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Torchwood Recap: Season 2, Episode 3: “To the Last Man”

I love how Torchwood can take a fracture in time that threatens to undo our reality and use that crisis to frame a story about love and sacrifice.

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Torchwood Recap: Season 2, Episode 3: “To the Last Man”

Helen Raynor, writer of the solid first season episode “Ghost Machine,” teams up with Torchwood series creator Russell T Davies to bring us another kind of ghost story in “To the Last Man.” Here, we’re haunted by the omnipresent shadow of war, and the vagaries that forge unwitting young men into heroes, and sometimes martyrs to the greater good.

We open in flashback, at St. Teilo’s Military Hospital in 1918. (There really is a St. Teilo’s in Cardiff, but it’s a high school.) A man and a woman, obviously not medical personnel, are using a device, something like a Geiger counter, as they wander through the building; they surprise a nurse in the hallway. “I thought you were a ghost!” she exclaims; there’s a bit of friendly back and forth before the pair get down to it: have you seen any ghosts? “Three today,” comes the matter-of-fact reply; they follow the nurse into the ward full of wounded soldiers, where the ghosts have been popping up.

There are a couple of brief, but necessary history lessons embedded in this episode, so even if the exposition seems a bit dense, it’s not that bothersome. The nurse comments that many of her patients see things anyway; they’re shell-shocked. It doesn’t matter, though, because they’ll be sent like so much meat back to the front as soon as they’re deemed well enough. Harriet (Siobhan Hewlett) repeats Field Marshal Haig’s order, “Each position must be held… each one of us must fight to the last man, to the end,” adding, “whenever that is.” The sense of futility is palpable.

Just then the Rift opens, and we see Tosh (Naoko Mori) with a patient from the ward. “Tell them,” she encourages the terrified young man, Tommy (Anthony Lewis). Eventually he succumbs to Tosh’s pleading, which makes as much sense to us as it does to the pair witnessing this. Screwing up his courage, he stands and walks towards the pair, as if he knows who they are and what they’ll do: “Take me!” He’s in the ward, in 1918, and they have to take him so he can be there—here?—“now.” We cut back to Harriet and her partner in the ward, telling Tommy he’d better come with them, they’ll keep him safe. The patient is confused; who are these people? Here’s the payoff: “We’re Torchwood.”

Back in the present, it’s a red letter day for Tosh, who executes a charmingly fussy morning routine complete with dithering over her outfit. Her apartment is completely different from the one we saw in “Greeks Bearing Gifts”; the new digs better reflect what we know of her.

We find out why Tosh is flustered when she gets to the office; it’s time to wake Tommy up. Since Gwen (Eve Myles) is relatively new, she’s an excellent device for exposition. Jack (John Barrowman) explains that the young man they have in cryogenic suspension is one Thomas Reginald Brockliss, 24 years old when frozen in 1918. They have to wake him up every twelve months or so and make sure nothing has gone amiss; today’s the day.

Gwen helpfully asks what we want to know: Why? Jack’s “I don’t know,” isn’t as disappointing as what comes next. He shows Gwen a container with orders in it, except they can’t open it. It has a “temporal lock” on it, which is somehow keyed in to the frequencies of the Rift at the time of the event back in 1918. The idea is—Jack tells us—the box will open when the time is right. Isn’t this an awfully risky proposition? What if the box opens and no one notices? I mean, what if they’re all busy doing other things? This has to be the worst technobabble Torchwood has inflicted on us so far, especially since this temporally-locked box was supposedly left for them in 1918, when Harriet and Gerald were wandering around with a Geiger counter the size of a toaster oven. We’re supposed to believe they had that kind of technology?

Aside from the stupid tech tricks (there will be more later), this episode is actually lovely and thought-provoking. It flows beautifully, with brief, bright moments of humor providing a counterbalance for the all the technobabble and serious discussions. It continues the character arcs we’ve seen building this season. Of all these, the best is that Jack is much more open about who he is and what he has been through. In explaining Tommy’s existence to Gwen, he tosses off the line, “He’s been here 90 years longer than any of us,” but then corrects himself, “any of you.”

For all that this story is about the necessities and effects of war, the most violent scene we see involves reviving Tommy (the name itself signifies “British soldier”); Owen has to use a defibrillator to get his heart going. When he finally comes around, Tommy decks Owen, and only calms down when Tosh leans in close to say, “It’s me, Toshiko.” Clearly, these two have a connection, an impression that’s reinforced as Tosh hovers. Owen puts Tommy through the paces of his annual examination. Tommy doesn’t miss a beat in telling him, “To you, it’s once a year. To me, it’s every day.”

Once up and dressed, Tommy is relaxed, handsome, and charming. His 90-year-old speech patterns are adorable, particularly his use of “daft” and casual use of “murder,” as in, “I could murder a cup of tea.” That line leads to a hysterical dialog-free bit: Tosh turns to Ianto, her expression clear: Bring tea! Ianto, as interested in Tommy as everyone else, and fed up with being the office boy, rolls his eyes as he goes off to fetch the provisions. I am really enjoying the development of Ianto’s character this season.

Back to Tommy, who has been waking up, every year, for a day, for 90 years now; he’s used to the drill. He hasn’t lived through a lot—it has only been a few months for him, subjectively—but he has seen a lot, and I loved his take on late ‘60s fashion, “I thought all my Christmases had come at once.” I don’t want to oversell him, but he’s an observant and thoughtful young man, caught up in a very weird situation, and taking every advantage of it. Gwen senses whatever is going on between Tosh and Tommy—she’d have to be an idiot not to—and remarks to Jack, as those two head out for “a drink, a film, maybe a pizza,”—“He’s a frozen soldier from 1918.” As clichéd as it is, I didn’t mind Jack’s reply at all, “Nobody’s perfect,” most likely because of the delicious grin John Barrowman was wearing when he delivered it. Owen, too, knows there’s something there, and he cautions, “Be careful,” after an obligatory, insincere “Have fun.” There’s the tiniest hint that Owen might be jealous of Tosh’s affections here, but it goes by so fast we can’t be sure.

Out of the confines of Torchwood, Tosh and Tommy get very personal, very quickly. They are comfortable together; anyone would think that they’d known each other a lot longer than four days. Tommy quizzes Tosh on all the things she said she’d do last year, and presses her when she says she never has any time for anything but Torchwood. He reminds her that she wasn’t conscripted, and that she does have a choice.

Meanwhile, Gwen and Ianto continue looking through Tommy’s case file. Ianto tells Gwen that Harriet died at 26, so young! “They all were,” he says, somber. “Nothing changes.” We don’t know which “they” he’s referring to: Torchwood’s old team members, or the thousands who died in the Great War? Gwen decides to visit St. Teilo’s, as much to get away from Ianto’s dark musings as to see the place for herself. She heads out with a “Cheer up, will you?”

Tosh and Tommy, playing pool now, continue their courtship, both always mindful of the time, both wanting more, but neither wanting to overplay it and scare the other one off.

Meanwhile, Gwen has a very creepy encounter with a ghost of her own at St. Teilo’s. As she wanders from room to room, the lights flicker. Suddenly they cut out altogether, and Gwen is startled by the arrival of a demolition crew. Jack joins Gwen at the hospital and reminisces for her (and us), how hospitals like this everywhere were full of soldiers, that the war was like “walking into hell,” that a million British soldiers were killed in the Great War. Jack doesn’t have to look any of this up; he remembers, he was there.

Back at the pub, Tosh and Tommy veer into more serious subjects when Tommy sees a report on the Iraq situation on the television over the bar. “It’s not exactly a war,” Tosh scoffs, and by some measures, it’s hard to argue that Tommy wouldn’t agree with her. By 1918, when Torchwood took Tommy, the war had been raging for over 3 years, and hundreds of thousands had been lost from Britain alone. It was an entirely different world, but it doesn’t seem that way to Tommy: “There’s always a war somewhere.” He bitterly remembers how happy he was to hear the war had ended when he was first awakened, “Then three weeks later you had a second world war, after all that.” It’s a shock to hear it time-compressed like that, because of Tommy’s frame of reference. It’s still hard to comprehend, though. Only twenty-one years had passed, barely a generation later, and we were back to slaughtering each other again. It’s a wonder we had anyone left to fight.

For the first time, Torchwood voices the question (which also figures prominently in Battlestar Galactica), “Are we worth saving?” It works, because it’s Tommy saying it. Tosh’s answer is immediate, “Yes, wars and all.” Her faith in humanity is answered by Tommy’s faith in her, and he declares he’d do anything for her. This is as close to “I love you” as this episode will get, and for me, it works. Two ordinary people can’t say these kind of things to each other, because they have to live together afterwards. Tosh and Tommy are working under artificial constraints that enable them to say these things and allow us to believe them. Tosh believes it, too, as her shy smile demonstrates. Unfortunately the moment is interrupted when Tommy feels “something;” the helpful sound effects give us a clue that things are about to get interesting.

Demolition begins at St. Teilo’s; a worker breaks through an outside wall. Jack sees a pair of ghosts, a nurse pushing a soldier, singing, in a wheelchair; Owen calls in that he’s noticing activity there. Gwen, down a different corridor, sees another pair of ghosts, and is unsettled when one of her ghosts tries to shoo her away. Throughout these scenes, the lights are flickering. I get that flickering lights are an easy visual for “something weird’s happening,” but I don’t get why a building that is in the process of being demolished would have live electricity.

Tosh and Tommy have forgotten whatever that fleeting “thing” was and have left the pub. They’re chasing each other around in the most innocent kind of flirting; Tommy finally works up the nerve to kiss her. Tosh’s reaction is typical Tosh; she pulls back and says “Thanks.” Thanks? Tommy wonders about that, and Tosh, being Tosh, can’t get past that she’s older than him. Of course he brings up the fact that he was born in 1918 and he’s old enough to die for his country, and so if she thinks he’s not old enough to kiss her, well, “You’re daft, lass.” Tosh has no answer for his arguments. As to what they should do next, I loved this bit: “We could go back to mine, but there’s only room for one and it’s bloody freezing.” Tosh, inwardly wondering what her apartment looks like after this morning’s frenzy, agrees they can go back to her place.

That, of course, is when her cellphone rings and they get called back to Torchwood. The team is assembled around the table, and Jack explains what’s going on. No matter how many times I watch this episode, it never makes any more sense, so I won’t bother repeating it. It’s enough to say pieces of 1918 are starting to drop into our timeline, and if they don’t fix it, very bad things will happen. Jack does this thing with a crumpled piece of paper that convinces everyone else how Terribly Important it is to stop this process, but he never explains why or how this is happening, or how they’re going to fix it—or even how he knows how to fix it. Again, the reliance on magic technology is annoying.

Tosh and Owen are dispatched to the hospital to put up Rift monitors, and Owen again warns Tosh about her involvement with Tommy. It’s a bit more clear here that Owen is finally realizing what he could have with Tosh, and it’s such a relief that they’ve decided to let Owen grow up a bit. As much as I never bought his devastation after Diane left him, I appreciate that they’re using that loss to inform his character now. “You’re close,” he tells Tosh, and she acknowledges they are, that she doesn’t have to pretend with Tommy. Burn Gorman’s delivery of his next line is one of his best all season, “I don’t want you to get hurt, if you have to say goodbye.”

Gwen, combing the files for details they may have missed, sends Owen downstairs, and reads a detail from the file to him. Owen’s able to match up the description to a colorful billboard visible through that new hole in the wall. Whatever it is that’s going to happen, it’s not in the future, it’s now.

Tosh’s Rift monitors all start beeping and the lights begin to flicker. Back at Torchwood, the sealed orders open. Happily, Jack is there when the cover pops off the temporally-locked box; and I’m reminded again how silly that is. What if no one was there? What if it were still stuck in a cupboard somewhere? As I said, happily, Jack’s there, and he removes a thick envelope from the container. He opens it, and takes out several sheets of folded paper, each covered with small, densely-spaced handwriting. Ianto comes in, excited to see that the box has opened. “Instructions?” he asks. Jack nods, telling him, “For Tommy,” he continues reading, “and Toshiko.”

Once again the team is assembled around their conference table, and Jack tells them they’ve got 12 hours until the time fracture opens, making 1918 and their present co-exist for a brief time. Tommy has to go back, taking a Rift manipulator with him, and close the fracture. His life will become a “stitch in time” holding everything in place. Why? How? Don’t ask, because really, who cares? What we care about now is Tommy and Toshiko, what’s to become of them?

Jack takes Tosh out to speak privately while Ianto delivers Tommy’s original outfit back to him: “I guess I’ll be saving the world in some pajamas. How daft is that?”

Tosh gets the worst of this deal by far. Alone with Jack, she immediately asks, “What happens to him?” Jack explains that Tommy dies three weeks after he’s sent back, executed for cowardice. More than 300 WWI British soldiers were executed. (Posthumous pardons were granted to the executed men in 2006.) Toshiko is devasted by this information; she insists that she can’t send Tommy back just to die. Jack replies, “It has to be you,” showing her a sketch from the sealed file. It is, of course, Tosh. She agonizes that Tommy doesn’t know, and what she will do if he asks. Jack knows she’s strong enough to do what must be done.

Now that the plans are set, they’ve got the whole night to kill. There’s a great “let’s ignore the elephant in the room” conversation where Gwen, Owen, and Ianto all pretend that they’ll play cards and drink till the morning with Tommy, when they all know exactly how he wants to spend that time. Tosh, emerging from her conference with Jack, sweeps the pretense away and says brightly, “He can spend the night with me.” No one dares exhale until Jack gives it the OK, telling them to meet tomorrow at 6:30AM.

At Toshiko’s apartment, she tells him, “I worried that you’d see me getting old.” They have no time for games now, and are completely open to each other, knowing this is the only time they’ll ever have together. They embrace, and the camera pulls back to Toshiko’s antique digital clock. The numbers trip over from 23:59 to 00:00; it’s Tommy’s last day at Torchwood.

We cut away to Jack and Ianto, in Jack’s office. Ianto muses that they’re sending Tommy back to his proper time, and segues to asking Jack if he would go back to his own time if he could. Jack’s answer is perfect in a rambling, round-about way, talking about things he has seen, people he’s loved that he never would have met if he had stayed home. “I wouldn’t change that for the world,” he says, looking into Ianto’s eyes. There’s the slightest of pauses, just a breath, then they kiss, and it’s every bit as passionate and tender as the kisses that Tommy and Toshiko shared.

In the darkness, Tommy asks Toshiko, “What happens to me?” Tosh lies just a little, telling him he’ll be redeployed to the front lines. So she lets him understand he’ll die, but not how, sparing him that, at least.

Soon enough it’s time, and they’re all at the hospital, but only Tosh and Tommy can be there when the Rift opens. As the time approaches, Tommy loses his nerve, and Anthony Lewis, who up until now has been tender and funny and sweet, really sells this speech, Tommy finally unloading everything he has endured. “I can’t go back,” he says. He knows he’s going to die. “Why me?” He drops the manipulator, rejecting his mission. Jack repeats that it has to be him, he’s the one who’s here, now, the only one who can go back. Tommy looks from Jack to his beloved Toshiko, and excoriates them, “You’re no better than the generals, sitting safely behind the lines, sending us over the top.” This is so hard on Tosh, especially his last, “All this time I’ve had, it means nothing.” He sinks, defeated, to the floor.

Jack tries to get Tommy up, but Tommy resists. Tosh sends Jack away, and goes to Tommy herself. She remembers what he said in the pub, and tells him, you’re a hero, you save us all. But Tommy rejects that, quite sensibly. He doesn’t want to be a hero. He wants to stay with Toshiko—and then the Rift opens, and Harriet and Gerald are there, and Toshiko is once again pleading with Tommy to tell them, tell them what to do. Just as before, he does.

The Rift closes, but our Tommy’s still in 1918, which shouldn’t be possible but we’ll just ignore that for now. The nurse comes in and sees Tommy there; she’s quite annoyed that he has wandered so far and hustles him back to the ward. As they come in, we see Harriet and Gerald lead 1918’s Tommy out; the bed is still warm when our Tommy gets into it. He’s still holding the Rift manipulator, but he doesn’t have a clue what it is, because once he got back to 1918, everything that had happened to him in the future was lost. He’s back to being poor shell-shocked Tommy, and he’s more confused than ever now.

In the present, the fracture’s not closed, and time is leaking through “all over the place.” Jack is prepared to step through the Rift to close the fracture, but no one likes that idea, he’ll be stuck in 1918—again. Owen gets an idea, which apparently will only work because they know exactly where and when Tommy is, and because they have his blood. They don’t even bother to explain how this works, or where this technology comes from, and it’s just as well, because no one would buy it anyway: somehow or other they can make a psychic projection from someone in our here-and-now to Tommy back in St. Teilo’s in 1918, and only he will be able to see and hear it. Got that? If so, you’re better than I am, but I’ll repeat, the technology is not the point here.

Toshiko says she’ll go, displacing Jack yet again. In no time at all, there she—or at least a projection of her—is, sitting at the edge of Tommy’s bed. “It’s me, Toshiko,” she says, and it has to hurt when Tommy says, “Who?” Even shell-shocked, Tommy manages pretty well. “Is this yours?” he asks, holding up the Rift manipulator. Toshiko explains that it’s his, and that he has to use it to fix what’s happening. In 1918, they’re experiencing the fracture as an earthquake, with the requisite flickering lights. Tommy admits he’s scared, insisting he’s a coward; he doesn’t know what he’s fighting for. Tosh answers steadily, “For the future. For me,” and then reaches back to that pub conversation and says those words he promised would work, “because you’re my brave, handsome hero.” Tommy works the key, and we see some Rift pixie dust flutter away. Tosh says “Thank you,” but Tommy answer “Good-bye,” as if some part of him recognized something. Then the Rift flares, and Tosh is enveloped in white light, and she comes back to Torchwood.

Back in our time, the fracture closes, eventually pulling all those random time bulges back in. The world is safe, but that doesn’t make Tosh feel any better about sacrificing Tommy. She carefully folds and repacks Tommy’s street clothes, originally purchased for him in 1919 or thereabouts, a fine commentary on the timelessness of classic British menswear. Owen sees her and thinks better of saying anything. As she’s leaving, Jack thanks her, but she can only nod. We see her at the waterside, at the railing she and Tommy had been flirting at just the day before. Owen goes to her. “He trusted me right till the end,” she says, unable to forgive herself. “Because you were strong,” Owen counters, “All of this is still here, because of you.” But Tosh refuses to be comforted. “Because of Tommy,” she corrects him. “Let’s hope we’re worth it.” She walks away, the play of emotions across her face continuing until she passes the camera.

Characters make this episode, plot devices nearly destroy it. I’m fine with Rift detectors and the occasional alien artifact. I’m even willing to give them a pass on cryogenics, but I’m not fine with a 90-year-old temporal lock on a box that sits in cupboard until it doesn’t, and coincidentally that’s the day it opens. I’ll give them a pass on the wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff (another reason Jack’s crumpled paper ball analogy failed me) but psychic projection? Owen’s idea, which Jack immediately recognized? I feel like I missed a meeting. Could Davies and Raynor throw us a bone and toss in an unrecognizable alien name to explain where this capability came from? We’ve slid way too far down to the “magic” end of the technology/magic continuum.

With all that out of the way, I can admit I enjoyed this episode for several reasons. Torchwood is British science fiction and thus has a completely different historical perspective than American sci-fi, which usually, narcissistically, reflects only American history and influences. But World War I was fought mostly without us, and the US lost roughly a tenth of the men that Great Britain did. Most Americans now can live their entire lives without hearing or seeing a reference to the World War I; it’s good to get a reminder.

Our national character is shaped by our history, and Torchwood calling back to WWI informs the series’s recurring theme. As Tommy said, there is always a war on somewhere, and Torchwood’s war is strictly covert but every bit as serious. They’re the tiniest army with the most significant mission. But what about those huge armies, all the boys the generals sent over the top? We can never forget them, for without them, we wouldn’t be where we are today.

I admire the skill with which Davies and Raynor boiled all this down into two characters, one familiar, and one new. Guest casting was once again superb; it consistently delights in this series, and here, Anthony Lewis had excellent chemistry with Naoki Mori. And it was delightful to see Toshiko emotionally involved without becoming fatally weakened by her feelings, as she was in “Greeks.” Of all the regulars, only Gwen was stuck being the exposition vehicle; everyone else got to advance their character arc a bit. We can see Owen’s increasing interest in Toshiko, and Ianto and Jack’s relationship continuing to deepen past banter and sex.

Best of all, I love how Torchwood can take a fracture in time that threatens to undo our reality and use that crisis to frame a story about love and sacrifice, the horrors of war and the burdens of command. Why are we fighting? In every war, the answer is the same, for the future. Are we worth it? I agree with Toshiko: yes, we’re worth it, wars and all. Last season I complained that Torchwood was too ambivalent in its view of humanity; so far in season two, they’ve found a good balance. I’m fine with Torchwood pointing out our horrific weaknesses as long as they don’t decide we’re too far gone to save.

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

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

2.5

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The Third Day
Photo: Robert Ludovic/HBO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3

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We Are Who We Are
Photo: Yannis Drakoulidis/HBO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4

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I May Destroy You
Photo: Natalie Seery/HBO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3

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Lovecraft Country
Photo: Eli Joshua Ade/HBO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: In My Skin Is a Bitingly Poignant, If Cluttered, Coming-of-Age Story

Though it doesn’t provide room for a fully formed character arc, the series is driven by its performances and mordant humor.

2.5

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In My Skin
Photo: BBC

Sixteen-year-old Bethan Gwyndaf (Gabrielle Creevy), the protagonist of Hulu’s In My Skin, has a lot going on in her life. She’s the only responsible member of her household, essentially acting as caretaker for her bipolar mother, Trina (Jo Hartley), and constantly at odds with her layabout, alcoholic father, Dilwyn (Rhodi Meilir). And she’s often the only voice of reason among her best friends, Travis (James Wilbraham) and Lydia (Poppy Lee Friar), who seem to always get into trouble whenever she’s not around. She’s also nursing a desperate crush on Poppy (Zadeia Campbell-Davies), the popular girl at school.

Bethan is a compulsive liar, so obsessed with fitting in at school that she spins elaborate stories of a home life filled with cultural activities and fancy renovations to cover for the reality that she spends much of her time taking care of Trina and tracking down Dilwyn. Her obsession with crafting a perfect external image of herself makes it impossible for her to form emotional connections with anyone, even people who genuinely care for her. Travis and Lydia, for example, want to support her in the same way she supports them, brushing off their questions about her family life and never even letting them inside her house.

Bethan is smart and sensitive, and Creevy makes the character, with her conspiratorial smile and natural aversion to being told what she can and can’t do, easy to like—even as Bethan frustratingly and steadfastly refuses to let anyone in. In My Skin’s Welsh-born creator, Kayleigh Llewellyn, based Bethan and Trina on herself and her own bipolar mother, and there’s a lot of raw emotion in the interactions between the two characters, ranging from tender and loving to harsh and hurtful. The short-tempered Dilwyn, inspired by Llewellyn’s late father, has no patience for Trina’s unstable mental state, leaving her to wander the streets or tying her to the radiator to make sure she stays in the house. Her parents’ combative dynamic often leaves Bethan stuck in the middle of them, attempting to play peacemaker.

As volatile as Bethan’s family relationships can be, In My Skin still has plenty of humor, emanating from Bethan’s biting wit and frequent flights of imagination, during which she casts herself as the romantic hero in Poppy’s life, as well as a poet whose words are illustrated with perfume commercial-style images. Bethan’s occasional voiceover narration is an inconsistent element of the series, but her self-aware commentary is a welcome counterpoint to her infuriatingly self-sabotaging behavior. While having Bethan explain her inner thoughts can easily become a narrative crutch, In My Skin could have benefited more from Bethan’s reflective observations, which give us a deeper understanding of her often impulsive decisions.

All the more important since the first season’s five half-hour episodes don’t provide enough room for Bethan’s arc to fully take shape, moving her only a short way down the path toward maturity and ending just as she’s starting to assert herself at school, harnessing her way with words to run for student body. Her relationships with her fellow teens remain stunted, and her potential coming-out journey takes a back seat to her need to care for Trina and insulate her from trauma. Llewellyn isn’t afraid to confront the dark elements of Bethan’s life—the way poverty, mental illness, homophobia, and substance abuse combine to weigh her down. That her personality shines through at all is both a testament to Creevy’s performance and the character’s determination to make a better life for herself, however misguided.

That personality is what drives In My Skin, and Bethan’s self-sufficiency is a big part of what makes her so compelling. No matter what delusion or altercation Trina involves her in throughout the show’s first season, Bethan always comes back, taking on a responsibility that she never asked for and shouldn’t have to handle on her own. If she doesn’t always know how to balance that responsibility with everything else going on in her life, at least she’s approaching every new setback with appealingly mordant humor.

Cast: Gabrielle Creevy, James Wilbraham, Jo Hartley, Poppy Lee Friar, Zadeia Campbell-Davies, Rhodri Meilir, Alexandra Riley, Di Botcher, Aled ap Steffan Network: Hulu

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Review: Peacock’s The Capture Wears Its Topicality Impersonally on Its Sleeve

The series sucks the juice out of its pop-cultural reference points, failing to mine our current nightmares on its own terms.

2

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The Capture
Photo: BBC/Heyday Films/Nick Wall

Ben Chanan’s The Capture wears its topicality on its sleeve, principally concerning the CCTV security cameras that monitor London’s streets and which number in the hundreds of thousands, averaging out to one camera per dozen or so people. The casualness of the cameras’ presence throughout the Peacock series is unnerving, suggesting how easily privacy can be annihilated with little in the way of pushback from the populace.

Chanan’s concerns, though, aren’t existential ones, as he’s fashioned a murder mystery that laboriously connects modern surveillance to social media, war crimes committed in the Middle East, rising notions of fake news, and whistleblowers like Edward Snowden—all of which are referenced explicitly in the show’s dialogue. Weirdly, the sociopolitical Easter eggs often feel beside the point, serving as window dressing for an impersonal game of cat and mouse.

Shaun Emery (Callum Turner) is a British soldier accused of killing a member of the Taliban during a tour of duty in Afghanistan after the man had already surrendered. Surveillance footage from a body camera seems to validate this assertion, until Shaun’s bannister, Hannah Roberts (Laura Haddock), establishes a lag between the audio and the video feeds of the footage, casting doubt on the evidence. Shaun, Hannah, and others celebrate his acquittal at a local pub, after which the two kiss on the street, pointedly in view of a CCTV camera. She leaves, never to be seen again. When footage surfaces of Shaun hitting Hannah and dragging her out of the camera’s sight, he denies any involvement, but he’s immediately accused of a second crime that’s supported by theoretically objective evidence.

This is all essentially setup, and Chanan threatens to stuff his concept up to the breaking point of contrivance. Investigating the case is Rachel Carey (Holliday Grainger), a brilliant and ambitious detective inspector with a stereotypical taste for stylish jackets and a penchant for playing by her own rules. Her superiors and peers castigate Rachel for her drive, which scans less as an acknowledgement of sexist double standards than as Chanan’s need to define his characters by signpost dialogue. Shaun eludes Rachel, who’s convinced of his guilt, until she begins to uncover a wealth of evidence that connects Shaun’s two murder investigations, as well as a celebrated case in which Rachel foiled a potential terrorist attack.

The twist-a-minute The Capture is compulsively watchable, but we’ve seen much of this before. In addition to 24, which similarly pulled the rug out from under its audience with endless, sometimes ingenious reversals, The Capture also recalls Andrew Davis’s The Fugitive, as well as seemingly every jargon-laden investigative crime show on TV.

Shaun and Rachel are ciphers with stock backstories, and the show’s dozens of other characters often fit into easily recognizable archetypes, from the jealous sidekick to the estranged, earnest wife, to the icy authority figure with shady motives. As the latter, Detective Superintendent Gemma Garland, Lia Williams acquits herself better than much of the rest of the cast, commanding the screen with seeming ease. And in a small, mysterious role, Ron Perlman revels in a sense of understatement, suggesting a bored, bureaucratic comfort with authoritarianism that’s both eerie and funny.

What The Capture doesn’t have is the sense of violation that made 24 such an unmooring experience in its best seasons. That show’s protagonist, Jack Bauer, was a charismatic hawk who did things that most people to the left of Dick Cheney would find monstrous. Kiefer Sutherland allowed you to see the humanity and the savagery of Bauer, which rendered the character all the more disturbing. Whatever its faults, 24 is a distinctive, authentic reaction to the political atrocities that marked the post-9/11 world.

By contrast, the violence of The Capture is just noise to further the plot. Even the notion of doctored surveillance footage has been examined before and more artfully, especially in Philip Kaufman’s atmospheric Rising Sun. A newer element of our surveillance state, social media, is mentioned obligatorily but is barely explored. The Capture sucks the juice out of its pop-cultural reference points, failing to mine our current nightmares on its own terms.

Cast: Holliday Grainger, Callum Turner, Laura Haddock, Cavan Clerkin, Ginny Holder, Barry Ward, Ben Miles, Peter Singh, Lia Williams, Sophia Brown, Ron Perlman, Famke Jansen Network: Peacock

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Review: The Optimism of Japan Sinks: 2020 Leads to a Curious Emotional Remove

The show’s reticence to dig into hopelessness and pain leaves its admirable optimism to feel strangely artificial.

2.5

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Japan Sinks 2020
Photo: Netflix

The latest adaptation of Japanese science-fiction writer Sakyo Komatsu’s 1973 disaster novel Japan Sinks comes to us in animated form, overseen by prolific director Masaaki Yuasa at Science Saru, the studio he co-founded. The Netflix series wastes little time dishing out the apocalyptic imagery promised by its title: Soon after a low-level earthquake hits Japan, a stronger one follows, causing buildings to crumble and pound bystanders into a gory paste beneath the rubble. The Earth vomits gas and magma, and the ground violently splits open, only to be jammed back together into new, alien configurations.

Rather than the scientific and political perspectives of Komatsu’s novel and its previous adaptations, however, Japan Sinks: 2020 takes a markedly more personal viewpoint of the mixed-race Muto family and the companions they pick up along the way. Coupled with some surprisingly spare and soothing music on the soundtrack, the depictions of the family’s early reunion suggest a defiantly optimistic take on the large-scale disaster story, a focus on togetherness and a celebration of the human capacity to adapt even amid utter turmoil. In one scene, the Muto patriarch, Koichiro (Masaki Terasoma), uses colored lights to illuminate some trees the way he once did at their ruined home, guiding the family back together.

As bodies rain from the sky, though, Japan Sinks: 2020 shows its teeth. Characters die in sudden, jarring ways, disorienting the viewer in a similar fashion to these travelers whose only option is to press forward on an island that can offer them no refuge. Throughout the series, these characters are mostly defined by archetypal qualities, with new ones introduced almost as soon as others are lost. This gives the Muto clan’s odyssey something of a mythic quality as they make their way through symbolic destinations, from an open, seemingly empty grocery store to a community that practices kintsugi, a Japanese art of pottery repair.

The show’s limitations become apparent when it slows down midway through the season, no longer relying on the pure momentum of its plot twists and striking images of environmental devastation. When Japan Sinks 2020 actually allows space for us to absorb the characters’ deaths, you may feel as if there’s little to mourn. With a few exceptions, they’re primarily vehicles for shock and dire twists of fate rather than people to empathize with.

Yuasa’s prior Netflix series, the gonzo Devilman Crybaby, injected some disarming positivity into its own increasingly bleak premise, and in a way that made its tragedies feel even more devastating. But the optimism of Japan Sinks: 2020 doesn’t function quite the same way since, here, it’s the overriding ethos, with characters who are more than willing to come together despite catastrophe and pain and displays of self-interest like nationalism.

While this idea is noble, the series moves on from the tragedy of these characters’ lives so quickly that we never get a sense of the totality of their grief. The result, despite no shortage of daring escapes, is a disaster story whose harried pace and reticence to grapple with hopelessness and pain renders it artificial, keeping us at an emotional remove.

Cast: Reina Ueda, Tomomi Muranaka, Yuko Sasaki, Masaki Terasoma, Kensho Ono, Umeji Sasaki, Nanako Mori Network: Netflix

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Review: Little Voice Is a Twee, Navel-Gazing Depiction of Creative Struggle

Created by Sara Bareilles and Jessie Nelson, the series positions its protagonist as a bastion of artistic purity.

1.5

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Little Voice
Photo: Apple TV+

As the first episode of Little Voice begins, aspiring singer-songwriter Bess King (Brittany O’Grady) is still traumatized from being laughed off stage after attempting to perform one of her original songs. Bess’s fragile ego is a major impediment to the launching her music career, and it takes the rest of the season for her to just feel truly comfortable on stage again, a pretty meager payoff considering it takes nine episodes to reach that point.

Bess’s friend and manager, Benny (Phillip Johnson Richardson), assures her in a later episode of the series that artists are meant to be moody, but Bess goes beyond that, as she’s an entitled, ungrateful narcissist, petulantly pushing away friends and family if they don’t conform to her arbitrary moral standards. Even worse, there’s very little about her supposed talent that could justify the behavior that Benny excuses on the basis of artistic brilliance.

Created by singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles and filmmaker Jessie Nelson (who previously collaborated on the Broadway musical Waitress), Little Voice positions Bess as a bastion of artistic purity, first asserting that she writes songs only for herself, and later fending off industry figures’ attempts to have her record songs written by other people or compose music for others. When she gets a chance to record in the legendary Electric Lady Studios, she rebuffs suggestions from a jaded engineer (Luke Kirby) and her guitarist, Samuel (Colton Ryan), to make changes to one of her songs, and both men later acknowledge that she was right.

But there’s little sense that Bess has anything of importance to say with her music, which at one point she describes as “Alessia Cara meets Carole King” but just sounds like Sara Bareilles B-sides. Her precious piano-driven dirges all sound the same, which makes it tough to feel the intended emotional impact of songs often written in response to the events of a particular episode. O’Grady, who was a regular on Fox’s musical drama Star, has a clear, resonant voice, and it’s easy to envision her as a mainstream pop singer, but Bess’s songs always sound smooth and polished, which contradicts their supposed purpose as messy personal statements.

The audiences arrives at an understanding of just how messy Bess’s personal life is through a tedious dramatization of love triangle that puts her in the middle of two bland, sensitive hunks. She first connects with video editor Ethan (Sean Teale), who works in a storage unit next to the one that Bess rents as a practice space (the series emphasizes her financial hustle with jobs as a bartender, dog walker, music tutor, and busker, but she somehow affords rent for both a storage space and half of a gorgeous New York City apartment). Of course, Ethan has a girlfriend, and Bess is later romantically drawn to Samuel, but both men mostly pine from the sidelines while Bess strings them along for the entire season.

Being inconsiderate and presumptuous seems to run in Bess’s family, and the show’s most frustrating character is her mentally disabled brother, Louie (Kevin Valdez), who lives in a group home but constantly relies on Bess for every pretty much everything. Louie is obsessed with Broadway and even has his own catch phrase (“Wonder of wonders!”), and his relationship with Bess is meant to display her compassion and dedication, but it mostly just proves that she’s incapable of holding him accountable for his behavior. Just as Bess seems to expect her friends to cater to her every shift in mood, Louie expects the same from his sister.

Their relationship comes off as a codependent nightmare, and Louie’s blind faith in Bess’s talent is as misguided as her indulgence of his every whim. At one point in the series, a music executive condescendingly describes Bess’s music as “darling.” While that’s intended as a dubious insult, it captures the twee, navel-gazing tone of Little Voice.

Cast: Brittany O’Grady, Phillip Johnson Richardson, Colton Ryna, Sean Teale, Kevin Valdez, Luke Kirby Network: Apple TV+

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Review: HBO’s Perry Mason Examines Power and Faith Amid a Fog of Decay

The series is gory and dour with a bone-deep cynicism, but it’s also optimistic in its own small way.

3

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Perry Mason
Photo: HBO

A dead baby appears not five minutes into HBO’s reboot of Perry Mason. Left on a rail car at Angels Flight in Los Angeles, the child’s eyes are stitched open in hopes of fooling the frantic parents just long enough for the kidnappers to abscond with the ransom money. The grotesque image is certainly far from the show’s last, but it functions as a statement of purpose: Creators Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald intend to grit up the world of Erle Stanley Gardner’s criminal defense lawyer, who was most famously depicted on the CBS television series starring Raymond Burr that aired from 1957 to 1966.

The new Perry Mason is set in 1932, and at the outset, the eponymous character is a private investigator, and hardly the respectable kind. Paired up with the sardonic Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham), he’s not above taking illicit photos of a movie star at a studio’s behest, hoping to prove a morals clause violation. Matthew Rhys brings a thick haze of disillusionment to his character, who wears a lot of stubble and an expression of perpetual weariness. Reconceived in the mold of reluctant prestige TV heroes, Mason is a man adrift, with few opportunities during the Great Depression, and so he tries (unsuccessfully) to squeeze his employers for more cash, though he still misses out on paying the child support he owes.

Mason’s lawyer pal, E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow), brings him in to work with E.B.’s associate, Della Street (Juliet Rylance), on the kidnapping case. The law jabs an accusatory finger at the grieving parents, Matthew and Emily Dodson (Nate Corddry and Gayle Rankin), leaving the defense to contend with dirty cops and cover-ups in addition to following a trail of money that loops through the local evangelical church. A lot of the story beats are the usual stuff of noir, with people you can’t trust mixed up in systems you can trust even less, but the series uses its central case and characters to tug at the different threads of a rich societal tapestry, deftly posing questions about religion, race, sexuality, and gender roles as the world unravels.

Amid dramatic courtroom monologues from E.B. and various scenes of Mason probing crime scenes, the case quickly becomes a media circus. Reporters mob the courthouse steps alongside throngs of protestors howling for blood; the Dodson kidnapping captures the imagination of the public because, despite multiple scenes that show people gasping at others dropping profanities, their interests run toward the morbid and the salacious.

The spotlight throws marriage dynamics into sharp relief, with Emily Dodson vilified on the stand for displaying sexual agency or disinterest in a husband who keeps her in the dark about their finances. Any guilt or shame over their child’s death on her part is framed as a confession in the eyes of the vicious, grandstanding district attorney (Stephen Root). Reactions from the main characters and the general public depict a wider culture of apathy, bigotry, and especially misogyny amid an economic downturn that stokes everyone’s most desperate instincts for survival. The show’s world is a richly rendered fog of decay and hopelessness; people who can make a living do so off secrets, as with E.B.’s questionable financial records or the compromising photos that Mason develops at his dead parents’ desolate farm.

The public hungers for escape, and they get it from the movies, sensational newspaper stories, or from the sense of community provided by a religion that demands their money and devotion in return. They fixate on violence, on victims and victimizers as expressions of their own powerlessness, while others take whatever small power they can, under whatever label. Officially, Della Street is E.B.’s secretary, but it’s immediately clear that the scatterbrained old-timer couldn’t run the office without her, as she empathizes with and advocates for women like Emily in a way that the men often don’t. Paul Drake (Chris Chalk), who goes on to be a frequent investigator in Mason’s employ, is here reconceived as a black cop, an outsider in a system that wants little to do with him beyond what it can use. He becomes disillusioned with his place in that system, as the other characters similarly confront their own powerlessness.

Perry Mason’s concern with power is most clearly seen in Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany), who gets to stand on the evangelical church’s stage and theatrically preach, her position as the church’s mouthpiece sometimes clashing with the moneymen who run the place behind the scenes. The show’s focus on religion can be strained at times, as the church subplots feel tangential to the main case, but its prominence clarifies Perry Mason as a series that’s also about faith, religious and otherwise. Here, faith is eminently vulnerable, often taken advantage of by charlatans but also necessary to keep a person going—a faith in humanity to look beyond societal conditioning and the corruption snaking its way through every angle of civilization. Faith isn’t always rewarded. The series is gory and dour with a bone-deep cynicism, but it’s also optimistic in its own small way, an origin story that chronicles how its characters find a means to fight rather than serving as dejected, disgusted observers.

Cast: Matthew Rhys, Juliet Rylance, Chris Chalk, Shea Whigham, Tatiana Maslany, John Lithgow, Gayle Rankin, Stephen Root, Lili Taylor, Nate Corddry Network: HBO

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Review: Season Three of Search Party Embraces a More Madcap Sensibility

Season three rivals its predecessors in its intoxicating blend of bleak cynicism and irreverent comedy.

3.5

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Search Party
Photo: Jon Pack

The third season of Search Party, the exceptionally nimble dramedy created by Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers, and Michael Showalter, returns after a hiatus of two and a half years but begins right after the events of the second season’s finale. Dory (Alia Shawkat) has just been arrested for the murder of her quasi-associate and ex-lover, Keith, and as a cop takes her mugshot, she chuckles at something he says—resulting in a beguiling portrait of Dory, wearing dark red lipstick, with one eyebrow raised and a roguish half-smile fixed on her face.

The ever-ravenous press and public latch on to Dory’s mugshot, turning her and the legal case against her and her boyfriend, Drew (John Reynolds), into a national spectacle. The series, in turn, takes a gripping dive into Dory’s psyche, sharply revealing how her place in the spotlight magnifies her anxieties. In contrast to the defining visual of Search Party’s first two seasons—a tracking shot of Dory, which prioritized her reactions and impressions over the stimuli eliciting them—season three often depicts her in faux news reels and talk-show clips. Rather than centering Dory as she moves through the world, these sequences freeze her in a still image, embodying her objectification at the hands of the media frenzy. The alienation she feels as tabloid fodder eclipses what she once felt as an aimless personal assistant.

But Dory is far from powerless, as she’s remarkably adept at steering the narrative of both her life and the trial. One of her most formidable feats is a television interview alongside her estranged parents (Jacqueline Antaramian and Ramsey Faragallah), which successfully presents the illusion of a unified front. And she seems to like the attention, as when she humors the paparazzi posted outside her apartment, or when she melodramatically regales the partygoers encircling her at a friend’s wedding with tales of fame’s woes.

Search Party’s earlier seasons found joltingly dark humor in the absurdity of four clueless, sheltered, relatively young adults playing detective and then committing and covering up a murder. This season rivals its predecessors in its intoxicating blend of bleak cynicism and irreverent comedy, but embraces a more exaggerated, madcap sensibility. Recognizing that court is an inherently theatrical space—and a magnet for outsized personalities—the series drops Dory down the rabbit hole and surrounds her with near-unbelievable weirdos. Bob (Louie Anderson), Drew’s lawyer, spouts a wonderful blend of banal aphorisms and pulpy zingers. “Oh, this city,” he drones upon arriving in New York from Chicago, “so much chaos out there.” And Bob is joined in court by two other similarly odd and hilarious attorneys: Cassidy (Shalita Grant), Dory’s rookie lawyer, and the overzealous prosecutor, Polly (Michaela Watkins). The trial, shepherded as it is by a trio of clowns, drives the season’s tonal shift as it quickly devolves into a circus-like farce of shoddy evidence and shaky testimonies.

Dory and Drew’s friends Elliott (John Early) and Portia (Meredith Hagner) are back, but where past seasons deepened their outwardly shallow personalities, this season frequently relegates them to inconsequential, if funny, subplots. The treatment of Portia is particularly disappointing: Previously, a surprising acuity flickered within her, but the series tosses that potential nuance aside, doubling down on the ditzy obliviousness at her surface.

Ultimately, though, the simplicity of the non-Dory narratives is of a piece with the trajectory that Search Party has outlined over its run thus far. The series is Dory’s story, told in an obsessive manner as befits her swelling narcissism. And the strangeness of the trial hints, perhaps, at the world as seen through Dory’s eyes—and as tinged by her growing delusion. Dory is prone to hallucinations and fantasies, and her mental state only worsens under the psychological toll of the trial. At one point, Drew wonders if Dory’s claims of innocence are just a legal strategy, or if she really believes that she didn’t do anything.

And she’s still keeping her greatest secret—that she killed April, the neighbor who knew about Keith’s murder—but Drew is on to her. That Dory remains at least slightly sympathetic throughout all this is a testament to the subtle expressiveness of Shawkat’s performance. Dory’s torn emotions course through Shawkat’s face; the character’s survival instincts flash in her eyes when she’s cornered, when her control of situations starts to falter.

Rare are the moments, however, in which Dory’s power is truly at risk of slipping. One of the season’s most striking shots embodies her insidious influence on those around her. Dory, Portia, and Elliot sit and lie down in a line, playing with each other’s hair; Dory combs Portia’s while Portia runs her fingers through Elliott’s. Drew is opposite them, on the couch. They’re all quiet, thoughtful, reflective. But Dory, with Portia’s hair in her hand, resembles a puppet master. As the camera slowly zooms out, the moody electronic soundtrack kicks in, an echo of Dory’s unceasing calculations. Aspects of the blocking recall Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam: Drew’s no God, but Elliot stretches out like the first man—and Dory is behind both him and the woman closest to him, plotting, the serpent just off-canvas.

Cast: Alia Shawkat, John Reynolds, Meredith Hagner, John Early, Shalita Grant, Michaela Watkins, Louie Anderson, Raphael Nash Thompson, Clare McNulty, Brandon Micheal Hall, Claire Tyers, Christine Taylor Network: HBO Max

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