Posts Tagged ‘new york times’

‘Mr. Robot’: What to Remember Before Watching Season 3

October 9, 2017

Stylish cyberthriller. Anticapitalist agitprop. Cassandra-esque prophecy of doom. Experimental canvas for the auteurist creator-writer-director Sam Esmail. Surprise-twist generator. Think of “Mr. Robot” as a gadget capable of running all these programs and more simultaneously, making it one of television’s most engrossing shows.

It can also be one of its most complex and confusing. Esmail and company weave conspiracies into conspiracies, shift points of view and bury them beneath elaborate hallucinations, and rely on tricky hacker plots for their action sequences. Season 2, which aired in summer 2016, spent more than half of its running time immersed in a reality that only existed in the head of its main character.

Worried you won’t be able to follow when Season 3 debuts Oct. 11 on USA? (You can watch the new season on the network’s app and digital on-demand platforms.) Here’s a quick refresher on the main players.

The Mystery Men: Elliot Alderson, Mr. Robot and Tyrell Wellick

Technically, Elliot Alderson is Mr. Robot. Played by Christian Slater, the title character exists only in Elliot’s head — a mental projection of the hacker’s dead father, embodying all the rage Elliot feels against the colossal conglomerate E Corp for its role in his dad’s untimely death from environmental toxins. As a separate personality existing within Elliot’s head, Mr. Robot can hijack their shared body to advance his militant agenda, leaving Elliot himself in the dark about the plans everyone else believes he, not his imaginary alter ego, devised.

Season 2 embroiled them both in two main mysteries. The first involved Elliot’s short stint in prison after copping to a minor charge following the 5/9 hack — which the show kept secret for seven full episodes, depicting a false reality Elliot constructed to protect himself from the truth.

The second mystery centered on “Stage 2,” the mysterious next step in the war against E Corp that Elliot’s Mr. Robot personality helped organize in collusion with the sinister cyberterrorism organization the Dark Army. He discovers the truth from an previously hidden co-conspirator: Tyrell Wellick, the disgraced and unstable E Corp executive who was blamed for the 5/9 hack, and who had been missing ever since. (Elliot assumed he’d murdered the man and disposed of his body during a three-day period of amnesia following the hack itself.)

Wellick informs Elliot that they plan to hack into the secret storehouse where E Corp’s paper backup records are kept, blowing it up and destroying the company once and for all — but also killing everyone in the building. When Elliot balks and tries to shut down the program, convinced Wellick is just a figment of his imagination, Wellick shoots him, following the by-any-means-necessary instructions that Elliot had issued himself while under Mr. Robot’s control.

I wrote a quick-and-dirty refresher course for Mr. Robot in anticipation of Wednesday’s season premiere for the mighty New York Times.

Thought Leader

June 30, 2017

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I really couldn’t ask for a more delightful criticism of my Game of Thrones Evil Rankings than Ross Douthat defending the High Sparrow

“Legion” thoughts, Season One, Episode Eight

April 5, 2017

“Don’t be afraid to care,” advises the Pink Floyd singer-guitarist David Gilmour in the prog-rock titans’ dreamy anthem “Breathe.” It’s a signature track on “The Dark Side of the Moon,” the perpetually best-selling concept album about modern life and mental illness that has soundtracked many a dorm-room bull session and chemically enhanced “Wizard of Oz” screening.

And given the propensity of “Legion” to make subtext text, I probably shouldn’t have been so surprised that the show would use this jaw-droppingly literal music cue for a pivotal scene in its season finale. Why not use a song with the lyric “All you touch and all you see is all your life will ever be” for an astral-plane confrontation in which David Haller’s life literally flashes before his eyes? Why not mesh the lyrics’ fatalistic take on the inescapable nature of death with a sequence in which David discovers how lethal it would be to free himself from the grasp of his nemesis, the Shadow King? Why not cap off a show renowned for its surreal, spacey visuals and structure with a song that comes pre-loaded with four and a half decades of psychedelic nostalgia?

The answer is right there in Gilmour’s line “Don’t be afraid to care.” Creator Noah Hawley and company crafted a show that stood out against its drab and unadventurous superhero peers, to be sure, and maybe that’s good enough. But it could have been great with a little more willingness to avoid the obvious, to go for magic rather than parlor tricks, to not use one of the most famously trippy songs in the history of rock ’n’ roll to tell the audience, “Wow, man — trippy, isn’t it?” A little more care is exactly what this episode, and the show in general, really needed.

I reviewed the season finale of Legion for the New York Times last week. I didn’t like the finale, or the season. I’ve seen semi-convincing arguments that the show is enjoyable when looked at as a silly fun superhero show with some unusual visual flair, but as that’s neither how it was sold nor, quite clearly, what its creators intended it to be, they must remain only semi-convincing.

“Legion” thoughts, Season One, Episode Seven

March 24, 2017

Fortunately for David, diagnosis is nine-tenths of the cure. Now that he knows the source of his sickness, he’s able to shake it off and break through the barriers of his mind. With a little help from his mutant friends, he shuts down the hospital hallucination they’ve all been experiencing, seizes control of his own body, subdues the Shadow King, stops the bullets fired at him and Syd mid-flight and lives to fight government mutant-hunters another day. Simple, really!

No, seriously. The real secret of “Legion” is that it is a simple story, when all is said and done. Unlike, say, “Westworld,” none of the show’s countless Easter eggs, deliberate details and plot-twist trickery are essential to understanding the story. They’re aesthetic elements, not narrative ones; they exist not to convert the show into a puzzle-box but to make it an objet d’art, successfully or not. The simplicity of David’s origin and of his nemesis, as revealed in this episode, should make that clear. (Even a passing knowledge of the Marvel comics upon which the show is based — in which the writer Chris Claremont established the founder of the X-Men, Professor Charles Xavier, as David’s father and cocreated Farouk as one of their most powerful enemies — would have made it clear to a sizable chunk of the audience already.)

But while this simplicity allows “Legion” to cut through the Gordian knot of needlessly byzantine plotting that has plagued other genre shows of recent vintage, the blade is double-edged. Lacking narrative necessity, the show’s stylistic flourishes are free to sink or swim on their own. By that standard, they too often hit bottom.

The climax of tonight’s episode is a case in point. It’s an all-roads-converge kind of deal, in which Syd and Kerry’s battle with Farouk’s alter ego Lenny in the hospital simulation; Cary, Melanie and Oliver’s struggle to shield Syd’s and David’s bodies from the bullets in the time-frozen real world; and David’s attempt to psychically shatter the doors of his mind-prison all sync up successfully at the last second, saving their skins and stopping the bad guys simultaneously.

But all that action should be enough to stand on its own without the cutesy context the filmmakers provide. What is gained by having the fight play out like a silent movie, shot in black and white with dialogue printed as intertitles and Lenny gussied up in Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp meets Johnny Depp’s Edward Scissorhands drag? Why is the musical accompaniment an EDM version of Ravel’s “Boléro”? Irony has its place in the frequently too portentous superhero subgenre, but here it undercuts the tension and terror without providing much compensatory value.

I reviewed this week’s penultimate episode of Legion for the New York Times. This show isn’t the worst thing on TV or anything like that, but at this point I am truly stunned that anyone thinks it’s great and am starting to mistrust critics who allege that it is.

“Legion” thoughts, Season One, Episode Six

March 20, 2017

Yet for all its intelligent design, the episode still feels as stuck in limbo as its characters. At no point are we in any doubt as to the nature of the situation: The devil with the yellow eyes has used David’s telepathic brain to construct a mental prison for him and his friends. We know they’re not crazy. We know their therapist is really their captor. We know the asylum in which they’ve been stowed is a simulacrum of the one David escaped in the pilot. We even know some of the dialogue they’re speaking, since it’s a deliberate repeat from scenes in that first episode. The only mystery is how they’ll break free, and since there are two episodes to go, that they will break free is a given. So it doesn’t take long for the novelty to wear off — and for the same weightless unreality that a dimly cognizant Syd complains to Dr. Busker about to begin taking hold of the viewer as well. Given the momentum the show had built as David gained control of his powers and then had them violently seized by his nemesis, devoting a full episode to this sense of stasis is a real shame.

It could be worse, however, at least if the ways in which the show really cuts loose in this episode are any indication. In a gravely miscalculated musical interlude, the devil-Lenny cavorts around David’s memories in a leotard and fishnets to the tune of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.” The song’s recent fate as a weight-loss jingle was bad enough, but to see it reduced to the soundtrack for a psychic parasite’s bump-and-grind — occasionally shot in silhouette against monochromatic red, like a James Bond title sequence — is somehow even more dispiriting, doubly so given the showrunner Noah Hawley’s impeccable use of found music in his other FX vehicle, “Fargo.” Like the easy allegory of the entire asylum-limbo story line, it’s a case of infatuation with form impeding function.

I reviewed last week’s Legion for the New York Times. More on this show soon.

“Legion” thoughts, Season One, Episode Five

March 9, 2017

Like the personalities inside the mind of David Haller, the superhero and horror genres coexist in a way that’s difficult to untangle. Superman, the ur-superhero invented by the Jewish-American creative team of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, has often been linked by scholars (though never by Siegel and Shuster themselves) to the myth of the golem. (“Frankenstein” author Mary Shelley is said to have been inspired by golem as well, although she never said so herself.) The mild-mannered scientist Bruce Banner turns into a raging behemoth as the Incredible Hulk, an echo of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Some heroes have powers that are outright demonic in nature, from Etrigan the Demon to the flaming-skull cyclist, Ghost Rider. “Blade,” the 1998 film about a vampiric hunter of the undead was the key precursor to the modern era of superheroic pop-culture hegemony.

And we haven’t even begun counting the villains, a rogues’ gallery of grotesques who evoke virtually every monster and murderer from myths and movies alike. None, of course, is more prominent than the Joker, Batman’s arch-nemesis, whose permanent grin was drawn directly from the expressionist silent horror film “The Man Who Laughs.”

In other words, the swashbuckling and world-saving are nice and all, but sometimes a good superhero story just wants to scare the pants off you.

I reviewed last night’s Legion, a frustratingly mixed bag that only partially makes good on its horror-movie approach, for the New York Times.

“Legion” thoughts, Season One, Episode Four

March 2, 2017

The director Larysa Kondracki knows how to open an episode of television. On “Fifi,” the stellar late-season episode of “Better Call Saul” she helmed last year, she started of with a continuous shot of a smuggler’s truck weaving its way across the border that lasted over four minutes. This was just the start of a tour-de-force hour, in which Kondracki framed actor Rhea Seehorn’s starry-eyed attorney Kim Wexler like an ecstatic saint and Jonathan Banks’s sad-eyed killer Mike Ehrmantraut like the subject of a chiaroscuro portrait by a Dutch master. She seemed to intuit and internalize the already impressive visual palette established by showrunners Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, then surpass it.

In that respect, lightning just struck twice. On this week’s episode of “Legion,” Kondracki used her considerable talents to fulfill the promise of creator Noah Hawley’s iconoclastic but inconsistent pilot episode and its subsequent installments. Funnily enough, she did so with another multiminute opening shot. But instead of a swooping drone-cam drive-along with a drug-runner’s 18-wheeler, it was a woozy in-and-out close-up of a paunchy middle-aged mutant in a leisure suit, staring into the camera and breaking the fourth wall.

The mutant in question is Oliver Bird (Jemaine Clement, half of the folk-comedy duo Flight of the Conchords), the comatose husband of the mutant underground leader, Melanie (Jean Smart). Looking right into our eyes, he stumbles his way through a monologue about the two kinds of stories parents tell their children: fairy tales designed to uplift them with empathy, and cautionary tales meant to cow them with fear. “Good evening,” he says. “We are here tonight to talk about violence, or maybe human nature … ” He then backtracks. “We are here to talk about human nature.” Later, he overrules himself. “We are the root of all our problems,” he says, adding loftily, “Violence, in other words, is ignorance.” He then promises a five-act play (there are five episodes of “Legion” remaining) in which our hero, David Haller, will discover just what kind of story he’s in.

Whether it’s Oliver’s very ’70s leisure suit, his direct address to the audience, or an overall sense that suddenly this show, y’know, knows what it’s doing, this episode is the first time “Legion” has felt in the same league as the magisterial second season of Hawley’s “Fargo.” That period-piece gang-war epic was television at its most cinematic, a blend of operatically high dramatic stakes and equally operatic visual and sonic spectacle. In this case, the throwback references — jazz and the Kinks on the soundtrack, antiquated vinyl and reel-to-reel playback technology depicted with fetishistic reverence — are just the tip of the iceberg. (Semi-literally, given the frozen purgatory in which Oliver and David find themselves imprisoned.) Now, with Kondracki’s steady hand at the tiller, Hawley’s new series finally feels as substantial and assured as its predecessor.

I reviewed last night’s Legion for the New York Times. Kondracki’s a hell of a talent. She makes it look not just easy but logical.

“Legion” thoughts, Season One, Episode Three

February 27, 2017

The biggest tell in this week’s episode of “Legion” isn’t a line of dialogue or a plot development: It’s a window. Specifically, it’s a circular windowpane crisscrossed with an X — the X-Men logo familiar to any superhero fan. During a pivotal conversation between David Haller and his mutant minders, in which he asserts his will to plow forward with his mental training in order to find his kidnapped sister, the window frames his head like a halo, his face directly in front of the spot where the diagonal lines meet. We may never get a more tangible connection between “Legion” and the (sorry) legion of Marvel mutant movies that has led to the impending release of “Logan,” the sad-old-man swan song for the X-Men’s breakout character, Wolverine.

But this single Easter egg serves as a symbol for the whole episode, which sees David take charge of his “treatment” and force his new mutant family to burrow deep into his brain in order to unearth his buried memories — and, they hope, rescue his sister from the evil mutants who have captured and tortured her. After two scatterbrained episodes in which the show simultaneously attempted to establish its ostentatious visual aesthetic and its overcomplicated space-time-contiuum-shifting story line, the show now seems ready to get on with the business of making this superhuman a superhero.

I reviewed last week’s Legion for the New York Times. A step in the right direction. That said, the work Larysa Kondracki does directing this coming Wednesday’s episode makes it the show people said it was from the beginning. Hoo boy, just you wait.

“Legion” thoughts, Season One, Episode Two

February 17, 2017

“And so we ran on, into Summerland, and the place they said did not exist. And all the while, wolves were at our heels. Black masks, boots, and the one they call the Eye. We had come to do the work that must be done. To strip ourselves of the fog of the Life Before.” The second episode of “Legion” opens less with narration than with an incantation — prose calculated to conjure up a sense of wonder and terror straight out of a Galadriel speech in “The Lord of the Rings.”

To a limited degree, the show is capable of wonder and terror alike. Thanks in large part to the quiet and confident performances of Jean Smart and Jeremie Harris as Melanie Bird and Ptonomy Wallace, David Haller’s sojourn in the mutant refuge called Summerland does have that adept-in-training vibe vital to the origin stories of so many heroes, from Bruce Wayne to Arya Stark. And the continued presence of “the devil with the yellow eyes,” the corpulent demon who growls and grins at the periphery of the narrative, indicates that this is a series that could scare the pants off us if it so desired.

Yet there’s something that feels gimmicky, even chintzy, about the show’s manipulation of space, time, audio and video — the very stylistic innovations that seemed to set it apart from the superhero pack.

A quick cut during a flashback to one of David’s therapy sessions, for example, seems at first like just a way to represent his jitteriness. But later in the episode we learn it’s “real” — an actual glitch in his memory, a time jump created by his brain to hide something disturbing. We’re meant to get a little intellectual jolt out of this — “Ohhh, so that’s what that was!” — and we do … but it’s ultimately as insubstantial as a sugar rush.

I reviewed the second episode of Legion for the New York Times. It’s early and I’m in the liking-things business so I’m ready to be wrong about this, but this doesn’t feel like a terribly promising show to me at this point.

“Legion” thoughts, Season One, Episode One

February 13, 2017

Take one of Hollywood’s most lucrative franchises. Combine it with one of the breakout auteurs of the Peak TV era. Drop it in the middle of a very crowded, yet largely undistinguished, field of competitors. “Legion,” the stylistically bold new X-Men spinoff from the “Fargo” showrunner, Noah Hawley, is designed to cause a sensation. Given the superhero genre’s odd combination of cultural omnipresence and cinematic anemia, it’s hard for it not to.

For all their reliance on feats of derring-do, superhero films and TV shows are, creatively speaking, a risk-averse lot. Since director Bryan Singer’s first “X-Men” film inaugurated the genre’s pop-culture hegemony nearly 17 years ago, precious little variety in tone or technique has been permitted by the major spandex factories.

Marvel, home of The Avengers, relies on a house style that coasts on the charisma of its attractive casts but has all the visual and sonic flair of an ibuprofen commercial. Its rival, DC, switched from making sometimes dull movies for smart teenagers (Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy) to often dull movies for dumb ones (Zack Snyder’s Superman/Batman films and the egregious “Suicide Squad”). On television, “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” and especially producer Greg Berlanti’s various DC properties have some zip, but no more genuine ambition than a syndicated ’90s action series. Marvel’s Netflix series are a step in the right direction. “Daredevil,” “Jessica Jones” and “Luke Cage” take relative risks with their moody visual palettes and their pairings of strong leads with idiosyncratic enemies who function like coprotagonists.

So there’s some precedent for “Legion,” the new superhero-ish series tangentially tied to the X-Men franchise from the writer, director and showrunner Noah Hawley. But for its true antecedents you have to search further back in the superhero timeline, to Lorenzo Semple Jr.’s stylish and self-aware “Batman” series from the late ‘60s. Or you could simply look at Hawley’s previous act of televised alchemy: “Fargo,” an anthology series in which the Coen Brothers’ Midwestern-noir classic is used as a springboard for a bold, bloody, often beautiful homage to their entire oeuvre. Perhaps in a desire to transform Hawley into an auteur-impresario in the style of Ryan Murphy or Louis C.K., FX, their shared network, tapped him to guide their all-important first foray into pop culture’s most lucrative zone.

In “Legion,” Hawley takes pages from his own “Fargo” playbook. The ostentatious use of classic rock on the soundtrack, scene and spatial transitions that call attention to themselves with graphic design or camera trickery, the sense (borrowed from the Coens) that reality is a sheet of thin ice that could crack and immerse you in the chaos beneath at any moment. It’s as fearless a creative statement as the genre has seen since Tim Burton’s original “Batman” movie in 1989. Whether it’s successful is yet to be decided.

I reviewed last week’s premiere of Legion for the New York Times, where I’ll be covering the show all season. Visually and tonally it was sharp; script-wise it was creaky as heck.

“Empire” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Nine: “Furnace for Your Foe”

December 16, 2016

The phrase “midseason finale” is television’s most egregious neologism. Essentially marketing-speak for “the last episode of the year before we take a few weeks off around the holidays, because we’re not just airing the whole season in a row the way cable shows do,” it carries with it an oxymoronic promise of finality. But this week’s “Empire” is the rare (sigh) midseason finale that lives up to the moniker. An effective wrap-up of a half season’s worth of story lines, it sets up the show to start anew next year, bigger and better.

I’m pleased to say Empire appears to have sidestepped the soap doldrums with its last few episodes; I reviewed this week’s, the last of the year, for the New York Times.

“Empire” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Eight: “The Unkindest Cut”

December 7, 2016

Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times and it’s a pattern: On the strength of the third excellent “Empire” episode in a row, it’s now safe to declare the show on a hot streak.

I reviewed tonight’s fun, smart Empire for the New York Times.

“Empire” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Seven: “What We May Be”

December 1, 2016

You might want to sit down before you read this oh-so-shocking revelation: When “Empire” put Cookie Lyon at the center of an episode, it got the best episode of its third season so far. Largely pushing Lucious and the constant conflicts he engenders between his sons to the side, this week’s focus was squarely on the queen as she attempted to bring her scatterbrained family together to impress the family of her once-again boyfriend, the New York City mayoral candidate Angelo DuBois. Taraji P. Henson’s unerring ability to find the core of Cookie’s every interaction and mine it for all it’s worth is the show’s greatest renewable resource.

I reviewed last night’s fun Empire episode for the New York goddamn Times.

“Empire” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Six: “Chimes at Midnight”

November 17, 2016

As its initial installments this season have made plain, Fox’s hit show “Empire” has been losing a two-front war. On a meta level, can a show that draws much of its heat from tapping the pop-cultural and political zeitgeist keep pace with the chaos of 2016? And in terms of plot, can it keep the soap suds bubbling by simply pitting the members of the Lyon family against each other — and against Lucious, in particular — again and again?

So far, notwithstanding its persistently strong performances (and ratings), the answer to both questions has been no.

Until this week. Like the cold shower that jolts the troubled son Jamal back to consciousness after he pops one too many pain pills, Episode 6 is a welcome shock to the show’s system. It centers on a cybersecurity story line that’s all too resonant with real-life events. And in the person of the hack’s surprising architect, the story line offers a way out of the endless cycle of alignment and realignment among the sparring Lyons, presenting Lucious with a worthy adversary for what may be the first time in the show’s history.

It feels like Empire may have turned a corner with last night’s episode, which I reviewed for the New York Times.

“Empire” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Five: “One Before Another”

November 15, 2016

“Fighting is your family’s way of life,” Councilman Angelo Dubois tells Cookie Lyon. “It’s like it’s in your blood.” Normally a statement like this would be considered an insult. Angelo, however, means it as a heartfelt insight, if not an outright compliment. After witnessing the latest public throw-down involving Cookie’s kin, he’s become enlightened about her needs: He’s going to fight on her behalf just as ferociously as the members of her family fight among themselves.

The councilman’s attempt to make virtue out of vice serves as a neat little mission statement for this week’s episode. As the still-young third season of “Empire” has made abundantly clear, the Lyons are locked in an endless cycle of conflict, with various members of the family forging and breaking alliances as readily as Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia do in the George Orwell novel “1984.” (You practically need a flowchart to keep track of Hakeem’s allegiances in this episode alone, for example.) True, Lucious Lyon is nearly always the source of that conflict, and all that pot-stirring has rendered his character inert. But he’s obviously not going anywhere. So if “Empire” is to remain at the pinnacle of prime-time soap, it has to keep the fighting fresh and vital.

[…]

But that’s just it: Soul feels in short supply on “Empire” these days. The performances remain engaging — Taraji P. Henson’s star as Cookie grows brighter with each episode, and Jussie Smollett and Bryshere Y. Gray continue to do warm and nuanced work as Jamal and Hakeem, the family’s reluctant Cain and Abel — and individual scenes can be a lot of fun. But how many times can we watch the same five characters argue over the same set of issues? If any of the alignments lasted for longer than a few episodes at a time — if, say, Hakeem spent most of the season as a peacenik before snapping instead of making the reversal in the space of a couple of commercial breaks — the battles might feel worth waging.

As it stands, “Empire” is full of sound and fury; and while it’s probably taking it too far to paraphrase Shakespeare, the show’s patron saint, and say that the show signifies nothing, it is hard to hear a heartbeat above all the noise.

I forgot to link to it when it went up this past Wednesday — go figure — but I reviewed last week’s Empire for the New York Times.

“Empire” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Four: “Cupid Kills”

October 14, 2016

The most striking thing so far about Season 3 of “Empire” is just how insufferable Lucious has become, not just to Cookie but to everyone else. In this episode he shows up at Tiana’s performance solely to bust the chops of his family. First he goes after Cookie for dating Angelo. Seconds later he taunts Jamal for falling for a ruse Lucious concocted involving Freda Gatz. Is there a single character on the show who wouldn’t be better off if Lucious were dead? The “anti” in his antiheroic persona has been cranked up too high for story lines involving him to work; you know he’ll undermine his family to get what he wants every time, which makes him pretty uninteresting.

I reviewed this week’s Empire, ghost threesomes and all, for the New York Times.

“Empire” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Three: “What Remains Is Bestial”

October 6, 2016

Life meets art in an vastly more spectacular fashion when Cookie makes tries to coax her son Jamal, who has post-traumatic stress disorder, back into recording and performing. to that end, she books him a duet with a pop diva named Kitty, who bears an uncanny resemblance in real life to Mariah Carey, the superstar performer who just so happens to be playing her. (It’s hard to understand why real-world musicians who cameo on this show as musicians with identical looks and sounds don’t simply play themselves, but I’m sure Mimi knows best.)

Carey is a multimedia extravaganza in and of herself: Her character need only extend her hands and beefy assistants help her up and down the stage, and her outfits play more games of peekaboo than an overstimulated one-year-old. But when Kitty and Jamal finally get together in the recording booth, their collaboration (enabled though it may have been by all the pain pills he’s popping to get him past his anxiety) is a delight. “I mean, I’m surprised,” says an awe-struck Lucious, who was convinced the kid would tank his big chance, “but happy.” It’s a rare moment of unguarded sincerity and pride from the notoriously narcissistic mogul.

I reviewed this week’s Empire, Mariah Carey cameo and all, for the New York Times.

“Empire” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Two: “Sin That Amends”

September 29, 2016

The pop, the pulp and the politics of “Empire” are often so explosive they might be expected to send the show flying in a million different directions. Episodes like this week’s, however, go a long way toward explaining why that’s never happened: Quiet scenes involving the three Lyon sons, like the scotch-fueled exchange that appears near the end of the hour, frequently serve as the invisible thread that holds the whole thing together.

In the exchange, equal parts rueful and playful, Hakeem, Jamal and Andre all face serious burdens. Jamal has finally accepted that he has PTSD, and that it’s preventing him from performing. Andre is mourning the death of his wife, Rhonda, and battling the bipolar disorder he fears he can’t successfully treat without her help. Hakeem has a newborn daughter, but the family’s byzantine interpersonal politics and his own reluctance to settle down have stopped him from stepping up as her father.

With Andre’s smiling but steely encouragement behind them — a far cry from his wild-eyed, hallucinatory antics earlier in the episode, and a better fit for actor Trai Byers’s natural Gary Cooper demeanor — the three young men agree to face their demons head-on. Together, they toast to Hakeem’s daughter, but not before cracking wise about their seemingly never-ending bad-luck streak.

“Man, everybody messed up,” Hakeem says, attempting to offer big-picture perspective.

“Ain’t nobody messed up as the Lyon brothers, I’m sorry,” Jamal jokes in response.

Scenes like this one showcase the easy fraternal interplay between Mr. Byers and his fellow actors Jussie Smollett (Jamal) and Bryshere Y. Gray (Hakeem). These guys sound and act like brothers do, and the warmth that radiates from them when they’re getting along earns this soapy show substantial good will every time.

I got to write about one of my favorite aspects of Empire in my review of this week’s episode for the New York Times. It speaks to the show’s approach that this ep could include one of the happiest moments in the whole series — a half-dressed Taraji P. Henson opening her bedroom door to find Biz Markie performing “Just a Friend” live in her living room — and one of its grimmest — an utterly bleak and realistic portrayal of racial profiling by the NYPD.

“Mr. Robot” thoughts, Season Two, Episode 12: “eps2.9_pyth0n-pt2.p7z”

September 22, 2016

The second key quote is a question, and a musical one at that. It’s posed by Kenny Rogers (and his duet partner Sheena Easton, by way of original writer-performer Bob Seger) over the season’s closing minutes: “We’ve got tonight — who needs tomorrow?” To focus solely on the answers, or lack thereof, the finale provides about the show’s future is to ignore the many dark delights on offer even now. There’s actor Martin Wallstrom as Wellick, a presence withheld from the screen almost entirely until this final episode, when he is called upon to unleash a lifetime of mind-warping fear, frustration, ambition and emptiness as he tearfully turns on the one man he’s ever felt understands his drives.

There’s Brian Stokes Mitchell as Scott, in an oddly similar place of devastation and dread, sobbing and begging for forgiveness one moment, exploding in a graphically brutal assault the next. There’s Stephanie Corneliussen as Joanna Wellick, a supremely loathsome cocktail of vulgarity and cruelty, who begins her meeting with Scott by graphically describing her arousal over his latest mind game and ends it with shouting how glad she is that his unborn baby died. There’s Carly Chaikin and Grace Gummer as Darlene and Dom, two “Jersey girls” who could not look and sound more exhausted by the cat-and-mouse game they’ve played.

There’s Rami Malek as Elliot Alderson and Christian Slater as his Mr. Robot persona, and the ultrarare use of a hand-held camera, swirling around them as they argue about who was really calling the shots — as vivid an illustration of our inability to control our destructive impulses as you’ll find on TV, if you stop taking the split-personality aspect so literally and see how it speaks to so much more.

Would any of this be materially improved if the E Corp building were blown to bits, or if anything similarly definitive and prosaic happened? Like the singer of the song, this season finale (literally) turned out the light and (figuratively) asked us to come take its hand — a risk, but one eminently worth taking. “We’ve got tonight, babe. Why don’t you stay?”

I reviewed last night’s season finale of Mr. Robot, which like the rest of the season I found tremendously good, for the New York Times.

“Empire” thoughts, Season Three, Episode One: “Light in Darkness”

September 22, 2016

“Empire” wasn’t built in a day — it was built one jaw-dropping, Twitter-ready moment at a time. Fox’s blockbuster drama about the Shakespearean dynamics between a family of performers, producers and businesspeople at the pinnacle of a hip-hop record label is, or was, simply very good at being a ritzy prime-time soap opera. It moved its many story lines along at breakneck speed, careening through multiple shocks and twists each episode with little of the plot-prolonging wheel-spinning endemic to the genre. For an instructive comparison, viewers should watch not just any entertaining daytime soap, but even a relatively sharp and setting-specific nighttime serial like “Gossip Girl”; the ruthless efficiency of “Empire” is unparalleled. And from corpses in cars to main characters behind bars, it always knew how to end an hour, a stretch of episodes or an entire season on a strong note.

Then suddenly, last season, things went sour. The decision to stretch the smash hit’s second outing to a relatively lengthy 18 episodes from 12 necessitated a midseason break, after which the show returned feeling, for the first time, out of step with the musical and political moment. While the series had tackled issues as pressing and powerful as the Black Lives Matter movement with both genuine passion and thoughtful humility about entertainment’s role in it all, the presidential primaries and the rise of Donald J. Trump had passed it by. Meanwhile, the soundtrack’s trademark use of confessional lyrics to reflect the characters’ “real” desires and dilemmas were eclipsed in the real world by Beyoncé’s “Lemonade,” a visual album that blended diaristic candidness with barely veiled political fury more deftly than Hakeem and Jamal could ever do.

But those events were, of course, beyond the show’s ability to control. Its decision to bog itself down in the hoariest soap clichés — pregnant women getting pushed down staircases, long-lost family members materializing out of the ether — was a self-inflicted wound.

Ditto the second season finale’s sudden shutdown of long-running plotlines and potential stunners: Annika gets grabbed by the feds but tells Lucious immediately rather than serving as a secret snitch for any length of time; Jamal gets shot by his friend Freda Gatz when she tries to assassinate his father, but heals offscreen; Lucious’s mentally ill mother resurfaces in front of the paparazzi but is pulled away before she can damage his reputation, also offscreen. The ostensibly climactic wedding between Hakeem and his girlfriend and collaborator was disrupted by a character we’d never even heard of until that episode (Xzibit’s vengeful Lucious associate Shyne, who returns this season). By the time Rhonda and Annika took that plunge over the balcony, leaving us with the kind of “someone died … tune in next season to find out who!” cliffhanger that drove viewers of “The Walking Dead” to distraction this year, it was hard to know if the show would rise again intact.

I’m covering Empire for the New York Times this season, starting with my review of last night’s season premiere, which I kicked off with this preamble about what the show’s done right and wrong in the past. Here’s hoping the juggernaut rights itself.