Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Aaron Sorkin’s return to hour-long network drama after leaving The West Wing in 2003, opens with a monologue about what’s wrong with the state of television—the industry and the art form. The monologue, as delivered by veteran actor Judd Hirsch, is beautifully written, perfectly acted, rivetingly shot and edited (climaxing in one of the better “cut to credits!” bits seen on the small screen) and almost totally false. In a way, it’s a perfect encapsulation of the show itself, which veers from feeling like one of TV’s best shows to one of its most mediocre, often in the same scene.
What’s frustrating about Studio 60 (10 p.m. Mondays, NBC) is that it’s just good enough to be called one of the season’s top pilots. The actors all bring their “A” games (particularly Wing alumnus Bradley Whitford and Matthew Perry, who have a nice, comfortable chemistry), and cporoducer-director Thomas Schlamme can still put over a walk-n-talk scene (one where the characters pace the hallways of their workplace while doling out exposition or clever bon mots) like no one else, even if it’s starting to feel a bit stale (since every show uses the technique now). Sorkin’s script accomplishes a pilot’s main goals, doling out exposition and setting up characters quickly and judiciously. Sorkin’s also not afraid to poke fun at himself, openly admitting that a major plot point is essentially the same one that opens Sidney Lumet’s Network. It’s easy to be won over by this show. It’s “smart,” in that way The West Wing was, making you feel like you’ve hung out with some interesting folk who are passionate about their jobs. The initial impression after finishing the pilot is “Wow. That was really something.” But as soon as you think about Studio 60, it starts to dissolve. For starters, Network is still watched today because Paddy Chayefsky’s script anticipated many of TV’s most problematic future developments, including the rise of the cable news personality (as opposed to the traditional anchor) and the advent of so-called reality TV. When Sorkin invokes Network via structural similarities and lines of dialogue, he invites unflattering comparison, for the simple reason that Studio 60 is far from prescient. If anything, the premiere makes one wonder if Aaron Sorkin simply stopped watching television after he left West Wing.
It’s hard to shake the sense that it’s all about Sorkin himself. In recent interviews, Sorkin has said that the characters come from experience, but he’s inventing the situations. Fair enough. But the central characters return from a hiatus of some years to a television show they used to work for, and said characters appear to borrow elements from Sorkin and Schlamme’s lives (from drug addictions to the women they used to date). The implication—and it’s not really an implication, considering one character actually comes right out and says it—is that the Sorkin and Schlamme stand-ins are coming to fix the show that the plot centers around and, by proxy, fix television. Message: Aaron Sorkin has returned to save TV from itself.
The problem is that the TV landscape the Hirsch character cites doesn’t bear much resemblance to TV as we now know it. Yes, there have been smutty reality shows (Hirsch cites Who Wants to Screw My Sister as the next step) and the Iraq War came prepackaged with theme music, but these references are woefully out of date. (It’s curious that Sorkin singles out the rather large genre of “dating reality,” since The Bachelor managed to torpedo The West Wing in the ratings in 2002.) For the most part, smutty reality shows have been banned to the far reaches of cable. Many of the most popular unscripted series are dumb, of course (American Idol, anyone?), but they’re not the near-pornography Sorkin describes. Idol is all about wish-fulfillment and a misbegotten sense of the American dream, but it’s also a standard example of one of TV’s oldest formats, the talent show. The other popular unscripted series run the gamut from social game shows (Survivor) to life-improvement projects (Extreme Makeover: Home Edition), but the “how low can you go” brand of reality show breathed its last as a major influence when Fear Factor ceased to be relevant.
What’s more, there’s a lot more quality TV than Hirsch’s monologue allows. Flip around and you’ll see projects as wide-ranging as ABC’s Lost, NBC’s The Office and Veronica Mars (the CW by way of UPN). Even the guilty pleasures have gotten more ambitious (Fox’s terminally dumb Prison Break). And that’s only on the broadcast networks; add cable to the mix, and the choice of quality series increases exponentially.
Sorkin also wants to talk about the culture wars in Hirsch’s monologue, but he gets a lot of that wrong too. The stated idea is that Christians will throw any show that dares make fun of them before the FCC, but that’s not true (the Constitution having something to say about the matter). The Simpsons has made fun of Christians through the character of Ned Flanders, and he’s celebrated by at least some evangelicals. In reality, the shows that get flagged for the FCC by groups like the Parents Television Council run the gamut from the Super Bowl to Without a Trace to awards telecasts. The PTC is less interested in how a show presents its main constituents and more concerned with the possibility that the series might show a breast. This attitude may be deplorable, but it’s very different from Sorkin’s characterization.
It may seem excessive to harp on one monologue that takes up less than two minutes of screentime, especially when it’s eventually subsumed by another, larger plot that makes more sense (that of the wunderkinds returning to the show). But the monologue belies something false at the show’s heart, and to understand that better, we have to look a bit at the career of Aaron Sorkin.
Sorkin, of course, came to TV via theater (A Few Good Men) and then movies (A Few Good Men again and The American President). His first network series, ABC’s Sports NightStudio 60 by Amanda Peet) who is in turn overseen by a sage, older man who has been ravaged by the battles of his youth (Robert Guillaume). Surround these leads with supporting characters who also really love their jobs, and you’re good to go.
Sports Night worked because it returned a sense of theatricality to television. Sorkin’s characters speak in the flourishes and metaphors of the stage. In many ways, they’re stereotypes waiting for the right brush strokes to turn them into archetypes; indeed, the stories that often felt the most out of place on a Sorkin show were the soapy ones, as though he never knew what to do with his characters’ sex lives (mostly, they didn’t have any). A good Sports Night felt like a good one-act play—you’d get a few clearly defined situations and one character would resolve them with a heartfelt monologue. Schlamme wed this format to the walk-n-talk, which made the whole thing feel less stagebound.
The West Wing, which was Sorkin’s finest work for its first two seasons, upped that ante. It debuted in 1999, the same year as The Sopranos, the series ran in the opposite direction from the gangster drama’s skewed realism, offering a theatrical romanticism that played well in the waning days of the Clinton administration. The formula got a bit of a shake-up (costars Martin Sheen and John Spencer doubled up playing variations on the wise old man character) and Sorkin amped up the theatricality, the better to fill a stage of unprecedented scale (in the acclaimed episode “Two Cathedrals,” Sheen’s president Josiah Bartlet chewed out God in Latin). Even though this was, in the end, another Sorkin series about brainy idealists who love their job, the job was running the free world, which justified the characters’ passion (and corrected the greatest problem with Sports Night). Self-importance came with the territory.
Throughout the first couple of seasons, Sorkin seemed content to mix his theatrical ambitions with earnest discussions of the ins and outs of American government. Then the Sept. 11 attacks occured shortly before the premiere of Season Three. Initially, Sorkin insisted his fictional universe wouldn’t respond, but then he and the production crew quickly whipped up Isaac and Ishmael, an episode that tried to fit global terrorism within the show’s standard “let’s talk about our differing viewpoints and educate everyone about what to really think” formula. Everything went downhill from there. The political and cultural climate changed so drastically that The West Wing didn’t resonate anymore; absent a feeling of relevance, it became much easier to identify and fixate on flaws that had been there: chiefly preachiness, condescension and an at times smug belief in the correctness of its own politics.
The problem was that Sorkin had a bully pulpit, and after Sept. 11, he was less inclined than ever to use that pulpit for nuance. His conservative characters, who were always cartoonish, lapsed into caricature (for example, the Republican candidate for President in season four). Some of the leading characters were stranded in the middle of America while campaigning and managed to take shots at the colorful rubes that presumably populate every state between New York and California before learning that there was Good in the Heartland of America. Even the terrorism plots were misjudged, dangling over a precipice of bad story construction while Fox’s 24 offered America the same menu of hot button issues, plus action-packed catharsis. On top of that, Sorkin’s cinematic staginess seemed increasingly stale to viewers who’d grown to prefer the gritty faux-realism perfected by The Sopranos and the genre mash-up popularized by Buffy the Vampire Slayer. After four seasons, Sorkin left (or got fired), his longtime creative partner John Wells (ER) took over, and the series slogged toward its final curtain. As for Sorkin, despite his acclaim, he ended up having less impact on hourlong drama than other, equally celebrated producers (for instance, Steven Bochco and David E. Kelley). In fairness, this might have been partly because his style was so hard to mimic. Strip away his penchant for writing really, really fast dialogue and his way with a quip and you get a bunch of barely filled-in characters strutting around a soundstage and shouting polemics at each other.
In the end, though, The West Wing was influential not because of its content, but because of its visual style; it found a way to make long expository scenes seem exciting, or at least not dull, and subsequent shows took note of that. (Oddly enough, the only significant TV drama that one-upped Sorkin’s brazenly theatrical dialogue was David Milch’s Deadwood, a show whose other striking characteristics—chief among them, an resistance to stereotypical characters and an embrace of moral ambiguity—bore no resemblance to The West Wing whatsoever.)
So now Sorkin has returned, but unfortunately, the pilot script for Studio 60 feels feels like it was written the day after he left The West Wing. The familiar formula is present and accounted for, albiet tweaked a little (it’s not giving away too much to say the wise old man is fired—though we can expect future guest shots, one would think). The characters trade witty barbs about What’s Wrong And What’s Right With America Today while walking and talking. But none of them are delineated as human beings beyond a few cursory flaws (including drug problems and, wrongheadedly enough, Christianity). Articles about Studio 60 trumpet how smart the show is; the cast is eager to tell us that Sorkin wrote a smart, smart script, possibly too smart for television. This is largely misleading because Studio 60, like most of Sorkin’s output, would rather congratulate the audience for being intelligent than demand that they use their intelligence. As was the case with Sports Night and The West Wing (and A Few Good Men, for that matter), Sorkin can’t resist telling viewers exactly what to think and feel about every character, situation and issue. There’s little subtext or nuance. There are big words, and the dialogue flies by quickly, but if all one must do in order to be considered smart is to have a large vocabulary and know how to turn on closed captioning to catch all the snappy patter, then the gates of the intelligentsia have opened far too wide.
Much of the “smart” talk seems to revolve around the fact that there’s a Christian character on Studio 60, star castmember Harriet (Sarah Paulson), who’s willing to stand up for her beliefs. But this aspect feels patronizing (Harriet seems almost to condescend to the people who would listen to her sing on The 700 Club). Intentionally or not, Sorkin’s script views her as someone who can and should “overcome” her Christianity to perform a sketch titled “Crazy Christians” because it’s funny. There’s something to be said for setting aside personal grievances in the name of art, but Studio 60 (like The West Wing before it) misidentifies its characters’ actions as bold and brave when they’re actually confused. Sorkin doesn’t seem to understand that Middle-American Christians resist compromising their religious beliefs not because they’re prigs, but because their faith is the bedrock of their lives. When Sorkin has that character assault that bedrock in the name of comedy sketch, he turns the core of that character’s personality into a flaw that must be overcome. Studio 60 tries to sell this as complexity—look, here’s someone who loves both God and great sketch comedy!—but it rings false. One can’t serve both God and mammon.
Despite everything that Studio 60 gets wrong—and it should be noted that the pilot won’t give anyone faith in Sorkin’s ability to write sketch comedy—it gets just as much right. To fault Sorkin for a lack of subtlety in a medium as unsubtle as television feels like a bit of a cheat. It’s nice to hear his rapid-fire banter again (nobody does it better), and it’s good to know that Sorkin has managed to preserve his egalitarian views; in his world, it doesn’t matter what race or gender you are, as you come ready to work. It’s impossible to walk away from the pilot and not want to see the next episode. But the hard truth is, Studio 60 has more flaws that require immediate repair than any other drama in its weight class; the short list includes the potentially fatal mix of smug certitude toward, and near total disconnection from, the present day realities of the medium it’s criticizing. While there’s room for this style of broad theatricality on TV, it needs to come with a measured dose of realism; that’s missing right now, and there’s no point losing sleep awaiting its arrival. This is Sorkin-land, and we’re all going to be lectured to.
House Next Door contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.
Review: Truth Be Told Is Uninterested in the Malleable Nature of Truth
The series attempts to derive excitement solely from its overly calibrated performances.1.5
As Octavia Spencer’s journalist turned podcaster Poppy Parnell leads her listeners through the shadowy histories of gruesome criminal cases in Truth Be Told, the actress perfectly mimics the warmly grave vocal delivery that’s a hallmark of the true-crime podcast genre. Yet, while the Apple TV+ series understands this genre’s allure, it fails to replicate the enduring insights of podcasts like Serial—insights which pertain to the opacity of fact and the idea that the truth can be shaped by the whims of institutions, such as jury selection and the preservation of crime-scene evidence. Truth Be Told eschews the fixations of the nonfiction works that it apes, focusing on lurid gossip and incredulous plot twists and, as a result, proving uninterested in the malleable nature of truth itself.
Truth Be Told follows Poppy as she reassesses a grisly suburban murder from 20 years ago—one she mined for professional success at the time, penning a series of columns which helped turn the public tide against Warren Cave (Aaron Paul), the teenager who was convicted of the crime. A nagging flaw in Truth Be Told emerges early on, as the series fails to elucidate exactly why Poppy is convinced of Cave’s innocence. Reference is made to a key witness who may have been coached, but that inconclusive new development seemingly confirms Poppy’s long-harbored suspicions, which exist for reasons that are never made clear.
The show’s contrived central mystery, then, pertains to who really killed Chuck Buhrman (Nic Bishop). It’s a question that’s far less complex than that of many high-profile true-crime mysteries, and Truth Be Told attempts to derive excitement solely from its overly calibrated performances. Indeed, the direction given to a majority of the actors seems to have been to glower more, act shiftier, or seem more agitated. The series suggests Buhrman’s killer could have been any of the figures Poppy encounters, but because they’re all so obviously creepy, a pervasive sense emerges, unintentionally, that they’re all engaged in some kind of conspiracy.
Paul bizarrely plays Cave as a feral presence, growling and tilting his head during his character’s interviews with Poppy. Incarceration, the series unsubtly suggests, has made him an animal. Likewise, Buhrman’s daughters, Josie and Lanie (both played by Lizzie Caplan), are a pair of incessant liars who’re still grappling with the trauma of their father’s death. Other characters seem to simply be evil, none more so than Cave’s father, who’s the show’s plainly obvious red herring. All of these figures are suspects, yet the persistent suggestion that that we might also empathize with many of them results in Truth Be Told vacillating between conflicting viewpoints: one that sees these characters’ flaws are the resultant damage of Buhrman’s murder, and one that sees their flaws as inherent and may have led them to kill. But the series lacks the tact or nuance to investigate the idea of inherent evil, and what’s left is a rather muddled whodunit in which the answer ceases to be very interesting.
While the show’s reliance on easy misdirection and incredulous plot dynamics are an understandable hallmark of its genre, Truth Be Told similarly fails to distinguish itself in cinematic or thematic terms. Shot in an exceedingly workmanlike fashion, the series is designed to offer boatloads of information and little else. Every conversation unfolds in rote over-the-shoulders shots, and exteriors are plagued by the copious drone shots that have become a kind of shorthand for high production value in prestige television. Even the rare bursts of action unfold mechanically, with twists telegraphed by the show’s performances and scenes either being marred by slow motion or shaky-cam obfuscation.
Coherent cinematic flourishes would have been a welcome addition, because much of what’s being captured here seldom exceeds matters of exposition. For instance, every discussion between Poppy and her private investigator, Markus (Mekhi Phifer), includes clumsy references to their past romantic history, as if we might forget. Seemingly every conversation that Poppy has with anyone includes a statement of their current emotional dynamic. While Spencer’s warmth and wit hint at Poppy’s skill as an investigator, the actress is too often left delivering dialogue that merely states what’s happening around her or in her head.
Throughout Truth Be Told, Poppy constantly explicates her guilt, yet the series doesn’t seem sure what exactly is prompting those feelings. The show flattens its performers’ unique personalities, utilizing them simply in service of engendering suspicion. Ostensibly about the nature of fact and the spiraling effects of dishonesty, Truth Be Told is actually much less thought-provoking than all that, and simply erects a byzantine rumor mill around one man’s death and then mining those rumors for cheap thrills.
Cast: Octavia Spencer, Aaron Paul, Lizzie Caplan, Elizabeth Perkins, Michael Beach, Mekhi Phifer, Tracie Thoms, Ron Cephas Jones, Nic Bishop Network: Apple TV+
Review: Joe Pera Talks with You Digs Into the Truth About Our Preoccupations
Season two of the series explores how our preoccupations bring us comfort when we might need it most.3.5
As a comedian, Joe Pera is a bit of an enigma. With a hunched-over, ambling gait and a slow, soothing voice, he may be the youngest old man on TV. How much of this is an Andy Kaufman-esque stunt is an open question; Pera is certainly committed to not totally breaking character even outside his TV series Joe Pera Talks with You, as he sustains his grandfatherly persona through stand-up routines, promotional interviews, and appearances on the local news. His website provides a form for fans to guess his age. He’s almost painfully polite and modest, brimming with a shy, nervous energy, using pauses and stumbling over words to disarm viewers right before he jams in some unexpected joke.
In other words, how much of Joe Pera the man is in Joe Pera the performance art character, and which parts are specifically turned up for comedic value? Watching Joe Pera Talks with You is to simultaneously ponder this question and be so taken with his sweet, earnest persona that the answer seems not to matter. The show’s 11-minute episodes are ostensibly structured around the middle-school choir teacher’s interest in mundane objects and activities: speaking directly into the camera, he discusses beans, hiking, shopping at the grocery store, and other things around his home in Marquette, Michigan.
Other topics and concerns inevitably creep into each episode, whether because Pera is easily distracted by things like the effect of jack-o’-lanterns on one’s soul or because other forces—a boisterous co-worker, an awareness of consumerism, or a disagreement with band teacher Sarah (Jo Firestone)—briefly throw him off course. Following from the previous season, he and Sarah are newly dating, though their viewpoints sometimes differ as Pera’s apparent frivolity clashes with Sarah’s status as a committed end-of-the-world prepper with a fortified basement and a handgun; in one episode, she asks him if he’s willing to kill to defend his garden.
In another type of series, Pera might be some wacky side character or otherwise relegated to the butt of a joke to contrast a more cynical protagonist, but the brilliance of Joe Pera Talks with You is how he instead provides the dominant perspective. No matter how seemingly insignificant, Pera and his interests are presented with complete sincerity through gentle music and loving close-ups of objects and processes, creating an atmosphere of reserved but infectious passion through his dedication and attention to detail. With a mix of serene images, oddly well-researched facts, and understated visual comedy, episodes play like a mix of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, ASMR videos, and Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg.
An extreme self-awareness fuels the show’s comedy, from the subtle tics and timing of Pera’s speaking style to the use of subtitles and careful compositions that do such things as gradually reveal that he’s wearing shorts. He walks silently in one episode, and as soon as that silence begins to feel awkwardly too long, he begins his monologue about hiking to reveal, simply through impeccable timing, that the silence stems from a weird, adorable belief that before he can discuss hiking, he must first demonstrate what it is. He’s thorough, this guy. And he makes sure to inform you that he’s just kidding when he says cold beer is nutritious.
Joe Pera Talks with You never feels like it’s making fun of Pera’s demeanor. Though the character is almost childlike in his perpetual wonderment, the parts of him that initially come off as absurd also feel truthful and even aspirational, in how this man has thought long and hard about things like the societal value of beans. He’s a master of conveying miniature stories in just a few words, like how he has “been devastated in the past” by experimenting in his garden or how classifying Easter as “the third most romantic day of the year” suggests a considered ranking of dates by such values.
Many of Pera’s observations ring true for their cutting, hilarious simplicity, though much of the comedy comes from how he’s not some inaccessible guru or unsung sage of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Some of the show’s funniest lines are when Pera brings up something his outward naiveté suggests he might be ignorant of, like American interventionism. He has his own worries; they’re just often about whether his beans will grow properly around the wire arch in his garden. He focuses on the beauty in the mundane, the things that bring him quiet joy. Employing warm cinematography, gentle narration, and its lightly absurd portrayal of everyday life, Joe Pera Talks with You digs at a larger existential truth about our own preoccupations and how they bring us comfort when we might need it most.
Cast: Joe Pera, Jo Firestone, Conner O’Malley, Pat Harris, Jo Scott Network: Adult Swim
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
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+
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
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
Review: For All Mankind Prioritizes Cynical Alternate History Over Character
The series suffocates its promising characters with the tedium of backroom politics.2
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+
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.1
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+
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.3
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+
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
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
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
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
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.2
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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