Archive for October 27, 2015

“Fargo” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Three: “The Myth of Sisyphus”

October 27, 2015

#TVCriticProblems: Quite often a network will send reviewers multiple episodes of a show’s new season in advance. The temptation to binge—especially if the show is good, and Fargo is very, very good—is overwhelming. But I’ve always thought it does a disservice to readers to write about a given week’s episode with knowledge of what’s to come fresh in my brain. Much as it pains me, I almost always* hold off and pace myself, mirroring the average audience member’s experience by watching and writing about one ep at a time.

But here’s how absorbing Fargo is: The moment I finished writing up last week’s episode, I popped this one, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” in the DVD player. What’s the harm, I figured—I’ll just file my review early. But time passed, life and other assignments intervened, and before I knew it another week was upon me. And what does another week mean but another episode of Fargo? So I watched the fourth installment, wrote my review, sent it to my editor…and only then did I realize I’d missed a step. I’m so into this show that I forgot to write about this week’s ep, because all I could think about when the time came was watching next week’s. Fargo is so good it will make you forget your place in the spacetime continuum. How’s that for a pull quote?

I reviewed last night’s Fargo for the New York Observer.

The Great Boiled Leather Audio Hour/A Podcast of Ice and Fire Crossover 2015!

October 26, 2015

Exciting news from the world of ASoIaF podcasts: Stefan and I are the special guests on this week’s edition of A Podcast of Ice and Fire. Join us and host Amin Javadi as we celebrate the 100th installment of Stefan & Amin’s Supreme Court of Westeros Q&A feature (which I all too infrequently remember to post here at by tackling a host of reader-generated questions about the series’ biggest mysteries, theories, and themes. Consider it the Boiled Leather Audio Hour Episode 42.5!

STC on Cut to the Chase!

October 26, 2015

I’m the guest on this week’s episode of Chase Thomas’s Cut to the Chase podcast on writers and critics! Chase and I discuss my origin story as a writer, Game of Thrones, Lost, The Affair, Empire, True Detective, Gotham, Daredevil, cartoons, comics, and much more. I hope you enjoy!

The 25 Best Horror TV Shows of All Time

October 26, 2015

3. Hannibal (2013-2015)

How the hell did a show as visually audacious, narratively perverse, and mind-bogglingly gory as Hannibal wind up on the Peacock Network? Before its unceremonious and unfortunate third-season cancellation, Bryan Fuller’s adaptation of Thomas Harris’s series of serial-killer novels — starring cannibalistic psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter and his arch-frienemy, FBI profiler Will Graham — was nothing short of a horror lover’s fever dream. It treated murder as performance art, peeling away the flesh and gristle of the human body in sensuous, spectacular slow motion to expose the heart of darkness within. In the process it made pretty much every other Prestige Drama look like a student film. As the Phantom of the Opera once said: Feast your eyes, glut your soul.

I counted down the Top 25 horror tv shows of all time for Rolling Stone. Who’s number one?

“The Leftovers” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Four: “Orange Sticker”

October 26, 2015

At the end of the episode, Nora handcuffs herself to Kevin. It’s her attempt to provide security for his sleepwalking, and to ensure that she never wakes up to an empty bed again. But given what we’ve learned of their quiet desperation, it reads like the jail sentence it probably is. Thus The Leftovers reduces another moment of human connection to illusion and panic. This kind of thing makes it a hard show to watch, and a harder show to turn away from.

I reviewed the latest episode of The Leftovers for Decider.

“The Affair” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Four (204)

October 26, 2015

If you had to sum up the Tao of The Affair—what it is, what it does, how it does it—in two lines of dialogue, this week’s beautiful car wreck of an episode has you covered with Helen (Maura Tierney) alone. In her half of the episode, which leads the hour, she puts a punctuation mark at the end of her humiliating arrest for DWI and marijuana possession by asking Noah (Dominic West), the man she feels drove her to this point, “Why are you doing this to us?” At the same point in Noah’s side of the story, she instead says “Why do you get to fuck up and I don’t?” Right there you have the yin and yang, the presence and absence, of Helen’s dilemma. Noah’s infidelity and their subsequent divorce have devastated her by forcing her and her children to suffer the consequences of someone else’s actions, yes; that’s the explanation she allows herself to articulate. But they’ve also hurt her by forcing her to confront how much she wishes she could get away with that kind of tomfoolery, too. Showing us every side of the gender-specific resentments and self-perceived virtues of men and women, fathers and mothers, husbands and wives—even the sides the people in question don’t wish to show, or can’t see themselves—is The Affair’s specialty and strength.

Meghan O’Keefe and I reviewed this week’s The Affair for Decider. I think this show is excellent, and I’ll level with you: I think the writing we’re doing on it is second to none.

“Empire” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Five: “Be True”

October 25, 2015

What’s an empire without a few martyrs? Rome wasn’t built in a day, and Andre Lyon’s born-again Christianity hasn’t cost him anything more than a few tense moments with his family — yet. But when tonight’s episode — “Be True” (as in the Shakesperean “To thine own self…”) — dunked the eldest of Emperor Lucious the First’s three sons in the baptismal font, it also put him in the hot seat.

I forgot to link to it the other day, but I reviewed last week’s transitional episode of Empire for Rolling Stone.

The Boiled Leather Audio Hour Episode 42

October 21, 2015

Fire and Blood: The Third Reich

We’re traveling from Westeros to Nazi Germany in this unusual—and, to us, urgent—episode of the Boiled Leather Audio Hour. Why are we venturing so far afield from our usual topics of discussion and debate? Because we’ve always believed that A Song of Ice and Fire, like life itself, is best viewed through an unsparing ethical and historical lens. Lately, however, that lens has been clouded. In recent weeks, numerous right-wing politicians—most notably Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson and his supporters in the United States—have distorted and repurposed the rise of Adolf Hitler and the roots of the Holocaust to suit their preexisting positions. Astonishingly, in the day since this podcast was recorded, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu followed suit. We believe this to be an act of tremendous disrespect for the dead, one that also does a grave disservice to the living. Given our personal and professional interests in this pivotal epoch in history, which have shaped our interaction with ASoIaF in ways large and small, we decided to explore the era’s real lessons as best we could.

What role did privately held weaponry and paramilitary organizations actually play both in the Nazi Party’s ascent to power and the resistance against it? How should we view Europe’s failure to act in the face of Hitler’s belligerence, and Germany’s failure to capitulate in the face of certain defeat? What parallels can be drawn between the forces that fueled the war Hitler ignited and those at play in Westeros and Essos? What makes World War II different enough from other conflicts for the likes of Vietnam-era conscientious objector George R.R. Martin to say it was worth fighting? Is there such a thing as a “good war” at all? In this experiment of an episode, we try to answer those questions.

Two notes before we proceed:

1) We are deeply indebted to the work of the historians Ian Kershaw and Richard J. Evans, particularly Kershaw’s two-volume Hitler biography and Evans’s Third Reich trilogy.

2) On a much lighter note, this episode (hopefully—with iTunes, god only knows) marks the debut of our brand new logo, created by Sean’s partner, Julia Gfrörer. We are in her debt.

Download Episode 42

Additional links:


The work of Ian Kershaw.

The work of Richard J. Evans.

All Leather Must Be Boiled’s Ian Kershaw tag.

Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History series on the Eastern Front.

Previous episodes.

Podcast RSS feed.

iTunes page.

Sean’s blog.

Stefan’s blog.

“Fargo” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Two: “Before the Law”

October 20, 2015

In the mood for grim pronouncements about the nature of power, the legacy of family, and the fate of empires? Chances are Fargo is not where you’d normally look. Sure, Lorne Malvo had some heavy shit, man to say about living life in predator mode, but his deranged outlook was a sort of solo semi-fascism, a view in which life is nothing but struggle between the weak and the strong and no alliance has value beyond temporary exploitation. Beyond that, the show’s take on morality has been pointedly small-bore, demonstrated through the selfless or squalid behavior of individuals. In that respect, showrunner Noah Hawley has much in common with his inspirations, Joel and Ethan Coen, or  with the more surreal and supernatural work of their spiritual cousin David Lynch, who like them tends to split his narrative time between Small Town U.S.A. and the City of Angels. They examine violence for its place in human nature, not its potential as a force of nature.

But the stuff we heard from Floyd Gerhardt, the matriarch of this season’s German-American gangster heavies, in “Before the Law,” this week’s episode? You could just as easily have heard it in Tywin Lannister’s Red Keep, Lucious Lyon’s boardroom, or Frank Semyon’s Vinci casino, if not for the Minnesota accents.

I reviewed last night’s Fargo for the New York Observer.

“The Affair” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Three (203)

October 19, 2015

It’s episodes like this that make The Affair the smartest show about relationships on television. Nothing is as explicit or unflinching about the ways grief and memory can remain so present they’re practically a third partner. Nothing is as honest about the power and the limitations of sexual connection. Nothing is as observant about how we identify the comforting, satisfying elements of love, then lie and hide and self-censor to preserve them, all but guaranteeing their eventual loss.

Meghan O’Keefe and I reviewed last night’s The Affair for Decider. This is an excellent show.

“The Leftovers” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Three: “Off Ramp”

October 19, 2015

The persecution of cults by the government has stealthily become the series’ most disturbing theme: Seen both as dangerous and, just as importantly,repulsive, these fringe movements are treated like free targets for government agents and pissed-off citizens alike. The thing is, though, that they are both dangerous and repulsive. Holy Wayne was a creep and a kook, irrespective of the inexplicable coincidences surrounding him. The Guilty Remnant are unforgivably cruel to the grieving and physically abusive to their own members. Laurie and Tommy are now peddling pure snake oil. The Leftovers doesn’t give them a pass, or act like their crimes are mere doctrinal disputes. It does, however, force us to examine who we consider a part of our tribe, the tribe of American society, and what we consider acceptable losses among those we cast out. That’s gutsy, and I’m grateful, because hey, someone’s gotta do it.

I reviewed last night’s The Leftovers, another strong one, for Decider.

“Empire” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Four: “Poor Yorick”

October 14, 2015

We live in an era of all-or-nothing politicization of fandom: Every show and every star is treated as either ideologically flawless or irredeemably evil. Empire knows it’s not that simple. It speaks to the issues, knowing that’s the duty of all art. But it also sees how easy it is to pass off schlock and kitsch as grand statements, and holds itself to a higher standard in that regard than any fan or critic ever could.

I reviewed tonight’s extraordinarily astute Empire for Rolling Stone.

“Fargo” thoughts, Season Two, Episode One: “Waiting for Dutch”

October 13, 2015

How did they ever make a TV show of Fargo? The answer: Quite well indeed, surprisingly. At first, second, and even third glance, novelist Noah Hawley’s attempt to translate Joel & Ethan Coen’s Oscar-nominated Minnesota murder-comedy into an anthology series seemed like a frozen folly to rival Seward’s, no matter what the smash Season One success of Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective augured for another author-helmed cable crime series with a fresh cast and story ever season. Even if Fargowasn’t a straightforward adaptation/expansion of the original, the unique Coen Brothers blend of small-town dorkiness, splatstick comedy, and unsparing despair could perhaps be imitated, but never duplicated, no?

Oh, yeah. Hawley wisely took the Rumsfeldian approach to the seemingly impossible task, solving the problem by making it bigger. Yes, his all-new story borrowed all the familiar elements from the original: the snowy setting, the North Central accents, the pregnant policewoman, the milquetoast murderer, the Mutt-and-Jeff hitmen, the escalating calamities, even little details like an awkward reunion over dinner, a chase over thin ice, and (in the show’s one true link to the movie) a hidden suitcase of loot marked with an ice scraper. But it also made a magpie-like raid on the Coens’ entire oeuvre: a hotel corridor from Barton Fink here, a parable-dispensing rabbi from A Serious Man there, and, in the form of Billy Bob Thornton’s hellaciously awful contract killer Lorne Malvo, a living embodiment of predatory evil out of No Country for Old Men everywhere. (Even composer Jeff Russo’s extraordinary score paid homage to a variety of Carter Burwell’s Coen-movie musical contributions.) The result was less a riff on the Brothers’ 1996 classic and more “Songs in the Key of Coen”—a tribute to the writer-directors’ unflagging ability to playfully puncture the thin ice of human decency and find the deadly cold beneath that may well have surpassed the original.*

All of which makes the show’s Emmy Award–winning first season (technically miniseries, but only the network and the Academy care) a tough act to follow. Not only does the show have to maintain that level of care and quality, it must do so with no Billy Bob, no Bilbo Baggins, and no out-of-nowhere star turn from Allison Tolman as an underappreciated master investigator with a bun in the oven. The sad fate that can befall an anthology series’ sophomore season is as plain as the mustache on Ray Velcoro’s face.

Fortunately, “Waiting for Dutch,” Fargo’s Season Two premiere, is no Redux Detective.

I reviewed the season premiere of Fargo, and talked a lot about its excellent first season too, for the New York Observer, where I’ll be covering the show this season.

“The Affair” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Two (202)

October 12, 2015

And what about Noah? His return from Manhattan is a far cry from the sweet, slow-dancing with no music Nicholas Sparks routine his POV depicted last week. He’s irritable and exhausted at the end of a long and shitty day, nosing around about the money they stand to make from the sale of her house, furious for incoherent reasons that she took a job with Robert and Yvonne. He storms out onto the deck, then — with the camera lingering on Alison’s face until the end to make his reappearance feel all the more sweeping and sudden — returns, all apologies and animal lust. What follows is a stand-up tabletop sex scene that’s hot even by Affair standards, as Noah tells her “I just want you to be happy” over and over: Seriously, my notes include the words (copying and pasting here) “lorrrrrrrrrrrrd have mercy” and “WHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.” I fanned myself like a Southern lady, for real.

Given that this is the kind of sex you gchat your friends about afterwards, something about Noah’s anger and subsequent remorse is clearly clicking with Alison. Is she appreciative of his ability to recognize and admit his mistakes? Is she getting off on keeping Cole’s visit a secret down to the last detail (he rifled through Noah’s manuscript and fixed their toilet, facts she not only hides but actively lies about) even as her boyfriend begs for forgiveness for his comparatively less severe wrongdoing? And how does this fit with the flashforward, in which she discovers she’s the last to know that her husband’s attorney was hired and paid for by his ex-wife?

I don’t have the answers, but I’m not sure I’m supposed to. Maybe it was the weird symmetry between Alison’s POV and Cole’s later in the episode—car rides with older men, seemingly superfluous conversations with a cafe waitress, camerawork in which a character approaches and embraces them suddenly from outside the frame — but the deeper we go into this show, the more I suspect the dueling POVs are more like the opposite sides of a Rorschach blot. The shape is there for all to see, but the meaning’s what we make of it.

Meghan O’Keefe and I tag-team reviewed the latest episode of The Affair, which I think is just tremendous, for Decider.

“The Leftovers” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Two: “A Matter of Geography”

October 12, 2015

Judging from the season premiere’s largely positive reception, The Leftovers was smart to roll out the welcome wagon for a family full of new characters in a Texas town far, far away (after first introducing us to cavepeople a long time ago). So it took the show a curious kind of confidence to cut away from the newly established setting and take us back to where it all began at the first chance it got.

Returning to the New York suburban setting and climactic time frame of its Season One finale before slowly catching up to the events of the episode that preceded it, the appropriately titled “A Matter of Geography” was all over the map. That’s a good thing. Compared to the first season’s sophomore ep, which was when the series’ intriguing premise hit the prestige-TV-by-numbers pavement, there’s almost nothing formulaic about this one. It continuously went bigger, brighter, stranger, and further than expected.

I reviewed The Leftovers’ (mostly) strong second episode for Decider.

“Empire” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Three: “Fires of Heaven”

October 7, 2015

As a wise man once asked, “What’s a king to a god?” For Lucious Lyon, anyway, the answer is clear: jack shit. As the focus of much of this week’s episode of Empire — titled, with the show’s typical level of chill, “Fires of Heaven” — the artist/mogul/murderer acts like a recording-industry Zeus, throwing thunderbolts at his hapless subjects below.

I reviewed this week’s fantastically entertaining Empire for Rolling Stone. Here’s the thing about this show: While watching this episode I found myself thinking “This is so good at what it does it actually makes me nervous, because a soap opera with no obvious flaws is some uncanny-valley shit. Surely it’ll screw up! When will it screw up? I must know!” It’s true, though. Empire is neither pretentious nor insulting, neither snidely campy nor self-serious, neither overshooting or undershooting the mark, neither crass nor sanctimonious, neither dull nor overindulgent, neither a guilty pleasure nor an attempt to make you feel like you’re secretly eating your vegetables. It’s just, like, exactly right. It’s hard to wrap my mind around.

The Phantom Fame: “Space Ghost Coast to Coast,” Secretly TV’s Most Influential Show

October 7, 2015

The new age of late night has dawned. Last week, Trevor Noah took over The Daily Show, the slaughterhouse in which Jon Stewart EVISCERATED liberal bugbears on a nightly basis. This comes just after Stephen Colbert crawled out of character to occupy the throne vacated by David Letterman. And this is just the latest of the seismic shifts that have made television — broadcast or broadband, cable or streaming — the medium of the post-millennium.

The Sopranos started it all, or so the legends say. The canon of shows that launched TV’s postmillennial renaissance begins before HBO’s mafia masterpiece, of course: Twin Peaks paved the way, and David Lynch has been cited by countless showrunners as the John the Baptist to David Chase’s Jesus Christ. Tony and Carmela’s own network already had a breakout hit in the form of Sex and the City, which proved that people would tune in for original programming on channels that mostly aired movies. The Wire and Deadwood cemented the prestige drama’s place on the small screen. Arrested Development, meanwhile, created a parallel track, establishing the single-camera sitcom as the “prestige comedy” format of choice, while The Daily Show made similarly Peabody-worthy waves in the talk-show format.

But all the while — long before, in fact — a shadow revolution was under way. For this sea change, space was the place. Few people afford Space Ghost Coast to Coast, Cartoon Network’s strange, seminal comedy, its rightful place in the pantheon. But from its bargain-basement launch in 1994 to its place at the center of the wildly popular Adult Swim lineup in the 2000s, it helped introduce cringe comedy to the American viewing public, deconstructed the idea of the talk show beyond repair for a generation of comedians, and changed the look and feel of the entire animation art form.

I wrote about the strange history and pervasive influence of Space Ghost Coast to Coast — and Adult Swim, the network it spawned — for Grantland.

“Fear the Walking Dead” thoughts, Season One, Episode Six: “The Good Man”

October 5, 2015

The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead send the message to a society in the throes of endless war, openly nativist and racist politics, and mass gun psychosis that the only way to ensure the survival of you and your loved ones is to act with maximum brutality at all times. It’s not that I’m saying these shows are turning people into killers; on the contrary, everyone involved knows damn well that this is decadent nonsense since virtually no one watching will ever be in the personal position to do anything like what Travis Manawa and Madison Clark are made to do. But the same is true of the NRA or Donald Trump or Ben Carson, who for political and financial profit fuel the paranoid, masturbatory murder fantasies of a country full of gunfucking shut-ins terrified of the unwashed, undead masses flowing over the border, out of the ghettoes, and into Main Street USA. Ideologically, Rick Grimes and George Zimmerman are just a zombie apart.

It’s important to understand why this violent show, among the countless ones now on offer and racking up gangbusters reviews as well as ratings, stands out. What’s wrong with Fear the Walking Dead and the show that spawned it that isn’t wrong with Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, The Wire, The Americans, and on and on and on? To find the source of FTWD/TWD’s ethical failure, you have go look at an artistic failure, a hole in the writing the show falls into time and time again. On those other shows, characters are presented with moral choices between right and wrong options—one side may look more appealing or viable than the other, one may have better or worse repercussions, one may be easier to live with or live through, but their nature is never truly in doubt. Fear the Walking Dead is different. It repeatedly offers characters and viewers alike a false choice, one in which the only options are brutality and survival on the one hand or naïveté and death on the other. In this closed moral circuit, violence is both vital and virtuous; no other correct answer is allowed.

I reviewed the season finale of Fear the Walking Dead for Decider.

“The Affair” thoughts, Season Two, Episode One (201)

October 5, 2015

The only place Helen finds comfort that isn’t weed-scented is her kids. Wearing a lived-in t-shirt that makes her look physically as well as emotionally at ease, she turns their glum family dinner around with a self-deprecating quip or two; she seems at home, in other words. Strangely, the only other moment she truly comes across as satisfied she’s doing the right thing is when, in the flash-forward, she goes to the jailhouse to pay for Noah’s lawyer. The implication may well be that this reflects her own self-interest, that she knows more about Scotty’s death than we’ve ever suspected. But could it also indicate her self-conception as a woman far more at ease with being selfless than with being selfish? Isn’t this — the different yet equally self-defeating forms of martyr virtue men and women allow themselves to embody — what The Affair is really all about?

My fellow critic Meghan O’Keefe and I will be tag-team reviewing The Affair, one of my favorite shows, for Decider this season—she’ll handle the men’s points of view and I’ll be examining the women’s. We started with last night’s season premiere.

“The Leftovers” thoughts, Season Two, Episode One: “Axis Mundi”

October 5, 2015

The big question: Is this overhaul a good idea? I’m sure HBO thinks so. The cheerier credits alone bring it much more in line with the network’s other fare, and a diversified cast makes artistic, ethical, and financial sense. ButThe Leftovers stumbled real fucking hard out of the gate the first time around (that cornball Rev. Matt spotlight episode is one of the worst-written episodes of prestige TV ever), and it took most of the season to firmly reestablish its footing. Once it did, it never looked back—by its final two episodes in particular it was utterly ruthless in its exploration of depression, grief, and loss, gutsy subjects for a TV climate that’s still more attuned to power struggles than internal ones. It was also a real star turn for Coon, whose Nora was the quietly shattered heart of the show.

Now it’s gotten a heart transplant. The Murphy family dynamic has the ingredients to be interesting, at least. And the worldbuilding done so far with Jarden—the hermits and goat-sacrificers, the ID bracelets visitors have to wear, the impression that trespassers are ejected with extreme prejudice, John’s vigilante crew, the earthquakes, the mysterious and perhaps only metaphorical connection to the cavewomen and the baby—is definitely intriguing.

But since Season One got it all so right in the end, does starting over again bode well or ill? The Leftovers got very good indeed, but it took a whole lot of huffing and puffing to get there; tight storytelling that doesn’t overstate its emotional case is not exactly Lindelof’s strong suit. A show this dark can’t be puffy without tipping over into melodrama, and starting over could duplicate the problem. For now, as the song says, I guess we’ll let the mystery be.

I wrote about the curious case of the Season 2 premiere of The Leftovers—the hardest reboot an HBO series has seen since The Wire Season 2—for Decider.