Posts Tagged ‘reviews’
As a wise man once asked, “What’s a king to a god?” For Lucious Lyon, anyway, the answer is clear: jack shit. As the focus of much of this week’s episode of Empire — titled, with the show’s typical level of chill, “Fires of Heaven” — the artist/mogul/murderer acts like a recording-industry Zeus, throwing thunderbolts at his hapless subjects below.
I reviewed this week’s fantastically entertaining Empire for Rolling Stone. Here’s the thing about this show: While watching this episode I found myself thinking “This is so good at what it does it actually makes me nervous, because a soap opera with no obvious flaws is some uncanny-valley shit. Surely it’ll screw up! When will it screw up? I must know!” It’s true, though. Empire is neither pretentious nor insulting, neither snidely campy nor self-serious, neither overshooting or undershooting the mark, neither crass nor sanctimonious, neither dull nor overindulgent, neither a guilty pleasure nor an attempt to make you feel like you’re secretly eating your vegetables. It’s just, like, exactly right. It’s hard to wrap my mind around.
The new age of late night has dawned. Last week, Trevor Noah took over The Daily Show, the slaughterhouse in which Jon Stewart EVISCERATED liberal bugbears on a nightly basis. This comes just after Stephen Colbert crawled out of character to occupy the throne vacated by David Letterman. And this is just the latest of the seismic shifts that have made television — broadcast or broadband, cable or streaming — the medium of the post-millennium.
The Sopranos started it all, or so the legends say. The canon of shows that launched TV’s postmillennial renaissance begins before HBO’s mafia masterpiece, of course: Twin Peaks paved the way, and David Lynch has been cited by countless showrunners as the John the Baptist to David Chase’s Jesus Christ. Tony and Carmela’s own network already had a breakout hit in the form of Sex and the City, which proved that people would tune in for original programming on channels that mostly aired movies. The Wire and Deadwood cemented the prestige drama’s place on the small screen. Arrested Development, meanwhile, created a parallel track, establishing the single-camera sitcom as the “prestige comedy” format of choice, while The Daily Show made similarly Peabody-worthy waves in the talk-show format.
But all the while — long before, in fact — a shadow revolution was under way. For this sea change, space was the place. Few people afford Space Ghost Coast to Coast, Cartoon Network’s strange, seminal comedy, its rightful place in the pantheon. But from its bargain-basement launch in 1994 to its place at the center of the wildly popular Adult Swim lineup in the 2000s, it helped introduce cringe comedy to the American viewing public, deconstructed the idea of the talk show beyond repair for a generation of comedians, and changed the look and feel of the entire animation art form.
The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead send the message to a society in the throes of endless war, openly nativist and racist politics, and mass gun psychosis that the only way to ensure the survival of you and your loved ones is to act with maximum brutality at all times. It’s not that I’m saying these shows are turning people into killers; on the contrary, everyone involved knows damn well that this is decadent nonsense since virtually no one watching will ever be in the personal position to do anything like what Travis Manawa and Madison Clark are made to do. But the same is true of the NRA or Donald Trump or Ben Carson, who for political and financial profit fuel the paranoid, masturbatory murder fantasies of a country full of gunfucking shut-ins terrified of the unwashed, undead masses flowing over the border, out of the ghettoes, and into Main Street USA. Ideologically, Rick Grimes and George Zimmerman are just a zombie apart.
It’s important to understand why this violent show, among the countless ones now on offer and racking up gangbusters reviews as well as ratings, stands out. What’s wrong with Fear the Walking Dead and the show that spawned it that isn’t wrong with Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, The Wire, The Americans, and on and on and on? To find the source of FTWD/TWD’s ethical failure, you have go look at an artistic failure, a hole in the writing the show falls into time and time again. On those other shows, characters are presented with moral choices between right and wrong options—one side may look more appealing or viable than the other, one may have better or worse repercussions, one may be easier to live with or live through, but their nature is never truly in doubt. Fear the Walking Dead is different. It repeatedly offers characters and viewers alike a false choice, one in which the only options are brutality and survival on the one hand or naïveté and death on the other. In this closed moral circuit, violence is both vital and virtuous; no other correct answer is allowed.
The only place Helen finds comfort that isn’t weed-scented is her kids. Wearing a lived-in t-shirt that makes her look physically as well as emotionally at ease, she turns their glum family dinner around with a self-deprecating quip or two; she seems at home, in other words. Strangely, the only other moment she truly comes across as satisfied she’s doing the right thing is when, in the flash-forward, she goes to the jailhouse to pay for Noah’s lawyer. The implication may well be that this reflects her own self-interest, that she knows more about Scotty’s death than we’ve ever suspected. But could it also indicate her self-conception as a woman far more at ease with being selfless than with being selfish? Isn’t this — the different yet equally self-defeating forms of martyr virtue men and women allow themselves to embody — what The Affair is really all about?
My fellow critic Meghan O’Keefe and I will be tag-team reviewing The Affair, one of my favorite shows, for Decider this season—she’ll handle the men’s points of view and I’ll be examining the women’s. We started with last night’s season premiere.
The big question: Is this overhaul a good idea? I’m sure HBO thinks so. The cheerier credits alone bring it much more in line with the network’s other fare, and a diversified cast makes artistic, ethical, and financial sense. ButThe Leftovers stumbled real fucking hard out of the gate the first time around (that cornball Rev. Matt spotlight episode is one of the worst-written episodes of prestige TV ever), and it took most of the season to firmly reestablish its footing. Once it did, it never looked back—by its final two episodes in particular it was utterly ruthless in its exploration of depression, grief, and loss, gutsy subjects for a TV climate that’s still more attuned to power struggles than internal ones. It was also a real star turn for Coon, whose Nora was the quietly shattered heart of the show.
Now it’s gotten a heart transplant. The Murphy family dynamic has the ingredients to be interesting, at least. And the worldbuilding done so far with Jarden—the hermits and goat-sacrificers, the ID bracelets visitors have to wear, the impression that trespassers are ejected with extreme prejudice, John’s vigilante crew, the earthquakes, the mysterious and perhaps only metaphorical connection to the cavewomen and the baby—is definitely intriguing.
But since Season One got it all so right in the end, does starting over again bode well or ill? The Leftovers got very good indeed, but it took a whole lot of huffing and puffing to get there; tight storytelling that doesn’t overstate its emotional case is not exactly Lindelof’s strong suit. A show this dark can’t be puffy without tipping over into melodrama, and starting over could duplicate the problem. For now, as the song says, I guess we’ll let the mystery be.
How fast does Empire move? So fast that it has to cleave the screen in half just to keep up. After a season premiere that proved the show hadn’t missed a step, Fox’s raucous ratings juggernaut maintained the pace, opening with a split-screen montage of the ousted members of the Lyon clan — Cookie, Hakeem, Andre, Rhonda, and sometimes Anika — making plans for a rival label on their phones without breaking stride. Part Pillow Talk, part Brian De Palma potboiler and all batshit crazy, it was visually audacious, narratively appropriate, and fun as all hell.
I reviewed this week’s Empire for Rolling Stone. You know it. And you know it. And I know it. You know I know it.
The Walking Dead in Westeros
We’re comparing two of the biggest shows on television in this episode of the Boiled Leather Audio Hour. One of them is an adaptation of a popular staple of nerd culture—a genre work that had only appeared in print before—which has translated its bleak themes, wide scope, and controversial use of violence into a modern-day ratings blockbuster. The other is Game of Thrones.
That’s right—the BLAH Boys are taking on The Walking Dead, and its current spinoff Fear the Walking Dead, by contrasting the shows and their source material to Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire. How does their treatment of violence in an unforgiving world of real and supernatural menace differ? What do the relationships between the original works by George R.R. Martin, Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore, and Charlie Adlard and their adaptations by David Benioff, D.B. Weiss, and AMC’s land of a thousand showrunners reveal about their respective ideas, ideals, aesthetics, and ethics? Which shows really deserve our moral outrage, and why? We’ll be examining all these questions and more. And one of us, at least, will be getting really freaking worked up. Enjoy!
What makes both Fear and The Walking Dead flagship exceptional television, literally, is how they break the usual rule against assuming that depiction equals endorsement in fiction. In both shows, violence is repeatedly depicted as both necessary and, given the post-apocalyptic context, virtuous. Yes, the brutality is made to feel ugly, but it’s invariably less ugly than the alternative. All of the show’s dramatic weight rests upon the idea that if you were in these people’s shoes, you’d want to do the same things to survive. And man, fuck that noise. Like the zombies locked into that stadium in their thousands then inexplicably left unguarded, I want out.
I reviewed the latest installment of TV’s most morally repugnant franchise, Fear the Walking Dead, for Decider. Much, much more on this coming soon.
But there’s a bigger problem here, the biggest one Masters of Sex Season Three faced and failed to surmount: None of this matters, because none of it happened. It is indeed possible to make historical fiction that dances between the raindrops of reality while still traveling in the direction of the storm: Boardwalk Empire deftly incorporated real gangland figures into the story of its imaginary or heavily fictionalized ones, and wound up become a story about why the latter never amounted to anything while the former became famous. The Americans mostly avoids actual people except in TV soundbites, but still maintains the basic battlefield arrangement of the Cold War in the Reagan Era, using its foregone conclusions for dramatic effect.
By this point, however, Masters has proven it can’t handle historicity. No matter the liberties taken with the particulars of their lives, Bill Masters, Libby Masters, and Virginia Johnson were real people. The broad strokes of their personal lives, when they met and how they lived and when they got married and when they got divorced, are all known to us. The specific and tangible nature and impact of Masters & Johnson’s work on human sexuality is known to us in great detail. So unless the show is suddenly going to become alternate-history science fiction, we know Bill and Virginia get together. We know he was never arrested, much less publicly humiliated or legally convicted, for pandering or molestation. We know their publisher didn’t destroy their reputations out of pique. To suggest that any of that might come out differently is either to imply you’re willing to alter the timeline of society in a way that distorts rather than reveals, or to admit you’re openly wasting our time. I want a temporal refund.
I reviewed the bad finale for the bad third season of Masters of Sex for the New York Observer. Failure can be fascinating.
Empire’s first season thrilled its gargantuan audience because it solved many of the problems endemic to catfight-filled melodramas without jettisoning the genre’s pulpy pleasures. The New Golden Age of TV has seen its share of “prestige” soaps, most notably Downton Abbey and Mad Men, but those shows dressed the suds up in respectable period drag. Meanwhile, more gleefully trashy fare like True Blood, Desperate Housewives, and Gossip Girl had a tendency to get stretched thin by overextended casts and peripheral storylines so pointless that you could barely remember the details after the cliffhangers and commercial breaks.
From the beginning, Empire did things differently. Creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong and showrunner Ilene Chaiken keep the focus almost entirely on the nuclear (meltdown) family of musical genius/magnate Lucious Lyon and his formerly incarcerated but equally astute ex-wife Cookie; you could count the scenes in which either they or one of their three children (bipolar businessman Andre, semi-closeted singer-songwriter Jamal, and ambitious m.c. Hakeem) failed to appear on two hands with fingers to spare. No worries about superfluous scenes here.
Meanwhile, calling the series fast-paced would be like calling Usain Bolt a champion jogger. This is a show in which a minor character once shot a guy, got arrested, went to jail, and had people complaining “I can’t believe he’s still locked up” in the space of 12 seconds. (We counted.) There’s never a sense that we’re stuck a holding pattern of boring bullshit to kill time until the next big moment — it’s all big moments, one after another, with only the genuinely catchy original musical numbers for a breather.
It’s game time, bitches: I’m covering Empire Season Two, starting with tonight’s premiere, for Rolling Stone.
While great art generally fills some kind of need in the hearts and minds of its audience, art need not be as utilitarian as all that. Fabergé eggs, extended remixes, the Wet Hot American Summer fart track: In these cases and many others, enjoyment is self-justifying. Hell, by some definitions, art is inherently unnecessary, which is precisely what elevates making it from the pursuit of food, shelter, sex, and survival.
But this ain’t dancing when nobody’s watching or writing the great American novel we’re talking about here. This is “Not Fade Away,” the fourth episode in what looks increasingly likely to be the entirely superfluous first season of Fear the Walking Dead. With the largest fanbase in television built right in, this spinoff series could have gone anywhere. Instead it made an infected-style beeline straight for one of the most traveled paths in the history of the zombie genre: When the dead rise, the army runs amok. Whether you’re talking about 28 Days Later and its sinister soldiers, its sequel 28 Weeks Later and its well-intentioned but incompetent and ultimately indiscriminate occupying army, Day of the Dead and its tiny band of undisciplined bullies and martinets, this story has been told over and over, in a much tighter and more engaging way. It’s difficult to watch Fear and think this particular take on the tale is worth telling.
I reviewed this week’s Fear the Walking Dead, which was bad, for Decider. Danny Boyle, contact your attorneys.
The New Golden Age of Prestige Drama has a hallowed tradition of really, really bad dinner dates. “Soprano Home Movies” showed Tony and Carmela’s lovely weekend at the lake with their relatives and friends Janice and Bobby Baccala devolve into insults, recriminations, and violence. Walter and Skyler White endured several brutal evenings with Hank and Marie Schrader. The less said about Cersei Lannister’s wine-saturated soirees with the Starks and Tyrells in her orbit, the better. Clearly, “Party of Four,” this week’s Masters of Sex, hoped to be an entrant into that pantheon. Unfortunately for everyone involved, it was a meal we’d have been better of skipping.
I reviewed this week’s Masters of Sex, which wasn’t good, for the New York Observer. I think its failings were indicative of the failings of the show as a whole this season.
“Good people are the first ones to die,” says Fear the Walking Dead, doling out INSANELY badass truths to its audience of bored gamers. Is that an unfair characterization? Of the audience, maybe. Of Fear the Walking Dead? I fear it’s not. With the conclusion of “The Dog,” this week’s episode, we’ve reached the halfway point of this short introductory season, and the series has yet to produce a compelling reason for itself to exist—other than “we can make a lot of money selling grimdark violence to people who will live and die without ever once experiencing such horrors themselves,” that is. Ending with a military takeover of the town is appropriate, because ethically and aesthetically, Fear is basically a gun nut waiting for the UN’s secret Muslim invasion squad’s black helicopters to land, in TV-show form.
Bill Masters’s sex surrogacy study may be going south, but fortunately, the same can not be said for his television show. In “Through a Glass, Darkly” (unfortunately the series has not yet solved the problem of its thuddingly obvious episode titles), Masters of Sex served up its first fully satisfying hour of the season. With the exception of a perplexing and unnecessary last-minute twist (more on that later, unfortunately), it was a character study in which every character seemed to be worth studying, a sex drama in which the sex drove the drama and the drama made it sexy. On more than one occasion I said “Nice work, gang!” aloud, as if my capacity for taking pleasure in the show had, like the sexual confidence of the surrogacy program’s participants, been reawakened at last.
Let’s make like Masters and Johnson, dear reader, and analyze a sex scene. Specifically, let’s take a good long look at the scene in which Nora, the smart and dedicated young test pilot for Bill Master’s surrogacy program for treating single patients with sexual dysfunction, takes things a little too far with her initial subject. It’s the highlight of “High Anxiety,” the season’s ninth episode. It’s arguably the high point of the entire season so far.
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!
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.
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.
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 Fire, True 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.
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.