Posts Tagged ‘reviews’

How “Mr. Robot” Became One of TV’s Most Visually Striking Shows

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2015

Fitting for a show about those occupying society’s technological substrata,Mr. Robot’s characters are often placed at the very bottom of the frame. This leaves massive amounts of headroom that suggests a great weight hanging over their heads, and echoes their isolation: When they’re talking right to each other, they seem alone. In more conventional filmmaking, conversations are cut with the characters looking at each other from opposite ends of the frame, leaving what’s known as “leading room” between their faces that helps convey the physical space they occupy. Mr. Robot inverses the norm by “shortsighting” the characters, positioning their faces at the edge of the frame closest toward the person to whom they’re speaking.

“Shortsighting is unnerving,” Campbell explains. “It further accentuates how fucked-up Elliot’s world is. The idea was to convey the loneliness. That’s the internal dialogue I had with myself: How do we tell that story? How do you get Elliot across?

The effect goes a long way in selling audiences on the mounting paranoia and dissociation of the show’s main character, hacker Elliot Alderson (Malek). Without the usual pattern to help us intuit spatial relationships, these scenes create the sense that the characters don’t know where they stand in relation to one another. They also remind us of the picture-in-picture, face-against-flat-surface nature of video chatting, which can’t be overlooked on a show this attuned to the alienating effects of technology.

I spoke with Mr. Robot’s director of photography, Tod Campbell, about the show’s gorgeous shot compositions for Vulture. It felt great to write an article about television that focused on pure form. Woo!


“Hannibal” thoughts, Season Three, Episode 13: “The Wrath of the Lamb”

Monday, August 31st, 2015

Maybe it’s the strength of the preceding episode, which, true to the Red Dragon arc’s pattern of being brilliant every other week (the first, third, and fifth episodes were amazing, the second, fourth, and now sixth not so much) was as good as this show ever got. Maybe it’s the apples-to-apples comparison of this season’s final hour to the crushing defeat at the conclusion of Season One and the orgy of bloodletting that ended Season Two. Maybe it’s simply the wish that the show go on, with further heights to hit and depths to plumb. Whatever it was, the whiff of anticlimax permeating “The Wrath of the Lamb,” quite likely the last episode of Hannibal we’ll ever see, was unmistakable. Ideally, this de facto series finale would have felt stronger, grander, more final than the fake-outs and gunshots that dominated the proceedings, which, timing aside, added up to one of the season’s weakest episodes. No one will fault you if you wound up wishing for something a bit more, ahem, mindblowing.

I reviewed the just-okay final episode of Hannibal, one of the best shows ever made, for Decider.


“Fear the Walking Dead” thoughts, Season One, Episode Two: “So Close, Yet So Far”

Monday, August 31st, 2015

Apocalyptic fiction should have the courage of its extinctions. If you’re going to feed damn near every man, woman, and child on earth into the maw of slaughter for our viewing enjoyment, own what that really means: not just full-grown undead versus ragtag survivors, but hundreds of millions of children dying in terrified agony. You don’t have to dwell on it, I suppose, but passing it over in silence to get to the good stuff is aesthetic and ethical cowardice, pure and simple.

So a very dark congratulations goes out to Fear the Walking Dead’s second episode, “So Close, Yet So Far,” for the image of a mom getting devoured amid the ruins of her daughter’s birthday bouncy castle. Sure, doing this just hours after having her cheerfully and audibly sing “Happy Birthday” lays it on thick—you could practically hear the collective groan of millions of viewers going “oh no” the moment the first notes rang out—but it’s better than the alternative.

I reviewed last night’s Fear the Walking Dead, which I liked a lot less than the above excerpt indicates, for Decider.


“Masters of Sex” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Eight: “Surrogates”

Monday, August 31st, 2015

In typical Masters of Sex fashion, the double meaning of the initiative that gave this week’s episode, “Surrogates,” its title is spelled out in neon for the slow-witted. “Is that really enough?” asks Libby Masters, regarding her husband Bill’s idea of having volunteers help single patients out with their sexual issues. “A stand-in?” “Some people,” he replies, “that’s all they have.” And we in the audience, who by now are aware that Libby, Bill, and the third corner of their bizarre love triangle Virginia Johnson are all seeking attention outside their primary relationships, nod sagely, or something. But I, for one, am fucking thrilled that they’re all fucking, or on their way to fucking, people other than each other. Freed from one another’s clutches, they’re watchable for the first time in weeks.

I have never regularly reviewed a show I like writing about less than Masters of Sex. I’ve reviewed some bad shows before, as you know – Gotham, Homeland, early Leftovers, early Halt and Catch FireTrue Detective Season 2, and now it looks like Fear the Walking Dead — but they’re at least OVER THE TOP. This is just…well, anyway, this episode was better than most, at least, and I reviewed it for the New York Observer.


“Masters of Sex” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Seven: “Monkey Business”

Friday, August 28th, 2015

We might as well start by addressing the ep’s 800-pound you-know-what. It’s…difficult, to understate the case considerably, to imagine that anyone in the Masters audience was clamoring for the series to include a storyline in which the pioneering authors of Human Sexual Response struggled to give a gorilla an erection. Yet what they came up with was pretty interesting, in the end. First, a lively cameo by Alex Borstein—aka the voice of The Family Guys’s Lois Griffin—as Loretta, the gorilla’s emotionally overinvested former trainer, created an atmosphere that was way more complicated than the goofy premise made it sound. She described her relationship with the ape the way you might talk about an opposite-sex best friend from college with whom you’ve, like, stayed up late discussing your masturbation habits yet never gone any farther with—a combination of sincere affection and appreciation with a slightly too-intimate undertone. Or in this case, maybe more than slightly, since, you know, she’s a human and he’s a gorilla. Borstein plays this fundamentally absurd exchange completely straight, a smart and necessary tactic.

Then Virginia and Bill—who by this point is pushing for the gorilla research, against which he’d previously knee-jerked in typical tedious Masters of Sex office-argument fashion, simply to keep Johnson away from perfume doofus Dan Logan—pay another visit to the beast’s enclosure, where they quickly realize he wants more than Gini’s encouragement: He wants her to put ‘em on the glass. Okay, so there’s the whole bestiality thing to contend with here, but try to put that aside. Honestly, try! One of the most erotic things about the show’s handling of Masters and Johnson’s research is its presentation of instrumentalized sexuality, of people making their bodies go through the stages of arousal and orgasm, like machines, for purposes external to the traditional demands of romantic or sexual desire. This forces a direct focus on the biological processes involved rather than their emotional underpinnings, and that direct focus can’t help but remind you how good those processes feel. Watching Gini expose her breasts to someone in order to help him have sex with someone else fits the pattern, even if those someones are a different species. And as an added storytelling bonus, it clearly dovetails with Gini’s concerns that she exists to facilitate the drives of the powerful, occasionally beastly male with whom she shares an office and a byline.

The most recent episode of Masters of Sex was way sexier than the involvement of an ape might lead you to suspect! I wrote about it for the New York Observer.


“Hannibal” thoughts, Season Three, Episode 12: “The Number of the Beast Is 666″

Monday, August 24th, 2015

Whatever its pleasures as a hobby and legitimate value as a means for its mostly young, mostly female practitioners to explore sexual taboos, fanfic has a worrying tendency to collapse the incredible range of potential adult relationships in fiction into a romantic singularity, distorting the totality of human experience just as surely as a black hole warps light. This act of emotional reduction—and reduction’s the right word for it, as both the fannish truncation of “relationships” into the neologism “shipping” and the pruning of the pair names into the portmanteau “Hannigram” semiotically symbolize—hits the possibility of non-romantic male friendship, cooperation, or even enmity especially hard. Is there truly no other way to process the bizarre mind meld between Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham than as their bloody valentine?

The answer, of course, is that maybe there is and maybe there isn’t, but either way the question is irrelevant. This is the way Bryan Fuller, Hannibal’s creator and visionary, is processing that relationship. It may not be the story I expected—not any more than I expected Will Graham to slip into murderous darkness throughout the show’s run rather than remain squarely on the side of the angels—but it’s the story Fuller has chosen to tell, and it’s that story, and no other, that must be engaged by the audience. At its worst, the partisanship of shipping represents a willful refusal of art’s transcendent potential, in which rather than step outside oneself and inhabit the mind of the artist, its adherents force her ideas into a template of their own mentally provincial devising. What better way to atone for its excesses than to go along for Hannibal’s ride, no matter how many left turns it takes?

I reviewed this week’s magisterially gruesome Hannibal, with some thoughts on #Hannigram and fanfic, for Decider.


“Fear the Walking Dead” thoughts, Season One, Episode One: “Pilot”

Monday, August 24th, 2015

Given that it’s the most popular show on television, The Walking Dead can pass quite easily for one of the New Golden Age of TV’s crown jewels. The reality, however, is a lot closer to costume jewelry. Despite a grim tone typical of many iconic shows and proximity to masterpieces of the medium like Mad Men and Breaking Bad via their shared network, AMC, the blockbuster adaptation of the surprise-hit comic-book series by writer Robert Kirkman and artists Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard is striking for has so little else in common it has with its antihero-and-auteur-driven era that it gives us a whole lot to chew on.

For starters, there’s no auteur to speak of. Developer and Shawshank Redemption director Frank Darabont departed unceremoniously after disputes with the network, and his successor Glen Mazzara lasted only two seasons until parting ways with the show in another impasse before current showrunner Scott M. Gimple took over. And while creator Kirkman remains actively involved, the show departed so radically from his source material almost immediately—another marked contrast from contemporaries like Game of Thrones—that the closest thing it has to a consistent creative vision is that of zombie-makeup guru Greg Nicotero. Though this lack of a singular voice is not necessarily an inherent evil—Darabont’s mawkish sub-Spielbergian sentimentality, to say nothing of his penchant for Wang Chung music cues, is certainly no great loss. But the difference from Davids Lynch, Chase, Milch, and Simon, and their heirs, from Louis C.K. to Shonda Rhimes, is tangible.

More importantly, and alarmingly, TWD’s approach to its own bloody bleakness too often takes the “anti” out of “antihero.” Even the most uninspired post-Sopranos series about the inner turmoil of men who murder people for a living generally pay lip service to the idea that their cathartic explosions of violence do more harm than good, and that our vicarious thrills must be priced against the moral cost of killing. For Rick Grimes and company, however, gore, to paraphrase Gordon Gekko, is good. Yes, the show frequently toys with the idea that the former sheriff and his roving band of zombie-apocalypse survivors have Gone Too Far This Time; in fact, the frequency with which this question is raised indicates the inconsistency of the writing. But far more often, the story serves as an ersatz endorsement of brutality in the name of survival, justice, and revenge, concepts frequently treated as indistinguishable. For The Walking Dead, killing is bad, unless you really really have to or unless they really really deserve it, in which case it’s extremely good. Seriously: When The Wire veteran Chad Coleman’s pacifistic Tyrese finally offed someone, the crew congratulated him like he’d just been bar mitzvah’d.

Normally I’m first in line to blast critics for equating the depiction of atrocity with either the exploitation or outright endorsement thereof. But in TWD’s case, the frequent recourse to redemptive violence in a world where virtually none of its massive audience will experience such situations reads as decadent at best and downright immoral at worst, a nasty and unnecessary exponent of the reactionary potential that’s been buried beneath the zombie-horde metaphor from the start. To treat “What would you do to protect those you care about?” as the central ethical question of our time is to invite the creation of imaginary enemies to justify our mental murderousness against them; the consequences of this paranoid mentality for America are as thick in the air as teargas in the streets of St. Louis.

I reviewed the series premiere of Fear the Walking Dead, and the Walking Dead phenomenon generally, for Decider. I’ll be covering the show there all season, which should be interesting.


“Hannibal” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Ten: “And the Woman Clothed in Sun”

Thursday, August 20th, 2015

TMI time: As a TV critic, you see enough sex scenes to get desensitized. Whether it’s the pneumatically thrusting buttocks of a pay-cable drama or the “let’s show them getting all breathy and frantic as they start tearing at each other’s shirts because that’s basically all we can show” approach of your average commercial-network affair, the stuff just hits a point of diminishing returns after a while. For me, at least, it takes something special to elicit that telltale sign of effective televised sexmanship: a long, low murmur of “fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuudge,” but, you know, not actually the word “fudge.”

So, yeah, the bit where Rutina Wesley’s Reba McClane reenacts holding her face to the power and heat of the sleeping tiger on the lap Richard Armitage’s Francis Dolarhyde instead? Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuudge.

I let this slip through the cracks last week, but I reviewed the out-of-control hot tenth episode of Hannibal season three for Decider.


“Hannibal” thoughts, Season Three, Episode 11: “…And the Beast From the Sea”

Thursday, August 20th, 2015

If a lifetime of gorehoundsmanship has taught me anything, it’s that horror is a genre in perpetual conversation with itself. By that standard, “…And the Beast From the Sea,” this week’s Hannibal, is a chattier episode than most. And why shouldn’t it be? If you’re going to bring one of the most iconic monsters in horror history to the small screen, why not cannibalize some of that history in the process?

So take a look at Francis Dolarhyde’s raid on Will, Molly, and Walter Graham’s family homestead. His mesh mask echoes the pantyhose disguise of an earlier incarnation of the Red Dragon, Tom Noonan’s in Michael Mann’s Manhunter. Molly & Wally’s daring through-the-window in-a-bathrobe escape echoes Wendy & Danny Torrance’s flight from Jack Nicholson and the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. The way they burst from the trees into the road to be saved by an African-American motorist passing by feels a whole lot like the end of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, while that motorist’s death so that they might live is reminiscent of one of the shootouts in No Country for Old Men. You don’t needto know any of these reference points; hell, they don’t even need to be things the show is deliberately referring to. They’re just part of the narrative and visual vocabulary of terror available to any astute horror filmmaker. And that’s long before we get to the Tooth Fairy’s Tyler Durden impression.

I reviewed this week’s Hannibal, which I was actually less crazy about than usual despite the above, for Decider.


“Masters of Sex” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Six: “Two Scents”

Thursday, August 20th, 2015

Virginia Johnson wants to be courted, as in a good old-fashioned courtship. Dating, dining, dancing, you name it. What Liz Phair referred to as “all that stupid old shit, like letters and sodas” in “Fuck and Run.” Granted, this desire was awakened by an oily perfume magnate who invested in her sex-research clinic so he could employ her to measure the vaginal lubrication of women exposed to the smell of pit sweat, making his motives transparent and her reaction incoherent, but for the sake of argument let’s ignore that, since the show sure did. Let’s focus instead on how she pitches this to Bill Masters, her partner. “We hooked ourselves up to wires while we talked each other through the stages of arousal,” she reminds him, and us. But don’t let your memories of when Masters of Sex was actually, you know,sexy cause your vaginal-lubrication sensors to redline just yet—Gini’s got a different idea in mind. “Do you ever wonder what it would have been like if we had met differently?” I believe I speak for the group when I say no!

No, no, no, no, no, I don’t wonder what it would have been like had Bill and Virginia been merely star-crossed colleagues pursuing a forbidden romance instead of exhibitionistic/voyeuristic weirdo geniuses verbally informing one another of the onset of orgasm as they fucked with a bank of electronic equipment rigged to their junk. I don’t wonder about how the co-author of Human Sexual Response would have fared as peewee-league football coach. I don’t wonder about how the woman who upended the entire medical establishment’s approach to sexuality got along with her mother and daughter. I don’t wonder what Masters of Sex would have been like if it were a dime-a-dozen workplace/relationship/family drama. But in “Two Scents,” this week’s episode, that’s once again what we’re getting.

I reviewed this week’s typically frustrating Masters of Sex for the New York Observer.


What Went Wrong with True Detective Season 2?

Tuesday, August 11th, 2015

For all that, the season still exerted a strange sort of magnetism. The endless overhead shots gliding over L.A.’s knotted freeways, the many quiet closeups of its main characters as they did nothing but sit and smolder, the sinister thrum of the electronic score overseen by T Bone Burnett – put it together and you get a rhythm and vibe unlike much else on TV right now. Even at its most frustrating, TD often felt like a show smoking a slow-burning cigarette under a streetlight at 3 a.m., a momentary oasis of chemical calm with nothing but trouble and turmoil on either side. Many series that are much better in every other respect would kill for that kind of palpable atmosphere.

But atmosphere alone isn’t enough to save a show; it can just as easily smother it like smog. Many of the season’s visual and sonic strong points gave off an air of impending doom, but when doomsday arrived the payoff couldn’t justify all that time spent sitting around waiting for it. So you’re left with flyover glimpses of roads that didn’t lead anywhere, or portraits of people so visibly exhausted and immiserated by their lives that the feeling becomes contagious. When you’re dealing with a mystery as murky as this one was, that’s just not enough fuel to power you through.

What Went Wrong With ‘True Detective’ Season 2? I tried to answer the question in a postmortem analysis for Rolling Stone.


“Masters of Sex” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Five: “III-A”

Monday, August 10th, 2015

At this point, I believe the experiment Masters of Sex is dedicated to chronicling is not the scientific measurement of human sexual response, but rather how to make sixty minutes of television feel like a six-month community-service sentence. I genuinely do not know how else to explain the bulk of the show’s third season so far, up to and including “III-A,” tonight’s episode. By any reasonable standard, a show which spends an entire scene showing Allison Janney putting in just the tip of the D should be entertaining, if nothing else. Instead it was an endurance test, where looking at the timestamp and seeing, say, 47 minutes to go felt like a personal attack. All I want is to watch people watch people fuck while covered in EKG sensors. Is that too much to ask?

I reviewed last night’s Masters of Sex, which made True Detective look good, for the New York Observer.


“True Detective” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Eight: “Omega Station”

Monday, August 10th, 2015

The moment the phrase “90-minute season finale” flashed on screen last week, it was all over for True Detective but the shooting. A shoddy second season had by then partially redeemed itself with a pair of tight, tense episodes that made up in muscle what they lacked in depth. But just when it seemed like the series was putting together the pieces and cranking up the pace after weeks of floundering, boom — a movie-length meditation on failure. “Omega Station,” the eighth and final installment of TD 2.0, could not have more effectively shut down the show’s progress if it dressed up like a cholo, drove it out to the desert, stabbed it, and left if for dead.

I reviewed the disappointing True Detective season finale for Rolling Stone.


‘The Walter White of Comedy’: James Urbaniak on ‘Review’ and Rise of Funny Antiheroes

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015

At first glance, Review appears to be comedy in which someone makes a major production of doing basic things in a very stiff, social-anthropology, insider-playing-at-outsider way — Sasha Baron Cohen in khakis. This is indeed the basic approach. But the show’s genius is that instead of treating each review as a separate, self-contained event, mined for jokes then never referred to again, there’s continuity between all of them. The magical comedy reset button you’d expect them to hit after Forrest, say, gets addicted to cocaine, overdoses, and goes to rehab, never gets hit. The experiences build one on top of another.

That’s the angle that stands out to actor James Urbaniak, who plays Forrest’s amoral producer/enabler Grant. “There’s an element of it being a satire of reality TV,” he says. “In reality TV, you make decisions that have an emotional effect on people but are restricted by the parameters of the game or the competition. Review “is breaking down those parameters, so he’s making very big decisions, like getting divorced, that affect his whole life.”

“Affect” is an understatement. Even though the only time he acknowledges it before the first season finale is in one brief fit of self-pity while eating an enormous stack of pancakes (don’t ask), Review shows Forrest slowly but surely destroying his life and the lives of everyone around him. His marriage ends. Multiple people get killed. All under the rubric of this preposterous high-concept mockumentary show.

In other words, Review is a satire not just of reality shows, but of New Golden Age of Television antihero dramas, hiding in plain sight. It takes the basic “man ruins all he cares about in the name of something that makes him nominally freer and more powerful” structure of the genre and plays it for deliberate laughs. Instead of a meth empire or a mafia family or a double life, he commits his bad acts in the name of the television show that chronicles them. He’s Walter White, but without the sense that there’s anything tragic about him — he’s just an oblivious faux-smart buffoon. It’s a satire of the middle-class middle-aged white-male entitlement and privilege that all the big dramas treat as the stuff of life.

“He is like Walter White,” Urbaniak says. “I never really thought about it that way, but I like it, and I’m buying it. He’s a guy who’s made, at a certain age, decisions that simultaneously give him some power but also upend his reality and the reality of those around him. Andy, in his comedy before the show, has always explored the disturbing depths within unassuming guys. He’s from New Jersey, but he has a quintessentially midwestern quality. He just seems like a quintessential nice, pleasant-looking, affable American guy; then it’s all about the depths that this guy’s capable of getting himself into, very much on his own. That sort of is like Don Draper and Walter White and those other guys. I dunno—maybe there’s some zeitgeisty thing going on about middle-aged white guys.”

Is Andy Daly’s Review secretly the prestige-tv antihero satire you’ve been waiting for? I talked to actor James Urbaniak about it for the New York Observer.


“Halt and Catch Fire” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Ten: “Heaven Is a Place”

Monday, August 3rd, 2015

They made up their mind to make a new start, they’re going to California with an achin’ in their hearts. Halt and Catch Fire ended tonight’s season finale by packing up and heading west, abandoning the Lone Star state for the Golden one. But from Joe and Sara MacMillan’s scuttled plans for relocation to Gordon Clark’s disastrous dalliance with a west-coast lady, the characters have walked through the shadow of the Valley of Silicon all season long. The results were not promising, which signals that the hard reboot Donna Clark, Cameron Howe and company are hoping for most likely won’t work.

The irony is that this parable about the illusory nature of second chances was told by a show that proved it was the exception to that rule. Written by series creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers and directed by Sopranos, Mad Men, and Daredevil veteran Phil Abraham, “Heaven Is a Place” caps one of the most remarkable rebirths for a series in recent memory. Its freshman-year jitters are now as obsolete as the Cardiff Giant — Halt came out of its sophomore season as smart, savvy top-shelf TV, full stop.

I reviewed the excellent season finale of Halt and Catch Fire’s excellent second season for Rolling Stone.


“True Detective” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Seven: “Black Maps and Motel Rooms”

Monday, August 3rd, 2015

So why wasn’t it this tightly wound all along? Most murder mysteries operate along a linear progression of false starts, red herrings, leads, revelations, and the final whodunit. The approach that True Detective took was a revisionist one in a way, and perfectly valid in theory. Instead of piecing together clues one after another, Ray, Ani, Paul, and Frank just kinda kept pouring more and more info into a big swirling morass that remained incomprehensible until the moment it all became clear, like a cloudy pool of water finally settling down enough for you to see your reflection in the surface. That daring Metal Gear Solid action sequence aside, it’s probably a little bit closer to how solving major crimes works in real life.

The problem is that the show offered so little firm ground to walk on as it traveled through the murk. Compelling dialogue? Not so much; the pitch-black noir aphorisms that sounded magical in the mouth of Matthew McConaughey last season gave us a bad case of blueballs of the ear this go-round. Engaging characters? Not until they hit their respective rock bottoms over the past two episodes did the Drab Four feel like people you could empathize with, much less enjoy as reasons to tune in week to week. Intimidating antagonists? With the possible exception of creepy-ass Dr. Rick Springfield, no one in the semi-anonymous gaggle of corrupt police, politicians, land barons, and ethnically diverse gangsters giving our heroes trouble will be joining Reggie LeDoux or the Yellow King in the annals of memorable villainy anytime soon. Before this week, it’s unlikely much of the audience even knew their names. If you’re gonna make the mystery a mess until just before the end, fine, but there has to be something to make getting there at least half the fun.

I reviewed last night’s True Detective for Rolling Stone. I thought it was solid, which helped me understand why until last week, the rest of the season was not.


“Masters of Sex” thought, Season Three, Episode Four: “Undue Influence”

Monday, August 3rd, 2015

At the top of the list is the return of Allison Janney’s Margaret Scully, now divorced from her secretly gay husband Barton (who’s come to work at Masters & Johnson’s clinic) for three years and semi-happily ensconced in a three-way relationship, as we discover at the episode’s end. The “semi” caveat stems from the fact that Graham, her bawdy but seemingly good-hearted boyfriend and the male corner of this very ‘60s triangle, now cums too quickly for them to have the kind of sex she finds so fulfilling after a lifetime of going without.

Aside from the obvious “whoa” factor of the storyline, it draws a lot of strength from its key performer. Janney has been perfectly cast from the start; her big eyes can alternate between baleful and intense at will, giving her sexual reawakening real heat. It’s entirely believable that she’d leap from decades of disengagement to a longterm ménage à trois in which the pursuit of simultaneous orgasms has not just physical but emotional and even “spiritual” importance, and equally convincing that she’s forward-thinking enough to take the sight of her boyfriend and his other girlfriend in bed more or less in stride, yet still be traditional enough to be concerned that her ex-husband isn’t getting enough to eat. Her plight takes on added pathos when she reveals just why the physical aspect of her relationship is so central to her sense of well-being: She begs Barton for permission to tell his secret to her boyfriend, so that he can understand the history that led her to a place where, in her words, “sex is the only way I know that he loves me.” And she desperately wants him to tell the woman he’s been seeing under false pretenses as well, so that he doesn’t do to her (and to himself) what he did to Margaret and their marriage all those years. She has just about as much going on as a human heart can handle, and the balance of emotions is perfectly weighted by the writing.

It’s not a storyline without its problems, though. One is the underutilization of Beau Bridges, a veteran actor of deceptive depth who is too often asked by Masters to do little more than force an avuncular smile and lie to someone’s face about how fine he’s feeling. Another is the series’ habit of repeatedly trotting out new sexual issues and kinks, from oedipal complexes to impotence to incest, but using the same characters to demonstrate them: a hypersexed cad one week only likes older women the next, say, or a character introduced as someone’s mistress is later revealed to be unable to have sex at all. If Masters wants to explore polyamory and premature ejaculation, hey, by all means. But why do it at the same time, and using the same character they’d previously utilized to examine anorgasmia and sexless marriage to a closeted gay man? It’s like if the ‘60s Batman TV show still did the villain-of-the-week thing but had Cesar Romero play not just the Joker but the Penguin, the Riddler, and Catwoman too.

I reviewed last night’s Masters of Sex for the New York Observer.


“Hannibal” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Nine: “…And the Woman Clothed with the Sun”

Monday, August 3rd, 2015

‘Hannibal’ Recap: With a Little Help from My Friends

The decision to reintroduce Abigail Hobbs, the dead daughter of the killer who was killed during Hannibal and Will’s very first case, via flashback, in the middle of a story arc as self-contained and separate from the past as Red Dragon, is a baffling one. Don’t get me wrong — the character brings out a level of paternal perversity from the show that’s awesome to behold. I mean, get a load of the scene in which Hannibal recruits her to help him fake her own death. Her acquiescence is hard to swallow (no pun intended, Will) at first, given her terror of Lecter and her warm feelings toward Graham. But it’s not difficult to imagine the severe Stockholm Syndrome that would kick in when the daughter of a serial killer who forced her to help him find victims is told by another serial killer she’s about to die, but then spared at the last second as part of some grand plan.

This leads to what can only be described as the most erotic faked murder ever filmed. (Move over, Gone Girl, I guess?) Her glee about participating is Oedipally delicious: “Can I push the button?” she asks, referring to the device Hannibal will use to shoot her blood across the room in mimicry of arterial spray, with a tone of voice that would make Humbert Humbert blush. After a langourous bloodletting, during which Hannibal tenderly brushes Abigail’s brown hair back from the ear he will soon slice off and force-feed to his friend, the girl slips off the kitchen counter and into the arms of her murder-daddy. He manipulates her body like a cellist playing his instrument until the moment of release: a slow-motion shot of her blood being expelled from a tube like a vampire ejaculating.

I reviewed this week’s Hannibal for Decider, which is another way to say I was paid to write the phrase “like a vampire ejaculating.”


“Hannibal” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Eight: “The Great Red Dragon”

Monday, July 27th, 2015

More impressive still is Richard Armitage’s instant-classic work as Francis Dolarhyde — aka the Tooth Fairy, aka the Great Red Dragon — whom he doesn’t so much play as inhabit. In a recent interview, Armitage said he patterned his (so far entirely wordless) performance on Mica Levi’s avant-garde score for Jonathan Glazer’s art-house horror masterpiece Under the Skin. That a main character on a network television show would be based not a performance but the music from one of the most difficult and surreal horror films ever made is remarkable in and of itself. But beyond that, the connection makes perfect sense. Like Under the SkinRed Dragon concerns an individual in the process of becoming: making, and perhaps unmaking, themselves into a creature driven to commit monstrous crimes. Armitage’s Dolarhyde stares at his own hands as if only now realizing not just their potential but their existence, and mouths formless syllables as if trying to construct not just speech but the meaning behind it. It’s both easy and instructive to see the parallels with Scarlett Johannson’s nameless predator, another beast slouching toward mayhem to be born.

But there are few parallels, if any, between Dolarhyde’s brutality and that of the series’ title character. After a half-season immersion in Hannibal’s world of refined and decadent Old Europe evil, the blunt force of this new killer could not be more striking. Frederic Chilton, who as played by Raul Esparza could quite convincingly pass himself off as Armitage/Dolarhyde’s twin brother, makes a joke out of the contrast (to say nothing of Hannibal’s ratings woes). “He has a much wider demographic than you do,” he tells Lecter. “You, with your fancy allusions and fussy aesthetics, will always have niche appeal. But this fellow…there is something so universal about what he does. Kills whole families, and in their homes. Strikes at the very core of the American dream. You might say he’s a four-quadrant killer.”

Indeed, Dolarhyde kills with an urgent simplicity that’s more viscerally frightening than the elaborate installation-art, performance-piece slayings that have been the stock in trade of both Hannibal and his several serial-killing rivals throughout the series’ run. The Tooth Fairy uses a gun to commit most of his murders; he needs to end lives as quickly as possible. While he does stage his victims’ bodies in gruesome tableaux, posing them together as one big happy family with the shards of broken mirrors over their eyes and mouths (and in the mothers’ genitals), he actually puts the corpses back afterwards. He has no interest in advertising himself to the world, proclaiming his sick genius; what he does, he does for himself alone.  If Lecter is a vampire, Dolarhyde is a werewolf. He is an exclamation point to Hannibal’s ellipsis. All of this is communicated by the show through killing; this is its design. And if it is the punctuation that must end the series, so be it.

I reviewed this week’s episode of Hannibal for Decider. This show is astonishing.


“True Detective” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Six: “Church in Ruins”

Monday, July 27th, 2015

Even weirder, the big orgy that ends the episode is also a move forward for the series’ handling of women, sex, and nudity. When Ani Bezzerides goes undercover to get the inside scoop on the prostitution ring’s high-powered clientele, she’s dosed with Molly that’s potent enough to trigger post-traumatic flashbacks to her molestation as a child; cue visually distorted nightmare. So instead of the sleazy parade of pay-cable hardbodies you might have expected, everything you see is blurry, shaky, and decidedly un-sexy — as it should be at a party in which leering old men buy their way into sex with women who are prohibited from saying no.

The sequence’s most striking break from the norm, though, was aural rather than visual. The show’s usual score, an ominous, electronic throb, is suddenly replaced by an orchestra of swirling strings. It makes Bezzerides’ journey into the party mansion feel like the heroine of a dark fairy tale getting trapped inside the evil queen’s castle, lending a sense of urgency, even adventure, to her attempt to rescue the woman she spots from her old missing person’s case. When Ani, Velcoro and Paul Woodrugh crested the hill in the dark as they ran away, you half-expected the Ringwraiths to be chasing them instead of gun-toting goons. Tossing the series’ usual tonal palette out the window worked beautifully. When was the last time True Detective made you say that? Fingers crossed that the final two installments make us say it again.

I reviewed last night’s True Detective, far and away the best episode of the season, for Rolling Stone.