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Review: Weeds: Season Four

3.0

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Weeds: Season Four

Weeds works best when it focuses on the first two syllables of its designated genre, “dramedy,” with comedy serving as a byproduct of its quirky realism (or is it realistic quirk?) rather than the main narrative objective. During seasons two and three, the writers of Showtime’s flagship series frequently relied too heavily on sitcom pratfalls and stunt casting (here’s hoping Justin Kirk’s Andy—and we—have seen the last of Zooey Deschanel), but the core of Weeds revolves around the moral and emotional crises of main character Nancy Botwin (Mary Louise-Parker) as well as her neighbor/frienemy Celia Hodes (Elizabeth Perkins) and youngest son Shane (Alexander Gould), which, even when they are hilarious, often represent nothing less than character drama at its finest.

Season four curiously picks up exactly where last season left off, providing little explanation for Shane’s sudden growth spurt and the body mass indexes of several other characters, and the hurried pace of the season premiere, “Mother Thinks the Birds Are After Her,” is a little disorienting, but the show finds its footing by the next episode. If season three was about growth (emotional, economic, botanical), the new season is about change. The landscape is widening, and as the Botwins exit their little suburban town of Agrestic for the sandy shores of Southern Cali and the Mexican border, Weeds’s worldview also further expands—from local drug dealing to a much broader portrait of how illicit drugs enter the United States and, presumably, how that’s tied to illegal immigration.

To wit, in the span of three years, Nancy has moved from start-up neighborhood pot dealer to international drug mule, and her always questionable moral choices are becoming increasingly hard to defend. “It’s work,” she tells Andy, her brother-in-law and partner-in-crime. It’s a matter of fact. Nancy is either practical or downright immoral, but she’s also crafty and seemingly possesses good timing, though it does seem like her spontaneous decisions, which often interrupt bouts of straw-gnawing blank stares, are facilitated by some kind of preternatural force—i.e. the show’s writers. She’s also socially conscious (when asked about her hybrid vehicle, she answers proudly, “Gotta save those fossil fuels,” before trailing off into some half-formed, quasi-political attempt at political awareness: “…dead Iraqi children”) and has a high-pitched yet uncannily effective way of changing the subject (“Okay, shower time!”).

It’s this kind of complexity, and the writers’ willingness to render their characters imperfect, that makes Celia a compulsively watchable foil for Nancy. The character has unraveled the same way Bree on Desperate Housewives has, only Celia remains somewhat contemptible, and the writers don’t pander or condescend to audiences by revealing her to be anything more than a bitch who occasionally feels things. The season’s second episode, “Lady’s a Charm,” resorts to the sight gag of Celia behind the glass of the county jail donning Latina-style lip liner and pencil-thin eyebrows, but it’s one of the few comedic moments early in the season that doesn’t feel organic or at least explicable.

Last season, the show’s black characters developed into something resembling fully formed human beings, and all it took was getting them out of that damn kitchen. Nancy’s conflicts with dealer-turned-partner Heylia (Tonye Patano) have provided Weeds with some of its most candid examinations of race/gender/class-relations. Heylia, not to mention Nancy’s sometime-black-lover Conrad Shepard (Romany Malco), have yet to resurface following last season’s explosive DEA bust, but the show’s new focus is on the Latino gang Nancy has shacked up with and, by association, the immigration crisis. (Ever the topical program, the writers even toss in a jab at Big Pharma when Nancy is sent across the border on a practice drug run, and an unsettling, well-placed reference to the patient preparation of the 9/11 hijackers.) Race is always—but by virtue of its nonchalant acceptance, simultaneously never—an issue. I live over here. You live over there. We can do business if we have common interests. The racial and class lines are drawn and respected; this season that line is a border fence that is, unfortunately for Nancy, equipped with video surveillance.

Cast: Mary-Louise Parker, Elizabeth Perkins, Kevin Nealon, Justin Kirk, Tonye Patano, Romany Malco, Hunter Parrish, Alexander Gould, Andy Milder, Allie Grant, Alyssa Ashley Nicols Airtime: Showtime, Mondays, 10 p.m. Buy: Amazon

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Review: The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley Traces the Fall of Theranos

Alex Gibney’s documentary tells a dramatic, if somewhat workmanlike, story of Silicon Valley hubris meeting old-fashioned scamming.

2.5

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The Inventor
Photo: HBO

Elizabeth Holmes, the Steve Jobs-aping wunderkind who launched the radically innovative and radically deceptive blood-testing company Theranos when she was just 19, claimed to have a thing for Thomas Edison. Most inventors do. “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” This Edison quote is one that director Alex Gibney puts on the screen in his substantively hard-edged, if somewhat generically constructed, documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, to remind his audience of at least one source from which the dogged Holmes drew her inspiration.

According to a personal narrative that was told through numerous glowing feature articles and TED talks, that was the kind of sentiment that powered Holmes through years of scouring for investors and trying to do everything humanly possible to make her dream of a simple, cheap, quick fingertip pinprick blood test a reality. The great difference between her and Edison, though, might well have been that while both were stubborn and also—to greater and lesser degrees—self-inventing fabulists, just one of the two actually invented things.

Dispensing with most of her early biography, The Inventor initially presents Holmes to us as the world first came to know her: the unblinking blonde with the hundreds of identical black outfits speaking about her passion project in a monotonous drone that recalls nothing so much as Mira Sorvino in Romy & Michelle’s High School Reunion. Initially, Gibney paints this portrait of Holmes with a collection of media appearances and up-close interviews, the latter of which could have been conducted by the filmmaker himself, which would be surprising given the sharp negative turn the narrative takes toward its famously paranoid and media-controlling subject—or may have been repurposed from some of the Holmes-glorifying in-house promotional material Theranos hired Errol Morris to shoot.

Eventually, The Inventor gives a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it glimpse of Holmes’s background—studious, quiet, gawkily intense—that only completes the portrait of an already familiar Silicon Valley archetype: the college dropout with a monomaniacal focus and poor social skills. Of course, the difference with Holmes was that, by not being some schlubby computer engineer in a hoodie, but an attractive blond woman, she secured acres of fawning press coverage and renown as a glass ceiling-smashing female entrepreneur.

It’s easy to see the appeal of the Holmes sales pitch that Gibney shows here. She repeatedly talked to audiences about her belief that quick and reliable health information was a “basic human right,” often referencing an uncle who died too young from a cancer that could have been detected earlier. To her thinking, making blood tests faster, quicker, and less scary—she herself calls the process of giving blood akin to “torture”—was the best way to further her goal.

The technology that Holmes envisioned was the kind of seamless, minimalist ideal that has been pursued since the invention of the iPhone. Instead of messy needles and tubes and waiting weeks to hear back from a faraway lab, Theranos promised that a tiny barcoded “nanotainer” could get your blood from a pinprick, after which it would be inserted into a testing machine—called, of course, an “Edison”—no bigger than a home printer, and return a full blood test in a matter of minutes. No matter that there was no reason to believe the technology could ever make this dream a reality. Holmes seemingly just followed the Silicon Valley model for impossible thinking: “Fake it until you make it.”

Except, as The Inventor reveals in its rather darkly comic second half, there was never any way that Theranos was going to be able to make it. According to the company insiders who appear in the documentary, having already blown the whistle to the Wall Street Journal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning John Carreyrou (also a top source for the film), the actual Edison machine was a Rube Goldberg disaster of broken instruments and splashing blood that was never close to ready for prime time. The gleaming glass walls of Theranos headquarters, Gibney deadpans in his typically dry narration, was more like a “labyrinth of mirrors.”

This sense of New Economy make-believe that allowed Theranos to chew through hundreds of millions in investor capital while the company’s technology continually failed to deliver on Holmes’s hyperbolic world-changing promises was aided by a curious wrinkle. According to writers who covered her giddy rise to power and appear somewhat chagrined in The Inventor, Holmes had a powerful ability to secure backing from powerful old men who then also staffed the Theranos board: General Jim Mattis signed on, as did George Schultz and even Henry Kissinger, who gushed about her “ethereal quality” like some besotted fanboy. Theranos may not have revolutionized anything in the end, but Holmes’s cult of personality was powerful enough to provide cover for behavior and actions that included extreme paranoia, the hiring of bodyguards, the monitoring of staff emails, and the bulletproofing of her office windows.

While The Inventor is filled with bright details and sharp asides that puncture Silicon Valley’s self-mythologizing fabulism, it doesn’t make a strong enough attempt to get behind Holmes’s messianic aura. The basics of the Theranos case are laid out in clear reportorial fashion, and Gibney makes a brief stab at connecting Holmes to the long line of inventors who more than stretched the truth; Edison, for instance, pretended he had perfected the incandescent light bulb for four years before he actually had. But as with many stories about great American con artists, from Bernie Madoff to L. Ron Hubbard, the more one uncovers about their lies and subterfuge, the more the person’s character tends to recede. The Holmes of The Inventor appears to have been no different. Claiming to have found a way to change the world, while bullying and obfuscating her way around the unfortunate truth, Holmes may in the end have been only able to successfully invent a version of herself.

Director: Alex Gibney Distributor: HBO Documentary Films Running Time: 119 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Turn Up Charlie Doesn’t Spin Comedy Gold But Idris Elba Shines

The show pulls in too many directions at once, many of them far removed from the sporadic charm of its concept.

1

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Turn Up Charlie
Photo: Netflix

Pairing Idris Elba with a sassy kid in a sitcom sounds like an inoffensive, even endearing proposition. The series could feasibly coast on their chemistry and Elba’s marquee value, piling up seasons of comfortable comedy. On the surface, that’s what Turn Up Charlie seems like it wants to do. But for eight episodes, the series pulls in too many directions at once, many of them far removed from the sporadic charm of its concept.

Elba stars as Charlie Ayo, a one-hit wonder DJ who blew all his cash during his 15 minutes of fame and now sends the residuals to his parents while living with his aunt (Jocelyn Jee Esien). He’s not necessarily a slacker, just a guy whose life isn’t where he’d like it to be, and certainly a long way from the comeback he hopes for. Charlie’s luck, however, changes once he reunites with his childhood friend, David (JJ Feild), a now-famous actor married to Sara (Piper Perabo), a more famous DJ with the cultural cachet and in-home production studio to potentially relaunch Charlie’s career. The problem: Instead of working on his music, Charlie agrees to nanny David and Sara’s daughter, Gabrielle (Frankie Hervey), who’s so precocious that she labels herself as such when she isn’t saying things like “bitch, please.”

Gabrielle and her folks have moved to Britain from Los Angeles, both to enroll her in school and encourage more family time. Her parents are still, of course, focused on their careers, so Gabrielle is often left with Charlie to act out when she’s not devastated by her perpetual disappointment. If this sounds saccharine, clichéd, and more than a little irritating, it sometimes is. But it’s also the only thing that Turn Up Charlie has going for it.

The rest of the series is dedicated to bafflingly long tangents about Charlie’s music career, Sara and David’s rocky marriage, and other threads of so little note that their reappearance feels like the writers suddenly remembered they existed. Supporting characters are hardly developed, feeling as if they’ve been dropped in as if from out of nowhere, and then the series tries to mine them for a drama that’s supposed to have been simmering entirely off screen. At times, the effect is so sloppy and abrupt that it feels like episodes are missing.

Elba and Hervey have a fun, abrasive dynamic that’s legitimately charming when the series is willing to get out of their way. Watching their characters bond is neither original nor affecting, but it’s totally acceptable as background noise. Elba in particular takes to television comedy with total ease, leveraging his formidable presence to convey comic exasperation as Charlie is frequently disarmed by the kid he’s supposed to watch. In other words, not even Turn Up Charlie can totally kill Elba’s natural charisma by bludgeoning it to death with a turntable. But as Charlie careens from one baffling decision to the next, it sure seems determined to try.

Cast: Idris Elba, Piper Perabo, JJ Feild, Frankie Hervey, Jade Anouka, Jocelyn Jee Esien, Angela Griffin, Guz Khan Airtime: Netflix

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Review: American Gods’s Sophomore Season Is Parched for Visual Panache

In its second season, the show’s leisurely road trip downshifts into a total lethargy.

1.5

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American Gods
Photo: Starz

And lo, American Gods is risen, as one of its principal deities might, from a tumultuous cast and production shakeup since its 2017 debut. Showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green exited the series after the first season, and their replacement, Jesse Alexander, was pushed out late last year. To the show’s credit, such behind-the-scenes strife isn’t immediately noticeable, as the season soldiers on with Neil Gaiman’s source material and all of the main characters intact. But it’s perhaps worth keeping that drama in mind when considering how imbalanced the new season seems, having lost some of the visual flair that helpfully contrasted with the material’s most languid, expository moments.

Beyond ignoring the first season’s environmental devastation and explaining away Gillian Anderson’s departure with her character’s contrived transformation into the bubbly, emoji-spouting New Media (Kahyun Kim), things mostly pick up where they left off. Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) and his employer, Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), head for a meeting of the old gods with war on the brain. Rather than fade into obscurity, Wednesday hopes to convince his fellow deities to fight against the new gods of things like media, technology, and globalization. Belief creates and sustains these beings in Gaiman’s world, and few people believe in old gods like Czernobog or Anansi these days the way they believe in their cellphones.

In retrospect, it seems appropriate that so much of American Gods’s first season was less concerned with that promise of conflict than watching the characters simply drive from one destination to the next. Road trips, after all, afford little more than opportunities for people to talk and take in the scenery, and that’s pretty much what the season was—a lot of flowery monologues delivered by impeccably cast actors against a backdrop of elaborate, surrealist visuals fitting of the story’s magical, majestic scope.

Each episode of the first season brought another deity, another locale, another world-building prologue like Anansi (Orlando Jones) speaking to the captives of a slave ship or a tribe traveling to America during an ice age. These interludes, among others, were what really sold the show’s leisurely pace, the idea that it was as much about luxuriating in tone and texture as it was getting to where the plot was going. In what becomes an unfortunate statement of purpose, the second season’s first three episodes abandon those lovely preambles for an approach that feels significantly more straightforward, less concerned with its own aesthetic than adapting page to screen while getting to the meat of the conflict.

For a different series, scaling things back might have been a blessing. But for American Gods, it clarifies that the bombastic imagery was just about the entire point, because the episodes sag when only thin characters and the breadcrumbs of actual plot progression are left to shoulder the weight. There’s the occasional striking image, like a gray-skinned man whose body rises out of a tangle of wires that clump together like tentacles, but many others are totally nondescript; the new deities merely hang out in a bunker somewhere, and some scenes do little more than randomly blur the screen and play with filters, sometimes to disorient and sometimes just because. Even a meeting of the old gods is dimly lit, with medium close-ups and ethereal, eye-straining auras that fail to sell the grandeur of the gods’ true forms.

Without the visual panache of the first season to balance the occasionally thin material, it becomes hard to ignore that the characters are more words than people, vehicles for expository monologues that stand in for actual conflict. As everyone splits up and then comes together only to split up again, it becomes apparent that the series lacks the strong personalities necessary to get the audience invested in what, at this point, seems to be little more than a heavenly dick-measuring contest. People die and collect objects with no real urgency, and it takes more than a blank character like Shadow Moon to convince anyone they need to hear the good news about their lord and savior Odin. By making just a few tweaks in storytelling focus and technique, the show’s leisurely road trip downshifts into a total lethargy that suggests no amount of faith can sustain American Gods.

Cast: Ricky Whittle, Ian McShane, Emily Browning, Pablo Schreiber, Crispin Glover, Orlando Jones, Yetide Badaki, Bruce Langley, Mousa Kraish, Omid Abtahi, Demore Barnes, Peter Stormare, Cloris Leachman, Kahyun Kim Airtime: Starz, Sundays, 8 p.m.

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