Archive for November 27, 2015

“Jessica Jones” thoughts, Season One, Episode Seven: “AKA Top Shelf Perverts”

November 27, 2015

Still, Ritter fares better than David Tennant, who leaves no scenery unchewed in our longest glimpse of Kilgrave in action to date. His ranting and raving in the squad room where he confronts Jessica is 100% Boar’s Head ham. The false humility, the sudden rages, the skin-crawling professions of love—some of this is the writing’s fault, no question, but every choice he makes in trying to sell it is rote and predictable. Contrast this with Vincent D’Onofrio as Daredevil big bad Wilson Fisk. From his physical comportment to speech patterns, he was a wholly original creation. The performance ran the risk of alienating the audience by doing something superhero stories rarely do: forcing them to watch something they’d never seen before. Tennant feels like a copy of a copy of a copy of a mash-up of a Bond villain and Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter by comparison. Meanwhile he’s supposed to hold down half of this show’s emotional bargain. Like Hogarth’s wife Wendy, you don’t have to take this deal.

I reviewed the seventh episode of Jessica Jones for Decider. Sorry, Whovians.

“Empire” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Nine: “Sinned Against”

November 26, 2015

All the great shows ask big questions. Mad Men made us think “Can people really change?” The Wire wondered “Can the system be saved?” And tonight, Empire asked “Is Alicia Keys talented and gorgeous enough to convert a gay dude?” According to Fox’s smash-hit soap, the answer is yes! The series has already had a wild second season, but this week’s installment — “Sinned Against” — was the daffiest hour to date…and it was sealed with a kiss.

I reviewed last night’s episode of Empire for Rolling Stone.

“Jessica Jones” thoughts, Season One, Episode Six: “AKA You’re a Winner!”

November 26, 2015

“You are a hard-drinking, short-fused mess of a woman,” Luke Cage tells Jessica Jones. “But you are not a piece of shit.” Thesis statement! Yes, Luke has reason to reassess the latter part of that description later in the episode. But either way, this line from “AKA You’re a Winner!”, the season’s sixth episode, tidily sums up the show’s vision of its lead character: Sure, she’s an alcoholic asshole fuckup, but she’s got a heart of gold! If this is an interesting archetype for you, great, go with God. If not? You’re in for a slog.

I reviewed the sixth episode of Jessica Jones, aka the one where they throw people into weed, for Decider.

“Jessica Jones” thoughts, Season One, Episode Five: “AKA The Sandwich Saved Me”

November 25, 2015

One sentence did more to damage my appreciation of Jessica Jones than any other. It wasn’t anything any of the characters said, or even anything a TV critic wrote. It was something mysignificant other said to me as we watched “AKA The Sandwich Saved Me,” the show’s fifth episode. “Does Kilgrave need to speak to people directly to control them?” she asked. “Seems like it,” I replied. Her response: “Then why don’t they wear earplugs?” I believe that’s what Mortal Kombat calls “FATALITY.”

I reviewed the fifth episode of Jessica Jones for Decider. More like Justokay Jones, amirite?

“Jessica Jones” thoughts, Season One, Episode Four: “AKA 99 Friends”

November 25, 2015

The title character herself is not getting any more interesting. While the handling of abuse and trauma is as incisive as ever, so too does Jessica remain a glowering hardass stereotype in every other respect. Some of this is down to the writing, which sets her up in cliched scenarios like the ol’ sad shower scene (I don’t know about you, but I’m rarely sad in the shower—my bouts with melancholy usually take place on the couch) and forces her to deliver wooden lines like “Not tonight, Hogarth. Not tonight.” But, and I hate to say this, some of it is Krysten Ritter, who seems more and more miscast as the series continues. As good as she was in Breaking Bad, investing a supporting character with a mainline dose of audience empathy, she’s doing very little with this part beyond glaring, sneering, and occasionally sitting in silence. Sure, they can have her do a Pete Venkman twirl on a street corner or cry a single Frodo Baggins tear when she discovers her junkie neighbor Malcolm has been Kilgrave, but like when she trashes the room she’s been lured to by her anti-gifted client for an assassination attempt, the emotional displays feel forced since her affect is otherwise so stonefaced. If this show is ever gonna soar, something’s gotta break.

I reviewed episode four of Jessica Jones for Decider. I’m not crazy about it.

“Ash vs. Evil Dead” thoughts, Season One, Episode Four: “Brujo”

November 25, 2015

Last week on Ash vs. Evil Dead, the show put its unique splatstick spin on Hellraiser. This time out, it took on the Monkees’ Head. The Pre-Fab Four’s film, a free-form psychedelic-era artifact (written by Jack Nicholson!), is as good a touchstone as any for the far-out trip Ash J. Williams went on this week — that, or the “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” dream sequence from The Big Lebowski. Our working theory was that tonight’s episode, “Brujo,” was going to offer AvED’s version of New World witchcraft. Instead, it showed us El Jefe’s brain on drugs. As the man himself might put it: Groovy.

I reviewed this past weekend’s Ash vs. Evil Dead for Rolling Stone. This show is really a hoot.

“Fargo” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Seven: “Did You Do This? No, You Did It!”

November 25, 2015


It’s been nearly a week since I first watched last night’s Fargo. Like I’ve said, I rush to watch each new advance-screener episode the moment the network sends them to me, like a kid running headlong to unwrap the biggest present under the tree on Christmas morning. A lot has stuck with me since then: the opening massacre montage set to Jethro Tull’s “Locomotive Breath” (window washers!); Floyd Gerhardt’s smile in the interrogation room when she realizes she’s used the cops to win her war; the use of a ‘70s-style cover of “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” a Big Lebowski soundtrack standout; the Undertaker; the appearance of the title in the cold air above the Gerhardt farmstead. You could easily list two or three times as many memorable moments without breaking a sweat.

But I’ll tell you the bit that got to me the most. It’s a line from Simone Gerhardt, the ill-fated double-agent heiress to the empire. Barely surviving her confrontation with Mike Milligan over the hit on her grandma’s home (which took out Grandpa Otto, not her hated father Dodd), she’s escorted out by Ben Schmidt, one of Fargo’s Finest. He falls for her blunt come-ons like the supporting-character dupe he is, then gets kneed in the balls for it so that she can effect her escape. “If I’m goin’ to the noose,” she tells him, “I’m goin’. But I’m done lyin’ down for men.”

Then she walks out to the parking lot, where she is waylaid by her uncle Bear, who drives her out to the middle of nowhere, marches her deep into the woods, and kills her for sleeping with the enemy while she begs for her life. She was done lying down for men, yes. She was not done kneeling for them.

I reviewed this week’s Fargo for the New York Observer. Good God, this show.

“The Affair” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Eight (208)

November 23, 2015

As a reward for all this good behavior, Helen apologizes for the choices she forced Noah to make, for her secret glee that his first book failed, and for her inability to see how important writing really was to him. “I never in a million years thought you would be this, this guy,” she tells him. “And now you’re here, and I’m very proud of you.” She means it. That this is coming from Helen’s perspective indicates she wants and needs to be seen as forgiving, supportive, and honest about her ex-husband’s character. But it also means she thinks he deserves it.

And on Noah’s side of the equation? He’s a drunken dickhead, ranting about how hard it is for white men to get ahead in literature (“It’s impossible to be a man in 2015!” he says, unleashing a laughing fit from his ex), picking fights with student-newspaper book critics, barely resisting the temptation to pick up admiring undergrads, and coming an unzipped fly away from cheating on his pregnant fiancée with his publicist. Yet even here Helen is affirming the better angels of his nature: “You’re not a dick! You’ve made some questionable choices, and you don’t like yourself very much for reasons I don’t understand, but you’re fundamentally a decent human being.” As we’ve been saying for a while, that’s the thesis statement for The Affair’s take on masculine martyrdom: Sure, we men make mistakes, we fuck up, but at heart we’re Good Guys—why can’t everyone see this? In Noah’s case, Helen can. He’s the one whose descent has blinded him.

Meghan O’Keefe and I reviewed last night’s episode of The Affair for Decider. The dialogue basically quoted my long-standing read of how Noah wants to be seen verbatim, which was nice!

“The Leftovers” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Eight: “International Assassin”

November 23, 2015

What does it all mean?

I’ll tell you what it doesn’t mean: that we’ve now been given all the tools we need to determine if Kevin’s visions are the product of the supernatural or psychosis. I believe co-creator Damon Lindelof when he insists this show will never deliver The Answers to the Great Departure, and I believe that studied agnosticism extends way on down the line to every seemingly supernatural happening on the show. Maybe Kevin really did mystically travel to the other side, where he underwent a series of trials and defeated his adversary, bringing himself back to life. Or maybe he’s a schizophrenic who drank poison provided by a suicidal pederast, had a hallucinatory paranoiac nightmare while he was out in which he processed his grief and guilt and trauma, and woke up before he suffocated. The results are the same either way. What difference does it make?

I reviewed last night’s extremely divisive episode of The Leftovers for Decider. I thought it was a hoot! Funny, creepy, and very bold. It’s only infuriating if you’re determined to read it in a certain way. Everything you like about the show was still there under the surface.

“Jessica Jones” thoughts, Season One, Episode Three: “AKA It’s Called Whiskey”

November 22, 2015

Actually, the Kilgrave concept itself—in the sense that this story and this story alone is what the season will be about—is working much better as of this episode. Unlike Daredevil, which kept its protagonist and antagonist in the dark about one another for some time and featured many mini-mysteries along the path to their final confrontation, Jessica Jones has been all about the title character and her nemesis tracking each other down from the jump. The decision to focus so monomaniacally on the mano a mano conflict between the detective and the telepath could feel either fitting or forced; around the point where Jessica learns Trish plans to have her fellow victim Hope on her radio show and freaks out, it fell firmly on the former side of the line. “He’ll be listening to her and thinking about me,” Jessica warns her friend, a wholly appropriate reaction. After all, we’re talking about a stalker on one hand and the woman he traumatized on the other—of course they’d think about each other all the time. The narrative simply reflects this sad emotional truth.

Unfortunately, the complexity, nuance, and willingness to take chances with the genre has yet to extend beyond these two areas. Put it this way: Aside from her zesty sex life with Luke and her ongoing attempt to process what Kilgrave has done to her and others, is there anything about Jessica Jones as a character you haven’t seen a million times before? Whether we’re talking about private-detective tales or young-woman-in-the-city stories, this exact combination of sarcasm, alcoholism, broken friendships, and regret is as common as spandex in superhero comics.

Speaking of comics, I’m loath to compare TV shows to their source material all that much, but in Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos’s original Aliascomics, Jessica was much less of a hardboiled stereotype, exchanging the live-action version’s sardonic stoicism for the jittery, high-energy banter common to the writer’s work. The result was a lively, lived-in character who felt more like a real person trying and failing to live up to her extraordinary circumstances than a noir archetype peeled straight from pulp fiction. The point isn’t “The book was better,” it’s that what’s on the screen isn’t working, irrespective of what happened on the page.

I think I figured out what’s not working for me in Jessica Jones. I reviewed the third episode for Decider.

“Jessica Jones” thoughts, Season One, Episode Two: “AKA Crush Syndrome”

November 21, 2015
“Jessica Jones” Recap, Episode 2: Pissed Off

Superhero stories geared toward adults always run the risk of trying too hard to establish their serious-business bonafides. But that seemed wholly unnecessary for this series, which is so deeply tied to Jessica’s rape and trauma that there’s no need to take things over the top elsewhere. By this point in the episode, we’ve established that Kilgrave stole a man’s kidneys and left him a suicidal cripple between abducting and raping multiple women, recklessly hijacking the minds of countless people along the way. Did we really need to watch him make a terrified little girl piss her pants in a closet to get the message that he’s a piece of shit? The suffering of children is a tool in the artist’s arsenal not to be used lightly, and while it’s clearJessica Jones is taking the trauma inflicted on victims of violence seriously, it’s less apparent that it knows not to gratuitously gild the lily.

Compare this to our first prolonged exposure to Daredevil’s big bad. When we meet Wilson Fisk, we already know he’s used his massive fortune—and his equally imposing physique—to seize control of New York City’s underworld and real-estate market alike. But instead of watching him throw his weight around (sorry), we see him awkwardly flirting with an art-gallery owner, first at an exhibition and then over dinner. This bold, mold-breaking choice humanized the supervillain in a way we’ve never seen a live-action superhero project attempt before. And the show stuck with it, too: While it never shied away from depicting the ugly brutality of Fisk’s gentrification plan, it also showed him to be a man with actual, honest-to-god friends, who cared about him as much as he cared about them. Ultimately, he and his gang were as much a surrogate family as Matt Murdock and friends, making the conflict between them that much more compelling. This isinteresting, folks, and it made for a compelling, unpredictable hero-vs-villain narrative.

Making Kilgrave an unmitigated monster is a legit choice, don’t get me wrong—it’s not like I’m clamoring to see the softer side of a serial rapist—but it’s cutting off Jessica Jones from exploring a rich vein of character and story. Imagine Game of Thrones if, instead of complicated figures like the Lannisters, the Hound, and Stannis Baratheon, all the antagonists were raw uncut psychopaths like Ramsay Bolton, Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane, and those crazy bald cannibals from Season Four. Their thoroughly black hearts make them entertaining enemies, but it’d be tough to sustain the show without a bit more shading.

I reviewed the second episode Jessica Jones, which contains one of my least favorite scenes of the year, for Decider.

“Jessica Jones” thoughts, Season One, Episode One: “AKA Ladies Night”

November 20, 2015

How high can highlights take you? How much strength does a show require for its strong points to overpower its weak spots? How does the whole become more than the sum of even its most important parts? Jessica Jones, the hotly anticipated second series in Marvel & Netflix’s partnership, tells the story of a private eye, so perhaps it’s appropriate that it’s got me searching for answers myself. Its pilot episode, “AKA Ladies Night,” contains some of the most powerful moments and challenging themes in the entire Marvel oeuvre. I’m just not sure that’s enough to declare the case for its quality closed.

I’m covering Jessica Jones for Decider! I’ll be posting a review a day every day till I get through the whole season. First up: My somewhat skeptical take on the pilot.

“Empire” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Eight: “My Bad Parts”

November 19, 2015

Then there’s the rap battle itself. To be honest, Hakeem’s defeat of Freda felt like something of a mercy killing, since the young MC’s storyline was a rare case of a plot element on Empire that never quite worked. Granted, the character was supposed to seem ill at ease in the Lyons’ high-powered world, but that out-of-place vibe affected how it felt to watch her as well. Compared to her convincingly sullen demeanor and angry outbursts,  the idea that she had a take-on-the-world hunger to rival that of Lucious and his family never came across on screen. She always looked like someone who’d be much happier just battling on the streets where the mogul found her.

I reviewed last night’s Empire for Rolling Stone.

“Fargo” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Six: “Rhinoceros”

November 18, 2015

Let’s talk about war. We might as well; this week, everybody’s doing it.

I reviewed this week’s Fargo for the New York Observer.

“The Leftovers” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Seven: “A Most Powerful Adversary”

November 16, 2015

And then there’s the sorcerer himself. “Who are you?” Kevin asks Virgil, awestruck. “I’m just someone who once had an adversary of his own,” the man replies by way of self-description. “One that made me do terrible things. And for those things I was shot in the chest, in the belly”—and here’s where it gets unpleasant—“and in that foul machinery below the waist, which transgressed the laws of man.” At this point it’s not hard to guess why John shot him, though the identity of the victim isn’t clear until Kevin brings up the shooting himself. “I hurt him,” Virgil says, referring to John. “I hurt him a long time ago. And then he hurt me back, and he freed me.” Now we have our explanation for John Murphy’s anti-magic vigilantism: If your abuser claimed he was cured of his desire to molest children by an otherworldly encounter with his supernatural adversary on the other side, you’d be pretty fed up with the miracle shit, too. Combining the old man’s mysticism with the all too real horror of pedophilia is dark fantasy at its grimmest, a conception of the genre in which magic isn’t simply a deus ex machina, but a force in human affairs with as powerful an impact and as complex a moral cost as sex and violence.

I reviewed last night’s episode of The Leftovers for Decider.

“The Affair” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Seven (207)

November 16, 2015

It’s grimly fitting that last night’s episode of The Affair took place on Thanksgiving, because it was all about the consequences of shitting where you eat—not for you, necessarily, but for your fellow diners. After another significant leap forward in time, we rejoin the merry band of Baileys, Lockharts, and Solloways after Noah’s (Dominic West) book Descent has made him the toast of the town, and a pretty penny to boot. But while he’s living large, the people whose marriage he helped break up are paying the price. Cole Lockhart (Joshua Jackson), as you’ll see below, is facing the fallout from the ugly family history Noah dredged up in his novel, with a little help from family nemesis Oscar Hodges. And Alison (Ruth Wilson), whose POV comprises the episode’s first half, is struggling with a new life of luxury in which she has been reduced to a prop, or a PR ploy. Noah’s feast is their famine.

Meghan O’Keefe and I reviewed last night’s episode of The Affair for Decider.

“Ash vs. Evil Dead” thoughts, Season One, Episode Three: “Books From Beyond”

November 16, 2015

If you’ve watched more than a handful of horror films or TV shows, you know the ugly truth all too well: There are a million ways to make a denizens of the netherworld completely boring to watch. So praise the Lord and pass the ammunition: Ash vs. Evil Dead knows how to do it 100-percent correct. What this Starz continuation of the venerable “splatstick” franchise understands is that when it comes to the genre, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel — sometimes simply building a better mousetrap will do.

Catch-up part 3: I reviewed this past weekend’s Ash vs. Evil Dead for Rolling Stone.

“Empire” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Seven: “True Love Never”

November 16, 2015

When it comes to Lucious Lyon, there’s no separating the man and his music. The character plays like a parody of pretentious, tempestuous artistes — people who use every triumph and tragedy as fuel for their work and their bad behavior. No wonder stepping into his mind is like watching a Behind the Music episode. In a series of dramatic flashbacks, we discover the shocking origin of the gunshot sound effects that drive the mogul’s tailor-made collaboration with young upstart Freeda Gatz: That’s the noise his bipolar mother would make while playing Russian roulette. This raises two major questions. First, given Lucious’s erratic behavior, is he beginning to suffer from the manic mood swings that plagued both his mom and his son Andre? Second, if that’s the secret behind “Boom Boom Boom Boom,” is there a similarly shocking truth behind Hakeem’s “Drip Drop”?

Catch-up part 2: I reviewed last week’s Empire for Rolling Stone.

“Fargo” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Five: “The Gift of the Magi”

November 16, 2015

When I talk to people about Fargo—an event which has taken place with increasing regularity as the show’s magnificent second season progresses—the concept that recurs most frequently is that the series is a world unto itself. “If they could sustain this magic in this wonderful world they’ve created for six seasons,” one friend said to me, “I’d be so, so, so happy.” Perhaps the best testament to creator Noah Hawley and company’s creation of a fully functioning universe up there in the blood-stained snow is that it’s governed by a system of moral physics all its own. “The Gift of the Magi,” this week’s episode, makes one of those laws clear: Optimism is for the homicidal or the suicidal alone.

Doing a bit of catch-up here: I reviewed last week’s Fargo for the New York Observer.

“The Affair” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Six (206)

November 9, 2015

It’s been fascinating to watch The Affair tell Helen’s story this season. Both the writing (this time around from playwright and consulting producer David Henry Hwang) and acting (from Tierney, a series MVP) has examined her unique blend of drives, strengths, and foibles with surgical precision, from her rebound relationship with Max to her making-up-for-lost-time use of intoxicants to her struggle to parent both her children and her own mother on her own. Sadder, wiser, and wounded by the series’ main characters in a way it has the guts to show may not properly heal—a chronic condition, like Martin’s Crohn’s disease—she’s a fully realized, incredibly compelling creation.

Meghan O’Keefe and I reviewed this week’s The Affair for Decider.