This is the cover for a minicomic edition of Hiders by me and Julia Gfrörer, previously available only in Study Group 3D, which we’ll be selling at SPX this weekend.
Best Actor in a Drama, 2013
Whether you were in the market for sirloin stake or a big fat ham sandwich, there was plenty on the menu to choose from this year. Jon Hamm and Bryan Cranston did their usual phenomenal work on Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Damian Lewis elevated sometimes shaky material as triple-agent Marine-turned-terrorist-turned-informant Nicholas Brody on Homeland, a role for which he’d won the previous year. But the victory of Jeff Daniels as The Newsroom‘s bloviator-in-chief Will McAvoy was all the more bizarre because of the slightly less top-shelf alternatives available to voters, if that’s what they really wanted. Why not, say, go for Kevin Spacey, who gave great hambone and drawled his way through House of Cards? And if it was fusty and blustery but ultimately good-hearted you wanted, Hugh Bonneville’s take on that template as Downton Abbey‘s Lord Grantham was altogether more appealing.
I wrote about the biggest surprises in recent Emmy history for Rolling Stone. Spoiler alert: 2007 was crazy, man.
“Good people are the first ones to die,” says Fear the Walking Dead, doling out INSANELY badass truths to its audience of bored gamers. Is that an unfair characterization? Of the audience, maybe. Of Fear the Walking Dead? I fear it’s not. With the conclusion of “The Dog,” this week’s episode, we’ve reached the halfway point of this short introductory season, and the series has yet to produce a compelling reason for itself to exist—other than “we can make a lot of money selling grimdark violence to people who will live and die without ever once experiencing such horrors themselves,” that is. Ending with a military takeover of the town is appropriate, because ethically and aesthetically, Fear is basically a gun nut waiting for the UN’s secret Muslim invasion squad’s black helicopters to land, in TV-show form.
Bill Masters’s sex surrogacy study may be going south, but fortunately, the same can not be said for his television show. In “Through a Glass, Darkly” (unfortunately the series has not yet solved the problem of its thuddingly obvious episode titles), Masters of Sex served up its first fully satisfying hour of the season. With the exception of a perplexing and unnecessary last-minute twist (more on that later, unfortunately), it was a character study in which every character seemed to be worth studying, a sex drama in which the sex drove the drama and the drama made it sexy. On more than one occasion I said “Nice work, gang!” aloud, as if my capacity for taking pleasure in the show had, like the sexual confidence of the surrogacy program’s participants, been reawakened at last.
As he followed her inside Mother Abagail’s house he thought it would be better, much better, if they did break down and spread. Postpone organization as long as possible. It was organization that always seemed to cause the problems. When the cells began to clump together and grow dark. You didn’t have to give the cops guns until the cops couldn’t remember the names…the faces…
Fran lit a kerosene lamp and it made a soft yellow glow. Peter looked up at them quietly, already sleepy. He had played hard. Fran slipped him into a nightshirt.
All any of us can buy is time, Stu thought. Peter’s lifetime, his children’s lifetimes, maybe the lifetimes of my great-grandchildren. Until the year 2100, maybe, surely no longer than that. Maybe not that long. Time enough for poor old Mother Earth to recycle herself a little. A season of rest.
“What?” she asked, and he realized he had murmured it aloud.
“A season of rest,” he repeated.
“What does that mean?”
“Everything,” he said, and took her hand.
Looking down at Peter he thought: Maybe if we tell him what happened, he’ll tell his own children. Warn them. Dear children, the toys are death–they’re flashburns and radiation sickness, and black, choking plague. These toys are dangerous; the devil in men’s brains guided the hands of God when they were made. Don’t play with these toys, dear children, please, not ever. Not ever again. Please…please learn the lesson. Let this empty world be your copybook.
“Frannie,” he said, and turned her around so he could look into her eyes.
“Do you think…do you think people ever learn anything?”
She opened her mouth to speak, hesitated, fell silent. The kerosene lamp flickered. Her eyes seemed very blue.
“I don’t know,” she said at last. She seemed unpleased with her answer; she struggled to say something more; to illuminate her first response; and could only say it again:
I don’t know.
–Stephen King, The Stand
Let’s make like Masters and Johnson, dear reader, and analyze a sex scene. Specifically, let’s take a good long look at the scene in which Nora, the smart and dedicated young test pilot for Bill Master’s surrogacy program for treating single patients with sexual dysfunction, takes things a little too far with her initial subject. It’s the highlight of “High Anxiety,” the season’s ninth episode. It’s arguably the high point of the entire season so far.
Fitting for a show about those occupying society’s technological substrata,Mr. Robot’s characters are often placed at the very bottom of the frame. This leaves massive amounts of headroom that suggests a great weight hanging over their heads, and echoes their isolation: When they’re talking right to each other, they seem alone. In more conventional filmmaking, conversations are cut with the characters looking at each other from opposite ends of the frame, leaving what’s known as “leading room” between their faces that helps convey the physical space they occupy. Mr. Robot inverses the norm by “shortsighting” the characters, positioning their faces at the edge of the frame closest toward the person to whom they’re speaking.
“Shortsighting is unnerving,” Campbell explains. “It further accentuates how fucked-up Elliot’s world is. The idea was to convey the loneliness. That’s the internal dialogue I had with myself: How do we tell that story? How do you get Elliot across?”
The effect goes a long way in selling audiences on the mounting paranoia and dissociation of the show’s main character, hacker Elliot Alderson (Malek). Without the usual pattern to help us intuit spatial relationships, these scenes create the sense that the characters don’t know where they stand in relation to one another. They also remind us of the picture-in-picture, face-against-flat-surface nature of video chatting, which can’t be overlooked on a show this attuned to the alienating effects of technology.
I spoke with Mr. Robot’s director of photography, Tod Campbell, about the show’s gorgeous shot compositions for Vulture. It felt great to write an article about television that focused on pure form. Woo!
Maybe it’s the strength of the preceding episode, which, true to the Red Dragon arc’s pattern of being brilliant every other week (the first, third, and fifth episodes were amazing, the second, fourth, and now sixth not so much) was as good as this show ever got. Maybe it’s the apples-to-apples comparison of this season’s final hour to the crushing defeat at the conclusion of Season One and the orgy of bloodletting that ended Season Two. Maybe it’s simply the wish that the show go on, with further heights to hit and depths to plumb. Whatever it was, the whiff of anticlimax permeating “The Wrath of the Lamb,” quite likely the last episode of Hannibal we’ll ever see, was unmistakable. Ideally, this de facto series finale would have felt stronger, grander, more final than the fake-outs and gunshots that dominated the proceedings, which, timing aside, added up to one of the season’s weakest episodes. No one will fault you if you wound up wishing for something a bit more, ahem, mindblowing.
Apocalyptic fiction should have the courage of its extinctions. If you’re going to feed damn near every man, woman, and child on earth into the maw of slaughter for our viewing enjoyment, own what that really means: not just full-grown undead versus ragtag survivors, but hundreds of millions of children dying in terrified agony. You don’t have to dwell on it, I suppose, but passing it over in silence to get to the good stuff is aesthetic and ethical cowardice, pure and simple.
So a very dark congratulations goes out to Fear the Walking Dead’s second episode, “So Close, Yet So Far,” for the image of a mom getting devoured amid the ruins of her daughter’s birthday bouncy castle. Sure, doing this just hours after having her cheerfully and audibly sing “Happy Birthday” lays it on thick—you could practically hear the collective groan of millions of viewers going “oh no” the moment the first notes rang out—but it’s better than the alternative.
In typical Masters of Sex fashion, the double meaning of the initiative that gave this week’s episode, “Surrogates,” its title is spelled out in neon for the slow-witted. “Is that really enough?” asks Libby Masters, regarding her husband Bill’s idea of having volunteers help single patients out with their sexual issues. “A stand-in?” “Some people,” he replies, “that’s all they have.” And we in the audience, who by now are aware that Libby, Bill, and the third corner of their bizarre love triangle Virginia Johnson are all seeking attention outside their primary relationships, nod sagely, or something. But I, for one, am fucking thrilled that they’re all fucking, or on their way to fucking, people other than each other. Freed from one another’s clutches, they’re watchable for the first time in weeks.
I have never regularly reviewed a show I like writing about less than Masters of Sex. I’ve reviewed some bad shows before, as you know – Gotham, Homeland, early Leftovers, early Halt and Catch Fire, True Detective Season 2, and now it looks like Fear the Walking Dead — but they’re at least OVER THE TOP. This is just…well, anyway, this episode was better than most, at least, and I reviewed it for the New York Observer.
We might as well start by addressing the ep’s 800-pound you-know-what. It’s…difficult, to understate the case considerably, to imagine that anyone in the Masters audience was clamoring for the series to include a storyline in which the pioneering authors of Human Sexual Response struggled to give a gorilla an erection. Yet what they came up with was pretty interesting, in the end. First, a lively cameo by Alex Borstein—aka the voice of The Family Guys’s Lois Griffin—as Loretta, the gorilla’s emotionally overinvested former trainer, created an atmosphere that was way more complicated than the goofy premise made it sound. She described her relationship with the ape the way you might talk about an opposite-sex best friend from college with whom you’ve, like, stayed up late discussing your masturbation habits yet never gone any farther with—a combination of sincere affection and appreciation with a slightly too-intimate undertone. Or in this case, maybe more than slightly, since, you know, she’s a human and he’s a gorilla. Borstein plays this fundamentally absurd exchange completely straight, a smart and necessary tactic.
Then Virginia and Bill—who by this point is pushing for the gorilla research, against which he’d previously knee-jerked in typical tedious Masters of Sex office-argument fashion, simply to keep Johnson away from perfume doofus Dan Logan—pay another visit to the beast’s enclosure, where they quickly realize he wants more than Gini’s encouragement: He wants her to put ‘em on the glass. Okay, so there’s the whole bestiality thing to contend with here, but try to put that aside. Honestly, try! One of the most erotic things about the show’s handling of Masters and Johnson’s research is its presentation of instrumentalized sexuality, of people making their bodies go through the stages of arousal and orgasm, like machines, for purposes external to the traditional demands of romantic or sexual desire. This forces a direct focus on the biological processes involved rather than their emotional underpinnings, and that direct focus can’t help but remind you how good those processes feel. Watching Gini expose her breasts to someone in order to help him have sex with someone else fits the pattern, even if those someones are a different species. And as an added storytelling bonus, it clearly dovetails with Gini’s concerns that she exists to facilitate the drives of the powerful, occasionally beastly male with whom she shares an office and a byline.
Whatever its pleasures as a hobby and legitimate value as a means for its mostly young, mostly female practitioners to explore sexual taboos, fanfic has a worrying tendency to collapse the incredible range of potential adult relationships in fiction into a romantic singularity, distorting the totality of human experience just as surely as a black hole warps light. This act of emotional reduction—and reduction’s the right word for it, as both the fannish truncation of “relationships” into the neologism “shipping” and the pruning of the pair names into the portmanteau “Hannigram” semiotically symbolize—hits the possibility of non-romantic male friendship, cooperation, or even enmity especially hard. Is there truly no other way to process the bizarre mind meld between Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham than as their bloody valentine?
The answer, of course, is that maybe there is and maybe there isn’t, but either way the question is irrelevant. This is the way Bryan Fuller, Hannibal’s creator and visionary, is processing that relationship. It may not be the story I expected—not any more than I expected Will Graham to slip into murderous darkness throughout the show’s run rather than remain squarely on the side of the angels—but it’s the story Fuller has chosen to tell, and it’s that story, and no other, that must be engaged by the audience. At its worst, the partisanship of shipping represents a willful refusal of art’s transcendent potential, in which rather than step outside oneself and inhabit the mind of the artist, its adherents force her ideas into a template of their own mentally provincial devising. What better way to atone for its excesses than to go along for Hannibal’s ride, no matter how many left turns it takes?
Given that it’s the most popular show on television, The Walking Dead can pass quite easily for one of the New Golden Age of TV’s crown jewels. The reality, however, is a lot closer to costume jewelry. Despite a grim tone typical of many iconic shows and proximity to masterpieces of the medium like Mad Men and Breaking Bad via their shared network, AMC, the blockbuster adaptation of the surprise-hit comic-book series by writer Robert Kirkman and artists Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard is striking for has so little else in common it has with its antihero-and-auteur-driven era that it gives us a whole lot to chew on.
For starters, there’s no auteur to speak of. Developer and Shawshank Redemption director Frank Darabont departed unceremoniously after disputes with the network, and his successor Glen Mazzara lasted only two seasons until parting ways with the show in another impasse before current showrunner Scott M. Gimple took over. And while creator Kirkman remains actively involved, the show departed so radically from his source material almost immediately—another marked contrast from contemporaries like Game of Thrones—that the closest thing it has to a consistent creative vision is that of zombie-makeup guru Greg Nicotero. Though this lack of a singular voice is not necessarily an inherent evil—Darabont’s mawkish sub-Spielbergian sentimentality, to say nothing of his penchant for Wang Chung music cues, is certainly no great loss. But the difference from Davids Lynch, Chase, Milch, and Simon, and their heirs, from Louis C.K. to Shonda Rhimes, is tangible.
More importantly, and alarmingly, TWD’s approach to its own bloody bleakness too often takes the “anti” out of “antihero.” Even the most uninspired post-Sopranos series about the inner turmoil of men who murder people for a living generally pay lip service to the idea that their cathartic explosions of violence do more harm than good, and that our vicarious thrills must be priced against the moral cost of killing. For Rick Grimes and company, however, gore, to paraphrase Gordon Gekko, is good. Yes, the show frequently toys with the idea that the former sheriff and his roving band of zombie-apocalypse survivors have Gone Too Far This Time; in fact, the frequency with which this question is raised indicates the inconsistency of the writing. But far more often, the story serves as an ersatz endorsement of brutality in the name of survival, justice, and revenge, concepts frequently treated as indistinguishable. For The Walking Dead, killing is bad, unless you really really have to or unless they really really deserve it, in which case it’s extremely good. Seriously: When The Wire veteran Chad Coleman’s pacifistic Tyrese finally offed someone, the crew congratulated him like he’d just been bar mitzvah’d.
Normally I’m first in line to blast critics for equating the depiction of atrocity with either the exploitation or outright endorsement thereof. But in TWD’s case, the frequent recourse to redemptive violence in a world where virtually none of its massive audience will experience such situations reads as decadent at best and downright immoral at worst, a nasty and unnecessary exponent of the reactionary potential that’s been buried beneath the zombie-horde metaphor from the start. To treat “What would you do to protect those you care about?” as the central ethical question of our time is to invite the creation of imaginary enemies to justify our mental murderousness against them; the consequences of this paranoid mentality for America are as thick in the air as teargas in the streets of St. Louis.
I reviewed the series premiere of Fear the Walking Dead, and the Walking Dead phenomenon generally, for Decider. I’ll be covering the show there all season, which should be interesting.
TMI time: As a TV critic, you see enough sex scenes to get desensitized. Whether it’s the pneumatically thrusting buttocks of a pay-cable drama or the “let’s show them getting all breathy and frantic as they start tearing at each other’s shirts because that’s basically all we can show” approach of your average commercial-network affair, the stuff just hits a point of diminishing returns after a while. For me, at least, it takes something special to elicit that telltale sign of effective televised sexmanship: a long, low murmur of “fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuudge,” but, you know, not actually the word “fudge.”
So, yeah, the bit where Rutina Wesley’s Reba McClane reenacts holding her face to the power and heat of the sleeping tiger on the lap Richard Armitage’s Francis Dolarhyde instead? Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuudge.
If a lifetime of gorehoundsmanship has taught me anything, it’s that horror is a genre in perpetual conversation with itself. By that standard, “…And the Beast From the Sea,” this week’s Hannibal, is a chattier episode than most. And why shouldn’t it be? If you’re going to bring one of the most iconic monsters in horror history to the small screen, why not cannibalize some of that history in the process?
So take a look at Francis Dolarhyde’s raid on Will, Molly, and Walter Graham’s family homestead. His mesh mask echoes the pantyhose disguise of an earlier incarnation of the Red Dragon, Tom Noonan’s in Michael Mann’s Manhunter. Molly & Wally’s daring through-the-window in-a-bathrobe escape echoes Wendy & Danny Torrance’s flight from Jack Nicholson and the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. The way they burst from the trees into the road to be saved by an African-American motorist passing by feels a whole lot like the end of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, while that motorist’s death so that they might live is reminiscent of one of the shootouts in No Country for Old Men. You don’t needto know any of these reference points; hell, they don’t even need to be things the show is deliberately referring to. They’re just part of the narrative and visual vocabulary of terror available to any astute horror filmmaker. And that’s long before we get to the Tooth Fairy’s Tyler Durden impression.
Virginia Johnson wants to be courted, as in a good old-fashioned courtship. Dating, dining, dancing, you name it. What Liz Phair referred to as “all that stupid old shit, like letters and sodas” in “Fuck and Run.” Granted, this desire was awakened by an oily perfume magnate who invested in her sex-research clinic so he could employ her to measure the vaginal lubrication of women exposed to the smell of pit sweat, making his motives transparent and her reaction incoherent, but for the sake of argument let’s ignore that, since the show sure did. Let’s focus instead on how she pitches this to Bill Masters, her partner. “We hooked ourselves up to wires while we talked each other through the stages of arousal,” she reminds him, and us. But don’t let your memories of when Masters of Sex was actually, you know,sexy cause your vaginal-lubrication sensors to redline just yet—Gini’s got a different idea in mind. “Do you ever wonder what it would have been like if we had met differently?” I believe I speak for the group when I say no!
No, no, no, no, no, I don’t wonder what it would have been like had Bill and Virginia been merely star-crossed colleagues pursuing a forbidden romance instead of exhibitionistic/voyeuristic weirdo geniuses verbally informing one another of the onset of orgasm as they fucked with a bank of electronic equipment rigged to their junk. I don’t wonder about how the co-author of Human Sexual Response would have fared as peewee-league football coach. I don’t wonder about how the woman who upended the entire medical establishment’s approach to sexuality got along with her mother and daughter. I don’t wonder what Masters of Sex would have been like if it were a dime-a-dozen workplace/relationship/family drama. But in “Two Scents,” this week’s episode, that’s once again what we’re getting.
It was funny: I haven’t talked to the real person that [Monroe] was based on in a long, long time, but then I saw he was on Facebook. I wrote to him and I asked him if he’d read the book, and he hadn’t, so I sent him a copy. He said he read five pages and couldn’t read any more because it was “too intense.” Then he kept saying he’s going to read it, but he can’t. But when he found out there was a movie, I sent him the trailer, and he was really excited. He showed the trailer to some friend at a bar—I don’t think he’d said that it was supposed to be based on him—and that person said, “Wow, that relationship is really screwed up. Why are you showing me this?” The guy said “What do you mean, ‘screwed up’? That’s a real man!” You know? “He’s a real man! He’s going for it!” You can see that that particular person, that character…I mean, if I treated him correctly, he’s not the type of person who’s able to reflect on any of that. Which contributes to Minnie’s loneliness. It takes her a while to realize that, because she’s thinking she’s in love with him. What do you do when you’re “raped,” in quotes, by someone who’s thoughtless and unaware? There’s no way to have a discussion about that with him because he’s not on the ball enough to even grasp the situation. I don’t know what people think. You could argue rape or not—I mean, I don’t fucking know. It’s a complicated situation.
For my A.V. Club debut, I interviewed Phoebe Gloeckner, my hero, about The Diary Of A Teenage Girl. I first interviewed Phoebe 12 years ago, and she’s been my hero ever since.
The number one question people ask me about the series is whether I think everyone will lose—whether it will end in some horrible apocalypse. I know you can’t speak to that specifically, but as a revisionist of epic fantasy—
I haven’t written the ending yet, so I don’t know, but no. That’s certainly not my intent. I’ve said before that the tone of the ending that I’m going for is bittersweet. I mean, it’s no secret that Tolkien has been a huge influence on me, and I love the way he ended Lord of the Rings. It ends with victory, but it’s a bittersweet victory. Frodo is never whole again, and he goes away to the Undying Lands, and the other people live their lives. And the scouring of the Shire—brilliant piece of work, which I didn’t understand when I was 13 years old: “Why is this here? The story’s over?” But every time I read it I understand the brilliance of that segment more and more. All I can say is that’s the kind of tone I will be aiming for. Whether I achieve it or not, that will be up to people like you and my readers to judge.