“The Young Pope” thoughts, Season One, Episode Two

That’s the beauty of The Young Pope: Like all truly great television shows, it trusts its audience enough to risk alienating us. What will people make of this episode’s most bizarre scene, in which Pius supernaturally soothes a savage … kangaroo? It’s so truly, madly, deeply odd, and showrunner Paolo Sorrentino has no interest in softening the blow. You make your peace with an exquisitely campy series about a chain-smoking homophobic tyrant who looks to the band behind “Get Lucky” and “One More Time” for stylistic inspiration; who was raised by a nun who thinks he’s a saint but wears a t-shirt reading “I’m a Virgin, but This Is an Old Shirt” to bed; and who can calm rogue Australian wildlife like, as Voiello puts it in his thick Italian accent, “Saint Francis of-a Sydney.” Or you don’t. If the meme-able moments make it all sound silly, well, remember when an O.J. Simpson show from the creator of Glee starring John Travolta, David Schwimmer, and Cuba Gooding Jr. sounded silly, too? We rest our case.

I reviewed the second episode of The Young Pope, which was just as marvelous as the first, for Rolling Stone.

“The Affair” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Eight

Hey, remember when The Affair wasn’t The Noah Solloway Show? Believe it or not, there was such a time not so long ago. Noah’s story — his stint in prison, his torment at the hands of sadistic guard John Gunther, his post-release trysts with Alison and Helen and (sorta) his new romantic interest Irène, his attempted murder, his infection and addiction, his hallucinations, his secret origin as his mother’s euthanasia provider — have come to dominate the show so totally that I’d all but forgotten what it was like to truly see things through other eyes. Not just his own, I mean, but those people who have something other than Noah Solloway on their minds.

This week, that’s what we got. If episode seven was a return to The Affair’s old format — two tightly overlapping points of view on the same events — episode eight is a return to The Affair’s old setting, both physically and psychologically. Taking place almost entirely in Montauk, as beautifully shot as ever, this Alison/Cole installment focuses squarely on the issues that drove their stories since the show’s inception: grief, loss, infidelity, and the sense of being connected by something deeper than love — tragedy.

“I think people see what they want to see in other people:” I reviewed last night’s episode of The Affair for Decider.

“The Young Pope” thoughts, Season One, Episode One

“We have forgotten to masturbate!”

So proclaims Pope Pius XIII to the adoring throngs gathered in St. Peter’s Square to hear the first homily of his papacy. Yet when it comes to the jaw-dropping moments in the premiere episode of The Young Pope, the Holy Father’s ode to onanism barely even makes the Top 10.

Italian writer-director Paolo Sorrentino kicks off his highly anticipated series with the surreal dream-image of the new pope emerging from a literal mountain of dead and dying babies. He follows it up with not one but two shots of the pontiff’s bare ass before we’re five minutes in. The smug religious leader then slo-mo struts through a teeming crowd of priests, nuns and cardinals whose multi-colored garb looks might like something out of Game of Thrones‘ – if they weren’t, you know, what Catholic clergy really wear. He has a split-second flashback to seeing a topless woman in his youth. He looks up and hey, there’s a water cooler lit like it’s a visitor from God. His adoring underlings form stunning tableaux in shot after shot, like something out of R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” video. He glides to the balcony to give his speech as if attached to the camera, like Harvey Keitel when he gets loaded in Mean Streets. A graphic overlay of black bars slowly spread across the screen, emblazoned with the series’ title. His lunatic grin is the only thing that’s visible.

Pius XIII takes the proverbial stage to the screams of thousands, arms outstretched like a rock star, grinning and gesticulating like his name was Monsignor Mussolini. Rain clouds are parted with a wave of his hands, and out comes the sun. Then, with a gorgeously old-fashioned zoom-in and drum buildup, he drops that masturbation line, the first explosion in a carpet-bombing campaign of unorthodoxy: Why not have extramarital sex, gay marriage, nuns saying mass? In reaction, shocked prelates collapse backwards in unison like they’re in the final panel of a gag cartoon. Panicked priests run through the Vatican halls, screaming for help. Only the intervention of his second-in-command, summarily firing him from the papacy, tips the show’s hand that this was just a dream.

But when this young Pope, a 47-year-old American named Lenny Belardo and played by Jude Law, wakes up from his nightmare, it doesn’t feel like a cop-out. On the contrary, the twist works like a charm, because everything here – from the writing to the cinematography, the score to the performances – is honest-to-God dreamy. The show does the same thing its title character is supposed to do as the leader of the Catholic Church: It provides a breath of madcap fresh air in a dreary, homogeneous TV season.

I reviewed The Young Pope’s fucking fabulous series premiere for Rolling Stone, where I’ll be covering the show all season.

Nine Inch Nails: ‘The Fragile (2017 Definitive Edition)’ / ‘The Fragile: Deviations 1’

The Fragile arrived a stylistic turning point, emerging at the point where the “alternative” sobriquet fell out of fashion and “indie” achieved dominance. Today, though, reservations about the lyrics’ outré confessionality and the music’s jam-packed, everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink gigantism seem positively quaint. (Don’t care for titanically hyper-produced albums stuffed with uncomfortably intimate and self-mythologizing lyrics about your emotional world falling apart? Tell it to Lemonade.) The Fragile may lack the tightness of Nine Inch Nails’ other highlights: the concise fury of Broken, the inexorable depressive logic of The Downward Spiral, the late-career professionalism of Hesitation Marks. But it takes the emotional distress that gives it its title and transmutes it into something colossal, defiant, and resilient. Listen to it at your strongest or your weakest (and I’ve certainly done both) and it will offer you a sonic signature commensurate with the power of what you feel inside.

I reviewed Nine Inch Nails’ The Fragile, one of my favorite albums of all time, plus its recent instrumental revamp The Fragile: Deviations 1, for Pitchfork.

tl;dr version:

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“Taboo” thoughts, Episode One

As of this premiere, Tom Hardy himself is the best thing about Taboo. He’d better be, since he’s pretty much the only thing about Taboo. Everyone and everything else on the show simply reacts to his menacing presence.

What a presence it is, though. Your mileage may vary regarding Hardy’s mumble-mouthed machismo, but I find the way he carries himself a delight to watch. As Delaney, Hardy saunters across the screen like he’s en route to an ass-kicking contest that starts in ten minutes and it’s a leisurely five-minute walk away. Call it “brute casual,” a trait that he’s got it in spades, and Taboo allows him to dole it out by the shovelful.

[…]

Taboo suffers from the dull, expensive look that’s endemic to prestige TV generally and its period-piece iteration specifically. Director Kristoffer Nyholm, late of the original Danish version of The Killing, captures a few magical moments on the muddy, sun-streaked London riverbank, but beyond that, you could swap entire sets and shots with Penny Dreadful or The Knick or Peaky Blinders and only students of historical fashion would be the wiser. Moreover, the show shares its rich yet sickly “realistic” lighting and color palette with everything from The Night Of to any scene involving gangsters on Marvel’s Netflix shows; you get the sense it looks this way simply because this is how TV shows look now. (I’m no fan of The OA, but how refreshing was it to watch a drama that was brightly lit?) There’s nothing here you haven’t seen before.

Hey look, it’s my first review for Vulture! I’m talkin’ Tom Hardy and the series premiere of Taboo, which I’ll be covering for Vulture all season. (I’m exceedingly proud of that “Hardy saunters across the screen like he’s en route to an ass-kicking contest that starts in ten minutes and it’s a leisurely five-minute walk away” bit.)

The Boiled Leather Audio Moment #1!

Moment 01 | The Fate of the Direwolves

I’m pleased to announce that the first installment of the Boiled Leather Audio Moment, our subscriber-exclusive new podcast, is now up! Each BLAM will be a mini-episode in which Stefan and I focus (for now anyway) on your questions about A Song of Ice and Fire. Our inaugural installment answers a question posed by subscriber and longtime friend of the podcast Leslie Jividen: What will be the fate of the surviving Stark/Snow direwolves, from Ghost on down? If you’re already a patron, click here to hear us give it the ol’ greenseer try, and please accept our very sincere thanks for your patronage! If not, go to patreon.com/boiledleatheraudiohour and subscribe at the low low limited-time level of $1/month for access to all our ASoIaF wisdom!

STC on the Radio Revisited

Listen to me talk about the Golden Globes on On The Town with Michael Riedel this morning! My segment starts around the 44-minute mark.

A quick word about ‘Undertale’

After many months of my two kids (5 and 7) talking endlessly about the Undertale play-throughs they’d been watching on YouTube (this is a huge, huge thing for little kids, apparently), we finally got the game and started playing it together. The biggest source of frustration for me, and by extension for them, is how the basic gameplay mechanics involve what amounts to trickery on the part of the game. Everyone knows that the goal is to get through the game while killing as few monsters as possible. If the game made that simply difficult to figure out, fine. But what it does is present you with characters, your early ally Toriel being the best example, who are impossible not to kill unless you literally ignore all evidence the game provides to the contrary and keep doing the same seemingly ineffective shit over and over until, magically, it becomes effective. A game in which combat is an option but is to be avoided at all costs is a thoughtful evolutionary step for this genre; duping you into thinking it’s unavoidable unless you read the internet and find out you’re just supposed to ignore your lying eyes makes it much less so.

They Lie About ‘They Live’: John Carpenter and the Neo-Nazi Quagmire

My heart goes out to John Carpenter, a thoughtful, talented, humane artist whose contributions to our culture dwarf those of every single one of these wannabe Goebbelses combined. I can’t imagine how infuriating it must be to see your art—let alone a work of outright anti-capitalist agitprop like They Live—twisted into its ideological opposite by bigots and charlatans. I’d almost certainly have spoken out, too.

But I’m not convinced it will do any good. I’m not convinced it won’t outright hurt, in fact. Like Hillary Clinton’s “alt-right” speech during the campaign, this has now elevated the neo-Nazi smears and lies into the realm of debatable topics, the stuff of “meet the dashing new face of the extreme right” puff pieces.

They Live is about International Jewry” is something that had never occurred to non-piece-of-shit people before this week. Now it’s a sick, sad footnote in the film’s history, a slug in its Wikipedia entry, a scratch on the lens of the sunglasses that help us see reality for what it is. That’s the goal of the racists and fascists, after all: Distort our vision until everything is as ugly as they are.

I wrote about John Carpenter’s They Live and the difficulty of combatting neo-Nazi bullshit for Decider.

2017 Golden Globes: What Will Win, What Should Win

Best TV Series (Drama)
The Crown
Game of Thrones
Stranger Things
This Is Us
Westworld

WILL WIN: The Globes’ TV patterns are difficult to predict, but it’s rare to award a series with its first trophy deep into its run. So while it’s possible that Game of Thrones‘ historic “Battle of the Bastards” season could snag an outlier win, our money is on the HFPA giving the nod to rookie (and network) domestic drama This Is Us.

SHOULD WIN: With enough Emmy gold under its belt to ransom the Iron Throne itself, and deservedly so, Game of Thrones‘ epic recent run easily defeats the competition.

ROBBED: Where do we begin? The Affair, The Americans, Better Call Saul, Empire, Halt and Catch Fire, Horace and Pete, House of Cards, Mr. Robot, Narcos – all of these past nominees or worthy applicants got the cold shoulder. Of the group, Mr. Robot arguably had the boldest and best season.

Over at Rolling Stone I predicted the winners, losers, shoulda-beens, also-rans, and snubs of this year’s Golden Globes. As is always the case when I do prediction pieces, I am right and I will be proved right. Don’t @ me.

“The Affair” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Six

The irony is that Noah’s now vastly more complicated backstory feels as though it were developed to answer complaints about the character. Without knowing how long ago showrunner Sarah Treem planned these plot elements this is all sheer speculation, but for viewers who wondered why Noah would destroy his seemingly happy family for a shot at spontaneity, or why he’d sacrifice himself and go to jail to protect Helen and Alison when it was quite possible all of them could have gotten away with it, or why his relationships with women seem both sincerely intense and self-sabotaging, or why he swung from the supremely self-possessed Helen to the deeply damaged Alison — well, Noah convincing himself he’s somehow culpable for killing his mother after being the only person left to take care of her and then failing to kill himself in turn threads the needle quite nicely.

Is it all a bit radioactive-spider origin story for a behavior pattern that’s not really that difficult to contextualize? Perhaps. But then again anyone who’s been in therapy for long enough can attest to those “holy shit, it was because of what happened at my cousin’s confirmation when I was in fourth grade!!!!” moments. Giving Noah these dark secrets doesn’t take away his agency or explain away his good and bad qualities, nor do they singlehandedly make those things possible. They’re simply the building blocks out of which he constructed the rest of his life.

I reviewed this week’s odd episode of The Affair for Decider.

The Boiled Leather Audio Hour Episode 57!

A Long Time Ago: The Star Wars Prequel Trilogy

This New Year’s Eve, ring in the coming year the old-fashioned way: Listen to Sean and Stefan talk about George Lucas’s Star Wars prequel trilogy for 80 minutes! For the final BLAH of 2016, we’re tackling one of our most frequently requested topics and going long on Episodes I, II, and III of the blockbuster franchise: 1999’s The Phantom Menace, 2002’s Attack of the Clones, and 2005’s Revenge of the Sith. An all but universally accepted punching bag for much of the decade since it brought the curtain down on the early adventures of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin Skywalker et al, the prequel trilogy has seen something of a change of critical fortune at since dawn of the Disney era and its crowd-pleasing kick-off The Force Awakens. With another prequel, Rogue One, now in theaters (though Stefan hasn’t seen it, so shhhhh no spoilers), we thought it would be the perfect time to discuss Lucas’s uneven but ambitious auteurist prequel saga in depth, movie by movie. Are they the Fall of the Republic–level disasters they’re made out to be, or do they have an artistic Force worth reckoning with? Listen in and find out!

DOWNLOAD EPISODE 57

PLUS! With this episode of BLAH, our 14th this year, we’re pleased to announce the start of a new series of subscriber-only mini-episodes beginning this January! For the low low price of a monthly $1 contribution to the Boiled Leather Audio Hour Patreon, you’ll receive exclusive monthly podcasts focused squarely on A Song of Ice and Fire (with a bit of Game of Thrones mixed in, we suspect, but mostly the books) and derived from listener questions. It’s our way of saying thank you to those of you who’ve subscribed this year and thus made recording these so much easier for us—and, we hope, a tempting offer for those of you who haven’t yet taken the plunge. Visit our Patreon page, pitch in, and get in on the ground floor! And now back to your regularly scheduled BLAH. Happy Holidays!

Additional links:

Jesse Hassenger’s essay on the prequels for the AV Club.

Roderick Heath’s essay on the prequels for Ferdy on Films.

Sean’s list of the 57 Greatest Star Wars Moments for Vulture (warning: Rogue One spoilers).

Sean’s list of Carrie Fisher’s 10 Greatest ‘Star Wars’ Moments for Rolling Stone (warning: Rogue One spoilers).

Our BLAH episode on The Force Awakens.

Our Patreon page at patreon.com/boiledleatheraudiohour.

Our PayPal donation page (also accessible via boiledleather.com).

Our iTunes page.

Mirror.

Previous episodes.

Podcast RSS feed.

Sean’s blog.

Stefan’s blog.

Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel – “Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)” [Rewind Festival, 17 August 2013]

Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)” is the hit in question—a deceptively buoyant poison-pen letter to the musicians who helped make Harley a star. Its verses highlight the star’s melodramatic self-pity (“you’ve broken every code and pulled the Rebel to the floor”), his dismissal of his ex-comrade’s motives as a tedious lust for filthy lucre (“for only metal—what a bore”), his insistence that they’re the ones who wronged him and not the other way around (“it’s from yourself you have to hide”), and his moral and aesthetic superiority (“you’ve taken everything from my belief in Mother Earth…I know what faith is and what it’s worth”).

But the chorus. The chorus! As if fulfilling the promise of the song’s upward-scaling opening guitar filigree and the till-then ironic “ba ba ba”s and “oooh la la la”s, Harley interrupts his exoriations of his former friends by saying “Come up and see me, make me smile / Or do what you want, running wild.” A reference to the Mae West quote he’d drop when his ex-bandmates would ring the buzzer of his upper-floor apartment for a visit, the titular lines run counter to all the other ones—a fantasy of rapprochement, forgiveness, friendship, a return to the carefree days gone by. It’s a fascinating dynamic for a pop song: a chorus that exists in diametric opposition to every verse. A chorus rendered impossible by every single other part of the song.

I wrote about a live performance of “Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)” by Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel for the music tumblr One Week One Band’s year-end special on songs of hope.

 

Carrie Fisher’s 10 Greatest ‘Star Wars’ Moments

“This is our most desperate hour.” If you have to sum up the mood of the moment, look no further than the words of Princess Leia herself. In her most famous performance – one in which she’d anchor the first three films in the blockbuster Star Wars series, than reprise to rapturous acclaim decades later in The Force Awakens Carrie Fisher embodied hope in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Whether she was playing it cool in one of Leia’s more regal moments, slinging insults and shooting stormtroopers as a Rebel leader or chronicling her real-life battles with addiction and mental illness in her fearlessly funny writing, Fisher was one of film’s great heroines, on screen and off. The 10 moments below are our tribute to the great woman’s greatest creation. We loved her; she knew.

I wrote about the best stuff Carrie Fisher did as Princess Leia in the Star Wars movies for Rolling Stone.

On Christmas, before I found out about George Michael’s death and before Carrie Fisher died, I was already telling my cousins about the week a few years ago when The Sopranos’ James Gandolfini, muckraking young journalist Michael Hastings, and Fantagraphics co-founder Kim Thompson all died; 2016, I said, was that week stretched out over a year. And it wasn’t even done with us yet.

“Horace and Pete” thoughts, Episode Ten

2016 was a nightmarish year, less for all the horrific things that happened than for the promise, the promise, of still worse things to come. And what were our guides through the blood and the shit? “Make America Great Again” on one hand and “America Is Already Great” on the other. Horace and Pete is by no means a good show, when all is said and done. But in a TV-critical environment with an insatiable, anesthetizing hunger for affirmation and uplift, it stood with Mr. Robot and Game of Thrones and not a whole lot of other shows at all and said “Fuck that.” History, provided we get one, will look favorably upon this. Is there a better, truer image for the year to end on than Horace and Pete‘s last line: a woman collapsed in on herself in grief, sobbing uncontrollably, screaming “Oh God”?

Unfortunately, the finale that led to this point was an utter catastrophe. If Louis C.K. had deliberately set out to make the worst possible Horace and Pete episode, he’d have been hard pressed to beat this turkey.

Happy Holidays from all of us at Horace and Pete! I reviewed the final episode for Decider.

It’s really a shame. Laurie Metcalf, Rick Shapiro, Lucy Taylor, John Sharian, Tom Noonan, and occasionally Steve Buscemi were given moving material and worked wonders with it. Somewhere buried in this overwrought experiment is a quiet, thoughtful show about alcoholism, mental illness, loneliness, and failure. But that isn’t what we got at all.

“Horace and Pete” thoughts, Episode Nine

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Until the return of Tom Noonan as the bar’s towering, beret-wearing, piano-playing regular. After a Match.com date between a New Yorker staffer and a guy whose dad was an astronaut devolves into repeated, mutual screams of “YOU’RE NOT NICE! FUCK YOU!” (long story and not worth going into, though it should be noted this is the least worst of the show’s awkward-date asides), the gang at the bar explains why such dates never work out. Online dating services, Kurt and others argue, set people up according to shared interests, when what really connects couples is chemistry, up to and including the opposites-attract sort. But seeking out opposites doesn’t work either, because this kind of chemistry can’t be forced.

“That’s why they call it ‘falling’ in love,” Tom chimes in. “You can’t fall on purpose.” With a smile on his face, he tells the story of how he used to be an actor, and in one acting class he was trying to learn how to fall on cue without making it look like he was falling on cue. For him at least, this was impossible. “So I quit being an actor.” The little smile is still there, but its relationship to his emotions is now distressingly unclear. Tom’s point is this: “Well, you just accept…just accept the fact that love is rare and it probably won’t happen to you, ever.” “Is that what you do?” asks the New Yorker writer. “You just accept it?”

“No,” Tom replies, the smile flitting in and out of existence as he talks. “No, I…I walk around brokenhearted. And I, I get drunk and…I mean, I hate being alone. And…” Here the smile returns, as sad as fresh-dug grave. “And someday it’ll kill me.” I’ve now watched this scene twice, and each time I exhale sharply afterwards, like something really difficult to endure just happened to me. The contrast Noonan’s gentle bearing and his blunt despair is that powerful.

Horace and Pete Episode 9 was three parts junk and two parts genius; this was one of the latter. I reviewed it all for Decider.

“Horace and Pete” thoughts, Episode Eight

A low-key, simply structured episode despite the bombshell revelation at its center, Horace and Pete Episode 8 is the closest the show has come to finding a comfortable rhythm. Better late than never, I guess? Like Episode 7 before it, this installment doesn’t swing for the fences with “let’s cut the bullshit and get real” sociopolitical pontificating, nor does it artificially ratchet up the baseless interpersonal hostility it mistakes for drama. (For the most part, anyway: The pivotal doctor’s office scene begins with Horace and Pete sparring like grumpy children for no apparent reason.) It has some funny moments, some sad moments, some humane moments, Kurt Metzger’s hyperthyroidal ranting, and Paul Simon’s theme music. If this were what the show were like all the time it wouldn’t be half bad, though my sinking suspicion is that it’s the extravagant miserablism that suckered people into thinking it’s the best thing since sliced bread. But to paraphrase the song, hell no, I can’t complain about their problems.

This modest, balanced, very effective episode of Horace and Pete is a version of the show I’d be interested in watching. I reviewed it for Decider.