“Serial” thoughts, Season Two, Episode 11: “Present for Duty”

April 5th, 2016

The DUSTWUN Bowe triggered cost a ton of resources and caused a great deal of suffering (not least for Bowe himself), and for that he should be punished. Certainly the portrait that emerged of him as a samurai wannabe is not a particularly endearing one, and this dopey set of ideas had real-world consequences for thousands of people. He may deserve punishment, Koenig says, though she obviously holds out the possibility that his time with the Taliban was punishment enough. But does he deserve blame?

To pin the tail of guilt on Bergdahl leaves an awful lot of jackasses roaming around with their hindquarters un-pinned, camouflaged in the undergrowth of plausible deniability and endless variables. Koenig cites several missions in which multiple soldiers died, in which their deaths might have been avoided had their units been given their requested access to surveillance drones and other supplies that had been diverted to the Bergdahl search. But is that Bowe’s fault, or the fault of the Army for not having enough equipment? Of the commanding officers (like gravel-voiced Ken Wolfe, who blames himself for one such death and emerges as a voice of moderation regarding Bergdahl’s culpability) who ordered the missions to go forward anyway? What about Defense Secretary Robert Gates, or Gen. Stanley McChrystal, or President Obama? What about the Taliban themselves, as one bereaved parent points out? And finally, to bring it back home, what about the armed forces, who let a man unfit for duty enlist despite his previous, proven inability to serve? Meanwhile, other soldiers who fled their bases—including one who did so with a ceremonial sword and battle ax in an attempt to reach Eastern Europe on foot, in an echo of Bergdahl’s he-man Last Warrior routine—escaped punishment entirely, because they were intercepted by allies rather than enemies. Is it fair to take Bergdahl’s failure out on him? To single out Bergdahl for his link in the chain is to let an awful lot involved parties off the hook.

I reviewed the season finale (!) of Serial Season Two for the New York Observer. I learned a lot about Bowe Bergdahl and the cultural context around him, but there’s no compelling reason why it had to be taught in this format.

“Daredevil” thoughts, Season Two, Episode 11: “.380″

April 5th, 2016

Eleven episodes deep into the season and with only two more to go, Daredevil’s plotlines are proliferating at an alarming rate. The Blacksmith, a sinister druglord I’d previously assumed to be just a McGuffin to keep the moving parts running, has now taken on central importance as both Daredevil and Punisher attempt to track him down. The Kingpin is in play, as is his old associate Madame Gao, who’s simultaneously battling the Blacksmith herself and issuing dire warnings about “the real threat” to the city. Said real threat is most likely the Hand, run by another former Fisk running buddy, Nobu, and his ninja army. They’re re-kidnapping brainwashed teens, murdering nurses, and fighting Daredevil, who is also busy fighting Gao’s men, the Blacksmith’s men, and the Punisher. Some mysterious person, likely the Blacksmith but yet to be confirmed as such, is murdering people and framing Frank Castle for it, including the district attorney and medical examiner who covered up the government’s involvement in the shootout between the Mexicans, the Irish, and the bikers, orchestrated by the Blacksmith and responsible for the deaths of Castle’s family. Karen Page is another of their would-be victims, though she’s now been saved twice by the Punisher. Matt’s other ex-girlfriend, Elektra, is similarly the survivor of a hit ordered by her and Matt’s old mentor Stick, who is also fighting the Hand. She’s now tracking him down to kill him, a confrontation Daredevil is racing to stop. Also Karen Page got a new job as an investigator for the Daily Bulletin, Claire Temple quit her job after the Hand bought off her hospital, and Foggy Nelson got a job offer at the law offices of Jeryn Hogarth from Jessica Jones from his sexy ex-girlfriend. Does that about cover it?

So it’s a testament to Daredevil and to this episode, “.380,” that the chaos feels planned — that it’s Daredevil’s world, not his show, spinning out of control.

I reviewed episode 11 of Daredevil Season Two for Decider.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Four, Episode Three: “Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow”

April 5th, 2016

My favorite moment of this week’s The Americans was silent. Told that she’s been found guilty, that the only question is whether she’ll survive her punishment, triple-crossed triple-agent Nina is handed a letter written on her behalf by Anton Baklanov, the kidnapped scientist she was instructed to monitor but befriended instead, risking her life and that of her estranged but supportive husband to help him make contact with his son. We don’t know what it says, don’t even see the writing on it, let alone have it translated by subtitles or read aloud by Nina. But whatever it is, in that grey room, in her grey prison clothes, it makes her smile. Moments of happiness are so few and far between in the ironically optimistically titled “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow,” last night’s episode—the next closest things were Paige Jennings watching her oblivious brother Henry play video games, Stan Beeman figuring out that Martha Hanson is the mole in his office, and Agent Aderholt agreeing to help him figure it out; none of these characters have much happiness in store if things proceed in their current direction—that this has the impact of an explosion.

I reviewed last week’s The Americans for the New York Observer.

“Empire” thoughts, Season Two, Episode 11: “Death Will Have His Due”

April 5th, 2016

It’s only been four months since Fox’s hit show aired its “fall finale” before breaking for the winter — never mind that it feels more like four years, especially if you’ve been following the presidential primary season. The campaign trail’s thorny issues of race, class, sex, and gender have fueled a soap opera beyond series creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong’s wildest imaginings, which makes the return of this primetime juggernaut feel oddly anticlimactic and understated. Annika pushed a pregnant Rhonda down the stairs? Donald Trump’s threatening riots if he doesn’t win the Republican nomination. Even for this ridiculous country, the outrageous-behavior bar has been raised considerably.

So does tonight’s episode — “Death Will Have His Due” (love, love, love these Empire titles) — stand its ground amid the shifting landscape? More or less, and largely by simply sidestepping hot-button issues entirely. While the show has traditionally drawn tremendous strength and displayed serious chops by sandwiching nuanced, morally and ethically complex social topics between big slices of high-camp cheese, the mid-season premiere keeps the action focused almost entirely on the business and its personal, rather than political, fallout. As such, it’s a fun hour for reuniting with your old friends (and frienemies), but pretty much a placeholder in all other aspects.

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

“Daredevil” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Nine: “Seven Minutes in Heaven”

March 30th, 2016

Of all the things that “Seven Minutes in Heaven,” the ninth episode of Daredevil’s second season, does well, restaging the sensational hallway fight from Season One with the Punisher as its protagonist may be the smartest. Nothing drives home the moral, philosophical, tactical, and phyiscal differences between the two vigilantes quite like watching each of them tear through a small army of opponents in an enclosed space: With Daredevil, the worst that happens is that one of his foes gets beaned with a flying microwave oven; with Punisher, dudes get their eyeballs gouged out. As if to make the point that this fight scene reveals who Frank Castle really is even clearer, the sequence ends with an ersatz Punisher skull logo emblazoned on the man’s chest. It’s red on white rather than white on black, but I think we get the picture.

I reviewed episode nine of Daredevil season two for Decider.

“Daredevil” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Eight: “Guilty as Sin”

March 30th, 2016

As a matter of fact, one of Daredevil’s most consistently impressive features is its ability to stage and shoot conversations in a visually engaging and communicative way. Take a look at the exchange between Matt and his mentor Stick in which the old man finally divulges the nature of “the war” he’s been issuing ominous warnings about for decades. First of all, what kind of recruitment technique is that? If you want to indoctrinate at-risk youth into your apocalyptic cult of holy-man assassins, you might try telling them the cool origin story at some point before they grow up and decide you’re a dangerous lunatic.

But second of all, the scene is shot with both intimacy and urgency. As the green-gold light that’s the show’s visual go-to bathes their faces, revealing Stick’s crags and crevices while simplifying Matt’s silhouette into a smooth and elegant series of curves, the camera moves almost constantly, up and down, back and forth, slowly enough not to make you seasick but emphatically enough to convey the lack of solid ground on which these two men’s relationship currently stands. This is only enhanced by the lack of the customary eyeline-match crosscutting; the basic pattern is there, but since these are two blind men, no eye contact is implied, leaving you unmoored in the words rather than rooted in their experience of each other. Throughout, Stick is usually placed at the far left side of the frame, while Matt will alternately be shortsighted toward that end of the screen or situated on the opposite side, again evoking his competing curiosity and skepticism. Forget the ninja stuff — this is fight choreography, alright.

I reviewed episode eight of Daredevil Season Two for Decider.

“Better Call Saul” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Seven: “Inflatable”

March 30th, 2016

Better Call Saul a quiet marvel more concerned with doling out little discreet slivers of human behavior, preserved in musical montage sequences like individual slides in a projection reel, than in watching that behavior wreak havoc writ large. And “Inflatable,” last night’s episode, contained the most entertaining montage of the lot. Set to Dennis Coffey and the Detroit Guitar Band’s “Scorpio,” a staple sample source of hip-hop’s golden age (I recognized it from “Bust a Move” and“Jingling Baby”), the sequence sees Jimmy draw inspiration from one of those godawful inflatable dancing men strip-mall stores use to attract attention to do just that—attract so much attention around the Davis & Main office that they’ll fire him rather than force him to quit and thus lose his bonus. Seventies-style split screen shots spotlight the spectacular sartorial sense associated with Saul Goodman as his prior self starts dressing loud and acting louder, from running a juicer in the breakroom to practicing the bagpipes during office hours to admitting he’s the firm’s phantom pooper. (“That was me.” “Jimmy, I just said I don’t wanna know!” God bless Ed Begley Jr., America’s funniest square.)

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

“Daredevil” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Seven: “Semper Fidelis”

March 30th, 2016

“Semper Fidelis,” the seventh episode of Daredevil’s second season, was the most subduded and uneventful of the lot. Sure, the show attempts to ratchet up the drama in the beginning, marching the Punisher into court in slow-motion to tune of Inception-style BONNGGGGGGs, and positioning him in front of an American flag with all the subtlety of a shotgun blast. But hey, this is the Punisher we’re talking about. Subtlety is neither his strong suit, nor the strong suit of stories that wish to use his blunt-force allegory effectively.

I reviewed episode seven of Daredevil Season Two for Decider.

“Billions” thoughts, Season One, Episode Ten: “Quality of Life”

March 30th, 2016

There are all kinds of reasons why last night’s episode of Billions was the show’s first unmitigated artistic success, so naturally I’m going to start with the most minor and incidental: It quoted The Big Lebowski. And not in the way it usually quotes the touchstones of guy-beloved cinema, either, with one of the series’ machismo-obsessed characters calling themselves Keyser Soze Motherfucker or whatever. This was an honest-to-god homage in which it seems that they called one of their supporting characters Donnie just so they could refer to the beauty of nature “he loved so well” at his funeral, just like Walter Sobchak did when bidding Steve Buscemi’s character Donnie adieu in the Coen Bros. comedy classic. Shit, they even named this Donnie’s husband Walter! Any knucklehead could have had Wags or Axe or any of these other goons shout “this is what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass” or whatever, but it took real planning and a considered affinity for the material to work in a reference to Donnie’s gallows-humor funeral scene in a gallows-humor funeral scene. I didn’t know Billions had it in ’em!

I reviewed this week’s Billions, the show’s best episode so far, for the New York Observer.

“Vinyl” thoughts, Season One, Episode Seven: “The King and I”

March 30th, 2016

It lasted no longer than the A-side of a 45. But for a brief, beautiful period on tonight’s Vinyl — titled “The King and I,” because of course it is — it looked for all the world like we were about to enter an alternate timeline in which Elvis Presley invented punk rock.

I reviewed this week’s Vinyl for Rolling Stone.

The Boiled Leather Audio Hour Episode 46!

March 30th, 2016

Forecasting The Winds of Winter, Part 2: Essos

We’re going back to the future with part two of our all-predictions podcast series on The Winds of Winter! This time around we’re traveling to Essos to speculate as to what Volume Six of A Song of Ice and Fire has in store for our old friends, from Braavos to Meereen. What fate will befall the five POV characters currently located east of Westeros—Arya, Barristan, Victarion, Tyrion, and Daenerys? What about supporting players like Jorah Mormont, Moqorro, and Marwyn the Mage? (Forgot about him, didn’t you?) Then, of course, there’s the matter of the dragons to consider, and consider them we do. It winds up being a wide-ranging discussion of lands near and far, futures immediate and distant. Guess along with us!

This episode also features an update on our fundraisers, both our emergency PayPal fund to help fix Sean’s broken laptop and our Patreon drive, where your monthly subscription/donation can help guarantee more episodes, better sound quality, topics of your choosing, and more. We greatly appreciate all our donors and patrons so far, and if you think the podcast’s worth a few bucks a month, we’d be so grateful for you to join their ranks!

Download Episode 46

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“Daredevil” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Six: “Regrets Only”

March 26th, 2016

Hey, anyone order a full-fledged Kill Bill homage? ‘Cuz in “Regrets Only,” the sixth episode of Daredevil’s second season, that’s what you’re getting. The ep opens with a crew of yakuza assassins in suits and ties zipping through Manhattan on motorcycles. Sure, they lack the Kato masks of the Crazy 88, and the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s “Date With the Night” provides the soundtrack instead of Al Hirt’s “Green Hornet” theme, but I mean, c’mon. Then there’s the first of two different fights in which Daredevil and Elektra wind up silhouetted against some kind of strikingly lit backdrop and/or behind some strikingly lit screen. “Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves,” baby!

I reviewed Daredevil’s sixth episode of Season Two for Decider.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Four, Episode Two: “Pastor Tim”

March 25th, 2016

I’m a reactive audience member when it comes to good TV. I hoot and holler, I gasp and curse, I laugh and cheer, and at the best of times I cry. Even so, it’s not often I get to the end of an episode and literally applaud. But that’s what I did when the closing credits rolled on this week’s installment of The Americans. Normally that’s a reaction reserved for crowded theaters where you’ve just watched a good movie on opening night, or seen the curtain come down on a play whose performers can, you know, actually hear you clap. This time it was just me, sitting in my living room, watching a TV show, spontaneously responding to a job well done.

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

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Four, Episode One: “Glanders”

March 25th, 2016

“Is everything alright?” “No.” Hashtag: #SummarizeTheAmericansInFourWords. This exchange between Martha Hanson, the hapless administrative assistant who suffered the singular misfortune of working in the wrong FBI office at the wrong time, and Philip Jennings, the spy who seduced her, used her, and has now killed in her name, says pretty much all you need to know about The Americans, television’s most profoundly unhappy show. I mean “profoundly unhappy” in every sense of the phrase, by the way. Most everyone in the series is miserable, and the series’ misery runs deep, cuts deeper, and reveals the ugly buried truth about living a lie, whether personal or political.

I inexplicably forgot to link to this last week, but I’m reviewing The Americans for the New York Observer again this season. If it’s not the best show on television now, it’s a photo-finish.

In “Patience,” Daniel Clowes Looks for Answers to the Big Questions

March 24th, 2016

“I wouldn’t be interested in the work of an artist if they didn’t suffer from debilitating anxiety,” Daniel Clowes says. “It’s part of the process.”

I interviewed Daniel Clowes about anxiety, religion, violence, the death of his best friend, and his new book Patience for the New York Observer.

“Daredevil” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Five: “Kinbaku”

March 24th, 2016

Amazingly, Daredevil has joined Mad MenThe Affair, and Outlander in the pantheon of television shows that accurately convey the feeling of what my friend and favorite cultural critic Alyssa Rosenberg once described as “fuck fever”—an all-consuming lust so strong an actual human connection forms around it. Watching young Matt and Elektra together, or hearing them jokingly describe a future when they’re married with children whom they blow off in order to “spend our time doing better things…like sex,” you can see how sex really is enough fuel to sustain a relationship, even a serious one—at least until Elektra’s sociopathy intervenes and brings Matt to the brink of killing someone.

Daredevil is the sexiest show on television (or whatever Netflix is) right now, and I explained why in my review of Season 2′s fifth episode for Decider.

“Daredevil” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Four: “Penny and Dime”

March 24th, 2016

Okay, so maybe it’s overstepping to name this review after both the subject of the greatest Mad Men Don Draper pitch of all time and the title of the episode it came in. Entire books have been written on that series using the Carousel—Kodak’s slide-projector product and Don’s speech’s central metaphor for the mental time-travel loop of nostalgia—as an emblem. But consider the alternatives: I could have gone with “Drill, Baby, Drill!” or “Face-Off.” You’re welcome!

Put the ultraviolence aside, though, provided the images aren’t lodged in your brain. What makes “Penny and Dime,” the fourth and best episode of Daredevil’s excellent second season so far, so effective really is Draperesque. What is Frank Castle, after all, but a tall dark and handsome antihero with a shadowy past, hypercompetent at his job but discovering this cannot compensate for the happy family he’s been denied? And what is the Central Park Carousel but a larger version of the slideshow Don uses to remind himself of the people he loves, and the poor job he’s done at loving them?

I reviewed the fourth episode of Daredevil season two for Decider.

“Better Call Saul” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Six: “Bali Ha’i”

March 24th, 2016

Visually speaking, Kim’s face was the image that defined the episode. This began early, with a long-held look at her as she sits on her bed, listening to Jimmy serenade her answering machine with a reedy rendition of “Bali Ha’i” from South Pacific. Saul’s a show that doesn’t mind sitting with a supporting character as she sits quietly and soaks in the goofball charm of its protagonist, a guy with whom at this point she’s both furious and, despite herself, infatuated. Using this as the payoff for her morning routine, during which it becomes increasingly apparent she was waiting for him to call despite having no intention of picking up, was a lovely idea, and director Michael Slovis’s execution was inspired.

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

“Vinyl” thoughts, Season One, Episode Six: “Cyclone”

March 24th, 2016

As the late great David Bowie himself once sang, “Don’t lean on me, man.” Would that Vinyl had listened: The show’s sixth episode — “Cyclone” — was also its weakest, the first where its tales of excess and ecstasy threatened to just fall apart completely. You can’t blame Bobby Cannavale and Olivia Wilde, who seem to pour body and soul into every scene. But despite the high-decibel dedication and all that boundlessly destructive physical energy, their performances are practically drowned out by the pyrotechnics of twisty reveals and the clunky incorporation of IRL icons.

I didn’t much care for this week’s Vinyl, which I reviewed for Rolling Stone.