“Gotham” thoughts, Season One, Episode 17: “Red Hood”

March 3rd, 2015

If you say a show is “firing on all cylinders,” you conjure an image of a vehicle moving at maximum speed, all its component parts working together for optimum effect. Gotham, on the other hand, may be more like the Wonkamobile. But its tonally disconnected bangs and clangs and explosions are, at this point, no less formidable than the proverbial well-oiled machine. The past few weeks have shown that if the show jerry-rigs enough weird, wild, occasionally emotional parts together, the whole can be a real whiz-bang contraption. And tonight’s episode — “Red Hood” — had plenty of pop to go around.

For starters, Jada Pinkett Smith carved her own eyeball out with a spoon.

I reviewed last week’s Gotham for Rolling Stone.

“Downton Abbey” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Eight

March 3rd, 2015

Lord Sinderby, Atticus’s father, is an antagonist from the Magneto school, a commanding figure with the silhouette of a bullet and the hard-earned pride of a man who knows his accomplishments stand surrounded by an ocean of opposition. Actor James Faulkner gives him a glare that could melt steel; there’s honestly no better way for the show to finally sell Lily James’s Lady Rose as the rightful youthful-idealist heir to the departed Lady Sybil than by showing her failing to wither in its face. And his voice joins Downton’s dulcet pantheon of greats, a sepulchural croak that’s the stuff of Disney villains. (Don’t underestimate the aural dimension of good TV: many of the New Golden Age’s best shows, fromDownton to Deadwood to The Wire to Boardwalk Empire, are as much fun to listen to as they are to look at.)

I reviewed last week’s Downton Abbey for the New York Observer.

“Better Call Saul” thoughts, Season One, Episode Four: “Hero”

March 3rd, 2015

Just four episodes out of the gate, Better Call Saul is proving to be one of the most visually striking and well-acted shows currently on television. When Saul and his patsy drunkenly discuss wolf howls outside their town’s shut-down bars, or when Jimmy stands inside the Day Nail & Spa salon at night, the shots are like something out of an Edward Hopper painting. Michael McKean continues to impress as Jimmy’s mentally ill older brother Chuck, selling both the man’s pride in his baby bro’s supposed accomplishments and his crushing disappointment after risking (he thinks) his life to find out whether they’re true. As Kim, actor Rhea Seehorn has an easy rapport with Bob Odenkirk, playfully slapping his hands away from the controls of her massage chair when she comes to visit him. (She wants to go see The Thing on the big screen? She’s a keeper.) And there’s Odenkirk himself, playing an orange shirt/magenta tie man in a Haml-indigo Blue world. It’s going be a thrill to watch him suit up for real.

I reviewed last week’s Better Call Saul for Rolling Stone.

“Gotham” thoughts, Season One, Episode 16: “The Blind Fortune Teller”

February 21st, 2015

[Showrunner Bruno] Heller has been cagey about Jerome, the gibbering ginger played by Shameless star Cameron Monaghan, refusing to outright label him the Caped Crusader’s future archnemesis. On the one hand, that’s good mythos management: The Joker has no official origin, a fact Heath Ledger’s interpretation of the character got a lot of murderous mileage out of in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. (“You wanna know how I got these scars?”) He could be anyone and no one — a big part of his terrifying allure.

On the other hand, Gotham’s reluctance to call Jerome the J-word could just be another example of genre television’s post-Lost fixation on mystery over meaning. Raise a bunch of questions, promise “the answers,” throw the audience a bunch of red herrings (or in this case a redhead), rinse, repeat. And if the series is teasing their Joker-to-be only to eventually reveal otherwise, it’d hardly be the first time a superhero show faked out its audience.

So what’s the best strategy for enjoying the character, in all his villainous potential? Ignore Jack Nicholson’s advice and don’t think about the future. Just appreciate Jerome for what he is: a little jolt of Joker-esque mirth and mayhem. He’s surrounded by the Cirque du Insanity trappings that have come with the character ever since creators Jerry Robinson, Bill Finger, and Bob Kane thought him up. Does Monaghan lay it on a little thick? You bet. So what? This is (maybe) the most famously gleeful, gloriously over-the-top supervillain we’re talking about here. Restraint is not his strong suit. If you can’t camp it up as the Clown Prince of Crime, what has this society come to?

Ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight? I reviewed this week’s Gotham for Rolling Stone.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Four: “Dimebag”

February 21st, 2015

The Americans is TV’s tensest show — that’s a given. It can make life-and-death cat-and-mouse suspense out of something as banal as big clunky cars moving at the speed limit through suburban streets, or couples snooping around a divorcé’s home office during an open house. (And that’s just last week.) But to keep an audience on the edge of its (toilet) seat in a scene where nothing happens because nothing can happen? Because someone’s desperately searching for something that doesn’t exist? That takes skill bordering on virtuosity. And it takes really, really good synthpop.

No disrespect to Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, but this was Vince Clark and Alison Moyet’s episode. As Yaz, the duo’s combination of Clark’s chilly electronic melodies and Moyet’s heartwrenching marvel of a voice was one of the early ‘80s most influential sounds. (Their album Upstairs at Eric’s probably should have been issued by the City as an educational measure for anyone attending a concert in New York during the early to mid ‘00s.) Here, it gave Agent Stan Beeman’s search for evidence that the Russian defector Zinaida is in fact a double agent a lunatic urgency. The thwap of the drum machine, the stabbing synth hook, Moyet singing her goddamn guts out — it transformed a slightly (if justifiably) paranoid man’s ransacking of a women’s restroom into an action setpiece. As uses of music on TV this year go, it’ll be tough to top.

But damn if the show didn’t try before the episode was even out. In his new guise as Jim, a dashing beer-industry lobbyist and fake-ID expert (quite a skill set), Philip is creepily, unhappily wooing Kimmy, the rebellious teenage daughter of a high-ranking CIA Afghan Group agent. The soundtrack of seduction: Yaz, Upstairs at Eric’s, the very album he’d given to his own teenage daughter Paige as a present after learning about it from Kimmy. As the almost impossibly sweet and romantic “Only You” plays, Kimmy dances for “Jim,” doing her best Audrey Horne, before snuggling into him for comfort. Watching Philip try to split the difference between giving himself over to the honeytrap like he’s done so many times before and pulling back due to the impossible-to-miss immorality of the act, you can’t help but wonder how he’s hearing this song, who he imagines singing it to.

Sorry for the illness-induced delay in posting this, but I reviewed this week’s typically fine episode of The Americans for the New York Observer.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Three: “Open House”

February 21st, 2015

Historically, The Americans’ biggest flaw has been portraying the crimes of Elizabeth and Philip Jennings primarily through their emotional impact on the perpetrators, leaving the suffering of the victims as an afterthought. But if you emphasize the role of vulnerability in that violence, the equation changes dramatically. Strip a victim naked, break their bones, pull their teeth, and you’ve placed them in situations that exist on a continuum with experiences all of us have had, experiences that leave us exposed and at the mercy of others we’re forced to trust. Our empathy is triggered, our innate reluctance to see ourselves in the victims shattered, when the violence is treated as a violation first and foremost.

In this week’s episode, of course, the victimhood is voluntary. Plagued by debilitating toothaches ever since her rumble with Agents Gaad and Aderholt a couple weeks back, Elizabeth submits — there’s no better way to put it — to an ad hoc tooth extraction by Philip. Maybe this is a fucked-up thing to say about an episode in which actor Keri Russell spent the better part of a scene bareassed, but to hell with it, we’re a 50 Shadesnation now: This was the sexiest scene of the series.

For one thing, the exchange of trust is total, and that’s vital to truly good sex, especially when power dynamics come into play. And it is an exchange, not just a one-way street: Elizabeth must have faith that Philip won’t hurt her any worse than he has to, yes, but Philip also must have faith that Elizabeth won’t hate him for hurting her in the first place. What’s more, it’s as suggestively staged as any of their spy-game seductions: Elizabeth leaning back, eyes wide, mouth open; Philip looming above, inserting his instrument into her open body. We’re all adults here, presumably — this is genuinely adult entertainment, not just because of the TV-MA rating, but because of the complicated and specific ideas about relationships the scene works through. You have to level up to play along.

I reviewed last week’s The Americans, and possible revealed a bit too much of what I’m into, for the New York Observer. I should add that at this point I think the show really is as good as people have long said it is.

“Better Call Saul” Thoughts, Season One, Episode Three: “Nacho”

February 16th, 2015

Conscience costs quarters. Poor panicked Jimmy McGill must have gone through half a roll of ‘em during his frantic attempts to save the would-be clients Craig and Betsy Kettleman, using nothing but Albuquerque’s conveniently located payphones. But whether he was jerry-rigging a voice modulator to warn the family or leaving voicemail after voicemail for their supposed captor, Jimmy gained something even as his wallet lost weight: our respect. “Nacho,” tonight’s Better Call Saul episode, showed that once upon a time, the Man Who Would Be Saul cared about people — which makes it a whole lot easier to care about him.

I reviewed tonight’s excellent Better Call Saul for Rolling Stone. We’re lucky this show is this good this early.

“Downton Abbey” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Seven

February 16th, 2015

Attention, everyone who complains that Downton Abbey ignores the ugly side of its sociopolitical setup: How do you explain tonight’s episode? No, not the part where Daisy the scullery maid almost loses hope for the future of the working class as the first-ever Labour government fails. Nor the part where Lord Tony Gillingham exercises his patriarchal privilege by insisting he knows what Lady Mary wants better than she does. Nor the part where Lord Merton’s sons unleash a torrent of racial, religious, and class bigotry at the dinner table. I’m talking about the part where Downton does something that the combined military might of dozens of nations have failed to do: destroy ISIS. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, haters!

Alright, so the death of the Crawleys’ beloved labrador with the unfortunate name has nothing to do with the rise of the nihilistic nightmare in the Levant, with no less august a figure than Hugh Bonneville, Lord Robert himself,calling anyone who thinks so “a complete berk.” Any resemblance between the killers and the canine is strictly coincidental. (This ain’t Archer.) But the cross-era echo, however unintentional, serves a worthy purpose anyway. It reminds us that hidden beneath the placid surface of the Crawleys’ existence is a roiling sea of resentment that their personal gentleness and gentility can’t keep covered forever. The dark side of Downton will almost always out.

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

“The Wire” Wednesdays, Part Ten: Case Closed

February 12th, 2015

Nor do the season’s problems prevent it from being beautiful to look at. The final episode alone contains two of the series’ most visually striking scenes: First, Bubbles and his sponsor Walon sit in the park at night, discussing the article that’s been written about him, the glow of the lamplight illuminating them like they’re characters in a painting by a Dutch master. Later, after he’s sprung from jail to begin his new career as a legitimate businessman, Marlo is regaled with tales of fortune and glory by the corrupt developer Andy Krawczyk as they gaze through a window at the harbor, the humming blue light of the night giving a scene that must already feel strange to a soldier like Marlo an almost science-fictional surreality. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of Season Five’s visual achievements. Just for example, when I think of Templeton’s evening under the underpass with the homeless, or Bunk interviewing Michael’s mom while standing in her open front door, or Sydnor giving the secret anti-Barksdale squad their assignments in the parking lot, I’m not sure any show has ever done a better job of capturing the warm electric indigo glow of the early summer evening.

If only that kind of acuity had extended beyond the visual plane. Just as there are all kinds of ways to shoot a city at night, there are any number of paths the show could have taken to explore the effects of a bad newspaper on community that relies on it, or how detectives simultaneously facing devastating departmental cutbacks and the most vicious criminal of their careers might cut corners to get their job done. Why take the most heavyhanded, hamfisted approach every time? When all those shades of blue are available, why paint in black and white?

Since these are the concluding episodes of the series, it follows they serve as a conclusion, one that the show is drawing about its own subjects. We can draw one in turn: didacticism and sentimentality, Season Five’s twin problematic poles, are the series’ overall weaknesses as well. Even at its best, which is as good as TV has ever ever ever gotten, The Wire never leaves you thinking “wow, I don’t know what to think.” It does the work for you, rather than trusting that work to be done in the ephemeral space where author, intentionality, art, and audience all interact, creating something unpredictable and unique and exponential. “We’re building something here,” Lester said all the way back in Season One. “And all the pieces matter.” But art is not casework. The piece that makes a perfect fit is a fine, fine thing. But it means less than the missing piece, left for us to picture on our own.

The final paragraphs of my final review of the final episodes of the final season of The Wire. For the rest of it, read my last The Wire Wednesdays column at the New York Observer.

I’m so glad I got the chance to (get paid to) revisit this series. Thanks to my editor, Drew Grant, for giving me the gig; this swig of Jameson’s for you.

“Better Call Saul” thoughts, Season One, Episode Two: “Mijo”

February 10th, 2015

Would it be weird to call Better Call Saul lovely? Okay, not during the leg-breaking. Or the screaming about the leg-breaking. Or the vomiting after the leg-breaking. But still! After tonight’s episode “Mijo,” that’s the word that comes to mind. With its lyrical, impressionistic approach to filmmaking, largely absent from the airwaves since co-creator Vince Gilligan said, “It’s all over now, baby blue meth” to Breaking Bad in 2013, this prequel show makes for sumptuous viewing, even though its story has yet to deliver a real “this is a must see” moment….Much has been made of whether Better Call Saul has a reason to exist, given how completely its predecessor mastered this milieu. But isn’t quality reason enough? The two-part, two-night premiere of BCS has given us an unusual character (very different from an everyman who starts cooking crystal to make ends meet), and used every tool in its visual, aural, and editing arsenal to make his pre-Heisenberg life something memorable and enjoyable to watch. If that story never transforms into the runaway train that Walt’s did, so what? Stop and smell the vending-machine coffee instead.

The second episode of Better Call Saul was also very, very good. I reviewed it for Rolling Stone.

“Gotham” thoughts, Season One, Episode 15: “The Scarecrow”

February 9th, 2015

Hit the Bat-signal and spread the word: Gotham is crawling out its slump. For the second week in a row, strong writing for the series heavies, from its dueling Dons to the once and future Scarecrow, injected much-needed mirth and menace into the often shaky show. Serious flaws are still abound, but you may be having too much fun to notice.

For starters, a Scarecrow was born, as teenage Jonathan Crane receives a hot shot of toxin so strong it warps his mind forever. (If he only had a brain!) But while his J-horror-meets-4H hallucinations of straw men with gaping maws and fiery eyes were reasonably creepy, it was his father,Dr. Gerald Crane (a realistically rumpled Julian Sands), who was the episode’s true nightmare. His pseudoscientific scheme to rid himself of fear by essentially overdosing on it made intuitive, if not biological, sense; when it comes to supervillainy, that’s more than enough. The point was driven home most effectively not by Crane’s hallucinations of his incinerated wife, but by something more prosaic. “Think I’m afraid of you? Afraid of your guns?” he asks when the cops corner him — then immediately comes out blasting, right out there in the open, bullets be damned. That jolt of surprise delivered the message in a way that medical monologues or syringe close-ups couldn’t.

I liked another episode of Gotham! I reviewed tonight’s ep for Rolling Stone.

“Downton Abbey” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Six

February 9th, 2015

Another rung lower on the generational ladder, Lady Mary continues to impress as one of TV’s least easy characters. Her self-possession and self-confidence are admirable, appealing, and, yes, very sexy traits, all the more so when she’s demonstrating them while sporting a stylish bob haircut and a gorgeously androgynous riding outfit. (Of course, everyone looked so good in that get-up — Lord Gillingham, Mr. Blake, Miss Mabel Lane Fox, Rose’s new beau Atticus Aldridge — that if the show suddenly became all horse-racing all the time I’d hardly complain.) Yet even at her best and brightest, she has an edge that’s hard to handle: joking to her rival-turned-ally Miss Fox that she showed up at the race looking hot so that Tony could see what he was missing, then telling Blake that she beat Mabel in the race despite the advantages of letting her be the first woman to finish because “I don’t believe in letting anyone win.” Then there’s her barely concealed contempt for her kid sister, which flares up even when Edith’s in extremis over the murder of her boyfriend Gregson in Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch (!). Mary greets the situation not with empathy, but with exasperation so unfeeling as to be nigh unforgivable: “What did she think he was doing, living in a tree?” What a creep! Even here, though, we have to consider both that Mary doesn’t know all the facts (she’s in the dark about Edith’s daughter with the dead man) and that Edith is, indeed, behaving unreasonably, bordering on unstably. Just when you think you’ve got Lady Mary pinned down as hero or goat, face or heel, Fellowes and actor Michelle Dockery flip the script just enough to force you to reconsider.

I reviewed last night’s Downton Abbey for the New York Observer. I continue to like this show a great deal.

“Better Call Saul” thoughts, Season One, Episode One: “Uno”

February 8th, 2015

How do you get there from here? Breaking Bad loved answering this question. Four of its six premieres began with cold opens depicting mysterious future events, only to slowly rewind time and march us toward these inevitable destinations episode by episode. Better Call Saul, the new prequel series from co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, takes this technique of narrative reverse-engineering and recreates it on a much larger scale. We already know how Saul Goodman, the con-artist formerly known as Jimmy McGill, ends up: disgraced, alone, working behind the counter of a shopping-mall Cinnabon in Omaha, Nebraska. What’s more, we’re intimately familiar with his story’s whole final volume: how Saul scored the biggest client of his life and eventually caused him to lose everything. The question, then, is this: Will Jimmy McGill’s long, winding road to “Saul Goodman” — and to the moment that Walter White walks into his office — be worth the trip?

Based on Better Call Saul‘s Gilligan-directed pilot episode “Uno,” the answer is yes — and despite the show’s pedigree, that was in no way a sure thing. Even great shows tend to start with their broadest material, playing to the cheap seats in order to keep butts planted firmly in them. Astute viewers may recall that Breaking Bad itself began as a splatstick black comedy before reaching its dark and terrible final form around the end of the second season, with the one-two punch of a death-by-vomit and a plane going down. Even if you feel that the series finale wrapped things up too neatly and let Heisenberg off the hook too easily, the show was brutally suspenseful, morally uncompromising, and beautifully made right up until that final pulled punch.

But “Uno” earns a favorable verdict by playing to its predecessor’s quieter strengths, not trying to top its loudest ones. That starts with Vince Gilligan, the showrunner responsible for what was arguably the most stylistically bold and formally inventive show in the New Golden Age canon. So many scenes and sequences in “Uno” were simply beautiful: the hand-held, off-center aesthetic of the black-and-white “present day” opening; the piss-yellow palette and florescent-lightbulb hum of the courthouse; the torchlit darkness of the house of Jimmy’s sick older brother, Chuck McGill, a man stuck in an enveloping cloud of obvious mental illness. If you fondly remember Bad‘s visual panache — from those pants floating in the air to that pink teddy bear, from those musical montages to that crawl-space freakout — this premiere episode makes the case that you’ve got a lot to look forward to.

I reviewed the series premiere of Better Call Saul, which was very good and not in the ways I expected, for Rolling Stone. I’m psyched to be covering the show this season!

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Two: “Baggage”

February 5th, 2015

Move over, the Mountain and the Viper—the past year of TV has a new most disgusting moment. But let’s not oversell the gross-out aspect of the act that gave “Baggage,” this week’s episode of The American’s, its sick-joke title. Yes, the sight of Philip, Elizabeth, and their murderous Pakistani asset Yousaf breaking the bones of a nude, dead woman to fit her into a suitcase (making this the second season of the show in a row to open with a brutal murder in a hotel room) was stomach-turning enough to make even a veteran gorehound like yours truly physically recoil from the screen. But in the hands of smart filmmakers, spectacle, violent or otherwise, is more than an end in itself. Like the eye-popping violence in that Game of Thrones episode, the packing of Annalise — the physical reduction of a human being to inert trash to be toted away and discarded — is depicted so shockingly not just for shock’s sake. The Americans uses that shock, employs it to batter down our usual defenses and force us to acknowledge the horrifying ideology beneath the horrifying act.

I reviewed last night’s episode of The Americans for the New York Observer. It was right in my wheelhouse.

“The Wire” Wednesdays, Part Nine: The Death of Print

February 5th, 2015

Jimmy McNulty steals a newspaper. Jimmy McNulty sees a front-page story naming Cedric Daniels, the commanding officer who rescued him from harbor patrol and helped him make the case of his career, the heir apparent to the Commissioner of the entire Baltimore PD. Jimmy McNulty flips past it to find the story he planted about the fake serial killer he concocted. In this moment, Jimmy McNulty is The Wire Season Five. And The Wire Season Five is bad.

The Wire’s fifth season pursues parallel plots in which narcissists make up elaborate lies in order circumnavigate institutional obstacles set in place by financial contractions. On the cop side, McNulty invents a sexualized slayer of homeless men to drum up funding for the Marlo Stanfield investigation from a police department that newly minted Mayor Carcetti is stiffing for long-term political advantage. In the scope-expansion slot previously occupied by the dockworkers, the Carcetti campaign, and the school system, Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Templeton creates sources and quotes from whole cloth to score better bylines and burnish his resume in a newsroom beset by cutbacks. Largely because of these storylines, Season Five has a reputation for being not just the show’s worst, but one of prestige drama’s worst, so bad it undercuts the series’ achievement overall. This is a reputation it deserves.

Upon revisiting these episodes for the first time since they aired, a prospect I greeted the way I approach cleaning the gunk out of my kitchen-sink drain, I half expected to emerge with a radical reevaluation, akin to how some critics now describe the serial-killer and newsroom storylines as satire of institutional dysfunction that makes the season one of the show’s best. To be blunt, no fucking way. Largely abandoned to his own devices by his writing partner and sounding board Ed Burns, who recognized the newsroom storyline as the personal matter it was, David Simon was subsequently abandoned by his own gifts — for nuance, for empathy, for characters who, while shaped by the system in which they are a part, never merely take the shape of that system, like allegorical figures in a hackneyed editorial cartoon. Point-making, score-settling, nose-tweaking: not the stuff of great drama, very much the stuff of this season.

The day has come: I reviewed the first half of The Wire Season Five for the New York Observer.

Everything We Learned About Saul Goodman From “Breaking Bad”: Your “Better Call Saul” Cheat Sheet

February 5th, 2015

Who is Saul Goodman? The story of how an Irish lawyer named Jimmy McGill became the sleazy, pseudonymous strip-mall ambulance-chaser who checked Walter White and Jesse Pinkman’s attorney-client privilege throughout Breaking Bad will be told in the prequel series Better Call Saul, starring Bob Odenkirk, which debuts with a two-part premiere this Sunday and Monday. But Breaking Bad already gave us a lot of info about Albuquerque’s favorite “criminal lawyer”: his associates, his ex-wives, his alma mater (kinda?), his Xanax connect, and much more. We’ve pulled the files on Saul and arranged every bit of info Breaking Bad gave us on the guy in this easy, episode-by-episode timeline. There’s no better way to find out who you’re gonna call.

Hey, it’s my Vulture debut! I went through Breaking Bad and listed every tidbit I could find on Saul Goodman.

“Gotham” thoughts, Season One, Episode 14: “The Fearsome Dr. Crane”

February 2nd, 2015

Whoa, whoa, whoa: Was that really the same Bat-time, same Bat-channel we just watched?

Tonight’s episode of Gotham, “The Fearsome Dr. Crane,” was clever, creepy, funny on purpose, deliberately disturbing (instead of thoughtlessly so), and graced with an excellent villain-of-the-week. In other words, it was everything the show has not been for a long, long while. The temptation here might be to use it as a Batarang and lob it at every other half-hearted installment this lackadaisical longform origin story has given us, but I don’t think that’s what Thomas and Martha Wayne would want, may they rest in peace. This was a good hour of TV, for God’s sake. Let’s just enjoy it while it lasts.

I liked tonight’s episode of Gotham. I repeat: I liked tonight’s episode of Gotham. I reviewed it for Rolling Stone. If I might suggest it, please pay attention to the last graf, where I talk about the episode’s approach to horror, which was enormously effective.

“Downton Abbey” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Five

February 2nd, 2015

It’s a shame that disliking sports has passed from lame through cool back to lame again, at least in the circles I run in, because man, I really dislike sports. Downton Abbey, though? That’s something I’m willing to tailgate for. (Since there are no team colors per se, I’ll be painting my bare torso in the likeness of Lady Mary.) And if you’re into the game of love, this week’s episode was a veritable Super Bowl. So let’s consider each competitor to see who took home the trophy.


On paper, this pint-sized but passionate left-wing teacher looked like a sure thing. She reawoke Tom Branson to both his politics and his potential as a romantic partner after the death of his wife. She took a healthy interest in improving the lot of one of the downstairs servants (the extremely grateful Daisy) and in tweaking Lord Robert for his calcified ways, something many of the best characters, and people, on the show have done to great effect in the past. The problem is that she took that last bit way too far. Even if his lordship were worthy of all that invective, Tom isn’t it, nor, as he points out, are his late wife and his young daughter. Lord Robert loves all three — shouldn’t that be enough to earn him some forbearance from a woman who purports to love Tom in turn? She’s so off-base about this that when she asks Tom “Don’t you despise them?” she seems genuinely shocked that his answer is no. A nice lady, and on the side of the angels, but she doesn’t know Tom half as well as she thinks she does, so it’s hard to feel too bad about her departure from the field.


It’s not the first time I’ve said this, and it may not be the last: Lord Merton is much, much better at this game than Miss Bunting. Whereas she seems determined to make everyone uncomfortable lest her pursuit of Tom compromise her political ideals, Lord Merton approaches his courtship of Isobel Crawley with sensitivity and solicitousness. He shares her interest in medicine, her enthusiasm for positive change in society, and her ability to put others at ease when in their company, to the point where even his potential romantic rival Dr. Clarkson comes to like the man and his relationship with Isobel despite his own best interests. And that’s to say nothing of the prompting of the Dowager Countess, who’s initially so opposed to the potential match-up that she describes Lord Merton’s aristocratic background in terms even Miss Bunting might find extreme; she too is won over in the end. It doesn’t seem a romance for the ages, which on Downton makes it less likely to pan out. But however he does in the post-season, he played one hell of a game tonight.

Alright sports fans, I reviewed last night’s Downton Abbey for the New York Observer.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Three, Episode One: “EST Men”

January 28th, 2015

However you slice it, The Americans dodged the [prestige-drama "wife problem"] bullet. The show stars a wife who not only doesn’t oppose her husband’s awful antics, she leads the charge. Elizabeth Jennings isn’t Philip’s suspicious sweetheart or nagging conscience, she’s his partner in crime. Indeed, actor Keri Russell receives top billing over Matthew Rhys, and her character’s ideological fervor outstrips his; in the series’ pilot, he’s ready to turn himself in and defect, while she wants to continue the mission. Comrades the Jennings may be, but Elizabeth is first among equals, and The Americans is the story of her antiheroism above all.

But what does that amount to, exactly? For the purposes of that discussion, let’s put aside the tonally broader, plot-hole-ridden first season. Everything the show is interested in — spy-thriller action and suspense; the uncomfortable eroticism of the Jennings’ undercover work; secondary characters like FBI Agent Stan Beeman, the Soviet agents of the Rezidentura, and the Jennings’ kids; the steely, wiry physicality of Russell and Rhys that makes their characters so convincingly commanding even buried under pounds of big glasses, bad wigs, and spirit gum — got tighter and sharper in Season Two, to the point where few of the first season’s flaws remained.

With one major exception, that is: All the terrible things that Elizabeth and Philip do, the show acts as though they’re being done to them, not by them, and that’s a problem. The anhedonia of Don Draper, the depressive rages of Tony Soprano, and the world-collapsing panic of Walter White are all gut-wrenching to behold, but their shows come across a lot more clear-eyed about the pain they inflict trumping their own. By contrast, even though Elizabeth and Philip are basically always miserable, never seeming to take any pleasure at all from what they do or the skill with which they do it, we’re rarely asked to linger on the suffering they cause except insofar as how hard it is for them to live with it. (This is where the lack of a long-suffering spouse of whatever gender hurts the show structurally.)

If this moral dynamic sounds familiar, that means you’ve been reading your pop-culture thinkpieces over the past few weeks. If Mr. and Mrs. Jennings worked for the USA during the Iraq War instead of the USSR during the Cold War, we’d basically be talking about American Sniper, which has been held up as an inspiring exploration of how hard it must have been for a man to kill for his country. The people who got killed had it a lot harder, you know? And that’s true whether your flag is red white and blue or red and yellow. Empathy is valuable, but it must be tempered with moral clarity; the plight of a murderer pales in comparison to the plight of the murdered. Paradoxically, it’s by making Philip and Elizabeth so torn up by their awful vocation that its real awfulness is obscured.

I reviewed the season premiere of The Americans, and really The Americans generally, for the New York Observer. Very excited to be covering the show this season.

“The Wire” Wednesdays, Part Eight: School’s Out

January 28th, 2015

Call it heartbreaking. Call it breathtaking. Call it brutal. But don’t call The Wire’s fourth season tragic. This final stretch of episodes, surely what most people think of when they call The Wire the greatest show of all time, contains many of its most agonizing moments, its most crushing defeats. But tragedy implies inevitability. What makes this the hardest, greatest part of The Wire to watch is that there was nothing inevitable about any of it. If people had tried harder, politicked less, cared more, the ruined lives of the series’ school-based season could have been saved.

In the latest installment of my weekly rewatch/review column The Wire Wednesdays at the New York Observer, I cover the final seven episodes of Season Four, one of the best stretches of television ever to air.