggles as a low-paid insurance man living in the shadow of his mercenary brother, Monty (David Krumholtz). Simon and Burns dial down Herman’s anger, positioning the father in hero poses, and his rivalry with Monty is referenced but minimized. Philip’s mother, Bess (Zoe Kazan), a source of great, powerful reverence for Roth in the book, is imbued by Kazan with masterful vulnerability, though the character’s great scene—a phone call that potentially saves a boy’s life—is intercut with other moments for the sake of an efficiently momentous climax. Philip’s cousin, Alvin (Anthony Boyle), a scoundrel turned patriot turned scoundrel again, is also sentimentalized into a more or less conventional hero, while the flirtation of Philip’s brother, Sandy (Caleb Malis), with Lindbergh worship—that is, a desire to live as a gentile or a “normal American”—is also reduced.
Two other pivotal characters are also flattened, further sanitizing Roth’s fury. The true villain of the novel isn’t Lindbergh, but Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro), a Jewish intellectual who allows himself to be used by the Lindbergh administration so as to “kosher” the president, giving Christians permission to vote for the candidate and indulge their anti-Semitism. Roth’s portrait of Bengelsdorf verges on a Dickensian caricature of opportunism, though in the series he appears to authentically believe in Lindbergh. This alteration renders him a poignant yet vaguely defined fool, as Simon and Burns have largely elided the character’s frustration and near-contempt for lower-class Jews—a thorny and resonant conceit that Roth acutely dramatized. Meanwhile, Bengelsdorf’s wife and Bess’s sister, Evelyn (Winona Ryder), is sapped of the ugly shrewdness that she possessed on the page. (A brilliant scene in the novel, in which Philip feels stirrings of sexual desire as he hugs his aunt, while simultaneously understanding her to be a traitor, has been unforgivably jettisoned.)
The novel serves to explain why HBO’s The Plot Against America feels so ordinary, so of a piece with other politically engaged prestige television. Collectively, Simon and Burns’s alternations serve to contort the narrative into a story of good guys against bad guys, flattering our distanced 21st-century perspective and comfortably preaching to Americans who’re fed up with Trump’s cruelty and incompetency. Roth uncomfortably understands that for people who aren’t white male Christians, there can exist an either/or divide between “American” and whatever portion of their identity that’s easily vilified by the Lindberghs and Trumps of the world. The quest in Roth’s novel becomes a desire to unify Jewish with American, which leads to much internal turmoil in the community. By contrast, the series is more concerned with the quest to stop Lindbergh. The neurotic, hallucinatory, surreal power of Roth’s prose vanishes, and is replaced by forgettable televisual stylistics (that distinctly gauzy, over-produced period HBO atmosphere) and quite a bit of speechifying. Though Simon and Burns at least understand that the sleeper-cell hatred that Lindbergh unleashes is intensely real, and has been unlocked by another enterprising charlatan.
Cast: Morgan Spector, Zoe Kazan, John Turturro, Anthony Boyle, Azhy Robertson, Caleb Malis, David Krumholtz, Ben Cole, Steven Maier, Michael Kostroff, Ed Moran, Graydon Yosowitz, Keilly McQuail, Lee Tergesen Network: HBO
Review: Little Fires Everywhere’s Study of Race and Class Is Doused in Melodrama
The show’s strength lies in the rich context that surrounds its occasionally melodramatic conflicts.2.5
The Shaker Heights of Little Fires Everywhere is the sort of suburban hamlet that requires homes to keep their grass below six inches. Its duplexes are even designed to disguise themselves as single-family homes, as upstairs and downstairs entrances are quietly consolidated behind a single outward door in order to, as Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon) explains to artist Mia Warren (Kerry Washington), “avoid any stigma of renting.” But Elena’s own unacknowledged prejudices—against people of color and the lower “class”—are matched only by her white guilt. She recognizes Mia’s dirty hatchback as the one she reported to authorities earlier that day after noticing someone who appeared to be sleeping in it. So Elena rents one side of her duplex to Mia, and from there, everything changes.
The biggest change, of course, is the mysterious fire that consumes the separate, much-larger Richardson residence in the flash-forward scene that opens the first episode. But much of the Hulu series, based on Celeste Ng’s novel of the same name, covers the various smaller changes in the leadup to the fire. For example, Mia’s daughter, Pearl (Lexi Underwood), falls in with the Richardson kids, enchanted by their comparative lux lifestyle. Until settling in Shaker Heights, Mia and Pearl lived a transient lifestyle, with Mia taking odd jobs like waitressing to supplement sales of her art. Pearl has never, until now, even had a room of her own.
Mia is thus confronted with the byproduct of her hectic lifestyle, where Pearl has been left lonely and quite susceptible to the Richardsons’ glamorous upper-class privilege. She grows wary of the family that so enraptures her daughter, though she also takes a shine to Elena’s youngest child, Izzy, (Megan Stott), a rebellious and artsy kindred spirit. The tensions between these characters—along lines of class, race, and wherever they intersect—simmer and eventually boil over, landing the families on opposing sides of a legal battle that only tangentially concerns them. Bebe (Huang Lu), Mia’s co-worker and an illegal Chinese immigrant, fights for custody of the daughter she once abandoned with a white family, the McCulloughs, who are friends of the Richardsons and eager to adopt.
The show’s strength lies in the rich context that surrounds these occasionally melodramatic conflicts, rendering Mia in particular with vivid detail. In its best moments, Little Fires Everywhere resists drawing clear lines between who’s right and who’s wrong: Mia’s reservations about the Richardsons are totally justifiable, though her reactions sometimes feel overprotective, like when she takes a job in the Richardson house primarily to keep an eye on Pearl. She can be cold and even cruel, but she’s also given to a quiet kindness toward Izzy and Bebe due to a sense of solidarity. Far from some angelic portrait of the lower class, Mia is a fascinating, complex character, and Washington modulates her stoicism with no small amount of disdain, anger, and apprehension.
The series, however, too often paints with a broad brush, particularly where the Richardsons are concerned. Fleeting anecdotes tossed off in the novel by an omniscient narrator to shade in the characters’ backstories feel goofy and extraneous when depicted here via full-fledged, fleshed-out scenes, like when Izzy refuses to play a concert and writes “NOT YOUR PUPPET” on her forehead. Elena’s tidiness is meant to signify her upper-class privilege; she has more than enough means to micromanage every facet of her life. When she does things like strictly schedule sex with her husband (Joshua Jackson), though, the series ventures into caricature.
For however much Elena’s own habits are clearly tinged with privilege and solipsism, she provides refuge for Pearl and the McCulloughs in a way that doesn’t seem entirely self-serving. Yet some of those nuances dissipate as the custody battle consumes the series. Though Bebe and the McCulloughs initially feel like pawns in the larger Warren/Richardson feud, the conflict eventually flattens into a more rigid portrait of right and wrong as the script reveals Elena and Mia’s backstories and motivations. Little Fires Everywhere never quite resists the occasional hokey flourish either, from sappy dream sequences visualizing Mia’s fears to the various on-the-nose cover songs that conclude each episode. The series never loses sight of its fraught interplay of race and class, but the initial intensity with which it explores those subjects dims as melodramatic coincidences and speeches accumulate.
Cast: Kerry Washington, Reese Witherspoon, Joshua Jackson, Lexi Underwood, Megan Stott, Jade Pettyjohn, Gavin Lewis, Jordan Elsass, Huang Lu, Rosemarie DeWitt Network: Hulu