Halt and Catch Fire’s Kerry Bishé on Donna’s Huge Season and Why the Show Isn’t a Hit

August 3rd, 2015

That camaraderie came through on the screen. You can understand why these characters are drawn to working together, even when they’re not getting along. They seem to respect each other.
That’s really great. One of the big differences between season one and season two is that the working relationships in season one were incredibly contentious. The characters would manipulate and lie, and they were really out for themselves. In season two, the working relationship really changed. While it remained contentious, there was a sense that these two women [Donna and Cameron] in particular very deeply respect and value each other, and they’re really trying hard to make it work.

And in many of their disputes, both of the positions on where to take the company are equally reasonable. It’s much more exciting to watch a drama when you genuinely can’t decide what “should” happen.
I love that. That’s what good writing does, to me. All the characters have good reasons to do what they do, so you can understand CameronandDonna, even though they’re making opposite decisions or have opposite priorities. You still feel like they’re both completely justified in the choices they’re making. I concur, I think that’s a really great part of this show.

That carries over to the characters’ personal lives too. The show didn’t pump-fake in the direction of Donna’s abortion — she actually went through with it, and her reasons were presented as sound and strong and nothing to be ashamed of.
That was a fascinating story line, and it was interesting how it all played out. The writers were really intent on making it a confident decision that Donna made. They didn’t want her to be wishy-washy, they didn’t want it to be a thing that [dramatic voicedestroyed her, you know? They did a great job of giving her that backbone. But at the same time, in a bigger-picture way, I didn’t want it to feel like, you know, working women who have a career have to sacrifice, or that given the opportunity women will choose their career over their family. It felt like threading a needle to me. It ended up being a pretty good balance between what the writers needed it to be and what I needed it to do to feel okay about what we were putting out in the world.

Over at Vulture I interviewed actor Kerry Bishé, who plays Donna on Halt and Catch Fire, about its fabulous second season, and she was very, very insightful.

“Halt and Catch Fire” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Ten: “Heaven Is a Place”

August 3rd, 2015

They made up their mind to make a new start, they’re going to California with an achin’ in their hearts. Halt and Catch Fire ended tonight’s season finale by packing up and heading west, abandoning the Lone Star state for the Golden one. But from Joe and Sara MacMillan’s scuttled plans for relocation to Gordon Clark’s disastrous dalliance with a west-coast lady, the characters have walked through the shadow of the Valley of Silicon all season long. The results were not promising, which signals that the hard reboot Donna Clark, Cameron Howe and company are hoping for most likely won’t work.

The irony is that this parable about the illusory nature of second chances was told by a show that proved it was the exception to that rule. Written by series creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers and directed by Sopranos, Mad Men, and Daredevil veteran Phil Abraham, “Heaven Is a Place” caps one of the most remarkable rebirths for a series in recent memory. Its freshman-year jitters are now as obsolete as the Cardiff Giant — Halt came out of its sophomore season as smart, savvy top-shelf TV, full stop.

I reviewed the excellent season finale of Halt and Catch Fire’s excellent second season for Rolling Stone.

“True Detective” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Seven: “Black Maps and Motel Rooms”

August 3rd, 2015

So why wasn’t it this tightly wound all along? Most murder mysteries operate along a linear progression of false starts, red herrings, leads, revelations, and the final whodunit. The approach that True Detective took was a revisionist one in a way, and perfectly valid in theory. Instead of piecing together clues one after another, Ray, Ani, Paul, and Frank just kinda kept pouring more and more info into a big swirling morass that remained incomprehensible until the moment it all became clear, like a cloudy pool of water finally settling down enough for you to see your reflection in the surface. That daring Metal Gear Solid action sequence aside, it’s probably a little bit closer to how solving major crimes works in real life.

The problem is that the show offered so little firm ground to walk on as it traveled through the murk. Compelling dialogue? Not so much; the pitch-black noir aphorisms that sounded magical in the mouth of Matthew McConaughey last season gave us a bad case of blueballs of the ear this go-round. Engaging characters? Not until they hit their respective rock bottoms over the past two episodes did the Drab Four feel like people you could empathize with, much less enjoy as reasons to tune in week to week. Intimidating antagonists? With the possible exception of creepy-ass Dr. Rick Springfield, no one in the semi-anonymous gaggle of corrupt police, politicians, land barons, and ethnically diverse gangsters giving our heroes trouble will be joining Reggie LeDoux or the Yellow King in the annals of memorable villainy anytime soon. Before this week, it’s unlikely much of the audience even knew their names. If you’re gonna make the mystery a mess until just before the end, fine, but there has to be something to make getting there at least half the fun.

I reviewed last night’s True Detective for Rolling Stone. I thought it was solid, which helped me understand why until last week, the rest of the season was not.

“Masters of Sex” thought, Season Three, Episode Four: “Undue Influence”

August 3rd, 2015

At the top of the list is the return of Allison Janney’s Margaret Scully, now divorced from her secretly gay husband Barton (who’s come to work at Masters & Johnson’s clinic) for three years and semi-happily ensconced in a three-way relationship, as we discover at the episode’s end. The “semi” caveat stems from the fact that Graham, her bawdy but seemingly good-hearted boyfriend and the male corner of this very ‘60s triangle, now cums too quickly for them to have the kind of sex she finds so fulfilling after a lifetime of going without.

Aside from the obvious “whoa” factor of the storyline, it draws a lot of strength from its key performer. Janney has been perfectly cast from the start; her big eyes can alternate between baleful and intense at will, giving her sexual reawakening real heat. It’s entirely believable that she’d leap from decades of disengagement to a longterm ménage à trois in which the pursuit of simultaneous orgasms has not just physical but emotional and even “spiritual” importance, and equally convincing that she’s forward-thinking enough to take the sight of her boyfriend and his other girlfriend in bed more or less in stride, yet still be traditional enough to be concerned that her ex-husband isn’t getting enough to eat. Her plight takes on added pathos when she reveals just why the physical aspect of her relationship is so central to her sense of well-being: She begs Barton for permission to tell his secret to her boyfriend, so that he can understand the history that led her to a place where, in her words, “sex is the only way I know that he loves me.” And she desperately wants him to tell the woman he’s been seeing under false pretenses as well, so that he doesn’t do to her (and to himself) what he did to Margaret and their marriage all those years. She has just about as much going on as a human heart can handle, and the balance of emotions is perfectly weighted by the writing.

It’s not a storyline without its problems, though. One is the underutilization of Beau Bridges, a veteran actor of deceptive depth who is too often asked by Masters to do little more than force an avuncular smile and lie to someone’s face about how fine he’s feeling. Another is the series’ habit of repeatedly trotting out new sexual issues and kinks, from oedipal complexes to impotence to incest, but using the same characters to demonstrate them: a hypersexed cad one week only likes older women the next, say, or a character introduced as someone’s mistress is later revealed to be unable to have sex at all. If Masters wants to explore polyamory and premature ejaculation, hey, by all means. But why do it at the same time, and using the same character they’d previously utilized to examine anorgasmia and sexless marriage to a closeted gay man? It’s like if the ‘60s Batman TV show still did the villain-of-the-week thing but had Cesar Romero play not just the Joker but the Penguin, the Riddler, and Catwoman too.

I reviewed last night’s Masters of Sex for the New York Observer.

“Hannibal” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Nine: “…And the Woman Clothed with the Sun”

August 3rd, 2015

‘Hannibal’ Recap: With a Little Help from My Friends

The decision to reintroduce Abigail Hobbs, the dead daughter of the killer who was killed during Hannibal and Will’s very first case, via flashback, in the middle of a story arc as self-contained and separate from the past as Red Dragon, is a baffling one. Don’t get me wrong — the character brings out a level of paternal perversity from the show that’s awesome to behold. I mean, get a load of the scene in which Hannibal recruits her to help him fake her own death. Her acquiescence is hard to swallow (no pun intended, Will) at first, given her terror of Lecter and her warm feelings toward Graham. But it’s not difficult to imagine the severe Stockholm Syndrome that would kick in when the daughter of a serial killer who forced her to help him find victims is told by another serial killer she’s about to die, but then spared at the last second as part of some grand plan.

This leads to what can only be described as the most erotic faked murder ever filmed. (Move over, Gone Girl, I guess?) Her glee about participating is Oedipally delicious: “Can I push the button?” she asks, referring to the device Hannibal will use to shoot her blood across the room in mimicry of arterial spray, with a tone of voice that would make Humbert Humbert blush. After a langourous bloodletting, during which Hannibal tenderly brushes Abigail’s brown hair back from the ear he will soon slice off and force-feed to his friend, the girl slips off the kitchen counter and into the arms of her murder-daddy. He manipulates her body like a cellist playing his instrument until the moment of release: a slow-motion shot of her blood being expelled from a tube like a vampire ejaculating.

I reviewed this week’s Hannibal for Decider, which is another way to say I was paid to write the phrase “like a vampire ejaculating.”

The Creator of Pepe the Frog Talks About Making Comics in the Post-Meme World

July 28th, 2015

Have you ever thought about collecting all the Boy’s Club comics in a single book?
I’ve thought about it. I dunno. The problem with books is I usually end up getting not that great of a deal. If the right situation came along I’d do it, but it’s really not even… I mean, I guess it would be worth it, to have it be easier for fans. But I kind of like it not being easy for people to get. I dunno, it’s kind of funny to see it on eBay for $400 or something. My lady thinks that Pepe’s a self-portrait, in a way—she says I have Pepe’s eyes—so it’s kind of neat to see something that’s so personal to me on some level infiltrate this weird nether-region of the internet. I’ve made my mark on the internet, so I can relax. I’m retired now, living off all the shares and likes.

Feels good man: I interviewed Matt Furie about his new Boy’s Club comic and the viral success of his character Pepe the Frog for my Vice debut.

The Boiled Leather Audio Hour Episode 40!

July 28th, 2015

Women of Westeros, Part V: Arya, Lyanna, the Sand Snakes, Arianne, & Ygritte

It’s ladies’ night once again for the Boiled Leather Audio Hour! We’re resuming our irregular series on the women of Westeros after over two years for an episode on a bunch of characters who break the world of Ice and Fire’s gender mold: Arya Stark, Lyanna Stark, the Sand Snakes, Arianne Martell, and Ygritte. Our topics of discussion are as diverse and varied as the women themselves: why Arya is too complex for the hero, victim, or monster labels; how Lyanna’s larger-than-life reputation suits her potential prophetic destiny; the Sand Snakes as Dorne’s answer to the #CarefreeBlackGirls movement-cum-meme; what Arianne has in common with another rebellious scion of a dynasty, Jaime Lannister; how seeing Ygritte exclusively through the eyes of the man who loves her shapes our experience; the true meaning of “strong female character”; and much more. Drop your Needle on that mp3 and tune in!

Download Episode 40

Additional links:

Mirror.

The “Women of Westeros” series.

Previous episodes.

Podcast RSS feed.

iTunes page.

Sean’s blog.

Stefan’s blog.

“Hannibal” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Eight: “The Great Red Dragon”

July 27th, 2015

More impressive still is Richard Armitage’s instant-classic work as Francis Dolarhyde — aka the Tooth Fairy, aka the Great Red Dragon — whom he doesn’t so much play as inhabit. In a recent interview, Armitage said he patterned his (so far entirely wordless) performance on Mica Levi’s avant-garde score for Jonathan Glazer’s art-house horror masterpiece Under the Skin. That a main character on a network television show would be based not a performance but the music from one of the most difficult and surreal horror films ever made is remarkable in and of itself. But beyond that, the connection makes perfect sense. Like Under the SkinRed Dragon concerns an individual in the process of becoming: making, and perhaps unmaking, themselves into a creature driven to commit monstrous crimes. Armitage’s Dolarhyde stares at his own hands as if only now realizing not just their potential but their existence, and mouths formless syllables as if trying to construct not just speech but the meaning behind it. It’s both easy and instructive to see the parallels with Scarlett Johannson’s nameless predator, another beast slouching toward mayhem to be born.

But there are few parallels, if any, between Dolarhyde’s brutality and that of the series’ title character. After a half-season immersion in Hannibal’s world of refined and decadent Old Europe evil, the blunt force of this new killer could not be more striking. Frederic Chilton, who as played by Raul Esparza could quite convincingly pass himself off as Armitage/Dolarhyde’s twin brother, makes a joke out of the contrast (to say nothing of Hannibal’s ratings woes). “He has a much wider demographic than you do,” he tells Lecter. “You, with your fancy allusions and fussy aesthetics, will always have niche appeal. But this fellow…there is something so universal about what he does. Kills whole families, and in their homes. Strikes at the very core of the American dream. You might say he’s a four-quadrant killer.”

Indeed, Dolarhyde kills with an urgent simplicity that’s more viscerally frightening than the elaborate installation-art, performance-piece slayings that have been the stock in trade of both Hannibal and his several serial-killing rivals throughout the series’ run. The Tooth Fairy uses a gun to commit most of his murders; he needs to end lives as quickly as possible. While he does stage his victims’ bodies in gruesome tableaux, posing them together as one big happy family with the shards of broken mirrors over their eyes and mouths (and in the mothers’ genitals), he actually puts the corpses back afterwards. He has no interest in advertising himself to the world, proclaiming his sick genius; what he does, he does for himself alone.  If Lecter is a vampire, Dolarhyde is a werewolf. He is an exclamation point to Hannibal’s ellipsis. All of this is communicated by the show through killing; this is its design. And if it is the punctuation that must end the series, so be it.

I reviewed this week’s episode of Hannibal for Decider. This show is astonishing.

“True Detective” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Six: “Church in Ruins”

July 27th, 2015

Even weirder, the big orgy that ends the episode is also a move forward for the series’ handling of women, sex, and nudity. When Ani Bezzerides goes undercover to get the inside scoop on the prostitution ring’s high-powered clientele, she’s dosed with Molly that’s potent enough to trigger post-traumatic flashbacks to her molestation as a child; cue visually distorted nightmare. So instead of the sleazy parade of pay-cable hardbodies you might have expected, everything you see is blurry, shaky, and decidedly un-sexy — as it should be at a party in which leering old men buy their way into sex with women who are prohibited from saying no.

The sequence’s most striking break from the norm, though, was aural rather than visual. The show’s usual score, an ominous, electronic throb, is suddenly replaced by an orchestra of swirling strings. It makes Bezzerides’ journey into the party mansion feel like the heroine of a dark fairy tale getting trapped inside the evil queen’s castle, lending a sense of urgency, even adventure, to her attempt to rescue the woman she spots from her old missing person’s case. When Ani, Velcoro and Paul Woodrugh crested the hill in the dark as they ran away, you half-expected the Ringwraiths to be chasing them instead of gun-toting goons. Tossing the series’ usual tonal palette out the window worked beautifully. When was the last time True Detective made you say that? Fingers crossed that the final two installments make us say it again.

I reviewed last night’s True Detective, far and away the best episode of the season, for Rolling Stone.

“Halt and Catch Fire” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Nine: “Kali”

July 27th, 2015

In the Big Eighties New Wave soundtrack wars, Joy Division is a weapon best used sparingly. Like a proto-Cobain, the heavily mythologized tragedy of lead singer Ian Curtis’s suicide hangs heavy over every note, threatening to overwhelm the song’s value as signifiers of either the time period or a character’s psychological state. So when a Raveonettes/Trentemøller cover of the band’s “She’s Lost Control” shuddered its way through the air as Cameron Howe crashed the system of the company that stole her life’s work, it’s time to sit up — or in her case, lie down — and take notice.

But has she lost control, really? Was “Kali,” tonight’s penultimate episode of Halt and Catch Fire Season Two, a portrait of a woman falling apart? If you’ll pardon the Clintonian doublespeak, it depends upon what the meaning of the word “control” is.

If it means using her intelligence and talent to shape her own future, Cameron has got that in spades. In the space of a few days, she devised a brand new business plan, successfully sold their most innovative game, designed the interface for Mutiny 2.0, and hacked Jacob Wheeler’s new network — all under the worst professional circumstances she’s ever faced. You can read it in her eyes, actor Mackenzie Davis’ most expressive asset, when she lies on the grass as her dirty deed goes down: She is in full command.

I reviewed the latest episode of Halt and Catch Fire, which has been an absolute delight all season long, for Rolling Stone.

“Masters of Sex” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Three: “The Excitement of Release”

July 27th, 2015

While out for drinks with friends the other day, Masters of Sex came up, as it is wont to do. (Perhaps the most practically useful thing about being a TV critic in this, the New Golden Age of Television, is that you can make at least a half hour of conversation with anybody, guaranteed, because everybody watches TV now.) “What do you think of it?” an acquaintance who’d just started Season One asked me. “Well, as far as the first season goes,” I replied, “I think those sex scenes for the sex study are super fucking hot.” “Yes!” she agreed, with both unbridled enthusiasm and obvious sincerity. Indeed, she went on to reveal that she waits until her husband isn’t home to watch the show, so that his wisecracks don’t interrupt the, y’know, mood. We concluded that the genius of that first season was the creation of an intelligent, genuinely adult drama around sexually explicit “adult situations” that would put any Skinemax show to shame. Imagine The Red Shoe Diaries with a shot at the Best Drama Emmy and you’re basically there. Whether you’re a fan of prestige TV, fucking, or both — preferably both — this was cause for celebration.

So it was my grim duty to inform her by the time she reaches the current season, the hot stuff has been well and truly cold-showered. For evidence, look no further than tonight’s ironically titled episode, “The Excitement of Release,” a grim slog through domestic drama, bad business meetings, and perfunctory sexual-assault-as-plot-placeholder. Où sont les petites morts d’antan?

I reviewed yet another Masters of Sex that has entirely lost the plot for the New York Observer.

At Home at the End of the World: The Long Defeat of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy

July 22nd, 2015

…nearly all of the “Mignolaverse” titles are shot through with a sense of tremendous loss, of mind-warping waste. The world Hellboy and his friends inhabit is a brutal one, rendered unspeakably ugly by a combination of venal people whose minds are too small for empathy and the unstoppable forces they therefore unleash.

Moreover, there’s a specific sense throughout the saga that the violence wielded by its protagonists is futile, even counterproductive. The most gung-ho member of the B.P.R.D., heavily scarred ex-Marine Captain Ben Daimio, secretly harbored an evil spirit that eventually took over and rampaged through the team’s headquarters. An attempt by the artificial man Roger the Homunculus to ape Daimio’s hard-charging attitude led directly to his own death. The depiction of violence as causing more problems than it solves is a self-critique that few superhero stories attempt, and even the ones that attempt it usually ultimately reject it.

Yet Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. soldier on, fighting a menace they are too weak, and too late, to stop. Their goal, to the extent that they have one, is simply to survive, and to preserve what little light and life they can — to write an epilogue for a story that has already ended.

Apocalypse now and forever: I wrote about Hellboy, the BPRD, and pop-cultural armageddons for Grantland.

“Hannibal” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Seven: “Digestivo”

July 20th, 2015

It’s been a long, long time since a path to Hannibal Lecter’s capture was clear. The rules of narrative, to say nothing of Thomas Harris’s source material, dictate that Will Graham would be the man to take the Chesapeake Ripper down. But he and Hannibal had become so emotionally intertwined that it made the profiler’s triumph over the killer increasingly unlikely, at least in terms of it resembling a good old-fashioned arrest.

At the end of Season Two, as we learned for certain a few episodes ago, Will had a chance to stop Hannibal but instead hoped to join him on the run. More recently, he was on the verge of stabbing the doctor to death in the the streets of Florence before fate, in the form of one of Chiyoh’s deus-ex-sniper-rifle bullets, intervened. Either way, Graham was morally compromised in a way that would give any defeat of Lecter a bitter aftertaste (no pun intended). As Will himself puts it during their final conversation, “When it comes to you and me, there can be no decisive victory.”

Turns out he’s wrong about that. Brain Hannibal with the butt of your handgun, plumb the depths of his backfat with a knife, brand him with red-hot iron, truss him up in a pigpen while preparing to eat him alive, and he makes nary a peep. Hurt his feelings, though? Then he’ll voluntarily give up his entire criminal career, so long as it’s Will doing the hurting. “I miss my dogs,” Graham says to his nemesis as they sit together in his cozy country house for yet another heart-to-heart chat. But then he sticks the knife in: “I’m not gonna missyou. I’m not going to find you. I’m not going to look for you. I don’t want know where you are or what you do. I don’t want to think about you anymore.”

Smug until the last, Hannibal tries to tell Will what he’s really feeling: “You delight in wickedness, and then berate yourself for the delight.” That’s the final strike. “You delight,” Will replies. “I tolerate. I don’t have your appetite.” Then comes the kiss-off: “Goodbye, Hannibal.” No more cat and mouse, and no more folie à deux either — Will’s done with the devil for good.

Earlier in the episode, Hannibal told Alana that she never could have understood him. Now it’s his turn to experience that kind of ignorance. Will’s superhuman empathy, the quality that enables him to understand Hannibal through and through, is the exact quality that renders him ultimately impenetrable to Hannibal in turn. Simply knowing that the closest thing he’s ever had to a friend has thoroughly rejected him, even as an enemy, for reasons he will never be fully capable of understanding, is enough to make Lecter give up, if only to ensure their continued connection. Will Graham caught Hannibal Lecter by letting him go.

I reviewed last week’s Hannibal, perhaps the most insane thing ever to air on network television, for Decider. You really need to see the gifs.

“Masters of Sex” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Two: “Three’s a Crowd”

July 20th, 2015

Precious little about the storyline that dominated tonight’s episode either plays to the show’s preexisting strengths or breaks new ground in going offroad. Finding out that she’s pregnant with a third child by ex-husband George causes problems for Virginia at work? You don’t say! It makes Bill, who’s jealous of their relationship and worried about appearances for his life’s work, uncomfortable, and Libby, who knows her husband will be fingered as the father by the public at large, even more so? Get out of town! There’s a plot point where it looks like she’ll get an abortion but the show, ahem, I mean she changes her mind at the last minute? Stop the press! Her newly troubled teenage daughter Tessa tells Virginia that her bad decisions disqualify her from delivering moralistic lectures by saying, in literally so many words, “You’re the last person who gets to lecture me on anything”? Well, I guess it’s a step forward from “You’re the worst mom ever,” an actual honest-to-god line from earlier in the episode! The birth is a screaming crying sweaty mess like every other birth that’s ever been shown on television? I could have a heart attack and die from not-surprise! It’s difficult to overstate how rote and uninteresting every aspect of the idea and the execution wound up being. The most you can say for it is that it only ate up one week of screentime.

And would you believe this was completely the writers’ choice? In reality, there was no narrowly avoided scandal that threatened to overshadow the release of Human Sexual Response, no shotgun re-marriage to George,  no third Johnson baby at all. Even on a show that plays so fast and loose with the facts in its historical fiction that it requires a disclaimer at the end of each episode stating that the child characters bear no resemblance to their real-life inspirations, the invention of a child out of whole cloth is something else. Masters has now done it not once but twice: Both Bill & Libby’s and Virginia & George’s third kids are completely made up, brought into this world by showrunner Michelle Ashford rather than the people the show is ostensibly about. Nothing Masters has done with these wholly optional additions so far has justified the investment.

Indeed, both the bogus baby boom and the sudden swerve into teen-drama territory have steered the series away from its primary points of appeal. Gini and Bill’s used to have chemistry to burn; now it’s tough to remember the last time a scene between them was enough to get any viewer hot and bothered. The labcoat eroticism of their sex study itself was, in the show’s early episodes, a long-overdue payoff on pay-cable’s potential to parlay Nudity and Strong Sexual Content into something as smart as it was smutty; now that element is completely absent. I dunno, maybe there are people out there who’d rather watch a show about hysterical women getting coached through contractions or arguing with their daughters about the borrowing the car, but Growing Pains is available on Amazon for just $1.99 an episode.

Masters of Sex was bad tonight too. I reviewed it for the New York Observer.

“True Detective” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Five: “Other Lives”

July 20th, 2015

Tonight’s episode was absolutely stuffed with plot points, pretzel-like twists and some seriously overripe, laugh-out-loud lines. More often than not, it felt like a parody of prestige drama rather than the real thing. No character got away clean: Not Ani, who suffers her way from the most one-dimensionally grotesque sex-harassment workshop ever before revving her fellow offenders’ engines with (presumably) sarcastic talk about big dicks. Not Paul and his ridiculous cliché of a mother, who scream and weep their lungs out when he finds out she stole his hidden loot from Afghanistan like they were in a bad telenovela. (Apparently someone in the writers’ room thinks “poisoned cooze” is an insult a human being would use in the year of our Lord 2015.) Not Ray, who records a monologue about suffering for his son — “Pain is inexhaustible. It’s only people that get exhausted” — like he’s auditioning for the role of Rust Cohle in the school play. (Runner up: his big cliffhanger-ending “You and me need to talk.” No shit!) Not Frank and his wife Jordan, who stammer their way through a fight about his return to the gangster lifestyle and her inability to have children centered on sentences like “Crime exists contingent on human desire.”

The pièce de résistance, of course, is Frank’s grand declaration of frustration to Ray. “The enemy won’t reveal itself, Raymond,” he says, like a summer-stock Pacino in Godfather III. “Stymies my retribution. It’s like, uh, blue balls in your heart.” Blue balls in your heart, people. Blue. Balls. In. Your. Heart. Look, a simile makes connections in order to uncover meaning, not overwhelm it; “blue balls in your heart” does nothing to explain the unique rage of delayed revenge except bury it under a mountain of “Wait…what the hell did he just say?” It’s enough to give you, uh, jock itch in your brain.

I don’t even know what to say, folks. I reviewed tonight’s True Detective for Rolling Stone.

“Halt and Catch Fire” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Eight: “Limbo”

July 20th, 2015

The discovery leaves Joe in the unenviable position of transitioning from chemically induced bliss to pure panic. Instead of fucking his bonnie bride amid his beloved mainframes while rolling on MDMA after a lengthy, lushly shot nightclub sequence, he’s not only forced to sober up; the man has to reenter the enemy territory. Dressed head-to-toe in white like Don Johnson after an all-night Miami Vice cast party, MacMillan staggers into Mutiny HQ and desperately attempt to convince everyone that he had nothing to do with destroying their life’s work. The result is the rare moment where no one’s buying what our resident mover-and-shaker is selling.

It’s hard to believe, given the swaggering alpha-male asshole we remember from Season One, but it’s a crushingly sad moment. Here’s a guy who really has become a better man…and it doesn’t matter. Jacob’s swindle is as convincing a copy of Joe’s old tactics as his bogus new network is of Mutiny’s proprietary code, so none of his former coworkers believe MacMillan is innocent for a second. That’s a tremendous demonstration of how hard it can be to break the mold you’ve made for yourself. It’s always there to shape how others see you.

You know what’s an actual good show? Halt and Catch Fire! I reviewed this week’s episode for Rolling Stone.)

“Masters of Sex” thoughts, Season Three, Episode One: “Parliament of Owls”

July 12th, 2015

Masters of Sex, at its best, is a lot like Arizona: extremely dry and extremely hot. When it works it’s fueled by the R-rated Rosalind Russell vibes of Lizzy Caplan’s Virginia Johnson, the strength of its premise — a historical battle the eventual victor of which is obvious everywhere you look today — and its tasteful yet provocative clinical eroticism, which is another way to say it’s super fucking sexy to watch people fuck for science. When it doesn’t work it’s weighed down by its protagonist’s lack of charisma, its supporting cast’s ‘90s-network-drama two-dimensionality, its repetitive relationship dynamics, and its use of throwaway characters who exist simply to spout the prejudices and since-rejected conventional wisdom of the day. Tonight’s Season Three premiere, “Parliament of Owls,” most definitely did not work. What does this tell us? Let’s make like Masters & Johnson and observe & report.

Masters of Sex’s main problem is its title character. Bill Masters is a singularly unappealing figure, bold and forward-thinking about precisely one thing, his sex research project, and a drip in every other way. Imagine if Don Draper were just as good at advertising as ever but weren’t also charming, frequently kind, and unbelievably handsome, and you’ve pretty much got the good doctor covered. This makes a show about a small army of people who rearrange not just the entirety of their own lives but also science and society in general around the guy a tough sell indeed.

I reviewed tonight’s season premiere of Masters of Sex, which I did not care for, for the New York Observer. It’s kind of a write-up of my feelings about the show in general.

“True Detective” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Four: “Down Will Come”

July 12th, 2015

Structurally, tonight’s big bang comes at the exact same end-of-Episode-Four point as the single-take shootout from Season One. But that was a deep-cover diversion, a consequence of Rust Cohle getting dragged along for a drug heist while posing as a white-supremacist biker. This week’s rampage, by contrast, took place as part of the search for the actual suspect in Ben Caspere’s killing, a figure in the Mexican mob whose prints were on the dead man’s pawned watch.

As such, it potentially corresponds not to the aforementioned seven-minute sequence, but to Marty and Rust’s raid on Reggie Ledoux’s compound in the following episode. That was when the original Detective duo murdered numerous shady men while the real killer went free for another decade. This time around, Ray knows for sure that the Vinci P.D. wants the case closed, and he suspects the state is in for the opportunity to shake down his crooked town for extra cash. With that in mind, it’s likely there will be pressure to act like they’ve gotten their man, however improbably that may be. Only ganglord Frank, who knows better than to believe that a guy hard up enough to pawn jewelry could be behind all his ruined plans, will want to keep up the hunt until the actual culprit is found. In other words, the criminal has been the true detective all along. Congrats if you had him in your office pool!

I reviewed tonight’s bullet-ridden True Detective for Rolling Stone.

“Halt and Catch Fire” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Seven: “Working for the Clampdown”

July 12th, 2015

The dramas of TV’s New Golden Age excel at presenting their characters with a choice of evils. Should Walter White attempt to take down a more powerful druglord, or turn his family’s life upside down by fleeing? Should Daenerys Targaryen let the slaves she freed take vengeance against their former masters, or punish their payback attempts with still more violenceShould Don Draper sell out, or give up? For many shows, the central conflict involves a question with seemingly no right answers.

But what if there are no wrong answers? What if the choice is hard to make because the benefits of either option are too difficult to turn down? In the right hands, that’s an even deeper dilemma — and “Working for the Clampdown,” tonight’s Halt and Catch Fire, proves this is a series with the tools and the talent to navigate this demanding kind of drama.

Halt and Catch Fire is so goddamn good, everyone! Please watch it, and please read my review for Rolling Stone.

“Hannibal” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Six: “Dolce”

July 11th, 2015

Let’s state it for the record: If Hannibal really is over, it’s the most upsetting cancellation since Deadwood, hands down. Both series are, or were, ruthless and uncompromising in articulating the poetically violent visions of their creators through inimitable dialogue and sumptuous cinematography. They’re gifts we’ve been lucky to have, even if only for three seasons apiece. That said, only one involved human bodies prepared like Peking duck, attempted incestuous insemination, beautiful women having kaleidoscope sex, and bone saws slicing through living human skulls. C’mon, NBC, Netflix, and Amazon! Hannibal has it all! And “Dolce,” tonight’s episode, was a veritable garden of unearthly delights — funny, sexy, suspenseful, repulsive, and, as always, absolutely gorgeous.

Hannibal is goddamn great. I reviewed this week’s episode for Decider.