“Preacher” thoughts, Season One, Episode Two: “See”

June 7th, 2016

While we’re on the subject of explosives, let’s talk about Joe Gilgun as Cassidy, lovable Irish vampire. This dude is a fucking supernova in this role, for real. He has the rangy physicality of a guy who’s had just enough to drink to give his every movement a tiny bit more momentum than required to get the job done — he always seems to be leaning, slouching, lunging, weaving, careening, even when sitting still. This serves him well in his comedic exchanges with Jesse and his major domo Emily, and even better in his fight scenes, which are fast becoming among the best choreographed and bloodiest on the small screen. His gory churchhouse slobberknocker with the two mysterious Brits who’ve been tracking the entity that has possessed Jesse is some Evil Dead-level splatstick, right down to the chainsaw, with severed arm still attached at the handle, crawling itself down the aisle toward the preacher’s passed-out body. Cassidy’s such a welcome presence every time he shows up that you half-forget he’s a vampire and thus oddly superfluous to the central storyline, like if Game of Thrones had a character who was an alien.

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

“Game of Thrones” thoughts, Season Six, Episode Seven: “The Broken Man”

June 5th, 2016

When Game of Thrones does a cold open, you know something big is about to go down. Tonight’s well-paced and well-packed episode — “The Broken Man” — is only the third time in the series’ history that the show has started with a pre-credits scene, the others being the Season Four premiere and the pilot. What warranted the break from tradition? The presence of two of the most intimidating actors in HBO history: Deadwood‘s Ian McShane, making his first (and only) appearance as a cheerfully profane man of the cloth called Ray, and the return of Rory McCann as Sandor Clegane, the motherfucking Hound himself. It turns out the mad dog of Westeros survived and joined a religious community in the Riverlands. After a lifetime of violence, a new life of peace was within his grasp. Seen in that light, the episode’s final shot, of Sandor reaching down and picking up the Axe of Vengeance, is crushingly depressing.

But more than that, it represents a surprising lapse on the part of the show itself — a Walking Dead style conflation of principled nonviolence with fatal naïveté. Ray’s belief that “it’s never too late to come back,” functioned as, well, a ray of sunshine in GoT’s bleak world. There’s no reason such faith in humanity need be portrayed as Pollyannaish; as Ray himself explains, it’s the result of bitterly earned shame in having participated in war atrocities himself. But the extreme sanction he and his flock face for this belief — slaughtered in minutes, with the septon hanging from the eaves of his own house of worship — makes him seem like a sucker, not a sage. He looks idiotic for leaving his followers defenseless, and Sandor’s Rick Grimes–style decision to murder the perpetrators seems like the just and moral choice.

You can say “Violence is a disease — you don’t cure a disease by spreading it to more people” all you like; you can even sincerely believe it. But actions speak louder than words. And by wrapping up this subplot in such spectacularly grim fashion, the series is shouting “kill or be killed,” at least in this circumstance.

I’m excerpting this part but you should really read the whole thing, because I had both negative and positive feelings about tonight’s Game of Thrones, which I reviewed for Rolling Stone.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Four, Episode 12: “A Roy Rogers in Franconia”

June 5th, 2016

Paige Jennings may be broken, but she doesn’t break. After watching her mother Elizabeth stab an assailant to death and leave him for dead in a parking lot on last week’s episode of The Americans, the girl says she feels sick, but she doesn’t get sick. She asks her mother if she had to kill the man, and accepts that her answer is yes. Even when Elizabeth admits that she’s killed more people than she can remember — in self-defense, of course — her pacifist daughter simply asks if she was scared, not “how could you do that” or “how do you live with yourself.” Her primary concern appears to be that the dangerous nature of her parents’ work was kept from her, not that it’s dangerous, primarily to others, in the first place. The day after witnessing her first kill, she has her first kiss, barely breaking stride from the normal course of adolescent life; she keeps this a secret from her parents, but duly reports the latest batch of information gleaned from her new beau Matthew Beeman about the goings-on at the office of his FBI agent father Stan, and is taken aback when her folks discourage her from further fact-finding despite having pushed her in that direction with Pastor Tim and Alice. A lifetime of being lied to, and a year of being made complicit in the lie, has prepped Paige to contextualize her mother’s murder of a man not as a catastrophic breach of safety and morality, but a rung on a ladder leading her closer to the secret truth.

I reviewed this week’s The Americans, which recovered flawlessly from last week’s uncharacteristic stumble of a climax, for the New York Observer.

The Boiled Leather Audio Hour Episode 50!

May 31st, 2016

Aeron, Euron, It’s On

Undoubtedly timed to coincide with our landmark 50th episode, George R.R. Martin has released, or rather read, a brand new sample chapter from The Winds of Winter, and Sean & Stefan are tackling it in our third podcast in a month! Suitably, it’s a biggie: Entitled “The Forsaken,” it’s told from the perspective of Aeron “the Damphair” Greyjoy as he’s held prisoner by his increasingly frightening brother Euron Crow’s Eye. How does this chapter function as prophecy, as plot mover, as horror fiction, as Lovecraftian homage? How far are we willing to go with predictions as to what it all means for the future? What is Euron’s true motivation? Is the apocalypse now? Listen and find out!

Download Episode 50

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“The Forsaken” (Aeron I) preview chapter from The Winds of Winter

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“Game of Thrones” thoughts, Season Six, Episode Six: “Blood of My Blood”

May 29th, 2016

There’s a lot going on in tonight’s episode of Game of Thrones, entitled “Blood of My Blood.” Isn’t there always? With so many characters involved in so many storylines spread across so many locations, the sprawl is simply incomparable to anything else on television. But that backstage sequence stands out because it demonstrates how nimble this series can be, despite its massive scope. Writer Bryan Cogman and director Jack Bender took time out of their busy schedule of zombies, dragons, and Dothraki hordes to craft an intimate exchange between two strangers, both of whom know the advantages and disadvantages of playing the role of someone they’re not. Yes, this gives the audience a big stand-up-and-cheer moment when Arya returns to stop the assassination she’d set in motion, but that’s almost beside the point. Revealing character through conversation, even if it’s buried deep beneath layers of deception, is what matters here.

I reviewed tonight’s wide-ranging Game of Thrones, which I found delightful, for Rolling Stone.

The 40 Best Science Fiction Shows of All Time

May 26th, 2016

11. The Prisoner (1967-1968)

When mercurial writer-actor-director Patrick McGoohan parlayed his experience playing a secret agent on the British show Danger Man to create an espionage thriller of his own, he unexpectedly created the prestige drama 30 years ahead of its time. The Prisoner is a frightening, funny, philosophical, absolutely mesmerizing allegory in which McGoohan’s nameless title character, a retired spy dubbed Number Six by his mysterious captors, is imprisoned in a bizarre place called the Village. While crafting an escape plan, he’s subjected to psychological experiments designed to break him by a series of interchangeable superiors all named Number Two. It’s one of the mot visually striking and bracingly bleak shows ever;  everything from Lost and Twin Peaks to The Americans owes it a debt.

I wrote about a whole bunch of the 40 Best Science Fiction TV Shows of All Time for Rolling Stone.

“Preacher” thoughts, Season One, Episode One: “Pilot”

May 26th, 2016

Is it the Word of God that has come unto Jesse Custer, or is he merely possessed by the spirit of the ‘90s? Preacher, AMC’s new readymade blockbuster series — it’s got the nerd pedigree, the nonsensically titled Chris Hardwick postgame show Talking Preacher, a superstar co-creator in the form of Seth Rogen, the whole nine — is based on the comic book series of the same name by writer Garth Ennis and artist Steve Dillon (and, though he’s not credited, tone-setting cover artist Glenn Fabry), which ran for 75 issues or so during the pre-millennium tension of the last five years of the 20th century. This was perhaps the last era during which taboo-busting for taboo-busting’s sake could get a comic over with an audience; a quick visit to the Preacher wikipedia page reveals more inbreeding, cannibalism, anal rape, and Kurt Cobain references than you can shake a crucifix at.

And judging from the pilot episode, the TV show is just as indebted to the signature filmmaker of the era, Quentin Tarantino, as were the “cutting edge” mature-readers-only comic books of the day. There’s a redneck-laden setting, a madcap vampire, a soundtrack full of hipster-revered square singers, a series of self-aware title cards (OUTER SPACE / AFRICA / TEXAS / ETC.), and mutilation galore. If you mashed up Natural Born Killers, the “bring out the gimp” sequence from Pulp Fiction, and the “Stuck in the Middle With You” scene from Reservoir Dogs, then sprinkled in some post-9/11 elements like the Budd segment of Kill Bill Vol. 2, the Death Proof half of Grindhouse, and the cartoonish graphic design of Scott Pilgrim (itself a comic-book adaptation) and Zombieland (starring Natural Born Killers leading man Woody Harrelson in what I insist to this day is a reprisal of his role from that Tarantino-story-credited film), you’ve got pretty much the whole show nailed down. To paraphrase a conversation I had about the show with critic Eric Thurm, you’re a Bill Hicks monologue away from reliving the second half of the Clinton administration.

So is the bloody thing any goddamn good?

I’m reviewing Preacher for the New York Observer, how about that? I started with last weekend’s pilot, which was audacious and entertaining but at times worryingly glib.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Four, Episode 11: “Dinner for Seven”

May 26th, 2016

Professional wrestling jargon is a gift to the thinking student of politics and pop culture. How could I understand Kanye West’s post-808s and Heartbreak career without the concept of the heel turn? How to comprehend the mutually beneficial feud between Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Republican news network anchor Megyn Kelly withoutkayfabe? And how to get a handle on “Dinner for Seven,” the antepenultimate episode of The Americans’ fourth season, without attempting to answer the question: In the aftermath of her betrayal of Don and Young-Hee, is Elizabeth’s warming-up to Pastor Tim a work or a shoot?

I reviewed last night’s episode of The Americans for the New York Observer. I’m unsure about the ending, but there was much else to recommend it.

In Defense of True Detective Season Two

May 25th, 2016

Indeed, there’s something tactile, sticky, greasy about the whole affair. We first glimpse Rachel McAdams’s Detective Ani Bezzerides seconds after she cuts off sex with another cop, who freaked out after an apparently unorthodox request on her part; she never quite shakes the unwashed and somewhat slightly dazed look of someone interrupted during an afternoon delight gone sour. For his debut, Taylor Kitsch’s CHiPS Officer Paul Woodrugh pulls over a parole-violating actress for speeding, who wrongfully accuses him of soliciting a sexual favor; he runs home to his randy girlfriend and insists on showering before they have sex. This is primarily an excuse to chug back Viagra and let chemistry take its course, since he’s secretly gay, but this scene too conveys the notion that there’s something dirty about Woodrugh he’s desperate to wash off. As for Velcoro, the stench of failure and frustration clings to this guy like the smell of Modelo and American Spirits; it’s hard to look at him, especially in the first half of the season, without your eyes watering. In other words, characters get under your skin in large part because of the emphasis placed on theirs.

I reconsidered the second, and apparently final, season of True Detective for Vulture.

The Boiled Leather Audio Hour Episode 49!

May 23rd, 2016

We Need to Talk About Hodor: ‘Game of Thrones’ Season Six (feat. Poor Quentyn)

Sean and Stefan are joined by a very special guest to talk about a very special episode! Emmett Booth, the ASoIaF analyst behind the widely read Poor Quentyn tumblr and a maester at ASoIaF University, hops aboard the BLAH train to discuss the shocking revelations of “The Door,” this week’s episode ofGame of Thrones, and use this mid-point opportunity to take stock of the season thus far. What do the secret origins of the White Walkers and Hodor mean for both the show and the books? What does the current political status quo portend for the future, in terms of both plot and theme? What’s wrong with the Game of Thrones critical discourse? Is the show…evil? We’re answering all these questions and more. If you like what you hear, subscribe, rate, and review us on iTunes to help the Boiled Leather Rebellion emerge victorious!

Download Episode 49

Additional links:

Poor Quentyn’s tumblr.

Stefan’s review of the episode.

Sean’s review of the episode.

Sean’s “halftime report” for the season.

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Stefan’s blog.

“Game of Thrones” Season Six Halftime Report: Who’s Alive, Who’s Dead, and Why It Matters

May 23rd, 2016

WHAT’S THE BIG PICTURE

In a word: Magic. Game of Thrones may have made its initial impression as an epic fantasy without much fantasy, saving its dragon hatchlings for the final shot of its first season. But it’s always been about both the public power plays and the game behind the Game — specifically, that all this scheming and warring is a tragic distraction from humanity’s real rip-it-up-and-start-again foe, the White Walkers. Jon Snow’s revival, Daenerys’s fireproof triumph, and Bran Stark’s increasingly powerful visions are a surefire sign that the endgame is approaching, and that certain characters may have a literally messianic role to play.

So it’s no coincidence at all that if and when the Walkers breach the Wall or Daenerys takes wing to Westeros, they’ll find conditions incredibly grim. Bloodthirsty killers control three of the Seven Kingdoms. Self-interested sociopath Littlefinger has command of the continent’s single largest intact army. The Riverlands appear poised for battle between the Red Wedding planners in House Frey and the Blackfish, saved from the massacre by a fortuitously timed bathroom break. King’s Landing is on the brink of full-scale civil war in the streets. Winter is coming, but good old-fashioned human cruelty and greed has set the thermostat close to zero already.

Yet the other big theme of the season so far has been reunions. Brienne and Sansa, Theon and Yara, Dany and Jorah, and especially Sansa and Jon: Each of these long awaited meetings sends the message to the audience that sometimes hope is rewarded, and good things happen to people who deserve them. Nowhere is this clearer than in its supernatural form: Bran’s visions may well get him the informational ammo he needs, particularly concerning Jon Snow’s true parents, to destroy the White Walkers for good. In other words, armies and dragons be damned: Human connections are humanity’s flame against the coming cold. Ice, meet fire.

I ran down the status of every major character and storyline and summed up the whole shebang for a Game of Thrones Season Six Halftime Report, now up at Rolling Stone.

“Fear the Walking Dead” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Seven: “Shiva”

May 23rd, 2016

“Look at me!” Chris Manawa yells at his father Travis, minutes after holding a child hostage at gunpoint and moments after trying to stab his old man to escape. “I’m no good! I’m no good!” He may not be wrong—he’s directly threatened the lives of his stepmother and stepsister multiple times—but nor is he alone. “Shiva,” the “midseason finale” (ugh) of Fear the Walking Dead, offers the clearest demonstration yet that there’s something rotten in the extended Clark-Manawa-Salazar-Strand clan. Too bad the only people capable of seeing it are batshit insane.

I reviewed last night’s Fear the Walking Dead for Decider. Lots of fire, but not so hot.

“Game of Thrones” thoughts, Season Six, Episode Five: “The Door”

May 22nd, 2016

We learned no less a secret than the origin of the White Walkers, but tonight’s episode of Game of Thrones had an even more gut-wrenching revelation in store. When Bran Stark discovers that the benevolent Children of the Forest created the army of ice demons as a doomsday weapon against the human beings who were slaughtering them in turn, it’s a first-hand lesson in blowback. Little does he know he’s capable of a similar moral blood-sacrifice: It’s his own psychic abilities that turned a towering teenager called Willas into the mentally disabled man he knows as Hodor. Mentally time-traveling to the past even as he and his companions flee the Night King and his undead army in the present, the boy burns the defensive command “Hold the door” so deep into his companion’s brain that a truncated version of the phrase becomes all he can say.

The message of tonight’s installment (“The Door”) is that this is the cost of war, even if it’s a battle against pure evil. Half a world away, Daenerys prepares to ride; Tyrion makes alliances with the Lord of Light’s High Priestess; and Euron Greyjoy preps the Ironborn to conquer the world by the Dragon Queen’s side. But even supernatural saviors leave broken bodies in their wake. Hodor’s crippling — along with the loss of the Three-Eyed Raven, the Children, and Hodor himself — shows that the ends may justify the means, but the means are all but unbearable.

I reviewed tonight’s sad, excellent Game of Thrones for Rolling Stone.

Words and Guitars tonight

May 19th, 2016

I’ll be reading Hottest Chick in the Game, me and Andrew White’s comic about Drake and friends, at the HiFi Bar in NYC at 8pm tonight as part of Zachary Lipez & Michael Tedder’s Words and Guitars reading series. A whole bunch of other luminaries will be reading too, so heed the words of the man himself and come thru!

The HiFi Bar is located at 169 Avenue A between East 10th & 11th in Manhattan. I hope to see you there!

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Four, Episode 10: “Munchkins”

May 19th, 2016

Every week, The Americans plunges its cold hands into my chest and squeezes my lungs a little tighter. For such a quiet show, the tension each new episode generates is simply remarkable; the tone, rhythm, and volume level may be totally different, but the series’ suspense is currently on par with the likes of Breaking Bad Season Four, and it’s closing in on the equally self-assured menace of late-season Sopranos to boot. All this from asking the same simple questions over and over, with absolute unblinking clarity: How long can Philip and Elizabeth Jennings get away with doing this, and how many people will they do it to along the way?

I reviewed the latest installment in The Americans’ historically strong run of episodes for the New York Observer.

“Empire” thoughts, Season Two, Episode 18: “Past Is Prologue”

May 19th, 2016

Hakeem and Laura had the big wedding planned, and Lucious and Anika wound up tying the knot, but it was Boo Boo Kitty and Rhonda who really took the plunge. And as the pair took their battle over the edge, it wasn’t just Andre who looked on in dismay and disbelief — the audience did too. When the warring women fell off that balcony for Empire‘s season-ending cliffhanger, they took the show’s usually sure-footed storytelling instincts with it. Cutting to black before we could find out which character died was the culmination of a series of decisions that made the series’ final installment till next September — entitled “Past Is Prologue” — a reason to worry about the future.

I reviewed last night’s not-very-good season finale of Empire for Rolling Stone.

“Game of Thrones” thoughts, Season Six, Episode Four: “The Book of the Stranger”

May 16th, 2016

To understand a show full of natural born killers, sometimes it pays to consult the original article — specifically, Oliver Stone’s hyperviolent, hyperstylized 1994 mass-murderer movie. There’s a very funny exchange between Robert Downey Jr.’s tabloid-TV sleazeball Wayne Gale and one of his show’s editors, played by a young, pre-Sex and the City Evan Handler. The exasperated staffer complains that they’ve shown the same over-the-top reenactment of one of superstar serial-killer couple Mickey & Mallory’s murders over and over again; Downey’s character barks back “Repetition works, David” — at which point Stone cuts backward in time, so the line “Repetition works, David” repeats all over again.

Much of what happened on tonight’s oddly off-kilter Game of Thrones episode — “The Book of the Stranger” — depends on whether you believe the point of the joke. Yes, repeating ideas and imagery can heighten their impact, reveal subtle variations, or emphasize the cyclical nature of events. But there’s also such a thing as diminishing returns; if you go to the same well too many times, eventually it’ll run dry.

I reviewed last night’s Game of Thrones for Rolling Stone. I was of two minds about it, as you’ll see in the review. As I say later in the piece, “Whether these scenes worked is an ultimately open question, determined by the resolution of the storylines — one reason among many why it’s best to engage each episode as it comes, rather than attempt to predict the future or put your faith in fan theories.” I wanted to include “or saying ‘here’s what they should have done’” in that list of Don’ts, but it got cut.

“Fear the Walking Dead” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Six: “Sicut Cervus”

May 16th, 2016

Fear the Walking Dead just served up one of 2016’s great doomed romances. Show of hands: Who the hell saw that coming? Before today, this largely superfluous spin-off’s idea of tenderness was…well, who knows, since it never showed us. Travis and Maddie have all the chemistry of a wet firecracker, Daniel’s love of his late wife seemed primarily a matter of wanting to save her life and/or determine the time and place of her death, whichever was necessary, and Alicia’s two love interests either died in the initial outbreak or were part of a crew of pirates who nearly got them all killed. Enter Victor Strand and Thomas Abigail, two he-men with hearts of gold, separated by the apocalypse itself, tragically reunited just in time to say goodbye. Their love for each other made “Sicut Cervus,” this week’s episode, the best Fear the Walking Dead yet.

You’re not gonna believe this: I really liked last night’s Fear the Walking Dead, which I reviewed for Decider. It shows how easy it would be to defuse the franchise’s fascistic overtones simply by introducing alternatives to “kill or be killed.”

“Empire” thoughts, Season Two, Episode 17: “Rise by Sin”

May 12th, 2016

When the time finally came for someone to take a shot at Lucious Lyon — not with a federal indictment or a backroom bargain, but a bullet — there was no way Empire would half-step it. It went down on an awards-ceremony red carpet in front of hundreds of cameras broadcasting live, shot in slo-mo, with a child of the intended target getting caught in the crossfire. If you could splice the DNA of the final scenes of New Jack City and The Godfather Part III, you’d get something like what last night’s high-octane episode (“Rise by Sin”) delivered.

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

‘The Americans’ thoughts, Season Four, Episode Nine: “The Day After”

May 12th, 2016

The centerpiece of the episode, the sequence that gives it its title (the second in a row to be named after a television special), is a group viewing of the real-world dramatization of nuclear war called The Day After. The Jennings and Beemans watch it together as families and neighbors. Oleg and Tatyana watch it together as lovers. Young-Hee and Don watch it as spouses. William and Arkady from the Rezidentura each watches it alone. Russians, Americans, Koreans, officers, agents, double agents, civilians, a teenage girl balancing driving lessons with being forced to spy on her pastor and his pregnant wife for her parents—all of them sit riveted as frightened men trigger the end of the world, as terrified people scream and run and fall and die during it, as two old people clutch each other in the rubble afterwards. They’re as moved as you or I are, as shaken, as convinced that this is a horror that must be avoided at all costs. And despite the misgivings the movie gives them, they change nothing. Philip and Elizabeth talk about their doubts regarding the virus, regarding Young-Hee’s husband, and then dutifully ignore them.

I cried during this sequence. The antiwar message of the film the characters watched, the sense of colossal, avoidable loss and waste and tragedy, covered my brain like ashes. The power of art to communicate the awful truth was palpable. But art can only influence, not dictate, human behavior. It reflects that behavior like sunlight off clouds and has no more control over how that reflection is interpreted than do the clouds themselves.

I reviewed last night’s episode of The Americans for the New York Observer. This show is on a very special run.