Posts Tagged ‘new york observer’
“Why are we looking at this for so long? Ohhh, that’s why.” The Americans loves to set us up like this, drawing out scenes and storylines for as long as it can before pulling the trigger on our understanding of what the show is doing and why the show is doing it. “The Midges,” this week’s episode, features what’s bound to be one of the most talked-about examples of the technique yet. As KGB agent and reluctant CIA asset Oleg Burov exits the Soviet supermarket he’s investigating for corruption, the camera follows him through the aisles for a while but eventually allows him to exit the store alone. While he leaves, it stays behind, watching the shoppers browse the sparse shelves. Most prominent in the frame is a woman in a headscarf, one of many in the store. But the shot lasts too long for her to be just another extra. Is she a spy sent by the US or the USSR to keep tabs on Oleg? Is she about to do something unusual or unpleasant, or is something unusual or unpleasant about to be done to her? Wait—is she…familiar looking? Her face turns toward the camera just as the scene’s focus on her becomes impossible to ignore. Behold: Martha, Philip’s wife and asset and victim, going about her new life in the country that took away her old one. “Is it hard, pretending to be other people?” Paige asks her parents elsewhere in the episode. Philip tells her yes, it is. Martha could no doubt do the same.
We open with Johnny Cash on the soundtrack, as Mike “Wags” Wagner, the most Billions character on Billions, pours his heart out to his liege lord Bobby Axelrod and getting screamed at in response. No, wait—a “48 HOURS EARLIER” chyron reveals that we’re opening, with Johnny Cash on the soundtrack, in South Korea, where some poor schmoe involved in the manufacture of some obviously faulty smartphone takes a header out his hotel window, cutting off the music and setting off a soft “thud” and the sounds of screeching cars and screaming pedestrians below. We cut to Mafee, one of Axe Captial’s mid-rung hedgebros, running headlong into Bobby’s office only to find him absent. We cut to where Bobby is: at a racetrack with his kid and Frenchy from Goodfellas, where he’s tring to get a line on the locale of an upstate New York casino that’s in the works until word about the smartphone debacle reaches him. And from there, it really is off to the races.
“Currency,” the fifth episode of Billions’ shockingly good second season, is as ruthlessly efficient a storytelling machine as its predecessors. There’s not a plot beat that doesn’t reveal character, and there’s not a character revelation that doesn’t advance the plot. Guest stars—from the aforementioned Mike “Frenchy” Starr, to Dennis Boutsikaris, Danny Strong, and Jerry O’Connell as recurring rival hedge fund gurus turned potential allies, to Ritchie Coster of True Detective Season Two doing a sort of Mayor Chessani redux as a gambling-industry hotshot, to Mad Men villain Allan “Lou Avery” Havey as the boss of Christopher Denham’s superlative rat-squad investigator Oliver Dake—shine. Leading players get some of their strongest moments, from Bobby ripping up Lara’s ambitions out of pique to Chuck admitting to Wendy that he’s always felt like she was out of his league—a confession she was utterly flummoxed to hear, which illustrates how strained their relationship really was. Jokes hit hard as well: cf. Bobby asking his hapless underling Mafee, who has a major tipoff but is afraid to divulge it, “Are you transmitting the details to me telepathically?”; Chuck asking his more competent subordinate Kate if she’s ever gone hunting and her replying “No—I’m black”; Chuck asking Go enthusiast Bryan Connerty if he takes a vow of celibacy to adhere to the game’s ancient roots and Bryan responding “No, that’s just the end result”; brash psychotherapist Dr. Gus barking at his boss Bobby to “Let me into that kitchen!”
All of this is in service to some of the tightest plotting on television.
Billions is so good right now. I reviewed last night’s super-taut episode for the New York Observer. Pay special attention to the structural sharp left turn it makes near the end of the episode — that’s damn strong writing.
When Philip and Elizabeth Jennings take a trip to the local Bennigan’s for a family dinner, they don’t come alone. Yes, they bring their fake adopted son, secretly a Vietnamese spy, and the family of their target, a Soviet defector who claims to be working for the Department of Agriculture but seems to be part of a bioweapons program. But they, or more accurately the filmmakers behind their show The Americans, also bring a lingering shot of the bustling salad bar…accompanied by the sound of people coughing and sneezing. You can’t see the culprits, but they’re there, somewhere, and their bodies are coating the food with filth.
I reviewed this week’s paranoiac episode of The Americans for the New York Observer. By the way, I have a crazy theory about where it’s all headed: Paige kills Stan.
There’s this bit toward the end of Road House—the 1989 cult classic in which, and I promise I’m not kidding, Patrick Swayze and Sam Elliot play world-famous bouncers trying to defend a small town from Ben Gazzara, the ruthless owner of the local JC Penney—which requires the main character, Dalton, to go to the titular bar twice in quick succession. Director (again, I am in no way kidding) Rowdy Herrington sets up both scenes with prolonged shots of Swayze pulling up to the bar, parking his car in its dirt lot, getting out of the car, trotting up the stairs, and entering the establishment. Suffice it to say that this film is not some vérité experiment; it depicts the parking of a car twice in a row because it’s slovenly, not thoughtful. Don’t get me wrong, Road House is a marvelous time at the movies, but not because of what the Mystery Science Theater 3000 veterans at RiffTrax refer to as “ah yes, the famous Parking Scene.”
Friends, a whole of shows these days are stuck with Dalton in that goddamn parking lot. From infamous victims of Netflix Bloat like Jessica Jones and Luke Cage to prestige (or prestige-adjacent) projects like Taboo and The Path, just to name a few, too many series pad out their running times and flatten out their editing rhythms with meaningless transition shots. WATCH as Tom Hardy walks down an alley to look for someone who isn’t there? THRILL as Krysten Ritter and Mike Colter stroll through a semi-reasonably realistic version of New York! SWOON as Aaron Paul and Michelle Monaghan drive places while looking anxious! Again, we’re not talking about shows that artfully force us to confront the slow passage of time for some aesthetic or moral purpose, like The Americans—we’re just talking doughy, underbaked filmmaking.
Billions, I’m pleased to report, is not that kind of show. Not by a long shot. “The Oath,” its stellar second season’s fourth episode, is a strict machine, a marvel of efficiency, in which scenes are pared down to their bare essentials for both plot and character. The ep is helmed by Noah Emmerich, the great Stan Beeman on The Americans,—the latest in the season’s motley crew of distinctive directors, including The Handmaid’s Tale’s Reed Morano, indie-film team Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, and, remarkably, Going Clear documentarian Alex Gibney last week. Remarkably, every one of them takes the same “all killer, no filler” approach.
Which is nuts, considering all the crazy shit being flung at the wall; if you hadn’t watched a moment of this season and just heard it described, you’d assume the show was floundering. How else to explain this episode’s cameos by The Americans’ Richard Thomas as a billionaire philanthropist with a Deadwood-level flair for articulate obscenities, Mad Men’s James “Not great, Bob!” Wolk as an Elon Musk-esque aerospace entrepreneur, and actual literal Mark Cuban as himself?
Yet another crackerjack episode of Billions this week; I reviewed it for the New York Observer, and got some digs in on my least favorite trend in TV in the process.
The Americans likes to let it linger. Ever since the show hit its stride toward the end of its second season—before then it was a perfectly fine spy thriller with sexy leads and a killer soundtrack rather than the prolonged moral autopsy of patriotism it became—it has specialized in letting both storylines and individual scenes simmer, or perhaps fester, for longer than most would dare. On a macro level, the revelation of undercover KGB agent Philip Jennings’s true identity to his duped “wife” Martha and her reaction to it spooled out over the better part of two seasons. Last year, his real wife Elizabeth maintained a friendship with her charming South Korean immigrant target Young Hee for episode after episode before the series revealed her intentions. And on a micro level, the show has specialized in rubbing its viewers’ faces in the horrifying nature of the Jennings’ trade for minutes on end. Think of Philip shattering the bones in the nude corpse of his informant and lover so that he and her killer could stuff her body in a suitcase. Think of Elizabeth having a heart to heart with the kindly older woman who ran a repair shop she’d infiltrated, both of them knowing all the while that death was on the way. Think of the necklacing of the apartheid-era South African enemy agent they helped capture, of how he screamed and sizzled during his seemingly endless immolation.
“Amber Waves,” The Americans’ fifth season premiere, closes with another case in point.
I reviewed the season premiere of The Americans for the New York Observer, where I’ll be covering it all season. Let’s just say that contra some other takes you might have read, it doesn’t make me pine for the so-called simpler times of the Cold War.
Billions Season Two does a lot of things very well, but it may do new characters best of all. Sure, the old faves are better than ever (just by way of a for instance, I’m still laughing at how David Costabile’s Wags responds to someone telling him “Well, have fun” with a mischievous “How could I not?). But when you’ve got newcomers like gender-nonbinary genius Taylor (Asia Kate Dillon) and madman therapist Dr. Gus (Mark Kudisch) on the roster, you’d be insane not to put them head to head.
So you go into Taylor and Dr. Gus’s therapy(?) session expecting fireworks, and you get them—up to a point. Taylor deadpans that they’ve had over 900 hours of therapy; Dr. Gus claps his hands in their face and barks “One: This isn’t therapy. Two: I’ve had more fuckin’ therapy than you have.” He culminates with the closest thing to an actual insight he’s given anyone yet, dubious though it may be: “Three: Every time you step away from doing something that makes you feel great, even if it makes you feel sad, something inside of you dies. When you feel emotionally messy, take yourself someplace where the boundaries are clean.” This is exactly advanced-level variation of “if it feels good, do it” this dude would dole out, and in Taylor’s case it might even be helpful.
But while the old Billions would have emptied both barrels into a faceoff between these two very different but (I stress this) very awesome characters as recently as the Axe vs. Rhoades mano a mano that gave the Season One finale “The Conversation” its title (well, that and its flagrant swipes from Francis Ford Coppola’s espionage masterpiece), there’s a new Billions now. This one cuts the scene short after a couple of minutes, content to give us a taste of the pairing without making us choke on it. The restraint is delicious.
I reviewed tonight’s marvelous episode of Billions for the New York Observer. It’s just insane how much fun this show has become. It took me days to write this review, simply because I’ve yet to crack the code of how to write about a version of Billions that’s just a total blast.
Suddenly, Billions is one of the most delightful fucking things on TV. Hey, don’t ask me, I just work here! But after two episodes including tonight’s rip-roarin’ “Dead Cat Bounce,” the show’s second season has turned the first outing’s (very) occasional flashes of wit and heat into a strobe light designed to trigger the pleasure center of your brain into some kind of awesome epilepsy. The schemes and plots are dizzying but perfectly constructed, the main characters are holding their own, the supporting players bring down the house, and the whole thing feels like almost a brand new show. It’s too soon to tell if this will be as big a turnaround as series like Halt and Catch Fire and The Leftovers experienced, and that may be an apples-to-oranges comparison anyway—they’re far more serious dramas, for one thing, and for another they were already on the upswing by their first season finales, while Billions stumbled through that particular finish line. But I’m enjoying pretty much every second of screentime, and it’s one of the young year’s most pleasant televised surprises (Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway notwithstanding).
Billions and Breaking Bad have something in common. No, it isn’t just the wonderful twinkle-eyed actor David Costabile, so heartbreakingly hapless as Gale in the latter and so delightfully sleazy as Wags in the former. In several of its season premieres, Breaking Bad began by showing Walter White in some terrible jam: recording a farewell to his family as sirens close in, owning a pool strewn with scorched debris, stowing a freshly purchased machine gun in the trunk of his car. The question these cold opens posed was simple: How the hell is he gonna get out of this one?
“Risk Management,” Billions’ second season premiere, doesn’t play the flash-forward time-shift games that Vince Gilligan’s methamphetamine magnum opus did, beyond a inserting a “THREE DAYS EARLIER” tag following our opening glimpses of hedge-fund kingpin Bobby Axelrod mostly for effect. But it lands its protagonist, U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades, in a similarly inextricable predicament. By the end of the episode, he’s been slapped with 127 lawsuits simultaneously—all bankrolled by Bobby—while a government investigation has uncovered an apparent smoking gun in the form of Axelrod’s five-million-dollar payout to his wife Wendy the very day Rhoades dropped his own investigation into Axe Capital. Even as he meets with the federal judge with whom he quid-pro-quos to stay a step ahead of political turmoil, he gets the call from the Attorney General summoning him to Washington, where he’ll likely get the axe himself (no pun intended). As far as establishing stakes are concerned, Billions Season Two has come in hella high.
Fortunately, the quality of the episode has followed suit. Billions’ first season featured a stellar cast plucked from prestige-TV Valhalla that was simultaneously given both too much and too little to do: Schemes and storylines spidered out from the central Axe vs. Chuck conflict like crazy, but the byzantine plotting too often felt like padding and too rarely revealed reasons to care about any of the characters involved. This sucker, on the other hand? Drum-tight, high velocity, and fueled by each player’s most enjoyable attributes.
I reviewed the season premiere of Billions, which to my surprise I enjoyed quite a bit, for the New York Observer. As a side note, director Reed Morano’s work here should inspire confidence in Hulu’s upcoming adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, which she’s directing from start to finish.
There is no artist behind Slender Man, not in the panoptic, memetic form in which Morgan and Anissa encountered him. Slender Man’s “author” is the internet and the army of artists and writers and filmmakers and game designers who inhabit it. Only the accident of history, in which the original posts can be tracked down, enables us to put names to the faceless being at all. A few decades ago Slender Man would just be Bloody Mary or the killer with a hook for a hand who disrupts teenagers necking in their cars. A few centuries ago and he’d be the vampire a town feared enough to dig up graves and behead the corpses inside, or the witch who lures wayward children to their doom. With no artist in play, it becomes clear how fallacious it is to pin the blame on artists for the actions of disturbed individuals who consumed their art at all.
This is not to say art never affects society or inspires terrible things. When Jared Kushner crows about targeting ads for his odious father-in-law Donald Trump’s presidential campaign to viewers of The Walking Dead because of their concerns about immigration, he’s recognizing the fascist ideology that underlies both the show and the current administration. But art with an ideological vector connects the reader or viewer to a cohesive worldview, which, right or wrong, helps explain society and prescribe remedies for its ills. Action and reaction are to be expected.
That’s different from a movie about a pair of abused kids who become mass murderers and media superstars, or music by a glam-influenced Satanist, or creepy internet posts about a demon with no face. These merely provide monsters who embody fears and desires, not a political program. Those monsters will always exist in one form or another, and disturbed kids like Morgan and Anissa will always find them and use them as the mold into which they pour their crumbling sanity or mounting bloodlust. In blaming the art or the artist, we commit the exact same error, looking for a boogeyman to help us explain the inexplicable. We’re finding our own Slender Man to serve.
OBSERVER: How quickly did you find out that the show was gonna be renewed for a final season?
Chris Cantwell: We found out that afternoon, actually. The network called us and said, “Are you available for a conference call in four minutes?” They couldn’t find Chris, so I actually had to call Chris’s wife, which I try to never do for work. We got him on the phone, and they gave us they news, and they told us to call the cast, so we had to quickly call all the cast, and then they put the press release out like 45 minutes after that. They run a tight ship at AMC! They do it quickly.
This may be a stupid question, but how did that feel?
Chris Rogers: I mean, we were elated to get to do another season of the show. Somehow there’s gonna be 40 of these! You catch us on a nostalgic morning when we’re looking back on when we wrote this, and when it got picked up — when we thought it would never get picked up…To say there’s gonna be 40 episodes would’ve been beyond a dream at that time. You immediately register that, and the elation of getting to go back to Atlanta with this family we’ve built: the cast, the crew, the editors. We know their kids’ names, you know? So that is a thrill.
On another level, it’s bittersweet to see the end in sight. But it’s also kind of a creative gift, just to know that that’s what you’re writing to. We try to end each season like it could be the end of the series, but this year is gonna be different. Maybe it gives us the ammunition to top this third season, which frankly we kinda put everything we could into. So, a lot of emotions. We’re feeling all the feelings tonight.
“Luke Cage” thoughts, Season One, Episodes 11, 12, and 13: “Now You’re Mine,” “Soliloquy of Chaos,” and “You Know My Steez”October 12, 2016
You could cut fully five hours of fat from Luke Cage without losing a single story beat or worthwhile idiosyncrasy. Seriously, it’d be possible to preserve every major plot point and every successful bit of local color, every musical performance and every smackdown, yet still delete enough dead air, aimless conversation, redundant dialogue, over-scored soundtracking, and endless scenes of people walking from place to place to create a version of the show that’s essentially as-is, but tighter and quicker and, frankly, better.
“Luke Cage” thoughts, Season One, Episodes Eight, Nine, and Ten: “Blowin’ Up the Spot,” “DWYCK,” and “Take It Personal”October 7, 2016
Erik LaRay Harvey is one of my favorite television actors of all time. As Dunn Purnsley, the silver-tongued, snake-eyed underling of Michael K. Williams’ crime-boss character Chalky White on Boardwalk Empire, he took what could have been an exceedingly minor character and made him an absolutely mesmerizing presence every time he appeared on screen. Watching him slide from one side to another in the various gang wars that rocked Atlantic City was riveting, as was simply listening to him, since like many performers on that show he developed a voice that was a period-appropriate pleasure to listen to. Purnsley radiated the sense that he was more than the sum of his parts; when his bosses noticed this, so did you.
Now he’s playing Willis “Diamondback” Stryker, the prime mover of all of Luke Cage’s misfortunes and the show’s Big Bad, and yet he isn’t being given anything half as interesting to do.
It took a while, longer perhaps than for any other character, but Halt and Catch Firef ound a voice for Joe MacMillan. That voice is soft, sincere, thoughtful, emotionally direct. Actor Lee Pace gives that voice a tone that could be used to read bedtime stories to children, or to communicate deeply held beliefs or long-hidden secrets to a loved one who can be trusted with them. It’s a voice that sounds like Joe himself now looks: eyes made owlish by round Lennonesque glasses, face softened by a brown beard, hair lush and loose, clothes selected for autumnal comfort rather than boardroom barbarity. One of the many tragedies of “You Are Not Safe,” this week’s quietly shocking episode, is that this voice does him no good. He can’t use it to help his friend Gordon move forward with their grand plans. He can’t use it to save his friend Ryan’s life. He’s finally the man he truly is deep down, and it doesn’t matter. Everything turns to shit around him anyway.
“Luke Cage” thoughts, Season One, Episodes Five, Six, and Seven: “Just to Get a Rep,” “Suckers Need Bodyguards,” and “Manifest”October 5, 2016
But that doesn’t stop this section of Luke’s first season from continuing to make the case for the series as one of the better live-action Marvel projects to date. As was the case with Daredevil — first with Wilson Fisk and his confidants Wesley and Vanessa, then with rival vigilantes the Punisher and Elektra — and in stark contrast to Jessica Jones, Cage takes the time and effort to complicate its villains. This starts with Detective Scarfe, played with sleazeball desperation by Frank Whaley. Yes, he’s snide and insufferable every time we see him with his criminal associates. But as his partner Misty Knight explains at length during the manhunt for him when he goes missing after a gun deal gone bad with Cottonmouth, Scarfe really did look out for her, mentor her, and support her when no one else on the force would. What’s more, he lost his son to a gun accident caused by his own carelessness. In the end, he confesses his crimes and dies trying to flee to safety at One Police Plaza, where he plans to turn himself in and testify against Cottonmouth and his army of crooked cops. Dies in the arms of a sobbing Misty, whose repeated cries of “No!” echo those of Luke himself when Pop died in his arms just a couple episodes back. In this way, the show deliberately makes a connection between the man it’s held up as secular saint and a crooked murderer, implicitly arguing that life has some inherent value no matter what you’ve done with it.
I reviewed the fifth, sixth, and seventh episodes of Luke Cage — spending a lot of time not just on Scarfe but on Cottonmouth and Mariah, who reach serious turning points, to say the least — for the New York Observer. Very happy with the direction the show has taken with its antagonists.
“Luke Cage” thoughts, Season One, Episodes Two, Three, and Four: “Code of the Streets,” “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight,” “Step in the Arena”October 3, 2016
Stated for the record: With four episodes of Luke Cage under my belt, I still have over two-thirds of the season to go. (That strikes me as a problem all on its own, but more on that later.) Yet I’d be enormously surprised if anything in the nine episodes that remain tops the sequence from episode three, “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight,” in which Luke raids the Crispus Attucks compound with the Wu-Tang Clan’s “Bring Da Ruckus” blasting in his earphones. Marvel’s “hip-hop variant” cover program (in which monthly superhero comics get a special makeover designed to look like classic album art from the genre) and snippets of Ghostface Killah in the first Iron Man (the character he took his alias Tony Starks from) notwithstanding, the nexus of hip-hop and superhero comics has waited a long, long time for a moment this huge. You could make the argument that using such an enormous song helps get the show over with the audience in a way it couldn’t pull of on its own — aka Stranger Things syndrome — but I’d beg to differ. Hip-hop in general and the Wu-Tang Clan in particular have derived so much inspiration from Marvel’s heroes and villains; clearly, the makers of Luke Cage were legitimately inspired in turn. It doesn’t feel like swaggerjacking — it feels like a twenty-one gun salute.
And the scene itself more than stands on its own two legs, or more accurately plows through an army of goons on them. Just as Daredevil defined its hero’s fighting style and his overall ethos in the massive hallway and stairway fights against the Russian mafia and a biker gang respectively that served as early highlights of its first two seasons, so too does Luke Cage establish its title character’s modus operandi. Where Daredevil used a combination of martial-arts precision and sheer ability to take a beating to best his opponents, Luke is both less elegant and less endangered. Armed with nothing more than a car door, a piece of rebar he peels from a smashed wall, a sofa, and the goons themselves, he simply strides through all of Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes and his cousin Councilwoman Mariah Dillard’s footsoldiers, grabs what he wants, and leaves. He’s the superhero as blunt instrument, too fed up with the bullshit to be anything but a closed fist in the face of any and every obstacle. (The political resonance there is unspoken but obvious.) What we see from him here is the same approach that will get him out of both his prison and the ruins of his apartment in the subsequent episode, “Step in the Arena”: He’s too confident, stubborn, and irritated by his enemies to be stopped. Not to put too fine a point on it, but he brings the mother[censored] ruckus.
I reviewed episodes 2-4 of Luke Cage for the New York Observer. I feel like you can start to see signs of strain by the end, but in the meantime the acting, writing, action, and cultural specificity remain strong.
Luke Cage’s biggest leg up on Jessica Jones, its predecessor and the launchpad for its title character, is who and how it cast. Though it emerged as the most acclaimed of the 2010s’ superhero TV shows, Jessica dumbed down and flattened out its lead as she was portrayed in the comics by writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Michael Gaydos, turning her from a good-hearted but self-destructive and entertainingly profane fuckup into a one-dimensional, glowering, sarcasm-spewing, hard-drinking, hardboiled-detective stereotype. This gave talented actor Krysten Ritter little to do but shoot people dirty looks in the same outfit for 13 episodes. The less said about David Tennant’s hambone turn as Killgrave, her telepathic abuser and nemesis, the better, as his scenery-chewing, mustache-twiddling performance did a tremendous disservice to the serious issues of rape and trauma the show attempted to address. (That attempt got it a lot of credit, more than the execution deserved). Carrie-Anne Moss and Robin Weigert were involved in a love-gone-horribly-bad storyline that had some bite to it at first, until the plot required Moss’s character to free a maniac in order to get a more favorable divorce settlement, a logical low point for the series (which is saying something). Everyone else in Jessica’s cast had the bland competence and attractiveness of cast members added to a CW show in its third season.
Cage, by contrast, boasts Jessica’s standout guest star Mike Colter as the title character (originally created by Archie Goodwin and John Romita Sr.), a wrongfully convicted ex-con granted bulletproof skin and super strength in an prison experiment, but who’s now trying to live low as he hides from his enemies and continues to mourn his late wife. Colter was the liveliest, most magnetic presence on Jessica Jones (at least until Rosario Dawson showed up in the final episode); here he’s given the spotlight all on his own, and he absolutely shines in it. It’s not just that he’s a convincing street-level superhero a la Charlie Cox’s Daredevil or Jon Bernthal’s Punisher, or that he’s equally adroit at conveying Luke’s sense of squandered opportunities and paycheck-to-paycheck struggling — it’s that this show requires him to be a romantic lead, in a big way. Despite Ritter’s humdrum performance, his romance with Jones generated a whole lot of heat. In this episode alone, whether he’s gently rebuffing the advances of a law student whose son gets his hair cut at the barber shop where he works or flirting and, eventually, fucking as-yet unnamed cop Misty Knight (Simone Missick, every bit his physical and chemical equal), he makes Luke seem as effortlessly charming as James Bond, finding a way to make each of his flirtations feel plausible and irresistible for both parties. Only a handful of actors in a generation have the blend of good looks, good-natured warmth, and genuine physical danger that such a part requires to really work. As one of the barbershop regulars puts it, “You either got it or you don’t.” Colter’s got it.
I’m reviewing Luke Cage for the New York Observer, starting with the pilot episode. You never can tell with pilots, especially for the Marvel/Netflix’s long-feeling 13-episode seasons, but this was better than Jessica Jones’s pilot, which by the low standards of that series was actually one of the better installments.
A confession: I use Halt and Catch Fire reviews as a chance to show off. Because I like the show so much, because I feel it excels at, basically, everything a drama can and should excel at — casting, acting, cinematography, set design, soundtrack, screenwriting, you name it — I kind of see it as a chance to stunt, you know what I mean? The episode sets an emotional tone, and I try to maintain that tone in my writing. The phrase I come back to is “wax rhapsodic.” Or as I put it to my therapist last week, “If the show sings, then goddammit, the review’s gotta sing too.”
What to do, then, with “The Threshold”? What to do with an episode so good, so intelligently written, so beautifully filmed, so thoughtfully scored, so movingly acted, so cathartically plotted, that it stops me dead in my tracks? What to do with an episode that pays off fully three years of relationships, storylines, individual growth in a series of apocalyptic emotional confrontations? What to do with an episode that feels like a Mad Men Season Five–level culmination of form and function?
Man, your guess is as good as mine.
All I can really do is report to you how I felt while I watched this thing. I felt breathless, like someone was socking me in the gut. I felt like I was watching one relationship I’d invested in after another topple and crumble, like a perverse game of interpersonal dominos.
And think of how these people look! The physical energy between Gordon and Cameron is thick and inviting enough to eat like a pastry. Both of them wear comfortable white shirts — Gordon’s a tee, Cam’s a tank — that make you want to reach out and feel the firmness of their shoulders. Joe and Ryan make a point of getting the finest suits they can to impress their prospective business partners; they are just radiantly confident and handsome in them. John and Diane’s now-easy chemistry is displayed while they’re framed against the brick wall of the gay bar they escape to for drinks; you can all but feel the cool air the bricks retain even as things heat up for the people sitting near them. (This makes the evening’s eventual souring, when John fucks things up by passing on going back to her place after they’ve fooled around in his car, feel like an almost physical affront to how things ought to be.) Donna, finally, is so taken by the opulence of her new surroundings that she literally takes off all her clothes to wear it all like an expensive sweater, or slip into it like a bath. And she was drifting through the backyard, and she was taking off her dress. Our princess, in another castle.
Halt and Catch Fire has hit its imperial phase. Everything is working. Goddamn, this show is good.
Gordon and Donna Clark experience a similar discrepancy of desire, where Gordon, like Boz, learns he never had the relationship he though he had at all. Giving up on an overly taxing camping trip, the Clarks opt for a staycation; with the kids out of the house, this mainly means the chance to stay in and fuck all day. (“We haven’t had sex twice in one day since the Ford administration!”) Their chemistry is warm and sweet and sexy and wholly convincing…until the camping trip comes up again as pillow talk. To his unvoiced but readily apparent horror, Gordon learns from a laughing Donna that she found their annual outdoor excursions tolerable at best, “insanity” at worst. When she wakes the next morning, Gordon’s passive-aggressively cleaning the mess they made in the kitchen and unilaterally canceling the plans they’d made to continue the romantic weekend by going out for breakfast together. “Everything alright?” Donna asks, sensing that the answer may well be no. “Yeah,” Gordon lies. “Everything’s fantastic.” Suddenly their relationship seems doomed in a way that not even Gordon’s affair and hidden illness, Donna’s secret pregnancy and abortion, or their countless workplace clashes made plain.
I reviewed last night’s Halt and Catch Fire for the New York Observer. This show consistently surprises in the way real life surprises.
And when people go under, they sink like stones. Brought to an everybody-who’s-anybody party for Silicon Valley movers and shakers by Diane, Boz appears to be in his element — cracking jokes, telling tales, and generally cranking up the Texas charm. Indeed, from calling an audible during the Swapmeet buyout and driving down its price by a small fortune to bantering with Donna and the boys in the office, it’s this ability to command a room that attracted Diane to him in the first place. But in an ugly exchange that perfectly reproduces the brittle civility of enemies pretending to make nice, Joe MacMillan takes Boz’s number, calling his affable-backslapper routine a “performance.” Just last week Joe referred to himself as the product he’s concerned with selling; apparently he recognizes some of this in the old Dallas salesman, too.
By the time Boz makes his way back to Diane, Joe’s words have clearly dug in deep, reinforcing doubts he’d already had about his role at Mutiny and his place in their world at large. Unfortunately for Diane, she unwittingly echoes Joe’s veiled insults in a failed attempt to praise her date. She compliments him for the way he naturally steals the show at the party, but what he hears is further evidence that he’s some kind of dancing monkey, trotted out there for everyone’s amusement. As Diane flirts, it at first seems like Boz is oblivious, but before long it’s clear he knows exactly what she’s up to and is simply rejecting it. “Somewhere along the line I lost my taste for tobacco,” he says when she offers him a smoke, then adds “And champagne. Parties.” His tone grows more pointed with every word, his bonhomie curdles visibly on his face, and the overall effect is like biting on tinfoil. Thus a potential romance storyline that seemed like such a delightful sure thing when it was first hinted at just last week is swept off the board, because, well, that’s how things happen sometimes. Cold as this is, there’s still something warm about watching the baffling rhythms of legit emotional reality play out on a TV show.
I reviewed tonight’s episode of Halt and Catch Fire for the New York Observer. The command this show and these actors have over human behavior is gobsmacking at times.