Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

“Fargo” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Three: “The Law of Non-Contradiction”

May 8, 2017

Hawley tapped John Cameron, a longtime collaborator of both the Coens and their old friend Sam Raimi, to helm one of the series most Coen-esque installments ever, which is really saying something. (Un)comfortably ensconced in Los Angeles rather than the upper midwest, Fargo could really bring its Barton Fink/Big Lewbowski A-game, with some of its most explicit shout-outs and hat-tips yet. For example, the “ring for service” bell that never seems to stop ringing, the shot of Gloria reclining on the beach looking out into the sea, the mysterious shoes and the equally mysterious box, the screening room lit by the hazy light of the projector, Tad’s role as a screenwriter whose success in another medium leads him to get in over his head in Hollywood: That’s that Barton Fink feeling, baby, brought to you by filmmakers who understand the feelings of alienation and insecurity they’re supposed to engender in you, not just by people who are trying to coast on the residual goodwill of previous work with throwaway references.

In some places the allusions seem to fold endlessly into one another — Gloria’s motel simultaneously evokes Barton Fink’s hotel, the motel that figures prominently in No Country for Old Men, and the site of the Sioux Falls Massacre from the show’s previous season — to say nothing of cinema’s ur-motel, run by one Norman Bates and his mother. The emotional resonance here is dense, is what I’m saying; unlike some shows I could mention — fuck it, I mean Stranger Things — it’s designed to last beyond the mere fact of recognition. In other words, to paraphrase Barton Fink, it will show you the life of the mind.

Despite not caring fro two prominent aspects of last week’s Fargo, I liked the overall thing quite a bit, and explained why at Decider. (That cameo from you-know-who!)

The 50 Best ‘Star Wars’ Characters of All Time

May 4, 2017

7. Rey

Complaints that The Force Awakens‘ desert-dwelling heroine is just too good at everything she does – pilot, mechanic, Force-wielder, lightsaber duelist, escape artist – ignore two important factors. First, her flashbacks indicate that there’s much more to her mysterious past than meets the eye, and we wouldn’t be surprised if long-buried memories of Jedi training were a part of it. Second, breakout star Daisy Ridley is an absolute joy to watch in the role, a magnetic screen presence who nails moments of mirth and melodrama alike. (The same could be said for her franchise warrior-sister Jyn Erso, who feels as if she’s been cut from the same cloth as Rey.) If she’s the Star Wars Universe’s new chosen one, the good folks at Lucasfilm have chosen wisely. STC

I added a few new entries to Rolling Stone’s list of the best Star Wars characters of all time.

“American Gods” thoughts, Season One, Episode One: “The Bone Orchard”

May 4, 2017

Will you believe in American Gods? There are two ways to uncover the answer, and fortunately neither involves accepting any deity as your personal lord and savior. The first hinges on how you felt about Hannibal, AG co-creator Bryan Fuller’s spectacularly disgusting, confrontationally beautiful (or is that the other way around?) adaptation of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter novels. The slow-motion gouts of computer-enhanced arterial spray, the gardens of the dead, the highly symbolic horned-animal imagery — it’s all here, as spectacular as ever under frequent Fuller collaborator David Slade’s sure directorial hand. (Even if Hannibal composer Brian Reitzell’s score works way too hard to sell it to you.)

The second hinges on whether you can stomach characters called Shadow Moon and Mad Sweeney fighting for the pleasure of Mr. Wednesday in a show called American Gods. For fans of Neil Gaiman, the comics writer and novelist from whose book Fuller and co-creator Michael Green adapted the show, this is the sort of modern-fairy-tale whimsy that makes him such a beloved and influential figure. (His work has inspired some comics writers’ entire careers. Hell, it’s inspired some comics publishers’ entire careers.) But if you’re allergic to Gaiman’s “it’s the Magic of Storytelling” schtick, or to the urban-fantasy vibe that this show shares with series like Preacher and True Blood (themselves based on books that are hard to imagine existing without Gaiman), you may be out of luck.

Looks like I’m covering American Gods after all! I reviewed the series premiere, which as you can see above shook out how you might have thought it would for me, for Decider.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Nine: “IHOP”

May 4, 2017

The Americans is no stranger to boredom. Boredom is the flipside of the danger and glamour that are Philip and Elizabeth Jennings’ nominal stock in trade. It’s the constant travel to decidedly un-exotic destinations like Topeka and Harrisburg, the endless surveillance and reconnaissance details, the dull dinner dates with uninteresting people they only pretend to like, the logistics and mechanics of spycraft which are so often no more thrilling than what an HVAC technician might do. But “IHOP,” this week’s episode, pushed the tedium envelope farther than ever. It showed Philip and Elizabeth doing jobs—listening to untold hours of recorded office chatter on the one hand, sitting around watching late night television while waiting for their teen-spy “son” Tuan to return home on the other—that are boring not just by their standards, but by ours. If you’ve ever sat in on a lengthy conference-call meeting or killed time until a delivery guy showed up, you know their pain. Almost, anyway. You never had to worry that you might need to kill someone at the end of it all.

Watching this episode, I was struck by just how exhausted everyone looks and sounds. Some of the characters are quite vocal about it, in fact; the language of enduring, or failing to endure, is everywhere. In a well-intentioned but poorly received attempt to check up on an asset who gave everything for the cause, wittingly or not, Gabriel tells Martha (Alison Wright, returning for a second welcome cameo this season) that he retired because he was just “done.” The late Frank Gaad’s widow tells Stan Beeman, making a parallel visit, that everything’s been so quiet since her husband’s funeral. We finally get to see the CIA bigshot father of Kimmy (Julia Garner, another face it’s good to see again), and he looks like a fatigued middle manager rather than the heroic hard-charger Kimmy and Philip’s conversations had conjured. The priest-slash-spy who reports to Philip in Gabriel’s absence suggests that he pray: “It is a great solace,” he says, “especially when you live this kind of life.” In a particularly unpleasant heart-to-heart, Oleg’s father bitterly describes decades of life with his mother, a changed woman after her experiences in a prison camp, as a sort of jail sentence itself. Tuan schleps all the way to Pennsylvania to surreptitiously call his former adoptive family back in Seattle, whose six-year-old son is suffering from leukemia. Philip half-suspects Tuan wanted to be caught doing this in order to get sent home, “pulled out of this shit, start over.” “It’s not who he is,” Elizabeth says, disagreeing. You have to wonder who she’s trying to kid.

I reviewed this week’s episode of The Americans for the New York Observer.

“Better Call Saul” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Four: “Sabrosito”

May 4, 2017

It’s not a cold open so much as a cool, refreshing one: Don Eladio, the drug-cartel king played by the delightful Stephen Bauer, going for a dip in his lovely in-ground swimming pool. Several years later he’ll take a real dive into that thing, victim of a poisoning plot orchestrated by Gus Fring and Mike Ehrmantraut that will leave him and the entire leadership caste of the cartel dead. So much of “Sabrosito,” this week’s episode of Better Call Saul, feels like a direct prequel to that stand-out episode of Breaking Bad that the end result is the most Breaking Bad-esque episode of BCS ever. That yellow south-of-the-border tint to the film, the constant dick-measuring between Eladio and his underbosses Hector Salamanca and Juan Bolsa, Gus getting in the good graces of Albuquerque’s public servants, a confrontation with Hector in the Los Pollos Hermanos restaurant Gus personally manages designed to test his patience, a late-night deal struck between Gus and Mike as two wary men who each respect the way the other does business—it’s all straight from the BB playbook.

If you’re the sort who’s had your fill of Breaking Bad, or simply doesn’t think it should slowly assume control of its Better Call Saul host organism like the alien from The Thing, this might be cause for concern. I still think that concern is misplaced. The vibe may be familiar from BB, but it’s still unmistakably BCS in pacing and staging; as director Thomas Schnauz has noted, even the scene at Don Eladio’s compound, as direct a throwback as you can get, was shot with a more stationary and staid camera than they’d have used on the previous series.

I reviewed this week’s episode of Better Call Saul for the New York Observer.

STC vs. FYC: BILLIONS

May 1, 2017

fyc-billions-1180x520-1

I’ll be hosting the Emmys “For Your Consideration” panel for Billions this Friday evening at 7pm at the NYIT Auditorium on Broadway between 62nd and 63rd. In addition to a screening of this week’s excellent episode, I’m conducting a 45-minute Q&A with the co-creators and cast, including Paul Giamatti, Maggie Siff, Toby Leonard Moore, Asia Kate Dillon, David Costabile, Brian Koppelman, and David Levien. I believe it’s for Television Academy members and their plus-ones only, but it that applies to you I hope to see you there!

“Billions” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Eleven: “Golden Frog Time”

May 1, 2017

In a dazzling display of plot-mechanic pyrotechnics, the final minutes of the episode reveal that everything you thought you knew was wrong was actually right all along. Deftly playing with the “TWO WEEKS AGO / TWO DAYS AGO / EARLIER TODAY / NOW” time-jumping that the show’s done on and off all season, co-creators and co-writers David Levien and Brian Koppelman peel back the various schemes and double-crosses like an onion—only to reapply the shit they peeled back and then peel it back again to reveal what’s really going on. In short, this is Billions at its best.

I reviewed this week’s episode of Billions, which was peak Billions, for the New York Observer. This is the kind of episode the show’s been building to for a long time.

“The Leftovers” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Three: “Crazy Whitefella Thinking”

May 1, 2017

Like the best science fiction, The Leftovers throws reality out the window for a reason. Its outlandish genre elements give voice to emotions that are present in our everyday lives, but which have an intensity our everyday vocabulary of ideas and events is incapable of adequately expressing. There’s a throwaway bit in “Crazy Whitefella Thinking,” this week’s episode and a wall-to-wall showcase for Scott Glenn at his most wild and weathered, that illustrates this beautifully.

During his conversation with the ill-fated Aboriginal man Christopher Sunday (who will soon die when the titular Crazy Whitefella falls off a roof and lands on him), Kevin Garvey Sr. talks about the tape recorder he’s been carrying around during his long walkabout across Australia. It originally belonged to Kevin Jr., who received it as a Christmas gift from his mother just a month before she died of cancer. After that, the dad explains, his son brought it with him everywhere — Kevin Sr. hugs it to his own chest by way of illustration. Clearly Kevin Jr. saw the tape recorder as a totem of his mother, and brought it with him wherever he went to keep her with him as well.

All of us use these kinds of grieving mechanisms, whether or not we understand them is such. Is it really that big a leap from little Kevin using a tape recorder as a security blanket after his mom’s death to the stranger things people did to deal with the stranger trauma of the Sudden Departure? Kevin’s tape recorder contains shades of Nora Durst hiring sex workers to shoot her in the chest, or Matt Jamison writing a new book of the bible about his weirdly durable brother-in-law, or Kevin Sr. deciding the voices in his head are telling him he’s the only man in the world who can stop the next Great Flood. The Departure and everything that happened afterwards are just everyday loss and coping (or failure to cope) writ large; the metaphor works because there’s no such thing as “everyday loss” to those who experience it.

I reviewed this week’s episode of The Leftovers for Vulture.

The Boiled Leather Audio Hour Episode 62!

May 1, 2017

A Game of Thrones Revisited
The Boiled Leather Audio Hour goes back to the beginning! Sean & Stefan kick off their great A Song of Ice and Fire reread project with an episode dedicated entirely to A Game of Thrones, the novel that started it all. What did George R.R. Martin do as a writer to distinguish his work from the epic fantasy hordes? How has he changed as a writer since? Which elements turned out to matter, which didn’t, and which are we still scratching our heads about? The answers to all these questions, plus our takes on all the major characters (teaser: Sean compares Ned Stark to the Dude from The Big Lebowski), await you in this episode!

DOWNLOAD EPISODE 62

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The Boiled Leather Audio Moment #5

April 28, 2017

Moment 05 | Battlestar Galactica Season 3

Don’t worry, Westerosophists—our next Boiled Leather Audio Hour will be a deep dive into one of ASoIaF’s foundational texts. But we’re mixing it up on BLAM a bit this month, with a look at a different franchise: the mid-’00s Battlestar Galactica reboot, specifically its landmark third season. With a hot-button political storyline featuring the occupation of the new human homeworld by Cylon invaders, the reign of a collaborationist regime led by President Gaius Baltar, a human insurgency replete with suicide bombings, and the eventual fall of the regime and trial of its leader/catspaw Baltar, it’s led one of our readers to ask us how we think the season speaks to the political climate of 2016/2017, and what its influence on Game of Thrones might have been. Listen and find out in our latest Patreon subscriber-exclusive mini-podcast!

“Fargo” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Two: “The Principle of Restricted Choice”

April 27, 2017

We live in a world run by racist monsters who would gladly murder your children in front of you if it meant an extra zero for their net worth, so you have to take your pleasure where you can get it, and I get it from Shea Whigham. Best known to fans of excellent crime dramas for his role as Eli Thompson on Boardwalk Empire — the Ray Stussy to Steve Buscemi’s Emmit-like Nucky Thompson, basically — he slowly but surely became one of my favorite things about that show: a character so consumed by his own failures that you could hear it in his voice like a speech impediment and watch it seep out of his face like five o’clock shadow. He’s only in “The Principle of Restricted Choice,” this week’s episode of Fargo, briefly. And he’s delivering the sort of angry-police-chief comic relief familiar to anyone who’s ever watched a cop show, chewing out recently demoted Gloria Burgle and her deputy for operating their podunk department (now absorbed into the county’s police force) from a meeting room in the public library, using a storeroom for a prison cell and eschewing computers entirely. We live in the future, he insists, and she’d better get with the program. If the future includes more of this gravelly voiced actor with a face like a stern Renaissance aristocrat, I’m fucking in.

Don’t believe the anti-prestige-TV hype part 3: I reviewed this week’s marvelous Fargo for Decider.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Eight: “Immersion”

April 27, 2017

Watching and reviewing Better Call Saul and The Americans on consecutive nights for weeks at a time has made me realize something: I want a television of and about and for the Soft-Spoken Man. I want Jonathan Banks, Giancarlo Esposito, Matthew Rhys, Noah Emmerich, Frank Langella, and Brandon J. Dirden to record ASMR YouTube videos for me. I love those Quiet Boys, man. Love ‘em!

“Immersion,” this week’s episode of The Americans, has plenty to love on that score, made easier to notice since the plot’s in a bit of a holding pattern. Langella, granted, is gone, with his character Gabriel returning to the motherland and his peer (and one-time flame) Claudia stepping back into his shoes as Philip and Elizabeth Jennings’ handler.

But Emmerich and Dirden work wonders in a storyline that’s been kept at such a low simmer you’d have to check to make sure the stove was even lit. Their FBI agents Stan Beeman and Dennis Aderholt are continuing to work their extremely jittery, extremely sweet-natured potential informant among the Soviet delegation in D.C., walking her up and down a museum’s lengthy rectangular gallery while getting an earful of her hopes and dreams (she just wants her son to be able to go to college and to pay for a nice house for the two of them to live in; she loves eating pizza and will earnestly do her best to convince her coworkers that’s all she’s been spending her lunch break doing). Stan and Dennis have such a curious chemistry as partners—a good cop/good cop rapport that feels sort of like if, I dunno, Hal Linden and Alan Alda were the stars of Miami Vice. They care about their work, care about each other, care about people. This makes them almost singularly unsuited to their task, but what are you gonna do? They end their storyline for the night by planning to scoop their informant off the street before she’s even started to inform—that’s how sensitive they are to her nervousness, and how worried they are it’s justified.

Don’t believe the anti-prestige-TV hype part 2: I reviewed this week’s fine episode of The Americans for the New York Observer.

“Better Call Saul” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Three: “Sunk Costs”

April 27, 2017

Better Call Saul has truly gone Bad. “Sunk Costs,” this week’s episode, witnesses the return of many of Breaking Bad’s visual signatures. The hazy yellow desert coloring. The vistas of flat lands and big sky. The low-angle shots of dangerous men with the cloud-strewn blue above them. The episode-opening close-ups of various damaged objects—most notably shoes dangling from a wire until, worn down by the elements, they drop to the ground near a bullethole-ridden Spanish-language stop sign—the significance of which will not be made clear until the end of the hour (if then). Mike’s tense conversation with Gus in the middle of the empty highway, with future Head Goons in Charge Victor and Tyrus standing by, is straight out of the Walter White saga, with actors Giancarlo Esposito and Jonathan Banks exchanging terse just-so statements and queries in their own very different no-nonsense ways. BB’s style was, and is, so distinctive that its successors can switch it on at will, like a regional accent if not a whole second language.

This is still Better Call Saul, though, and even the BB-esque Mike half of the episode maintains the current series’ unique rhythms. By now the laconic pacing of Ehrmantraut’s tradecraft is the most talked-about aspect of the show, and likely the most frequently mocked as well: because I’m a good-natured sort I enjoyed Chapo Trap House podcaster Matt Christman’s joke that on next week’s episode, “Mike spends 40 real-time minutes putting a ship in a bottle.” Indeed, the show keeps the camera trained on him as he tosses a pair of sneakers into the air to catch on a power line a grand total of three times until they catch on the final throw. It’s just daring you to groan with impatience.

But watching a stone-cold operator like Mike methodically make his way through the world—in this case helping Gus sabotage their mutual enemy Hector Salamanca’s drug trafficking route by sprinkling contraband onto one of his trucks via a sniper bullet through the aforementioned drug-packed shoes—forces you to sit with sangfroid, effort, and ingenuity involved in carrying out violent, venal acts. It’s also an excuse to soak into the southwestern landscapes, the local homes and businesses, and the face of actor Jonathan Banks. It’s an experiential and ethical pacing choice, if there’s such a thing. Complaining that it’s not a pulse-pounding thrill ride is like watching Tarkovsky’s Stalker and yelling “Get on with it!”

Don’t believe the anti-prestige-TV hype part 1: I reviewed this week’s fine episode of Better Call Saul for the New York Observer.

‘The Godfather’ Was Really the First Great Prestige TV Show

April 24, 2017

Not to get all Beavis and Butt-head about it, but bad shows suck because, well, they suck, not because they are insufficiently episodic in structure. This is why calls from the critical community, leading many of the fan conversations on these shows, to eschew unified, serialized storytelling in favor of tight arcs and standalone episodes feel like a misdiagnosis. For one thing, they fail to consider that noticeably self-contained installments of series like Game of Thrones and Girls are as memorable as they are precisely because those shows don’t usually work that way.

These claims fall into the same trap of cinematically minded showrunners who insist that “it’s not TV” by agreeing with them, setting up a false dichotomy between what constitutes the proper use of the medium and what doesn’t. In its maturity, television has proven capable of countless things: TV dramas alone can be as densely serialized as The Wire Season 4, as memorably episodic as Mad Men Season 5, as sweeping as Fargo Season 2, and as sensation-driven as Empire Season 1. Sometimes they can be several things at once; Black Mirror, like its groundbreaking antecedent The Twilight Zone, tells a different story with a different set of characters every single episode, making it simultaneously one of the most movie-like and most episodic shows on television. Saying any of these series is closer or farther away from The One True Way to Make TV obscures the fact that there’s no such thing.

In fact, this array of options, this wide-open landscape of different structures and tones and techniques, is the truest indicator that “prestige TV” is not a contradiction in terms. Problems with the execution aside — and problems with the execution is all they really are — television can do whatever you want it to do at this point, and declaring one approach or the other superior is a procrustean blunder — like arguing The Godfather is less great a film because you can break it down like a television series, if you’re feeling particularly perverse (ahem). If that means some showrunners get to declare their series a double-digit-hour movie, so be it. The proof will be in the pudding, or the cannoli. You can have it both ways. Why wouldn’t you want to try?

What was your favorite episode of The Godfather? “Khartoum”? “The Thunderbolt”? The pilot, “I Believe in America”? I presented a modest proposal about a cinematic classic in order to talk about where all the “no, your TV show isn’t a 73-hour movie” structuralist reprimanding gets us for Thrillist.

“The Leftovers” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Two: “Don’t Be Ridiculous”

April 24, 2017

“Weird” and “like nothing else on television” are two descriptors that need to be purged from the critical vocabulary immediately. Believe me, I’d be first against the wall were that to happen, because quite frankly a lot of stuff on the air these days is weird and isn’t like anything else on television and at a certain point you have to call it like you see it. But simply saying so sells the work short, even before those descriptions are used to, say, lump an empty-calorie sci-fi and/or superhero and/or horror pastiche like Legion together with the trailblazing surrealist exploration of abuse and exploitation that was (and hopefully will be) Twin Peaks. The best “weird” shows aren’t just zany or confusing — they deliberately mess with your head to sneak difficult ideas in there while your guard is down. Shows that truly are “like nothing else on television” are, by definition, doing something so unique that an equally unique description is warranted.

So without further ado, let us discuss “Don’t Be Ridiculous,” tonight’s episode of The Leftovers, which was indeed both weird and like nothing else on television. Let’s talk about the title sequence, which reintroduces the memorable family-photo fade-outs of the previous season but drops the jaunty country-music accompaniment in favor of … the theme song from the cornball ‘80s sitcom Perfect Strangers? Let’s talk about the credits, which list the writers of the episode as … Tha Lonely Donkey Kong & Specialist Contagious? Let’s talk about the first thing we see after this disorientingly goofy stuff draws to a close … Jardin’s resident old hermit plummeting to his death?

What we’ve just witnessed is the proprietary blend of utter emotional devastation and madcap audio-visual trolling that has made The Leftovers what it is.

I reviewed last night’s episode of The Leftovers, which was both mercilessly funny and also just merciless, for Vulture.

“Billions” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Ten: “With or Without You”

April 24, 2017

Bobby Axelrod has come undone. For my money, this week’s episode of Billions (“With or Without You”) gives us a more convincing glimpse of the damage he can do in crisis mode than when he destroyed his own office building to look for nonexistent bugs last season. Bobby spends the episode in near-constant motion, driving and walking and pacing and flailing around in the search for Lara. A lot of shows waste time on their characters’ perambulations as a misguided matter of course; Billions shrewdly instrumentalizes them, giving the show the pacing of a thriller and making Bobby’s physical movement a metaphor for his racing and restless mind in his wife’s absence. And by making his first trip of many a visit to Wendy Rhoades in which he uses his sinister private investigator Hall to strong-arm her off the street and into his car (!!!), the show demonstrates just how far he’s willing to go.

Actor Damian Lewis is no stranger to playing characters who are so tightly wound and terrified they could snap at any moment thanks to his show-defining stint on Homeland. Here, he does his best work since that show’s darkest moments, slowly but surely revealing himself to be an abusive, controlling, contemptuous creep in a series of increasingly unhinged voicemails to Lara. He starts out upset, but not necessarily unreasonable; he may spend a bit too much time trying to shame Lara into regretting her snap decision to bolt rather than talk it out and to take the kids in the bargain—and a bit too little time actually apologizing for his role in prompting that decision—but he at least seems like someone she could have a conversation with were she calm enough herself. He shifts into remember-when mode (proving Tony Soprano right once and for all), comparing his feelings for her when they first met to “the thunderbolt” that hit Michael Corleone when he first laid eyes on his mild Sicilian dream girl Apollonia in The Godfather, then fast-forwarding to a trip they took to Paris where they couldn’t even bear to get out of bed long enough to stop “With or Without You” from playing on repeat.

But both of these fond memories are inverted with gut-punching force later on: “Apollonia got blown up by a fucking car bomb,” Lara points out to Bobby with appropriate venom when he repeats the comparison upon her return, while the iconic, romantic U2 hit plays as he surreptitiously deletes all the angry messages he left her while her phone was off over the course of the day. Good thing, too: By the end of it all he was screaming into the phone about how he was gonna teach her a lesson, how he could “operate you by remote control with a flick of my fucking finger,” how he shouldn’t have passed up the countless opportunities he had to fuck other women if this was all the thanks he got. Watching all this play out, you can see what Chuck Rhoades likely sees every time he looks at the guy: an entitled menace, with limitless resources to back it up.

I reviewed last night’s episode of Billions, one of the series’ best, for the New York Observer.

“Fargo” thoughts, Season Three, Episode One: “The Law of Vacant Places”

April 20, 2017

Fargo Season Three has arrived, and Noah Hawley is back on his bullshit.

After the weightless sci-fi psychedelia of Legion — a seemingly sincere but ultimately empty exercise in the superhero genre — the writer/director/showrunner has returned to the moral snowdrifts of the Upper Midwest for the third season of Fargo. The sudden chill has done him good. Legion did all sorts of rad tricks with lighting, editing, cinematography, narrative structure, and found-music pop-rock soundtracking, but for all its freneticism the end result was inert; tied to a hoary X-Men x-tended-universe story about a crazy telepathic mutant and his not-as-creepy-as-it-could-have-been psychic parasite, it felt like stagecraft rather than communication.

But as an East German interrogator puts it in the flashback (?) prologue to “The Law of Vacant Places,” Fargo S3’s season premiere, “We are not here to tell stories. We are here to tell the truth. Understand?” This is followed by the show’s usual “THIS IS A TRUE STORY” chyron — but Hawley, directing from his own script, then fades out the word “TRUE,” and eventually leaves nothing behind but “STORY.” This is already a far more effective disquisition on the difference between “true” and “real” than a season’s worth of Legion astral-plane hallucinations, because it’s rooted (literally — the words are overlaid across a shot of bare winter trees) in places and people rather than in an ersatz examination of The Mind or what have you. No matter how much Fargo owes to the Coen Brothers’ quirk-noir classic and the rest of their black-comedy crime films (some more black than comedy, some more comedy than black), it comes down to murder — the story of human bodies and what they’re capable of doing to one another. Here, heads are far more likely to get smashed by a falling air conditioner than explored like a memory palace.

I reviewed the season premiere of Fargo, which I enjoyed a great deal, for Decider. I’ll be covering the show there all season. Please do not believe a word of the backlash you may have seen to the show this season, which when compared to the freakout for Legion provides the clearest illustration I’ve ever seen of how TV critics overreact to novelty over quality. The stars of Trainspotting, Naked, A Serious Man, and The Leftovers are now all on the same show. If you suspect it’ll be good, congrats, you win.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Seven: “The Committee on Human Rights”

April 20, 2017

The Americans is a great show for faces. Most great TV dramas are, of course—to name two currently running examples, if you can think of Better Call Saul without mentally counting the crags in every Jonathan Banks closeup or talk about The Leftovers without describing the way Carrie Coon choreographs her eyes and lips and brow in a complex dance of grief, just go ahead and delete those shows from your watchlist. But those shows’ warm and expressionistic lighting transforms those faces into works of art. The Americans is all about the gray-white light of a suburban afternoon or the harsh fluorescents of official spaces. Faces here look raw, inseparable from the physical reality of the human beings beneath them. When Paige Jennings tears up in “The Committee on Human Rights,” this week’s episode, because she’s dumping her boyfriend, it’s an action she doesn’t really know how to do, over reasons she doesn’t really know how to explain to herself much less to him. In those moments, her baffled but resolute face is recognizable to anyone who’s shared that terrible into-the-void pain. When Matthew Beeman stares at her, eyes growing dull with confusion and shock as he offers to do basically whatever she wants to keep the relationship going, you recognize that too. When Stan Beeman’s face lights up because his friend’s life has been spared and his boss has unexpectedly gone to bat for him, you really do see a guy who just got good news at work. Does this make sense? There’s something unadorned about The Americans’ faces, is what I’m getting at. They’re not staged for us. They feel more like something we’re peering through a window to see.

Which brings me to my favorite face of all. Matthew Rhys is such a pleasure to watch in this thing. Counterintuitive, I know, given that his job requires him to look constantly miserable. (It’s what made his cameo as a sleazy hotshot novelist during the final season of Girls such a perverse thrill: Finally, we get to see him enjoy doing terrible things instead of moping about them!) But within that range of facial expressions that stretches from exhausted to nauseated he’s able to locate so many variations and nuances. Other actors are a 12/3/6/9 wall clock with an hour hand and a minute hand; he’s able to pinpoint fleeting emotional beats to the millisecond.

I reviewed this week’s episode of The Americans for the New York Observer. Writing this review helped me push past some internal obstacles to my work lately, and I think it shows.

Gus Fring is on ‘Better Call Saul,’ which is great news for ‘Breaking Bad’ fans

April 18, 2017

To grab an analogy from a different fleshed-out universe, it’s quickly becoming the case that Better Call Saul is to Breaking Bad what Rogue One is to the original Star Wars trilogy. Tonally, it’s not the same thing, and it’s not trying to be. It’s subdued and small-scale instead of boisterous and universe-spanning. The lighstaber-duel-style action set pieces are deliberately absent. Hell, you even know how it’s going to end.

But just as seeing old favorites like Darth Vader, Princess Leia, Mon Mothma, and Grand Moff Tarkin in a new and unusual context managed to provide a familiar thrill without feeling like a retread, so does watching friends and foes from Vince Gilligan’s meth masterpiece pop up on BCS. It’s familiar, yes, but the familiarity serves, somewhat counterintuitively, to keep the show fresh and distinct.

As it’s done with Saul and Mike before, throwing Gus Fring into the mix will allow us to see him from a whole new angle. And we all know the kind of payoff seeing Gus Fring from a new angle can deliver, don’t we? Ding ding ding ding ding!

I wrote about how the arrival of Breaking Bad’s Gus Fring on Better Call Saul is good for fans of either show for Thrillist.

“Better Call Saul” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Two: “Witness”

April 18, 2017

“Witness” is the episode Better Call Saul viewers have long been waiting for, the one in which Gustavo “Gus” Fring finally makes his debut. Gus was—or is that will be?—the primary antagonist of Breaking Bad, the series to which BCS serves as a sequel. Watching Mike Ehrmantraut and his occasional partner of convenience Jimmy McGill work their way through their relatively petty crimes toward this apex predator’s stalking ground over the course of the past two seasons has been like hearing the longest, most morbid version of “The Aristocrats” ever told.

There was every risk that the introduction of such a massive figure, a mainstay in any list of the greatest villains the medium has ever produced, would throw this relatively quiet show’s careful balance of black comedy and quiet menace out of whack. But as it happens, we needn’t have worried at all. Gus doesn’t make the kind of grand entrance that would overwhelm the show’s dual-narrative structure, in which Jimmy’s love-hate relationship with his more successful but mentally ill brother Chuck slowly drags him into criminality on one half of the ledger while Mike’s natural talent for skullduggery and bloodletting push him deeper into the underworld on the other. Smartly, the show reunites the two characters for Gus’s introduction, sending Jimmy into his restaurant for a failed reconnaissance mission at Mike’s behest. By the time we realize who he is, the Chicken Man has been milling around in the background of the shot for several seconds, sweeping up like the conscientious manager of a fast-food place he pretends to be. As Jimmy sits and looks around for a sign of the man behind Mike’s pursuers, that very man slowly, slowly, slowly draws near to him, almost brushes up against him, and passes him by. His face is always either out of focus or out of frame entirely. The effect is like you’ve gone swimming in deep water, and you’re watching a friend float around obliviously as the silver-gray shape of a shark swims right past him.

I reviewed this week’s landmark Better Call Saul for the New York Observer. Well done, folks.