Posts Tagged ‘reviews’

“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.

“The Path” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Ten: “Restitution”

March 24, 2017

This week on The Path, it’s Meyerist Yom Kippur. After meditating on their transgressions over the past year, the members of Doc’s movement write those they wish to relinquish down on a piece of paper and place in in a tiny wooden coffin they build and decorate for the occasion. They then take these coffins to the edge of an unnamed body of water and toss them in, as if consigning their sins to the depths.

Unfortunately, if you toss tiny floating wooden boxes into the shallow water of a lakeside beach, you’re not really gonna get rid of anything. So after the bulk of the group departs, a handful of Meyerists stay behind to—god, I feel stupider just typing this out—to fish the little coffins back out of the water and set them on fire. Which, again, is not a form of destruction to which they’d be amenable, since they’re made of wood that’s been soaking in a lake for a few hours.

Be that as it may! The real purpose of the sequence, and presumably the reason writer-creator Jessica Goldberg concocted the cockamamie “We cleanse our transgress so we can burn the sins of last year” two-phase ritual in the first place, is so Richard can get his hands on Sarah’s little coffin, open it, and uncover her transgression to use against her—which he does by providing it to Eddie, so he can learn she’s trying to stop feeling guilty for getting together with his rival Cal.

Again, I’d imagine that tiny pieces of paper folded up and placed inside a non-waterproof wooden container before getting chucked into the fishpond or whatever are not the most reliable sources of intel. But Eddie had to find out about Cal and Sarah somehow, so by god, the ritual is going to involve throwing dark secrets into the water and then retrieving them just to destroy them—except, in this particular case, just to save them instead.

Every so often a show provides you with a perfect encapsulation of all its strengths or all its faults; this needlessly convoluted and rickety ritual is The Path writ small. Like those little coffins, the show’s characters get tossed in one direction before getting yanked back in the other, then get pried open for big emotional revelations that make little sense.

I reviewed this week’s episode of The Path for Decider. This show, man.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Three: “The Midges”

March 24, 2017

“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.

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

“Billions” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Five: “Currency”

March 20, 2017

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.

“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.

“The Path” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Nine: “Oz”

March 15, 2017

Now we’re talkin’! “Oz,” this week’s episode of The Path, is named for L. Frank Baum’s book — its use of the fraudulent “man behind the curtain” serving as a neat metaphor for cult life according to the deprogrammer who has her sights set on poor pregnant Mary and her husband Sean. But there’s some real wizardry involved in this episode, and I’m not just talking about Eddie’s mystical visions and paranormal bleeding. In the space of an hour, Eddie accepts his commission as the the true Guardian of the Light, joins forces with old-school Meyerists Richard and Felicia, resumes his ascent up Doc Meyer’s Ladder, and announces his intention to depose Cal and take over the movement. His estranged wife Sarah blackmails her more wayward followers into coughing up enough cash to save the movement, then helps both herself and Cal shake off their pain, guilt, and failures by embracing one another, figuratively and literally. His investigation momentarily stymied by the Meyerists’ new cash infusion, Abe quickly uncovers the extortion that made it possible. And the divided loyalties of Sarah’s family members—father Hank, mother Gab, sister-in-law Nicole, and son Hawk—seem ready to pay dividends like never before. I dunno about the Garden, but for this show, we’re in a whole new world for sure.

I reviewed this week’s pretty darn good episode of The Path for Decider. As I explain in the review, a lot of the strong plot elements listed above would have packed a more powerful punch had the writing for this season been more consistent and concise, but still.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Two: “Pests”

March 15, 2017

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.

“Billions” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Four: “The Oath”

March 15, 2017

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.

“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.

“The Path” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Eight: “Return”

March 9, 2017

The truly frustrating thing — okay, one of the truly frustrating things — about the episode, the season’s eighth, is that nothing happens in it that couldn’t have happened in episode two. Sarah’s exposure to the dark side, Cal’s piss-poor leadership, Eddie’s messianic secret, Kodiak and Richard’s suspicions of Cal and Eddie alike, the movement’s financial woes, even Hawk’s emergence as a natural leader in his own right: It was all right there already. The Path does not need to be such a long and winding road if it’s just going to wind up a few steps from where it started.

Kathleen Turner and Melanie Griffith guest star in both this week’s episode of The Path and my review of it for Decider.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Five, Episode One: “Amber Waves”

March 9, 2017

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” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Three: “Optimal Play”

March 5, 2017

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.

“The Path” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Seven: “Providence”

March 2, 2017

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The circumstances of the kidnapping itself are straight-up frightening: the deja vu of the Beach Boys song and the dead tree, a black van parked by the side of the road, the “uh-oh” moment when Eddie looks inside and sees Richard waiting for him, the sudden appearance of Kodiak behind Eddie as he knocks him unconscious, the sleeping child left to fend for himself in a locked car in the middle of nowhere. It’s the first time where The Path’s nightmare imagery has actually felt nightmarish.

I was pretty happy with this week’s episode of The Path, which I reviewed for Decider.

“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.

“Taboo” thoughts, Season One, Episode Eight

March 1, 2017

Like James, Taboo encounters out-and-out evil as a mere obstacle to be effortlessly surmounted in the race to the finish line. It’s ruthlessly cruel to its female characters, killing off Winter, Zilpha, and Helga with barely a backward glance. Zilpha in particular is done very dirty: She falls in love with her brother, weathers his unwelcome and life-destroying advances, kills her husband for him, has unsatisfactory sex with him, gets dumped, and kills herself with a fetishistically beautiful leap off a bridge. James cries a couple of single tears and staggers up a staircase, but then he’s back to his usual routine of mumbling and murdering. Zilpha’s suffering and death only means something in the context of his manful quest, and even then only barely.

Worse still is the use of slavery as a motivator. If we’re being charitable, we could say that Taboo’s handling of this human-rights savagery as primarily a dispute about the Crown reflects how men like Sir Stuart, Coop, the Prince Regent, and even Delaney himself would think about the issue. It’s the smuggling and the treason that matter to them, not the murder of innocent men, women, and children.

Yet how do you square this with Delaney’s bizarre kiss-off to his faithful servant Brace, telling him he wasn’t born to be free? How can you countenance the show’s characterization of Delaney’s final double-cross, in which he leaves Chichester the testimony he needs to punish the EIC for its involvement in slaving? “Justice,” Chichester gravely intones to no one in particular — yet the three men who ordered and orchestrated the crime (Strange, Pettifer, and Wilson) have been murdered on the order of the man (Delaney) who nailed the slaves into their sinking ship and is already sailing for freedom.

James’s primary interest was personal vengeance, not redressing the grave moral horror in which he took part. After all, he comes right out and says that Sir Stuart’s slave-trading is small potatoes compared to the evil things he himself had done. To call the legalistic postscript to his subsequent killing spree “justice” is to subsume a centuries-long atrocity into one weirdo’s vendetta. As a stand-in for Taboo’s artistic approach, in which an entire world is meticulously constructed to give a single character the people and places he needs to show off how awesome he is, it’s all too perfect.

I did not care for the season finale of Taboo, which I reviewed for Vulture. I did not care for Taboo period, really.

“Billions” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Two: “Dead Cat Bounce”

February 27, 2017

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 rules now and I’m just as surprised as you are. I reviewed last night’s episode for the New York Observer.

“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.

The Boiled Leather Audio Hour Episode 60!

February 23, 2017

How the West Was Young: The Young Pope & Westworld

When the game of thrones comes to an end? That’s the unspoken question at the heart of Sean & Stefan’s discussion of HBO’s two most high-profile drama debuts of the past year, Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope and Jonathan Nolan & Lisa Joy’s Westworld. These two prestige-TV series present two very different paths for the future of the New Golden Age of TV, and offer many points of comparison with current standard-bearer Game of Thrones itself. Go in-depth on their strengths and weaknesses—and trust us, one is much stronger than the other—in one of our biggest and, dare we say it, best episodes yet!

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“The Path” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Six: “For Our Safety”

February 22, 2017

It’s good to be the Son. Life has been tough for Eddie Lane since he surreptitiously flew to Peru to find out the truth about Dr. Steve Meyer, the cancer-stricken founder of the Meyerist cult. For one thing, he got struck by lightning and the Doc died. But before that happened, Meyer pronounced Eddie the heir to the movement, casting the leadership of rageaholic Cal Roberts (and Eddie’s own ex-wife Sarah, dragged along into power by Cal) into question. Rather than deal with that, Eddie cut the cult loose and has struggled to maintain contact with his kids, particularly his increasingly devout son Hawk. But as we learn in this week’s episode (“For Our Safety”), it hasn’t kept him from increasingly passionate bouts of down-low sex with Sarah, before and after which he maintains his relationship with his doting and gorgeous girlfriend Chloe. Some guys have all the luck! Aside from the whole getting struck by lightning thing, I mean.

I kid, but there is an element of good fortune in Eddie’s two-timing storyline. Eddie’s conduct toward Chloe may be deeply shitty, but it’s also one of the most down-to-earth and understandable sins anyone on the show has yet committed. Whether as a result of inconsistent writing or a reasonably well-drawn depiction of people who are practiced at lying to themselves, it can be difficult to get a grasp on what The Path’s characters want out of life, out of the cult, out of each other. But skipping out on a backyard barbecue with your current significant other for an illicit booty call with your ex? Whether or not that’s something you’ve done yourself (hey, we don’t judge), this at least speaks to issues of lust and loyalty anyone who’s been in a relationship can relate to on some level. It feels real in a way that the endless shouting matches about The Light simply can’t. (The idea of this more or less personality-free dingus bouncing back and forth between two of the most beautiful women he’s ever likely to see in his life is somewhat less plausible, but what can you do.)

I actually kind of liked this week’s episode of The Path! I reviewed it for Decider.

“Billions” thoughts, Season Two, Episode One: “Risk Management”

February 22, 2017

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.