Posts Tagged ‘new york observer’

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Eleven: “Dyatkovo”

May 17, 2017

I marvel at Irina Dubova, the actor who plays the ill-fated “Natalie Granholm,” whose sad fate occupies the final reel of the episode and whose hometown, “Dyatkovo” gives it its name. The weight placed on this guest player’s shoulders, to bear the brunt of the hatred and horror and violence that has been brewing for episode after episode all season long. The need to lie convincingly, and then lie unconvincingly, and then tell the truth unconvincingly, and then tell the truth so convincingly it tears your goddamn guts out. “Natalie” was once someone else entirely—a teenage girl whose family was murdered by the Einsatzgruppen, the roving killing squads responsible for conducting the Nazi Holocaust on the move throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. She was gang-pressed into working for them afterwards, you see. And worse than accepting her punishment from Elizabeth and Philip, tasked by the Centre with executing her for the crime, is the idea of this happening in front of her American husband. “Please don’t hurt him,” she says. “Please, he doesn’t know,” she says. “He thinks…I’m wonderful,” she says. Christ.

“There was no reason,” she says of her survival among the Nazis, when her husband has returned home and finds himself at the mercy of the Jennings alongside her “Nothing made any sense. They give me food. I was obedient, helpless.” Quite suddenly and quite unexpectedly, I found myself crying over this woman, along with this woman, a minor character we’ve never seen before tonight and, as was becoming increasingly apparent, would never see again. “The first time,” she continued, “they gave me so much to drink I could barely stand up.” Thinking that I knew where this was headed, I started crying harder. “The first time…?” one of the Jennings asks—at this point my notes begin breaking down too—and Natalie-not-Natalie replies “…that they shot them,” and my understanding of the horror reverses course yes, but it deepens as well, as does my sobbing. That the Nazis assaulted her, violated her person, seems drearily likely. But they forced her into complicity with their violation of others, too—countless others, vast unmarked graves full of others. This is what she decides to tell her husband and her killers about in her last minutes on earth—what she did, or was forced to do, to others, not what others did to her.

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

“Better Call Saul” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Six: “Off Brand”

May 17, 2017

From The Blair Witch Project to The Ring to Adult Swim, filmmakers have long been aware of the horrific potential of the VHS tape. Few have used it as subtly but disturbingly as director Keith Gordon did on Better Call Saul this week. Fresh from helping to transform Perfect Strangers star Mark Linn-Baker into a figure of menace on The Leftovers a few weeks back and working from a smart script by Ann Cherkis, Gordon closes out the episode with a look at the frenetic ad for an ad hoc advertising agency, created by an incognito Jimmy McGill to recoup the cost of the commercials he’s now legally forbidden to run. Screening the commercial for Kim, Jimmy presses pause on the VCR right at the end. At the top of the screen is the pseudonym he’s chosen for the project: SAUL GOODMAN. At the bottom, there’s the wavy distortion and static of a freeze-framed videocassette. “That guy has a lot of energy,” Kim deadpans. “It’s just a name,” Jimmy replies. But the screen says it all. That name will alter Jimmy out of recognition, and warp the whole world around him.

I reviewed this week’s episode of Better Call Saul for the New York Observer. I spend a lot of time talking about how good Michael Mando is as Nacho.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Ten: “Darkroom”

May 10, 2017

“The badly knitted flank might not have caused an accident in and of itself, but further weakened by the frailty of the competitors it set a scene for death on an unprecedented scale.”

—Clive Barker, “In the Hills, the Cities”

I reviewed this week’s episode of The Americans, in part by leading with a quote from Clive Barker, because I can, for the New York Observer.

“Better Call Saul” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Five: “Chicanery”

May 10, 2017

Yeah, I know that there are viewers who are vocally disinterested in the Chuck vs. Jimmy storyline, because I see them saying so on social media. (To be fair, you can see people say just about anything on social media—get a load of this crank who hates Mad Max: Fury Road, for instance. The nerve of some people!) This is a disinterest I don’t share, and understand only insofar as I understand that there will always be an audience segment who dislikes the most prominent non-criminal on any show involving criminals. But by god, Better Call Saul is at least in part about what two damaged, middle-aged brothers do to one another, despite the love they constantly and sincerely profess. When was the last time you saw anything like that on television?

I’m consistently amazed by how well the show, and actors Michael McKean and Bob Odenkirk, handle this particular strain of love-hate relationship—the resentment that comes from being tied to one another like a rat king, unable to permanently break free of one another because they care, driven to new heights of anger and vengeance because of it. Both characters are smooth talkers in their own way—Chuck is a high-class attorney, Jimmy’s a confidence man—so the choice of the creators and performers to depict their moments of greatest conflict by making their voices break and crack with rage is a brilliant one. Think of Jimmy screaming like a madman when he breaks in to Chuck’s house. Think of Chuck lashing out at Jimmy over his law degree, comparing him to a chimp with a machine gun. Think of the climactic scene of this episode, with Chuck uncontrollably venting a literal lifetime of spite and disgust against his baby brother, near tears as he recalls Jimmy’s juvenile betrayal of their hard-working father decades ago. That shit is so real to me, so raw. In each man’s voice you can hear the cognitive dissonance: They really do love and care about the person they hate most in the world. How can you live with that? How can you live like that? We’re finding out, and it isn’t a story with a happy ending.

I reviewed this week’s Better Call Saul for the New York Observer. It occurs to me that as much as I enjoy the Mike material on this show, more than the Jimmy material on balance I’d say, the Chuck/Jimmy scenes, or perhaps more accurately the Michael McKean/Bob Odenkirk scenes, are the things that stick with me the longest. I’ve never seen this before.

“Billions” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Twelve: “Ball in Hand”

May 8, 2017

Last week’s time-jumping cat-and-mouse game was Billions’ equivalent of Game of Thrones episodes like “Blackwater” or “The Rains of Castamere”: a climax that comes in the penultimate episode so that the finale’s mopping-up operation has room to breathe. But “Ball in Hand,” the finale for the financial thriller’s killer sophomore season, does more than pick up the pieces. It plays with them, juggles them, and rearranges them before moving them into their final positions. It’s a marvel to behold. This show has gotten so good at playing to its characters’ strengths that seeing the show uncover new ones in the season finale is surprising to the point of “okay, now you’re just showing off.”

I reviewed the excellent season finale of Billions’ excellent second season for the New York Observer. What a pleasure this show has been to watch.

I also met the cast and creators and took a selfie with David Costabile last week. 🙂

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Nine: “IHOP”

May 4, 2017

The Americans is no stranger to boredom. Boredom is the flipside of the danger and glamour that are Philip and Elizabeth Jennings’ nominal stock in trade. It’s the constant travel to decidedly un-exotic destinations like Topeka and Harrisburg, the endless surveillance and reconnaissance details, the dull dinner dates with uninteresting people they only pretend to like, the logistics and mechanics of spycraft which are so often no more thrilling than what an HVAC technician might do. But “IHOP,” this week’s episode, pushed the tedium envelope farther than ever. It showed Philip and Elizabeth doing jobs—listening to untold hours of recorded office chatter on the one hand, sitting around watching late night television while waiting for their teen-spy “son” Tuan to return home on the other—that are boring not just by their standards, but by ours. If you’ve ever sat in on a lengthy conference-call meeting or killed time until a delivery guy showed up, you know their pain. Almost, anyway. You never had to worry that you might need to kill someone at the end of it all.

Watching this episode, I was struck by just how exhausted everyone looks and sounds. Some of the characters are quite vocal about it, in fact; the language of enduring, or failing to endure, is everywhere. In a well-intentioned but poorly received attempt to check up on an asset who gave everything for the cause, wittingly or not, Gabriel tells Martha (Alison Wright, returning for a second welcome cameo this season) that he retired because he was just “done.” The late Frank Gaad’s widow tells Stan Beeman, making a parallel visit, that everything’s been so quiet since her husband’s funeral. We finally get to see the CIA bigshot father of Kimmy (Julia Garner, another face it’s good to see again), and he looks like a fatigued middle manager rather than the heroic hard-charger Kimmy and Philip’s conversations had conjured. The priest-slash-spy who reports to Philip in Gabriel’s absence suggests that he pray: “It is a great solace,” he says, “especially when you live this kind of life.” In a particularly unpleasant heart-to-heart, Oleg’s father bitterly describes decades of life with his mother, a changed woman after her experiences in a prison camp, as a sort of jail sentence itself. Tuan schleps all the way to Pennsylvania to surreptitiously call his former adoptive family back in Seattle, whose six-year-old son is suffering from leukemia. Philip half-suspects Tuan wanted to be caught doing this in order to get sent home, “pulled out of this shit, start over.” “It’s not who he is,” Elizabeth says, disagreeing. You have to wonder who she’s trying to kid.

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

“Better Call Saul” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Four: “Sabrosito”

May 4, 2017

It’s not a cold open so much as a cool, refreshing one: Don Eladio, the drug-cartel king played by the delightful Stephen Bauer, going for a dip in his lovely in-ground swimming pool. Several years later he’ll take a real dive into that thing, victim of a poisoning plot orchestrated by Gus Fring and Mike Ehrmantraut that will leave him and the entire leadership caste of the cartel dead. So much of “Sabrosito,” this week’s episode of Better Call Saul, feels like a direct prequel to that stand-out episode of Breaking Bad that the end result is the most Breaking Bad-esque episode of BCS ever. That yellow south-of-the-border tint to the film, the constant dick-measuring between Eladio and his underbosses Hector Salamanca and Juan Bolsa, Gus getting in the good graces of Albuquerque’s public servants, a confrontation with Hector in the Los Pollos Hermanos restaurant Gus personally manages designed to test his patience, a late-night deal struck between Gus and Mike as two wary men who each respect the way the other does business—it’s all straight from the BB playbook.

If you’re the sort who’s had your fill of Breaking Bad, or simply doesn’t think it should slowly assume control of its Better Call Saul host organism like the alien from The Thing, this might be cause for concern. I still think that concern is misplaced. The vibe may be familiar from BB, but it’s still unmistakably BCS in pacing and staging; as director Thomas Schnauz has noted, even the scene at Don Eladio’s compound, as direct a throwback as you can get, was shot with a more stationary and staid camera than they’d have used on the previous series.

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

“Billions” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Eleven: “Golden Frog Time”

May 1, 2017

In a dazzling display of plot-mechanic pyrotechnics, the final minutes of the episode reveal that everything you thought you knew was wrong was actually right all along. Deftly playing with the “TWO WEEKS AGO / TWO DAYS AGO / EARLIER TODAY / NOW” time-jumping that the show’s done on and off all season, co-creators and co-writers David Levien and Brian Koppelman peel back the various schemes and double-crosses like an onion—only to reapply the shit they peeled back and then peel it back again to reveal what’s really going on. In short, this is Billions at its best.

I reviewed this week’s episode of Billions, which was peak Billions, for the New York Observer. This is the kind of episode the show’s been building to for a long time.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Eight: “Immersion”

April 27, 2017

Watching and reviewing Better Call Saul and The Americans on consecutive nights for weeks at a time has made me realize something: I want a television of and about and for the Soft-Spoken Man. I want Jonathan Banks, Giancarlo Esposito, Matthew Rhys, Noah Emmerich, Frank Langella, and Brandon J. Dirden to record ASMR YouTube videos for me. I love those Quiet Boys, man. Love ‘em!

“Immersion,” this week’s episode of The Americans, has plenty to love on that score, made easier to notice since the plot’s in a bit of a holding pattern. Langella, granted, is gone, with his character Gabriel returning to the motherland and his peer (and one-time flame) Claudia stepping back into his shoes as Philip and Elizabeth Jennings’ handler.

But Emmerich and Dirden work wonders in a storyline that’s been kept at such a low simmer you’d have to check to make sure the stove was even lit. Their FBI agents Stan Beeman and Dennis Aderholt are continuing to work their extremely jittery, extremely sweet-natured potential informant among the Soviet delegation in D.C., walking her up and down a museum’s lengthy rectangular gallery while getting an earful of her hopes and dreams (she just wants her son to be able to go to college and to pay for a nice house for the two of them to live in; she loves eating pizza and will earnestly do her best to convince her coworkers that’s all she’s been spending her lunch break doing). Stan and Dennis have such a curious chemistry as partners—a good cop/good cop rapport that feels sort of like if, I dunno, Hal Linden and Alan Alda were the stars of Miami Vice. They care about their work, care about each other, care about people. This makes them almost singularly unsuited to their task, but what are you gonna do? They end their storyline for the night by planning to scoop their informant off the street before she’s even started to inform—that’s how sensitive they are to her nervousness, and how worried they are it’s justified.

Don’t believe the anti-prestige-TV hype part 2: I reviewed this week’s fine episode of The Americans for the New York Observer.

“Better Call Saul” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Three: “Sunk Costs”

April 27, 2017

Better Call Saul has truly gone Bad. “Sunk Costs,” this week’s episode, witnesses the return of many of Breaking Bad’s visual signatures. The hazy yellow desert coloring. The vistas of flat lands and big sky. The low-angle shots of dangerous men with the cloud-strewn blue above them. The episode-opening close-ups of various damaged objects—most notably shoes dangling from a wire until, worn down by the elements, they drop to the ground near a bullethole-ridden Spanish-language stop sign—the significance of which will not be made clear until the end of the hour (if then). Mike’s tense conversation with Gus in the middle of the empty highway, with future Head Goons in Charge Victor and Tyrus standing by, is straight out of the Walter White saga, with actors Giancarlo Esposito and Jonathan Banks exchanging terse just-so statements and queries in their own very different no-nonsense ways. BB’s style was, and is, so distinctive that its successors can switch it on at will, like a regional accent if not a whole second language.

This is still Better Call Saul, though, and even the BB-esque Mike half of the episode maintains the current series’ unique rhythms. By now the laconic pacing of Ehrmantraut’s tradecraft is the most talked-about aspect of the show, and likely the most frequently mocked as well: because I’m a good-natured sort I enjoyed Chapo Trap House podcaster Matt Christman’s joke that on next week’s episode, “Mike spends 40 real-time minutes putting a ship in a bottle.” Indeed, the show keeps the camera trained on him as he tosses a pair of sneakers into the air to catch on a power line a grand total of three times until they catch on the final throw. It’s just daring you to groan with impatience.

But watching a stone-cold operator like Mike methodically make his way through the world—in this case helping Gus sabotage their mutual enemy Hector Salamanca’s drug trafficking route by sprinkling contraband onto one of his trucks via a sniper bullet through the aforementioned drug-packed shoes—forces you to sit with sangfroid, effort, and ingenuity involved in carrying out violent, venal acts. It’s also an excuse to soak into the southwestern landscapes, the local homes and businesses, and the face of actor Jonathan Banks. It’s an experiential and ethical pacing choice, if there’s such a thing. Complaining that it’s not a pulse-pounding thrill ride is like watching Tarkovsky’s Stalker and yelling “Get on with it!”

Don’t believe the anti-prestige-TV hype part 1: I reviewed this week’s fine episode of Better Call Saul for the New York Observer.

“Billions” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Ten: “With or Without You”

April 24, 2017

Bobby Axelrod has come undone. For my money, this week’s episode of Billions (“With or Without You”) gives us a more convincing glimpse of the damage he can do in crisis mode than when he destroyed his own office building to look for nonexistent bugs last season. Bobby spends the episode in near-constant motion, driving and walking and pacing and flailing around in the search for Lara. A lot of shows waste time on their characters’ perambulations as a misguided matter of course; Billions shrewdly instrumentalizes them, giving the show the pacing of a thriller and making Bobby’s physical movement a metaphor for his racing and restless mind in his wife’s absence. And by making his first trip of many a visit to Wendy Rhoades in which he uses his sinister private investigator Hall to strong-arm her off the street and into his car (!!!), the show demonstrates just how far he’s willing to go.

Actor Damian Lewis is no stranger to playing characters who are so tightly wound and terrified they could snap at any moment thanks to his show-defining stint on Homeland. Here, he does his best work since that show’s darkest moments, slowly but surely revealing himself to be an abusive, controlling, contemptuous creep in a series of increasingly unhinged voicemails to Lara. He starts out upset, but not necessarily unreasonable; he may spend a bit too much time trying to shame Lara into regretting her snap decision to bolt rather than talk it out and to take the kids in the bargain—and a bit too little time actually apologizing for his role in prompting that decision—but he at least seems like someone she could have a conversation with were she calm enough herself. He shifts into remember-when mode (proving Tony Soprano right once and for all), comparing his feelings for her when they first met to “the thunderbolt” that hit Michael Corleone when he first laid eyes on his mild Sicilian dream girl Apollonia in The Godfather, then fast-forwarding to a trip they took to Paris where they couldn’t even bear to get out of bed long enough to stop “With or Without You” from playing on repeat.

But both of these fond memories are inverted with gut-punching force later on: “Apollonia got blown up by a fucking car bomb,” Lara points out to Bobby with appropriate venom when he repeats the comparison upon her return, while the iconic, romantic U2 hit plays as he surreptitiously deletes all the angry messages he left her while her phone was off over the course of the day. Good thing, too: By the end of it all he was screaming into the phone about how he was gonna teach her a lesson, how he could “operate you by remote control with a flick of my fucking finger,” how he shouldn’t have passed up the countless opportunities he had to fuck other women if this was all the thanks he got. Watching all this play out, you can see what Chuck Rhoades likely sees every time he looks at the guy: an entitled menace, with limitless resources to back it up.

I reviewed last night’s episode of Billions, one of the series’ best, for the New York Observer.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Seven: “The Committee on Human Rights”

April 20, 2017

The Americans is a great show for faces. Most great TV dramas are, of course—to name two currently running examples, if you can think of Better Call Saul without mentally counting the crags in every Jonathan Banks closeup or talk about The Leftovers without describing the way Carrie Coon choreographs her eyes and lips and brow in a complex dance of grief, just go ahead and delete those shows from your watchlist. But those shows’ warm and expressionistic lighting transforms those faces into works of art. The Americans is all about the gray-white light of a suburban afternoon or the harsh fluorescents of official spaces. Faces here look raw, inseparable from the physical reality of the human beings beneath them. When Paige Jennings tears up in “The Committee on Human Rights,” this week’s episode, because she’s dumping her boyfriend, it’s an action she doesn’t really know how to do, over reasons she doesn’t really know how to explain to herself much less to him. In those moments, her baffled but resolute face is recognizable to anyone who’s shared that terrible into-the-void pain. When Matthew Beeman stares at her, eyes growing dull with confusion and shock as he offers to do basically whatever she wants to keep the relationship going, you recognize that too. When Stan Beeman’s face lights up because his friend’s life has been spared and his boss has unexpectedly gone to bat for him, you really do see a guy who just got good news at work. Does this make sense? There’s something unadorned about The Americans’ faces, is what I’m getting at. They’re not staged for us. They feel more like something we’re peering through a window to see.

Which brings me to my favorite face of all. Matthew Rhys is such a pleasure to watch in this thing. Counterintuitive, I know, given that his job requires him to look constantly miserable. (It’s what made his cameo as a sleazy hotshot novelist during the final season of Girls such a perverse thrill: Finally, we get to see him enjoy doing terrible things instead of moping about them!) But within that range of facial expressions that stretches from exhausted to nauseated he’s able to locate so many variations and nuances. Other actors are a 12/3/6/9 wall clock with an hour hand and a minute hand; he’s able to pinpoint fleeting emotional beats to the millisecond.

I reviewed this week’s episode of The Americans for the New York Observer. Writing this review helped me push past some internal obstacles to my work lately, and I think it shows.

“Better Call Saul” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Two: “Witness”

April 18, 2017

“Witness” is the episode Better Call Saul viewers have long been waiting for, the one in which Gustavo “Gus” Fring finally makes his debut. Gus was—or is that will be?—the primary antagonist of Breaking Bad, the series to which BCS serves as a sequel. Watching Mike Ehrmantraut and his occasional partner of convenience Jimmy McGill work their way through their relatively petty crimes toward this apex predator’s stalking ground over the course of the past two seasons has been like hearing the longest, most morbid version of “The Aristocrats” ever told.

There was every risk that the introduction of such a massive figure, a mainstay in any list of the greatest villains the medium has ever produced, would throw this relatively quiet show’s careful balance of black comedy and quiet menace out of whack. But as it happens, we needn’t have worried at all. Gus doesn’t make the kind of grand entrance that would overwhelm the show’s dual-narrative structure, in which Jimmy’s love-hate relationship with his more successful but mentally ill brother Chuck slowly drags him into criminality on one half of the ledger while Mike’s natural talent for skullduggery and bloodletting push him deeper into the underworld on the other. Smartly, the show reunites the two characters for Gus’s introduction, sending Jimmy into his restaurant for a failed reconnaissance mission at Mike’s behest. By the time we realize who he is, the Chicken Man has been milling around in the background of the shot for several seconds, sweeping up like the conscientious manager of a fast-food place he pretends to be. As Jimmy sits and looks around for a sign of the man behind Mike’s pursuers, that very man slowly, slowly, slowly draws near to him, almost brushes up against him, and passes him by. His face is always either out of focus or out of frame entirely. The effect is like you’ve gone swimming in deep water, and you’re watching a friend float around obliviously as the silver-gray shape of a shark swims right past him.

I reviewed this week’s landmark Better Call Saul for the New York Observer. Well done, folks.

“Billions” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Nine: “Sic Transit Imperium”

April 18, 2017

Bobby Axelrod’s personal fortune would shame a Roman emperor’s. Shouldn’t his memento mori be equally upscaled? “Sic Transit Imperium,” this week’s episode of Billions, begins with his right-hand man Wags’s delivery of a birthday present: “The Arc,” a secure facility for billionaire survivalists and their families to hole up in the event of armageddon. The key comes in the shape of a fake Roman coin, “So goes the Empire” written on one side. L’état, c’est Axelrod—if he goes, the world goes with him.

But the episode ends with Bobby declining the gift. “I’LL NEVER ACCEPT THIS” reads the note that accompanies the coin-key he sends back to Wags in lieu of attending his own birthday party. The idea is that Bobby sees through it all. Sure, he’s obligated to do at least a little pro forma legacy-building and image-burnishing, as he does when he hires a “stuffed shirt” to direct his charitable efforts to the tune of $500K a year. But a lavish birthday party where his loyal subjects pay him homage and celebrate all they’ve built together? A luxury doomsday bunker so he can ride out the apocalypse in style? Avoiding a sure thing involving a soon to be scandal-plagued car company over paltry, mortal-human concerns like “it’s illegal” and “the tip comes from an ex-employee with an act to grind”? The hell you say! Attempts to ensure a smooth and safe future are a waste of his time and talent. As he says to Taylor in one of the episodes many surprisingly sincere exchanges, “The moral of the story is you get one life, so do it all.”  Sic transit imperium can take a back seat to carpe diem.

I reviewed this week’s Billions for the New York Observer. I have no idea if people are watching this show this season or what, particularly in what is by now one of the most crowded fields for good tv in as long as I’ve been doing this—at some point or other during the season’s run it will have competed for attention with Big Little Lies, Girls, The Americans, Taboo, The Leftovers, Harlots, Better Call Saul, Feud, Veep, Legion, American Crime, American Gods, The Handmaid’s Tale, Fargo, a tonal and qualitative mixed bag to be sure but all of them serious efforts—but boy did it get good.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Six: “Crossbreed”

April 13, 2017

It’s weird to spend this much time concerned about Philip, in a way. Even though he’s long been the conscience of the couple—the show began with him trying to persuade Elizabeth to defect, remember?—he’s spent most of the past few seasons worried about others: his duped “wife” Martha, for example, and his daughter Paige most especially. But Paige has worries all her own. I’m still wrestling with that odd scene where she and her mother talk to a Mary Kay sales rep at the front door. Paige seems delighted, but Elizabeth is disgusted, and even if the Mary Kay lady is too seasoned a pro to acknowledge it, that disgust shows. “You weren’t very nice to her,” Paige tells her mom afterward, perplexed. “Well, we weren’t gonna buy anything,” Elizabeth says. “Being nice would just be a waste of her time.” Indictment of how capitalism commodifies time and human relationships and objectifies human beings? Yes, as Paige’s late-night readings of Marx would help her understand. Indictment of her own mother’s instrumentalization of other people based on whether or not they suit the needs of the moment? Also yes, as Elizabeth’s instruction to hide Capital among other books so as not to arouse suspicion from outside observers would help Paige understand in turn. There’s something awfully ugly about that scene, short and subdued and murder-free though it may be.

I reviewed this week’s quietly disturbing episode of The Americans for the New York Observer.

“Better Call Saul” thoughts, Season Three, Episode One: “Mabel”

April 13, 2017

The slowness and silence of Mike’s side of the story is a stupendous choice for several reasons. First, it aims the spotlight directly at the facial expressions and body language of Jonathan Banks as Mike. As an actor, he doesn’t perform so much as he oven roasts, slowly and quietly allowing the characters skill, determination, ruthlessness, patience and weariness to flavor his every move. Second, it provides composer Dave Porter with a blank canvas on which to paint an engrossing post-rock musical accompaniment, miles away from the jaunty country-western kitsch of the soundtrack. Third, it gives director Vince Gilligan—working here with cinematographer Marshall Adams—the chance to let the visual dimension do much of the talking. Mike’s sections of the show are basically oceans of darkness, surrounding islands of warm yet sickly yellow glowing light in which Mike moves or sits like a castaway; that yellow color beams “CAUTION” at our brains like the lights from a roadside construction project on a rainy night. It’s a powerful contrast with the black and white of the flash-forward opening sequence, showing Jimmy’s eventual fate as Gene the Omaha Cinnabon manager; with the Office Space aesthetic of Jimmy’s 2002-era material; even with the dark wood paneling and bright “natural” daylight that characterize scenes starring Jimmy’s Luddite brother Chuck. It’s tough to think of a series with as distinct a visual aesthetic as Better Call Saul which is also willing to vary that aesthetic so much in a single episode.

Finally, Mike’s slow and steady story gives lie to the claim that Better Call Saul is becoming Breaking Bad Redux. Perhaps Breaking Bad’s magisterial final season (minus that regrettable punch-pulling finale, of course), which moved toward the destruction of Walter White with the grace and grandeur of the inevitable, makes the chaos of that show harder to remember. But from literally the first scene of the first episode of the first season, Walt’s story showed him careening from one calamity to another, creating new disasters to extricate himself from the old ones nearly every time. Mike’s story may involve Breaking Bad heavies like the Salamanca Family and, presumably, Gus “The Chicken Man” Fring; it may have more in common with that show’s violent stock in trade than the white-collar crimes of Jimmy McGill or the mental illness of his hotshot older brother Chuck; but in pacing and in tone it remains a very different proposition indeed.

I reviewed the season premiere of Better Call Saul for the New York Observer. Eff what you heard about the show getting too close to Breaking Bad; other than the characters and the overall skill involved they have very little in common.

“Billions” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Eight: “The Kingmaker”

April 13, 2017

Before we really get into this, I want us to take a moment—you and me, just us two—to talk about David Costabile and Mike “Wags” Wagner.” I want you to think about the way his face crinkles with joy when he learns his boss Bobby Axelrod wants to take on Black Jack Foley, the most powerful man in New York. “Rough him up?” he says, beaming like a kid on Christmas morning. “I’m all for it!” I want you to consider how, when his underling Maffee razzes him for his pathological partying, he not only verbally menaces the guy but raises his leg and puts his foot on his desk while he does it, like a dog about to mark his territory. I want you to savor the way he turns to the brokerage goons who are courting Axe Cap’s business, insists on ditching their boring business dinner for something more…exciting, and fucking says “Fire walk with me” like a David Lynch demon. I want us, you and me, to treasure this man, this character, this performance. He is a delight undeserved, and yet here he is.

That’s more or less the way I feel about Billions in toto. How this show became one of the tightest, smartest, and most entertaining series on television this year is a mystery I don’t think I’ll ever get to the bottom of, but I’m not about to look a gift horse in the mouth. As of “The Kingmaker,” this week’s episode, Billions is serving up a type of tight, aphoristic writing we haven’t seen since Mad Men. It’s not looking to tear your guts out the way Matt Weiner’s classic drama was, (though as we’ll see, it may occasionally do so anyway), but that’s fine. We could all use an unimpeachably written drama about the evil that capitalist men do right about now, don’t you think?

I reviewed this week’s Billions for the New York Observer. I’m just apeshit for this show this season. Never seen a turnaround like it before.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Five: “Lotus 1-2-3”

April 5, 2017

“I’d like to lay a little bet / That you don’t even know the meaning of regret / And if I’m even just a tiny bit correct / I doubt that you would ever think to pay your debt / I’m suspicious / Suspicious of you.”—Psychic TV, “Suspicious”

“Just because you’re paranoid don’t mean they’re not after you.”—Nirvana, “Territorial Pissings”

“It is worse than a crime, it is a mistake.”—Joseph Fouché, frequently misattributed to Talleyrand

“Lotus 1-2-3,” this week’s episode of The Americans, had me reaching for my mental quote book. (Not many physical ones contain Psychic TV.) It’s hard to narrow down which of the above phrases best encapsulates what went on here, so we’ll take them one by one.

We’ll start with the last, though it’s a quote I’ve always hated. No, actually, a mistake is not worse than a crime. A crime is bad enough in and of itself. This is the sort of blustery self-justifying bullshit that enables bad actors in political conflicts across the centuries to push morality to the side as, if not entirely irrelevant, then at least incidental to the allegedly more important practical considerations. You’ll recognize this mentality from the 2016 presidential debates, perhaps, when Donald Trump responded to a question from a Muslim member of the audience with his usual senile-dementia neofascism about evil Islamic fundamentalists, only for Hillary Clinton, the supposed avatar of American progressivism, to say that no, actually, we need to be good to Muslims…so that they’ll serve as our eyes and ears among the aforementioned evil Islamic fundamentalists. The idea that fomenting Islamophobia is itself evil, that it’s bad in and of itself, that it’s morally wrong and therefore curtailing it requires no practical justification, was nowhere to be found.

This week Philip Jennings shoots this whole way of thinking down with a sardonic facial expression and a flatly incredulous sentence. It turns out that their investigation into American attempts to destroy Soviet crops was completely off-base, and that the virulent strain of midges they’d discovered is being used to make wheat more resistant to pests. This means that the lab tech whose spine he snapped in Kansas for the crime of looking the other way had really done nothing wrong at all. “That guy in the lab,” Philip says to Elizabeth, as they sit wearing the clothes and wigs of fake people in a fake house. “That can’t happen ever again.” “We’ll be more careful,” Elizabeth reassures him. “ ‘More careful’?” he repeats, the look in his eyes and the tone of his voice making his concern and contempt clear. To Philip, who says he’s been having problems with the wetwork they’re required to do for a long time, “careful” doesn’t enter into it. The problem wasn’t that they were sloppy, it’s that they murdered an innocent man. It was worse than a mistake, it was a crime.

Gonna hazard a guess that my review of last night’s fine The Americans for the New York Observer is the only one out there that quotes Psychic TV.

“Billions” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Seven: “Indian Four”

April 5, 2017

You can’t swing a gatefold Dark Side of the Moon album cover without hitting a TV music cue meant to BLOW YOUR MIND these days. What a joy it was, then, to stumble across a needle-drop on Billions meant to do nothing more and nothing less than make you crack up? The honor goes to “Sex and Candy,” the ‘90s alt-pop staple from Marcy Playground that turned lust into something that sounded sleepy and skeezy and, well, smelly. In that sense, it’s perfect for the sex scene it soundtracked: a poolside oral tryst between the Axelrods’ skeezebag personal chef and his tattooed lady friend. But did Billions start the song when it first cut to these two hardbodies getting it on? Hell no—those first “only ‘90s kids will remember” notes rang out, incongruously and ironically, over Chuck Rhoades and his son Kevin and their football, posing for the all-American photo shoot intended to launch his political career. The moment I recognized it I started literally lol’ing. Deflating Chuck’s pretensions to righteousness and segueing into the show’s filthiest romp so far this season (Wags’s tattooed ass notwithstanding)? Take fucking notes, Legion and Stranger Thingsthat’s how music direction is done.

And as far as the kind of “the part stands in for the whole” moments that we TV critics can’t get enough of, it’s almost too good to be true. Directed by John freaking Singleton and written by Alice O’Neill and series co-creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien, “Victory Lap” is the episode in which this extraordinarily, improbably entertaining season of Billions rips off the capitalism scab to reveal the exploitation pus beneath.

I reviewed this week’s Billions, maybe the best of its very strong season so far, for the New York Observer. Okay, so Legion was still irritating me, but that aside this had one of the most gut-level upsetting story turns I’ve seen in a long while. Great stuff.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Four: “What’s the Matter With Kansas?”

March 29, 2017

I’m concerned about Renee. You know, Renee—Stan Beeman’s beautiful blonde gym buddy and new girlfriend, played by ex-Walking Dead lead Laurie Holden? The woman whose magnetism ate up a ton of Stan’s screentime through his descriptions of her to his buddy Philip Jennings and his partner Agent Aderholt alone, even before she made her on-screen debut? The woman who, during a double date with Stan and the Jennings, provides the kind of highly detailed backstory that we’ve learned from experience with our Soviet spies in this very episode (“What’s the Matter with Kansas?”) is just the sort of bubbe-meise secret agents concoct for their false identities? The woman who elicits weirdly stiff smiles from Philip and Elizabeth, implying that they sense something is off, but without the show ever confirming that implication by having the Jennings say something like “Wow, that was weird, wasn’t it?” during the car ride home or whatever? Yeah, that Renee. The beautiful thing about all this is that it all works no matter what pans out. Maybe we’re right to be suspicious and this person is up to no good—KGB, CIA, or some other alphabet agency seeking to compromise one of the FBI’s best and brightest. Or maybe our years-long immersion into the lives and lies of Philip, Elizabeth, Stan, Oleg et al have us jumping at shadows. Either way, you couldn’t ask for a finer demonstration of The Americans’ power to generate paranoia.

I reviewed this week’s oddly worrying episode of The Americans for the New York Observer.