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Understanding Screenwriting #60: Boardwalk Empire, How I Met Your Mother, Castle, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #60: Boardwalk Empire, How I Met Your Mother, Castle, & More

Coming Up in This Column: Boardwalk Empire, How I Met Your Mother, Two and a Half Men, Mike & Molly, Castle, Hawaii Five-0, Undercovers, The Defenders, The Whole Truth, 30 Rock, CSI, Blue Bloods, Desperate Housewives, but first…

Fan Mail: I figured David E. would provide his usual insight and perspective on Lord Love a Duck (1966) and he did. And, sorry David, but Black Narcissus is way over the top. And don’t call me Shirley.

Diego Sulic hopes that Nikita will stick around, but is afraid it will go the way of other shows such as Bionic Woman and Dollhouse. This is always a problem fans have with television. We may love a show, but if it does not get high enough ratings on the over-the-air networks or cause enough talk or win enough Emmys on cable, it goes away. I did not watch any of the new Bionic Woman and only one episode of Dollhouse, so I can’t say much on either one except that Dollhouse just didn’t grab me. See if any of the shows I cover in this all-TV column float your boat.

Boardwalk Empire (2010. “Pilot” written by Terrence Winter, based on the book Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City. 75 minutes.)

Mommy, do I have to watch this?: Yes, son, it’s not tv, it’s HBO. But mommy, we’re watching it on our— Son, it’s directed by America’s Greatest Living Filmmaker. Aw, Mom, after Gangs of New York (2002) not even Harvey Weinstein is still saying that about Marty. Well, son, it’s created by one of the Emmy-award winning writers of The Sopranos. Come on, mom, you know I could only get through one episode of The Sopranos. I just don’t care about gangsters any more. But son, it’s about America. No mom, it’s a regional— Son, I am going to wash your mouth out with soap if you EVER use the term “regional” about anything connected with the East Coast of the United States. You know that is the term we use only for the South, the Midwest, the West, and in the case of George A. Romero, Pittsburgh.

Well, it’s not as bad as I was afraid it was going to be, but the pilot took a LONG time to get going. Yes, it starts with an action scene (hijacking a bootlegger’s delivery truck), but then takes God’s own time to get back to who’s doing the hijacking and why. The period is set precisely: the beginning of Prohibition in 1920. According to Adam Stovall’s article on the series in the September/October 2010 issue of Creative Screenwriting, Winter debated for a long time as to when the series should start. Given that this is going to be a long series, I think he guessed right. He establishes Nucky Thompson, based the real life character Nucky Johnson, as both the treasurer of Atlantic City and someone with his finger in a lot of not-so-legal pies. And some other things; yes there is the obligatory bare breast scene. Winter changed the character’s name so he could play around with where his Nucky might go and what he might do, a smart move. The problem I had from almost the beginning is that I did not find Nucky that interesting as a character. When he realizes, late in the episode, that Prohibition is not going to be as easy to deal with as he first thought because of the violence involved, he becomes more interesting, and as the series goes on, he may develop.

The other characters are pretty much standard issue. If you have seen any Warner Brothers gangster movies of the ‘30s, you have seen them all before. Unfortunately, since this is HBO, it moves at a snail’s pace, without the speed or the energy of the Warners films. One potentially interesting character is Margaret Schroeder, a lower class woman who asks Nucky to get a job for her husband. Nucky doesn’t but gives her some money, which the husband finds. He beats her up, and Nucky’s boys get revenge on him. For now, Margaret is just sort of sad-eyed, but Nucky obviously likes her and an interesting relationship may develop. A point is made in the script that women are on the verge of getting the vote. Given the women characters in The Sopranos, I hope more is done with Margaret and the other women. As often happens when Scorcese directs, the women characters are underserved. As I talked about in discussing this year’s Shutter Island in US#43, Scorsese is a rather humorless director and he skims right over what could have been some funny lines. I look forward to seeing what other directors do with the material.

How I Met Your Mother (2010. “Big Days” written by Carter Bays & Craig Thomas. 30 minutes.)

How I Met Your Mother

Nope. Still haven’t met her yet.

Two and a Half Men (2010. “Three Girls and a Guy Named Bud,” teleplay by Dan Foster, Eddie Gorodetsky, & Jim Patterson, story by Chuck Lorre & Lee Aronsohn. 30 minutes)

Two and a Half Men

Is he coming back or is he in the slammer?: This episode looks as though it was first conceived when nobody knew whether Charlie Sheen would be able to show up for the season, due to his legal difficulties in Colorado. He did, and so his Charlie appears, but in a secondary role. Secondary, but not without interest: Charlie has decided to swear off drinking, but he is not very successful at it. Meanwhile Alan is getting it on with Lyndsey, the mother of Eldridge, one of Jake’s friends. Lyndsey is played by Courtney Thorne-Smith, who usually plays goodie-goodie types. Lyndsey seems like one of those, but her inner bitch pops out from time to time. Alan and Lyndsey have not told their kids about the affair, so this episode deals with them finding out.

More importantly, the show is finally getting around to Jake’s sex life. You may remember I have been complaining that they haven’t for two years. When Alan comes home, he sees a teenage girl sneaking across the patio from Jake’s room. Then another one. Jake is grilled by Alan, Charlie, and of course Berta. Jake makes a convincing case that the girls are surfers who were going to sleep in their car to hit the waves early, and that Jake let them stay in his room and his bed while he slept on the floor. Of course Jake would do that. Except that later at his mother’s house, we see one of the girls sneaking out of her backyard. And they are twenty miles from the beach. When Alan, Lyndsey, Eldridge and Jake have dinner together, Jake mentions the girls are surfers. Eldridge starts to say they are not, but Jake shuts him up. Well, finally, we are going to get into some promising material that the writers have been avoiding. Maybe the concerns over Sheen returning will end up being good for the show.

Mike & Molly (2010. “Pilot,” written by Mark Roberts. 30 minutes.)

Mike & Molly

Is that a fat joke in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?: This is a new sitcom, created by Mark Roberts, who has been one of the staff writers on Two and a Half Men for years. The set up is that a large-sized Chicago cop, Mike, meets a large but not-quite-so large schoolteacher, Molly, and they start dating. The pilot was, you should pardon the expression, larded with fat jokes. Since we are supposed to be sympathetic to Mike and Molly, that seems self-defeating. One hopes the writers will cut down on the fat jokes as the show develops.

So far the characters are also standard issue. Mike is a large cop, and the comedian playing him, Billy Gardell, is not particularly expressive as an actor. He can deliver jokes, but he will need more than that. Especially since he is up against the wonderful Melissa McCarthy (Sookie in The Gilmore Girls) who currently can eat him for breakfast. Mike’s partner is a fast-talking black guy, Molly’s mom is snippy and Molly’s sister is a slut. This is what the Eve Arden part in all those great ‘30s comedies has come down to: instead of a smart woman, we get a sleazoid.

Castle (2010. “A Deadly Affair,” written by Andrew W. Marlowe. 60 minutes.)

Castle

Nice comeback: When we left Castle and Beckett at the end of the first season, he was involved with his ex-wife and she was involved with Detective Demming. He went off for the summer to write a book, indicating he would return in the fall. Well, here it is in the fall and he hasn’t shown up. Beckett’s a little pissed, since her thing with Demming went south. So then the cops find Castle at the scene of a murder. With a gun in his hand. This leads to a nice scene in the interrogation room. We have been in the room a lot, but never with the kinds of overtones that Marlowe has here. Eventually B&C make a bet: if he can solve the case, he can come back and work with her. If she solves it, he has to stay away forever. Yeah, guess who is going to win that one. He does, and we are back in the saddle.

Hawaii Five-0 (2010. “Pilot” written by Peter M Lenkov, developed by Robert Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Peter M. Lenkov, based on the series created by Leonard Freeman. 60 minutes.)

Hawaii Five-0

One block of wood replaces another: The original Hawaii Five-0 was one of the longest running police on television, going from 1968 to 1980. It was also one writers hated to write for, since they had to put up with the diva-ish behavior of its star Jack Lord. Jack Lord had done minor film work; you probably didn’t even realize he was the first Felix Leiter in Dr. No (1962). The show made him a star and he believed every word of his publicity. One of the legendary stories about the writing of the show involved writer Eric Bercovici. He got fed up with Lord and wrote a final page in a script in which the villain pushed McGarrett off a cliff, looked down at the body and said, “McGarrett’s dead.” He turned in the script. Bercovici said later, “They got hysterical. Lennie [Leonard Freeman) was having a big contractual problem with Jack Lord at the time, and kept threatening him with Steve Forrest. Lennie said, ’By God, we’ll shoot it the way it is.’ However, the next day they said, ’Could you give us the real page?’ which I’d already written.”

At the time of the first Hawaii Five-0, William Paley, the owner of CBS, insisted that all his shows star adults. When Eric Fleming, the star of Rawhide, died, Paley refused to let the showrunners promote the younger second lead because he was too young. Clint Eastwood was in his early thirties at the time. Nowadays, the focus is on younger leading men, so Steve McGarrett in this version is, like Eastwood at that time, in his early thirties. The actor playing the part, Alex O’Laughlin, has starred in two previously unsuccessful series, and he is, alas, just as much a block of wood as Lord was. However, since he is not yet the diva that Lord became, the developers and writers have created a much more interesting gallery of characters to surround him than Freeman was able to do in the earlier version. In the ‘70s series, McGarrett’s assistant, Danny “Danno” Williams, was not given much to do other than “book ’em.” The new Danno is a real wiseass and Scott Caan eats McLaughlin for breakfast (yes, there was a lot of that on the first week of the new season). In the original, the team was an official part of the Hawaii State Police, but in this version they are a special investigative unit answering only to the governor. In the ‘70s, Chin Ho Kelly was just another cop. Here he is a cop who was thrown off the force for some kind of malfeasance (my hands were full of buttered popcorn as I watched this—my DVR was smoking the first week of the season—and I was not as thorough taking notes as I usually am). In the original, Detective Kono was a large male cop. Here Kono is not fat, not male, and only just graduated from the Police Academy. In the pilot she does not show all the martial arts moves Maggie Q does in Nikita (see US#59), but Grace Park is a more expressive actor.

The writers do not have to deal with Jack Lord, but they do have to remember what the real star of the series was: Hawaii. We get a lot of gorgeous locales in the pilot, and I am sure there are more to come.

Undercovers (2010. “Pilot,” written by J.J. Abrams & Josh Reims, created by J.J. Abrams & Josh Reims. 60 minutes.)

Undercovers

What a concept: bantering spies: This is Abrams in his Mission: Impossible mode. Steven and Samantha Bloom have been out of the spy business for five years and are now running a catering service. Suddenly, Carlton Shaw, of the Agency, shows up and asks them to track down one of their former colleagues who has gone missing, Leo Nash. They are reluctant, but if they don’t agree, there is no show. So off they go to Madrid, then a castle in Spain for a dance, then Paris, and finally Moscow, where we get the obligatory shoot-out in a warehouse. It looks as though the film crew, or at least a second unit crew, has gone to all of those places. This gives the pilot a very expensive look, but the trailers for the second episode (I am writing this before it airs) look a lot more restricted in terms of budget.

The writing, alas, is rather unfocused. The marriage of Steven and Samantha is supposed to be in a down period, but that is not dealt with. The suggestion is that all the spy games revitalize their marriage, but that’s pro-forma. My biggest complaint was that Steven and Samantha seem to pick up exactly where they left off, without a moment’s hesitation. Surely they would not still be as good at martial arts as they were. Nor would they be as up-to-date on the equipment. I would have thought the writers could get a little more mileage out of how rusty their tradecraft has become. Of the supporting characters, Gerald McRaney’s Carlton has his moments, but that is more McRaney than the script. Boris Kodjoe as Steven and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Samantha are gorgeous to look it and more expressive than Maggie Q, but the banter they have been given is not up to the banter on Burn Notice or Covert Affairs or White Collar or…

The Defenders (2010. “Pilot,” written by Neils Mueller & Kevin Kennedy. 60 minutes.)

The Defenders

Ah, the return of the great Reginald Rose series: Alas, no. The 1961-65 series was one of the great series of the period, but it took the law and its place in society very seriously. Aside from Law & Order we like our lawyers a little funnier these days. See the two contrasting stills from The Defenders and LA Law in my book Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing. David E. Kelly has a lot to answer for.

Pete, the handsome one, gets dressed after an encounter with a flight attendant, then takes their firm’s new associate into an arraignment and leaves her there while he goes off on another case. Nick, the pudgy one, thinks the wife he is separated from is having an affair and has her tailed. The Prestons never did anything like that back in the ‘60s. But this not only is now, but now in Las Vegas, and it is clear from the billboard the two partners are having put up near the Strip that they are not going to be dealing with high-class clients. Which could mean more fun for us. Unfortunately, the case we spend the most time on in the pilot is a standard lawyer-show case (guy accused of murder refuses to take a plea bargain, goes to trial and our guys get him off) that could happen in any town. The relationship between Pete and Nick is by far the most entertaining element in the pilot, and the writers can do a lot more with the Vegas as a provider of cases. Why, they can even try a case against client based on testimony from some of those CSIs who work in Vegas.

The Whole Truth (2010. “Pilot,” created and written by Tom Donaghy. 60 minutes.)

The Whole Truth

No, Jerry Bruckheimer does not produce The Defenders, but he does produce this one: Wait a minute. Blow ’em Up Bruckheimer? Yes. Bruckheimer the producer of the CSI franchise? Yes. Is there a disturbance in the Force? No. In the book of Understanding Screenwriting, in the Not-Quite-So Good section, I deal with the script for Bruckheimer’s production of Pearl Harbor (2001). I mention that underneath the production bombast of his films, there are very often interesting scripts, which is why he has had more success in television than a lot of bigger film names.

The idea here is an ingenious one. We follow one court case all the way through, intercutting between Deputy D.A. Kathryn Pearle and her prosecution team, and attorney Jimmy Brogan and his defense team. In the pilot, this works out rather well. The first act follows the prosecution, the second act the defense. We see what the prosecution knows and when they know it, and the same with the defense. Act three intercuts between them, and then acts four and five are the trial. It is tricky, but Donaghy makes it work, and his and producer Jon Wallace and Bruckheimer’s job is going to be finding writers who can work in that structure, the way Dick Wolf did with Law & Order.

In the pilot Rob Morrow is a bit over-the-top as Jimmy, although reviewers who have seen later episodes say he tones it down. Kathryn is the always-welcome Maura Tierney, recently of ER. You may have read that Tierney was in the pilot for Parenthood but had to drop out because she developed breast cancer. My wife had breast cancer many years ago, and for the last fifteen years she and I have raised money for breast cancer research by my walking in the Revlon 5K Run-Walk every May. Tierney said in an interview in Parade magazine that if she had her particular kind of cancer years ago, they would not have been able to diagnose it, but recent research made it possible to catch it at an early stage. It’s nice to know that at least a little of the money my wife and I raised did some good. Welcome back to the Show, Ms. Tierney. My wife and I are glad to have helped you be here.

30 Rock (2010. “The Fabian Strategy,” written by Tina Fey. 30 minutes.)

30 Rock

Liz Lemon! In a real relationship!: Several people writing about 30 Rock over the years have criticized the show for not being fair to Liz in her private life. The complaint is that the show makes it seem impossible for a woman with a real job to have a satisfying relationship with a man, or a woman, for that matter. I assume that Fey and the writers have not wanted to get into this too much since it could change the nature of the show, turning it into a domestic sitcom. Nobody wants to see that. So what Fey and the writers started in the last couple of episodes last spring was a story about Liz meeting Carol, an airline pilot, who seems perfect for her. But perfect is a problem, which begins in this episode to show us the reasons Liz has had trouble with men.

Fey has said in the lead-up to the season premiere that she hopes this season to deal with relationship issues. It is probably smart they have waited this long, since we now have a gallery of wonderful supporting characters who can comment on her love life. Jack gets the honors this week. Jack is pushing Liz to take her relationship to the next level, but Liz is reluctant. She is happy just seeing him every few weeks between flights. The twist is that he is not. He breaks down to her and tells her he wants all the standard relationship stuff. She finally agrees to try, but without very much enthusiasm.

CSI (2010. “Shock Waves,” written by David Weddle & Bradley Thompson. 60 minutes.)

CSI

Didn’t we just see this earlier this month on The Closer?: A nasty person is setting up to kill a lot of police at a memorial service/funeral. In the season ending episode of The Closer, Brenda Leigh get the bad guy before he does any damage. In this episode of CSI, the attack comes at the funeral of the police officer who was killed in the last episode of last season. Somebody has put a bomb in the coffin and another on a gravestone. But those are just to frighten people to run toward the parking lot, where a much bigger bomb is placed inside a van. Fortunately Nick, who was with the cop when he was killed, has been asked by Brass on behalf of the family to, well, get out of their sight. So he figures out something is wrong with the van and manages to save people’s lives. So then the gang is off trying to figure out who did it. They do, or at least one of them. An explosion at the end after the first bomber is killed proves that, as Catherine says, it’s not over.

If the plot is familiar, the best part of the writing is our guys dealing with Ray’s near-death at the hands of Dr. Jekyll as well as Nick’s dealing with the aftermath of the shootout that killed the cop. CSI usually doesn’t go into such depth with the emotional toll working the cases takes, and it’s nice to see it here. The best scene is Dr. Robbins, the ME with artificial legs, visiting Ray in the hospital and giving him a beautiful walking stick. Just a little scene between friends and co-workers, but nice.

Blue Bloods (2010. “Pilot,” created and written by Robin Green & Mitchell Burgess. 60 minutes.)

Blue Bloods

The ’stache is back: Yes, I know, Tom Selleck has been doing the Jesse Stone television movies, but here is he back in a series. The pilot is a bit lumpy, as pilots often are.

We are focusing on the Reagan family. Henry (Len Cariou) is a former chief of police in New York. Frank (Tom Selleck) is his son and the current chief. One of Frank’s son, Dannie (Donnie Wahlberg), is a bend-the-rules detective. Frank’s daughter, Erin (Bridget Moynahan), is a deputy D.A. A middle son died in the line of duty, so the youngest son Jamie (Will Estes), has given up law school and become a cop as well. Yes, we get the inevitable family Sunday dinner where they argue about different approaches to law enforcement. Was Danny’s putting a suspected pedophile’s head in a toilet to find out where the kidnapped child, who desperately needed insulin, was being hidden really necessary? Frank brings up the old “if you knew the terrorist had a bomb…” business. By the end of the meal, there are only a couple of people still at the table. Are all their family dinners like this?

Selleck’s Frank does not have much to do in the pilot, since we spend most of the time with Danny doing standard cop action. Like the law case in The Defenders, the genre stuff is the least interesting. The characters do not yet get beyond standard issue, but they are developable. It will be a question of finding the balance between characters and plot and getting the most out of both.

Desperate Housewives (2010. “Remember Paul?,” written by Marc Cherry. 61 minutes.)

Desperate Housewives

Easy question for Sondheim fans: what lyric is “Remember Paul?” from?: As I wrote in US#24, Marc Cherry ran out of Sondheim song titles and started using bits of lyrics for episode titles. For those of you non-Sondheim fans, “Remember Paul?” is from “I Am Not Getting Married Today” from Company.

Oh, yes, the show. Mostly this season opener (which was hardly hyped at all, since ABC probably assumes it will be its last season) is setting up plots and characters for the new season. Paul, Mary Alice’s husband, has been freed from prison, since Felicia Tilman, whom he was assumed to have killed, turns up alive. She is still out to get him for killing her sister, which he did in fact do. Now Felicia is in jail, but at the end of the episode she tells her cellmate she is going to arrange to have Paul die, and can do it because she had friends on Wisteria Lane. Paul meanwhile has rented Susan’s old house and intends to buy his former house and obviously has a plan to get revenge on the people who did not support him at his trial.

Carlos finds out from the hospital that Juanita is the baby who was exchanged with another baby by a nurse, but he is afraid to tell Gaby. Although given how Gaby gives Juanita a hard time about everything, I would think she’d be glad to get rid of her. Gaby has learned it was Bree’s son Andrew who killed Carlos’s mother, and she is afraid to tell Carlos that.

The most interesting development is the arrival of Wilhemina Slater—oops, sorry, Renee Perry, Lynette’s friend from college. Renee is married to a New York Yankee and usually flies Lynette out to New York for their visits. She shows up on Wisteria Lane and she and Lynette trade zingers, as they admit they always do. But the zingers get a little edgier than normal, and Renee tells Lynette her husband cheated on her and she is going through a divorce. So we have a new vamp on the Lane. And a nice new playmate for Felicity Huffman. I would not have immediately thought that Huffman and Vanessa Williams would have such good chemistry, but do they ever. Hijinks will ensue.

Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.

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Review: Servant Is an Unrelentingly Strange Examination of Grief and Denial

The show’s control of tone and atmosphere soon becomes even more engrossing than the story’s mystery itself.

3

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Servant
Photo: Apple TV+
Editor’s Note: This article contains plot spoilers.

On paper, the premise of Apple TV+’s Servant sounds simple enough: New parents Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) and Sean (Toby Kebbell) hire a nanny, Leanne (Nell Tiger Free), to take care of their infant son in their Philadelphia home. It’s a ritzy place, with a fully stocked wine cellar and a spacious kitchen for chef Sean to test out his elaborate recipes. When coupled with the show’s musical score of discordant, jittery strings and atmosphere of uneasy stillness created by long takes and peculiar camera angles, however, everything simply feels off, even before it’s revealed that the child, Jericho, is dead.

What lays motionless in the crib is actually just a silent, unblinking doll meant to placate Dorothy, who suffered a psychotic break following Jericho’s sudden death. Beyond a handful of instances throughout the season where she stares listlessly into the distance as if on the cusp of some revelation, she treats the Jericho doll as though it’s alive and well. The bitter, curmudgeonly Sean plays along, but when he’s alone, he’s content to drop the thing on the floor or knock its head against the crib. Hiring Leanne is just one more part of the charade, until one night Sean finds a living, breathing, crying infant in the doll’s place.

Much of the series follows Sean as he tries to figure out what’s going on, and with the help of Dorothy’s high-strung, perpetually wine-drunk brother, Julian (Rupert Grint). They investigate where the baby could have possibly come from and dig into the background of the prim, devoutly religious Leanne, whose presence coincides not only with the return of the new Jericho, but with Sean getting splinters from nearly every surface he touches. Dorothy resumes her work as a newscaster none the wiser, but her bright, outgoing demeanor—an extreme contrast with the sullen, dickish Sean—keeps putting their newly living baby at risk of discovery when she invites people over or insists on bringing him to work.

It’s a supremely weird setup for a series made only weirder by the way it builds atmosphere through the use of jarring sounds and an austere visual language. Though most of the season’s episodes noticeably lack the ambitious directorial hand of M. Night Shyamalan—who’s an executive producer on the show and helmed two episodes—cinematographer Michael Gioulakis maintains an unnerving mood through close observation of seemingly mundane actions. By holding so long on faces and often employing overhead angles, the camera lends a sort of voyeuristic, almost alien-like tinge to the proceedings.

And the close-ups are uncomfortably close, particularly with the constant focus on Sean’s cooking that finds him meticulously pulling apart the flesh of eels, lobsters, and squids. At other times, he’s seen tugging splinters out from his neck or inside his mouth. Whether something actually does happen when the camera lingers on Sean shoving something into the garbage disposal, the potential for disaster always seems to loom large. In such moments, it’s as though grief, denial, and pain coalesce into one suffocating presence.

Servant’s mystery unfurls at a satisfying clip, since it’s broken up into brisk half-hour chunks that always present some new complication. Episodes rarely leave Dorothy and Sean’s home, locking us inside to watch everyone seethe and fall apart. In the absence of traditionally horrific imagery, the show emphasizes an unrelenting strangeness not only through Sean’s increasingly odd recipes, but through things like a man vigorously dabbing sauce from his slice of chicken before, for no apparent reason, wrapping it in napkins and then squeezing the food between his fingers. The season ends, perhaps expectedly, with more questions than any particularly satisfying answers, but in similar fashion to shows like Twin Peaks, its control of tone and atmosphere soon becomes even more engrossing than the mystery itself.

Cast: Lauren Ambrose, Toby Kebbell, Nell Tiger Free, Rupert Grint, Phillip James Brannon Network: AppleTV+

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Review: Season 3 of The Crown Makes Progress Look and Feel Wearisome

The series homes in on the growing chasm between royal expectations and public norms.

2.5

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The Crown
Photo: Des Willie/Netflix

Season three of The Crown lacks the urgency that previously made the Netflix series so engaging. This is partly due to the more subdued relationships between the older members of the House of Windsor, now settled into their various roles as sovereign, husband, sister, and wife. Only a few years have passed between seasons, but Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman), her husband Philip (Tobias Menzies), and sister Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter) have accumulated a deep weariness that can be enervating to behold.

This season, the countercultural politics of the Swinging Sixties nurtures a new sense of awareness around the myriad hypocrisies and criticisms of aristocratic life. The series homes in on both economic inequality and the growing chasm between royal expectations and public norms, with the British crown’s traditional nonpartisan position becoming increasingly detrimental to its image. The antiestablishment spirit of the time seeps into Buckingham Palace via the small rebellions of Princess Anne (Erin Doherty), now a miniskirt-wearing, David Bowie-loving young woman. And it’s through her that the monarchy makes small but significant steps toward changing its perception as an outdated institution.

The Crown’s first two seasons tapped into the allure of a world insistent on formality. The ‘60s, though, bring a new set of societal challenges that redefine the relationship between the Windsors and their American counterparts, especially in the episode “Margaretology,” in which Margaret takes a tour of the States. Her spontaneity and charisma—the very qualities that make her a liability to the monarchy’s rarefied image—help Elizabeth to win over President Johnson (Clancy Brown), who dreads the codified etiquette that dictates their countries’ “special relationship.” Johnson doesn’t care about exclusive invitations to Balmoral Castle; he’s happy with dirty jokes and drinking contests that fly in the face of royal protocol.

The crown’s relationship to the British people is also changing, as highlighted in “Bubbikins,” which chronicles the impact of the infamous 1969 BBC documentary Royal Family. One of Philip’s public relations projects is to make the Windsors seem more appealing to the masses, but in his vanity, he fails to understand the importance of mystery and ritual to their public image. Royalty is the ultimate spectacle, and The Crown valiantly attempts to illuminate the psychological and emotional toll it takes on those who have little control over their lives. But it’s more than a little difficult to feel sympathy for the royals when the prince consort is seen trying to explain why the queen deserves more taxpayer money.

Despite Philip’s efforts to sweeten their image, the Windsors’ most likeable member is as un-royal as it gets: his mother. At turns fragile and fearless, Princess Alice (Jane Lapotaire) is a welcome mid-season addition, providing a much-needed contrast to her son, who’s still itching to find meaning in his life. Where Alice is selfless and warm, Philip is consumed by the need to micro-manage everything around him. As the younger Philip in the show’s first two seasons, Matt Smith was palpably angsty, but in Menzies’s hands, the neurotic prince is drawn ever inward. And a highlight of the new season is an entire episode concerned with his midlife crisis. Set during the events of the 1969 moon landing, “Moondust” is a sensitive exploration of masculine insecurities, and in no small part for the way Menzies calls upon reserves of pathos to chart his character’s miserable descent into self-pity and spite.

The most prominent thread running through The Crown’s third season is the dualities in people’s lives. It’s in the juxtaposition of the royals’ public and private selves, the ever-present chasm between aristocratic and common society, or the much more personal struggle of characters reconciling individual desires and duties. There’s plenty of fertile ground to explore this dynamic, as almost every character is in a state of conflict, from Elizabeth, who struggles to show genuine humanity to her people, to Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor), who reckons with his destiny as the future king. Within their rigid world, the royals pursue their desires in their own little ways—Charles with his love of the performing arts, Elizabeth with her beloved racehorses at Sandringham, Anne with a casual fling that surprises her family.

Toward the end of the season, even Margaret has a fleeting taste of happiness outside of the public eye, before getting sucked back into the vortex of her unhappy marriage. It’s impossible for the Windsors to fully escape the demands of the crown; several extended family scenes see even the most individualistic characters obediently falling in line. Elizabeth is ultimately the only character who digests and accepts this reality without much drama. Colman brings a hard-won confidence to the queen, who weathers changes and hard decisions with the mettle of a ruler who recognizes the importance of self-reliance and stability.

The title of the season’s first episode, “Olding,” is a play on Elizabeth’s age (and the code name of a K.G.B. spy), setting the tone for the queen’s private musings on the trajectory of her reign. The episode is an exploration of appearances and what they conceal, with a number of pieces of fine art and literary metaphors hammering that point home. During a pivotal moment in the season premiere, the Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, Anthony Blunt (Samuel West), gives an overblown lecture about the layers of deceit and multiple meanings lurking within Renaissance art—and the moment is followed by a longwinded scene that overcomplicates an otherwise simple allegory about hidden identities and trust.

The Crown presents a network of relationships that are more meaningfully connected by ringing telephones, newspaper headlines, letters, and electric buzzers than face-to-face communication. The show’s royal family is “alone together,” settled in their identities and the demands of their station. Philip only reconciles with his mother after reading an article about her in the papers, and one of the season’s most heartening scenes depicts Alice and Philip walking arm-in-arm together in the gardens of Buckingham Palace. Young Elizabeth once confronted Philip about what he does and where he goes, but she’s since risen above these small concerns. Given the queen’s inability to show her feelings, it’s fitting that the season closes on a note of solitude and isolation. In her own words, “One just has to get on with it.”

Cast: Olivia Colman, Tobias Menzies, Helena Bonham Carter, Jason Watkins, Ben Daniels, Marion Bailey, Josh O’Connor, Charles Dance, Jane Lapotaire, Erin Doherty, Emerald Fennell, Gillian Anderson Network: Netflix

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Review: For All Mankind Prioritizes Cynical Alternate History Over Character

The series suffocates its promising characters with the tedium of backroom politics.

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For All Mankind
Photo: Apple TV+

According to For All Mankind, if the Soviet Union had landed humans on the moon before the United States did, the space race would have continued at full speed, escalating from moon landings to the building of lunar bases to cosmic subterfuge. But the Apple TV+ series, created and written by Ronald D. Moore (of Battlestar Galactica and Outlander fame), Matt Wolpert, and Ben Nedivi, sluggishly leads to little of interest. For All Mankind prioritizes its alternate history’s tedious political maneuvering over its characters, suffocating their development and deflating emotional payoffs.

Navy veteran and astronaut Edward Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman) is the primary focus of the series. In an early scene, set in 1969, he’s sitting in a bar in Houston, watching on TV as a Russian cosmonaut steps on the moon. Ed was on Apollo 10, a trial run for Apollo 11, which in the show’s alternate history is a footnote in the space race. Now, he and crewmate Gordo Stevens (Michael Dorman) strive to get back to space and break new ground.

Most of the show’s supporting characters come and go as if at random. For one, steely astronaut Molly Cobb (Sonya Walger) and her endearing hippy husband, Wayne (Lenny Jacobson) become central figures and then inexplicably, and disappointingly, disappear. Often, characters exist less to provide a human perspective on the space race than to represent issues, a problem that’s more acute when it comes to the show’s women. Some of them—like astronaut Danielle Pool (Krys Marshall) and Tracy Stevens (Sarah Jones), Gordo’s wife—propel more substantial narratives whose social commentary informs, rather than supplants, their personhood. But others, such as engineer Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt) and Ed’s wife, Karen (Shantel VanSanten), are merely stand-ins for forces and experiences like sexism in the workplace and the trials that servicepeoples’ families endure.

After the Soviets land a woman on the moon, President Nixon—who’s depicted via archival footage overlaid with recordings, both authentic and fabricated—wants to do the same, which sets up an episode about the training of female astronauts. When the Soviets are expected to establish a military presence on the moon, Nixon and the Pentagon move to ramp up their own, which cues an arc about the creation of a lunar base. Throughout For All Mankind, NASA higher-ups, beholden to the president, ceaselessly relay his demands to Director of Flight Crew Operations Deke Slayton (Chris Bauer) and Flight Director Gene Kranz (Eric Ladin) over in mission control, but all their exhaustingly repetitive policy debates siphon attention away from the human beings whose lives they shape.

As For All Mankind proceeds, however, it shifts its focus from broad political mandates to the specificities of its characters. One episode that centers around three astronauts penned up in a claustrophobic lunar base is among the show’s most evocative. The astronauts spend nearly half a year sleeping in cramped bunks, pickaxing moon rocks, and eating goo. When they intently and gravely tinker with an off-screen item, the stakes feel life-or-death, but a cut to the subject of their concern reveals a damaged VHS tape, one of their six episodes of The Bob Newhart Show. The crew watches the episodes on repeat, eventually reenacting one in a welcome act of catharsis. But later, when an astronaut feverishly acts out all three parts in a scene from the Newhart series, we see how much these people have given up, how profoundly it can hurt to be so far away from home.

One of the show’s notable revisions of the historical record is its portrayal of Ted Kennedy having succeeded Nixon as president, along with the former’s triumphant push to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. Kennedy initially wants to bring the moon-marooned astronauts home—a relief crew is repeatedly delayed from replacing them—but he ultimately tolerates their stranding because the lunar outpost distracts the nation from his ongoing sex scandal. These and other dynamics fuel the show’s deeply cynical framing of the space race not as a struggle for key geopolitical advantage or a fight for national principles, but as a conflict as fruitless and myopic as a dog’s quest to catch its own tail.

Cynicism suffuses the series both subtly, with its framing of NASA as a pawn of the
president’s administration, and overtly, with Wernher von Braun (Colm Feore), the German aerospace engineer who designed the Saturn V, saying that “every political system is flawed, and every bureaucracy is corrupt.” Soviet points of view are almost entirely absent from the series, but the American cronies on hand justify his mistrust.

Such disenchantment occasionally generates intriguing reflections on imperialism, discrimination, PTSD, and more. It also renders the earnestness of a side plot about a young girl, Aleida Rosales (Olivia Trujillo), and her father, Octavio (Arturo Del Puerto), jarring in contrast. The pair immigrates to the U.S. from Mexico, and Aleida develops a fascination with rockets and space, as well as formidable skills in math. She’s poised to become an engineer, maybe even an astronaut, one day. The suggestion, here, is that the American dream is alive and well. But it seems that Aleida will have to leave Earth to find it.

Cast: Joel Kinnaman, Michael Dorman, Shantel VanSanten, Chris Bauer, Sarah Jones, Colm Feore, Wrenn Schmidt, Sonya Walger, Krys Marshall, Jodi Balfour, Nate Corddry, Eric Ladin, Rebecca Wisocky, Arturo Del Puerto, Olivia Trujillo, Lenny Jacobson, Dan Donohue, Wallace Langham Network: Apple TV+

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Review: Apple TV’s See Feels Startlingly Uncommitted to Its Bonkers Concept

The series struggles to sensibly lay out the particulars of its post-apocalyptic feudalism.

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See
Photo: Apple TV+

Apple TV’s post-apocalyptic drama See will undoubtedly be sold on the credentials of those involved, from director Francis Lawrence to star Jason Momoa to writer-creator Steven Knight. Knight is best known for TV dramas like Peaky Blinders and Taboo, but his most relevant credit is one that will certainly go unmentioned in trailers and other marketing materials for the series: the stupefying, bonkers Matthew McConaughey fishing-centered noir Serenity, as See suffers from a similarly bizarre, overreaching concept.

In See’s vision of the future, only a couple million people are still alive, almost all of them blind. Society has, for some reason, gone feudal, with everyone decked out in furs and living in huts and broken up into different tribes. They call the sun the “god flame,” and, at the behest of tyrannical Queen Kane (Sylvia Hoeks), they burn heretics who espouse the mostly forgotten idea of vision. The three-months pregnant Maghra (Hera Hilmar) is taken in by a remote community headed by Baba Voss (Momoa), who marries her. When she gives birth, it’s to twins who can see just fine. This, of course, being heresy, Baba Voss and the rest of the village flee from Kane’s witchfinders, building a new home in a remote location to keep the children safe.

The show’s opening credits display wispy yellow shadows of things like horses and spiders to suggest recognition even through blindness. Beyond that, though, See feels startlingly uncommitted to its gimmick of a blind world. The series is filmed in bog-standard fantasy style, all wide vistas, expansive greenery, and ominous smoke in the distance with seemingly no concession for how its characters’ perception of the world might differ from the audience’s. There’s a near-total absence of subjective camera work here, a sense of how the characters might have to rely on touch, sound, or smell to navigate. Barring a person’s occasional stumble to find their footing or moving a hand along a guiding rope tied across the top of the village, everything unfolds so expectedly that it’s easy to forget the show’s concept entirely.

Even with interminable amounts of exposition in the three episodes provided to press ahead of the show’s premiere, Knight struggles to sensibly lay out the particulars of this post-apocalyptic feudalism in terms of government, social hierarchies, and basic navigation between settlements. Everyone is incongruously well-groomed and color-coordinated, even going so far as to wear hoods when burning people at the stake despite no one being able to see their faces. Gory battle scenes include someone like Voss groping around for a handhold only to swing his blade to perfectly meet an enemy’s throat the very next moment.

See is at its most engaging when it allows itself to get truly silly and weird: A naked woman in white paint follows people unnoticed because she’s said to purge herself of thought, and Queen Kane prays via masturbation, concluding each invocation in the throes of orgasm. But the majority of Knight’s series is a self-serious dirge, where sight-based wordplay like “So they just walk around with their eyes closed?” is delivered with a straight face. In the end, See’s myriad absurdities somehow add up only to a run-of-the-mill dystopia, where the children are the “chosen ones” and the tyrant must be overthrown.

Cast: Jason Momoa, Sylvia Hoeks, Hera Hilmar, Alfre Woodard, Christian Camargo, Archie Madekwe, Nesta Cooper, Yadira Guevara-Prip, Josh Blacker, Christian Sloan Network: Apple TV+

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Review: The Morning Show Boldly Navigates the Nuances of the “Me Too” Era

The series is an uneasy, sometimes nauseating, and often fascinating examination of our current moment.

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The Morning Show
Photo: Apple TV+

In the third episode of The Morning Show, two disgraced men sit down after a spirited tennis match and chat over scotch and Chinese takeout. One, a film director of apparent renown (Martin Short), tells the other—Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell), a TV anchor recently accused of sexual misconduct and fired from his job co-hosting the nation’s most beloved morning show—that he feels bad for people coming of age in the #MeToo era. “There’s nothing sexy about consent,” he says. When Mitch responds with visual discomfort, the director revises his statement: “I guess what I’m saying is, humanity happens in the unspoken moments.”

Mitch claims that his only sin was engaging in consensual “extracurricular sex.” But while the three episodes provided to press ahead of the show’s premiere don’t confirm exactly what Mitch did or didn’t do, and while he expresses genuine contempt for unequivocal predators, we’re granted hints of the unspoken moments he may have orchestrated. At one point, Mia Jordan (Karen Pittman), a producer on Mitch’s former show, enters Mitch’s abandoned dressing room and presses a button under his desk, which automatically closes the door.

Earlier, Mitch receives a surprise visit from Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston), his longtime co-host. He’s been cooped up in his house, surrounded by reporters, for days. The two clearly adore each other, and when Alex starts to leave, Mitch begs her to stay. His pleas are unnervingly murky: They may be the innocent symptoms of his loneliness and isolation, or they could be glimpses of the tactics he uses to keep women where they don’t want to be.

Alex is furious at Mitch for leaving her on her own, at executive producer Charlie Black (Mark Duplass) for keeping her in the dark about the allegations, and at the network itself for the bitter contract renegotiation it’s putting her through. The network is represented largely by Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup), an executive who’s dismissive of hard news and devoted to entertainment. He’s a delightfully odd highlight of the series, less traditional suit than android: unblinking, unreadable, and teetering on the edge of going haywire.

The rage that Aniston summons as Alex is beguiling. She slams her fists on conference tables and roars at her staff, achieving a catharsis that’s at odds with the passive aggression that permeates The Morning Show. But when she interviews Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon), a firebrand reporter from West Virginia who’s gone viral thanks to a candid video of her passionately telling someone off at a protest, Alex demonstrates a subtler wrath; thinking that the viral video was part of a scheme for fame, she asks increasingly antagonistic questions. Bradley, though, stands her ground, and the electrically pointed but within-bounds exchange escalates like a polite knife fight. Bradley’s resolution, verve, and popular appeal catch Cory’s eye, making her, unknowingly, a candidate to replace Mitch.

Bradley is predominantly limited to her outsider-ness—being a moderate conservative from a rural locale—and clichés about both-sides journalism that undercut her supposed radical streak. But Witherspoon infuses the character with scrappy charm and complexity, namely in Bradley’s uncharacteristically tender interactions with her brother, a recovering drug addict. Mitch, meanwhile, is thoroughly ostracized. Carell delivers bursts of pathos that disconcertingly temper Mitch’s grotesque rants, but the series uses Mitch as too broad a stand-in for the fallen man. A conversation between him and Charlie feels as though it’s meant purely to squeeze in boilerplate talking points about “McCarthyism” and “the court of public opinion” (and to make the insufferable Charlie even less sympathetic).

In its introductory episodes, however, The Morning Show mostly avoids trite, glib, or otherwise thoughtless writing. The series takes on the risky goal of humanizing Mitch—albeit inconclusively, for now—and carefully navigates the minefield of its sensitive subject material. Propelled by its magnetic performances, the series is an uneasy, sometimes nauseating, and often fascinating examination of our still-unspooling current moment.

Cast: Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, Steve Carell, Billy Crudup, Mark Duplass, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nestor Carbonell, Karen Pittman, Desean Terry, Janina Gavankar, Bel Powley, Jack Davenport, Victoria Tate, Tom Irwin Network: Apple TV+

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Review: Season 2 of Jack Ryan Leans Hard on Generic Action and Stale Plotting

The occasionally thrilling series relies on generic action cribbed from other, more distinct espionage fiction.

1.5

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Jack Ryan
Photo: Jonny Cournoyer/Amazon

Early in season two of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, C.I.A. analyst Jack Ryan (John Krasinski) lectures a rapt audience of college students, defining for them the meaning of the term “failed state,” and warning them of the looming threat of economic collapse in Venezuela. Ryan has an easy charisma, owing to the amiable presence of Krasinski, and he describes the South American nation in overly simplistic terms that fit the show’s polarized, good-versus-evil worldview: Its strongman president, Nicolas Reyes (Jordi Molla), is “an asshole,” and the country is destined for ruin. And so begins the new season, with the series in thrall to its title character—and, by proxy, America—and concerned with its South American setting mostly as one more Banana Republic to be saved from itself.

Pitting moral opposites against one another for an occasionally thrilling eight episodes that place the fate of a nation in the balance, Jack Ryan harkens back to the anodyne action thrillers of the 1980s and ‘90s. It’s also clearly influenced by the Reagan Doctrine of interventionism, which encouraged guerrilla wars against left-wing governments. The show’s paternalistic vision of Venezuela, like season one’s notion of the Middle East, leans toward portraying the nation as one inherently incapable of self-management—thus necessitating the help of Jack Ryan, a character who moves, frustratingly, into messianic territory here.

Ryan finds himself in Venezuela on a diplomatic mission to question Reyes regarding a mysterious shipment deep in the jungle, which is being guarded by notorious weapons traffickers. His earlier warnings about the country are quickly justified, as he’s ambushed by a mysterious hitman after the meeting with President Reyes seems to ruffle political feathers. The season’s winding plot spins out from this point, as Ryan and C.I.A. colleague Jim Greer (Wendell Peirce) must attempt to find out who ordered the ambush and what’s in the jungle.

Jack Ryan’s loose grasp of U.S. foreign relations, while providing a poor representation of our history in Latin America, is a feature of its action-hero formula. Yet because the series has little unique to convey about the world Ryan inhabits, it’s composed solely of the brand of generic action and manipulative reliance on cliffhangers cribbed from other, more distinct espionage fiction. Jack Ryan is the Bourne series without the well-honed, if pummeling, stylistic brio; it’s James Bond minus the elegance; Mission: Impossible without the gonzo stunt work. What joys can be derived from it come mostly from Krasinski’s affability and his character’s prickly chemistry with Greer, to whom Pierce lends a warm grouchiness.

Throughout Jack Ryan’s new season, its relatively meaningless story doubles back over itself with a number of twists before, inevitably, the “good guys” win. Right out of the gate, you sense the show’s creative regression, as Ryan has transformed from a fish-out-of-water C.I.A. analyst to a natural superhero—one comfortable liberating prison camps in the jungle, spying on weapons caches, and invading foreign government buildings. The season stretches credulity even by the show’s own standards, culminating with Ryan and a small band of black-ops cohorts invading the Venezuelan presidential palace on election day—and its laughably unrealistic final climax includes Ryan fist-fighting with President Reyes.

Though Ryan is sketched loosely, and strictly in terms of his heroism, Krasinski’s everyman persona and knack for sarcastic comedy assures that he’s believable as a smart guy with hidden ambition and untapped potential, as well as a dash of ego. But despite Krasinski’s effort, the series remains most engaging when the season’s action turns away from Ryan. A secondary plot, involving a foursome of American black operatives invading the jungle, provides some of the season’s most suspenseful action sequences—and its most potent source of pathos, when Marcus (Jovan Adepo), one of the young soldiers, is lost alone behind enemy lines.

As in its first season, the series is still better at assigning motivation to its antagonists than it is at developing its title character, as the palace intrigue between Reyes and his chief advisor, Miguel Ubarri (Francisco Denis), efficiently gets at their motivations, revealing the history of their corruption and foreshadowing a dark fracture in their alliance. In stark contrast, Ryan is merely good, and his goodness is seen as a function of his profession, blank personality, and nationality. While season two is never boring, the series nonetheless has little new to say about Jack Ryan or the world, and while it doesn’t lack for suspense, the fate of the latter is never really in doubt. The season’s length strains the effectiveness of its throwback sensibilities, passable action choreography, and formulaic characters—attributes which may be better suited for standalone feature films.

Cast: John Krasinski, Wendell Pierce, John Hoogenakker, Jordi Molla, Eduar Salas, Francisco Denis, Michael Kelly, Cristina Umaña, Jovan Adepo Network: Amazon

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Review: His Dark Materials Is a Coming-of-Age Tale Dressed in Retro-Futuristic Garb

The series underlines the loss of creativity and boldness that marks the transition from childhood to adulthood.

2.5

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His Dark Materials
Photo: HBO

HBO’s His Dark Materials is a beautifully orchestrated reminder that there’s life after Westeros, albeit with airships, science, and sensible sweater vests. The first of Philip Pullman’s iconic trilogy of novels springs to life in the show’s first episode, “Lyra’s Jordan,” effectively erasing the memory of Chris Weitz’s 2007 film adaptation of The Golden Compass, which failed to embrace the depth of the universe Pullman created.

Dafne Keen slips naturally into the role of orphan Lyra Belacqua, who’s eager to explore beyond her home at Jordan College in an alternate version of Oxford. The actress brings a bristling restlessness to the young girl, who’s much more into stealing wine and sliding down rooftops than reading books and doing chores. In this world, all humans have talking daemons, physical manifestations of their souls that exist outside the body as animal companions. Children’s daemons don’t take on a fixed form until their humans reach puberty, so Lyra’s daemon, Pantalaimon (Kit Connor), constantly morphs between a moth, wildcat, ermine, and a blur of other creatures. It’s a heavy-handed metaphor for coming of age, but it lays a crucial foundation for the story’s existential exploration of knowledge, individuality, and truth.

A visit from Lyra’s absentee uncle, Lord Asriel (James MacAvoy), throws her life into chaos. Asriel is cold and calculating, showing cool indifference even when Lyra saves his life. However effective MacAvoy is in his five minutes of screen time, though, he’s ultimately forgettable—unlike Ruth Wilson, who unfurls like a carnivorous plant as Marisa Coulter, a powerful “friend of the college” who hires Lyra as her assistant and takes the girl to London. Wilson’s performance is a study in expertly controlled layers barely concealing a well of rage and cunning; there’s also the inscrutable face of Mrs. Coulter’s golden monkey daemon, an unnerving extension of her formidable will. In episode two, the full thrust of this relationship is on full display in a traumatic incident involving the monkey and Pan, while in episode four, a wickedly primal scene blurs the line between Coulter and her daemon.

Jack Thorne, who adapted the series from Pullman’s trilogy of novels, takes a balanced approach to world-building without drowning the audience in minutiae. The version of Britain imagined by the series is ruled by the Magisterium, the theocratic government that clashes with colleges that provide traditional academic sanctuary. Given the anti-intellectual inclinations of current real-world politics, it’s frustrating to watch the long arm of the law curl around those that would challenge it, even within its ranks. Thorne generally does well at crafting dialogue that reveals thoughtful bits of backstory, as well as the sociopolitical context of the characters’ struggles. Given that there are so many elements to cover—such as the concept of Dust, which consists of subatomic particles that tend to gather around adults, which the Magisterium views as controversial, even heretical—Thorne pares down the novel’s science-magic descriptions without diminishing their importance.

Expository scenes detailing the history, science, politics, and arcana of the show’s alt-Britain might be necessary to understand the machinations of this world, but they’re at times weighed down by clunky dialogue, as in a scene in which Ariyon Bakare’s Lord Boreal circles around a Magisterium priest, threatening to reveal his depravities if he doesn’t help him. But where the writing can drag, the show’s visual style is efficient, as in the warm, earthy textures associated with the downtrodden and the sleek jewel tones that mark the powerful. Familiar motifs, from the foreboding pseudo-Brutalist architecture of London to classically framed scenes depicting the apron-clad laundrywomen and busy servant class at Jordan College, succinctly key us into the power dynamics of this universe. And while the show’s retro-futuristic setting hews to a mainstream steampunk aesthetic—a genre that’s historically rife with European colonial associations—it’s encouraging to see a diverse cast, including Bakare, Clarke Peters (as The Master), and Lucian Msamati (as John Faa), playing characters in positions of power.

The main catalyst for the story of the show is the kidnapping of the children of Gyptians, a semi-nomadic people who live in houseboats, bringing simmering class politics to a near-boil, especially when evidence leads back to the Magisterium. In its timely depiction of a grassroots investigation into the disappearance of vulnerable children, His Dark Materials invites comparisons to the banal acts of evil that flourish in a corrupt system. At one point, Mrs. Coulter visits the children to help them write cheery letters to their loved ones before they’re brought northward, and the camera follows their slight frames down a dank, narrow hallway. In this moment, the visual allusion to concentration camps is unmistakable.

Thorne’s character development falters slightly in the scenes set in Trollesund, a gateway port to the north, home of armored bears and as-yet-unseen witches. Throughout, Lyra’s small victories here are almost effortless: She wins over the exiled bear Iorek Byrnison (Joe Tandberg) a little too easily, and Byrnison, while suitably gruff and jaded, comes off as a one-dimensional outcast with little at stake. And it’s in Trollesund where the audience is introduced to the tedious theatrics of Lin Manuel Miranda, thinly disguised as a Texan aeronautist named Lee Scoresby. It’s an ongoing struggle to get past Scoresby’s overcooked Texan accent and constant rambling, and he ends up more caricature than comedic relief.

His Dark Materials underlines the loss of creativity and boldness that marks the transition from childhood to adulthood. As Lyra intuitively learns to read her alethiometer—an arcane truth-telling device that requires years of study—she starts growing into her own identity. Keen shines when she’s at her most defiant, giving stubborn, righteous life to a child struggling to understand the complexities of the real world. At the end of episode four, the series has barely begun to unpack its more fantastical elements, instead choosing to draw us into its well-rounded interpersonal relationships and emotional connections, all of which add an extra sense of profundity to an otherwise straightforward coming-of-age story.

Cast: Dafne Keen, James MacAvoy, Ruth Wilson, Clarke Peters, Lucian Msamati, Ariyon Bakare, Archie Barnes, Kit Connor, Joe Tandberg Network: HBO

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Review: Season 2 of Castle Rock Favors Family Drama Over the Supernatural

There’s little apparent benefit to how the show’s second season foregrounds its interpersonal relationships.

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Castle Rock
Photo: Dana Starbard/Hulu

The first season of Castle Rock was essentially a basket of Easter eggs. With an assortment of peripheral Stephen King characters and locations, Hulu’s horror anthology series revolved around an entirely original but ultimately uninspired plot. The second season dives more visibly into the King universe, sending one of the author’s most famous characters, Misery’s murderously obsessive nurse Annie Wilkes (Lizzy Caplan), on a collision course with another King staple: the undead-inhabited town of Jerusalem’s Lot. Employing these more famous King touchstones, however, hasn’t narrowed the show’s focus so much as it’s left it feeling scattered and unmoored.

At the start of the season, Annie drifts from town to town with her teenage daughter, Joy (Elsie Fisher). She works as a nurse long enough in each town to gain access to its hospital’s array of anti-psychotics in order to continue self-medicating, at which point she and Joy hit the road, swapping out license plates as they drive across the country. A late-night car crash strands them in Castle Rock, Maine, where their skeezy landlord, Ace Merrill (Paul Sparks), clashes with his adopted brother, Abdi Omar (Barkhad Abdi), over business with the local community of Somali immigrants. There’s clearly meant to be some social commentary here about racism and even, to some extent, the opioid epidemic, but even after the five episodes made available to critics, the season has yet to really dig into these thorny topics.

Castle Rock uses neighboring town Jerusalem’s Lot and its witchy history for a new set of mysterious resurrections. But compared to the first season’s supernatural hook, there’s a much stronger focus on family drama here that spreads the story thin across so many characters; the series struggles to cover not only Annie and Joy settling into town, but the bad blood between Ace and Abdi. Ace and his biological brother, Chris (Matthew Alan), are the nephews of the unscrupulous, hard-nosed, but fair “Pop” Merrill (Tim Robbins, who unearths an intense weariness in the role). Out of a desire to make amends for his military service and no small amount of white guilt, Pop fostered both Abdi and his sister, Nadia (Yusra Warsama), who’s the head doctor at the hospital where Annie now works. It’s a tangled web, but the drama never boils to a degree that explains the eventual violent escalation. A shot of a younger, jealous Ace and some snippets of a right-wing radio program are an unsatisfying shorthand for his decision to start lobbing Molotov cocktails at his adopted brother’s house.

The most engaging drama here is actually the one with the lowest, most ordinary stakes, in Joy reaching the age where she’s grown restless under her mother’s wing. She starts to seek out friends her own age, but Annie is, as one might imagine, not an easy person to leave behind. The first season tackled dementia with surprising sensitivity, and there’s a similar undercurrent of palpable pain to watching Joy struggle with the mental illness of a loved one, sorting out what’s best for herself even when she loves and cares for her mother.

Unfortunately, Annie isn’t nearly so easy to empathize with as Joy. She’s such an outsized presence, with her torrent of childish pet names and G-rated curses delivered in an odd folksy accent, that it’s difficult to view her as anything but a caricature. Originally conceived as a strange Other in Misery, Annie has been thrust into the role of protagonist with few apparent changes beyond her dedication as a mother, which nevertheless has its roots in her obsessive tendencies. It seems telling that, in a mid-season flashback episode meant to make young Annie more of a sympathetic character, her conspicuous tics are significantly dialed down.

There’s little apparent benefit to how Castle Rock’s second season foregrounds its interpersonal relationships. Deemphasizing a strong supernatural mystery leaves only a cast of characters that alternates between the dull and the exaggerated. Opting for more recognizable, overt King references hasn’t enriched the show’s storytelling so much as clarified the gap between the author’s best work and this TV imitation.

Cast: Lizzy Caplan, Tim Robbins, Paul Sparks, Barkhad Abdi, Elsie Fisher, Yusra Warsama, Matthew Alan, Abby Corrigan, Chad Knorr, Owen Burke, Paul Noonan Network: Hulu

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Review: Daybreak Depicts a Unique but Indulgent Apocalyptic Wasteland

Insipid comedy aside, the Netflix series offers evocative reflections on the premature death of a generation’s childhood.

2.5

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Daybreak
Photo: Ursula Coyote/Netflix

The universe of Netflix’s Daybreak, based on the graphic novel by Brian Ralph, is both familiar and indulgent, as far as post-apocalypses go: Its wasteland is roamed not only by zombie-esque figures, but also by themed packs of survivors sporting rides decked out in spikes à la Mad Max. The show’s doomsday premise, however, features a unique twist: The apocalypse was triggered by a bomb that turned only—and, seemingly, all—adults into trudging undead “ghoulies,” leaving children and teenagers mostly unharmed.

In the six months since the bomb dropped, the young survivors from Glendale, California have responded to the nuclear family’s disintegration with the entrenchment of the chosen family, turning their social circles into tribes: the Cheermazons, the STEM Punks, the Disciples of Kardashia, and others. The tribes largely keep to themselves throughout the five episodes provided to press; only Baron Triumph, a mysterious, motorcycle-riding cannibal, and the Jocks, led by the grunting Genghis Khan wannabe Turbo Bro Jock (Cody Kearsley), resort to gratuitous violence. The post-apocalypse is, as a result, a relatively peaceful place.

Our guide through the cataclysm is Josh Wheeler (Colin Ford), a tribeless loner looking for his girlfriend, Sam Dean (Sophie Simnett). Throughout the series, Josh often breaks the fourth wall by introducing flashbacks, cuing montages, and contextualizing the apocalypse for the audience. These meta moments are less charming than lazy, rejecting subtle world-building in favor of information dumps. Much of the Daybreak’s comedy is similarly uninspired: While Glendale High School’s Principal Burr (Matthew Broderick) hilariously evokes a certain kind of white, bubble-blinded progressivism in Josh’s flashbacks (“We’re all woke here. Uh, wide awoke”), the teenagers’ dialogue relies on meme-y jokes—like one about never skipping leg day—that result in a stilted representation of Gen Z.

Insipid comedy aside, Daybreak offers evocative reflections on the premature death of a generation’s childhood. After one of Turbo’s underlings fires a homemade gun, Mona Lisa (Jeanté Godlock), Turbo’s right hand, declares, “You broke the Emma González Accords. We’re not playing with guns.” The throwaway line briefly hints at the trauma that the kids have experienced. They won’t use guns, even at the world’s end, because school shootings have scarred them. They can’t reckon with the apocalypse because they’re still processing the horrors of their old lives, still fettered by a social order that can’t see beyond jocks and nerds and cheerleaders, still reeling from the damage caused by neglectful parents and bullies.

Daybreak most formidably juxtaposes the past and the present in an episode following Josh’s newfound companion, Wesley Fists (Austin Crute), a jock turned ronin seeking redemption for his sins. Director Sherwin Shilati and writer Ira Madison III have created a remarkable samurai-flick-style exploration of Wesley’s various personal apocalypses: his relocation from Compton to the much-more-white Glendale; his falling-out with the cousin (Frederick Williams) he used to do everything with; and, now, his need to choose between a forbidden love and his friends. It all unfolds beneath an astonishingly versatile voiceover by RZA, who’s both very funny and very capable of hitting the episode’s dramatic beats.

When, toward the end of the episode, Wesley speaks directly to the narrator, the exchange avoids the triteness of hollow fourth-wall-breaking. It reads, instead, as an honest confrontation between the character and his psyche, a clinging to selfhood all but reduced to rubble. In such sequences, Daybreak flexes against the mechanical writing that constrains it elsewhere, exploring forces and fears powerful enough to render the apocalypse insignificant.

Cast: Colin Ford, Austin Crute, Alyvia Alyn Lind, Matthew Broderick, Sophie Simnett, Gregory Kasyan, Krysta Rodriguez, Jeanté Godlock, Cody Kearsley, Jade Peyton, Rob H. Roy, Austin Maas, Chelsea Zhang Network: Netflix

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Review: El Camino, a Breaking Bad Sequel, Is a Man’s Rueful Lament for Past Wrongs

The film mixes a self-help message with moments of hard, cruel detail.

2.5

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El Camino
Photo: Ben Rothstein/Netflix

Writer-director Vince Gilligan’s El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie is driven by a structural perversity. The story—about a man fleeing from the aftermath of the events of the AMC show’s finale—is rife with flashbacks, often resisting to answer the “What happened next?” question that drives most follow-ups. Young meth-cooker Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) was last seen at the end of Breaking Bad driving a stolen El Camino into the desert darkness, hysterical after escaping imprisonment and torture at the hands of white supremacists, whom his partner, Walter White, ultimately killed. We last saw Jesse in a sort of propulsive extremis, which one assumes might bleed into a sequel, but Gilligan conjures in El Camino a rueful tone that bears more of a resemblance to the recent seasons of Better Call Saul than to Breaking Bad. Before Jesse can move on to the next stage in his life, he must reckon with the abuse he’s just fled, with the wreck his life has become.

El Camino mixes a self-help message with moments of hard, cruel detail. Gilligan hasn’t lost his talent for narrative invention, especially for rendering subterranean criminal worlds hidden in plain sight. One of Breaking Bad’s most chillingly casual, self-rationalizing henchman, Todd (Jesse Plemons), returns in flashbacks, and is revealed to have acted as a kind of gaslighting partner to Jesse, offering him breadcrumbs of kindness in order to use him to carry out side errands. In the present, Jesse is on the run, trading the El Camino for a friend’s car, staking out Todd’s now abandoned apartment, which he knows contains a large stash of cash. Jesse has this information because he helped Todd remove the corpse of a housekeeper that the latter killed. Todd views this disposal as just another errand, and Jesse drops the body from several floors up like a bundle of laundry. In an especially macabre flourish, Todd removes his belt from the dead woman’s neck and re-loops it into his pants.

Of all the Breaking Bad characters who briefly return in El Camino, Todd seems to stimulate Gilligan’s imagination most. He suggests a modernization of a Donald Westlake character—a thug who’s selfish and intelligent enough to wall himself off from the implications of his actions. Gilligan goes to town finding various ways to express Todd’s callousness, which Plemons plays with extraordinary understatement. When Jesse finds a gun and briefly toys with escaping from Todd, the latter’s understanding of his own power and entitlement is truly unnerving. Todd says, “I’ll have that gun now, Jesse,” with condescension, and, more audaciously, with something resembling actual pity.

Gilligan’s aesthetic also appears to be influenced by Westlake, as El Camino has a crisp, streamlined, matter-of-fact sense of framing that suggests the pared-down prose of the legendary crime writer, while recalling the confident visual style that Breaking Bad grew into and that Better Call Saul inherited. There’s also a bit of Twin Peaks, and Breaking Bad itself, in Gilligan’s chronological hopscotching, which shifts one’s focus from the plot at large to individual scenes. El Camino is ultimately concerned with a simple narrative thread: Jesse’s attempt to find the money to pay Ed (Robert Forster) to help him disappear into a kind of witness protection program for criminals. Jesse could’ve went with Ed in Breaking Bad and didn’t, and so El Camino often suggests a long act of atoning for one essential failure of self-preservation, as Jesse remembers pivotal details from his past to pry himself free from his current predicament. Forster, in his final role, is a master of the implicitly emotionally charged deadpan that Gilligan’s characters use to protect themselves and to launder atrocity.

Yet Gilligan somewhat outsmarts himself in El Camino. For all the film’s invention, for all its trickiness, it doesn’t really move. Jesse isn’t an interesting enough character to connect the film’s various tangents; he’s certainly not a Walter White or a Saul Goodman, criminals who dare the audience to like them via the visceral nature of their inventiveness and need to succeed and dominate. Audiences who’re “Team Jesse” will probably enjoy El Camino more than those who always found him to be somewhat tedious—a youth-flattering character who’s divorced of complicity from the plot of which he’s a part. Gilligan’s love for Jesse doesn’t do the protagonist any favors either, as El Camino is composed of a series of riffs in which he’s continually upstaged by characters who’re allowed to be true to their maliciousness. Breaking Bad ended with Jesse discovering himself in chaos, El Camino reins him back in.

Cast: Aaron Paul, Jesse Plemons, Charles Baker, Matt Jones, Bryan Cranston, Jonathan Banks, Krysten Ritter, Todd Bower, Robert Forster, Gloria Sandoval, Tess Harper, Michael Bofshever Network: Netflix

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