The 40 Greatest TV Villains of All Time

February 9th, 2016

4. Joffrey Baratheon, Game of Thrones

Seven gods, seven kingdoms, zero redeeming qualities — the atrocious boy king who bedeviled House Stark was a living embodiment of George R.R. Martin’s furious fantasy revisionism: If you’re a rich man with a good family name, you can get away with literally anything. In Joffrey’s case, this included torture, murder, sexual assault, the beheading of the show’s main character (R.I.P. Ned, you were too good for this world), and generally being a sneering little shit. He was so hateful that the few times he received any kind of comeuppance—an insult, a slap, a good old-fashioned regicide at the so-called Purple Wedding — are among the show’s most meme-able moments. Actor Jack Gleeson retired from showbiz immediately upon completion of the role; by scraping the bottom, he went out on top.

I ranked the 40 greatest TV villains of all time for Rolling Stone. This, of course, is definitive and inarguable.

The 25 Most Anticipated TV Shows of 2016

February 8th, 2016

Game of Thrones (HBO, April 24)

The cable network’s dark-fantasy juggernaut has left a long trail of dead characters and shocked audiences in its wake, though readers of George R.R. Martin’s books always knew when to duck. All that changes when the show returns for its sixth season this year — because The Winds of Winter appears to have hit the proverbial Wall, showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss have been free to plan their own red weddings this season. While the show will continue to be based at least in part on future plans revealed to creators by Martin, it had already begun deviating from the source with increasing regularity and boldness. (Is Jon Snow alive or dead? Who the hell knows?) Look for an even stormier winter than usual.

I joined forces with ace writers David Fear and Rob Sheffield to run down the year’s most anticipated TV shows for Rolling Stone.

“Billions” thoughts, Season One, Episode Four: “Short Squeeze”

February 8th, 2016

Metallica on a TV show, yeah yeah yeah. There was only one supergroup that really mattered in this episode: Gale from Breaking Bad, on the phone with Brody from Homeland, with Stan from The Americans sitting a few feet away, as they fly to Quebec for an unexpected run-in with Donna from Halt and Catch Fire. Yes, the prestige-drama-actor bingo card that is Billions got fuller up than ever in this week’s installment. But you didn’t even really need to watch David Costabile be sleazy, Damian Lewis be shrewd, Noah Emmerich be squirrelly, or Kerry Bishé be sexy to enjoy yourself. Written by newcomer Young Il Kim and directed by veteran James Foley (Glengarry Glen Ross!!!), “Short Squeeze” made Billions a tighter, smarter, better show than it has been so far.

I reviewed last night’s star-studded, very good Billions for the New York Observer.

“Downton Abbey” thoughts, Season Six, Episode Six

February 8th, 2016

After all, what is Downton Abbey but a chance to see, as Lord Robert put it, “how the other half lives”? To admire, as Molesley put it, “fine craftsmanship and beautiful paintings”? And isn’t the flipside of that, as Lady Edith laments, that the Crawleys’ “way of life is something strange, something to queue up and buy a ticket to see, a museum exhibit, a fat lady in the circus”? (Sadly, the program has not yet delivered on Lord Robert’s idea of giving viewers their money’s worth by showing them “Lady Mary in the bath.” Hope springs eternal!) Or put more darkly, as Molesley does, don’t people “start asking, ‘Why have the Crawleys got all of this and I haven’t?’” Aren’t there plenty of critics echoing Mr. Carson’s dire warning of “a guillotine in Trafalgar Square,” but as a positive thing? These are all sentiments expressed about the potential motives for and results of the villagers’ visit, but they describe the range of reactions to the show just as accurately.

And as usual, Julian Fellowes is studiously agnostic as to which side has the right of it. Given his biography and the state of the world, neutrality isn’t really all that neutral. But I’ve always been uncomfortable with the idea that there’s something inherently immoral about the setup of the show. Everyone on it is so nice that much of the horror of the British class system is elided, but if you’re dim enough to watch this thing and think “those were the good old days,” that’s hardly Fellowes’s fault.

I reviewed last night’s very meta Downton Abbey for the New York Observer.

“Serial” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Six: “Five O’Clock Shadow”

February 8th, 2016

The contradictions inherent in Bergdahl’s personality emerge clear as day. It’s not that he’s opposed to danger per se; his DUSTWUN misadventure and his two subsequent attempts to escape from the Taliban prove that. Moreover, Koenig reports his friends and fellow soldiers recalling him frequently agitating for more engagement with the enemy, more “killing bad guys.” Not that he’s there to “rape, burn, pillage, and kill,” mind you, to quote the gallows humor he reportedly took very poorly when a higher-up joked that this was not their mission in a briefing before deployment. Heaven forbid anyone believe Bowe Bergdahl is anything less than a real American hero! He was equally keen on COIN, the well-intentioned but impracticable boondoggle of a military doctrine whereby soldiers slowly gain the trust of the locals and cut off insurgents’ support at the roots, effectively impossible to do in a series of brief months-long rotations. Sgt. Bergdahl was there to help, goddammit, to fight for truth, justice, and the American way. It wasn’t danger he feared, it was danger that didn’t help him prove he’s a supersoldier, a man of honor and valor, a true knight. (This was the thinking behind his pointless acts of Arthurian self-abnegation, like sleeping directly on his bedprings instead of a mattress and snuggling a tomahawk to sleep every night.) Getting yelled at bothered him because he expected a hero’s welcome; not receiving it was tantamount to a threat against his personal safety. And if he couldn’t be a hero playing by the rules, then by god he was going to break them. Thus was the ludicrous AWOL mission that began the season conceived.

I wrote about Bowe Bergdahl deciding his life was in danger because he got chewed out over a dress code violation, and what that means about him and the show covering him, in my review of last week’s Serial for the New York Observer.

“Mad Dogs” thoughts, Season One, Episode Ten: “Needles”

February 8th, 2016

That there is a Season 2 is a tough thing to complain about. Mad Dogs was entertaining as the dickens from start to finish, its pacing often as good as this kind of “oh shit!” suspense gets, its performances uniformly strong right down to the bit parts, its musings on sacrifice and regret and morality never glib or hamfisted and often quite thoughtful. Plus, with any luck, Allison Tolman and Ted Levine will be along for the ride on a semi-permanent basis next time.

But it’s still tough not to wonder if the show wouldn’t have been better off as a miniseries or anthology. No matter how hard the writers work to justify it, bringing the four friends back together in Belize, or anywhere else for that matter, can’t help but feel like horny teenagers returning to Camp Crystal Lake, or John McClane running into yet another band of terrorist bank robbers only he can stop. As it stands, the series was forced to soft-pedal the confrontation with “Jésus,” introduce Levine’s Conrad Tull but leave him hanging there like an unfinished sentence, and leave many vital questions about Joel and his current situation unanswered (but not in a cliffhanger way—in a “hey, what the hell is up with that?” way). A finite, 10-episode story would almost certainly have yielded a bigger emotional payoff and a more explosive genre-based ending. I’ll be happily watching next year regardless, but perhaps this trip really should have been once in a lifetime.

I liked Mad Dogs a lot, but I got to thinking that even as showrunners have been granted authority to tell and end their stories as they see fit, for the most part (aside from anthology series) they’re still expected to tell those stories over multiple seasons. I wrote about that in my review of the final episode.

“Mad Dogs” thoughts, Season One, Episode Nine: “Seahorse”

February 8th, 2016

SPOILER ALERT

…Jazmin just doesn’t measure up. She comes across like a bad guy in a bad action movie, all unpredictable mood changes, inappropriate laughter, and the overall demeanor of an ADHD kid who’s gone off her meds. One second she’s playing Luke Skywalker with a machete, the next she’s asking Joel if he’d like to fuck, and the next she’s telling him how sad his kids will be to hear that he died. This manic pixie drug kingpin schtick flattens the character into a collection of tics, and makes it hard to take Joel’s plight seriously. He’s basically being threatened by a Looney Tunes character, whether the CIA wants to recruit her services or not.

I reviewed the penultimate episode of Mad Dogs for Decider last week. Thought it was a bit anticlimactic.

“Mad Dogs” thoughts, Season One, Episode Eight: “Broodstock”

February 3rd, 2016

At some point during the eighth episode of Mad Dogs—I believe it was between when the bomb exploded and when the chihuahua got its throat cut—I got to thinking: This shit is hard. I don’t mean survival for Cobi, Joel, Gus, and Lex, mind you—I mean writing it. Like Breaking Bad and Fargo before it, Mad Dogs depends on a plot structure of interlocking catastrophes so intricate you’d practically need those robot arms they use to handle plutonium to pull it off. The go-to comparison is dominoes, with one thing falling on top of the next as everything speeds out of control, but that implies a linearity that doesn’t exist here. TV shows like this are like dominoes if and only if occasionally new dominoes spring up from the ground, or drop out of the sky, or materialize from space, or are fired from a drone piloted by the CIA. They’ve got to simultaneously maintain the tension of knowing something bad’s going to happen and wanting to avoid it, the suspense of not knowing something bad is going to happen but suspecting that it will, the shock of having something bad happen completely out of the blue, the plausibility that all these events could conceivably occur (within a TV show or movie, anyway) without knocking you out of the story with their ridiculousness, the raw mechanical skill to make the action plain entertaining, and the emotional stakes of protagonists and antagonists you enjoy watching, if not care about as people. Even to a writer who can see the wires, so to speak, pulling off this feat feels close to magic.

I reviewed episode 8 of Mad Dogs and wrote quite a bit about both the Breaking Bad model of constant-bad-shit-happening TV and the importance of a great villain to genre storytelling.

“Mad Dogs” thoughts, Season One, Episode Seven: “Ice Cream”

February 1st, 2016

Remember those episodes of Breaking Bad where the show was less a story than a series of unfortunate events? The ones where no matter what Walt and Jesse tried to do, they were met with a neverending cascade of calamities, each one more unexpected than the last? Okay, yeah, that’s pretty much all the episodes of Breaking Bad. But it fits “Ice Cream,” the seventh ep of Mad Dogs, to a tee as well.

I reviewed episode 7 of Mad Dogs for Decider.

“Downton Abbey” thoughts, Season Six, Episode Five

February 1st, 2016

So here is Chamberlain, dining at Downton as have countless men and women before him—only to face a literal eruption of blood from a human body that no one there had predicted or planned for, except perhaps for the stomach ulcer responsible. Is there something being said here about the experience of the real Chamberlain, who believed he’d secured peace for the people of Europe, when he’d unwittingly handed a monster the knife he needed to slit the world’s throat? There’s more to the episode than this of course—Mary gets wind of Marigold’s true parentage, Edith falls in love while she and her new editor invent the thinkpiece, Tom helps Mary get closer to Henry the racecar driver (while, god willing, getting closer to her himself), Thomas and Andy have their rapprochement, Carson is a dick to Hughes, the adventures of Denker and Spratt continue, etc. But I’ll be thinking of the crimson river bursting out of Lord Robert, and how all Neville Chamberlain could do was watch.

I got unexpectedly, or maybe characteristically, worked up about the run-up to the Second World War in my review of this week’s Downton Abbey.

“Billions” thoughts, Season One, Episode Three: “YumTime”

February 1st, 2016

It’s impossible to overstate how refreshing it is to see neither BDSM nor the decision not to participate in it portrayed as a sign of pathology or a relationship in crisis. The Rhoadeses engage in kink for reasons that help them in their real lives, in their marriage, and (one presumes) in just plain getting off; when it looks like one or more of those elements won’t work out, they call it off, no harm no foul. Turning down sex needn’t be a line in the sand, a declaration that one person is right and the other person is wrong, a flashing red light that the romance is dying—it can simply mean you’d prefer to do something else, no big deal. This is a vital side of sexual consent that’s rarely portrayed, as is healthy kink. Who’d have guessed it’d come from this show? Billions has nothing but itself to blame for making that so surprising. There’s a fine line between sleaze and good, clean, smart smut. I’m hoping starts crossing that line in the right direction more regularly.

Why does Billions bury the smart things it has to say about sex under so much stupid? I investigate for the New York Observer.

“Mad Dogs” thoughts, Season One, Episode Six: “Leslie”

February 1st, 2016

Without the great Allison Tolman as a stabilizing and unifying presence, “Leslie,”Mad Dogs’ sixth installment, resumes its previously very, very heavily serialized model. As I’ve said before, the show’s episodes increasingly feel less like cohesive (if to-be-continued) units and more like fifty-plus minutes torn off at random from a ten-hour reel. Think of how different the first half of this ep, with its Outbreak/Contagion quarantine claustrophobia and paranoia, feels from the second, with Joel and Cobi cutting and running and communing with beatific locals and tourists they encounter along the way. You could have rolled the closing credits right in the middle and begun an entirely new episode for all their stylistic and thematic continuity.

I reviewed episode six of Mad Dogs for Decider, and had more thoughts about serialization and storytelling.

“Mad Dogs” thoughts, Season One, Episode Five: “Hat”

January 29th, 2016

Allison Tolman is a tremendous screen presence and her casting here is a real coup, like plopping a fifth main character right into the action halfway through the season. Even if she doesn’t last—and that’s how it’s looking, though on this show anything’s possible—she transformed the dynamic simply by being there. For one thing, her presence opened up space for kindness between the characters and the people they meet, a note that had been almost entirely absent for hours now. A story with Rochelle in it, however briefly, is a story where our foursome can stop to help scavenging street kids, where Joel can admiringly commune with a local living the good life with his wife and goats up in the mountains, where Gus and Cobi can hold children on their laps and sing songs to them to make them laugh, where Lex can have a kind and quiet conversation about music and life on the road with a person who won’t at some point condescend to his addictions and failures. It’s a story where the black-comedy nightmare can clear up for a few minutes, giving everyone much-needed emotional breathing room.

I reviewed the Allison Tolman episode of Mad Dogs for Decider.

“Mad Dogs” thoughts, Season One, Episode Four: “Flares”

January 28th, 2016

I’ve never really bought the idea that Amazon and Netflix are doing something materially distinct from HBO and AMC or any other terrestrial TV network. Television has been doing heavy serialization since The Wire, and before that Twin Peaks, and before, during, and after that in every single daytime soap. Netflix and Amazon execs can make all the noise they want about seeing the season rather than the episode as the fundamental storytelling unit, but this too is basically true of every good prestige drama, to one extent or another—just ask David Simon. In my experience, if a streaming series suffers when seen one episode at a time as opposed to in multi-hour chunks, that’s not because streaming TV is a different medium, it’s because the show isn’t that great. Jessica Jones would not have been less a slog had I watched five episodes a day instead of one, you know?

I wrote about my skepticism toward the idea that streaming TV is a different medium from weekly TV, and how Mad Dogs has challenged that skepticism, for Decider.

“Mad Dogs” thoughts, Season One, Episode Three: “Well”

January 26th, 2016

As critiques of Toxic Masculinity™ go, it’s pretty cutting. Who doesn’t love their crime thrillers with a terrifying, gun-toting dwarf in an animal mask mixed in? It’s precisely the kind of surreal badassery such films have trafficked in since the world first heard the phrase “bring out the gimp.” You could read Cobi, Lex, Gus, and Joel trimming the Cat’s claws as Mad Dogs indulging that kind of cinematic cool just long enough to reject it.

I reviewed episode three of Mad Dogs for Decider.

“Mad Dogs” thoughts, Season One, Episode Two: “Xtabai”

January 26th, 2016

When a dwarf in a cat mask shoots your friend to death and warns you to return his stolen property in 24 hours or you’ll be next, you’ve pretty much got your day planned out for you. It’s also reasonable to assume this has the TV series in which you’re starring pretty much mapped out as well. Surely Cobi, Gus, Joel, and Lex, the feckless foursome at the heart of Mad Dogs, will spend its ten-episode run battling their way back to the boat, like Martin Sheen going up the river looking for Colonel Kurtz (who they went so far as to name-drop in the pilot), right?

Wrong, actually. Well, kinda. Within the first few minutes of “Xtabai,” Mad Dogs’ second episode (which you can watch on Amazon Prime Video), our heroes have already triumphantly returned to the stolen yacht that got their frienemy Milo murdered. Granted, it gets a whole lot more complicated from there. But the unexpected immediacy with which they find the boat was a pleasant shock to the system. For one thing, zooming right through what seemed like it was going to be a long journey through beaucoup screentime toward an obviously inevitable destination was a smart storytelling decision. Unless you’re Game of Thrones, a lot of shows would benefit from taking a hatchet to all the buildup and just getting down to business. For another, genre shows like this rely on familiarity way more than originality — that’s what makes a genre a genre, after all, common tonal and narrative elements — so almost any curveball is worth throwing.

I reviewed episode two of Mad Dogs for Decider.

“Billions” thoughts, Season One, Episode Two: “Naming Rights”

January 25th, 2016

Chronicling the lifestyles of the rich and bodyshameless has always been abyss-gazes-also shit, with the line between critique and exploitation blurring the moment the panties drop. Surrounding some outré sex shit with the trappings of big money, then stepping back and going “Wild, huh? Really makes you think” doesn’t make anyone think at all, not without a level of technical and tonal control of a Martin Scorsese—and Wolf of Wall Street even gave him a run for his money. (It worked, though, unless you’re the type to hold filmmakers responsible for the reactions of the biggest moral morons in the audience.) Right now we’re simply not far enough into the parallel narratives of Chuck Rhoades and Bobby Axelrod, not well versed enough in the rules that govern the show’s handling of sexuality and morality, not well-acquainted enough with any of the characters involved for this Strong Sexual Content shit to feel like anything but a corny, horny Showtime After Hours series.

It’s worth leaning hard on this, because the rest of the show still seems promising enough to handle constructive criticism. In this episode, the scenes in which Axe and his merry (mostly) men quote GoodFellas and trade R-rated insults so elaborate they must stay up late workshopping them is as sharp about the malignant side of masculinity as the sex stuff elsewhere is sloppy. “We have to be more pure than the Virgin Mary before her first period,” Axelrod’s right-hand man Wags warns his crew as the SEC closes in; “Fuck, Wags,” Axe chuckles, admiring the effort to come up with just the right grotesque thing to say. Elsewhere he cuts Wags off in the middle of a hurdling metaphor to ostentatiously spare a down-on-his-luck broker’s feelings. This is a game to them, and as long as they’re winning they’ll play by whatever rules they like.

I gave last night’s episode of Billions some tough love for the New York Observer.

“Downton Abbey” thoughts, Season Six, Episode Four

January 25th, 2016

They almost never makes it into the actual reviews, but as God is my witness my notes for every episode of Downton Abbey are full of the wit and wisdom of the Dowager Countess, and this episode alone had at least three exchanges for the ages. There was her back-and-forth with Lord Robert about how despite her handsome racecar-driving suitor, Lady Mary needed more than “a handsome smile and a hand on the gearstick”: “I’m surprised you know what a gearstick is.” “I know more than you think.” There was her dismay with her supposed ringer in the great hospital debate, Lady Prudence Shackleton, for failing to come to her aid during the argument: “How can I present myself as an expert when I don’t know the facts?” “It’s never stopped me!” And there was her riposte to Lady Edith for daring to suggest Isobel Crawley had a right to be heard: “I suppose Cousin Isobel is entitled to put up an argument.” “Of course she is! She’s just not entitled to win it!” With that, Lady Violet began chuckling and cooing to herself, as if simultaneously appreciating her own rapier wit and soothing her frazzled nerves like a purring cat. So if I’m not shining the spotlight on Dame Maggie Smith and Lady Violet, it’s not because she doesn’t deserve it—it’s because she’s been stealing it so deftly herself.

But it’s Thomas Barrow and Lady Mary Crawley who are Downton Abbey’s major creations. As Thomas and Mary, Rob James-Collier and Michelle Dockery have great faces, great voices, and feel taut and unyielding in a way few leads this side of Betty Draper are allowed to be. The Dowager gets most of the laugh lines, but these two challengingly, rewardingly difficult characters get far stronger stuff, and we get more out of them in turn. On last night’s episode, we got plenty.

In my review of last night’s Downton Abbey for the New York Observer I wrote about Thomas, Lady Mary, and why Downton is more than just the Dowager.

“Mad Dogs” thoughts, Season One, Episode One: “Pilot”

January 25th, 2016

In TV terms, the spectacle of middle-aged men indulging their id is abundant and low value, so to speak; this means Mad Dogs’ execution must be unimpeachably tight to distinguish it. Provided the premise alone doesn’t turn you off, so far so good. The cast is solid, yes, and the tropical-paradise eye candy is tasty, though that’s easy enough for TV today too. But what really works is the editing, the rapid-fire kind we olds used to call “MTV style” but which you rarely see in contemporary dramas. It gives the proceedings a sort of adrenaline sheen, but it can be played with to great effect too, whether by dragging things out—a club sequence crash cuts through three different and distinctive songs to suggest that the gang stayed there for a long time—or slowing things down—the quieter scenes drop the staccato rhythm for longer takes that drive the importance home.

I’m covering Amazon Prime’s new show Mad Dogs for Decider this season, starting with my review of its promising pilot.

“Serial” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Five: “Meanwhile, in Tampa”

January 25th, 2016

Ronald Reagan once said “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.” Far be it from me to encourage a journalist to heed the words of the Gipper—explaining is what journalists do, after all—but in the case of Serial, he’s got a point. “Our one story, told week by week, will now be week biweek,” Sarah Koenig announced on last week’s non-episode episode of her podcast. “Get it?” she asked, before answering her own rhetorical question in the negative: “No? ‘Biweek,’ like ‘biweekly’? B-I-weekly?” We’re not 15 seconds into the announcement that Serial is shifting to an every-other-week schedule before Koenig begins apologizing for her own writing. “Sorry, that’s a pun that only print could love, and I just tried to pull it in an audio story.”Could print love that pun, though, really? I mean, you tell me. I just wrote it up, it’s sitting there a few lines above this one, and “biweek” still isn’t an actual word, printed or no. To paraphrase Harrison Ford’s famous critique of George Lucas: Sarah, you can type this shit, but you sure can’t say it. Maybe you shouldn’t type it either.

But that’s Sarah Koenig’s Serial for you. Once this procrustean podcast has settled on an idea and a format, it’s by-god sticking with them, no matter how little sense that makes. Of course, forcing a pun that she admits almost immediately doesn’t work is the least of Koenig’s problems in that regard. Now that “Meanwhile, in Tampa,” the series’ delayed fifth episode, is finally up and running, it’s apparent that the show’s difficulties are only intensified by the biweekly schedule. Whether told week by week or week biweek [sic], this “one story” has yet to be presented in a way that justifies its telling at all.

I reviewed last week’s Serial, or really just Serial generally, for the New York Observer.