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The X-Files Recap: Season 10, Episode 2, “Founder’s Mutation”

Mulder and Scully’s disregard for protocol is one of the more interesting, partially inadvertent frictions of bringing The X-Files into the present.

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The X-Files Recap: Season 10, Episode 2, “Founder’s Mutation”
Photo: Ed Araquel/Fox

With “Founder’s Mutation,” writer-director James Wong, an X-Files veteran who produced or co-wrote many of the show’s best episodes, doesn’t strain himself with too many overtly self-conscious Easter eggs, callbacks, justifications, or in-jokes. There’s an ease to Wong’s work here that starkly contrasts creator Chris Carter’s decidedly un-confident handling of last night’s premiere.

In “My Struggle,” F.B.I. agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) often occupied the screen as utterers of the already obvious resemblances that Carter wished to highlight between the American government of today and that of the 1990s, when The X-Files was a pop-cultural titan. Wong allows that resonance to live and breathe casually in his frames, imbuing “Founder’s Mutation” with a lush sense of noir-like menace. This craftsmanship is particularly pronounced in the opening sequence, which is set in a vast, quasi-privatized laboratory called Nugenics Technology that, we’re later told, specializes in genetic engineering that’s partially overseen by the Department of Defense. This is the kind of barely legal, cloak-and-dagger merging of corporate and government interests that Carter warned against in “My Struggle,” and which Wong suggests with fleeting glances and with the somewhat comic presence of the usual menacingly secretive spooks in the background of his images.

In “Founder’s Mutation,” Mulder and Scully investigate the apparent suicide of Dr. Sonny Sanjay (Christopher Logan), who worked at Nugenics Technology before losing his physical bearings at a meeting, clutching his head, screaming in pain, rushing to his laboratory, and plunging a letter opener deep into his ear canal, killing himself. The episode opens with Sanjay’s death, told from his point of view, and it appears that he was at the mercy of a piercing shrieking in his brain that brings to mind a dog whistle calibrated for human hearing. At the last corporate meeting of his life, Sanjay looks out the window of the conference room to see a flock of black birds that appear to be anticipating his death, perhaps waiting to escort him to whatever celestial (or purgatorial) dimension awaits.

Mulder tackles the mystery with characteristic anti-authoritarian aplomb, stealing Sanjay’s phone off his corpse, which Scully half-heartedly reminds him is a violation of search and seizure regulations. Her resigned amusement elegantly illustrates one of the pleasures of the show’s reboot so far: Scully’s newish timeworn affection for Mulder’s eccentricities and rebellions. Scully’s been with this man too long to waste time fighting the wrong interpersonal battles, and she’s seen so many awful things as to share Mulder’s cynicism, which both brush off with a flippant, insidiously charming wink. In other words, some of Scully’s famed earnestness has worn off.

Mulder and Scully’s disregard for protocol is one of the more interesting, partially inadvertent frictions of bringing The X-Files into the present: Vigilante tactics aren’t as celebrated as they used to be in fiction, particularly TV and films, considering the endless controversies over egregious police killing and bludgeoning. These tactics still abound in pop culture, of course, but they’re usually glossed over with superhero costumes or packaged with progressive-courting disapproval that allows audiences to have their moral cake and eat it too. Mulder and Scully’s less pretentious fashion of playing by their own rules resists such evasion, and many of their legal boundary lapses are staged as comedic bits, which only heightens the ambiguity of our reaction to them.

Wong also infuses Mulder’s hijinks with a sly element of self-parody that announces something along the lines of “We, the show-runners, need him to steal that phone in order to keep the plot going, just as we need him to randomly recognize a janitor’s outfit for little discernable reason later on so as to succinctly reach the climactic revelation.” The plot of “Founder’s Mutation” is a typical X-Files mixture of government secrets, buried controversies, and allusions to “The Syndicate” for the sake of paying lip service to the master arc, or “mythology,” that’s dictated by Mulder and Scully’s brush with a profound, perhaps illusory multi-national conspiracy to enslave the populace. The mystery that drives “Founder’s Mutation,” though, also has an emotional resonance that’s beautifully explored by Wong and his actors.

It’s eventually revealed that Sanjay was killed accidentally by the mutant child (Jonathan Whitesell) of the founder of Nugenics Technology, Augustus Goldman (Doug Savant), because he was looking for his lost sister. Augustus experimented on both of his children to further his research—a development that’s chillingly handled in a flashback in which Goldman’s estranged, institutionalized wife, Jackie (Rebecca Wisocky), recounts her discovery that her daughter could breathe underwater. Another flashback is more disturbing still: When Jackie remembers that her unborn son reached his hand out of her stomach when she attempted to self-administer a caesarian so as to relieve herself of her mutant baby’s already profound emotional agitation. The shrill aural force that drove Sanjay to suicide isn’t just a form of weaponized telepathy, but a symptom of anguish on the part of its wielder, which free-associatively symbolizes the pain also felt by all the afflicted children that Goldman treats in his facilities.

This physicalizing cuts to Mulder and Scully’s cores, piercing their studied callousness, reminding them of William, the potentially mutated son they gave up in the X-Files episode that’s named after him. In a moving fantasy, Scully pictures raising William, taking him to school in a series of reveries that are deliberately clichéd, as she’s stitching them together from pop-cultural osmosis. This scene is prepared for, in another heartbreaking gesture, when Scully asks Mulder if she was just another government experiment. His reply represents one of Duchovny’s most poignant readings in the series: “You’re never just anything to me, Scully.”

Yet the ultimate highlight of “Founder’s Mutation” is its conclusion, a Mulder fantasy to complement Scully’s, in which he raises William to be an enterprising young space nerd, only to lose him in an alien kidnapping that echoes his version of the particulars of his sister’s disappearance. Wong gracefully folds past and present incarnations of The X-Files together, weaving a tapestry of surprisingly visceral pain, digging underneath genre machinations to explore the regret and loneliness that fuel them.

For more recaps of The X-Files, click here.

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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.

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The Politician
Photo: Netflix

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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Review: Bless the Harts’s First Episode Is a Madcap, If Uneven, Introduction

You can feel Fox’s new animated series figuring itself out in its first episode.

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Bless the Harts
Photo: Fox

Fox’s new animated series, Bless the Harts, begins with a mailwoman delivering a bill and some bad news to Jenny Hart (Kristen Wiig), a waitress living in North Carolina: that her water will be shut off in three days. “Damn, Norma,” Jenny says, “You’re not supposed to be reading people’s mail.” But, as Norma explains, she didn’t open the envelope. “It’s just that when you’re this late, they put the threats on the outside.”

The scene mainly serves to introduce Jenny’s precarious financial situation, which extends to everyone who lives with her: Betty (Maya Rudolph), her zany mother, who prints out hard copies of memes; Violet (Jillian Bell), her purple-haired and reclusive artist daughter; and Wayne Edwards (Ike Barinholtz), her bumbling but gold-hearted boyfriend. Our introduction to the Harts also places the episode—the only one made available to press ahead of the show’s premiere—in a reality slightly removed from ours. Norma ends the conversation by saying that she has to keep moving, “or the government will zap my collar.” She laughs, then Jenny laughs, and then we hear an off-screen electric shock as Norma walks away. It’s an early indication that there’s something surreal about the Harts’ world. By the time that Jesus (Kumail Nanjiani) himself appears to Jenny, it’s difficult to tell if he’s a figment of her imagination or if he’s really there, speaking with a waitress at a seafood buffet called Last Supper.

The episode mostly stays grounded in realism, though, exploring the relationships between the various Harts. It’s almost a shame that Wiig, Rudolph, and Barinholtz, three actors with superb physical presence, are reduced to their voices. But while Wiig, Barinholtz, and Bell put in straightforward performances, and while their faux-Southern accents render them nearly unrecognizable, Rudolph is as distinctive and riotous as she is in Big Mouth. She stretches Betty to absurd extremes, dotting her lines with perfectly bewildering pronunciations—“scarcity” is “scar-ci-tee”—that come out of nowhere, like quick jabs to the ribs.

You can feel Bless the Harts figuring itself out in its first episode. There are bits that go on for too long; Wayne’s internal monologues, for one, move at too relaxed a pace and result in little comedic payoff. But the episode also features promising signs of the madcap humor that the series will hopefully settle into. The episode’s central plot consists of Betty’s plan, approved by Jenny, to sell a collection of vaguely Teletubby-esque (and highly flammable) “Hug N’ Bugs” dolls that she’s amassed. The dolls are pop culture mash-ups, such as “Tamagotchi O.J. Trial,” which holds a digital pet toy in one hand and wears a bloody glove on the other.

When Jesus tells Jenny that the plan is doomed to fail, he utters the episode’s best piece of dialogue: “People go crazy for fads, and then they move on. I’ve seen them all come and go: leg warmers, pet rocks, flappers. There was this thing called the Bronze Age…” Nanjiani’s characteristic soft-spokenness is a remarkable fit for a lesson that Jesus would casually impart at a seafood buffet. Jesus doesn’t overshadow the show’s namesakes, thanks to Rudolph’s standout performance and flashes of sharp dialogue from the other Harts—but with a Jesus this endearing, Bless the Harts could do worse than giving him the wheel.

Cast: Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Ike Barinholtz, Jillian Bell, Kumail Nanjiani Network: Fox

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Review: Shudder’s Creepshow Anthology Series Does Its Pulpy Namesake Proud

The series bottles the original’s pulpy spirit and atmosphere for an irresistibly macabre package.

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Creepshow
Photo: Shudder

George A. Romero and Stephen King’s 1982 horror anthology film Creepshow, which consists of five stories that each hinge on some striking image or plot twist, is a triumph of atmosphere. Its vibrant comic-book aesthetic verges on goofy archness, and it prioritizes the wraparound E.C. Comics homage in such a way that even the lesser tales of terror are elevated simply by association with that good-natured tone of “fun” horror.

Shudder’s episodic revival does its namesake proud. With page-turn transitions, fake comic-book ads, and interludes featuring The Creep, the series faithfully replicates the film’s atmosphere, albeit with one meaningful tweak to the format. Rather than only adapt King’s stories under a single director, the series gives multiple directors a shot at helming segments written by various authors, including Joe R. Lansdale, Christopher Buehlman, and Joe Hill.

The first segment of the one episode provided to critics is a King joint, an adaptation of his 1973 story “Gray Matter,” directed by Walking Dead vet Greg Nicotero (who also did makeup effects for Creepshow 2). In it, a horrified boy (Christopher Nathan) relates the mysterious fate of his hard-drinking father (Jesse C. Boyd) to a kindly shop owner (Adrienne Barbeau, who appeared in the original film). There’s a gee-whiz quality to the dialogue that might have been grating in another context, but it feels appropriate amid the show’s heightened mood created by deep shadows and rich, bright colors. Even when the segment isn’t outright depicting narration boxes and comic panels, the actors capture just the right tone of hammy seriousness.

In “Gray Matter,” the subtext about alcoholism and grief doesn’t go anywhere particularly noteworthy, as the series is clearly more interested in simply shouting “boo!” while showing off some marvelously squishy special effects. But the episode becomes an efficient delivery mechanism for pleasantly cheesy horror that’s comforting in its own way, like a tale told around the campfire or a story read under the blanket via flashlight.

The second segment, “House of the Head,” directed by John Harrison and written by Josh Malerman, differs wildly in concept from “Gray Matter.” It follows a young girl (Cailey Fleming) who watches a frightful drama unfold inside her dollhouse after a tiny severed head starts to terrorize her doll family. Harrison films the girl’s face through the dollhouse so that we discover the grisly scenes as she does, turning us into a kind of second participant as we follow her gaze from room to room. The tale’s ending is an unfortunate whimper, but its inventive concept underscores the anthology’s sense of variety, both in terms of setups and horrors.

The original film excels at doling out odd, horrific images that stick in the brain, such as a birthday cake topped with a human head or a farmer subsumed by plant growth. The breezy, pulpy nature of this series accomplishes this just as well with its severed doll head and one particularly gooey monstrosity. Shudder’s Creepshow bottles the original’s pulpy spirit, using the atmosphere and variety provided by shorter segments for an irresistibly macabre package.

Cast: Bruce Davison, Hannah Barefoot, David Arquette, Adrienne Barbeau, Big Boi, Kid Cudi, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Nathan, Jesse C. Boyd, Cailey Fleming, Tobin Bell Network: Shudder

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Review: Undone Is a Rich, Complicated Character Piece About Mental Illness

The series is both beautiful and inventive, even if it uses the mental health of its protagonist as a story hook.

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Undone
Photo: Amazon

Rotoscope animation gives Amazon’s Undone an appropriately in-between feel, its not-quite-animated yet not-quite-live-action style a metaphor for protagonist Alma’s (Rosa Salazar) state of mind. Following a car crash, she becomes unmoored in time, seeming to travel to the past and go through life events out of order. Whether due to schizophrenia or because she’s some sort of time wizard, the point is that Alma isn’t in total control. The series, the brainchild of Bojack Horseman writers Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg, is certainly complicated, but it makes for an unexpectedly rich character piece about processing mental illness and the way it affects those around us.

Alma is, at turns, playfully sarcastic and pessimistic or withdrawn, if not a little self-destructive. Her family’s history of mental illness naturally scares the young woman; she wears a cochlear implant and views her deafness and other facets of what she calls her “broken brain” as potential warning signs that she, too, may develop schizophrenia one day. All these factors complicate Alma’s relationships with her devoutly religious mother, Camila (Constance Marie), and her buttoned-up sister, Becca (Angelique Cabral).

The newest entry in Alma’s network of relationships is her long-dead father, Jacob (Bob Odenkirk), who manifests alongside his daughter’s apparent time-jumping powers. Much of the series is dedicated to Alma developing her abilities under his tutelage and investigating his untimely demise, sliding in and out of oil-painted dreamscapes and memories. At one point, father and daughter levitate within an enlarged version of the hand-drawn meadow of a Get Well Soon card from her boyfriend, Sam (Siddharth Dhananjay). Then, at another, a person ages into a skeleton only for a baby to sprout from the pile like the skull is an egg.

But there’s always a lingering question mark over the whole experience, of whether her powers and newfound special-ness are real or whether they’re the imagined result of Alma’s desire for control and self-actualization, her rebellion against her mundane life and general lack of agency. Undone slyly keeps itself from answering this question, or even if Jacob’s teachings are healthy; when he’s not nudging her in the direction of becoming some kind of emotionless time monk, he’s warning her about how harmful it is to have relationships at all.

The series breaks up what can feel like long stretches of semi-scientific explanations with frequent comedic asides or images of Alma simply living her life, which is inevitably affected by her abilities. Sometimes Undone’s tonal balance can feel off, jokey to a point that undercuts the seriousness of Alma’s investigation into her father’s death. But such interludes are mostly a welcome relief, as when Jacob stops one particular explanation dead in order to incredulously focus on how his daughter was never taught to drive stick-shift.

Rather than simply giving Alma a “superpower,” Purdy and Bob-Waksberg structure the series in such a way that makes the grounded relationships uniformly more engrossing than the mystery of Jacob’s death. A common refrain is that “ordinary life” is just as appealing as the powers that reframe Alma’s perception of reality, and the series takes great pains to depict the way others react to her behavior. On some level, it doesn’t matter whether she’s schizophrenic or a time-traveler so much as the fact that she and her loved ones are affected all the same.

Even so, the show’s sporadic claims to the appeal of “ordinary life” ring a bit hollow, particularly in the midst of lavish animation meant to aid the depiction of its time-travel conceit. The is-she-or-isn’t-she-crazy premise creates an inherent division where time travel is the ideal option and schizophrenia is the tragic alternative. While it’s certainly possible that this dichotomy merely reflects Alma’s current perception of mental illness, Undone asks the viewer to take it on faith that it’s approaching the topic with sensitivity.

There are no mentally ill characters to offer an alternate perspective, nor are there any significant indigenous characters to flesh out the way the series uses such cultures’ beliefs, particularly shamanism, as essentially wallpaper for time travel lore. Undone can be beautiful and inventive, but rather than directly confront such concerns, it mostly just kicks each can of worms a little further down the road, to perhaps be addressed in a future season while it continues to use the question of Alma’s sanity as a story hook.

Cast: Rosa Salazar, Bob Odenkirk, Angelique Cabral, Constance Marie, Siddharth Dhananjay, Daveed Diggs, Luna-Marie Katich, Kevin Bigley Network: Amazon

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Review: The Deuce’s Final Season Prioritizes Anthropology Over Character

The show’s third and final season struggles to consistently build gripping stories for its vivid characters to inhabit.

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The Deuce
Photo: Paul Schiraldi/HBO

With the first two seasons of The Deuce, showrunners David Simon and George Pelecanos offered glimpses of Times Square at critical inflection points. The series convincingly positioned real estate investment—not public morals, community policing, or mafia vagaries—as the preeminent engine for the corporate sanitization of the neighborhood. The third and final season jumps to 1984, yet another important historical moment, and continues to memorialize a time and place erased by corporatization. As always, the show’s characters remain romantic visions of largely extinct New York types. And while the series mourns their disappearance, the characters themselves, even after three seasons, tend to occupy frustratingly static stories—even as the world transforms around them.

Which isn’t to say that The Deuce lacks a compelling hook. Season three provides typically revealing insights into elements of ‘80s New York City that are underserved even in other texts which seek to lionize the era. The show’s presentation of Times Square entails a kind of shadow history, about everything from cops harassing building owners to the nascent AIDS crisis. Increasingly common random assaults—muggings, performed mostly by young black men who the NYPD refer to as “wolf packs”—forces the police to consider aggressive new strategies, and foreshadows real-life political handwringing over emerging “super predators.”

The wolf packs are introduced in season three’s first scene, which unfolds with the bruising clarity of many David Simon theses. A group of kids targets Tommy Longo (Daniel Sauli), a low-level mobster, before being dissuaded by the gun in his waistband. As a literal confrontation between criminals from different generations, the scene reflects the passing of time—perhaps the show’s second most pressing concern, after capitalism. As the season wears on, though, cops ratchet their focus on the wolf packs, and that early scene assumes a new racial significance: Tommy and his mob paid for police protection and helped erode Times Square in seasons one and two, yet it seems that the presence of black muggers might finally prompt urgency in the city’s glacial effort to transform the neighborhood.

The Deuce argues convincingly for the macro-level importance of what’s happening in Times Square, even if the neighborhood’s inhabitants, despite being interesting types, rarely do interesting things. The series positions its prostitutes, porn stars, mobsters, and bohemians as dinosaurs, mostly unaware of their looming extinction, from disease, the advent of home video, and the real estate boom. There’s an elegiac sensibility to the first three episodes of the season made available to press, but The Deuce, beyond offering remembrance, is less clear about how it feels about the impending extinction event—or why the characters are worthy of our attention, beyond their lifelike representations of a forgotten time and place.

Because the series is ambitiously structured, in order to tell the unwieldy story of an entire city ecosystem, around three disparate years across three decades, it’s struggled to consistently build gripping stories for these vivid characters to inhabit. Vincent’s (James Franco) quiet drama with Abby (Margarita Levieva), his twin brother Frankie’s (Franco) attempts to sell porn, Rudy’s (Michael Rispoli) struggle to maintain mob influence—all are storylines that relate to capitalism, in the sense that every element of life is tangentially related to capitalism. Yet the series doesn’t always connect its storylines to the broader transformation of New York, and, as a result, story arcs such as Vincent’s can feel like afterthoughts, overshadowed by both the show’s central narrative and its overarching theme.

Simon and Pelecanos, in their attempts to venerate this era of New York, occasionally misstep in assuming that their characters remain interesting by virtue of their inspirations having merely existed in an iconic city at an interesting time. Eileen (Maggie Gyllenhaal) remains the most captivating figure in the series because she’s one of the rare characters who’s managed to escape the narrative quagmire of the show’s Times Square scene: In season three, she acquires a wealthy new boyfriend, Hank (Corey Stoll), and the series deploys their relationship to reveal her mixture of shame and pride in her past. And an emerging conflict arises between gender expectations in a modernizing world: Can she keep chasing her filmmaking dream, or must she settle for the financial comforts of her new romance?

Conversely, Vincent, Frankie, and their mob associates toil in storylines which have developed only slightly over The Deuce’s decades-spanning arc. One could interpret this as intentional on behalf of its creators. By continuing to confine its totemic New York figures—the mobsters, barmen, and sleaze-balls—to plodding and static storylines, the series demythologizes them, suggesting that the cultural touchstones of New York history were just subjects to the fiscal whims of the city’s influential, faceless money movers—or “they,” as Abby vaguely refers to the corporate encroachers in one episode. Such an argument could feasibly be made, though, without relegating many of the show’s characters to mere observers. Even the reemergence of Vincent’s ex-wife, Andrea (Zoe Kazan), isn’t treated as a story hook as much as an event that merely happens, was always inevitable, and carries no tangible stakes. The stakes in the series are reserved for the neighborhood as a whole. The meteor is approaching Times Square, and The Deuce seems destined to conclude with a resigned shrug toward many of its inhabitants.

Cast: James Franco, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Margarita Levieva, Emily Meade, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Chris Coy, Chris Bauer, Michael Rispoli, Daniel Sauli, Corey Stoll, Zoe Kazan Network: HBO

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Review: Unbelievable Is a Wikipedia Article Dressed Up As a TV Show

The series feels like a vehicle built merely to convey the information dug up by its progenitors.

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Unbelievable
Photo: Beth Dubber/Netflix

Successful adaptations can unlock something new within texts through the translation to another medium. But Netflix’s Unbelievable, based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning account of a rape investigation and an ensuing episode of This American Life, feels like a vehicle built merely to convey the information dug up by its progenitors. It’s a bunch of bullet points wrapped up in Toni Collette’s leather-jacket cool and Merritt Wever’s practiced do-goodery.

The series begins in 2008, when Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever), a teen in a support program for young adults who grew up in foster care, reports a rape and is bullied by police into recanting her story. It then moves to 2011, when two detectives, badass Grace Rasmussen (Collette) and self-flagellating Karen Duvall (Wever), investigate a handful of rape cases that eerily recall what happened to Marie. Jumping back and forth between the two periods, Unbelievable commits to shedding light on the shortcomings of law enforcement, from the mishandling of sexual violence cases to the prevalence of so-called “bad apples” within police forces.

The series, however, addresses these systemic issues heavy-handedly and delivers its didacticism in stilted dialogue. At one point, speaking with Billy Taggart (Scott Lawrence), an F.B.I. agent supporting the case, Rasmussen reminds him that “cops beat up their partners at two to four times the rate of the general population.” Such inorganic dialogue permeates the series and lends a wooden quality to Collette and Wever’s performances.

Unbelievable deems no detail or false lead too minor, and so the audience is forced to endure an agonizingly slow drip of facts, figures, and theories throughout Rasmussen and Duvall’s investigation. Where the show’s depiction of police work is lethargic, Marie’s arc is exceedingly repetitive, if occasionally poignant. The series seems to value her less as a person than as a recipient of endless injustices. When we see Marie, chances are that she’ll get some bad news, her eyes will well up, and the series will cut back to 2011 until it’s time for her to suffer anew.

Despite the emotional cheapness of her story arc, Marie remains a captivating presence, thanks largely to how the cinematography frames her reaction to her ordeal. Unbelievable’s first episode relays the agony of Marie’s police questioning with particular deftness. When Marie talks to the cops, primarily the well-intentioned but insensitive Detective Parker (Eric Lange), we frequently see her from low angles, as though the camera is spying on her from underneath a table. These shots, along with close-ups of Marie—of her wide-eyed face, of her fidgeting hands, of her restless, shaking legs—emphasize her vulnerability. She’s alone and in way over her head, abandoned by her friends, doubted by her former foster mothers (Elizabeth Marvel and Bridget Everett), losing control as she gets picked apart.

Unbelievable is at its most capacious in its last two episodes, directed by creator Susannah Grant. The pace quickens as Rasmussen and Duvall narrow in on their suspect, and we get our first look at Marie in 2011, years older and at some kind of peace. The show’s shift from the toil of investigation to the climax of apprehension finally frees the detectives to feel rather than edify. Duvall’s revelry and newfound relief during a celebratory night out underscore the emotional burdens of the investigation far more than her series-long frustration does.

The final episodes also feature moments that capitalize on the show’s dual-timeline structure. During a counseling session, Marie delivers a harrowing monologue about trust and loneliness that cuts in and out of Duvall and Rasmussen reviewing the nauseating photos the perpetrator took of his victims. The sequence is stirring in its understatement: in Marie’s matter-of-fact expression of her cynicism, in Duvall’s nods and grimaces as Rasmussen clicks and clicks through the pictures, and in Rasmussen’s glazed-over eyes, slow blinks, and deep breaths.

In the first episode, we see obfuscated glimpses of Marie being raped as she recalls the attack. We watch her focus on a framed picture in her bedroom, getting lost in it. She’s at the beach, happily skipping into the waves. The episode ends with a splendid overhead shot of Marie, at wits’ end, leaning over the edge of a bridge, looking into the churning water below. The water, in both scenes, signifies escape—and whether calm or crushing, it’s a reprieve from what she’s experiencing. But the series lazily handles that motif, as it mostly disappears until the very last episode, where the water predictably underlines that Marie’s found a hint of closure. What exists in-between—nearly the entire series—is an overwhelming dryness.

Cast: Toni Collette, Merritt Wever, Kaitlyn Dever, Danielle Macdonald, Eric Lange, Elizabeth Marvel, Bridget Everett, Scott Lawrence, Dale Dickey, Liza Lapira, Omar Maskati, Austin Hébert, Kai Lennox, Annaleigh Ashford, Max Arciniega, Jayne Taini, Vanessa Bell Calloway Network: Netflix

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Review: Mindhunter Season 2 Grapples with Identity and the Power of Words

The show’s second season reveals the intricate intersections between personal and political neuroses.

3.5

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Mindhunter
Photo: Netflix

The first season of Mindhunter distinguished itself from other crime shows by offering an origin story, dramatizing how the F.B.I. forged its Behavioral Science Unit. At its most resonant, the season reminded audiences that institutions and corresponding notions of reality have to be invented and manipulated, and creator Joe Penhall and co-executive producer David Fincher rhymed this social invention with one of a more personal sort. The F.B.I. agents pioneering criminal profiling, Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), had to fine-tune their personalities in order to realize their vision, particularly when interviewing the captured killers who gave the men insight. The B.S.U.’s resident psychiatrist, Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), also engaged in role-play, hiding her homosexuality from a traditionally reactionary arm of the American government.

Season one was driven, then, by unreleased tension, especially as the killers offered extreme and distorted windows into repressed desires that are more common than Tench would prefer to admit. It was, in the tradition of Fincher’s Zodiac, an epic and neurotic procedural that, in the vein of the director’s The Social Network, understood the power of words, especially as Ford and Tench gradually fashioned an iconic term: “serial killer.”

Mindhunter’s second season doesn’t have the same benefit of novelty as the first, as the B.S.U. is now established, if still fledgling. Correspondingly, we have a better idea of how the unit works, and Ford, Tench, and Carr’s dynamic has solidified to suggest relationships that are reminiscent of other crime series. Ford is the wild card, a man who uses his lack of social grace to forge a kinship with others even more profoundly alienated from society. Tench is the old-school G man, who often uses his credibility—professional as well as masculine—to keep Ford’s superiors from reining him in. Also seeking to rein Ford and Tench in is Carr, who naïvely believes that the men can glean more insight from the killers by sticking to a script.

Penhall, Fincher, and the show’s high-profile guest directors, Andrew Dominik and Carl Franklin, challenge these relationships by splintering them. Ford and Tench’s volatile buddy routine, one of the primary pleasures of Mindhunter’s first season, is largely absent here, as the men are chasing their own respective obsessions. The first three episodes of the season, directed by Fincher, are piercing essays on isolation and sadness. Fincher, who has a reputation as an exacting formalist in the key of Kubrick, favors sculptural compositions that invest even routine actions with elements of menace and poignancy. When Ford flies to Atlanta, Fincher dollies in on his seat from the front of the plane, fashioning a diagonal image that emphasizes the tightness and the anonymous discomfort of the vehicle. This scene lasts only a few seconds, and for many directors it would be a routine transition shot, but Fincher uses it to affirm Ford’s torment as well as the general grind of endless travel.

In the second episode, Fincher fashions the finest moment of the entire season, which rivals the best sequences of his films, when Ford and Tench interview Kevin Bright (Andrew Yackel), a survivor of the BTK Killer. Kevin is framed in a ghostly silhouette in the back of a car, while the F.B.I. men sit in front, and as he describes the atrocities he witnessed, Fincher emphasizes the sound of a train passing by on the bridge overhead, suggesting Kevin’s painful transition into the past. Characteristically of Mindhunter, a moment that crime shows tend to take for granted—the interviewing of a witness—is itself turned into a set piece, which dramatizes a victim’s distress and the immensity of Ford and Tench’s quest to quantify madness. Notably it’s Tench, rather than Ford, who proves to be the empathetic talker this time.

Narratively, Ford’s alienation is expressed via a startling gambit, as he’s essentially reduced to a supporting character in the second season. In its first, Mindhunter was driven by his sense of discovery, by his yearning to see his own disaffection in mad men. By contrast, Ford still seems somewhat reduced here by his climactic meeting with Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton) in last season’s finale, and he’s fragile, even more egotistical than usual, and distracted, searching for something. And so season two is hung, emotionally, on Tench’s shoulders.

McCallany gives a beautiful and moving performance, informing Tench with a vulnerability and decency that many characters—so taken with his profession, big frame, square jaw, and crew cut—happen to overlook. (Carr’s new girlfriend, Kat, played by Lauren Glazier, smugly refers to Tench as “General Patton.”) More than ever, Mindhunter is obsessed with the systemic discrimination of law enforcement, yet it doesn’t turn its law enforcers into racist, sexist caricatures—slobbering monsters ready for our distanced disdain. Tench is a likeable character who also casually sees homosexuality as deviancy, which periodically limits his scope, as a law man and a man in general, and which also challenges our own empathetic tendencies and idea of who we should find likeable. Tench inadvertently hurts Carr with certain comments, especially when she gets in the field herself and uses her experience with an older woman (played in the first season by Lena Olin) to bond with an incarcerated young man who helped an elder lure, torture, and rape other children. The show dares to rhyme Tench, straight man incarnate, with Carr, as they’re both consigned to play stereotypes.

Tench faces a wrenching familial crisis this season, and few notice his pain, which he wears in his tight shoulders. Nancy (Stacey Roca), so devoted to their unraveling adopted son, Brian (Zachary Scott Ross), neglects her husband’s escalating misery as well as Brian’s potential devolution into a predator. (Nancy isn’t as well-drawn as Tench, and she borders on becoming the cliché of the cop’s nagging housewife.) Meanwhile, Carr must play the intellectual, the gatherer and sorter, though she yearns to return to the field again and shows a flair for improvisation that rivals Ford himself. The irony of Carr outing herself in an interview with a killer is considerable, as she uses a realm of role-play as a confessional, throwing the killer a crumb of authentic human feeling only to walk it back later with her professional peers.

The lengthy interviews that Ford, Tench, and Carr conduct are more exactingly rendered and theatrical this season, which features a who’s-who of killers, including David Berkowitz (Oliver Cooper), William “Junior” Pierce (Michael Filipowich), Tex Watson (Christopher Backus), and Charles Manson (Damon Herriman), each of whom have special vanities that must be satisfied. Berkowitz admits that calling himself the “Son of Sam”—that a dog ordered him to murder his victims—was a con when Holden flatters his shrewdness. Pierce opens up to another F.B.I. agent, Jim Barney (Albert Jones), when the investigator gives him candy, which he pops into his mouth with memorably childish, nearly dainty relish. Manson, played with ferocious gravity by Herriman, disarms Tench when his anti-capitalist, everyone-is-violent-but-me shtick happens to stir Tench’s guilt over Brian. These sequences are dramatic in the moment but collectively suggest the emotional wear and tear of Ford and Tench’s profession, as they experience behavioral extremis over and over with results of questionable value.

Mindhunter is still exhilaratingly occupied with detail, which becomes particularly evident in the season’s main arc, where Tench, Ford, and Barney help local law enforcement investigate the Atlanta child murders, in which dozens of children of color were killed from 1979 to 1981. This investigation involves the navigation of multiple planes of government and law enforcement with many agendas, and these negotiations come to drive the show nearly as much as the hunt for the killer. Some of the victims’ families believe the K.K.K. to be involved, but local politicians, many of whom are people of color, don’t want to blow a potential social powder keg, though they also don’t wish to commit political suicide by abiding Ford’s conviction that the killer is a black man. This is the sort of Catch-22 with which Mindhunter is obsessed, and such difficulties are intensified by bureaucratic minutiae. In a prolonged and amusing moment, Ford is notified of all the departments he must contact simply to distribute flyers. Most of these episodes are directed by Franklin, who has a subtler visual palette than Fincher and who evinces a powerful delicacy with racial tensions that’s reminiscent of his most acclaimed works of Southern noir, One False Move and Devil in a Blue Dress.

Mindhunter’s second season is both epic and intimate in its sprawl, collapsing dozens of famous crime stories together, revealing the intricate intersections between personal and political neuroses. Tench and Carr’s senses of repression are rhymed with that of Barney, a black man who’s implicitly charged with keeping the peace between the Atlanta politicians, the mothers of the murdered and missing children, and the F.B.I. at Quantico. According to the series, as the B.S.U. expands, it moves away from its primary, idealistic promise to become vulnerable to both the necessary as well as the petty limitations of any public service body. The BTK Killer (Sonny Valicenti), who still haunts the series in the episode prologues, wouldn’t be caught for decades, and 22 of the unsolved cases in the Atlanta child murders were hastily closed in order to keep Atlanta’s political tensions at a simmer, the latter of which Mindhunter acknowledges in a finale that’s every bit as deliberately and poignantly unsatisfying as Zodiac’s. This series is so stirring for showing how murder mysteries reflect every element of society, and are therefore on certain levels almost inherently unsolvable. To understand an element of human nature is to know how truly little one knows.

Cast: Jonathan Groff, Holt McCallany, Anna Torv, Stacey Roca, Michael Cerveris, Joe Tuttle, Cameron Britton, Sonny Valicenti, Zachary Scott Ross, Christopher Grove, Regi Davis, Christopher Livingston, Crystal Lee Brown, Siovhan Christensen, Sierra Aylina McClain, Brent Sexton Network: Netflix

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Review: On Becoming a God in Central Florida Sees the Cult in Capitalism

The show’s myriad absurdities are resonant reminders of how tough it is to get lost in the labyrinth of capitalism.

3

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On Becoming a God in Central Florida
Photo: Patti Perret/Sony/Showtime

Florida water park employee Krystal Stubbs (Kirsten Dunst) earns the nickname “the alligator widow” after her husband, Travis (Alexander Skarsgård), works himself into bleary-eyed exhaustion and, then, gator-inhabited waters. Travis fell victim to a friendly neighborhood pyramid scheme, Founders American Merchandise, whose promises of wealth and prosperity prompted him to dump the family’s life savings—including their mortgage and life insurance—into FAM’s coffers, leaving Krystal holding both the bag and their baby. As conceived by Showtime’s On Becoming a God in Central Florida, this vision of 1992 America is a morass of hucksters and hollow promises, and the series explores that world with both a sharp eye and a peculiar sense of humor.

FAM is fronted by Obie Garbeau II (Ted Levine), a mustachioed messiah figure whose plans and philosophies are distributed via cassette tape to the pyramid scheme’s participants. Fueled by a volatile combo of spite and desperation, Krystal has had all she can stand of Garbeau and true believers like her husband’s “upline” supplier, Cody Bonar (Théodore Pellerin). As Krystal, Dunst is a whirlwind of charisma, and she makes you believe that the character, as her mask of Southern-accented politeness dangles by a thread, can take on the whole system by herself. Yet her schemes to do so often send her tumbling back to the bottom time and again, dragging people like her manager and neighbor, Ernie (Mel Rodriguez), down with her.

Krystal doesn’t even want to get rich, much less do it quick; she just wants some stability, to the point where she takes on odd jobs like teaching a water aerobics class. But through some cruel confluence of fate and capitalism, she has to get in deep with FAM to get permission to fill her class with the people below her on the FAM pyramid. She’s paid two dollars per aerobics attendee, after all, and that’s nothing to sneeze at when she needs to get her home’s utilities turned back on and doesn’t want to sleep in the water park’s supply room.

What keeps On Becoming a God from succumbing to suffocating bleakness is its silly tone, that toothy, dead-eyed smile with which it regards a faintly psychopathic Americana. It’s filled with weird cult terminology and self-consciously goofy names, from a FAM blasphemer being called a “stinker-thinker” to characters frequently mistaking Bonar for various pronunciations of “boner.” Even Garbeau’s name sounds like “garbage.” The show’s imagery grows more dreamlike and hallucinatory as the season progresses, from Garbeau viciously smashing all the fruit in his refrigerator to Krystal being immersed in a womb-like tub that’s supposed to let her re-experience her own birth. When you follow the myth of exceptional American individualism this far into the weeds, the series posits, nothing makes sense anymore.

The show’s brand of dark, quirky comedy, however, feels stretched a bit thin over 10 episodes of at least 40 minutes each. Suggesting an excellent half-hour comedy saddled with an excess of incident, On Becoming a God doesn’t always know when to pull back on its weird developments and ironical names, resulting in a tone that can feel as derisive as it does empathetic toward people struggling to survive under capitalism. The longer people drone on about “the Garbeau system,” innocently suggest Olive Garden is their idea of fancy, and use “stinker-thinker” with real conviction, the fuzzier the line gets between laughing at the system’s absurdity and just laughing at people we’re supposed to see as suckers.

When the comedy does work, the series keenly captures our dubious relationship with the prospect of wealth, as when Cody praises Krystal by calling her a “millionaire in waiting.” She and the others under FAM’s thumb aren’t kept down by any dearth of ingenuity so much as their lack of power. At worst, they’re naïve due to immersion in a culture that encourages them to regard the wealthy with adulation rather than skepticism, and in such moments, the series engenders sympathy: If the show’s eccentric world hardly makes sense to us, how can it make sense to the characters caught up in its various scams? On Becoming a God may take place in 1992, but its myriad absurdities are resonant reminders of how tough it is to “get ahead,” and how easy it is to get lost in the labyrinth of capitalism.

Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Théodore Pellerin, Mel Rodriguez, Beth Ditto, Ted Levine, Usman Ally, Eric Allan Kramer, Cooper Jack Rubin, Alexander Skarsgård Network: Showtime

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Review: Carnival Row Is a Haphazardly Stitched-Together Genre Pastiche

The series is a genre patchwork whose individual elements fail to coalesce into a coherent whole.

2

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Carnival Row
Photo: Jan Thijs/Amazon

Among Carnival Row’s fantastic creatures is an especially monstrous one made of sewn-together bits of dead things: centaurs, humans, a sea animal, and so on. The beast, the exact nature of which is the subject of sustained buildup and disappointing payoff, proves a fitting avatar of Amazon’s fantasy series, a genre patchwork whose individual elements, though compelling in bursts, fail to coalesce into a coherent and satisfying whole.

Prior to the events of the series, the Pact and the Burgue, two human empires, waged a colonialist war to control Tirnanoc, the home of a winged, fairy-like race called the Fae. The Burgue falsely claimed to be fighting to protect the Fae, and following the Pact’s victory, refugees have fled to the Burgue’s capital city, where they’re oppressed and indentured. Now, a series of violent murders are being committed against the city’s non-humans, and while the tribalist all-human constabulary can’t be bothered to investigate them, detective Rycroft Philostrate (Orlando Bloom), or Philo, relentlessly pursues the cases.

Throughout its loosely connected storylines, Carnival Row fully and melodramatically commits to diverse genre traditions. Imogen Spurnrose (Tamzin Merchant), a vilely racist socialite, engages in a taboo romance with a non-human, and the series soaks her arc in a vat of wondrously cheesy monologues that embody the most exaggerated tendencies of period dramas. Philo’s sleuthing, while grim, is peppered with the delicious clichés of hard-boiled noir. At one point, the police chief tells Philo that he can’t save all of the non-humans in danger, and Philo slams his fists on the chief’s desk and roars, “Damn it, I can save one!”

The series, however, suffers from the fundamental tension between its over-the-top genre tropes and the gravity with which it handles its socio-political allegory. A group of kobolds—teeny, trollish bipeds—is “deported,” and the event is initially quite poignant. But the histrionics of Imogen, Philo, and others, as well as the show’s frequently shallow development of its characters, undermine that pathos. The series bewilderingly deems the hateful Imogen worthy of redemption solely on the grounds that she has sex with a non-human. Such context renders the deportation, and events like it, more glib than reflective.

Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevingne), a newly arrived Fae refugee and Philo’s former lover, grants the audience its most immediate view into the oppression of non-humans, primarily through her indentured servitude to Imogen and her domineering brother, Ezra (Andrew Gower). When working, Vignette is made to wear tight clothing that binds her wings. This restrains not only Vignette’s ability to fly, but also her sense of self. Unfortunately, the show’s writing similarly limits Delevingne, tying her performance down with overwrought dialogue that undercuts the emotional climaxes she’s routinely tasked with delivering.

Carnival Row prioritizes a certain kind of messiness: not the mess of feeling and thought, but that of the body. Over the course of Philo’s investigation, we get up-close looks at each murder victim’s mangled corpse, and these moments put the weaknesses of the show’s direction on full display. In addition to having the cadavers shoved in our faces, we’re repeatedly smacked in the head with testaments to the violence’s gruesomeness: At one point, a police officer vomits at a crime scene, and later, a child witnessing a killing urinates in his pants, the resulting puddle filling the frame. The emphasis on excretions, perhaps meant to contextualize the violence to viewers all but desensitized to butchery, feels lazy and unsubtle.

The show’s world-building feels haphazard rather than meticulous. We see, in a single episode, a few shots of a religious icon: a Christ-like figure, who’s hanged instead of crucified. Thereafter, dumbfounded characters exclaim “By the martyr!” at every opportunity—but who’s the martyr? When a radical religious group poised to play a key role in the second season reveals itself, it does so toward the very end of the season in cursory, tacked-on fashion. Maybe most egregious is the early promise of Lovecraftian horror that dissipates almost instantly. The antagonist’s brand of evil, it turns out, is too familiar to inspire cosmic horror.

Not an episode goes by that doesn’t make one wonder what Carnival Row could have been had it not bitten off far more than it can chew. There’s much to like here—mostly the kaleidoscopic genre-mixing—but not enough to overcome the show’s confused handling of the socio-political allegory at its core. Would that this beast were more thoughtfully stitched together.

Cast: Orlando Bloom, Cara Delevingne, Tamzin Merchant, Andrew Gower, Indira Varma, Jared Harris, Karla Crome, David Gyasi, Arty Froushan, Caroline Ford, Simon McBurney, Ariyon Bakare Network: Amazon

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Review: Season Two of Succession Paints a Humanizing Portrait of the Billionaire Class

The series demystifies the billionaire class while simultaneously painting a terrifying picture of their unstoppable momentum.

3

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Succession
Photo: Peter Kramer/HBO

HBO’s Succession, which concluded its first season after media scion Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) bungled a coup of his father Logan’s (Brian Cox) conglomerate, Waystar Royco, derives its acerbic satire from envisioning real-world corporate mergers as hostile takeovers performed by bullies and proxy wars waged between families with the wealth of developing nations. The morally bankrupt, mostly bumbling, but never harmless Roy family constitutes a garish caricature of billionaire excess. In season two, as they attempt to stave off their company’s acquisition by absorbing a news competitor called Pierce Media, Succession underlines the moral bankruptcy which flows from the Roys’ unfettered avarice, while simultaneously lamenting the poisonous toll such greed takes on the family.

To the limited extent that Succession is interested in the humanity of its characters, Kendall is the only member of the Roy clan who could ostensibly be considered a protagonist. He’s self-destructive, addicted to booze and cocaine, and the Jesse Armstrong-created series draws a direct line between Logan’s abusive nature and Kendall’s substance abuse. Strong’s performance emphasizes Kendall’s fear and self-loathing; the character carries himself like a beaten dog throughout most of the season, cowing to his father’s verbal abuse and stoically absorbing various retributions from his family after his failed corporate coup. Kendall’s suffering stems directly from his past ambitions, yet he remains pitiable.

Which is why, in the rare moments when Kendall seems to feel anything other than crippling fear and humiliation, such as when he connects emotionally with another wealthy addict at a corporate retreat, the series is imbued with a surprising pathos. The character, who has cruelly shuttered start-ups, attempted to overthrow his own father, and left a man for dead in last season’s climax, is a reflection of one-percent privilege. And yet, even as Succession deploys the Roy family’s inconceivable wealth as a get-out-of-jail free card for Kendall, it also portrays the Waystar heir as acknowledging and hating his privilege. He’s the sole character here who seems to know shame, which makes him the show’s most complex figure.

Of course, though it locates the humanity in Kendall’s character, the series has no interest in humanizing anyone else in the Roy clan. It frames their family meetings—which often entail board meetings, corporate retreats, or strategy briefings—as lawless war games. Rarely do any of them speak honestly, unless it’s to insult one another. The Roy siblings never take statements at face value; each one has a unique agenda, and the series derives thrills from watching this toxic family attempt to further deepen their pockets. While the family’s attempt to acquire Pierce Media constitutes a trenchant critique of capitalistic impulse (the foundering Waystar can survive only by acquiring Pierce, a company that Succession portrays as honest and civically valuable), the series derives suspense by suggesting that any of the terrible Roys could potentially sink the deal—or emerge as a family hero.

While dark humor and palace intrigue are the cornerstones of Succession, season two develops a sense of lingering melancholy that, while not aimed at making its main characters more sympathetic, imparts a poignancy to the never-ending conflicts within the Roy family. In such moments as when Shiv (Sarah Snook), Kendall’s sister and the savviest Roy, is shocked and skeptical when hugged by her brother, the series underlines the way the Roys have forfeited even their familial bonds in the service of greed. They never let their guard down, and in such instances, Succession whittles the brokenness of the Roy family to its most essential level, and imparts an elegiac sensibility: that these emotionally stunted people operate solely with regard to their appetites, and define themselves entirely by their status as winners or losers.

The Roy family members are sincere only in their insults, and their attempts to undercut each other works to take each seemingly innocuous conversation between them into the realm of real stakes. They speak almost exclusively in slights, from the unimaginative (“asshole”) to the poetic (“pusillanimous piece of fucking fool’s gold”) to the tasteless (“cumdump”), and the series revels in the way they tear at each other. The scenes which feature the entire family in a room together, supposedly acting as one entity on behalf of Waystar but undermining each other at each turn, exude an enthralling quality; such meetings devolve into hideous curiosities, layered with malevolence and bitter humor.

In the season’s most memorable sequence, the Roys have a dinner with the Pierces, the family who own the news company they wish to acquire. It’s a moral vetting, in which the Pierces are discerning just how corrupt their suitors are. For long stretches, the show’s camera bounces around a dinner table, as the Roy family, with all its conflicting agendas and glaring character flaws, implodes. It’s a breathtaking, grotesque sight, which tidily sums up Succession’s ethos: The Roys might be unworthy of their fortune, but that fortune ensures that they’ll never have to answer for their shortcomings. As they fail upward, the series demystifies the billionaire class while simultaneously painting a terrifying picture of their unstoppable momentum.

Cast: Brian Cox, Kieran Culkin, Jeremy Strong, Sarah Snook, Matthew Macfadyen, Alan Ruck, Nicholas Braun, Hiam Abbass, Peter Friedman, Natalie Gold, Rob Yang Network: HBO

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